By Tom Nondorf
02 Apr 2007
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A salute to high crime this month: Grand Theft Libretto, if you will. For April, we take a look at some of the slickest villains around, the scene stealers of Broadway. In honor of the new CD "Broadway Scene Stealers: The Men" hitting stores April 3, we rounded up some of the suspects to discuss their thieving ways.
Released on the Broadway Masterworks label and created in partnership with Playbill, the CD — the first in a series of "Editors' Choice" compilations — unearths 12 original cast recordings, songs that provided major showcase moments for minor players. Sometimes, as you'll read, the songs were dashed off last minute, or were written to give the star of the show a little rest, but these songs somehow transcended their origins and, in most cases, remain ever associated with their original performers.
I only wish I could transcend time itself — first, to actually see all of the performances in person, and second, to be able to speak to all of the performers on the CD. As it is, here are four chats with four great gentlemen of the stage: Leonard John Crofoot, André De Shields, Ron Holgate and Austin Pendleton.
The Scene Stealer: Leonard John Crofoot
The Show: Barnum, 1980, St. James Theatre
The Song: "Bigger Isn't Better"
The Story: Just as General Tom Thumb is a scene-stealer in the actual life of P.T. Barnum, it was appropriate that a person of smaller stature should steal some stage time from the larger-than-life Barnum portrayed by Jim Dale on Broadway. Enter Leonard John Crofoot.
Question: Do you remember auditioning for the role of Tom Thumb?
Leonard John Crofoot: It's sort of ironic. I sang "Yankee Doodle Dandy," the George M. Cohan song, at the audition, and then I got the job. It was about three auditions, and I'm playing Tom Thumb, and [lyricist] Michael Stewart comes over and says, "You know, you helped me out with the lyrics. I didn't have the beginning of [this song], but now we put it into the lyrics." You know, "I'm General Thumb, just come to town, a Yankee Doodle Dandy." Now, I'm at the Follies here in Palm Springs, and I'm singing "Yankee Doodle Dandy" — just the irony, you know.
Q: When you heard the song, did you think it was going to be a song that really won people over the way it did?
Crofoot: I just thought, "My God, this is great. Great! I'm singing a song!" At the time they wanted just the song, so [director] Joe Layton worked out a plan of getting the dancing into the show. We didn't have any dance music, so Joe worked out the count in just chords. He did all the chords, and he called me in, and we worked all night long — put together this thing with [assistant to the director] John Mineo and Joe and me, and we showed it to [producer/composer] Cy Coleman the next day. Joe went to Cy and said, "I want to show you the Tom Thumb dance." And Cy said, "You don't have any music, what do you mean?" And Joe said, "Oh, we did it to chords." And then he told the pianist to play the chords, and Cy made his way over to the piano, and he's looking at the chords, and he wrote the dance music right then and there based on the chords that the pianist had given him. Right on the spot!
Q: You came into Barnum better known as a dancer.
Crofoot: Ballet trained, actually — ballet trained since childhood. I was crippled, I was in a wheelchair, and then I got to move and started taking ballet classes. And the three years in a wheelchair really got me moving, and I've been a dancer ever since. I could [do] ballet basically first, then I went into jazz and some soft shoe, but not much, and then I kind of caught that as I went along. When it came to Barnum, I was pretty seasoned as a singer. I felt okay, but I didn't read music. I thought that might be a drawback, so I tried to get better at that. I had a lot of songs by the time that I auditioned, so I felt fairly comfortable as far as [being] a singer. But I've always considered myself a dancer, actor, singer, in that order.
Q: Do you remember recording the Barnum cast album?
Crofoot: It was in New York, and it was a very quick affair. In-and-out kind of thing. I had about three takes — then they took one bit of one take and the whole other take and that was it, we were done. It was very fast. I loved it because Cy was there, and he tweaked the dials, and he'd say, "Give me a little up on this, a little down there." He knew exactly what he wanted. It was great. He was in heaven, and I was in heaven watching him.
Q: Did you realize back then that "Bigger Isn't Better" would take on a life of its own?
Crofoot: I knew that it was a standout. It was the one number that allowed Jim Dale to have a rest. He could rest during Tom Thumb. He was onstage for every other number, but not for "Bigger Isn't Better." It gave him a breather. It showed what I do. Joe Layton knew me well because I worked with him and Carol Channing. I knew Joe, and he knew that I had the lyrical sense and that I would be able to hit the marks very briskly, and he used that in the choreography. He really catered it toward me, the movement. It worked so beautifully, and I loved working with Joe, and I miss him so much. I really, really enjoyed working with Joe Layton.
The Sequel: Crofoot is currently doing a gig through May 20 with The Follies in Palm Springs. He choreographs any chance he gets, "to Daft Punk, all kinds of music," he says. He recently choreographed a play called In Earth as it is in Heaven at the Loyola-Marymount University Theater in LA. Crofoot also has a one-man show he's been performing since 1995 called Nijinsky Speaks, which you can learn about on nijinskyspeaks.com.
