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  • Roger Bart, Gary Beach and Brad Oscar of The Producers have bonded as if they are Broadway's three musketeers. The actors in the Mel Brook/Susan Stroman juggernaut are up against each other for the Tony Award for Featured Actor. Backstage, at the St. James Theatre, there's anything but an atmosphere of competition. It's all for one and one for all - unless, of course, in there's a tie.

    "I try to be relaxed at all times," says Beach, just arriving for a matinee in his Producers baseball cap. "Try! It seems everything this show touches turns historic. We broke a record on Tony nominations and the cry was ëThat's never been done before.' Or, we do something else and it's ëThat's never happened before.'"

    And they're still taken by surprise. Audiences have been fantastic since the first preview, but, response has built beyond anyone's wildest dreams. "We never had a problem getting laughs," says Bart, "but now they start laughing as soon as the overture begins."

    "They feel like they're seeing something like no one has ever seen before," notes Beach. "And, now, since the reviews and nominations, everyone knows not only is it funny, it's really funny. "

    Matthew Broderick says he always knew the show was funny "but, until we opened in Chicago, I didn't know it would be a hit. None of us expected this!"

    A few weeks ago, as the curtain came down following the Act One finale, the audience was in such a state of euphoria that Nathan Lane turned to Beach and asked, "Have you ever experienced anything like this?"

    "None of us have," says Bart.

    "I've done Broadway shows," interjects Beach, "that've been a hit in New York and, later, in the larger cities. But The Producers has permeated America. Our cast album is selling so well everywhere, it's on the charts. It's monumental. The front of our theatre is more like a carnival midway than Broadway, but it's exciting. As we're fond of saying, it's an embarrassment of riches. You don't plan on anything like this, and it will always be something to look back on. You always hope for a show that runs, but this!"

    There's another show in town with some hot nominees. The Full Monty's John Ellison Conlee and AndrË De Shields, of course, are in the running in the Featured category; and, since Tony votes could be split between the three actors, anything could happen.

    "Who wouldn't want to win a Tony?" asks Beach. "But, more than anything, what's in the back of our minds, whatever happens, is that we're going to be doing this show a long time and want to remain friends."

    "It's a friendly rivalry," says Oscar. Beach called their backstage mood "absolute elation." Adds Bart, "We'll be happy with whoever wins."

    And, what if AndrË or John get the award? "We'll cheer," says Beach. "We work for this kind of recognition. It's the reason we're in the business!"

    Beach, who plays flamboyant stage director Roger De Bris (who ends up portraying a fey Hitler), is a notch ahead award-wise. On May 20, he collected a Drama Desk Award in the Featured category against Conlee and De Shields, Mark Jacoby from Enter the Guardsman, Jeff McCarthy from Urinetown and fellow performer Bart. Before that, he tied with De Shields for the Outer Critics Circle Featured Actor Award.

    Pressure is nothing new to Beach, 53, and Bart, 38. They've been there (the Tony running) before. Beach, after playing Thenardier in the Los Angeles production of Les Miz, originated the role of Lumiere the candelabra Beauty and the Beast and was nominated for a 1994 Featured Tony.

    The wild-haired Bart, who plays De Bris' even more flamboyant partner Carmen Ghia, won countless fans and a 1999 Featured Tony for his Snoopy in You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown. To countless younger fans, Bart's known as the singing voice of Hercules in the Disney animated feature and Scamp in The Lady and the Tramp II. He was seen on Broadway as one of the Harlequin in Triumph of Love and the King David concert. The Producers is not his first time to play opposite Matthew Broderick. He was in How to Succeed in Business... as Bud Frump. He also played Dickon on Broadway in The Secret Garden. Off-Broadway, he appeared in Charles Busch's Vampire Lesbians of Sodom; did the highly acclaimed Up Against It at the Public and was Mark Setlock's first replacement in Fully Committed.

    Beach, since making his professional debut as Richard Henry Lee in a Houston production of 1776 which led to his playing the part in 1972 (during the last months of the Broadway run), has had a "hit and, mostly, miss" run. He appeared with Tessie O'Shea and Liz Sheridan [who dated James Dean and went on to play Jerry Seinfeld's TV mom] in 1976's murder mystery musical, Something Afoot. Then came The Moony Shapiro Songbook, which in its 1980 West End production won Best Musical honors. "Over here, we were five actors [Jeff Goldblum and Judy Kaye were in the cast] doing 132 characters," roars Beach. "It was some of the most fun I've ever had, but, in 1981, we closed opening night. We were the last show to play the great Morosco, one of the theatres demolished to make way for the Marriott hotel. I was among the protestors and, the day the wrecking ball slammed into the building, it went right into my dressing room. But I stayed in the business anyway!"

