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Jeez, Louise

Louise Lasser recalls her Broadway days with Don Ameche, Arthur Laurents, and Barbra Streisand.

By New York City
Louise Lasser
Louise Lasser
Remember Louise Lasser? Those of us who saw Woody Allen's earliest movies remember the diminutive blonde as his co-star, muse, and wife. TV addicts from the 1970s recall her, too, as the braided title character of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. But Lasser appeared in two Broadway musicals of the 1960s, as well: I Can Get It For You Wholesale and Henry, Sweet Henry. Neither was a hit, but each has its fans. These days, Lasser is on the other side of the footlights, co-directing Dennis Russo's new play Is Anyone Bowling? at Raritan Valley Community College in North Branch, New Jersey. I recently spoke with her about her Broadway days.

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THEATERMANIA: Does it seem like 39 years ago this week since Henry, Sweet Henry opened?

LOUISE LASSER: Oh, my God, you remember that?

TM: Of course! Now, what do you remember from it?

LL: Don Ameche, certainly. He was playing Henry [Orient, an avante-garde pianist], and I was his love interest. I noticed right awat that he would always talk about Claudette Colbert and stress, 'It's not that she was a great actress, but that she she was such a professional. She always knew her mark. She always knew her light.' I know he was making a point about the way I worked.

TM: Meaning what?

LL: I was looser. One night, we were doing the scene where we're in this bedroom on a platform high above the stage, and I'm just in this pajama top type thing -- or maybe his shirt -- but I don't have much on underneath. That night, before the show I was exhausted. I was always exhausted...

TM: From his chasing you?

LL: No, from life! So, anyway, he's chasing me, and I overshoot the platform and fall off it. Now, the whole cast is on stage down below, like a Greek chorus conscience. At first it's scary, but then I get hysterical with laughter. There are a lot of kids in the cast, and we all get hysterical. Hysterical! We just can't stop. But Don Ameche isn't laughing. Now I have to climb back up there, but I'm still laughing hysterically. As I said, I'm really not wearing anything underneath; but when you're in the theater, you have no shame, so I climb up. While he's saying his lines, I'm trying to hold in the laughter, and I do. We finish the scene and the act, I go to my dressing room, and the stage manager comes in and says: "Mr. Ameche would like you to apologize to him." I say, "For what? For falling off the stage?" He says, "Yes, I think so." So off I go to his dressing room.

TM: Was he gracious about it?

LL: No, he was being true to who he was an utterly professional but distant guy. It wasn't that he was mean, it was just the way he was brought up. It was the way he saw theater, and he thought it was very unprofessional of me to fall off the stage. So I said, "I'm really sorry I fell of the stage and laughed so much. Maybe it was nerves. I was awfully tired tonight." And he said, "Really? I don't know when I'm tired." I had just never met anyone like that.

TM: How did you get along with the rest of the company?

LL: Well, I sure knew that Michael Bennett and Marvin Hamlisch were going to be important. I even recommended to Woody that he use Marvin to do some music for Bananas. While I wouldn't say that I got him the job, I did recommend him, and Woody did use him.

TM: So, what did you think of A Chorus Line?

LL: You know, I never saw it.

TM: Five years before Henry, Sweet Henry, you were the understudy for Barbra Streisand in I Can Get It for You Wholesale. Did you ever go on?

LL: Yes, for a whole week -- which seemed like 10 years. In 1961, Woody and I had gone to the Bon Soir to see Felicia Sanders, but Barbra came on stage first, and -- what is that feeling you get? I can't even explain it. She opened her mouth, and never was my life the same after that. She was a life-altering presence. It makes me want to cry just talking about it..

TM: How did you get the job as her understudy?

LL: Well, I wasn't even supposed to be auditioning; I was going to AMDA, and you're not supposed to while you're going there. But Lehman Engel, who was conducting the show, thought I'd be good, and he pulled some strings to get me some sort of special dispensation. How fearless I was at that age! So I'm sent to see Arthur Laurents, and he hires me. Now, understand that, while I wanted to be an actress since I was three, I'd never really been on a stage. Woody's excited, I'm terrfied. The show's been running a while, so I go see it, and everything Barbra does is behavioral. When you go on for someone, you're really supposed to do it the way that person does it; but there are all these Jewish mannerisms that really aren't in my vocabulary, even though I am Jewish. She was gutsy, Lower East Side Jewish, and I was brought up on the Upper East Side. Not that I wasn't exposed to it, but I just didn't know it enough to know how to do it.

TM Did you tell Arthur any of this?

LL: God, no! Arthur rehearsed me, which was great, because directors don't usually rehearse people coming in. He was raving and gushing that I was the new Judy Holliday. Then it came time for me to do it, and it was a Wednesday, so I had to do it twice in one day. I got on stage to sing the song that always stops the show, and when I finished, I swear to you, nobody knew it was over. Arthur came back stage and said, "What happened? I don't understand?!" He worked with me, but it never got better.

TM: Did you ever come to understand why?

LL: Yes. The problem was that Barbra was my idol. I didn't want to be like her, I wanted to be her. She was so strong! And I wasn't.


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