STAGE TO SCREENS: Roger Bart Discusses Producers and "Housewives"

This month we chat with Roger Bart who, if he were a baseball player, would be enjoying his best season to date. Batting a thousand, (he's taking the bows and) everything's coming up roses for this seasoned pro.

From Top: Roger Bart as Leo Bloom and Carmen Ghia in The Producers; in ABC's
From Top: Roger Bart as Leo Bloom and Carmen Ghia in The Producers; in ABC's "Desperate Housewives"

Not only has Bart just completed filming "The Producers: The Movie Musical," a December release in which he re-creates his Tony-nominated performance as "common-law assistant" Carmen Ghia, but he has also just signed to be a regular on TV's hugely popular "Desperate Housewives," playing the drama's devious druggist, George Williams, whom he portrayed in six first-season episodes (three in January, three in May). Observes Bart, with a laugh, "Not a bad year, right?"

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The highly anticipated "Producers" movie represents Bart's third go-round as the comically mincing Carmen. After originating the role on Broadway and playing it for a year and a half, he later returned to the part for three months. The film reunites Bart with Best Featured Actor Gary Beach, who plays the other half of their "Keep It Gay" couple, cross-dressing director Roger De Bris, and also with Best Actor Nathan Lane and nominee Matthew Broderick, who reprise their starring roles as (Max) Bialystock and (Leo) Bloom.

For the film, Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan adapted their Tony-winning book (which was based on Brooks' 1968 Oscar-winning screenplay), and behind the cameras for the first time is Susan Stroman, who won Tonys as director choreographer. During production, tabloid reports had Brooks taking over the direction, but Bart contradicts them.

Insists the actor, "I never saw Mel take over. He never crossed Susan in front of any of us. I don't know where [the reporter] got his info; it's very puzzling. Mel acted as any movie producer would, and as a writer he'd occasionally throw out an amusing line that maybe we should throw in. Mel was never disrespectful to Susan. Why would he be?" Bart adds, "Before that, there were stories that Matthew Broderick was unapproachable and not very nice [on the set]. I know Matthew very well. He's so kind and respectful to everyone. Where do these things come from?"

Concerning "Desperate Housewives," how much is Bart able to divulge about the upcoming season? "If I only knew," he tells me. "Nobody ever knows. Everything's in [creator-writer] Marc Cherry's head. We get little slices of it — a week, sometimes days, before an episode [is filmed].

"After I had shot one or two scenes [of his first appearance], Marc took me aside and said, 'Do you know where George is going? He's going to become a stalker.' I said, 'A stalker!? Okay, let me rethink the scenes I just did.'

"Playing someone as psychotic as George has been really, really fun. I get these juicy little scenes that are just a tad menacing. It's refreshing; I've been used to a different kind of role.

"One of the reasons I was hired is that, for the few people who knew me [among TV viewers], the last thing you'd expect is for me to turn horrifying. For the public that doesn't know me, I don't think I look like a menacing, scary person. So it's sort of nice to think that the neighborhood pharmacist who wears the big grin and is sort of affable would turn into such a lunatic. Based on what I've read on the internet — I don't go there anymore; it scares me — if they wanted to make America loathe me, they succeeded."

Unlike his roles, Bart neither minces nor menaces. While an actor's superstition may prevent him from imagining an Oscar and/or Emmy alongside the 1999 Best Featured Actor Tony he won for playing Snoopy in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, other dividends of his latest good fortune appeal to Bart's paternal practicality.

"I should be able to afford my [older] kid's second year at the University of Pennsylvania. She's having a great time. My little one [born the night of the first Producers preview] is four-and-a-half and in her second smash year at Pre-K."

Two of his relationships have given Bart daughters, and I'd read that their names had stage links — Alexandra (19) for Regina Giddens' child in The Little Foxes; Eller (4 1/2) for the aunt in Oklahoma! True? "No," declares Bart. "That was erroneously reported by a very nice, but mistaken, writer. Eller is named after her great grandmother from Mississippi. I'm not that much of a musical-theatre queen that I name my offspring after characters."

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Carmen Ghia is just part of Bart's involvement with The Producers. He initially auditioned as Nazi pigeon-keeper/playwright Franz Liebkind, and today (July 3) concludes his third turn as accountant Leo Bloom (originated by Matthew Broderick). "It's been wonderful to have reaped the benefits of playing both characters," he reflects.

