BY DAVID NOH | I have been enslaved by the comic talent of Christine Baranski ever since seeing her in John Guare’s brilliant classic “The House of Blue Leaves.” As the endearingly coarse, deliriously deluded Bunny Flingus, she had a moment when she fantasized about her loser composer lover, Artie, winning an Oscar, and she said, “And now, to present the Academy Award for Best Song, the Greer Garson!”
In those few words, she hilariously encompassed the viewpoint of an entire celebrity-obsessed generation, but when I mentioned this to her, she said, “I seriously have no recollection of that. Don’t get me wrong, I loved playing the part, but that was so long ago. I took over from Stockard [Channing] but went on to play it for months. And it’s one of the three or four highlights of my career. It doesn’t get any better than John Guare’s writing!”
A great comedienne, a cult filmmaker, a rediscovered songwriter
Baranski is about to stretch the musical chops we enjoyed in the film of “Mamma Mia” (which she liked making, and where she was, incidentally, the best thing) and onstage in Washington in “Sweeney Todd” and “Mame.” She will play Peggy Porterfield in the Encores! revival of Rodgers & Hart’s “On Your Toes” (131 W. 55th St., through May 12; nycitycenter.org), a role she described as “the Money Lady. It’s her idea to modernize this traditional Russian ballet company with jazz. Walter Bobbie plays the Diaghilev-like director of the company, and we do a charming soft shoe routine together. I have two songs, one of which is ‘Too Good for the Average Man.’ As this is a serious ballet company, we also have the great, great dancers — Irina Dvorovenko [American Ballet Theater] and Joaquin De Luz [New York City Ballet] — with us.”
Baranski counts her DC “Sweeney Todd” as another career gem: “I saw Mrs. Lovett as a survivor above all, with a feral animal quality to her. I did a lot of research into Victorian times and learned what a tough, tough period it was, especially for a woman. But, along with everything else, she has this fantasy about this man, Sweeney, and really just wants to be a normal housewife with him.
“There’s a song which doesn’t get as much attention, ‘By the Sea,’ but I loved doing that, because in it she gets to pour out her innermost desires. Stepping into Angela Lansbury’s shoes was, of course, daunting, as it was when I did ‘Mame,’ but you can’t think about that. And she was so lovely and came to see us and lent encouragement.
“Everyone, of course, was very daunted by Steve Sondheim. But he was so supportive and just wanted everything to be as good as it could be. I had my 50th birthday in DC and got to spend it with him in a restaurant, over glasses of white wine, as he told me all these incredible stories for two hours. Imagine!”
Given the great success of “Sweeney Todd” at the Kennedy Center, I asked her what she’d like to do next: “I played the title role in ‘Mame’ in my Polish Catholic girls school outside Buffalo. Along with all the brittle sophistication, she’s a warm, loving woman and I tried to emphasize that in my performance.
“The problem was we didn’t have enough rehearsal time — or performances. The stairs weren’t even finished by the first preview. But Gregg Barnes’ costumes were the best – I think it was filmed but I wish everyone could have seen them up close. The detail, the beading!!
“There was talk about bringing it in, but Broadway is all about the bottom line and they’d have to cut the magnificent full orchestra or the cast number or the stairs, so….”
Asked about her crack comic timing, Baranski said, “I don’t know. It’s like music. When I read a script, it’s very musical to me. Although I’m now doing this heavily dramatic role on ‘The Good Wife,’ comedy is something I’m known for since doing ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in Central Park, which put me on the map. You go with the hand you’re dealt, and I’ve been very happy with the incredible people I’ve worked with — Sondheim, Mike Nichols, who’s such a friend — and the opportunities I’ve gotten, like now, with ‘On Your Toes.’”
Although dressed in all-black rehearsal mufti — T-shirt, jeans, and baseball cap — I’ve seen Baranski out on the town, always dressed to the nines, the very image of posh Upper East Side. “I know, and now people always expect it of me!,” she explained. “But I’m dressed normally, like this, a lot. I’ve become friends with Renee Fleming and we went to see Bette Midler the other night. What an idol of mine and what a performance she gives. That’s a star!”
At the Tribeca Film Festival I caught a wonderful documentary, “Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton.” A bisexual San Francisco-based poet and experimental filmmaker, Broughton (1913-99) led an incredibly varied, rich life. His film “The Bed” (1967) was an ultimate “Summer of Love” ode to carnal joys, featuring pioneering images of gay sex and frontal nudity, which did much to loosen the grip of the still prevailing censorship.
Filmmakers Stephen Silha, Eric Slade, and Dawn Logsdon, using rare archival footage and rich interviews, made a deeply rewarding and inspirational look at this storied man. Although he was a singular absentee failure as a parent, he did father a daughter, Gina, by no less than critic Pauline Kael, seen in one of her final interviews, and a fascinating one at that. Married to costume designer Suzanna Hart, who also bore him children, Broughton left her in the 1970s when a much younger film student, Joel Singer, fell in love with him. They remained together until Broughton’s death, and the doc happily doesn’t refrain from showing all — at times painful — sides of the story.
