‘Charity’ Returns to Broadway

‘Charity’ Returns to Broadway

Denis O’Hare plays a money man again, this time not such a sweet one

Tony Bennett he’s certifiably not, but Denis O’Hare can sing a little, too.

Over a cup of coffee during a “Sweet Charity” rehearsal break on swarming 42nd Street, subtle, supple actor O’Hare sang a few lines now, lightly and nicely: “It’s important to make a good impression. / If I could make a good impression, / Who knows what this could grow into? / Love and things I won’t go into.”

That all-purpose speculation could be attached just as well to Mason Marzac, the closeted financial advisor who falls in love with his client, an uncloseted baseball superstar, in Richard Greenberg’s “Take Me Out”––scooping up a 2003 Tony Award for O’Hare in the process––but in “Sweet Charity” those words are voiced by a heel named Oscar who is about to break the much-broken heart of the waiflike, street-walking heroine all over again.

“I’ve been in musicals,” said O’Hare. “Not a lot, but a few. Did ‘Cabaret’ back in ’98, and a failed ‘Finian’s Rainbow’ on the road in ’99 and ‘Assassins’ last year. That’s my musical CV.”

A 2004 Tony nomination for his performance in “Assassins” as Charles Guiteau, killer of President James A. Garfield, is also part of that CV.

This is the third Broadway incarnation of the Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields-Neil Simon blockbuster carved by Bob Fosse from the great 1957 Federico Fellini film ‘Le Notti di Cabiria’ that stars, unforgettably, Fellini’s wife, huge-eyed, innocent, ever-smiling Giulietta Massina.

The Charity of the production coming in April to the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on West 45th Street is film and television’s Christina Applegate, in the formidable Broadway tracks of Gwen Verdon (1966) and Debbie Allen (1986).

That “Good Impression” song is new to the musical––placed in the current production, said O’Hare, to underline a step in Oscar’s courtship of Charity. “Cy took it from something else and imported it into this show.”

No, O’Hare has “actually never before seen ‘Sweet Charity’ in any form.” Pause. “I’m a virgin.” Pause. “Just like the character… I mean, metaphorically.”

What he’s not seen includes the 1969 movie starring Shirley MacLaine. One night at “Take Me Out,” MacLaine went backstage to say hello “but we didn’t talk about ‘Sweet Charity.’”

Okay, but has O’Hare ever seen “Nights of Cabiria”?

“Yes! I think I saw it back to back with [Fellini’s] ‘La Strada.’ Then I passed out for a couple of days––overwhelmed with grief. What I remember of ‘Nights of Cabiria’ survives in ‘Sweet Charity’ as”––he searched for the precise phrase––“heartbreaking hope.”

One difference between the Broadway musical and the Fellini film is that in the musical Oscar and Charity “make a plan to go away and get married, but then he loses his nerve and drops her. In the Fellini film, he tries to kill her”––and he isn’t the first. She comes up smiling nevertheless.

O’Hare as Oscar on 45th Street gets to sing the title song––“the first half alone, the second half backed by an angelic chorus.”

Then, with a sort of whoop, O’Hare continued, “Oscar is a tax accountant. My second tax accountant! Well, I guess Mason Marzac was more of a money manager. But think of it: I can do ‘The Producers’ next. From Mason to Oscar to Leo Bloom! It’s a step up, anyway. I’m used to playing serial killers. Whenever I do a ‘Law & Order,’ I’m always the murderer.”

He isn’t a murderer in the “Once Upon a Mattress” that he’s just wrapped with Carol Burnett, Tracey Ullman, and Tommy Smothers for ABC-TV. “I’m Prince Dauntless.”

O’Hare, who lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, with Jamaican-born interior designer Hugo Redmond––“We’ve been together five years”––was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and brought up in the Detroit suburbs.

“Very Midwestern. The fourth of five children. Father a businessman and labor-relations expert, mother a nurse and wonderful musician and church organist.”

O’Hare went to Catholic school in Michigan for 12 years, and then to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, from which he emerged with a bachelor’s degree in speech.

“After studying poetry for two years, I decided theater would be more useful. Poetry’s my fall-back,” O’Hare said poker-faced.

He’s not really a baseball nut, but he did believe the heroics of the Boston Red Sox “were a good sign that John Kerry would win the election. I was wrong.”

Are his folks glad about his career, his way of life?

“Yes. They’re always happy when I’m singing and not killing people.”

Denis O’Hare, singer, actor, skilled in sensitivity, doesn’t kill people. He just knocks them dead.