Friday, March 9, 2012

The Fabric of a Life



Linsey-woolsey was the name given in the 17th century to a type of durable wool and cotton blend fabric from the British Isles. It was a commonly used and less expensive alternative to woolen cloth, and was one of the staples of the early American colonists. According to Wikipedia, "Linsey-woolsey was valued for its warmth, durability, and cheapness, but not for its looks." It is amusing, then, that Patrick Dennis decided to snatch this musical sounding name and bestow it on a minor character in his novel, "Auntie Mame," Mr. M. Lindsay Woolsey, the eminent publisher.

Somewhere along the way, in the adapting of the best selling novel for the stage, the character of Lindsay was expanded, from a marginal figure mentioned only in one anecdote, to a supporting character who is a mainstay in Mame Dennis' life. His role is nearly identical in the musical to what it is in the play: Lindsay is there as an admirer of Mame's; one of those suitors who becomes a friend, always hoping that perhaps the free-spirited Mame will come down to earth and finally marry him. He is a party guest at the top of the show, and then reappears at crucial moments in Mame's stage life-- he comforts her when little Patrick is swept away to boarding school; he is present when the news of the stock market crash hits; he encourages Mame to write her memoirs; and he helps her seal the deal when she sabotages Patrick's unsuitable engagement to the crass, bigoted Gloria Upson. It seems clear that, like his namesake fabric, Lindsay is a warm and durable friend. In my research I have not been able to uncover why he has the first initial of 'M' or what it signifies. Perhaps if I get to meet Mr. Jerry Herman at our opening out at Goodspeed, I can ask him if he knows.

Jerry Herman's Trinity

It's rather astonishing to recognize that the lion's share of Jerry Herman's success has stemmed from his three juggernaut musicals, "Hello, Dolly!", "Mame," and "La Cage Aux Folles." Of course he wrote other fine shows like "Mack and Mabel" (Herman's personal favorite of his shows), "Milk and Honey," and "Dear World," but none of these could match the phenomenal success of the main three Herman classics. "Dolly" was the longest running musical of its time and won ten Tony Awards; "Mame" won three Tonys and established Angela Lansbury as a bona fide Broadway star; and "La Cage" is the only Broadway musical to have won a Best Musical Tony, and the Tony for Best Revival twice.

"Mame" will be my second Jerry Herman musical, having appeared in three productions of "La Cage Aux Folles" over the years, most recently starring as Albin opposite Maxwell Caulfied as Georges in the Ogunquit Playhouse production in 2007. What is interesting about the Herman Trinity, as I call it, is that all three shows share some core themes. All three revolve around a central female, or at least 'maternal' figure, a sort of eccentric fairy godmother who encourages a younger generation to embrace life, love and individual happiness. Mame, a free spirit who has never given much thought to being a mother, finds the love of her life in young Patrick, and devotes herself to giving him a colorful and exuberant life; Albin, an extravagant drag queen, also sees himself as the only real mother his adoptive son Jean Michel has ever had, and just like Mame, offers to him an alternate view of the world that fights conventionality and which brings out his true loving heart. It can't be a surprise, then, to know that Jerry Herman's own mother was the most important figure in his life, and that her passing, long before he realized his phenomenal success, was a devastating event which may have inspired him to create these strong, vibrant mother figures in his musicals.

Research and information like this about the pieces I work on just add to the process of being a part of a production and give me a foundation on which to make choices regarding my role and my place in the show. As "Mame" is not often produced on the level of a theatre like Goodspeed, I feel really excited to be a part of this production and look forward to rehearsals starting in a little over a week! For more information on Goodspeed and "Mame," visit their website here.

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