The question of timing -- in more ways than one -- certainly occurred to Daniel Davis when his friend Bonnie J. Monte approached him 18 months ago about coming from California to New Jersey to take on the title role in the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey's King Lear. "It's always ironic to be asked to spend your summer clothed in wool and full of hair and sweating," says Davis with a laugh. "But not only is this a good time for me to be away from Los Angeles, but when you have classical training, playing Lear ends up on your list of things to do. So I talked to a lot of friends who've played the role, and the advice they gave me was not to wait too long. I'm 62, and I'm aware that the role requires a lot of stamina. In fact, I'm not sure it was ever written to be played eight shows a week, never mind that we have to do five shows in three days."
While he's best known to television viewers as the sardonic butler Niles on The Nanny and to Broadway fans for his work in the musicals La Cage Aux Folles and The Frogs, Davis has a long history with Shakespeare, as well as this particular play. "I played Edmund in 1971 opposite William Hutt at Stratford, and I've played the Fool twice," he says. "The thing about Shakespeare is when your skills are finally mature enough to play some of the great parts, like Hamlet or Romeo, you're just too old. I played Hamlet when I was 39 and that was probably pushing it."
Davis says he and Monte have had many substantive discussions over the past year and a half about their approach to the play. "We've decided that whatever adjective you can use to describe any of the characters, the opposite adjective should equally apply," he says. "So you won't see any mustache-twirling villains. Every character is a human being, reacting to a particular situation. I know many people feel Lear's reaction to Cordelia in the first scene is disproportionate, but you have to remember this is a king who's never been publicly humiliated -- and especially by the daughter he loves the most."
While the actor has no children, he was still able to draw on his own family dynamic. "I have three nephews, and they've given my sister and I pause over the years. I've always been her confidante and her go-to-guy when she was ready to murder them," he says. "I really think the situation between Lear and his children is universal."
"I was simply flattered someone was interested in having me write my memoirs," confesses Tony Award-winning composer Charles Strouse, author of the just-published Put On a Happy Face. "I thought maybe 1,000 gay men would buy it, but now I hear even straight people are interested." And why not? The book covers Strouse's remembrances of his nearly 50-year-long Broadway career, working with everyone from Chita Rivera, Lauren Bacall, and Sarah Jessica Parker to David Merrick.
Honesty was important to Strouse -- who didn't rely on diaries, just his memory, in writing the tome. "It was tough at times to work around talking about certain things that might hurt people, but in the end, I lived a life and this is how I remember it," he says. That said, the only true venom in the book is directed at Arthur Laurents. "In some ways, he is the most charming man, but he hurt me very badly when we worked on Nick & Nora and I guess I tried to get him back a little."
Asked which of his hits most surprised him, Strouse quickly responded: "I thought Annie was a very poor idea. We had already done a show based on a comic book --It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman -- and it wasn't a hit. At best, I thought this would be an amusing show, but it wouldn't make money. But I'm a compulsive worker, so when I was asked to do it, I did." As for the "flops" he'd most like to see revived, he has three: Golden Boy, Rags, and I and Albert, which never even played in America after being savaged by British critics.
Meanwhile, Strouse keeps plugging along. His next project, Minsky's, which will debut next year at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles, looks at the 1920s world of burlesque. "The music has a real Louis Armstrong feeling; I hope it sounds like jazz. I just love the music of that time," he says. Furthermore, Strouse would love someone to produce his dream project. "I was always moved by the movie The Best Years of Our Lives, and the idea of these servicemen in various physical and mental conditions returning to a world that's changed" he says. "But I fear it would be very unfashionable. And as much I'd love to have another show on Broadway before I die, I want it to be a good one. Broadway is very unforgiving."
SUMMER ME, WINTHER ME
Lincoln Center's Damrosch Park is the place to be for the next two months, as it hosts its two popular outdoor series, Midsummer Night Swing (July 8-26) and Lincoln Center Out of Doors (August 7-24), which will fill the Upper West Side with the sounds of music. Among the many popular performers scheduled to make appearances in July are Nellie McKay (July 8), Chuck Brown (July 9), Pierre Dulaine (July 12), Albita (July 19), The Harlem Renaissance Orchestra with Mary Stallings (July 22), and Mart'nalia (July 23). Meanwhile, August brings Soledad Barrio and Noche Flameca (August 7), Armitage Gone! Dance and Evidence (August 8), Regina Carter (August 10), Simone (August 10), Roberta Flack (August 13), Jane Monheit (August 13), The East Village Opera Company (August 14), Toshi Reagon (August 21), and Patti Smith (August 24).
Meanwhile, if you didn't make it to the Metropolitan Room last month to hear Michael Winther's stunning cabaret act, New Love Songs, make sure to catch it if ever (hopefully) comes back or to your town. This collection of works by Amerca's top new composers was alternately heartbreaking and hilarious -- and aided in no small part by the superb playing of everyone's favorite barefoot pianist, Kimberly Grigsby, who was on a break from conducting Spring Awakening. Winther also did a fine job last weekend as the servant Minguet in the York Theatre company's Musicals in Mufti production of Goodtime Charley, the decidedly offbeat 1975 musical about the friendship between Charlemagne and Joan of Arc. But there was no question that the show belonged to Jenn Colella, who was nothing short of brilliant as the French peasant girl full of voices and vision.
And speaking of brilliant acting, head up if you can to Penguin Rep in nearby Stony Point, New York, where Tony Award winner Michele Pawk is adding another extraordinary performance to her repetoire as Fay, a grief-stricken mother traveling with her estranged daughter (the excellent Laura Heisler), in Joel Drake Johnson's The Fall to Earth. Not your standard summer fare, to be sure, but this disturbing and occasionally hilarious play, beautifully directed by Joe Brancato, is well worth 90 minutes of your time.
It's been over 20 years since Julie Hagerty last worked with playwright Christopher Durang, but it's been worth the wait for the reunion, with Hagerty playing Soot Hudlocke in the Roundabout Theater revival's of Durang's dark comedy The Marriage of Bette and Boo. "I first did Chris' play Beyond Therapy in the Berkshires and then I played Prudence in the film, and that same year I did a one-act he wrote for the BBC called The Visit," she recalls. "I just adore him and have so much respect for his writing and his artistry. I love the stories he tells. And he writes extraordinarily well for women; there are five great female parts in this play -- which is so unusual -- and I think each of us feels we have the best part."
In fact, Hagerty felt so strongly about playing Soot she actually lobbied for the role --and transplanted herself from her home in California. "My agent was so surprised when I asked him to call the Roundabout; he said he'd never seen me be so aggressive," she says. "But what I love about Soot is that as much as things seem to go past her, she doesn't really miss anything. And there's a deepness to her that gives her strength to be part of this marriage year after year. In the play, people don't give up or walk away from each other."
Hagerty is thrilled to be sharing the stage with her equally celebrated castmates, including a pair of Tony winners. "When they told me John Glover was going to play my husband Karl, I was so thrilled. He always has this twinkle in his eye. I have to add I think he was very patient with me during rehearsals," she says. "And I just love to watch Victoria Clark when she's doing the birthday party scene. It's really pretty joyous to go to work with this cast; in fact, we don't really think it's work at all."