    He followed with a modest run in Doonesbury. In 1984, he began a year on the road in Legends, by the late James Kirkwood of A Chorus Line fame, "as the young, hot shot producer trying to hire Carol Channing and Mary Martin to play Off Broadway. I get them together to discuss the show and hilarity - and fireworks - erupt."

    [Kirkwood's Diary of a Mad Playwright is one of the best behind-the-scenes books - and rights to the play are now being sought for a production to star Joan Collins and Diahann Carroll and, after readings last summer at Sag Harbor's Bay Street Theatre, by Joel Vig [Ruthless] and drag performance artist Lypsinka.]

    Beach has been involved since the first reading and workshop. Early last year, Beach had taken up residence in Pacoima, north of Los Angeles, where he'd been doing guest shots on TV shows and debating returning to the stage. "The phone rang," he recalled. "It was Vinnie Liff [of Johnson-Liff Associates casting]. He said, ëI've got something for you. Mel Brooks' new musical, The Producers.' I flew. It took me ten seconds to get to the airport! [April 2000] to be in a room for a week with Mel Brooks, no matter what happens, you don't say "no" to that. And this was the part of a lifetime. And it's been a dream ever since!"

    Says Beach, "Roger's so caught up in his theatrical sphere, he doesn't have a clue what's going on in the world. He's even shocked to discover the Third Reich means Germany!" He describes De Bris as the expressive offspring of Broadway's Zoe Caldwell [Master Class] and the late, veteran movie character actor and outrageous comedian Billy De Wolfe. For good measure, he's added bits of Channing, Martin, Garland, even Cagney and "many, many others."

    He makes a spectacular entrance in a 45-pound, $20,000 beaded gown. Heavy costuming's nothing new for Beach after playing Lumiere for a year here and a year in Los Angeles (and, again, back on Broadway). "At least, now," he laughs, "my arms aren't afire or in danger of falling off!"

    [In the show, if you pay close attention, you'll note a quick tribute to LumiËre - and, in another very theatrical moment, a more obvious one to Judy Garland.]

    Beach and Bart note that, though composites, the inspiration for their characters are artists they've worked with. They said anyone who's done a couple of shows knows a Roger DeBris and Carmen Ghia. They're not referring to their characters' over-the-top gayness. It's like the time Ann Miller said a certain famous musical theater composer wasn't writing scores like he used to. When a reply came that the composer was dead, Miller memorably replied, "How would I know? I've been on tour."

    Oscar, 36, who, finally, has an opportunity to create a "real" role - that of pigeon-loving, Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind - has experienced some theatrical trauma. "Before The Producers," he jokes, "I was killed over 1,500 times on the road, on Broadway and by the critics [in Jekyll & Hyde]." He also appeared on Broadway and on tour in Aspects of Love and worked Off Broadway
    two years in Forbidden Broadway.

    He came to musical last. "I'd been doing Jekyll & Hyde a long time," he reported. "It was glorified ensemble, but a steady gig. The company was generous in that they gave me leaves of absences to do other projects. Usually, if you leave a show for another job, you're gone. In '99 [Los Angeles] and 2000 [Branson, MO], I played Santa Claus for the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular. Talk about going from the sublime to the ridiculous, but it was fun and a change. What I loved most about it was that there vestiges of Broadway musical comedy."

    Oscar says he grew up loving that sort of "stuff" and feels that kind of old-fashioned show was what Stroman and Brooks were going for in The Producers. He found out J&H was closing while playing Santa, "which was okay, as I knew that would make me move on. Then my agent calls and asks if I can come back on my day off."

    Three weeks before rehearsals, Stroman was still looking for a stand-by for Nathan Lane and for the role of Franz. "So," he recalled, "they faxed me the sides. I got a plane Sunday night and read and sing for Max and Franz Monday morning. I left the next day, but I got a call while changing planes in St. Louis, that I got the job. Radio City was very generous in letting me out of my contract three weeks early. And boom!"

    When rehearsals began, Oscar got more than he bargained for: he was covering six actors. "But I was so grateful to be a part of this project," he says, "I didn't mind working my ass off. The first day we did a read through and heard the songs, I said to myself, ëThis is funny!' As more and more was pieced together, I knew it was going to be something special."

