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

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03 Jul 2005

From Top: Roger Bart as Leo Bloom and Carmen Ghia in <I>The Producers</I>; in ABC's
From Top: Roger Bart as Leo Bloom and Carmen Ghia in The Producers; in ABC's "Desperate 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.

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?"

***

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 inThe 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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Continued...

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