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Side by Side With Ken Kantor
by Bruce Janiga

This interview took place in Spring on 1997 as Whoopi Goldberg was taking over for Nathan Lane in Broadway's revival of A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum.

Tell us about Ken Kantor.
Well, I was born in the Bronx. I went to graduate school at Boston University Theater Arts program and was actually a New York City school teacher for three years. I taught Junior High School for two years and Elementary School for a year. I was convinced that I was never going to get any work as an actor! Finally I just figured I would give it a try and see what would happen.

How did you come to Forum?
By a rather circuitous route that began with Santa Claus, I suppose. A number of years ago I was Santa Claus for a number of friends with young children on the Upper West Side. And each year I would do Santa Claus at this one home where they would invite other friends over.

Each year there was a guest in this house who looked a bit like Jerry Zaks, but not so much as you would comment on it. At that time Jerry was just another New York actor. I never thought twice about it. Well, Jerry cast me in the First National Company of Anything Goes. I asked the friends whose house I had been doing Santa Clause at whether that was the same Jerry Zaks, and they said, yes. So at rehearsal one day, I went over to Jerry and said, You know, you've seen my work before.

He didn't have any idea what I was talking about. I told him about our annual anonymous get-togethers, and I've been working with Jerry ever since! I did two very different tours of Anything Goes. The first one starred Leslie Uggams - a great talent and a wonderful human being. The second one was with Mitzi Gaynor. Shortly after that I was with the Broadway company of Guys and Dolls for three years, which was the whole Broadway engagement, and now Forum. I've been working with Jerry a lot, and that's how I came to be in Forum - a gift from Santa Claus and Eddie Strauss, who's the musical director and I think more responsible for getting me into this show than anybody else.

What was it like auditioning for this show?
It was really rather peculiar. I auditioned for this while we were still doing Guys and Dolls. The day I auditioned was the day they postponed production for a year because Nathan was going to do Birdcage. So I didn't hear anything more about it for over a year. By the time I got back in touch with them everything had been cast. They called me in to read for one of the covers. I was getting ready to leave to do Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof the next day or so. They offered Forum to me then and there and that was that. I was the first cover hired and I think I started rehearsing about three or four weeks later.

Can you talk about the difference between Understudy and Standby? I noticed Nathan had both, and now Whoopi does as well.
Standby and Understudy, the way they're used in our show, are synonymous.

But, you're listed as one and someone else is listed as the other.
It makes no difference. None of us plays another role in the show. We all just Standby.

How do they determine who goes on?
It's purely a contractual thing. You can negotiate to be listed as a Standby or an Understudy, but essentially, it's the same thing because none of us are in the show. We're all standing by because the way the show is written there's nowhere to hide us. So the Standbys almost form a second company of Forum. There are about nine covers. We hang out on the sixth or seventh floor, in dressing rooms for the most part, except when we get to go on.

So you have to be here the whole night?
They've been very nice about it. Once we established the fact that we'd learned our parts and had gone on they allowed us to get beepers. Some of us were reluctant to do the beeper thing because we always had the feeling that the management might be trying to reach us unsuccessfully. But after eight or nine months I think we all succumbed to the beeper. The management and our Production Stage Manager Artie Gaffen, have been particularly generous with the covers in letting us use beepers and not having to be here every night. But, now with the opening and everything, we all try to stay pretty close.

Tell us about the rehearsal period.
I think they approached even the first rehearsal period as if it were a new show. Eddie Strauss's attitude is pretty much the same as Jerry's. He feels that when he comes into rehearsal and he's confronted with a scene or a song he treats it as though it were a brand new song. He asks how can he can make it work as successfully as possible. All three revivals that I've done with Jerry have always been approached with great sense of respect for the original but also the feeling that it was a new piece. Forum was explored from that point of view.