    However, he wasn't prepared for what happened in Chicago when, four days before the start of previews, the actor playing Franz went down with a knee injury. "Then," he exclaims, "Wow! Our first performance was an invited dress rehearsal and I will never forget it. I had four days to do those last run-throughs and was connecting with Nathan and Matthew. There we were in this 3,000-seat theatre and the sound of that many people roaring in laughter, their applause, for almost three hours was overwhelming. Their reaction, their warmth, was unbelievable."

    Oscar says that "since this is the first time for me to make my mark, I'm forever grateful to Roger and Gary for their generosity."
    Because of the support he received, he says he was able to really "go for it" in a fearless way.

    The Producers has yet another Tony nominee in the Featured Actress category: leggy Cady Huffman is in the running again as the girl in the tight, low-cut, slit-up-to-there white dress - Ulla, that Amazon goddess/blonde Swedish bombshell. As Ziegfeld's Favorite in The Will Rogers Follies, she was nominated for a 1991 Tony. So far, she's also been a Drama Desk favorite, taking home their award for Featured Actress, Musical.

    Before Ulla, she danced in Dame Edna: The Royal Tour, Steel Pier, Fosse's last show, Big Deal; and, believe it or not, has done Shakespeare. William Ivey Long, The Producers' costumer, says Cady Huffman "brings the voom back into va-va-voom!" Though the role has been expanded for the stage, Ulla basically struts and shakes. Stroman sees the blonde bombshell as a theatrical stock figure. "The very tall and very beautiful blonde is a standard. She's been with us a long time and will be with us 20
    years from now."

    So if you're going to be in a stereotypical role, why not play it to the hilt? Huffman does. And, as she says in the show, when Ulla dance, all eyes are glued to her. Since there are some similarities between Ulla and Ziegfeld's Favorite, one wonders if Huffman is forever typecast. "They're both tall and blonde - just like me!" smiles the vivacious 30-something. "Of course, I'm happy to say I've done other things."

    Being perceived as tall and sexy didn't always make it easy to get work or be judged solely on her talent. "Everyone has their genre," says Huffman, "I'm the height of the average American male, which means there're a lot of guys out there that are shorter than I am. Luckily, Matthew and I are close to the same height. He's about an inch shorter than I am, but, then, I wear three-inch heels. Nathan is much shorter, but I don't have love scenes with him. Well, not onstage, at least."

    All have high praise for Stroman. "She's been extraordinary to work with," says Bart. "I've never met any person, in any field or position, more comfortable in their own skin. She gave of herself to everyone." Observes Beach, "Each day, when time was called, Susan would hug and kiss us and say welcome. If there's a Queen of Broadway right now, she's it."

    Rehearsals were such fun, admits Bart, "it was a pleasure to come to work. And for eight hours she allowed us to do what we doó"

    "To come up with bits we thought would work," adds Beach, "and run with them. She gave us freedom not only as a people but also as actors."

    "And she could control Mel Brooks!" roared Bart. "How about that? They were great collaborators, but Susan had the last word. What made it especially fun, was the degree to which Mel was involved. We'd finish a scene and Susan would give a thumbs up, but Mel would hiss ëIt stinks!' And we'd all crack up and say, ëWell, how about this?'"

    Beach adds, "We were surrounded by the greatest comic talent in the business and a team of talent who're at the top of their form. Plus, I got to work on scenes with Roger [whom he often refers to as his "bloody little genius"] and Brad." He also paid a tribute to co-book writer Thomas Meehan of Annie fame. "He knows structure better than anyone in the business."

    Oscar came away with the sense that Brooks, in spite of all the tomfoolery, "is a very smart man with great strengths. We benefited time and again from his instincts for comic timing and comic bits."

    Huffman, describing herself as the "luckiest girl in the whole world," said, "It's a dream job. I mean, to be doing what you always wanted to do and with the most wonderful people on Broadway! I feel marvelous, fantastic and so absolutely blessed. Theater's what I always dreamed of doing and it's what I've done my whole life." Taking a very deep breath, as only she can, she adds, "Life couldn't be better. What more could you ask for?"

    Beach reported his friends telling him that he has the role of a lifetime. "When I stop and think about it, they're right. This is the role you wait your whole career for. And it's everything I thought it would be and more. What's going to be better than this, funnier than this?"

    The actor still has not found time to grab his dictionary and look up the definition of juggernaut. "That's what everyone's calling this show," says Beach, "and I want to know exactly what it means. I hope it's a compliment!"


    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at [email protected]

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