Stephen Mo Hanan as Jolie(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Stephen Mo Hanan as Jolie
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
According to Stephen Mo Hanan, who stars in Jolson & Company at Off-Broadway's Century Center, there were two difficulties in creating a show about the legendary Al Jolson. "You can't do it without dealing with blackface," says Hanan, "because it's central to what Jolson did." (That oft-applied makeup dated back to the star's minstrel-show days.) "The other problem is in presenting the man himself. He was a prick!

"Fifty years after his death," Hanan continues, "just as there are those who support a couple of different Al Jolson websites, there are people who knew him for whom the very mention of his name makes smoke come out of their nostrils. The danger is you either tell the truth and make him unsympathetic or you sugarcoat it like the movie [The Jolson Story] does and do a completely bogus version of his life." Hanan feels that he and Jay Berkow, co-author of and director of Jolson & Company, have "managed to show what a totally nasty person Jolson was -- because he was tormented -- and, through, the revelation of that torment, make him sympathetic."

Generally considered the greatest entertainer of his time, Jolson was born in 1886. He appeared in 14 Broadway shows, from his 1911 debut in La Belle Paree to 1940's Hold On to Your Hats. He starred in The Jazz Singer, the 1927 movie that made talking pictures a sensation. Years later, his fading career got a huge boost with the release of the highly fictionalized 1946 biographical movie The Jolson Story (cited above), in which he supplied the singing for Larry Parks' Oscar-nominated performance. A 1949 sequel, Jolson Sings Again, also proved popular, and "Jolie" was enjoying renewed popularity when he died of a heart attack in 1950.

Stephen Mo Hanan, born in Washington, D.C., says that he owes his theatrical career to two things: "exposure to Gilbert and Sullivan at seven or eight and seeing The Ten Commandments when I was 10." He attended Harvard and won a Fulbright scholarship to study acting in London for a year. "When I returned, I was very idealistic," he admits. "I thought of myself as a natural performer who didn't have to wait for someone to hire me." As it turned out, he spent six years in San Francisco "in a kind of hippie commune in Haight-Ashbury, foregoing theater altogether. I performed on the street and I had a terrific spot, singing to people lined up to take the ferry to Sausalito. It was immensely lucrative; it took two or three years for my Equity salaries to match what I had made at the ferry!"

While in San Francisco, Hanan wrote his first play, which had a workshop production at ACT. "It was well enough received that they sent a copy to the New York Shakespeare Festival, where it was given a staged reading. I came to New York for that. While I was here, the casting person heard me sing and said, 'Oh, I wish you'd come in for something we're doing at the Delacorte [in Central Park] this summer.' That was my first job here: All's Well That Ends Well, in 1978." Hanan's Broadway credits include Samuel in the hit NYSF production of The Pirates of Penzance, Captain Hook to Cathy Rigby's Peter Pan, and Asparagus/Growltiger (for which he received a Tony nomination) in Cats. (His book A Cat's Diary details the musical's rehearsal period.)

The actor acquired his middle name while on a trip to Bermuda during his college days. "I was with John Weidman and Timothy Crouse," he relates. "We'd written one of the Hasty Pudding shows at Harvard together. I was a middle-class Jewish kid from Washington, D.C., who had no idea what preppy types wear in Bermuda. John took one look at my outfit and said, 'You look like some guy named Mo who cleans cabanas at the Catskills' -- and the name stuck! When I first did Candide, in '89, there were three Steves in the company; so, the first day of rehearsal, I said, 'Call me Mo.' I got in the habit of saying that and I eventually asked Equity if I could incorporate it as my middle name."

Hanan with Nancy Anderson and Robert Ariin Jolson & Company(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Hanan with Nancy Anderson and Robert Ari
in Jolson & Company
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Jolson & Company previously played at the York Theatre in 1999. The open-ended run at Century Center reunites Hanan with Nancy Anderson and Robert Ari, who portray several people in Jolson's life. Anderson claims that she doesn't have a favorite among her seven roles: "I love them all, especially this time around. I feel I'm a much more experienced actress and more relaxed onstage. I've found deeper characterizations to explore. I'm so obsessed with making each character distinct that not only do I change wigs and costumes, but also my makeup for every one. That's just my own pathology," she laughs.