There was a great deal that was attempted that didn't quite land properly. During the preview process a lot of that was edited away. A certain amount of editing takes place during the performance of the show as well. The premise of Forum is "we shall employ every device we know in our desire to divert you." So if something wasn't diverting, out it went and we tried something else.

When Whoopi came in she got the broken-in model. As far as the text was concerned, the show was pretty much frozen. Larry Gelbart came in and did a pronoun substitution. He also did some very minor script changes, not so much to make it a role for a female but to neuter the script so that anyone could play it, a man or a woman. The premise is to look for the funniest guy you can find. If the guy is a guy fine. If the guy is a lady, then, fine too.

How much leeway does Pseudolus get?
It's a combination of things. First, with Whoopi's comedy experience, I think Jerry wanted to give her leeway to find things in the show that would be comfortable for her. So the script was there but she was allowed to wander around a little bit. But nothing happens on the stage without the approval of the director and the playwright and composer.

So, there's no improv from night to night if she feels...?
At a moment she may improvise but after her performance is over, there will be a discussion whether it was good or not, whether it was right for the show.

Her ad-libs to latecomers at the beginning of the show - and Nathan did this also - really serve two purposes. The audience has to settle down before the play begins. The show is so complicated and so much happens. Ad libbing with the inevitable latecomers as they are sitting down enables the audience to settle, and then, once everybody's in their seat, we genuinely begin. How people figure out what the three houses are - well I suppose, eventually they figure it out. But weve had people come in 45 minutes late, even an hour late. These people have got to be lost!

But [the ad libs] give the audience an opportunity to settle down so they can start listening to the show. It also gives the show a lift. This way each audience feels that they've experienced something unique. And to a certain extent, it is unique. But also anticipated because you don't want to leave too much to chance. Whoopi has been playing around with it and she's always open to the odd circumstance that will lead her to fresher fields.

I'm surprised they didn't change the name to Pseudola. Knowing how particular Sondheim is, and with him having studied Latin, I figured he would know that the feminine case ends with -a not -us.
Changing he to she became so hard. It's so difficult making a small change like that. Changing the character's name would have been like what happened in Gypsy. When they were playing out of town they hadn't had June Havoc's permission yet, and they changed her character's name to Baby Claire. I think they said that at opening night out of town most people said Baby Cloon because people just couldn't remember.

Tell us about when you were covering Nathan.
With Nathan the challenge was to try to keep up with him. He's a genius!

Are there any lines that were Nathan's that just didn't work for you?
Never having gone on for Nathan, I don't have that experience so I can't really tell you... yet! There were certain things that I think were unique to Nathan just as there are contributions that Bob Amaral (the other Pseudolus Cover) made when he was on that then became absorbed into the show. If you recall the Macarena, that was Bob's idea originally. He did it when he was on and it got such a response Nathan picked it up and now it's been refined even further for Whoopi.

What I try to do as an understudy in general is to cause the least havoc to the production around me. At least that's what I've tried to do. But Pseudolus is a whole different plate of fish. It's such an enormous role that people will have to accommodate me to a great extent. But with regard to the other covers I have [Senex, that dirty old man, and Miles Gloriousus, the braggart captain] I really try to do precisely what the guys I cover are doing. This is a show that requires more precision than any show that I've ever done. But as far as Pseudolus is concerned, we're still in the realm of theory as regards to me.

But you do rehearse it?
I've had a couple of rehearsals.

With the cast?
No, always with the other Standbys. If you're going into the show, they'll give you a rehearsal with the cast. But generally, as a Standby, you don't get that luxury. Miles was the first role that I performed in Forum. That happened the week we opened. There was no costume made for me yet and I didn't fit in Cris's [Groenendaal] costume. I had one rehearsal as I recall. At any rate, they sort of laced me into Cris's costume and somehow or another we got through the show. But again it's from watching the show as frequently as we did in rehearsal, and watching it change and grow and watching it in performance that you get to know the character. It's almost like doing it, but of course not quite. Since then I have been on in that role almost fifty times!

