They Call Her Mimi
Thank heaven for parts like Miss Lynch in Grease, Mrs. Primrose in On the Twentieth Century, and any number of the sisters in Nunsense, not to mention the title role in Hello, Dolly! They offer golden opportunities for female stars of a certain age to strut their stuff rather than sitting at home and vegetating -- stars like the fabulous Mimi Hines, who has glittered in productions of all of the above shows.
Now living in Las Vegas, Hines started as a singer but gained fame on TV variety shows and in nightclubs as half of a comic duo with her then-husband, Phil Ford. In the mid '60s, she made her Broadway debut in a very big way, replacing Barbra Streisand as the star of Funny Girl and continuing in the role for 18 months. She still works often, most recently in a tour of Nunsense, and now she's poised to open in the L.A. Reprise! production of the Stephen Schwartz-Roger O. Hirson musical Pippin. As Berthe, Pippin's grandmother, Hines will perform the show-stopping "No Time At All" as part of a company that includes Michael Arden in the title role (which he played in New York in a National AIDS Fund benefit concert on November 30) and Sam Harris as the Leading Player.
Hines had never seen Pippin when she was offered the job. "I told my manager/lawyer, Mark Sendroff, that I didn't know anything about the part," Hines related during a recent telephone interview. "He said, 'It's one song. They wheel you in on a throne. You don't even have to move if you don't want to -- you can just sit there and do your number!' Then Mark sent me a tape of the TV version. Chita Rivera's in it, and Martha Raye is Berthe; she's adorable, just as cute as she can be. Ben Vereen, of course, is the Leading Player."
The energetic, gregarious Hines speaks fondly of the aforementioned tour of Nunsense: "We finished in May. Kaye Ballard, Georgia Engel, Lee Meriwether, and Darlene Love were in it. Geez, it was the best fun I ever had! To be onstage with all those women was a gas! You know, Danny Goggin is writing a Las Vegas version of the show; he's been telling me about it on the phone. We might get to do it out here some time."
In 1998, Hines was terrific as Mrs. Levi in Hello, Dolly! at the Gateway Playhouse in Long Island, but the run didn't start out very well. "On opening night, I got laryngitis!" she laments. "The doctor gave me these huge capsules and I was okay a few days later. But some jerk who came to the opening wrote in the paper, 'She shouldn't be singing, she's lost her voice!' Bullshit! Everybody in the audience knew I was sick. I shouldn't have gone on, but it was opening night, so whatcha gonna do?" Playing opposite Hines as Horace Vandergelder in that production was her ex-husband, Phil Ford, with whom she has continued to perform occasionally. "A few years back, we did a wonderful concert at the Olympic Theatre in Seattle," she tells me. "Phil and I were in our top-drawer entertaining mode. If I could do a show like that every night, I'd be the happiest person in the world." (Ford remarried following his divorce from Hines but his wife died several years ago.)
Hines has hit the road in "hundreds" of shows. "I think I did eight companies of Sugar Babies," she says. "I did Sophisticated Ladies with Tony Martin and Cyd Charisse. And then, of course, I did my act everywhere." When I marvel at the terrific condition of her voice, she replies: "I'm lucky, huh? A lot of people, at my age, their voice is gone -- I mean, literally gone." And what exactly is her age? "I'm 71. Why not say it? I've lived it! I'm courageously going on but feeling terribly sad about Jerry Orbach, who was a great friend of mine. I was just getting over [the death of] Howard Keel, and then Jerry died. I couldn't stop crying. I just want everybody to live forever in freeze frame. Really, 2004 was a killer year in many ways."
Though Hines's résumé is lengthy, her only Broadway show other than Funny Girl was the mid-'90s production of Grease! She rates Funny Girl as "the most exciting moment of my life. I loved Jule Styne and he loved me. We had a really great mutual admiration society; in fact, he wrote the liner notes for my second album. Coming back to Broadway in Grease! -- well, that was culture shock. The whole world of Broadway was different. In the old days, they never jammed five shows into a weekend. You never thought, 'I hate this matinee because I've been here for three days!' Now, you're there on Friday night, all day Saturday, and all day Sunday. You never leave the theater. It's like working in a submarine!"
The L.A. Reprise! Pippin should be a somewhat less taxing experience; although the production does have an eight-performance-a week schedule with five shows on weekends, it's only set to run from January 25 through February 6. "And I just have the one number," notes Hines. "I'm on 40 minutes into the first act, and then you never see me again. It ought to be fun!" For more on Mimi Hines, visit the website www.MimiHines.com.
As Mimi Hines pointed out, 2004 was a very bad year for show business in terms of human loss. This point was really brought home to me the other day when I was re-listening to the wonderful DRG recording of Barbara Cook's Broadway. Of course, the disc is an elegy to Wally Harper, Cook's longtime musical director-pianist and one of Broadway's most talented composers and arrangers. But I also noticed that it contains one song with music by Cy Coleman ("It's Not Where You Start," from Seesaw) and another with lyrics by Fred Ebb ("Among My Yesterdays," from The Happy Time), both of whom were still with us when the recording was made in April 2004 but have since departed.
I was shocked at the results when I asked my associate editor, Matthew Murray, to compile links to the obituaries of theater folk that TheaterMania posted in 2004. Here's a roster of the departed, with the date of each person's death: Charles Brown (January 8); Spalding Gray (went missing January 10, remains identified early March); Uta Hagen (January 14); Ann Miller (January 22); Jason Raize (February 3); Bart Howard (February 21); Mary Bryant (February 22); Carl Anderson (February 23); John Randolph (February 24); Jerome Lawrence (February 29); Mercedes McCambridge (March 2); Paul Winfield (March 7); Peter Ustinov (March 28); Virginia Capers (May 6); Alan King (May 9); Tony Randall (May 17); Marlon Brando (July 1); Julie Kurnitz (July 15); Fay Wray (August 8); Elmer Bernstein (August 18); Fred Ebb (September 11); Jerome Chodorov (September 12); John Hammond (September 12); Iggie Wolfington (September 30); Hildy Parks (October 7); Wally Harper (October 8); Christopher Reeve (October 11); Howard Keel (November 7); Gregory Mitchell (November 11); Cy Coleman (November 18); Mark Arvin (December 5); and Jerry Orbach (December 28).
These people represent several different walks of show business, with publicist Mary Bryant, producer Hildy Parks, and journalist John Hammond each holding a proud place next to the actors, writers, composers, etc. whom we lost. Many of the deaths noted above are especially hard to take in that these folks were working at a time when the theater in general (and Broadway in particular) was a central part of American culture. No matter how talented some of today's theater notables may be, their eventual passing -- a great many years hence, we hope -- almost certainly won't register in the national consciousness as deeply as the passing of those who did their stuff during the Golden Age. (Can you imagine a song from a current Broadway show gaining the broad popularity that the title tune from Cabaret, "Real Live Girl" from Little Me, or "Big Spender" from Sweet Charity achieved in the 1960s? Not bloody likely.)
So, for their accomplishments throughout their careers, here's another salute to the men and women of the theater who left us in 2004. As the late Dorothy Fields put it in the aformentioned song that she wrote with the late Cy Coleman, "It's not where you start, it's where you finish" -- and Coleman, Ebb, Hagen, Miller, Randall, Orbach, et al. definitely finished on top.