Hey, world, Polly Bergen's back in town! Not only is Miz B. kicking off the third leg of Feinstein's phenomenally successful four-part diva celebration, she's also snagged the role of Carlotta ("I'm Still Here") Campion in the Roundabout Theatre's much anticipated production of Stephen Sondheim's Follies.
"You know, I smoked for 50 years," Bergen laughs in her famed, smokey tones. "That's part of why I stopped singing. But I finally managed to quit. It wasn't a fear of dying, it was a fear of living and being incapacitated. And here I am at 70, at the start of a new career. Had I known I was going to live this long, I would have done this 10 years ago, when I looked and felt better." (For the record, she looks years younger than her age and is still regally beautiful).
Carlotta in Follies, a plum part for any actress/singer of "a certain age," should be a perfect fit for Bergen. Born Nellie Burgin in 1930, she began singing as a teenager in Tennessee and, in 1949, was both an uncredited jukebox voice in Kirk Douglas' breakout film Champion and (as Polly Burgin) played "the cantina singer" in Across the Rio Grande. Then she was discovered by Hal Wallis and soon found herself co-starring in a trio of Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis films: At War with the Army (1950), That's My Boy! (1951), and The Stooge (1953).
Also in '53, she hit Broadway for the first time, appearing with Harry Belafonte, Orson Bean, and Hermione Gingold in John Murray Anderson's Almanac. Just a few years later, she won an Emmy for The Helen Morgan Story, the last live presentation of Playhouse 90. "After Morgan," Bergen recalls, "I was seen as a dramatic actress, though I certainly wasn't trained; I barely knew how to act, as any number of people will tell you." Among those she beat out for the Emmy that year were Julie Andrews (Cinderella), Teresa Wright (The Miracle Worker), and Helen Hayes and Piper Laurie in two original live dramas. Ironically, Bergen says now, "Acting never gave me the joy that singing does."
In 1957-58, she hosted The Polly Bergen Show on TV. And, in 1959, she was back on stage in what would be her last Broadway musical to date: First Impressions, based on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, wherein she replaced fellow television singer Giselle MacKenzie. In that ill-fated show, she co-starred with Gingold again, not to mention Farley Granger and Phyllis Newman. (The latter not only became a lifelong friend, but recently helped facilitate Bergen's audition for Follies.) Bergen participated in last Spring's 92nd Street "Y" celebration of the works of Betty Comden and Adolph Green (Newman's husband), and also filled in at the last minute for Rosemary Harris in Newman's charity reading of The Women at the Lucille Lortel. The last 40 years have brought her more than 300 film and television roles, most notably Rhoda Henry in the two mini-series based on Herman Wouk's epic The Winds of War and War, which earned her two more Emmy nominations in 1983 and 1989.
In 1990, she cameoed in John Water's Cry Baby, truly qualifying her to sing Carlotta's trenchant line: "First you're another sloe-eyed vamp, then someone's mother, then you're camp...!" Her return to singing after a very lengthy hiatus was as Joanne in an AIDS benefit performance of Sondheim's Company in South Beach. "And let me tell you," Bergen states emphatically, "it takes a lot of chutzpah to get out on stage after 35 years of not singing and deliver 'The Ladies Who Lunch.'
"I'd seen the show originally," she says of Company, "but I hadn't really listened to it since, and I had no idea what I'd bitten off. So I was hysterical. My accompanist got me through it and said, 'You know, you'd be great if they ever do Follies again, depending on how they cast it. Older, you're a perfect Phyllis; younger, it's Carlotta.' I had no idea what he was talking about, because I'd never seen the show. A few weeks later, I got the call to audition, though not for any particular part. I don't think they really knew who I was. I auditioned for the casting people and the director, and they asked me to come back and audition for [the role of] Stella ('Who's That Woman?'). I was a little disappointed, because I still didn't know the show and the only names I recognized were Phyllis and Carlotta. But my manager said, 'If it's the role of the dogcatcher, you'll play it!' I said, 'Is there a dogcatcher in the show?'
"So I went back, and they had me sing for Stephen [Sondheim]. I did 'The Ladies Who Lunch' and 'Who's That Woman?' and I left. They called the next day saying, 'Stephen wants you for Carlotta.' That name I knew! At almost the same time, I was booked into Feinstein's and I celebrated my 70th birthday. Now I had to find out whether I could still to do it and whether performing live would give me the same joy. You know, I stand offstage an emotional wreck until the moment when my foot hits the spotlight, and then, I'm transformed. It's the same feeling as the old days--'Okay I'm home now.' What also scares me is the intimate cabaret setting; I haven't done any of those in 50 years. I got used to singing in really large venues in Vegas, Tahoe, and Atlantic City."
During her two weeks at Feinstein's in a show titled Sing One, Act Two, what will her repertoire be? "Well," says Bergen, "I always was an acting singer. So, for me, it's the ability to find songs that are one act plays. I'm not telling what my choices are, except to say that this is not like any show I've seen so far--and I've been out to see everyone lately, from the Algonquin and the Carlyle to Joe's Pub, the FireBird and Arci's. I don't plan any trip down Memory Lane with an old time singer; I'm not one to deal in nostalgia. Let's just say it'll be very eclectic, with some standards and some fairly new songs, including two I haven't heard anyone else do. I'm so excited and so terrified. I just hope I can do it."
Little Nellie Burgin from Knoxville Tennessee can do anything she puts her mind to. Her mom and dad told her so, and they've been right so far.