BY DAVID NOH | Most aspiring actress little girls dream of starring in a Broadway musical, but, really, once you get too old to be the dewy, virginal ingénue, what’s left? Recently, I was happy to hear from four formidable ladies who are quite content to lend colorful, powerful support that often lingers longer in viewer memories than the efforts of the showcased golden girl in the spotlight.
Golden-throated vet Annie Golden originated the role of Shirley in “Disaster! the Musical” when it debuted in 2012 at the Triad, and is now returning to its new venue, St. Luke’s Theatre, for a short run (308 W. 46th St.; disastermusical.com).
Golden, Simard, York, and Harris on why being a leading lady sucks
“I’m in it for three weeks before going into rehearsals for ‘Violet,’” she told me. “Seth Rudetsky, whom I have known for years, offered it to me when wonderful Mary Testa was leaving the show. She does it big and at first I did it more her way, but Seth stopped me and said, ‘We want Annie Golden,’ which was good, because I really don’t do broad character acting, that’s not my thing.
“I see her as representing the same demographic in the piece as Shelley Winters in ‘The Poseidon Adventure,’ which was the last film I ever saw with my mother who died when I was 21 and never really got to see me perform professionally. I’m from Park Slope, Brooklyn, before it was chic, very blue collar and even rougher back then. I always sang in the choir, the loudest voice, but was not a musical theater kid.
“I was singing in the Bowery [with the punk rock band the Shirts] when I was discovered and put into a movie [‘Hair’]. That was a really important time and fun, but when you’re in the middle of something, you don’t realize it’s important. CBGB’s owner, Hilly Kristal, told me, ‘Annie you always came back,’ which I did, performing at benefits, asking for gigs, which not everyone who became big always did afterwards. He was the proud godfather of people he’d discovered, moving on with their lives and careers.”
Golden also had the honor of creating a Stephen Sondheim role when she played Squeaky Fromme in the original production of “Assassins” (1990).
“He was wonderful to me, aware of my nervousness as a rock kid at suddenly being thrown in with all those musical theater heavyweights, and very caring,” she recalled. “He was kind of writing the part on me and asked me what I listened to, and I just blurted out ‘Kate Bush,’ and I’d like to think that maybe he listened to her when he was writing the wonderful song I got.”
Golden, who never got the lead roles I think she deserved, has always been happy to be a character actress, and recently landed in “Orange is the New Black.”
“I said to my agent, to quote Sondheim, ‘This late in my career…’,” Golden said. “Who knew I’d be doing it for so long and then hit on a series that’s so powerful for women of every demographic? And the cast is all these magnanimous women of every shape and size with different writers for every episode, who all agree on the tone of the show.
“They originally auditioned me for the activist nun which Beth Fowler got, but then they gave me another role that wasn’t even there and had been under wraps. Norma is wonderful and she switches among the different prison tribes, gaining trust from them. She’s very relatable to me. She’s not lesbian — no judging — but I can’t even say that she’s not. We don’t really know that much about her — the other women are more actively blatant, others are quiet and on the down low. But Norma hasn’t had any romance, just deep friendships with women. We’ll see…
“When this audition came up, the producers had impressed on the casting agent that all the women should not wear makeup. So I said, ‘Okay, you asked for ugly, you’re gonna get it.’ It was hard to be on camera with no makeup, but because I originally read for the nun that was easier to do.”
Someone who did land the nun’s part is Jennifer Simard, Golden’s co-star in “Disaster!,” who gives the absolute funniest performance on any stage right now, playing the gambling-addicted Sister Mary. “I just love my character,” Simard said. “I told Seth Rudetsky that my favorite things about people are the things we find most unlovable about ourselves. There’s so much damage going on with Sister Mary it begs the question: What happened to her? She’s not a very good nun, mispronouncing psalms all the time, but someone has to be the worst nun in class. She tries very hard, but you find the most fodder when you look for people’s greatest Achilles’ heel.”
Simar was, helpfully, raised Catholic “and I played a nun in two productions of ‘Nunsense’ and was honored to be part of ‘Sister Act’ on Broadway.”
From New Hampshire, she studied at the Boston Conservatory of Music, “but left because I started getting job opportunities. I made my Off Broadway debut in ‘Forbidden Broadway’ in 1992, and originally met Seth when he was a pianist at Marie’s Crisis. I ended a song with a high belting note, which he loved, and then I discovered we went to the same therapist! Oops, did I just out him? For the record, I’ve never met a healthier individual than Seth Rudetsky! [Laughs.]
“As a kid, I taught myself to belt by listening to Streisand and Summer’s ‘Enough is Enough.’ I used to duet with Seth, when he’d do his hospital shows, on ‘Suddenly Seymour,’ and at the end I would take it up to this crazy, inappropriate high A flat. It’s not even pretty and does not resolve anything musically, but Seth likes those kinds of notes.
