Before the 'Curtains' rise, a backstage peek
Sally Struthers receives encouragement from "Curtains" co-star Malcolm Gets, who loved "All in the Family."
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It's fitting that Sally Struthers and Malcolm Gets spent most of their lunch hour Tuesday swapping stories from their theater travels and from Day Two of rehearsals for Pittsburgh CLO's "Curtains: A Backstage Murder Mystery Musical Comedy."
In the Kander and Ebb whodunit, a Boston police officer who loves musicals is assigned to solve a murder within a stage company struggling to open a new show in Boston. "It's a big love letter to musical theater," Mr. Gets says.
At the moment, Ms. Struthers is also trying to solve the mystery of preparing for her role in "Curtains," the only new show on the schedule, and one that's new to her and her co-star. She's back for her third go-round with CLO, after "Annie" in 2003 and "The Full Monty" in 2007.
"When I've been here before, I've come in to do shows that I had already done, and that provides a real comfort zone. ... But I've come here to do a show that I've never seen, never heard, know nothing about, and now I'm just -- my eyeballs are busting out."
She does seem frazzled, and Mr. Gets plays the role of esteem booster. This is the first time they have met, but in his bio on imdb.com, it says: "Malcolm's favorite show as a child was 'All in the Family.' "
"She was singing today," he says, "and she could be on Broadway every day of the year if she wanted to. She was born to it."
Ms. Struthers has performed on the road often between and post TV gigs in the legendary "All in the Family" (1971-78) and "Gilmore Girls" (2000-07). Mr. Gets, who like Ms. Struthers is making his third appearance here, notes that he's most recognized by three fan bases: TV for "Caroline in the City" (1995-2000), gay cinema and musical theater.
"Curtains" ran for a little more than a year on Broadway, and David Hyde Pierce won a Tony as musical-loving Lt. Frank Cioffi, Mr. Gets' role for CLO.
"I love David Pierce [but] I'm so grateful now I didn't see it because I don't have any associations with it," Mr. Gets says. "So I know that if we the actors can discover it together with the audience, that's lightning, as opposed to having played something forever and forever."
The two discuss the young CLO ensemble, whose presence can be energizing or daunting, even for stage veterans such as Mr. Gets.
"The ensemble are all these amazing 20-years-olds from the best schools in the country, and we come in at 10 o'clock, and at 10:01, [music director Tom Helm] says, 'Let's run through the opening number.' And they're all like (sings a high note) and I'm like (coughs), I'm the Lauren Bacall voice."
Ms. Struthers nods. The idea that there are just seven more days to prepare still has her undone.
"Almost everywhere I go, we get two weeks of rehearsal, which is still hard, but compared to coming to Pittsburgh ... this is 'redonkulous.' The singer-dancers in their 20s are all like sponges with legs, and my sponge is drying up. If you could get inside my brain and see the tricks I play to get from one line to the next, like the tricks you are taught to remember people's names? If my script were here, I'd show you the little jumps in my brain I use to get to the next thing."
Her stress is all about time, Ms. Struthers emphasizes. She loves regional theater.
"[It has] sustained me in dry periods and keeps me financially solvent and allows me to pay my mortgage," she says.
Would she do another series that would allow her more time at home in Los Angeles?
"Well, in a perfect world, staying home would be great, but since you can't, it's pretty wonderful that there are places like Pittsburgh CLO to go to and have two wonderful weeks of income, for rehearsal and the show. It's perfect."
If the co-stars could create a dream project, each would produce theater-related or theatrical projects.
Mr. Gets says he'd like to put a musical on film, inspired by the success of "Chicago" and "Hairspray" and other movie musicals, as well as his role in the HBO movie "Grey Gardens."
"Jessica Lange and I did a few numbers even though it's not a musical. And that got me thinking, why not take a small musical and make an intimate film?"
"I have similar dreams, but yours are bigger," Ms. Struthers tells him. "I want to produce something, too. Back in the '60s or '70s, they would call it a happening."
Her idea: At a large, busy restaurant in L.A., for one night only, performers would be secretly placed among patrons. No one, not even the restaurant owner, would know. The performers would suddenly burst into "a rip-roaring musical number and when it was over, go about their business.
"It would just happen, like 'Brigadoon' appearing out of the mist, and then disappear forever."
What won't disappear is the process of getting ready for "Curtains." In this mood, Ms. Struthers says she can relate to the show's song about that most awful group of people, critics, that includes the line, "Who would want to make a living, killing other people's dreams?" Neither of the co-stars reads reviews.
Ms. Struthers plays Carmen Bernstein, who is a tough cookie in the business of show biz.
"I connect to her optimism," Ms. Struthers said. "My best friend calls me Rebecca of [expletive] Sunnybrook Farm. I connect to her bravado and her brassiness because I'm the first one in the room that someone would be told to take it down two steps, because I tend to be loud and over the top, which I think short people do."
To play Frank, Mr. Gets has been working on a slight accent with a Boston native who is one of the show's stage managers and listening to Bostonites Click and Clack on "Car Talk."
Among his favorite moments is the song "Lunch Counter Mornings and Coffee Shop Nights," "and not just because I sing it, but because I never heard anything like it before; it's a completely unique thought. But I also have to say, 'Show People' gets to me, because it is what it is. It's so pure. Actually the first number of the second act ..."
He seems to be falling for each new discovery as the rehearsal process continues.
"Curtains" is the last of the Kander-Ebb collaborations, which produced "Cabaret" and "Chicago" before Fred Ebb's death in 2004.
"I think about Fred the whole show, but I certainly think about him in the last lyric, when we say," and Mr. Gets pauses to look it up in his script, to get it just right. " 'It's an honor and a joy to be in show business.' I love that he wrote that right at the end of his life, because, did you know him?" he asks Ms. Struthers.
"No, I didn't."
"He was the most loving, talented and generous man. ... He so loved the theater. He was so, so generous and dear. So, yes, I feel his spirit is with us."
Wrapping up before rehearsal begins anew, Mr. Gets and Ms. Struthers trade onstage stories about the special people of the song "Show People."
Ms. Struthers tells a tale she heard from Alene Robertson, her friend and understudy during a tour of "Annie." Ms. Robertson's friend, Russell, who had spent a long time in the chorus, finally had won the lead in a production of "Oklahoma!"
"She was so excited for him, and she was listening from her dressing room and here's what she heard as he was singing 'The Surrey With the Fringe on Top':
" 'Chicks and ducks and geese better hustle, 'cause my name is really Russell ...' "
Laughs all around, and then Mr. Gets tells a story that happened just a month ago about a different kind of theater memory. It happened during the finale of a tribute to Angela Lansbury.
Mr. Gets was among musical theater stars including David Elder (Bobby in CLO's "Curtains"), Cheyenne Jackson and Christopher Sieber, who were taught the choreography to "Mame" by the show's original dance captain.
"The whole deal was, Angela was in the audience, and we were going to get her to join us in the number, but she didn't know that. And so the day before, someone in the cast said, 'First of all, is she going to be game, and second, will she know what to do when she gets onstage?' And the dance captain from 1960-whatever said, 'She'll know what to do.'
"So here comes the night and we're like [sings the tune of 'Mame' a bit], Cheyenne goes and gets Angela. She comes right up, and boy, oh boy, she just went right into it. It's so built into her body, she did it without a moment's delay.
"It was thrilling."
First Published June 20, 2010 12:00 am