"I've done it in Florida, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Orange County, three times at the Ogunquit Playhouse, Fort Worth Texas…I'm sure I'm forgetting several…Oh that's right, I've done it in New Jersey…"
Over the past 14 years, Sally Struthers has performed in the musical two-hander Always...Patsy Cline "probably fifteen times," the television and stage star approximates. Struthers does not portray the late country-music star, but rather Cline's fan-turned-friend Louise Seger, with whom Cline enjoyed a close relationship until her death at the early age of 30 in 1963.
Struthers returns to the role for the who-knows-which time, beginning July 10 at North Hollywood's El Portal Theatre — her third production starring opposite Carter Calvert (It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues), who takes on the role of the iconic Nashville singer. At this point, the Always...Patsy Cline veteran requires minimal prep in the rehearsal room, giving her plenty of time to chat with TheaterMania about her own relationship with the charming character she has been molding for over a decade. After so many incarnations, it seems the greatest lesson she has taken away from the production is that nothing catalyzes a friendship like a plate of bacon and eggs.
You've been performing Always…Patsy Cline for about fourteen years now. How were you first introduced to the musical?
I was on a little two-city production of a musical [called] Only a Kingdom [about] the love story of King Edward VIII of England, who abdicated the throne to marry the American divorcée Wallis Simpson. In that production there was this gal named Rachel Ricca. One night, someone invited the cast over for a late-night party after the show, and Rachel started singing "Crazy" or "I Fall to Pieces" and she sounded just like Patsy Cline. Our stage manager Jeff Kiltie said, "You should do that musical Always…Patsy Cline. She said, "Really? What's that?" He said, "It's the two-woman musical [that] tells the story of the friendship between Patsy and this woman she met in Houston named Louise Seger and how they remained friends until Patsy passed away. As a matter of fact, Sally, you'd be perfect for Louise!" So he went back home to Florida after we were done with this production and told a local theater there about Rachel's voice and about me and about the musical. They tagged it onto the end of their season and called us and asked us if we would come do it, and we did.
Did you ever imagine this show would become such a big part of your career?
No. [laughs] I was sitting around with my friends last night [and they asked me], "How much rehearsal are you going to have to do?" I said, "Oh, just two days." They said, "Two days? Isn't it just two women onstage and don't you do all the talking for over two hours?" I said, "It's so in me, I could do the whole show for you right now." And I proceeded to do ten minutes of dialogue for them. I could do it in the middle of the night if you wake me up.
What keeps you coming back?
It allows me to feel like I'm almost in a one-woman show because I do all the talking and then Patsy does all the singing.
What is it about the one-woman-show structure that appeals to you?
One of my favorite people I've ever seen onstage mesmerize an audience for two hours is Lily Tomlin when she did The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. She stays in one outfit, she never leaves the stage, and she, just with her voice and her mannerisms, becomes other people. I use the way this play is written to become about seven different people onstage. I'm Louise the whole show, but then I'm Louise doing her boss, then I'm Louise imitating her boyfriend, Louise doing the disc jockey at the radio station, Louise doing the receptionist at the radio station, Louise doing her mother. I'm emulating Lily Tomlin.
Do you think the kind of fan-celebrity relationship Louise and Patsy had is still possible in today's culture?
I think it is because it happened to me. In the show [there is] a moment where Louise and her boyfriend meet Patsy, and Patsy needs a ride back to her hotel. [Louise says] to her, "You're never gonna get a taxi outta here this time a night, so we'll take ya. But first you're comin' to my house for some bacon and eggs." Then Patsy does go to her house for bacon and eggs at one o'clock in the morning. Twelve years ago, when I did the show in Laguna Beach, California, these people came backstage to say hello to me. Each show, I pull a man out of the audience to come up onstage and dance with me, and this man that I asked to dance, [and his wife] said, "Can we go backstage and see Sally and thank her for pulling me up to dance?" And the [couple] said to me, "Would you like to come back to our house for some bacon and eggs?" And I said, "Yeah!" And I've been friends with them ever since. I just think that people forget that their idols are nothing more than human.
Did you ever get a chance to meet Louise Seger?
No, [and] you know why I didn't? I didn't want to feel duty-bound to do an impression of her. Patsy's songs are sad — the story of her life is sad. If I don't take the opportunity when I'm speaking to bring the audience back up, they will leave there feeling depressed. I envision myself as a clown being shot out of a cannon on the side of the stage when I enter, and I just fly through the air for the rest of the show.