The first time I went on for Senex I did have a couple of rehearsals. I was very nervous about that one. Lewis Stadlen and Nathan are so close and they do so much together on stage of such an intimate nature comically that I really didn't want to upset Nathan's apple cart. My big fear was that somehow or another I'd hurt his performance. As it turned out he was lovely and supportive and so helpful and generous. I went on as Senex about twenty times as Lewis was shooting a movie at the time. Nathan was so extraordinary and so helpful everytime I went on. It was an incredibly positive experience for me each time.

How far in advance do they let you know you're covering?
It varies. One night, for Senex, I found out fifteen minutes before the curtain went up. But it varies dramatically.

What do you do for preparation?
There is no adequate preparation.

Because you've got three roles in your head?
When we were in rehearsal the stage manager told me Miles would be my primary responsibility because there wasn't and still isn't another Miles cover. I'm the only one. So that one had to be learned first.

For Senex there was another cover so that was my second role to learn. Pseudolus comes just from watching the show. Pseudolus is in every scene and it begins to seep it's way in subliminally. But you have to have an order of priorities otherwise you'd go crazy. There was one time that I was on for Senex that I almost said a Miles line. It's odd when that happens. Miles and Senex and Pseudolus are three incredibly different roles. Once you get your head moving in the right direction it's very difficult for the needle to skip over into another band and pick up another part.

Do you have a favorite Forum moment?
(laughs) It happened in rehearsal, and I pray that I can tell it to you in such a way that it is as funny as when it happened:

We were at Michael Bennett's old rehearsal studio. The Standbys were just watching at that point. We got in at 10:00 and Bill Duell, who's Erronius, a very dear man, came in all prepared to do his Erronius thing. He was off right and he had his walking stick with him - ready and waiting to come on. With one thing and another they never got to his entrance and 10:00 became 11:00 which became 1:00 and then 2:00, so we broke for lunch. Bill put his staff down and he went out, had his lunch, came back and waited for his cue.

Well, 4:00 became 5:00, 5:00 became 6:00 and finally, about 20 minutes before quitting time, they got to his entrance. He picked up his staff and made the entrance where he's supposed to say, "Second time around." So he came to the center of the rehearsal space, opened his mouth and nothing came out! He couldn't remember his line after waiting to say it all day. Well we all just fell apart. There he had been all day waiting for his entrance and when he finally hit the stage he didn't know it at all.

They finally had to cancel rehearsal for the rest of the evening because everytime the room would get back to being quiet and a room that you could work in somebody else would laugh at what had happened to Bill. That's really my favorite moment, as I look back.

It really highlights what rehearsing Forum was like. It was the funniest rehearsal period I had ever been in. You had a room full of incredibly gifted comedians all trying to delight the foremost musical comedy director on Broadway. Preparing the show was hard work but I like to say that while it may not always have been fun it was always funny. Nothing can top that rehearsal period. It was just screaming, falling-down laughing funny.

How about anything that's happened on stage during a performance?
Things go wrong all the time in this show.

The most vivid example has been something that happened to the guy who covers the Proteans. His job is very difficult, covering those three parts because they're all together and they're all different. But they're all together at the same time so the differences in their business are very slight between the three of them. The Standbys don't get to rehearse with any of the props - we're not allowed to even use rehearsal props. So we have no rehearsals with props.

At any rate, he was playing the soldier who brings on the marriage contract and says: "My captain is but half a league away and bids you honor this." But he had neglected to take the scroll. So he said, "Bids you honor this." And his hand was empty. Nathan looked at his empty hand. Then he looked at his empty hand and he ran off-stage. This was with the whole audience there. I was at the back of the house. I still remember it. Well, this guy was off-stage for about a week and a half, it seemed. He finally came back on with the scroll.

