Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Life Is a Banquet


Left is right, and the Right gets left, in "Mame"

It's interesting to me that "Mame" is receiving a major revival now, at this time of virulent polarization in our political and social discourse. The gulf between conservative and liberal has never seemed so wide and there appears to be little middle ground. What does this social unrest have to do with a lighthearted Jerry Herman musical, you ask? Well, theatre does not exist in a vacuum, and sometimes a classic like "Mame" finds its way back into our cultural consciousness because the prevailing climate makes its message relevant and powerful.

When Patrick Dennis wrote the novel "Auntie Mame" in 1955, America was in the midst of the Eisenhower administration and a post-World War II cultural homogenization, a conservative reaction to the chaos of the war years which gave rise to the middle class. 1955 arrived on the tail end of the destructive era of McCarthyism and the craven tactics of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which had threatened and destroyed the lives of many creative minds who were considered liberal or subversive. It was the year that Rosa Parks took her historic stand on a bus in Alabama, igniting the Civil Rights movement. The Vietnam War was also declared that year, a war that would divide the country as powerfully as World War II had united it. The stage was getting set for social revolution in America, and in waltzed Auntie Mame. Mame represented a 'bohemian' approach to life and was, and is still, perhaps, the poster child for liberalism--inclusive, open minded, and staunchly defiant of all things repressive, bigoted and narrow. Her "live! live! live!" philosophy and outrageous antics seemed to be the tonic America was looking for, because the novel broke sales records on the New York Times bestseller list, selling over two million copies and spawning a hit Broadway play adaptation and film.

Mame was the hero of individuality, free thinking and a view of the world as a welcoming place to be explored and experienced--at a time when conservative America was becoming more and more xenophobic, paranoid; white bourgeois bigots were circling the wagons to protect their way of life. In "Auntie Mame," these folks are represented by characters like Mr. Babcock, little Patrick's trustee and scion of the Knickerbocker Bank, as well as Patrick's potential new in-laws, the crass Upsons, living a 'top drawer' existence behind the gates of their 'exclusive and restricted' community. After raising her nephew to be as free living as she, Mame is faced with a crisis when it looks like her 'little love' has grown up and rejected her teachings, choosing the straight and narrow path for himself. These clashes between conservative and liberal run throughout the story of "Auntie Mame." We are even given a portrait of the American South when Mame joins her fiancee Beau at his Georgia plantation, 'Peckerwood.' These cartoon Southerners seem stuck in a time warp, existing in a world that is gone with the wind, as it were, hopelessly fixated on outmoded traditions and closed minded views--venom masked with sugary smiles-- and a rejection of the eccentric Northerner, Mame. That Mame ultimately beats them at their own game, winning them all over, is only one example of Dennis' theme of the triumph of liberalism.

When the musical adaptation made its appearance it was a decade after the initial success of the "Auntie Mame" franchise, and the revolution that was looming in America had now exploded with social, racial and sexual rights movements such as our country had never seen. The Vietnam War raged on as a new generation--the children of those who had fought in the last World War--took to the streets to protest; marches moved across the South demanding racial equality; and a new counterculture took over with its own music, values, and world view. The Hippie Generation had arrived and it looked in many ways like the bohemian subculture that Auntie Mame had presided over. The time was ripe for her return, battling the forces of conservatism with her plea to "open a new window" and experience life with abandon, rejecting accepted notions of behavior, dress, and ideology. While much of the political content of the source material was softened for the musical (it is a musical after all), the message was still clear-- one of openness, freedom and acceptance. It can be no surprise that the show was a hit in the late 60s, running for four years and over 1500 performances, and winning numerous awards, including three Tonys.

And here she is again! Auntie Mame is sashaying back on to a major American stage in the midst of a polarized and volatile political and social war, where conservative leaders are attempting to roll back all the progress gained since the Eisenhower years in which Mame first came on to the scene. Auntie Mame has, for generations, been a gay icon, inspiring self acceptance, freedom of expression and individuality. How fitting that her message should return at a time when the great strides of the gay rights movement are under attack from well funded evangelical political groups?
Jerry Herman, while a populist mainstream success in the musical theatre, has never shied away from reinforcing this message of inclusion and tolerance, cementing it with his juggernaut, "La Cage Aux Folles," which contains one of the all time gay anthems, "I Am What I Am." Mame also represents an image of a liberated woman, one who commands her own world, thinks her own thoughts and lives by her own rules. This message is fitting as well in a time when the Right is seeking to reverse reproductive freedoms and impose itself on the lifestyles of women who already fought for the right to control their own bodies and destinies. In fact, Mame's ultimate coup de gras in the story involves her bucking of convention by nurturing the very pregnant and unwed Agnes Gooch and establishing a home for unwed mothers right next door to the Upsons. In her own way and for her own time, Mame is a staunch feminist.

