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by Michael Portantiere

For Steve Hayes, The Camelias are in Bloom

  • Camille-new.jpgThe novel La dame aux camélias (1848), by Alexandre Dumas fils, is best known to most people through two of its many adaptations: Giuseppe Verdi's opera La traviata (1853), much beloved and constantly revived; and the M-G-M film Camille (1936), which starred Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor under the direction of George Cukor. Spoofs of the story, about a 19th-century French courtesan who sacrifices the one true love of her life in order to preserve the young man's honor and that of his family, have also abounded through the decades.

    One of the most memorable takes on the tale was Charles Ludlam's Camille, a drag queen extravaganza of the first order. The great Ludlam is long gone, but the play itself is soon to be seen in a new Off-Off-Broadway production at Casa MezCal (86 Orchard Street) starring the endlessly funny Steve Hayes, whom you may have seen in one or more of the Tweed company's outrageous takeoffs on classic plays and movies. You may also have caught him on the big screen in Trick and The Big Gay Musical, or in his YouTube show Tired Old Queen at the Movies, which has become a cult favorite. I recently spoke with Steve about the shoes he's soon to fill.


    BROADWAYSTARS: First, tell me about your YouTube show.

    STEVE HAYES: It's been running for about three years now. I want to get young people to watch classic films, so I just talk about the movies I love. It's been going really well; I have about 3,000 subscribers and over 200,000 hits from all over the world. I'm an old bird, and when I first moved to the city in the '70s, there were lots of movie revival houses around town. All of the theaters had their specialties: the Thalia did films noir, the Regency tended to show M-G-M movies and musicals. And Theater 80 had all different kinds of movies, but they always projected them from behind the screen, so they were backwards. That was kind of interesting! I remember going to see Jezebel and thinking, "Wait a minute, she's coming in from the wrong direction..." But I loved Theater 80 because they had a beautiful portrait of Joan Crawford in the lobby -- the one that's hanging over her bed in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane -- and they had her hand prints on the sidewalk in front of the theater.

    STARS: How do you feel about the Garbo film of Camille?

    STEVE: It's lovely. Garbo had such an incandescent quality about her, and great beauty. The film was made at a time when the country was broke and the movies were the only thing making money, so they sunk millions into that production -- and it shows. The Adrian dresses, the sets, the cinematography are stunning. And of course, Cukor being the old queen that he was, he photographed Robert Taylor as beautifully as Garbo. It's hard to say which one of them looks prettier in that movie. I always laugh when I watch it because Taylor's character is supposed to be French, and there he is saying things like [launches into a flat, Midwestern U.S. accent] "I love you, Marguerite!" He sounds like he's from Toledo.

    STARS: So true.

    STEVE: I love the movie because it has that M-G-M gloss. It's so well directed by Cukor, and the character people in it are astounding. Laura Hope Crewes, who plays Prudence, is absolutely hysterically funny. She and Jessie Ralph, who plays the maid, Nanine, were both wonderful character actresses from Broadway. Charles Ludlam was also a great lover of old movies. There are hommages to many of them sprinkled throughout his Camille, and any queen worth his salt can find them. But he also remains true to the story -- and it's a great, classic story.

    STARS: Are you an opera fan?

    STEVE: Not particularly. I'm more of a ballet person. But I did see Traviata at the Met -- the Zeffirelli production -- and I thought it was gorgeous. The main thing I love about going to the Met, aside from the music, is that I'm always impressed by the spectacle. It's the closest you can get to an old M-G-M movie on stage.

    STARS: Yes, but...they're moving away from that now. In their current production of Traviata, the sets are minimalist and abstract.

    STEVE: What?! Oh, my God. Oh, no.

    STARS: Yes! Anyway, back to your show: Did you know or work with Ludlam?

    STEVE: No, and I never saw his Camille, so this will be my own interpretation. It's not gonna be like it was with Charles, but I think it will be fun.

    STARS: How would you describe the balance between camp and seriousness in the play?

    STEVE: Well, we just started rehearsing two days ago, so we're still at the stage where we're bumping into walls and trying things out. I hope that, once we get into the second week of rehearsals, we'll be able to relax a little more and find that balance. We've got a wonderful cast. I find the script heartbreaking in places, because it's all about the classic double standard: Once a woman falls, she can never rise again, but if a man falls, he can just get right up and go. Women like Marguerite were put down for the lives they led, but considering what their options were, they did the best they could under the circumstances. And, of course, Marguerite is consumptive. In the movie, Garbo coughs very delicately [he demonstrates], but I'm not going to go that route. I'm a hacker!


    [Camille will run January 27-February 25 at Casa MezCal. For more information about the show, click here. To purchase tickets, visit www.theatermania.com or call 866-811-4111.]

    Published on Monday, January 21, 2013

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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