BootLeg Betty

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Casting a musical? Send in the clowns
Toronto Star
July 2, 2003
RICHARD OUZOUNIAN

No formal announcements have been made as of yet, but the buzz from many reliable sources indicates that Guys And Dolls and Anything Goes will in all probability be the two musicals presented at the Stratford Festival next season.

Both shows offer a healthy quota of laughs: Guys And Dolls with its slap-happy slice of the post-World War II underworld of Manhattan and Anything Goes with its wacky shipboard shenanigans from the 1930s.

But if they’re to succeed, they require first-rate comedy performers and a whole series of recent events got me thinking about how rare, and important, such talents are.

First, I spent last weekend at Stratford reviewing the House of Atreus trilogy and was surprised — but delighted — to spot Andrea Martin in the audience on the opening night of Agamemnon.

The SCTV veteran and three-time Tony nominee spent one year early on in her career at the festival in 1977, playing in the Leonard Bernstein musical Candide and the Noel Coward comedy Private Lives. The latter assignment found her starring opposite Maggie Smith and Brian Bedford.

In an interview she gave me several years ago, Martin referred to that season as “a humbling, but enlightening experience. It was like taking a postgraduate crash course in comedy all in one summer.”

Although Martin has never appeared since at the festival, she drops by frequently to catch the musicals (I also saw her at The King And I over the weekend), and has let it be known she’d be eager to act there again.

In fact, about 18 months ago, there were serious discussions about her appearing at Stratford in Hello, Dolly! but it didn’t work out then, and the rights are now supposedly tied up for an impending Broadway production set to star Bette Midler.

However, Martin’s reappearance at a time when casting is in the air for 2004 got me thinking again (especially because she was accompanied by super-agent Michael Levine, and reportedly dined with festival executives over the weekend).

Martin would be brilliant in both of next season’s likely musicals: as Adelaide, the hapless showgirl with a psychosomatic cold in Guys And Dolls, and as Reno Sweeney, the hymn-belting hot evangelist of Anything Goes.

It all seemed far too coincidental to me and so I asked festival authorities if discussions were currently underway with Martin over those two roles. The answer was an unadorned “no,” which referred to the immediate state of affairs. The door was left open as to the possibility of what might take place in the future.

And that struck me as a very good thing indeed. Besides the fact that Martin would add glitter to the festival, she’s also one of the funniest women around on stage and there are times when you need that kick only a true comic can provide.

Buddy Hackett’s passing earlier this week also reminded me of this. In 1964, the rotund Borscht Belt yuck-meister lit up Broadway in a now-forgotten musical called I Had A Ball, which has just been reissued on a Decca CD.

Listening to the show again, nearly 40 years after I saw it as a teenager, I was reminded of how damned funny Hackett was and what a joy it was to have that unbridled theatrical id of his loose on a stage.

Sure, he was undisciplined, but he brought a quality of gleefully manic danger with him that lit up the sky. Hackett was unpredictable — as the great clowns are — and it’s just that mercurial quality which clashes with the rigid discipline of musical theatre to make for hilarious combustion.

Nathan Lane in The Producers managed to capture that same anarchic glee, which is why the reported casting of Sean Cullen for the Toronto production of that Mel Brooks smash could prove a canny move.

Anyone who ever saw Cullen in action with Corky and the Juice Pigs will know that this is a guy who takes no prisoners in performance, which is just what a show like The Producers needs.

The property itself is built with steel-belted radials, so it’s ready for someone like the mad, mad, mad Cullen to floor it for a spin around the track.

Hamilton’s own Martin Short is currently knocking them dead in Los Angeles in the other leading role of The Producers, but it has been nearly 30 years since he sang, danced and clowned on a Toronto stage. Wouldn’t it be great to get him back here again?

And finally, watching Mike Myers charm the crowds on his home turf here in Toronto last week made me silently pray that there was a way to get that enormous talent of his into the theatre.

Myers loves to sing and dance in his films, so don’t you think he’d get a kick out of doing it on stage in a musical?

Not in some earnest Rodgers and Hammerstein book-driven effort, but the kind of free and wacky clowning venue that they used to invent for the true greats such as Ed Wynn and Bert Lahr. Myers belongs in that zany company.

We all love to laugh, but we have to find room for the people who can make us do it.

People like Andrea Martin, Martin Short, Sean Cullen, Mike Myers and the late Buddy Hackett.

Let’s never forget that it is, after all, called musical comedy.

Additional articles by Richard Ouzounian

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