DIVA TALK: A Chat with Polly Bergen

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: A Chat with Polly Bergen
Last season, Polly Bergen provided one of, if not the, most exciting moments of the Broadway theatre season. Bergen, of course, starred as Carlotta Campion in the Roundabout Theater Company's revival of Follies, earning a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her work. Although her stage time was minimal, her rendering of Stephen Sondheim's show-business survival anthem, "I'm Still Here," was the highlight of the show and one of the most powerful moments of the season. Bergen began the Sondheim anthem slowly, singing “Good times and bum times . . .” to the other Follies guests, but by the end of the song, she stood alone, centerstage, belting out in her rich, smokey tones, “Lord knows at least I was there, and I’m heeeeere, look who’s heeeeere, I’m still heeeere!” Her rendition was so thrillingly sung and acted, so riveting, that you didn't notice the stage empty of its inhabitants during the song. It was one of those rare, exciting, spine-chilling moments.
Rosie O'Donnell.
Rosie O'Donnell. Photo by Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Last season, Polly Bergen provided one of, if not the, most exciting moments of the Broadway theatre season. Bergen, of course, starred as Carlotta Campion in the Roundabout Theater Company's revival of Follies, earning a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her work. Although her stage time was minimal, her rendering of Stephen Sondheim's show-business survival anthem, "I'm Still Here," was the highlight of the show and one of the most powerful moments of the season. Bergen began the Sondheim anthem slowly, singing “Good times and bum times . . .” to the other Follies guests, but by the end of the song, she stood alone, centerstage, belting out in her rich, smokey tones, “Lord knows at least I was there, and I’m heeeeere, look who’s heeeeere, I’m still heeeere!” Her rendition was so thrillingly sung and acted, so riveting, that you didn't notice the stage empty of its inhabitants during the song. It was one of those rare, exciting, spine-chilling moments.

Bergen is thankfully back onstage in the Roundabout Theater Company's production of Cabaret in a role that is quite a bit larger than her Follies part. Cast as the world-weary Fraulein Schneider, Bergen's character gets the chance to sing some of the score's most moving numbers, including "So What" and "What Would You Do?" I had the chance to chat with Bergen, whose career has encompassed five decades of stage, screen, television and radio performances as well as an impressive recording career that includes her signature hit, "The Party's Over." Bergen has, amazingly, accumulated more than 300 film and television credits, including "The Helen Morgan Story" (Emmy Award), "The Winds of War" (Emmy nom.), "War and Remembrance" (Emmy nomination) and the classic film, "Cape Fear." The charming actress/singer spoke about her current role in Cabaret — which began only last week — her return to Broadway in Follies as well as an exciting, upcoming project that pairs her with Contact's Karen Ziemba. The complete interview with this multi talented performer follows:

Q: How has it been returning to Broadway in Cabaret?
Polly Bergen: I'm finally starting to get okay. It's been a process, I must say. I've never stepped in for anyone before. It was a very new experience for me, only eleven days of rehearsal. It's a fairly big part, and you're [rehearsing] without the cast. You see the cast the night you go on!

Q: Did you get a run-through with the cast?
PB: We had a walk-through of just my scenes the day of the show, but one of the actors was ill, and they — rightfully so — were coming back that day and didn't want to put that extra burden on themselves, which I totally understood. I wasn't really ready to open. I would have liked to have had another week, but I learned it on the stage, basically. Fortunately, I'm a very good ad libber, and if I have a general idea of where the scene's supposed to go, I can usually come up with something! [Laughs.] It's an extraordinary experience. First of all, I adore the part. It's a part I've wanted to play since I first saw the play.