That he achieved the transition from portraying the revved-up Ghia, who exudes confidence, to being completely convincing as Leo, who clutches a blue blankie for security, is a testament to the art of Bart. Few players could handle the switch-hitting turn as well.

As Carmen, he explains, "The imprint I used was Andreas Voutsinas, from the movie [the 1968 comedy, starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder]." Adding touches from head (the moussed hair) to toe (a slithery step), Bart incorporated Fritz Feld's mouth-popping gesture (used by the character actor in numerous films). One day during rehearsals, Bart did a pip of a pop, broke up Lane and Broderick, and was told by Brooks to keep it in.

Carmen's entrance requires him to answer the door at the De Bris townhouse and greet Bialystock and Bloom. Bart believes that an inspired moment at the audition won him the role. "Yes-s-s-s...," says Ghia, holding the assibilation for 30 seconds. (The rest is his-s-s-story.)

With Gary Beach, he formed a dynamic partnership that maintained a high level of low comedy. When, on opening night of Springtime for Hitler, De Bris is forced to take over the title role, it's Carmen who encourages him: "You're going out there a silly, hysterical, screaming queen — and you're coming back a great big, passing-for-straight Broadway star!"

Their team complemented Lane and Broderick, and Bart confides that the four actors "loved doing performances when we would try to rethink the intentions of many of the lines. We'd entertain ourselves with it. We all loved going out on the wire. The last thing you want to do with this sort of material is to have it be [delivered] kind of rote."

Sometimes, relates Bart, "I look at Brooks Ashmanskas [currently] playing Carmen Ghia, and it's gratifying to see what he's done. He does it so well, and makes it his own, but has to reference a lot of things I did for the first year and a half. I see remnants of my architecture.

"When he exits, I have about 45 minutes [left as Leo]. I used to do very little [as Carmen] and get big hands at the end; Leo's more work, but it's a blast to do." His first two blasts as Bloom were opposite the Bialystock of Brad Oscar, who earned a Tony nomination as the original Franz. "Brad's a great guy and easy to work with. We have a good friendship."

Richard Kind is playing Max this time around. "I always felt he would be terrific in the part. I was glad to see that happen, and a little disappointed not to be doing it with him. When the offer came, I thought it would be fun, and it is." Bart enjoys working with different actors' rhythms. "It makes you hear the language again."

To play Leo, Bart's models were "not only the incredible Gene Wilder, but also Matthew. It was a challenge after hearing him do it for over a year. If you didn't do it a little like him, it would be like singing a Beatles song without the accents. I enjoy mixing it up. I trust myself and I trust the material."

Going back to see The Producers, I found that the show holds up very well. Kind indeed makes a very good Max, and Jonathan Freeman's Roger De Bris is on target. Bart's Leo is superb and seems a touch more self-assured than some interpretations. "I don't know," he claims. "I try not to see the others." (Starting July 5, Brad Oscar and Hunter Foster are back as Bialystock and Bloom.)

Of course, the material's as sharp as ever; however, this time some of the 'in' jokes didn't register. When I first saw the musical in 2001, during previews, the response was electric. The posters of Bialystock's past shows, shown in the second scene, were greeted with roars of laughter. On the return, they elicited scant titters. When that happens, admits Bart, "It's hard. Sometimes, even at the very end of the show, [audiences] don't laugh."

He's referring to The Producers' last scene, when titles of Bialystock and Bloom productions are displayed in lights — among them: A Streetcar Named Murray, South Passaic and Katz. On those nights, he notes, "You think: 'Well, that's why I didn't get some of the laughs during the show.'"

Bright in Bart's memory, however, is the feeling shared by the original cast during rehearsals and even after opening night: "How did I win the lottery to be in this musical?"

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Did Bart have to bring down his performance for the cameras? "No. We started [shooting] with the Keystone Cops [type] scene [in Max's office], right after 'Springtime for Hitler,' and Franz comes in waving his gun. It's high style — slamming doors, running around and screaming. I remember thinking to myself: 'Well, there's no way we can do the "Mel Brooks-Lite," or toned-down, version of this. It just doesn't work unless you're at full tilt.'

