Harper's most recent New York appearances were Off-Broadway, in Woody Allen and Elaine May's Death Defying Acts and in All Under Heaven, a one-woman show about the author Pearl S. Buck that she developed and produced with her husband. Now, she has returned to Broadway in a role that might have been written for her. In Charles Busch's The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, Harper is Marjorie Taub, an Upper West Side matron whose mid-life crisis is exacerbated when a free-spirited childhood friend (played by Michele Lee) turns up unexpectedly at her door and attempts to change the lives of Marjorie and her husband, Ira (played by Tony Roberts). Harper inherited the plum part from the fabulous Linda Lavin and has been playing it since midsummer. I recently got the chance to chat with her and ask how it's going.
THEATERMANIA: This role is a workout, yes?
VALERIE HARPER: It sure is! I've been putting everything into it. I jumped onto this incredible missile going through space; all the other four actors have been in it from the beginning. Marjorie really goes into the stratosphere. There is yelling and screaming, and a lot of talking. But I love Marjorie to death. I think she's great.
TM: Did you first experience the show on paper?
VH: Yes. They sent it to me, I read it, and I thought it was hilarious. They asked me to please come in and see the show and meet with [director] Lynne Meadow. That was in February; I guess they were anticipating Linda leaving and thinking about recasting he part, because the other actors were agreeing to stay. With that in mind, they called me and offered me the show. It's wonderful. Tony [Roberts] and Shirl [Bernheim, who plays Marjorie's mother] and darling Michele [Lee], and Anil Kumar who plays Mohammed, the doorman--everybody is fabulous.
TM: Some of us were half-joking about how great it would be to bring in Mary Tyler Moore to play Lee and Gavin MacLeod to play Ira.
VH: Oh, my God, that's funny. But I think it would look real incestuous...and not too Jewish. Though Mary is partially Jewish, way back. I'm not Jewish. I am a closet shiksa! Everybody thinks I'm a Jew because Rhoda, my alter ego, was.
TM: Did you spend your childhood in New York?
VH: No, we moved to Jersey City when I was 13. I was born in Suffern, New York, and raised on the West Coast. We lived in various places during my young life, including Toledo, Ohio. I went to Catholic boarding school in Monroe, Michigan! I started to get into theater and dancing when we were living in Jersey City, and eventually I was in some Broadway shows. Then, the year after my first marriage, I went out to California to try and get into television. But I had taken acting classes in New York for a long time.
TM: That must have been an incredibly exciting time to be in the city.
VH: It was, but I'll tell you: I'm old enough now to know that there's no such thing as "the good old days." You can remember things fondly and say, "Oh, that was great." But I think the best time is right now, or just ahead. They used to say that the golden age of television was the '50s, with things like Your Show of Shows, and it would never be back. Then along came The Mary Tyler Moore Show and other wonderful shows. More recently, we've seen things like Northern Exposure. I don't think you get any better than that.
TM: That's a healthy attitude toward the past--honor it, but don't live in it.
VH: I really believe that. And I like to tell that to younger people, because I don't want them to think it's all over. There's plenty of creativity left in the world; it's all out there for young folks to seize the day and say what they want to say. The guys who wrote The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda were in their early 30s, and I think they did a great job of creating characters. There's still room for good work--though it is harder now because of these vertically integrated, monolithic entertainment companies that kind of pasteurize everything. That's a real problem. But I don't think you can keep creativity down.
TM: Certainly, there's some terrific comedy writing on TV these days: shows like Frasier and Friends. And it seems like comedy is definitely making a comeback on Broadway, thanks to people like Charles Busch.
VH: This play is incredible. It's beautifully constructed and it's so hilarious. The audience literally stops the show with laughter, over and over again. There are times when we have to stand on stage and find behavior while we wait to deliver the next line because they're screaming, holding their stomachs, falling out of their chairs laughing. They laugh because they recognize themselves in the play; it's the human comedy. That's one of Marjorie's last lines: She says that the doorman's work gives him unique insight into the human comedy, and I think Charles Busch has that insight as well.
TM: As a youngster, you worked in Broadway musicals starring some of the greatest comic talents of all time: Jackie Gleason in Take Me Along, Lucille Ball in Wildcat. What was that like?
VH: Fantastic! I used to watch Jackie every Friday night on television, and now here I was, dancing behind him on Broadway. Even when he was three-sheets-to-the-wind, he showed up. Maybe he was a little slower, but he did the show. And Lucy was just divine to work with.
TM: What was your last Broadway show as a gypsy?
VH: Subways Are For Sleeping, with Sydney Chaplin and Phyllis Newman and Carol Lawrence and Orson Bean. My first show was L'il Abner, with Peter Palmer. That was fabulous--a comic book come to life.
TM: The movie version has almost the entire Broadway cast in it, and it's fun to catch glimpses of you in the dance numbers.
VH: In the orange dress! You know, I'm running for the presidency of the Screen Actors' Guild, so I went before the nominating committee and they said, "How long have you been in SAG?" I wrote this statement that said, "I have been a SAG member since 1959, when I was in the Paramount picture L'il Abner. I was a singer/dancer/actress. I had several lines. So, yes, I was acting, and I got to wear a cute little dress."
TM: I almost forgot to mention another TV giant with whom you worked on Broadway: Andy Griffith, in Destry Rides Again
VH: I wasn't in that show when it opened because I had hepatitis, so I didn't really get to know him very well.
TM: I always think it's interesting when people have a lot of training and experience in a certain area and then take a different career path You've done tons of theater since you gained fame on TV, but no musicals. Is it just that the right project hasn't come along?
VH: I don't know! Maybe I'll do a musical again sometime. I think it would be fun.
TM: I remember hearing you sing on TV variety shows--when TV variety shows still existed.
VH: I did Carol Burnett and some other things. I can hold a tune, but I don't think of myself as a singer. Michele Lee is a fabulous singer. She has the pipes of the world!
TM: Have you worked with Michele and Tony Roberts before?
VH: Michele and I have done those big, "Night of 100 Stars" things, and I think we may have been on a TV special together. I've seen her over the years at so many events--fundraisers for the ERA, world hunger. She's always doing benefits; she's so generous that way. But I never really acted with her until now. I first met Tony through a dear friend of mine who was in Don't Drink the Water with him, so we've known each other for a million years. And now, I'm on the SAG board with him. We've been working together closely over the past year on the search team for the new executive director.
TM: I read that you recently did a pilot for a new TV series. What's the status of that?
VH: It was called The DeMarcos and it wasn't picked up, but I loved it. It was about an Italian family with three grown-up sons who all move back into the parents' house. Now, I'm working on doing my Pearl Buck show as a special event movie for ABC. My husband and I did that show in California, Florida, all over the country, and here in New York.
TM: When is the SAG election?
TM: Good luck! If you are elected, at least you won't have to deal with the strike that didn't happen.
VH: Oh my God, no. But there'll be other major issues coming up.
TM: Well, it's great to have you on Broadway in such a wonderful part. I don't suppose you've had a chance to see many of the other shows. Obviously, it's difficult for you to do that.
VH: Yeah, but I will make my way. Some of them run on Monday nights. And I might be able to see shows on Sunday nights if I run right over after our 5:00 curtain. The theater is wonderful. It's where I started, it has my heart, and I'm really glad to be back.