Taking on iconic roles in musical theater


Sherri L. Edelen (from ‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,’ ‘Company,’ ‘Hairspray’) stars as the iconic Momma Rose in the award-winning backstage musical ‘Gypsy’ at Signature Theatre. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Ways you can tell a stage role is for the ages:

An actor just won’t let go. Take Yul Brynner and “The King and I”: From the premiere of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical in 1951 through national tours in the 1980s (“Et cetera, et cetera,” as the King of Siam would say), he performed it 4,625 times.

The part is a prize magnet. In 1962, Zero Mostel won a Tony Award as Pseudolus, the wily Roman slave in Stephen Sondheim’s musical comedy “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” In 1972, so did Phil Silvers. In 1996, so did Nathan Lane.

Gypsy” also delivered a Tony trifecta, with the ferocious Mama Rose paying off for Angela Lansbury in 1975, Tyne Daly in 1990, and Patti LuPone in 2008. Bernadette Peters didn’t win in 2003 — but then neither did the Mother of Them All, Ethel Merman, who originated the part in 1959.

All three musicals are currently on area stages, raising the question: What can an actor do that’s new? How do performers cope with the long shadows of movie versions, beloved cast albums, Broadway performances etched in lore? After all, there are no purists like show purists, like no purists we know . . .

“Anybody who plays that role is wrestling with the ghost of Yul Brynner in audience’s heads,” says Paolo Montalban, the current King in the Olney Theatre Center’s “The King and I.

“People are obsessed with the hair thing,” director Mark Waldrop says, meaning everyone wants to know: Will this king be as bald as Brynner?

“For me, that shadow was never there,” Joe Calarco says of “Gypsy” legends. (Calarco’s staging of “Gypsy” opened at Arlington’s Signature Theatre Dec. 17.) “And I think Sherri” — longtime Signature actress Sherri Edelen — “got over that very question way before rehearsal.”

Actors in revivable plays from Shakespeare to David Mamet deal with the issue all the time, of course.

“It’s not about reinventing it,” says Alan Paul, director of “Forum” at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall, with Bruce Dow ringleading the clowning as Pseudolus. “It’s about making it your own. . . . So much of the evening depends on the charisma of the leads. There are many great actors, but you can count the number of personalities out there who can fill the stage with life. I felt that Bruce had that.”

Here, then, are some of the ways to beat the nerves of tackling an iconic part — or, as the “Forum” lyrics put it, to stay “calm, controlled, so cool that I’m cold.”

‘Gypsy’

“I was scared,” Edelen says. “It’s pretty big. But I trust Joe with my life.”

To Calarco, Edelen’s triumphs as Mrs. Lovett in Signature’s “Sweeney Todd” and as Margaret Johnson in “Light in the Piazza” with the Philadelphia Theatre Company (winning a Barrymore Award, Philly’s Tonys) made Mama Rose a natural next hurdle.

“She has that powerhouse voice,” he says, “and she’s a fearless actress.”

So how do you deal with a long shadow?

“I try not to think about it, for one thing,” Edelen says. “And I try just to tell the story. The psychology of the story was what was interesting to me, not Mama Rose, or what a monster she is. I looked into the ‘why’ of the actions.”

“Monstrous” is indeed an idea that clings to Mama Rose, who thrusts her kids onstage and schleps them through fleabag theaters across the country.

“I don’t like that word,” Calarco says. “Everything she does, she does out of love — or she thinks she does. I like her very much.”

If “Gypsy” has a moment of truth for its leading lady — a signature scene or song that the audience will be waiting for – it’s the big breakdown number, “Rose’s Turn.” Calarco suggests that there may be scenic tactics to help illustrate Rose’s madness, but most of it will rest, as ever, on the performer’s shoulders.

“It is Rose’s show, and that is her soliloquy,” Calarco says. “Sherri says it’s King Lear, it’s Medea — and it really is.”

Some performers learn parts by listening to recordings, but Calarco reports that Edelen had this role memorized before the first rehearsal while steering clear of CDs and YouTube (except, she says, for background on Gypsy Rose Lee and her family).

“She wants to learn it the way it is on the page,” the director says. “She’s very pure about that.”

She knows the show, of course: She played one of the strippers in Signature’s 2001 edition. Yet she says she’s never seen a full stage production.

“Which is good, isn’t it?” Edelen says. “If people out there have a preconceived idea, I don’t know what it is.”

‘Forum’

An actor’s first thought about landing one of these formidable roles?

