Actors Playing Actors: The Art of Playing What You Know

Special Features   Actors Playing Actors: The Art of Playing What You Know
Everywhere you looked this Broadway season, performers were playing performers.
Present Laughter star Victor Garber
Present Laughter star Victor Garber Photo by Joan Marcus


From 42nd Street to A Chorus Line, Broadway has a rich tradition of backstage stories in which real actors get to play fictional actors. But perhaps in no season in recent memory were so many performers employed in playing performers of various kinds, from actors to rockers to opera singers.

One classic example was Doug Hughes' revival of the 1927 comedy The Royal Family, in which the actors were embodying made-up thespians (the Cavendish family) based on real actors (the Barrymore clan). Tony-winning director Doug Hughes (Doubt), son of actors Barnard Hughes and Helen Stenborg, launched rehearsals with a pep-talk that instilled his 2009 cast with heart-swelling pride in their chosen profession.

"He spoke about an hour," Jan Maxwell remembers, "then I went home and cried for two. It was so beautiful and moving. And, when I told my husband and son about it, they were touched, too. Mostly, that play was so much about love. I would be backstage, pounding my chest — love! joy! love! joy! It still moves me. I never forgot — this whole year I haven't forgotten how lucky I was to be cast in a play like that."

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Playwright Noël Coward didn't have to do a lot of research for his 1946 comedy Present Laughter. Coward wrote the self-obsessed actor at the center of the play so close to his own range that the character qualifies as self-parody. George C. Scott played him as more of a bad-boy John Barrymore type in a 1982 revival. For the 2010 production, Victor Garber's pursed-lips pose for the show's ad suggests the best of both worlds. It's clear that he's in on the joke and enjoying the hell out of it. "It's a great play, and it was a part I felt very close to," Garber said, tagging that with a touch of self-deprecation: "Some people said it was a little too close, but I loved it." Catherine Zeta-Jones is something of a male-magnet of an actress leading the glamorous life in A Little Night Music, illuminated by an old flame and her current paramour — both married. It is her first stage work in 20 years — and her first ever on Broadway. Except for her Oscar-winning Velma Kelly in Chicago (another performer thriving on scandal), one would have never suspected her of a musical background.

In point of fact, Zeta-Jones starred in Annie and 42nd Street in London — a past she tips with a lilting rendering of a Sondheim evergreen. "'Send in the Clowns' is one of the loveliest songs ever written," she said, "especially when you hear it and can sing it in the context of the play. It's a real acting piece more than just a singing piece."

Savannah Wise as Evelyn Nesbit — whose real-life antics predated Velma Kelly's in the scandal-to-stardom department — swung by fleetingly in the Ragtime revival. And Patrick Heusinger plays an actor who hasn't progressed far from waiter in Next Fall.

Valerie Harper in Looped
photo by Carol Rosegg

Tallulah Bankhead, a legend in mink (and, often, nothing else), was roughly the female equivalent of John Barrymore in spiraling decline, and Valerie Harper wore both theatrical masks to catch her in Looped, a theatrical account of her last days of moviemaking. Dulled by drink and drugs, she dragged out a dubbing session for a not-so-simple single line of dialogue from one of her last films. "She has been sent up by so many people," Harper said of the theatrically throaty Tallulah, "not just actors but non-pros — Tallulah for Halloween — because of her deep voice and her sense of panache. People will see what they want to see, but I did not want it to be a send-up or a comment on her. I wanted it to be the real woman."

Another cautionary tale of life at a theatrical epicenter was Carrie Fisher's Wishful Drinking, a standup autobiography coming from one who survived pills, booze, breakdowns and Debbie & Eddie & Liz & Dick celebrity. The star-clustering from this Hollywood royal family and its accumulating tributaries got so coagulated that Fisher broke out the blackboard and glossies to demonstrate where love has gone. Amazingly, her humor emerged undamaged.

An actor-performer patterned on the army-bound Elvis was the main plot-mover of Bye Bye Birdie, but the emphasis was on the squealing teens who watched the Birdie (Nolan Gerard Funk). The real Elvis is impersonated by Eddie Clendening in Million Dollar Quartet — a singalong with the iconic likes of Carl Perkins (Robert Britton Lyons), Johnny Cash (Lance Guest) and Jerry Lee Lewis (Levi Kreis).

A world removed from rock 'n' roll is La Cage aux Folles, a cabaret in St. Tropez where Kelsey Grammer emcees and Douglas Hodge is drag diva in residence.

Anthony LaPaglia and Justin Bartha both were cast as opera singers — one a seasoned pro, and the other a hopeful novice — in Lend Me a Tenor. Neither had sung an operatic note in their lives, but they had pitch, and this was something the musical supervisor, Patrick Vaccariello, could work with. "Both of them," he said, "could have serious musical careers, should they ever decide that they wanted to pursue that." For the present, LaPaglia said he is content with ripping the daylights out of a pompous Italian tenor reduced to Cleveland gigs. "He's bigger than life. He's apparently quite polished and sophisticated, but not at all. I love how confused his whole journey is."

(Harry Haun is staff writer for Playbill. This story appears in the Playbill of the 2010 Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall.)

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