Q: Had you seen this production?
PB: I saw this production, and I saw the prior production. I just felt that at my age, it was a great part to play. It has an enormous emotional arc. There really isn't anything that she isn't called on to do—as an actor. As great as Follies was, [Carlotta is] a fairly one dimensional character. She comes on, takes over, does her number and leaves. There's an arc, fortunately, within the song itself in Follies, which allows you to show a part of yourself that people don't know or haven't seen at the party. But this piece is dramatically very demanding and vocally demanding. She has two solos, one duet and one partial duet. It's a big part, and plus the German accent, which I'm doing very thickly. Q: Have you ever done an accent before?
PB: No, I've never done an accent before except for a Southern one, which I already know because I am Southern. So that was not difficult for me at all. But this was overwhelming when I first started it. It was almost more than I could deal with once I said yes, having turned down something else for the same money, which was a very small part, which I could have walked on and done in a second-and-a-half with three days of rehearsals. But, you know, I always do this to myself. [Laughs.] It's like I say, 'Well, there's got to be a mountain out there somewhere I can climb. Oh, this is a good mountain. I think I'll do this one!' [Laughs.] I guess I figure if I'm going to do something, I should do something that really is demanding and stimulating. And, if you can pull it off, it's rewarding because the whole purpose of my singing again and coming back on Broadway again was to have joy.

Q: How did this role come about? Were you approached?
PB: Yes, I was approached. They asked me if I would come in, and I said, 'Yes!' I didn't even hesitate. I had wanted to do it from the very beginning, and I was getting ready to do Follies, actually even before that, when I opened at Feinstein's [at the Regency]. I knew that they were replacing Mary Louise [Wilson], who was the original, and I had wanted to step in and do it, and then Feinstein's came up and then Follies came up, and it sort of went by the wayside. Of course, it's another Roundabout production. And, everyone at Roundabout knew my work and had worked with me, and I guess felt that I could step in and would be easy to work with, which I am, and that it would be fun to have me in the show. I'm so fortunate because I thought I would never have an experience as wonderful as Follies, in terms of the cast. [I thought] there would never be that kind of lovefest, where everyone is supporting everyone else, and everyone is there for you. And, then I walked into Cabaret, and it's exactly the same thing, and you stand offstage and you watch the other people in the show, and they are astonishing. Molly [Ringwald] is astonishing in the role [of Sally Bowles] . . . I'd seen [the show] two or three times, and I think Molly is the best I've seen so far. She brings something to this character that is just amazing. There's an innocence, and yet you know at the same time, she would sell her body for two dollars, which is very hard to pull off. It's a very difficult role, and she has a set of pipes on her that is really quite something. She gets a standing ovation at the end of "Cabaret." She's just amazing. Raul Esparza [offers] a totally different performance from Alan Cumming, completely different take on the character, and amazing, overwhelming. I mean, you're seeing a totally different show. It's just not the same show. I'm totally different from anyone else who has ever played Fraulein Schneider — I've never said my own name — I had to stop and think for a few moments [Laughs]. For good or for bad, actors brings themselves to a part, and their understanding of the character, and none of them is right or wrong. They're just all different. [Schneider is] just great fun for me, too, because she took me back to one of the events that was probably one of the most enjoyable and challenging things that I had ever done, which was "Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance." While I do not play a German [in those miniseries], I play an American, but it's the same sensibility. She is a not totally likable woman, but at the same time, there's an enormous vulnerability to her. She's really a victim, as was Rhoda in "Winds of War," though I was the only one who thought she was. Everyone else thought she was an absolutely disagreeable, unlikable character, including Herman Wouk, who said, 'I never thought in my life I would care about Rhoda. Somehow or another you have made me care about Rhoda.' I always feel there's a reason behind why people do what they do that is beyond just the written word and beyond the circumstances . . . [Rhoda] was really shallow, totally uneducated, anti Semitic, but that's what she'd been brought up to be. She didn't know any different. On the other hand, Fraulein Schneider, there's a lot of me in her. She's a woman who has survived, who has gone through some very good times and some really horrific times. They've been mainly horrific for the last 40 years, and she has managed to get by. There's a lot there to work with, and the people that I work with—Larry Keith is wonderful to work opposite because he gives me a great deal onstage. Carole Shelley is someone whom I admire enormously as an actress. I think she's really quite extraordinary, so that was sort of a heavy pair of shoes to step into.

Q: One of the things that I think is so nice about the show is that you get to see a romance between a couple who's not in their twenties.
PB: It's very interesting because I gather . . . that [director Sam Mendes'] point of view was that the older couple really tells the story. They're the two people onstage who actually chronicle the events and the result of the events. For me, it's two love stories. It's the young love story, and it's the old love story. In both cases, I think it's real love and compromise and the loss of the relationship because of the compromise. It's an extremely moving piece . . . [Sometimes the audiences] come in, and they think they're just going to have this wonderful, great time. And, all of a sudden, everything switches. Raul plays the second act very dark, I mean very dark. And the audience, who has been screaming with laughter at him the whole first act, is suddenly kind of unnerved. They really don't know quite what to do with him. It's wonderful to watch.

