Enough with all this achievement! What really interests us are the thankless roles, those annoying yet necessary characters that allow the stars to shine by comparison. They also deliver exposition, serve as plot devices, and wade through oceans of clichés in order to bring down the curtain on Act II. The unsung heroes and heroines who play these parts are truly deserving of our admiration; Sutton Foster can take care of herself. So, once again, we've scanned the ranks of Broadway cast lists to identify the most thankless of thankless roles. And the winners are:
Schlosser, Awake and Sing!
Schlosser is this season's best example of a certain type of thankless role: The Messenger of Doom. His ostensible job is that of building superintendant, but he really exists to increase the already high level of tsuris suffered by the members of Clifford Odets's Berger family. First, he complains about the family dog making messes in the building, inciting yet another family argument; then he returns at the end of Act II to announce that the clan's grandfather, driven by relentless Marxist economic logic, has jumped off the roof. Not bad for an evening's work -- and you still have Act III to kill backstage. Note to anyone cast as Schlosser: Join a book club. Awake and Sing! is a long night.
Stenographer, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial
Actors list various skills on their résumés: dialects, boxing, puppeteering, and so on. But what about the ability to type 60 words a minute? You really need to be able to do this if, like Tom Gottlieb, you're cast as the stenographer in a revival of Herman Wouk's courtroom drama. Your task is to type away as each supporting character mounts the witness stand for his hambone turn. (Gottlieb should have been taking notes for director Jerry Zaks; the show might still be running.) Yet this isn't the worst tour of duty in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. At least you don't have to constantly make shocked faces and write notes in response to each new plot twist, like the actors playing the judges; and if you get really good at your job, you can work as a Kelly Girl during those gaps between acting gigs.
Nettie, The Color Purple
In the panorama of black female suffering that is The Color Purple, everyone gets her turn to emote. That is, everyone but Nettie, Celie's saintly sister. The character is whisked off to Africa early in Act I, thereafter making only the occasional appearance -- most notably in a ballet sequence that must have had Julie Taymor calling her lawyer -- before returning for the triumphant finale in which everyone forgives everyone else while swaying and clapping hands. Nettie is the Offstage Saint, a vision of goodness who's never challenged, largely because we don't ever get to know her. Her one action is to reunite Celie with her long-lost children, who grew up in Africa. What a reunion! Celie is in her 50s, stooped and grizzled; Nettie, having lived in the bush and survived a war, has exactly one gray hair; Celie's kids, who by my count should be pushing 40, look like recent high-school graduates. Maybe Nettie was a missionary in an African spa?
Festen got on a lot of people's nerves for several reasons. But for many audience members, the last straw came when Gbatokai, the black boyfriend of Helene (Julianna Margulies) showed up and was greeted with racial taunts from Helene's relatives. Gbatokai is your classic Object of Abuse; he serves no dramatic purpose except to incite more bad behavior in characters who could populate a season's worth of Fox TV reality series. (At the performance I attended, a black man sitting across the aisle from me walked out during this scene.) One wonders if actor Keith Davis, having endured such slurs eight times a week, didn't place a call to the producers of The Color Purple. In that show, at least, the suffering means something!
Headmaster, The History Boys
Every British play has a stuffy Voice of Conventionality, a fathead functionary whose job is to stammer, cough nervously, and grimace at the delightfully eccentric leading characters. The Headmaster disapproves of Hector, who prepares his students for higher education by letting them sing show tunes and crack wise; he earns audience sneers when he tries to fire Hector, who has been fondling the boys' genitals. (One suspects that Anglophilic Broadway audiences would take a dim view of such groping if it happened to their own children. But, hey, Hector's an eccentric Englishman, so it must be all right!)
Anthony, Hot Feet
Broadway musicals don't yield lots of juvenile roles anymore, but that's just what Anthony is. An earnest young choreographer in the Serpentine Fine Dance Company (can't say that name too often!), he exists to make eyes at lead character Kalimba, but Michael Balderrama as Anthony practically vanishes next to Keith David's hammy impresario Victor and Allen Hidalgo's scenery-chewing Devil. (By the way, Keith David is not to be confused with the aforementioned Keith Davis, who was still enduring racial slurs from Festen's dysfunctional Danes when Hot Feet opened.) Anthony does get one pearly moment when, during an argument, Victor demands to see his new work -- right now! The choreographer pleads that he's not ready, but Victor won't budge. Anthony yells, "Everybody onstage! Whatever you're wearing is fine." Enter 12 chorus girls wearing black lace fetish underwear with chains, ready to leap into the kind of booty-shaking, pelvis-thrusting dance not seen since John Travolta slipped down Satan's Alley. And they say they don't make musicals like they used to!
Liz, In My Life
All right, let's say it and get it over with: This entire show consisted of nothing but thankless roles. True, but some were even more thankless than others in this farrago of singing pirates, dancing skeletons, brain tumors, gay angels, and God knows what else. Consider the case of Liz, mother of the show's hero, J.T. Already dead when the curtain rises, Liz is mostly confined to an enormous suburban kitchen -- which, in the Broadway production, was located in the far-away upper reaches of Allen Moyer's set. There she sings "Sempre Mio Rimani" in Italian, as if the audience wasn't already baffled enough. Later, she's liberated and goes to Heaven, where she sings several numbers that are unlikely to be heard at Don't Tell Mama anytime soon. We don't really have a category for Liz; then again, we don't really have a category for In My Life.
Mr. Clayton, Tarzan
Anglophilia rears its head again in the latest Disney tuner. The title character, a white man raised by embarrassed-looking Broadway actors in ape suits, finally meets his own kind in the persons of Jane Porter and her father. These are the sort of cheerful, hearty, right-thinking English folk who have been turning up in Disney entertainments for decades -- e.g., in Mary Poppins. Naturally, there's a snake in this Eden in the form of Mr. Clayton, a typical Ugly American who wants to capture Tarzan's tribe and sell them to the circus. You know Clayton is a villain the minute he speaks in -- horrors! -- a Southern accent. Worse, he patronizes Jane, and he has no interest in the beauties of nature as depicted by Bob Crowley's all green set. What's next? Torture? Invasion? (This form of self-congratulatory moralizing is especially hilarious coming from Disney, a company where Clayton, with his skill set, could end up as successful as Michael Eisner.)
Glen Guglia, The Wedding Singer
You can't have a story set in the 1980s without a prime example of Yuppie Scum. Here, it's Glen Guglia, a hard-charging Wall Street denizen whose license plate reads "XMAS BNUS." He woos but doesn't really love Laura Benanti's Julia -- who, as every sentient member of the audience knows, is destined to end up in the arms of Stephen Lynch's Robbie Hart. Glen signals his evil nature by wearing polo shirts with sweaters draped over them and by shouldering the book's outsize share of gags about life in the '80s. ("It's called a cell phone," he tells Julia, whipping out a huge one. Later, he repeats basically the same joke, this time with a CD player. Still later, he praises the financial acumen of Ivan Boesky.) Of course, we eventually learn that Glen is really a skanky, drug-taking, whoremongering creep. But these crimes pale next to his second-act opening number, "All About the Green," a mind-numbingly obvious satire of greed brought to you by the show's producers, New Line Cinema -- the philanthropic organization responsible for remakes of Willard and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, not to mention Dumb and Dumberer.
Our hearts go out to the valiant performers who played or are still playing these parts. Remember, anyone with a 45-minute monologue about faith-healing can win a Tony nomination, whereas the thankless roles are the ones that truly separate the men from the boys, the women from the girls. If you attend any of the shows noted above -- assuming they're still running -- give each and every one of the actors who fill these roles a silent standing ovation.
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