PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Ghetto Klown — The Life That Late He Led

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23 Mar 2011

John Leguizamo; guests Lin-Manuel Miranda, Rosie Perez and Cedric the Entertainer
John Leguizamo; guests Lin-Manuel Miranda, Rosie Perez and Cedric the Entertainer
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Meet the first-nighters at Broadway's Ghetto Klown, written by and starring John Leguizamo.


The ongoing saga of John Leguizamo, a survive-and-tell Latin monologist, rolled into a fifth chapter, Ghetto Klown, which opened March 22 at the Lyceum Theatre.

After two previous Broadway installments (1998's Freak and 2002's Sexaholix . . . A Love Story) and a couple of first-person forays Off-Broadway to test the waters (1991's Mambo Mouth and 1993's Spic-0-Rama), the 46-year-old performer still has a lot to say for himself as he slithers, chameleon-like, through the story of his life, playing himself and all who cross his winding path.

Klown is Al Pacino's word—hopefully, not his spelling — for Leguizamo when Leguizamo threw him an unscripted curve while the cameras were turning on "Carlito's Way." Seeing Big Al freeze, derail and rail in character is a pretty hilarious spectacle, as are similar head-butts with Patrick Swayze while filming 1995's "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar" and Kurt Russell and Steven Seagal while filming 1996's "Executive Decision" — always over the same issue: Leguizamo's compulsion for loose-cannon ad-libbing.

It was an early calling. While in his teens, he broke into a subway conductor's compartment and started making with the funnies over the loud speaker before being vigorously brought down and hauled off to the hoosegow. He counts that arrest as his "first bad review" — but at least it got him the attention that was denied him at home by his disappointed, disapproving Colombian father and his carping, theatrical Puerto Rican mother. Fortunately, mentors at school steered him into a constructive outlet for his anger and energy — acting. He acquired an ancient acting coach and an equally ancient (plus stammering) agent, and it was the actor's life for him.

He debuted on "Miami Vice," of course — as a drug lord, also of course — and, right from Take One, he was pitching curves, making waves, creating his own dialogue to make the scene "real" (while unnerving his scene partners and Herr Director). This became a kind of leitmotif to live by and work by, but it made him a solid actor.

Once he brought his autobiography up to date, right up to the curtain of the evening's performance — rattling every last character out of his menagerie, spinning on a dime from one to another — Leguizamo declared the session over, and first-nighters adjourned to the Top of the Standard Hotel on West 13th Street.

The view of Manhattan in full nocturnal twinkle 'n' shine from the 18th floor is awesome in the most literal sense of that overworked word. Even bathrooms, done in floor-to-ceiling glass, give a stunning look, which presumably doesn't look back.

White leather sofas and alcoves line the main area overlooking the Hudson River. The paths to the centerpiece bar was constantly clogged with first-nighters, but an armada of waiters and waitresses dispensed hors d'oeuvres and bubbly to guests.


The paparazzi assembled at the opposite end of the floor and waited with professional patience for the cast of one to show (for a while, as it turned out). But when he arrived, his fireball energy was intact — just reconstituted for one-on-ones.

One of the surprising now-it-can-be-tolds of the evening was that his immediate family took genuine offense at his truth-telling on stage — his father even threatened to sue over one show — so the mind boggles at what some of his name-brand acting peers will make of his prickly impersonations. So far, none have seen the show.

"The only ones I play in the show who've seen it are my wife and my mother," he relayed. "My mother had a few notes for me, but my wife really loved it."

In for a particularly wicked (and, thus, riotous) ribbing are his directors, Baz Luhrmann (very ironic, angular and Aussie) and Brian De Palma (bouncing gracefully about the stage like a basketball player dribbling). "I had great experiences with both of them — I did two movies with each — 'Moulin Rouge!' and 'Romeo + Juliet' with Baz, 'Casualties of War' and 'Carlito's Way' with Brian. We had a lot of chemistry together. They both let me do my thing and really encouraged me."

Sean Penn, who starred in the two De Palmas, comes in for some kidding as well, primarily for "Casualties of War," in which a movie-debuting Leguizamo must man up to repeated slappings from Penn in repeated retakes ordered by De Palma.

The two actors somehow stayed great friends. "We're still really cool," Leguizamo insisted. "Every time I see him, there's still a lot of love between the two of us."

Despite the trouble on the set his ad-libs have caused, Leguizamo remains blissfully unrepentant: "Most of my ad-libs stayed in 'Executive Decision,'" he pointed out (and, during the course of his show, he unreels an Exhibit A case-in-point). "In 'Wong Foo,' the script was great, but I added a lot of my own flavoring. In 'Carlito's Way' I added a lot. I always have. In 'The Lincoln Lawyer,' I made up lots of dialogue again."

Of the drag queens going West in "Wong Foo," Leguizamo is virtually the last man standing. Swayze has passed, and Wesley Snipes is in prison for tax evasion — so Leguizamo goes easy on them, focusing more on his own dysfunction. Stumbling around tentatively in high heels was nothing compared to the prepping to remove every hair on his body. As if waxing weren't excruciating enough, "they had to shave my ass. It was the most embarrassing thing that has ever been done to me."


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