Q: You also get to sing one of the best songs in the show, "So What."
PB: That is a song that really kind of tells the whole story of her. I, of course, think that the best song is 'What Would You Do?' because that is the song that absolutely wipes everybody out, emotionally wipes everyone out. 'So What' is a brilliant song and a funny song and gets a lot of laughs during the song, but 'What Would You Do?' is kind of a startling revealment of her character and her compromise, and it's really devastating. There's this awesome silence from the audience when I sing it, and I sing it fairly small most of the way through it until the end. The interesting thing has been to try to control the applause, which has been fun, because you do not want the audience to applaud at the end of the number, because the scene isn't over yet, and the whole big speech immediately following that scene is the end of her character and the resolution of what she's done and what she's going to live with the rest of her life. And, when they applaud at the end of the number, for me as an actor, it's a killer because then I have to start all over again and try to get back in that moment.

Q: What's it like working on that stage with the audience so physically close?
PB: The first show was very, very difficult for me. I've done theatre in the round before. I did Plaza Suite in a theatre in the round. This is not a theatre in the round, but it feels like it because [the audience is] on top of you. I was brought up in nightclubs and cabarets where people were sitting on top of me and drinking and drunk sometimes, so that I was very used to. But, because I didn't really have as much rehearsals as I would like to have had — but I don't think anyone ever does when they step in for somebody — the very first show with the audience was a nightmare for me. I was trying so hard to concentrate on the character, the German accent, the words, the staging, and all of a sudden I could see all these faces. Now, I don't see anyone now. I know how to absolutely disconnect myself from the audience totally. Because if I see the audience, then I'm in serious trouble. For Raul and Molly, they're playing to the audience, so it's a different situation for them. Molly will come backstage and say, 'Did you see that lady with the sequin jacket sitting in the front row? It's blinding!' And, I'll say, 'No.' But then I would try to find them! . . . If I see the audience, then I'm not in the play. I'm observing myself in the play, which is not good.

Q: Who did direct you in the play?
PB: A young man named BT McNicholl. And, also, the stage manager, Tom [Bartlett]. Tom worked with me most of the time, and then a wonderful German coach named Sarah [Felder]. Sarah really saved my life because I was terrified of the accent. I didn't know how to learn the part. Do I learn it with the German accent? Do I learn it and then put a German accent on it? Do I learn a German accent. . .

Q: How did she suggest to learn it?
PB: They have a phonetic script, a German, phonetically translated script, so that the words are written with a German accent. The problem, of course, was I couldn't read the script! I couldn't figure out what it was they were trying to say. We very slowly went through the phonetic script, with [Sarah] translating three or four times. Then I said, 'Okay, let's now just go to the script without the German, and you take notes, and at the end of each scene, give me the notes, and I'll try to make the corrections in the German dialect.' And, that's what we did. Sooner or later, you just have to jump in and do it. I really was fearful that the accent was going to be impossible, but I also was absolutely determined that I would do her with a thick German accent, which is what I do. I mean, the first performance, my accent was so thick in the first scene that even I couldn't understand what I was saying! [Laughs.] I had to change that, but now you're absolutely aware that she's speaking with a very thick German accent . . . It's been wonderfully challenging. I have absolutely no idea whether I'm any good in it or not, but I certainly am trying very hard to be very good in it.

Q: How long will you be with the production?
PB: Three months. I should be good about the last week, that's my guess. [Laughs.] I actually felt quite good last night. Last night was the first time I felt totally comfortable onstage. My terror was that I was going to walk onstage — having never stepped into a show before — walking on a stage with everyone who knew everything, and that I was going to let them down. That was my fear. Last night, for the first time, I felt I was an equal onstage, or almost an equal.

Q: Has the cast been supportive?
PB: They've been divine because they're all replacements, too, so they've all gone through this process, and they know how horrifically difficult and challenging it is. They couldn't have been more supportive or wonderful. They've really just been heaven. It couldn't be a more pleasant environment to work in.

