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Replacement Parts

Will Jonathan Pryce be the first to win a Tony in the new category of Best Performance by an Actor/Actress Recreating a Role?

By New York City
Mylinda Hull and Jonathan Pryce in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Mylinda Hull and Jonathan Pryce
in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
For the first time in Tony Awards history, this year an award will be given for the Best Performance by an Actor/Actress Recreating a Role. Last week, we got to see the performance that many assumed would be a front-runner, when Jonathan Pryce met the press as Lawrence Jameson in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Is he giving us what we want in the role originated by John Lithgow? Well, yes and no. Pryce did look a little frail at his first entrance, but he is getting over some sort of bug. (Indeed, he was originally supposed to open for the critics a couple of weeks back.) But he does settle in nicely and, at one point, does a high kick that would make a Rockette quite envious.

Frankly, I think he might deserve a Tony for a different reason. Norbert Leo Butz, who may be getting bored with playing Freddy Benson, pretended to be stifling laughter several times during the show, always hoping to get Pryce to "crack up" with him. He wouldn't, no matter how many times Butz pulled this stunt. However, when the audience "oohed" at something dirty and/or rotten that Pryce had just done or was about to do, the actor did break the fourth wall and gave us a "what's-the-matter?" look. (By the way: I envision Jonathan Pryce as Jonathan Brewster, the Boris Karloff role, in Arsenic and Old Lace, and I'd love to actually see him in it, whether he wants to star from the outset or take over later in the run.) And while she may not technically be eligible for the new award, Rachel York, who's filling in for Sherie Rene Scott during her absence, should be acknowledged if only for the way she holds her last note in "Here I Am." It makes Ethel Merman's famous hold in "I Got Rhythm" seem like a hiccup.

I spent the intermission thinking about others who would have won this award had it been instituted long ago, as it should have been. Pearl Bailey essentially got it for Hello, Dolly! via a well-deserved honorary award, but who else was deserving? Maybe because she's been on my mind because she was just cast in the upcoming Encores! production of 70, Girls, 70, I'm thinking of Joan Fagin, who was so good as Lizzie in 110 in the Shade. If you didn't notice her name in the credits when you saw the casting announcement for the Encores! show, it's because Fagin -- who, by the way, had one of the greatest opening numbers in Broadway history when she did Donnybrook in 1961 -- is using her married name of Joan Marshall. I'm looking forward to welcoming her back.

Wouldn't it have been something if Mimi Hines had won the award for her Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, when Barbra Streisand didn't get one for creating the role? Herschel Bernardi certainly would have received one for his Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof; many have claimed that he was the best actor to ever have played the part. (Or is that just because they saw Mostel after he'd become bored and started woefully ad-libbing?) And though none of us ever got to see Judy Garland play Mame, we all know that if she had showed up for at least seven shows a week and had given the performance we know she was capable of, she would have won in a walk.

I'd hate to plow through all the people who inhabited Grease, A Chorus Line, and Godspell, not to mention all the British musicals that really did seem to run now and forever. But others come to mind. Has anyone ever heard anything less that "magnificent!" about any performance that Sandy Duncan gave in the roles in which she succeeded, be it the pleasant Edith in My One and Only or the downright amoral Roxie in Chicago? People raved and rave -- and Tony would have had to take notice, I'm sure.

Richard Burton might have won for playing Martin Dysart in Equus, just for actually doing it; back in the 1970s, few stars of his magnitude deigned to succeed anyone. But Burton liked the role and wanted to do it. And I insist that Swoosie Kurtz would have won just for the way she handled one moment in Six Degrees of Separation, in which she replaced Stockard Channing. It was the scene near the end of the play, where con-man Paul makes a desperation phone call to Ouisa and she chides him for bringing a hustler to her apartment. He says, "I was so happy. I wanted to add sex to it. Don't you ever do that?" Kurtz let us see Ouisa's thought processes, going from an outraged "No!" to an embarrassed "I don't want to say that" to a demure "I can't say yes, can I?" to her final decision to simply say "No" -- all in fewer seconds than it just took to me describe her doing so.

One final story about replacements: In 1979, I was working for press agent Jeffrey Richards, who was handling Deathtrap. Stacy Keach, who had replaced John Wood, was playing Sidney Bruhl, the desperate playwright; but he was due to leave the show on July 15, so we were issuing a flurry of press releases along the following lines: "Last eight performances to see Stacy Keach!" "Noted actor Stacy Keach in his last seven performances as Sidney Bruhl!" "Only five performances left to see the most titanic actor of his generation!" "Act now to catch one of the final three performances, for if you don't, how will you ever explain this theatrical lapse to your grandchildren?" But, the following Monday, we started work on press releases that, if you read between the lines, essentially said, "Thank God you decided to wait to see Deathtrap and missed that ol' Stacy Keach, because now you have the unmitigated pleasure of seeing John Cullum as the definitive Sidney Bruhl." And that, as they say, is show business.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@theatermania.com]


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