Friday, February 19, 2016

The Lights of Fourteenth Street

Those who follow my blog know that I love acting as my own dramaturge on every show I do.  I am a research enthusiast and love discovering source materials and real-life people and places that have inspired writers whose works I undertake. So of course, when I landed the part of Rudolph Reisenweber, majordomo of the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant in "Hello, Dolly!," I dug around and have discovered the actual New York restaurant that inspired the elegant eatery that is the centerpiece of the show.

Vintage postcard showing Lüchow's dining room
Lüchow's, a popular German restaurant and biergarten, was a fixture on Irving Place for a century.  The Union Square area was, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a vibrant cultural center, with concert halls including Steinway Hall and the Academy of Music, as well as theaters and music halls.  From its earliest days, musicians flocked to Lüchow's for its hearty, authentic German cuisine and for the Würzburger and Pilsner beers for which founder August Lüchow was the exclusive agent.  Live music was always part of the Lüchow's experience, as was elaborate decor, including stained glass skylights, Tiffany windows, mahogany paneling... a fitting inspiration for the lush interior of the Harmonia Gardens.

Famous visitors regularly held court at Lüchow's, enjoying sauerbraten and Wiener schnitzel, among them iconic actress Lillian Russell; Diamond Jim Brady, who eventually had an entire private dining room created in his honor; composer Victor Herbert and his associates founded ASCAP, the American Society of Composers Authors and Publishers, at a corner table; in later years, musical greats like Oscar Hammerstein were regulars at the eatery, and Gus Kahn wrote the song "Yes Sir, That's My Baby" over bratwurst and cabbage.  Even Teddy Roosevelt raised a stein of beer or two amidst the fashionable New Yorkers at Lüchow's.

Lüchow's facade in the 1930s
The waiters at Lüchow's may not have done fouetté turns and Russian splits like those at the Harmonia Gardens, but they were famous for their efficiency, expert knowledge of the menu, and their wonderful recommendations to those patrons not familiar with German delicacies.  The brisk service, hearty and delicious food, authentic beer flowing from the taps, genteel surroundings and sentimental Viennese music all created an atmosphere of gemütlichkeit--cozy, jolly good cheer.  Lüchow's remained in operation until 1982 (there is an NYU dorm now on the site where it stood), but its place in the life of legendary New York history remains.  Even some of the rib-sticking, delicious dishes can be recreated via recipes that have survived the decades.  Click here for instructions on how to make Lüchow's famous sauerbraten!

What does all this do to inform the world of "Hello, Dolly!" and my character of Rudolph?  Well, a lot!  Rudolph brings to the world of the Harmonia Gardens the only flourish of authentic German style and color; he is, in a way, an embodiment of homage to Lüchow's.  Also, learning about 14th Street and the lively scene of music, good food and entertainment that it once was gives me a sense of the world that surrounds the Harmonia Gardens, and just how special it might be for patrons to spend an evening within its walls--and how devoted its staff would be to favorite guests like Dolly Levi.  Knowing that Lüchow's waitstaff was famous for efficiency and expertise helps me and the other waiters in our imaginary restaurant summon up an air of pride and finesse that certainly will make our performances sparkle with energy and period charm.  For more about Lüchow's, I recommend this wonderful blog post, which gives more of its colorful history and fun info.  Gut Essen!  

Monday, February 1, 2016

No Small Parts

I don't care how small the parts are, as long as they're good.  ~Alan Ladd

It was Konstantin Stanislavsky who said, "Remember, there are no small parts; only small actors."  If you google this quote you will see it misattributed to everyone from Ginger Rogers, to Melanie Griffith, to Milan Kundera!  It's not surprising, as this is a sentiment that has been shared, or at least repeated, by every actor who has ever trod the boards.  

As a character actor, my view is aligned with Alan Ladd's, as indicated in the quote above. I want to play good, memorable, delicious roles and sometimes these fall under the category of the 'cameo.'  Now, don't get me wrong--I love playing leads, and in recent seasons, I have gotten to play some spectacular ones; from Thénardier in "Les Misérables", to last summer's Cookie McGee in "Nice Work If You Can Get It."  But a sprint can be as rewarding as a marathon, especially when the smaller role is a classic of the repertoire, a familiar character much anticipated by audiences who know a show like the perennial favorite "Hello, Dolly!"

David Hurst as Rudolph, with waiters in the film "Hello, Dolly!"

In my last post, I announced that I will be returning to Riverside Theatre to play Rudolph the headwaiter in this Jerry Herman classic, and I am tickled to have the chance to make this small, robust cameo part my own.  Rudolph runs the show at The Harmonia Gardens restaurant, the scene which is the centerpiece of "Hello, Dolly!".  From the spectacular dancing of The Waiter's Gallop, to that moment everyone anticipates--Dolly's grand entrance, feather headdress and all, at the top of those stairs to the strains of the show's title song--the Harmonia Gardens is the place where everyone in the audience feels 'back home where they belong.'  I think of Rudolph as the ringmaster, sometimes barking orders and blowing his whistle like a Prussian commander, sometimes the silent presence standing by Dolly's table awaiting orders for the next course, where the smallest lift of an eyebrow can be an hilarious punctuation mark on Dolly's masterful manipulation of her hapless future husband, Horace.  
S.Z. 'Cuddles' Sakall

It's true that Rudolph doesn't appear until mid-Act II, and that his journey on stage is a brief one, but the challenge for the actor is to become a seamless part of the world that has been created by the company up to his first entrance, while being a vivid and colorful presence that the audience will remember.  I feel like it's a guest star moment, and I am looking forward to playing this funny little German martinet.  Of course, being the classic film fan I am, I look for inspiration from the character men of the past, and in addition to looking at David Hurst's memorable Rudolph in the film version of our show, I am studying guys like S.Z. 'Cuddles' Sakall.  Sakall is best remembered as the headwaiter at Rick's in the beloved Casablanca, and for his thick Hungarian accent and befuddled charm.  Sakall was a true character man in the grand tradition, never straying far from his lovable and memorable persona--and it is this kind of unique impression I want to make with Rudolph.

Olivier in "Peer Gynt"
The approach to a small part is the same as for a leading one: understand and illuminate your character's special place in the storytelling; create a vibrant, memorable living being, and infuse him with your spirit!  One of my earliest lessons about the artistry that goes into creating a cameo role came to me when I was around 13, stage struck and obsessed with the then acknowledged greatest actor alive, Laurence Olivier.  In 1944, his first season as a co-director of the Old Vic, he played the flashy title role in "Richard III," but also chose to take the cameo of the Button Moulder opposite Ralph Richardson's "Peer Gynt."  For Olivier, it was both great fun and a stretch of his technical skills to take on this small part, and so complete was his transformation that many who saw the production didn't even recognize Olivier in the part.  For him, it was a chance to explore another facet of his talent. An example I've never forgotten!  

"Hello Dolly!" runs March 8-27 at Riverside Theatre, in Vero Beach, FL and will star Michele Ragusa as Dolly.  In my next blog post, I will share some dramaturgical geekness-- my research into the real life New York restaurant upon which the Harmonia Gardens was based!