First of all, yay Tony nominees! However, it’s been announced that Broadway ain’t a-comin’ back til at least June 2020. Hoo, boy...that’s a long time. I thought I’d write some of my favorite Broadway stories to keep people’s spirits UP! And I’d do each story themed with a letter from B-R-O-A-D-W-A-Y.
B is for Betty Buckley! Betty had participated in the Miss Texas pageant (because her father insisted…Betty was a major feminist and one of the first subscribers to Ms. magazine). Regardless, she won Miss Fort Worth, but lost Miss Texas to another contestant. For the talent portion, Betty sang (‘natch), but the winner did a dramatic monologue from Gone With The Wind and ate a radish. Nevertheless, Betty made an impression and they asked her to perform in the Miss America Pageant—as she jokingly says to “represent all the losers.” Her amazing singing caught the eye of a New York agent and she soon moved to Manhattan. Her first day in New York (!), she had an audition for 1776 and got the role of Martha Jefferson where she became one of the pioneers of high Broadway belting. No one sustained a D before her! Watch her amazingness at age 21:
But, here’s my favorite Betty story…it’s about speaking up! She really wanted the role of Grizabella and heard that lots of other people wanted it as well. Rumor has it that Cher was being considered! She auditioned and when she was at her final callback she felt director Trevor Nunn was still not fully convinced.. She asked to speak to Trevor after she sang and told him “I know there are a lot of other women who can sing this role as well as I can. BUT I also know there isn’t anyone who can sing it better. And it’s my turn!” Betty felt that her peers all had their defining role and this was meant to be hers! She was definitely correct about it being her defining role (she won the Tony Award) but I don’t think there were other women who could sing it as well. Watch!
R is for Anthony Rapp. Anthony was very young when he was cast in the national tour of The King And I, starring Yul Brenner. He joined the tour while it was already on the road and told me about his first performance. It was the final scene with him and his mother, Mrs. Anna, when the king lay dying. Anthony remembers saying, “Look, mother! The boat” and, from the lips of the dying king, came, not a line from the script, but the directive “LOUDER!!!!!” I guess The King had just enough energy before he died to give a note onstage.
O is for Oklahoma!. The great Florence Henderson was touring the country as Laurie in Oklahoma! and heard they were making a film version. Right around the same time, they asked her to renew her contract for the tour. She told them she would renew if they let her audition for the film. They agreed and, when she told me the story, I asked how it went. Florence replied, “It went to that bitch, Shirley Jones!” She was totally joking! She knew that people got a kick out a rivalry between Mrs. Brady and Mrs. Partridge!
A is for Annie. Andrea McArdle was the very first kid to try out for Annie. She sang “Johnny One Note” and got cast…as the tough orphan (the role that eventually became Pepper). Kristen Vigard was originally cast in the title role. Kristen was a really sweet kid with a really sweet voice…and soon the creative team realized that Annie shouldn’t seem so sweet. She had to seem a lot tougher to be able to escape the orphanage and live for a while on the streets. Around that time, Andrea remembers that she and the other orphans would often act out the whole show for fun. When you’re a kid, you can easily memorize every role in a show—ah the days when your brain isn’t filled with a lot of other information! Anyhoo, on that particular run-through of the show that the kids were doing for fun, Andrea was assigned the role of Miss Hannigan. Martin Charnin was dating Mary from Peter, Paul and Mary and she overheard Andrea doing Hannigan. She mentioned it to the creative team and they realized that Andrea had the toughness they were looking for. They gave the role to Andrea and Kristen became her stand-by. Here’s Andrea being amazing on The Merv Griffin Show. And here’s Kristen, who was the singing voice in the film Grace Of My Heart.
D is for Dreamgirls. I was chatting with Henry Krieger (who wrote the music) and he told me that the very first song they wrote for Dreamgirls was “One Night Only.” Cut to a few years later, I heard a recording from the out-of-town tryout of the show in Boston….and there was no “One Night Only.” I couldn’t figure it out. How could it be gone if they wrote that song before any of the workshops of readings? (P.S. The first readings starred a different Effie…Nell Carter!). Instead of “One Night Only,” there was a different song in it’s place. I called Henry because I could not understand where the hell the song was. He told me what happened: The show was in tryouts and Michael Bennett came to Henry and Tom and told them he wanted to replace “One Night Only.” Why? He felt it sounded too Jewish! I listened to the song again and I see what he means…the opening oboe solo is very Judaica! Well, they put in a new song and the whole cast was not happy about it. They all loved “One Night Only.” Soon the ushers started campaigning to bring back “One Night Only” and back it went! Here is the version from my 2001 concert for the Actors Fund! Starring Lillias White, Audra McDonald, Heather Headley, and Tamara Tunie. Also this:
W is for Lillias White. Lillias was cast in a show called Rock and Roll: The First 5,000 Years in the ’80s. They all played various famous singers. (She played Aretha). One of the women who played Janis Joplin told her she was going to quit because she wanted to be a pop star. Lillias said everyone was like “What? Why would you quit a Broadway to pursue something that’s not definite! Make the money from the show while your pursuing your other career.” The woman ignored their advice and quit. End of the story: Rock and Roll: The First 5,000 years ran for nine performances and Madonna became a pop star!
A is for Audra McDonald. I love pulling the camera back, so to speak, and seeing that something which we deemed so important, really wasn’t that big of a deal. Back in the ’90s, Audra tried out for a Broadway show, got a final callback and was devastated she wasn’t cast. Luckily, she was cast in another show that same season. End of story: If she had been cast in the part she originally wanted (the ensemble of Beauty and the Beast) she wouldn’t have been available to audition for and land the role of Carrie in Carousel—the role for which she won her first Tony Award. Yes, Beauty and the Beast and Carousel were the same season and not getting the first show led to her becoming a star! Here’s a song from one of my live concerts that I do every Sunday. This is me and Audra doing our version of Barbra Streisand’s arrangement of “Down With Love.”
Y is for You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown. Someone I know was torn between doing that show or Annie Get Your Gun on Broadway. I told her to take Annie Get Your Gun because it had Bernadette Peters and was sure to be a hit. I was nervous that her role might not be that great in Charlie Brown because it hadn’t been written yet. She ignored my advice, turned down Annie Get Your Gun and took You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown. Yes, ignoring my advice is what won Kristin Chenoweth her Tony Award!