We are in a time of great momentum and transformation, and sweeping social change and growing personal freedom always seems to give rise to a powerful resistance from those who would seek to squeeze this land of freedom into a box that resembles the narrow view they have of what America should be, or as Auntie Mame quipped, 'put braces on our brains' and create a country that is as 'exclusive and restricted' as the Upson's country place in fictional Mountebank, Connecticut. Just as Mame belts out "we need a little Christmas now!" I think we all need a little Mame right about now.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Clothes Make the Man


I grew up as much in the design world of the theatre as in the world of acting and performance. My Dad, Don Beaman, was a set designer, and taught scenic design at Boston University for decades (this photo shows him in his early career, fittingly posing on a paint frame).
Much of my youth was spent in paint shops, washing brushes and buckets, helping to size drops, and watching my Dad paint. I also wandered off into costume shops, which to me were magic emporiums, overflowing with feathers and velvets and glitter. Stitchers and drapers would send me off into a corner with scraps of fabric where I would happily play by myself for hours while they went about the work of creating amazing things for actors to wear. Stage struck as I was from as early as I can remember, to me being an actor meant transforming into any character I wished with the help of the right disguise.

When I was in college, Richard Attenborough's film of "Chaplin" came out. There's a scene in it where Robert Downey, Jr. (in a masterful performance) finds the hat, cane, and other accoutrements of the "Little Tramp" character for the first time. To watch this fanciful scene, click here. These simple articles of clothing magically suggest to Chaplin the qualities of what would become one of the most iconic and beloved characters of all time. Costumes have power, and a truly masterful costume designer can be an actor's best ally in creating a memorable performance.

How fortunate we in the Goodspeed production of "Mame" are, then, to be blessed to wear the sumptuous creations of designer Gregg Barnes. Gregg is a Tony Award-winning designer whose credits include "The Drowsy Chaperone," "Legally Blonde," and most recently his glorious creations for "Follies." Gregg is what I would flatteringly refer to as 'old school.' He dazzled all of us at the first day of rehearsal with his collection of hand drawn, painted and bedazzled renderings for Auntie Mame's stunning wardrobe of 17 looks. Gregg's designs have wit, glamour, specificity and he consciously creates each look with an eye toward telling the story of the play through his clothes. In each scene in which Mame appears, her individuality and flamboyance are highlighted by using color and style to contrast with everyone around her. And Gregg's specificity and artistry extend to all of the characters that inhabit the world of "Mame."

A cameo role like Lindsay Woolsey can be, in some ways, more challenging to make specific and memorable than a large role, primarily because there is very little information about him in the script. Of course, the flip side of that challenge is the opportunity to be creative about filling in the blanks with the choices made about how he sounds, moves, and looks. Traditionally, Woolsey is an elegant, well dressed, calm presence in Mame's zany world. Patric Knowles, who created the role in the Broadway production and film of "Auntie Mame" was distinguished, classy, with an understated British charm. While I admire these qualities, for a dynamic, imaginative character actor like me this seemed a bit staid. But I was really at a loss as to how to imbue this small role with something special.

I went in for my consultation with the hair and makeup department for "Mame" sporting a beard (a default look I go to in between roles as I loathe shaving every day) and surprisingly, they thought we should keep it; as the action of the play spans three decades, they will have me use temporary color to darken my hair and beard in the early scenes, washing it out for the Act II scenes, allowing my natural salt and pepper to come through. Then I thought, well, what kind of a gentleman wore a beard in the 1920s, when the predominant look was clean shaven with slicked back, neatly cut hair? The answer-- an 'artistic type,' or a man with a European sensibility. This is where Gregg Barnes stepped in and suggested to me that perhaps the eminent publisher, M. Lindsay Woolsey, is less an understated executive and more of a kind of worldly impresario, with an artistic/European flair. He suggested as a model the founder of the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev, whose personal style included shoes with spats, rich overcoats with big fur collars, flamboyant hats and luxe accessories.

This was a direction I had not considered going in! In a short conversation, Gregg essentially handed me my character. How fitting that since Vera Charles, the outrageous stage star, is Mame's closest female friend, her closest male friend should be someone equally stylish and artistic? I look forward to my costume fittings with Gregg and his team with great anticipation now, knowing that each element will help me bring Woolsey to life in a vivid and memorable way. Photos of my transformation will of course be included in a future blog post!

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.