Q: Looking back a little. What was it like singing 'I'm Still Here' every night in Follies and getting that tremendous response from the audience?
PB: I was fortunate enough that we all began at the same time, so we were all fumbling our way through at the same time, and then we all kind of gelled at the same time. That's a difficult song to learn because it's like 30 pages of lyrics and, of course, Stephen [Sondheim] adores making just one tiny change like 'but' instead of 'and,' or 'so' instead of 'but.' Just to learn to articulate the number by itself was rather challenging, but I don't think I have ever had that feeling of being hit by — almost like a wave — at the end of the number, almost like an ocean wave hitting you. It was just overwhelming. It was so funny because when I did it on the Drama Desk Awards, at the end of that number [in the show] I just exit, and that's the end of it. At the end of the Drama Desks, I exited, went into the dressing room, took my sound off, and all of a sudden they came running and said, 'They won't stop applauding. You have to come back out again.' I was so afraid they would think I was deliberately egging the applause, but I wasn't at all. I had just exited like I always did.

Q: There's going to be a production of Follies in London this summer. Are you going to be involved in that?
PB: I haven't even heard of it. I will be in [Cabaret] until the end of June, and I don't know when they're doing Follies. I would love to do it. I'd love to go to London. I love London, and I'd love to do something in London, just to let them know that I'm still alive, that I haven't passed away, that . . .

Q: You're still here.
PB: Right. Q: I know you and Karen Ziemba are involved in a project.
PB: We've been semi-workshopping a piece that Deborah Grace Winer has written that is quite amazing. We're both very excited about it. We were hoping to workshop it this spring, but then, of course, when I went into Cabaret, and now Karen's doing the Encores! Pajama Game, which I told her I turned down [originally]. But I said, 'You understand it was called 7 1/2 Cents, and I thought, 'Who's going to see a musical about a strike?' So I turned the part down when it was first being done. I was like in my 20's, and very stupid obviously. [Laughs.] So, when we're going to be able to workshop it, I don't know. We're both very eager. It's a two-woman show.

Q: Can you tell me a little about it?
PB: It's basically a character study of two women. The first act is primarily a one-woman monologue of Karen Ziemba's character. You don't really know where she is, and it's primarily a stream of consciousness. She is an authority on everything. Then, there is this startling discovery of who she is and where she [works]. At the end of that act, I enter and wash my hands. She's actually a girl who works in a ladies' room . . . I come in, wash my hands, put a dollar in the [tip jar] and I leave, and that's basically two minutes from the end of the first act. Then, the second act is me. [My character] was a big singer in the fifties . . . [she] had one big record hit and then vanished . . . [The character] became very bitter, left and moved to Maryland and raised a child, and the child moves away. I have nothing to do, so I buy this little dive, and I turn it into a cabaret bar, so that I can star in it, and it's me doing a show opening night in this bar, which has eight people in it. That's all who have shown up! Then you discover that the gal from the first act, Karen Ziemba's character, is my assistant. You discover how that came about. When she leaves the ladies' room, I am having a stroke in the hallway, and she calls an ambulance and waits with me . . . She becomes a surrogate daughter to me, and I hire her to be my assistant-bartender-cleaner upper plumber, and that's basically the second act.

Q: Is it a musical or . . .
PB: Yes, but it's with music that you know. We both perform. [Karen] sings and dances, and I sing because I'm actually doing an act, supposedly, in the second act, though I'm primarily talking. But that's the kind of show it is. It's both of us as characters coming to a realization of who we really are, where we're really at, what our life is and accepting that and going on.

Q: How did you start working with Karen Ziemba?
PB: Two years ago, for Phyllis Newman's Health Initiative there was a reading of The Women down at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. At the last minute, Rosemary Harris could not come. She was playing the mother of Karen Ziemba's character. All of Rosemary's scenes were with Karen. At the last minute, Phyllis asked if I could step in. I went down, and I met Karen for the first time. All of our scenes were together, and we fell in love with each other. And, I actually look like her mother. We both have blue eyes, an Irish look, and we became friends. Meanwhile, Deborah Winer was writing this piece for Karen and Julie Wilson, who is a very close friend of Debbie's. Julie decided that she really couldn't do it, that it was just going to be too much with her schedule, and Debbie came to me and asked if I would do it. I read it, and said I'd be happy to do, but she would have to rewrite it. [She] wrote this for Julie, and I'm not Julie. She totally rewrote it several times, and it ended up being, I think, this wonderful piece, and Karen and I love working together.