A Drama Desk nominee for the York edition of the show, Anderson plays three of Jolson's wives (among them, Ruby Keeler) and Mae West. "I watched a lot of Mae West movies when I first prepared," she tells me. "The relationship of Jolson and Mae West is a fabrication -- there's no real documentation that they were friends -- but it makes great storytelling." Anderson debuted on Broadway as Mona in A Class Act, in which she had appeared previously at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Producer Roger Berlind enjoyed her performance so much that she was called to audition for the role of Lois Lane in his touring company of Kiss Me, Kate; she went on to play the part in four American cities and then for a year in London. During its final week there, the production was taped for PBS-TV's Great Performances for telecast early next year; besides Anderson, it stars Brent Barrett, Rachel York, and Michael Berresse.

Anderson's other credits include Sweeney Todd, Dorian, and Fanny Hill at the Goodspeed Opera House. Next month, she will appear in a workshop of the new Frank Wildhorn musical Camille Claudel. But her most rewarding theatrical experience thus far has been Jolson & Company. "That's why I'm so happy to come back to it," she says. "I was devastated at the prospect of its going ahead without me, which almost happened several times. The fact that all three of us are able to do it together again is serendipitous!"

Does Robert Ari find it a kick to play nine roles in the show? "It's more of a kick for the audience," he replies. "It's a lot of work! I do it with hairstyles, beards, a complete change of wardrobe." Ari's two favorite characters are Columbia Studios head Harry Cohn and Jolson's father. "Cohn's outrageous," says the actor: "He's rough and coarse, but he really cares for Jolson. The father's so severe, but the role resonates with the way I grew up on the Lower East Side [of Manhattan]. I knew many rabbis and cantors. I really know that person."

Strutting their stuff:Nancy Anderson and Stephen Mo Hanan(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Strutting their stuff:
Nancy Anderson and Stephen Mo Hanan
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Ari is first seen in Jolson & Company as Barry Gray, on whose late-night radio show Jolie is a guest. This device allows the fabled entertainer to reminisce about his life and career, thereby creating a framework for the action. "That interview really took place," notes Ari. "The tape's at Lincoln Center [in the research library]." While preparing for the show, Ari listened to the tape and watched The Jolson Story -- not for the first time. "When I was a kid," he recalls, "they used to have the Million Dollar Movie on TV. They'd show a picture twice every night and three times on Saturday and Sunday. A number of them, I watched all week long. Yankee Doodle Dandy was one and The Jolson Story was another.

Ari is a native New Yorker whose grandfather was a producer in Yiddish Theater. ("I grew up watching such stars as Molly Picon, Menasha Skulnik, and Maurice Schwartz," he says.) In addition to acting, he teaches, directs, writes songs, and plays guitar. "I grew up as a folkie in Washington Square Park; I played open mikes at Café Wha, Café Bizarre, and a lot of places that don't exist anymore," he tells me. His extensive regional work includes two roles created by Zero Mostel: Pseudolus in ...Forum and Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. On Broadway, he stood by for both Nathan Lane and Ron Orbach in Laughter on the 23rd Floor. "I went on for Ron about eight times," he says. "Subsequently, I stood by for Nathan in The Man Who Came to Dinner, but that was one show where he never missed a performance." Ari's most recent Broadway role was as Inspector Barnes in Bells Are Ringing. Though the show was short lived, he describes it as "a wonderful experience. Tina Landau's a brilliant director. The cast and creative crew were sensational. And Faith Prince is probably the nicest person I've met in the business."

While it's a safe bet that no one ever considered Al Jolson to be the nicest person in show business, the fact remains that he was a fascinating performer. So it's not surprising that Stephen Mo Hanan very much enjoys playing him. "I fling myself into anything I'm doing 110 percent," says Hanan. "It's still hard to believe that people actually pay me to do something I enjoy so much." His enthusiasm comes across in the very entertaining Jolson & Company. The first time Hanan is seen, his resemblance to Jolson is startling -- and he follows-up by singing Jolie's songs in a manner that says, "You ain't heard nothin' yet!"