“We’re tapping two hours every morning and laughing our butts off,” Maxwell says, adding that while there are many years of collective experience represented in the Kennedy Center rehearsal studio, few of them have been spent in tap shoes. “It’s a great leveler. And I’m very tired at this point in the process.”
That process is getting Maxwell — an actress whose face and range are increasingly recognizable to Broadway audiences, even if her name is not a marquee draw — up to speed as the chicest character in the landmark 1971 show, about a group of ex-showgirls gathering for a recrimination-filled reunion. Maxwell portrays Phyllis, the leggy beauty languishing in a sour marriage to a diplomat who was the first love of another former chorine, Bernadette Peters’s Sally.
The role of Phyllis was famously originated on Broadway by Alexis Smith — so famously that the performance landed her on the cover of Time. Maxwell can’t count on that level of attention these days: Broadway has shriveled as a facet of national culture since Smith’s magazine appearance 40 years ago today. Still, as inheritor of a cornerstone role in a high-visibility revival, the actress has the rare opportunity to put her stamp on a seminal singing character as conceived by Sondheim and the late author James Goldman.
Though she has opened her throat on Broadway in “City of Angels,” “The Sound of Music” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” (the last of these earning her one of her four Tony nominations), Maxwell has never tackled a musical assignment as complexly rendered as Phyllis. (Her other Tony nods came for straight plays, and two of them last season, for “The Royal Family” and “Lend Me a Tenor.”) In fact, she nearly didn’t tackle “Follies.”
“They called me and said, ‘You’ve been offered “Follies,” ’ and I said, ‘That’s a good thing?’ ” she recalls, sitting in a makeshift Kennedy Center greenroom for the production’s 40-person cast. Maxwell had sung some of Sondheim’s music as a drama major in college in Moorhead, Minn., in the late 1970s, but she wasn’t intimately familiar with all of his shows. And now living in Manhattan with her husband, actor Robert Emmet Lunney, and their 15-year-old son, Will, this stage devotee is averse to acting out of town.
“They said, ‘Read it.’ So, I read it and thought it was great. You get a song like ‘Could I Leave You?’ ” she says, referring to Phyllis’s withering denunciation of her marriage: “Not to fetch your pills again / Every day at five / Not to give those dinners for 10 / Elderly men / From the U.N. / How could I survive?”
“I really love the idea of being in love with a person who doesn’t love himself,” she adds about the character of Ben, played by Ron Raines. “You have to think of the night as a first, as a catharsis. It’s about long-term relationships, about girls in the chorus in the 1940s, when one of the main things was to get a man.”