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The Scene Stealer: André De Shields
The Show: Ain't Misbehavin', 1978, Longacre Theatre
The Song: "The Viper's Drag"
The Story: André De Shields says his forte is what he calls "extreme performance" — playing characters with the power to break the fourth wall, challenging the audience and shaking up their complacency a bit. He certainly made an art of it in his career-making performance of "The Viper's Drag."
Question: What do you remember about your first encounter with "The Viper"?
André De Shields: [Laughs.] I remember first when Ain't Misbehavin' had its birth at the Manhattan Theatre Club when it was still on 73rd Street on the East Side in what I think was originally a Ukrainian social club. What I remember is how permissive and how accepting that whole concept that a badass character like a viper could be embraced by a Broadway audience as representative of the kind of music they would enjoy. Beause this guy is exhorting the attributes of being a pothead. And, being an unreconstructed hippy, I thought, "Could this fit me any better?" Like a kid glove. And, mainly, with the help of Luther Henderson, who was the orchestrator of Fats Waller's music and is no longer with us, but who was the real deal, we were able to refract it through a lens that made it absolutely accessible to the contemporary audience of 1977–78 when you could walk from Broadway to Eighth Avenue on "The Deuce," as it was called at the time, and you could buy anything and anyone you wanted. You could literally go down to 42nd Street and buy a doobie for a dollar.
Q: So, The Viper was not very far from his home…
De Shields: Exactly. But it also gave me an opportunity to sing that song in a style that I probably still do better than anybody: monstrously slow, which is what my style is. That's what the Viper was about, being so high on weed that he could hardly move — he was moving through molasses going uphill on a day in February, that kind of thing. And doing this graceful hypnotic Balinese coiled-cobra-coming-out-of-a-basket kind of dance, which was all the stuff that I did naturally. It was one of the high points of my career.
Q: Did you know upon hearing the song that it was going to be amazing?
De Shields: I knew it was going to be memorable. It's the quintessential vaudevillian performance, and it's also quintessentially André de Shields in that it's idiosyncratic. Exquisitely unique to my talent, and being included in this album speaks to that, I hope. I think!
Q: How much fun was it to perform?
De Shields: In the live performance, it is one of those archetypical illustrations of how to break the fourth wall because once the Viper is high on the Mighty Mezz (that's what it was called in the thirties, named after the guy who provided the weed to all the jazz greats), I got a chance to swivel down to the edge of the stage and step off of it. The stage was designed so it spilled like a waterfall over the apron into the first aisle of the audience, and I could come down beyond the proscenium and offer the joint to someone sitting in the first row; and nine times out of ten, some poor fool would reach for it, and, of course, I would snatch it back and laugh at them, and the whole audience would [crack] up. It was a marvelous opportunity for me to make a mark in the Broadway canon, and obviously we did, because that year, 1978, the show which was initially attempted to be dismissed as a revue [ended up winning] the Tony as Best Musical.
Q: Did you feel like you were stealing the show?
De Shields: It was never my intent, and it was never the intention of the creative team that any one of us would be stealing the show. It was simply my turn, as it were, because each of the five of us had a turn. I knew that in order to make it believable and accessible and memorable for the audience, I had to give them — to use a phrase from Fats Waller — I had to "find out what they liked and how they liked it and let 'em have it just that way," and that's what I did. And that's what each of us did.
If you know the show, you know that Ken Page, when he does "Your Feet's Too Big," made an indelible impression with his star turn. And you know that Armelia McQueen, when she does "Squeeze Me," that was her star turn, Charlaine Woodard, when she does, "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now," that was her star turn. And, of course, Nell Carter, "Mean to Me," that was her star turn, and my star turn was "The Viper's Drag," and every one of us stole the show during his or her star turn. By the same token, when we did our ensemble numbers, we committed to that also, but it was never the intention for people to steal the show. But because nothing like "The Viper's Drag" had ever been seen before, and nothing like it has ever been seen since, it falls into that category of scene stealers.
Q: Were you ever inspired by a scene-stealer you had seen?
De Shields: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. And it happened when I was maybe nine years old. I'm so glad you asked me this because my performance in Ain't Misbehavin' is inspired by this man's performance in the film "Cabin in the Sky." When I was asked to do Ain't Misbehavin', I immediately went back into the rolodex of my mind and brought right to the forefront this performance by John Bubbles. When I saw him do "Cabin in the Sky," he was resplendent in white from head to toe — three-piece white suit, white spats, white cane, and, of course, he's the villain that everybody loves to hate, and he spins into this tavern into the swinging doors and dances up a flight of stairs. To a nine-year old mind, it looked as if he was consumed in a glittering cloud, and my eyes were as wide as saucers, and that's when I knew, that's when that epiphany exploded inside of me, and I knew, "André, that's what you're going to do."
The Sequel: André De Shields, who has since been nominated twice for a Tony, just returned from Barbados where he performed his R&B cabaret show, Black By Popular Demand. He teaches master classes across the country and will soon be on his way to Dubai to perform a show based on the life and times of Louis Armstrong called Ambassador Satch.
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