Shilha, who attended the April 21 Chelsea Clearview screening — along with flamboyantly garbed members of the Radical Faeries, who counted Broughton as one of their number — told me that the Hart interview took place entirely by chance when he discovered she lived in an adult care facility near one of their locations. Hart’s words are breathtakingly honest and ruefully funny, especially when she describes her heartbreak as Broughton “rode happily off into the sunset like a cowboy, which I found… extremely irritating.”
On April 8, I attended “Taking a Chance on Love: The Music of Vernon Duke,” one of the best entries ever in the 92nd Y’s Lyrics and Lyricists series. Heidi Blickenstaff, James Clow, Rebecca Luker, Erin Mackey, and Matthew Scott all did their terrifically urbane best with the songs of this least-known but brilliantly potent Great American Songbook composer.
Duke (1903-69) was born in Russia and classically trained there before fleeing with his family to America in 1921. His oeuvre consists of classics like “April in Paris,” “I Can’t Get Started,” “Taking a Chance on Love,” “What is There to Say,” and the essential “Autumn in New York,” for which the brilliant host and director of the afternoon, David Loud, gave a tantalizingly literate introduction. Choreographer Noah Racey executed a pas de deux for Kylie Shea Lewallen and Michaeljon Slinger, to illustrate Duke’s rich classical side. Dawn Upshaw, who also definitely knows how to do it, has just recorded a CD of Duke songs on Nonesuch, which should help restore his reputation among a larger audience.
Broadway Cares/ Equity Fights AIDS’ 27th Annual Easter Bonnet Competition (April 23) raised another record-breaking amount — $4,250,542 — and I was overjoyed to welcome the snarky return of “Urinetown”’s Little Sally (Jen Cody), who effectively demolished this so-called “Year of the Little Girl.” But the funniest line of the afternoon came from Tom Hanks, who told the audience he was suffering from a bad cold: “On a film, you just suck it up and take a Sudafed and a swig of Scotch, but I learned that Broadway doesn’t go in for booze and pills.” There was more to this, but he refused to read it “because I’m not gay!”
What started out as an abysmal Broadway season has picked up immensely, affording some enjoyable nights. Richard Greenberg’s “The Assembled Parties” makes me believe in his talent again, after his terrible adaptation of, as I called it, “Breakfast at Walmart’s.” In “Parties,” Jessica Hecht offers a daringly bold performance of Ina Claire-Gertie Lawrence charm (Manhattan Theatre Club at the Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., through June 16; theassembledpartiesbroadway.com).
“Motown: the Musical” may have a suck book, but who cares when you can bask in those deliriously beloved ain’t-nothin’-but-a-party grooves? And Valisia LeKae nails the breathy intonations of Miss Ross (Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 W. 46th St.; motownthemusical.com).
Cicely Tyson is a kill-me-now phenomenon in “A Trip to Bountiful,” and she, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and the smashing Vanessa Williams have totally rejuvenated this warhorse, mining fresh laughs and tears (Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 W. 43rd St; thetriptobountifulbroadway.com).
Has there ever been a more show-stopping number than Andrea Martin’s in “Pippin,” which is really an entire, kaleidoscopic little show in itself (Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St.; pippinthemusical.com)? I found “Matilda” quite overrated (and it desperately needs subtitles, especially when those talented kids sing), but I caught “Cinderella” for the second time, and the thing has really gelled since opening night, with everybody having totally “found” their characters and obviously having the time of their lives with them (Broadway Theatre,1681 Broadway at 53rd St.; cinderellaonbroadway.com).
And, if you want to see what I think is the best, funniest drag queen ever, catch Bill Irwin in “Old Hats” (Signature Theatre, 480 W. 42nd St., through Jun. 9; signaturetheatre.org). In one sketch, playing a cheesy female magician’s assistant, he contorts his face into a total caricature of deluded libidinousness, and, with hysterically precise “ta-da” gestures, is just a fucking riot. After the show, he told me how he researched her by looking at “a lot of YouTube Las Vegas acts.”
Three smaller films that may escape your attention but I found quite charming are “The Kings of Summer” (opening May 31), “Desperate Acts of Magic” (Quad Cinema, 34 W. 13th St.; quadcinema.com), and “The Happy House” (Cinema Village, 22 E. 12th St.; cinemavillage.com) The first is the perfect summer film, funny and touching, about a trio of boys who escape from their hilariously overbearing parents (among them, a delicious Megan Mullally) to a secret, jerry-built fort in the woods. “Desperate Acts” is very low-key and low-budget but a really droll little excursion into the ultimate nerd universe of magicians, which perversely has always fascinated me. “The Happy House” is a quirkily engrossing horror comedy, which rings amusingly twisted changes on all those scary house epics like “The Shining” and “The Haunting.”
If you want to vicariously feel like one of those Park Avenue doyennes Christine Baranski is so adept at playing, “Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s” (Angelika Film Center, 18 W. Houston at Mercer St.; angelikafilmcenter.com) is the film for you –– a candied look at this fabled emporium of luxe, immortalized by Barbra Streisand in an early TV special and Bette Davis in “All About Eve” (“Make it Bergdorf Goodman!” she snaps when someone has the temerity to compare her to a five and dime store). If nothing else, it focuses on the jaw-dropping work of window designer David Hoey, whose 2011 “Carnival of the Animals” Christmas display will probably never be surpassed in retail history.