Apparently, there were a lot of false moves off-stage getting the correct scroll. He brought it back on and he extended it and Nathan, who was never one to let a comic moment go by, went over to him, patted him on the back and said, "Don't worry I don't think anybody noticed." And the theater went crazy. Nathan continued to ad-lib along those lines about getting lousy Temp workers from the Protean Employment Agency.

The point is that when things go wrong on stage, usually they're folded into the event. So while things may go wrong, they don't go crashingly wrong, they just go sort of delightfully wrong.

The scene with the three women in the same costume, the three virgins, has got to be a tough thing to choreograph.
That number was rehearsed like a dance, and that was one of the things, when we were in rehearsal, that was cut down. It was considerably longer. It was a beautiful thing to watch because it was really like a ballet - it was comic ballet between the three of them. I have a feeling that's why it was cut down - because it became too much of a set piece. But it's a tribute to their enormous skill that they can maintain the believability that they're not seeing each other. It's remarkable work on all three of their parts. You should have seen it before it was cut because it was a ballet. They were all right there, within one yard by two yards of stage space, making all of this comedy. Wonderful.

In one door, out the other, up on the roof. It reminded me a bit of Noises Off.
Jerry likes to play with doors. In Anything Goes we had the three center pivot doors and in this one we have the swinging doors, in Lend Me A Tenor, there were the slamming doors which were apparently built in such a way that you could really give them a good clop and nothing would happen to them. So I think he enjoys playing with the doors and certainly this piece lends itself to that kind of classical farce behavior as well.

Any other Nathan stories?
So many and there are so few that are suitable for publication.

Have you mastered your Nathan imitation?
No one can imitate Nathan. It's impossible. Nathan has a comic demon inside him that is unique and precious. I really think that we are incredibly fortunate to be living at a time when Nathan is working. He is an extraordinarily gifted comedian and inimitable.

How was the announcement of Whoopi handled?
We had heard rumors but I don't think that any of us completely believed them. It seemed like such an incredibly complex and convoluted change. But the more we thought about it, the more we realized it wasnt really that big of a change. We certainly were incredibly fortunate that someone of Whoopi's stature, experience and talent would do something like this. She took an enormous risk doing this show.

She'd never done anything like it and to watch her unfold and bloom and grow as this musical comedy performer is an extraordinary thing to see. When she came in the first day of rehearsal with the Standbys, she had already done a lot of homework. She's a real workaholic. She works very hard, but the first day of rehearsal that we had with her, she came in almost apologetic.

I think she was a bit cowed by the prospect of doing a live book musical with such an enormous role. Seeing her become confident has been a beautiful thing to watch. Now she's amazing. I've worked with only two other people I can think of who can hold a candle to her - Angela Lansbury about whom no one would say a bad word in show business and Leslie Uggams who is a dear, dear woman. And now I have Whoopi. The three of them are extraordinary, remarkable human beings, and incredibly talented.

How about some Whoopi stories?
There are a lot.

During her second performance, she flubbed a line. She was just all twisted around and no matter how hard she struggled, she simply couldn't get out of it. Finally, she turned to the audience and said, "Two performances and counting." I suppose my favorite moment happened in rehearsal. I was rehearsing Miles with her very early on and we were doing the routine over the dead virgin before the funeral. I came out and saw the dead body. I asked, "How did she die?" We had never rehearsed that sequence before. Whoopi said, "Well, she just sort of rolled over and ...." Nathan would make all of these noises and physical things. They were very funny and we knew what the end of the routine was, to come in with the next line for Miles. But with Whoopi, I had no idea.

Apparently she had decided to do it with words rather than noises and so she started talking about seeing the virgin dead. It was a gross thing and the words just kept coming and coming from her. I didn't know what the end of the routine would be so I was just watching her in horror in character as Miles. Finally from out in the house I heard Jerry Zaks say, "You know, Ken, you can interrupt her at any time!" I didn't know how she was going to end the routine but her mind is so fertile there wasn't a moment's hesitation. She just went on and on. The creativity of the woman is just extraordinary.

