JO ANNE WORLEY
"Its purpose is to bring joy and laughter to people, and that's what it does," Jo Anne Worley recently said about the hit musical The Drowsy Chaperone, which continues to thrill audiences nightly at the Marquis Theatre. The same could be said about Worley herself, the veteran entertainer who has been making audiences laugh for decades. The star of stage and screen, who boasts a big Broadway belt, a larger-than-life theatrical presence and enough energy to light up Times Square, is currently back onstage in the aforementioned Chaperone, playing the role of Mrs. Tottendale, which was created by another TV favorite, Georgia Engel. As Mrs. Tottendale, the somewhat confused and forgetful dowager, Worley gets the chance to delight audiences with her spit takes, her swingin' pearls and her duet with Peter Bartlett's Underling, "Love Is Always Lovely." It's been an especially busy year for Worley, who also appeared in the acclaimed City Center Encores! production of Follies, playing Stella Deems, the former Follies star who asks, "Who's That Woman?" As passionate as she is about her acting career, Worley — whose Broadway credits also include The Billy Barnes People; Hello, Dolly!; Prince of Central Park; and Grease! — has one love that is equally as strong: her affection for animals. In fact, the woman who has entertained audiences at regional theatres throughout the country was recently named president of the charitable organization Actors and Others for Animals. I recently had the great pleasure of chatting with the celebrated performer.
Question: How did this role in Drowsy come about for you?
Jo Anne Worley: It's a direct result of doing the City Center Follies production…
Question: Which was wonderful . . .
Worley: Thank you. And what an exciting, wonderful event that was to be a part of! The director [of Follies], Casey [Nicholaw], as you know, is the director of Drowsy Chaperone. He asked would I like to do this role [since] Georgia Engel was leaving, and I said, "Well, Georgia Engel and I are kind of different!" [Laughs.] And he said, "No, no, . . . bring your pearls and bring yourself, and do it."
Question: What was the rehearsal process like? I know when you take over a role, you often don't get that much rehearsal time.
Worley: [Laughs.] You can say that! It's like jumping on a freight train that's going full speed a couple hundred miles an hour. But the good thing, when you're jumping on this train, you've got the people on the train with their hands and arms outstretched helping you. So you've had a lot of help before you get there — from the stage managers, the dance captains, the musicians, wardrobe; everybody is helping you. As much as you watch the show and are rehearsing, you literally only get one rehearsal with the real actors that you're going to be acting with — and they're not in costume or wigs. For instance, Jennifer Smith is a beautiful brunette, but onstage her character Kitty has a little blonde, curly wig. Thank God I know her and have worked with her, so I was pretty used to where Jennifer would be. It really is an ensemble piece, and when we're all onstage together, we have to be really, truly in exactly the right place. So you get the one put-in rehearsal, and then you're onstage, and you do it!
Question: What was that first performance in front of an audience like?
Worley: You get through it is what you do. If you get to the end of the show, you have succeeded! [Laughs.] As I said, there are people around you — the other people watching out for you are helping you. Peter Bartlett, who plays Underling in the show, we quite often are working together. He guided me through the last couple of numbers of the show, which are group numbers … so I wouldn't run into other people! We were pretty much a team there — that made it a lot easier and nicer.
Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for Mrs. Tottendale?
Worley: Let's see, favorite — I think I love swinging the pearls. I love the swinging of the pearls. Through the years when I would be doing regional theatre or stock, where you have very little time to learn a show and there would be a very involved dance number, I would say, "How about I [swing the pearls]?" And that would take up several bars of the music that I wouldn't have to learn choreography for. [Laughs.] Of course, it would be character-driven and come out of what was right. So being able to do that [is great], and what I have done — and I am so happy to be able to do this — is I bought a whole bunch of pearls that I use in the show and I rotate them. When I leave the show, I will be able to use them at silent auctions for charity events . . . it's wonderful to give back and we're able to in our business. So at either silent auctions or sometimes live auctions I can say, "These were the pearls I swung on Broadway! For an extra whatever, you can have the pearls also!" So I'm glad to have that opportunity.
Question: When did you start swinging the pearls? Where did that begin?
Worley: I was doing Gentlemen Prefer Blondes — another 1920s era [show] where long pearls were in vogue. I was doing the brunette character to Betsy Palmer's blonde, and it was for the Kenley Players in Ohio. I had been a fan, and obviously still am, of the work [that] Beatrice Lillie did. And she, of course, did the pearl swing, so I always give credit to Ms. Beatrice Lillie whenever I do them. People say, "Where did that come from?," and it was her bit, so I'm glad to be carrying on with that [tradition]. That was the first place I used it, and then I would do it later in other shows when I needed it.
Question: What's it like doing the spit takes each night in Drowsy?