Q: Have you seen either of the one-woman shows that are now on Broadway?
PB: I've seen Elaine [Stritch], and I hope to see Bea [Arthur] before she closes.

Q: Is that anything you would ever consider doing?
PB: I said to Elaine when I walked backstage at the Public Theater, 'You know, you really screwed up any chances of me doing my life because you just did it,' except for the drinking, which I never did, and she screamed! [Laughs.] I said, 'On top of that you're doing all my numbers, including 'The Party's Over,' which is my number!' [Laughs.] Elaine and I are very close friends; she's just an extraordinary woman. Yeah, I had seriously thought about it until I saw Elaine, and then I thought, 'You know, okay, Somebody's done that.'

Q: Any chance of a new CD to preserve your Follies and Cabaret numbers?
PB: You know, there's always a chance of recording. I can't imagine there would be a mad rush to the record stores, [but] I have been approached by several people and might be interested.

Q: One final question. When people hear the name Polly Bergen, what would you like them to think?
PB: That I was a really great dame.

I'll second that!

If you're interested in catching Bergen's latest role, Cabaret tickets are available at the Studio 54 box office, 254 West 54th Street, or through TeleCharge at (212) 239-6200.


Betty Buckley in Concert:
April 8 Benefit Concert at the Studio Arena Theater in Buffalo, NY
May 4 Benefit Concert at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, IL

Barbara Cook in Concert:
April 9 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, NY (June Lebell series: The Sound Of Broadway)
April 12-13 Marilyn Horne and Barbara Cook at the Warton Center at Michigan State University in MI
April 18-28 at the Mohegan Sun in CT
May 14 Cook receives the New Dramatists’ Lifetime Achievement Award at the Marriot Marquis Hotel in New York, NY
May 19-20 with the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall in Boston, MA
June 5-9 and June 12-16 at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theatre in Washington, DC
June 23-Aug. 26 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York, NY (Mostly Sondheim)
July 5 at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts in Long Island
August 14-18 at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theatre in Washington, DC
Oct. 19 at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle, WA
Nov. 17 at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ

Linda Eder in Concert:
April 5 -6 at the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, TX
April 12 at the Shubert Performing Arts Center in New Haven, CT
April 13 at the State Theatre of New Brunswick in New Brunswick, NJ
April 18 at the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, MA

Maureen McGovern in Concert:
April 30-May 6 & May 8-May 13 Cinegrill Grand Re-Opening, Los Angeles, CA
May 17-18 "Works of Heart" Seminar - New York, NY
June 22 "Music by the Lake," Lake Geneva, WI
June 29-Aug. 17 Dear World at Sundance Theater, Sundance, UT
July 4 at the Caramoor Center for Music & the Arts at the Venetian Theater, Katonah, NY
Sept. 1-2 MDA Jerry Lewis Telethon, Los Angeles, CA
Sept. 20 - 22 Grand Rapids Symphony at DeVos Hall in Grand Rapids, MI
Sept 26-29 North Carolina Symphony, Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh, NC
Oct. 30-Nov. 3 American Music Therapy Association Conference in Atlanta, GA
Nov. 19-Dec. 1 at the Plush Room in San Francisco, CA
Dec. 6 at Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA
Dec. 8 at Poway Center for the Performing Arts in Poway, CA
Dec. 9 Laurie Strauss Leukemia Benefit, Carnegie Hall in New York City
Dec. 12 - 14 at Orange County Performing Arts Center Founders Hall in Costa Mesa, CA

Bernadette Peters in Concert:
April 5-6 at the Orange County Perf. Arts Center in Costa Mesa, CA
April 13 at the Providence Perf. Arts Center in Providence, RI
April 20 at Chase Park Plaza in St. Louis, MO
April 26 at the Hilbert Circle in Indianapolis, IN
May 18 at the Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre, PA
June 19 at Radio City Music Hall in New York, NY
Aug. 30-Sept. 1 at the Morton H. Meyerson Hall in Dallas, TX

Well, that’s all for now. Happy diva-watching!

—By Andrew Gans

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