For another example, when we rehearsed soothsayer routine, each rehearsal was completely different. She always came on with a different character. Her explanation was that she was auditioning soothsayers. So she kept bringing in different ladies to play the soothsayer until she found somebody that she liked.

So was that a joint decision between Jerry Zaks and Whoopi?
Yeah, it was a team decision. I daresay that Whoopi will tell you that she deferred to Jerry because Jerry had managed to put together this incredibly successful production of Forum and I don't think that Whoopi wanted to upset that. So everything was filtered through Jerry.

I don't think I could envision a more congenial rehearsal period. Sometimes, with Nathan and Jerry, the rehearsals took on the atmosphere of brain surgery. You tended to forget that it's a comedy you're doing. It's a funny thing because comedy is's so cliched... serious business! But with Whoopi there was always time and it was just a lot more relaxed and a lot more laid back. Her's was a very different rehearsal process from Nathan's.

How involved was Sondheim in the original rehearsals and in getting Whoopi ready?
I had never worked with him before this show, and actually, when I stop and think about it, other than Forum I've never done one of his shows! I was always very intimidated at the prospect of meeting him or working with him. I mean he is a genius.

I've seen just about all of his shows with the exception of the earliest ones. I saw Follies four times and I'll never forget it. Pacific Overtures. A Little Night Music in Boston. I saw so many of his shows, the prospect of working with him or meeting him was a very frightening experience.

He had coaching sessions with the cast and, because we covered the roles, we were allowed to come in and watch them. He's the kind of guy you would want for a vocal coach - very supportive and very understanding. He is capable of revealing so much with regard to the material. A brilliant teacher in the sense of guiding you in the right direction. And patient. Well, the coaching sessions were a remarkable thing to watch. He was here through the preview process off and on. I don't think this is one of his shows that he would be as deeply involved with as contrasted with a revival of, say, Sweeney Todd which has so much music.

With Whoopi's version he's written some new lines for "Free" and he's been here a number of times. But now that the show is routined and he has a musical director he can trust - well, his presence isn't quite as critical as it was the first time around. Also, the score was re-orchestrated for this production, so he was there for the first opening. He was very present with Jonathan Tunick. Numbers were cut. We cut "Pretty Little Picture" and "Calm" was bisected, as it is in the score but not in the cast album. So he was much more involved the first go-round.

There seems to be some lyrics changed from the original. For example instead of "something frenetic" it's now "something balletic" right?
That happened after he saw the staging. There was also "something expensive, something offensive" which I think he added later. I have a feeling he's been sneaking in new lyrics since the original production. I think those lyrics were in Jerome Robbin's Broadway, if I'm not mistaken. There were some changes that were made prior to rehearsal and some that were made during rehearsal. Also, some slight changes in "Impossible" - "He's a child, he loves a test he's too young to pass, impassable!" was changed so that all of the lyrics say "impossible" now. So there were little changes that were made throughout and then, with Whoopi, in "Free" the lyrics were sort of neutered so that it could be sung by a male or female.

Part of the "Comedy Tonight" is new, right?
Yeah. We don't like to talk about the Medea scene in case people haven't seen it already because it's such a lovely effect. It was in the show before the standbys joined rehearsals but no one ever explained to us what the hell it was. So we would be there watching all that shrieking and carrying on and none of us knew what it was or how it was going to work.

I don't think we completely realized what it was all about until about two weeks into rehearsal when somebody finally asked, "What the hell is that?" and someone explained it to us. It was such a knockout the first time the company saw it on stage. It's an amazing thing to watch from backstage because it's like a magic trick, how quickly the thing moves. It's so dangerous. It's hanging directly over our heads. There are lights in the base of it, so that once it goes back up into the flies there are lights for the stage below it. But we just refer to the Medea set as "something surprising" in the opening number. Sondheim was in on that idea.