“I was terrified, because I certainly know I’m nothing like Zero Mostel,” says Dow. “It was originally written for Phil Silvers. It was offered to Milton Berle. I am more North American WASP than Borscht Belt comedian. So there was an element of terror involved.”

All that first hit Dow when he was cast as Pseudolus for a “Forum” at Canada’s Stratford Festival a few seasons ago. Dow dropped out of the show early when he suffered a virally induced paralyzed vocal cord; when the production transferred to Toronto, he alternated with another actor.

The approach was more cartoonish in Toronto, Dow feels, and is more heartfelt here. “What I hoped I could bring to it was a simple honesty and earnestness,” he says, adding that vaudeville shtick naturally then gets plopped on top.

Director Paul is an unabashed fan of the 1996 revival with Nathan Lane, but he doesn’t think “Forum” is quite like “Gypsy” or “King and I,” with songs that buffs know cold coming in.

“I think a lot of people know ‘Free,’ people know ‘Everybody Ought To Have a Maid,’ but they’re not waiting for it like ‘Rose’s Turn,’ ” Paul says. “So I think Bruce and I were remarkably free from a preconceived version of it.”

“Zero had a beautiful grotesquerie about him,” Dow says of the Mostel’s Pseudolus. “And Mr. Lane can have a Snidely Whiplash evil grin, but I think that is not in my wheelhouse. Grotesque I get. And I happily go there.”

To YouTube, or not to YouTube?

“I’ll watch whatever’s out there, sure,” Dow says. “But I think it’s important that I know what’s in my skill set and what isn’t. I’m not someone who likes to come in to rehearsal prepared. I like to come in and play.”

Like Edelen, Paul sees Lear in these kinds of roles — the material is rich, and it won’t be the author’s fault if the show flops. Dow knows that means some folks will be primed to see things a certain way.

“You have audiences who will want to see Dolly come down the staircase in a red dress,” he says. “There’s nothing you can do. If you want to see a live performance of ‘Forum’ starring Zero Mostel, you’re setting yourself up for a disappointment.”

‘The King and I’

Brynner won a Tony for the 1951 Broadway premiere and an Oscar for the 1956 film. Then he kept rebranding himself as the king, playing the role in the 1972 CBS sitcom “Anna and the King” and taking the musical back to Broadway and on tour into the 1980s.

“Yul Brynner still owns that role,” Waldrop says. “He’ll always own that role.”

He shaved his head for that role, and therefore so have many actors ever since. Montalban, best known for playing the Prince in the 1997 ABC/Disney TV version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella,” volunteered to shave his head, too. But research indicated that wasn’t how the mid-19th century king of Siam really looked.

“So that wouldn’t even be about the piece,” Waldrop says. “That would be about Yul Brynner.”

Along with “Miss Saigon,” “The King and I” is a cornerstone of the musical theater repertoire for performers with Asian backgrounds. Waldrop says, “There were certain times in rehearsal when it was really clear that everyone in the room knew the show better than I did.”

This is the Phillipines-born Montalban’s eighth spin through the musical, though only his second turn as the petulant king; previously, he played the young lover Lun Tha. It’s good to be the king, in the thick of the story all the time, he says — not that he watched other kings and murmured to himself, “If I ever get my hands on that part . . . .”

For Montalban, the aim seems to be to hit certain marks with authority, including the king’s physique – and yes, he is often shirtless and barefoot, though his dark hair is only slightly shaved on the sides and fully tufted on top. Also pivotal is the climactic waltz with the English schoolteacher Anna Leonowens (played at Olney by Eileen Ward), “Shall We Dance?”

“You really have to deliver on that,” the actor says, “the chemistry that finally blossoms, that longing in the audience for them to get together.”

Montalban knows that the audience experiences a giant collective “Yul Brynner” thought bubble the moment he steps onstage. “I have those first seven seconds of them making all the judgments they want in the world,” he says. “Then I have the rest of the show to earn my own place in their attention.”

How effectively it works — well, as Paul says, it boils down to charisma. But it also depends on how deeply an original is embedded in any given spectator’s mind.

Montalban tells the story of a gentleman who recently approached after the show to say he enjoyed the actor’s performance.

The man added, “I would have liked it more if you’d shaved your head.”

Gypsy

through Jan. 26 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Tickets $40-$104. Call 703-820-9771 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

through Jan. 5 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Tickets $20-$110. Call 202-547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.

The King and I

through Jan. 5 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. Tickets $32.50-$75. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org.

Nelson has been writing about theater and other arts – but mostly theater – for the Post since 1999.
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