Third in a week-long series profiling the Kennedy Center’s Sondheim stars
Every day now, Jan Maxwell and her newfound circle of buddies wake up, put on their work togs and dance. And dance. Drilled by their “Follies” choreographer, Warren Carlyle, they power through the steps of one of the most exuberant numbers in Stephen Sondheim’s memory-lane-driven score: “Who’s That Woman?,” a period song for a bevy of older actresses.
“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.”
After accepting the part, she dropped a note to Carlyle. “I said, ‘Listen, I’m not a dancer, but I’m not afraid of hard work. I want you to push me as hard as you can.’ ”
The choreographer, who worked with “Follies” director Eric Schaeffer on the Kennedy Center’s flashy revival of “Mame” in 2006, appreciated the encouragement. “She’s a good match for me,” he says by phone before rehearsals one day. “She’s a very physical actress. I always look at the shapes she makes; she makes great silhouettes. And she’s a master storyteller, and that’s something I aspire to be.”
Maxwell doesn’t regret her “bring it on” instruction to Carlyle, even if the sessions are strenuous. “He took me at my word,” she explains, with a gaze that says, “I have no one but myself to blame.”
She’s one of those actor’s actors who seems to eternally win outstanding notices, even if the struggle to earn them was harder than critics know. Describing her portrayal of a self-dramatizing stage actress in the Manhattan Theatre Club’s 2009 revival of “The Royal Family,” Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times that Maxwell “gets the star role she has long deserved and fills it to the fingertips.”
The reference to a lengthy apprenticeship seems fitting. After growing up in a North Dakota family that included her younger brother Richard — now a highly regarded off-Broadway playwright and avant-garde stage director — she arrived in New York in 1980 ambitious and terrified. “I think I probably stared at a wall for three months, and I spent the next 10 years being scared,” she says.
In the early days, she worked as a script reader for theater companies and as an actress in the Paper Bag Players, a troupe for children. She filled her resume with roles like that of a Jumping Bean. “They loosened me up,” she says appreciatively of her time with the Players. “You have to be so honest with the kids.”
“Follies” presents characters at the ends of various roads who are reflecting on their beginnings, and listening to Maxwell, one is reminded how show-biz lives, like all lives, commence with hope. “As stupid as it sounds, I wanted to be on Broadway,” she says of what kept her going in leaner times. At one point, about 20 years ago, she had had it with the New York struggle. “I was about to leave New York, about to pack it in and go to Seattle,” where she had friends working in theater.
Then, suddenly, Broadway made a fateful gesture, offering her a place in the successful musical “City of Angels.” She has returned to Broadway again and again, sometimes in hits (1997’s “A Doll’s House,” with Janet McTeer) and sometimes in flops (2004’s “Sixteen Wounded”). Where “Follies” will take her, Maxwell says she has not a clue. Theater, she says, “is not a ladder system.” “And like all actors,” she adds with a laugh, “I think I’ll never work again.”
May 7-June 19 at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. Tickets, $45-$150. www.kennedy-center.org. 202-467-4600.
More from The Post’s series profiling the Sondheim stars: