You may know Harriet Harris from her stellar work on the New York stage in a couple of Paul Rudnick romps: Jeffrey, in which she filled several roles; and Rude Entertainment, an evening of three one-acts in which she played both (1) an overgrown foster child with a secret, and (2) Eleanor Roosevelt. In 2000, she was Maggie Cutler to Nathan Lane's Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner for the Roundabout, and her impressively varied film credits include roles in Memento, Nurse Betty, and Addams Family Values. Now, she's about to set audiences rolling in the aisles in Thoroughly Modern Millie, the new Broadway musical based on the 1967 film that memorably starred Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore, and Carol Channing.
Harris laughs hysterically when I ask her if she's done musicals before. "Well," she replies, "I've done songs in shows that were not exactly musicals. Years ago, I did a show called Bella, Belle of Byelorussia at the WPA Theatre, and I had a WPA kind of song that I sang with a wrench in my hand. I've also covered in musicals with The Acting Company; I was an understudy in a show called Chapeau, based on The Italian Straw Hat. I'm like a model who's not really pretty but has a 'look,' so she gets to model. I mean, I'm not really a singer, but I guess I have an interesting character voice that makes me right for certain parts in musicals."
In Thoroughly Modern Millie, set in NYC in the Roaring '20s, Harris is Mrs. Meers, the proprietress of a hotel for young ladies who turns out to be a white slaver. The part has quite an illustrious history: in the film, the legendary Beatrice Lillie played Meers, and that performance is revered for its comic genius. In a workshop of the stage musical adaptation a few years ago, Mrs. M. was none other than Beatrice Arthur, who is just now coming back to Broadway in her own one-woman show. And in last year's production of Millie at the La Jolla Playhouse, the part was essayed by the venerable Pat Carroll. Harris, who took over for Carroll at the end of the show's run in La Jolla, tells me that she had been an early contender for the role.
"I was doing Jeffrey in L.A.," she relates. "Richard Morris [who wrote the screenplay for Millie and co-wrote the book of the stage musical with Dick Scanlan] saw the show and said, 'I've found our Mrs. Meers!' I actually did one of the first workshops." Now, Harris is very much looking forward to playing this plum part on Broadway.
"You know, when you're growing up and you're thinking about being an actor, one of the first things you're exposed to are old movie musicals on TV," she says. "Later, you go on to learn about Shakespeare and all that, but I think a lot of us carry an image of ourselves in musicals. I can't exactly say that being in a Broadway musical is a dream fulfilled, because I never dreamed it would happen...but I'm absolutely thrilled that it did happen."