Obviously they were going to reconceive "Comedy Tonight" because Robbie Marshall [the choreographer] had some ideas as to what he wanted to do with it which were very different from Jerome Robbin's ideas. The dance arrangements needed to accommodate these new ideas and Sondheim's work did as well.

The book writer was Larry Gelbart.
Yes. Burt Shevelove, who co-authored the script, passed away a number of years ago. But Sondheim and Gelbart came to see a run-through at the rehearsal studio. It was so much fun to watch them watch the show because, to a tremendous extent, I think they were excited that this work they had written many years ago still has so much vitality.

There were some things that were in the show that I don't think they approved of and watching their reaction to that was also a fascinating thing to see. For example, the chase as we originally rehearsed it had musical underscoring. I thought it was terribly funny that way, with the underscoring, but apparently they "eighty-sixed" it. They said that they had tried it in the original production and that it took the danger out of the chase. So they said that they didn't recommend it.

If you were to cast Forum whom would you choose?
I saw the dream cast. Not counting the company that's doing the show now, taking Whoopi and Nathan out of the picture, Phil Silvers was my dream Pseudolus. I adore his work. It wasn't so much that he was funny, which he was, but he was so endearing. You wanted him to be free. One of the qualities that an older man in the role brings is that you get the feeling that he's been a slave forever and he wants to be free and that was a quality that Silvers brought to it. It was an extraordinary performance and I think that if I had the world to choose from, if he had never played it, he would be the one whom I would want to see do it. He was brilliant. As was Larry Blyden. The two of them were extraordinary in that production.

As I recall the physical production was done a bit on the cheap, but the two of them were of the absolute highest caliber. It was a remarkable thing to see. But there are nights that I sit and I watch our cast and I am amazed that such an expert group of farceurs were brought together to do this piece. There are nights after I've seen it (and I've seen it about three hundred times) that I still am in absolute awe of the cast that's on the stage. They're extraordinary performers.

Forum was done as a movie once. Is there any talk of doing something again with it?
I know they'd love to. The first movie doesn't give you the slightest feeling of how wonderful the show is. The real problem is the same problem we had with Guys and Dolls - the film rights have already been sold and those who own it wouldn't want competition from another version so it's unlikely that they would release the rights. I have a feeling that when the movie rights were sold, they also sold the TV rights.

It would be wonderful, but I don't think it's a viable possibility. Lincoln Center came in and videotaped it. So if nothing else, at least they have this tape of Nathan and the opening night cast.

Do you perform mostly in musicals?
Not always, but mostly musicals. I was trained to do legit theater. Before this I did A Month in the Country at the Madison Rep. It was written by Turgenev, who is considered sort of a second cousin to Chekov. The playwrights were very similar. They said that Turgenev influenced Chekov tremendously. And this summer (1997) there's the possibility of doing some Shakespeare which would be very nice.

Would you get a release from this show?
Yes, I would get a release to do it. A year of doing this is a long time. I think all of the covers are ready at this time to move on to other fields.

Is there any role you'd like to play?
I'd go anywhere to play Tevye. I'd do it anywhere. It's a wonderful part and I'm currently up for one which would be extraordinary to do. I love that play. I've done it many times. Also Captain Hook in Peter Pan. I'll go anywhere to do Captain Hook. There are still one or two parts that I haven't played that I'd like to play. We'll see.

What is your favorite Sondheim show?
I may be doing my favorite Sondheim show this summer, barring Follies which no one could do as well as that original company. The original production was so extraordinary. You have to have a completely open purse and limitless funds and limitless casting - it's an impossible show to do as well as they did originally. I consider myself fortunate to have seen it.

But other than that, this summer I may be playing Sweeney which would be so wonderful. It's an incredibly congenial role for my voice and temperament. It's something I've always wanted and I'm hoping I'll get to do it.

If you weren't acting what would you do?
I would go back to teaching. It was a wonderful profession.

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