“For our New Year’s Eve performance of ‘Disaster!,’ I sang ‘The Morning After,’ and Seth said, ‘Jennifer, do your signature high A flat.’ So now it’s my signature, I don’t know if you knew that. So inappropriate: I’m like a skater who ranks zero in artistic merit, but I’m a jumper!”
Utterly gorgeous triple threat Rachel York is the wild card in this bunch of actresses, but she also happily considers herself a character actor. She will be starring as Belle Poitrine in the Encores! revival of the Cy Coleman/ Carolyn Leigh/ Neil Simon show, “Little Me” (131 W. 55th St., Feb. 5-9; nycitycenter.org), and said, “Christian Borle is amazingly funny and I basically play straight man to all of his crazy characters. But Belle also matures and changes as she starts out an innocent ingénue and then begins to use her assets to acquire all her goals of wealth and social position.
Coleman was something of a fairy godfather to York’s career, as she made her Broadway debut in his “City of Angels”: “This is like coming full circle and I feel like, ‘Cy, did you have something to do with this?’ I keep doing his stuff, was also in the review ‘The Best is Yet to Come.’ Such a sweet man and he wrote a fantastic song for me and was so kind when I was really green at the time, and always rooting for me.
York was Tony-nominated for “Victor Victoria”: “It was a dream to work with Julie Andrews, who became a sort of second Mum to me. An angel, exactly how you’d think she would be, even when she’d say, ‘Oh, fuck off, Rachel!’ [Laughs.] She was like this thoroughbred who can’t stop racing and had to be there for the show. What was unfortunate was that she needed a year off, but wasn’t able to take it because everyone was depending on her. They got somebody — Liza! — to fill in for a month, but she really needed a year. There was so much pressure on her because when she was out, there’d be five people in the audience.”
The Empress of Comic Timing, Harriet Harris is also in “Little Me,” and is such a generous character actress that she now doesn’t look so much for great parts for herself as she does the opportunity to work with people she loves and admires. This is a big reason why she took on a role she describes as having “about two lines and four outfits. I play Christian Borle’s mother, Mrs. Eggleston. I don’t know how it’s going to work out — she doesn’t have a lot of stage time but I guess a domineering mother doesn’t need a lot of time, as she looms large in a child’s mind!”
Harris can make an opulent meal of whatever she’s given to do, and she certainly did that with her Tony-winning role in “Thoroughly Modern Millie”: “Such a happy circumstance and odd turn of events, and I loved my partners, Frances Jue and Ken Leung, who played Bun Foo and Ching Ho.”
I told Harris that, during the intermission all these overly p.c. white folk came creeping up to me, asking if I was offended by Harris’ wild Asian racial stereotypical performance. I laughingly told them to lighten up, but, apparently such concerns are still prevalent, as a planned student production at Dalton School will be excising the fun: “I did the first workshop and told [director] Michael Greif, ‘I think it’ll be really funny if I had this really, really offensive accent.’ He looked at me and said, ‘And you’re going to talk to the fellows about this, aren’t you?’
“Oh, God, I had to! And it seemed like such a funny idea in the abstract, so supremely, grotesquely offensive! Frances and Ken first looked at me like I was dancing on the graves of their families. Then they both laughed and said, ‘That was hilarious. Yeah, you can do that ‘cause that’s really awful and if it was any better you wouldn’t be allowed to do that.’ And then, for subsequent venues, when we added Ching Ho’s and Bun Foo’s, I again had to go and ask, and always thought, ‘What if they say no, because that’s what made that part funny.’
“At ‘Millie,’ like with ‘Cinderella,’ which I am leaving this Sunday [February 2], I was amazed at the international Broadway audiences we’d get. I don’t know why, but I am, and a lot of Chinese and Japanese people would come. The Japanese people would say, ‘That’s really funny and it’s so Chinese!’ and the Chinese people would say, ‘That’s so Japanese!’ [Laughs.]”
The late, great costume designer Martin Pakledinaz was another source of “Millie” joy, as he was so collaborative, agreeing to Harris’ ideas to wear pants, to keep an illusion of her and the guys as one moving unit, and also having the dragon print on the back of her robe end so that her head would appear as the dragon’s head.
Winning the Tony was a ridiculous/ sublime combo for her, with a fabulous Bill Blass gown and millions of dollars of borrowed diamonds but also having her limo get a flat tire.
“So my sweetheart and I had to walk to the Tonys,” she recalled. “Me, this relatively obscure person — even now — approaching the red carpet. ‘Please don’t turn me away and make me go back again!’
“ I didn’t think I was going to win, but Frances said, ‘You gotta write a speech.’ And one of the dumber things I’ve ever done was, instead of doing press afterwards, I ran back to be in the audience because I knew Sutton [Foster] was going to win and wanted to be there. And that was just dumb, because by the time I got to the press room, everyone was gone by then. But, other than missing a massive opportunity, it was a delightful evening!”