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
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
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
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?
Side by Side With...
I would go back to teaching. It was a wonderful profession.
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