Worley: Well, I tell you, again I have to give credit to my partner in that scene. Peter is so good about it. He said, "Just do what you have to do, and the thing you have to do is not leave any water left in your mouth, or you can choke or you can't say your line." You have to expel all that you have taken in, and you can't take in too little because then that's pulling your punches, and it's not funny. I practiced before I came to New York — in California against a palm tree [and] got pretty good at it. The palm tree didn't flinch or anything [laughs] — seemed to like it as a matter of fact. Then, when I got here in New York, I would practice in the shower against the tile, and then during rehearsals, before I got the opportunity of practicing with Peter, [I practiced with] his understudies or a swing person or, indeed, the stage manager [who] would put a slicker on. The joy of the audience laughing is what propels that scene and helps you continue through it.
Question: Had you seen the show before the offer came to join Drowsy?
Worley: Yes, I did. It started in Los Angeles, so I saw it in Los Angeles and was an immediate fan of the show.
Question: It's a great show.
Worley: It's purpose is to bring joy and laughter to people, and that's what it does.
Question: You also just became president of Actors and Others for Animals. Tell me about your work with that organization.
Worley: I have been involved with it for over 30 years, when it first came into being. In our business, because of the way it is, we can give back — in the way of helping raise awareness and money for different charities. . . . It seemed like I was doing more and more for this group called Actors and Other For Animals. I was on the board for several years before I became vice-president, and our president, Earl Holliman, just stepped down this year, and that's how I got to be Madam President. It happened at the same time that I came to New York to do Drowsy Chaperone, and the people on the board assured me [it was okay to] go . . . . We have one fundraiser a year that supports all of the different helping we try to do for dogs, so for the one fundraiser, I wouldn't be that instrumental in the beginning of it. But I am in touch by email and by phone, and this year we're toasting, not roasting, toasting Fred Willard. And last year it was Betty White, and we get a panel of their peers and friends to lovingly host and, of course, it's all very humorous.
Question: What's the mission of the group?
Worley: Spay and neuter is our most important issue. Of course, we do humane legislation, we take care of a lot of medical bills, and we go into hospitals and nursing homes and senior homes with dog therapy, and into schools for humane education. Spay and neuter, though, is our main job. We figure that is at the crux of all of the other problems. If we could get than in control, we got a chance. Obviously, eventually, we would all like to have a no-kill society.
Question: Were you involved with Broadway Barks this past weekend?
Worley: Yes, I was there and, as a matter of fact, I gave away a string of my Drowsy Chaperone pearls to the person who adopted the dog that I was showing.
Question: You mentioned before the Encores! production of Follies. What was it like working with that cast?
Worley: Oh, it was heaven. [Director] Casey [Nicholaw] is just a ball of energy and talent and genius, and he was jumping from room to room. They were working on the choreography of one scene, and another one [in another room], and the Finale, and then another one, and there would be wardrobe [fittings] . . . You were constantly doing something. And when we all got together, there were no divas — I realize that's the name of your column [laughs] — but there was no time for any divadom. There was no time! You just do the best [you can] and trust in Uncle Casey and give it your best shot, and it was so exciting! Being backstage and in the wings was like having a musical massage all night long from the fabulous music and the voices and the acting. As you know, sometimes we would be seated onstage while other scenes were going on having, as I called it, a close-up camera to seeing the other actors working — that was just wonderful.
Question: The audiences went crazy.
Worley: Oh, my! My goodness, indeed. It's a wonder we could walk out of the theatre at night [and] get our heads through the door! [Laughs.]
Question: Going back a bit, I know you were Carol Channing's standby in Hello Dolly!
Question: So I take it you never got to go on.
Worley: Oh, heavens no! [Laughs.] She told me I would never go on. I came into it out-of-town in Washington, DC. Bibi Osterwald had always been her standby, but evidently she was doing a show at this time. I was vocalizing in the hallway — for a standby, there was no place to stand! [Laughs.] So I was vocalizing, and [Carol] came out and she said, "Jo Anne, you don't have to worry. You'll never have to go on. If you do, you'll have at least two days notice," which would mean the President called or something. When it was in New York, a fabulous, big hit, I was [also] doing Second City, [which] had a theatre here in New York at that time, so I was getting two paychecks. I would go to Second City and call in and check in [to see if] all was well. Of course, I would do my standby rehearsals when I had to, and I think you had to watch the show a certain number of times, which I was able to do.
Question: Did you ever get to play the role elsewhere?
Worley: Oh, yes. Many, many times. . . . As a matter of fact, I have my own set of Dolly wardrobe. I did it someplace and the wardrobe was made for me, and the producer said, "You should have this wardrobe," and so I usually use that. It's color-coded pretty much to when people do the show, similar things, and the red dress. So pretty much, I'm able to do that, rather than having them have to rent and fit. It saves a lot of time and trouble.
Question: And you also did Gypsy as well, right?
Worley: Many, many times.
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