"So we went ahead and did that scene the way we did the show. I thought: 'I'll approach the next scene in a simpler way.' Rather than playing to a 1,700 seat house, you [usually] need to bring things down a bit — the size of the proscenium stage suddenly becomes a camera lens. But with this kind of material, you have to be fully committed, and — unlike the original movie — we burst into song."

In the movie, Uma Thurman portrays Ulla (Cady Huffman's Tony-winning "receptionist-slash-secretary" role) and Will Ferrell is cast as Franz. Brad Oscar appears as a Cab Driver, Andrea Martin and Debra Monk portray two of the Old Lady Investors who back Bialystock's shows, and John Barrowman plays the Lead Tenor Storm Trooper.

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Youngest of four (he has a sister and two brothers), Roger was born "in Norwalk Hospital in Connecticut." Soon after, the Barts moved to Princeton, New Jersey, and later resided in Bernardsville. "I don't feel like a Connecticut ite; I feel like a Jersey-ite. That's where I spent most of my life." Son of a chemical engineer and a schoolteacher ("They're now retired on Martha's Vineyard"), Roger's uncle is Peter Bart, editor-in-chief of Variety.

Following graduation from Rutgers in 1985, Bart's career began when he was cast as Tom Sawyer in a tour of Big River. In April 1987, he made his Broadway debut by joining the musical's New York company. At Off Broadway's Public Theater, Bart did two plays: Up Against It and Henry IV, Parts I & II. He fondly remembers a regional production of Billy Bishop Goes to War, the two-character show about Canada's World War I ace pilot, in which he played opposite Jonathan Larson. "Jon and I were very tight," confides Bart.

"We met through Ira Weitzman [associate producer for musical theatre at Lincoln Center]. And it was Ira who told me that Jon had died [following the Rent dress rehearsal]. It was the next day. I'd just flown back from Germany [after a tour of Tommy], and was doing a reading of Marie Christine. Of course, I couldn't believe it.

"Jon and I invested a lot in each other. I have wonderful cassette tapes of us singing together, and of him teaching me music. During our most lean times, I was working in a restaurant [the Paris Commune] as a bartender, and Jon was working — rather famously now — at the Moondance Diner [in SoHo]. He'd come by for a glass of wine, and I'd give him a Caesar salad. Less often, I would go over and mooch off him. We tried to keep each other fed. [Laughs.]

"When we weren't brainstorming and recording his songs, we would take bike rides and sit on a bench — probably like Simon and Garfunkel did in their late teens — and talk about how we were going to change musical theatre. I have a funny video of Superbia [a Larson show, on which the writer worked from 1985 to '91]. Jon is in it; he was a huge ham. Jon was just great!

"It's a real shame that he didn't get a chance to enjoy his [ Rent] money — to go out and buy some new sneakers and maybe a nicer bike. I have lots of tapes to remember Jon by — and, once in a while, have a big smile about him."

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Falsettos, in which Bart played Whizzer, "was an incredibly moving experience. I did it with Graciela Daniele [directing] at Hartford Stage in 1991." He then did tours of The Secret Garden (as Dickon), The Who's Tommy (Cousin Kevin) and How to Succeed... (playing Frump to Ralph Macchio's Finch).

1997's six-performance Broadway concert of King David cast Bart as Jonathan. Following that came the role of Harlequin, the valet, in another highlight, Triumph of Love, "opposite my dearest, oldest friend in the world, Kevin Chamberlin," as well as Betty Buckley, F. Murray Abraham and Susan Egan.

His voice was heard in two animated features: 1997's "Hercules" (singing as Young Hercules) and 2001's "Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp's Adventure" (providing vocals for Scamp). Bart's on-screen debut occurred as a hotel manager in "The Insider" (1999).

Chita Rivera and William Hurt presented Bart with his 1999 Tony Award for playing Snoopy in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Reaching the podium, he joked, "My left paw just went numb." Viewing a tape of the ceremony shows that Bart thanked the cast, crew, director Michael Mayer, his parents, a brother, a girlfriend, his acting coach and "all my great friends." He dedicated the award to Jonathan Larson, who had won posthumously in 1996 for his Rent score. "On a small level," remarks Bart, "winning the Tony proved we both really made it."

If "Happiness Is" winning a Tony ("a cherished memory"), angst is being hard on yourself for not acknowledging "so many people" in your acceptance speech. He regrets not thanking the producers, his agents, Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, the show's writer Clark Gesner, Andrew Lippa (who provided additional songs), choreographer Jerry Mitchell and casting director Jay Binder, "who fought so hard to get me in the show." He pauses. "I just wish I had spoken better. I carry that around with me — as a token of my stupidity. Gosh, I wish I could change it."

Charlie Brown, recalls Bart, was "great and a lot of hard work. There were not many of us on that stage, but we loved it! It's a strange, very melancholy, thing to win a Tony and only do eight shows after that [before closing]. It's such an interesting business. When the Tony came in the mail, I was flat broke and on my way to an audition [for a commercial] to be the voice of a bird. I didn't get it."

Kristin Chenoweth also won a Tony for Charlie Brown, and Bart and she were reunited the following year in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever at Encores! He played Warren Smith, beau to Chenoweth's Daisy Gamble. In summer 2000, Bart did You Can't Take It with You (with pals Mary Testa and Jonathan Freeman) in Sag Harbor, and that September appeared Off-Broadway in Fully Committed, playing over 30 roles. Then came The Producers.

Since then, Bart's only show has been The Frogs, the Stephen Sondheim musical based on Aristophanes' 405 BC play. Shortly before the opening Bart replaced Chris Kattan as Xanthias. Nathan Lane, who starred as Dionysos, freely adapted Burt Shevelove's earlier adaptation, and Sondheim added to his score for the musical's 2004 Lincoln Center debut. Delighted to work with Lane again, Bart enthuses, "It was pretty great! I love Nathan! He's kind of wonderful. Nathan's so generous [as an actor]. I felt it was my own little Bialystock and Bloom with him."

Matthew Broderick and Bart were also reunited in 2004. The remake of "The Stepford Wives" cast Broderick as Nicole Kidman's husband and Bart as David Marshall Grant's gay wife. "Paul Rudnick wrote the part for me. I didn't audition. [Producer] Scott Rudin had seen me [as Carmen] in The Producers and asked if I'd like to do the movie. I almost fell over. It was a big gas, man — hobnobbing with Nicole Kidman and Bette Midler. It had a great cast: Christopher Walken, Glenn Close. . . . I was lucky to have been a part of it."

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Does Bart enjoy working in television as much as theatre? "I love doing stage!" he exclaims. I don't need to be doing The Producers. I love it! I think it's good for you; as my uncle would say, 'It keeps your chops up.' My home is theatre. I see it as the most challenging, most wonderful, most immediate medium. More than any other, it's really the actor's medium. Television is more a writer's medium; movies, a director's medium.

"I've spent 20 years in professional theatre, where you're always learning something. I think it's nice to be learning so much so quickly about the small frame [of TV] and the size of my performance. It's great to work with people like Marcia Cross and that ['Desperate Housewives'] cast. They're all so skilled. There's a lot to be learned. You're constantly faced with new challenges.

"I'm very accustomed to doing essentially the same material every night for a year, but I have to admit there's something terrifying and wonderful about doing something once and never again. Ninety percent of the time, I go home and over dinner go: 'Oh, shit, I did it wrong! What was I thinking?' But there's that other part of you that feels that you just have to do the work and let it go."

"Bram and Alice," a short-lived 2002 sitcom, was Bart's previous TV-series experience. It starred Alfred Molina ("a great, great guy") and cast Bart as a character named Paul Newman, "which the writers thought would be amusing."

Due to "Desperate Housewives," TV talk-show interest in Bart has begun. He was on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" June 22. The guest stint went well, but no one told O'Brien that Bart was playing Leo, not Carmen, in The Producers (and the actor was too polite to correct his host).

One's assured that Bart will always return home to the theatre. Meanwhile, his home away from home can bring him the financial security that every actor seeks, and the wider recognition that every career needs. Aware that TV audiences are slightly larger than those on Broadway, Roger Bart imparts, "In Producers, 1,700 people came for a year and a half straight [and saw him as Carmen Ghia]. That's a teeny-tiny part of the audience of 'Desperate Housewives' — for one night!"

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Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com, and is the author of the book "Between Takes (Interviews with Hollywood Legends)," to be published later this year.