Just when it seemed winter would never end in Chicago, some serious star power started to heat up the Goodman Theater’s production of Hollywood Arms: Carol Burnett, Hal Prince, and Linda Lavin blazed into town and people stopped shivering. In this new play, written by Burnett and her late daughter Carrie Hamilton and directed by Prince, Linda Lavin is once again hypnotizing audiences and proving that she is one of the most exemplary actresses working in the theater today.
I spoke to my friend Linda by phone for our TheaterMania interview. In between Linda Darnell impressions and laughing about mispronounced words like “supposibly” and “expresso,” the woman whom Broadway knows as the star of such shows as The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife and the world knows as TV’s Alice had a lot to say.
THEATERMANIA: Isn’t Chicago fun? Have you had time to do any tourist things since you’ve been there?
LINDA LAVIN: Chicago has great restaurants and the architecture is very interesting. I’ve been so happy here. If it ever stops being winter, I’ll be even happier!
TM: You love being on the road, don’t you?
LL: It’s true. I love to go and do and learn new things. I just had two days off, so we explored some neighborhoods I’ve been reading about. We found the trendy, artsy area where all the galleries are. And, of course, I’ve been hanging out at my favorite store in the world: Marshall’s. The jewelry lady there knows me very well now. Her name is Etta. She sees me coming, what can I say?
TM: Well, congratulations are in order: It was just announced that Hollywood Arms is coming to Broadway.
LL: Yes! Hal told us that quite a few prospective producers had come to look at the play, but I try not to get involved with all of that drama. All I know is that the Chicago audiences have been wonderful and have really loved it. I think it will make a terrific Broadway show and will have a long life, with regional theater companies doing it forever. I can’t wait to perform it on Broadway and to be in New York. Now all I need is a place to live! Can I stay with you?
TM: Perfect! You cook and I’ll clean! I know the play is essentially taken from Carol’s autobiography, “One More Time,” and tells the tale of her relationship with her parents and grandmother, whom she called Nanny.
LL: It’s an autobiographical story, but it’s not just about Carol Burnett, a famous woman, and her view of her life. It’s about a family…and everybody has one. It’s a universal story about women and how they survived in America after World War II. I have to say that it’s so rare to find a play with such great parts for women. There are also two fabulous men’s roles, but the play is really about how the women survived.
TM: When I read the book, I was stunned at the strength her grandmother showed under some pretty extreme circumstances. You obviously look for strong women in the roles you’ve chosen to do…going all the way back to Alice.
LL: Well, thanks, but sometimes I don’t even realize they’re strong women. All I know is that they need something desperately–and they know more than I do about how to get it! I learn so much from playing characters like Nanny. I ask myself, “What would I do to get out of my rut and on to another level if I were this woman?” Somehow theater, film, and literature help you to better understand yourself in that way. Nanny, the woman who raised Carol, was the victim of a society that said you had to marry a man with some money to take care of you. So that’s what she did…six times! It’s a fabulous play filled with anecdotal scenes that made up a life. It’s the greatest autobiography put before you on a brilliant set by Walt Spangler: You can see the Hollywood Hills and the Hollywoodland sign. I tell you, Hal Prince can make theater so glamorous. He works with actors, designers, and writers who have such commitment to the truth. What you end up seeing is a visual treat, not just an emotional one. There’s a wonderful original score by Robert Lindsey Nassif, too, which is absolutely thrilling to hear.
TM: You’ve had quite a history with Hal Prince.
LL: The first time I got to work with him was my first Broadway show, A Family Affair. He had only produced at that point; it was his directorial debut. Can you imagine? I was in the chorus and he gave me all the speaking parts there were to be had. I got $5 extra for each part! Then, four years later, I auditioned for It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman, which he directed, and he gave me the part of Sydney.
TM: You sang “You’ve Got Possibilities.” What a showstopper!
LL: Yes…and one of the hardest songs to remember, I might add. To this day, I go up on it. I remember doing it on The Tonight Show in 1965; Skitch Henderson was the bandleader and I forgot the words. I went into a kind of gibberish thing, not unlike that video of Leslie Uggams singing “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over.” I know how she felt, believe me. After the song, Johnny Carson said, “Well, that was…good!” I explained that I blew the lyrics, so he made me do it again. I tried again…and went up again! Keep in mind that this was on live network television. Then Skitch actually made me stand by the piano and read the words off the paper. I kept thinking, “Am I dead yet?” It’s funny in retrospect; I swear, it feels like it was yesterday. I wore a dress with rhinestone straps that I bought at Lord & Taylor for $125. I was never invited back to The Tonight Show, by the way.
TM: Not even during the Alice years?
LL: Nope. My favorite show to do was Merv Griffin. He was kind and loving and really understood theater people. He used to laugh at everything I said and make me play piano and sing. It was like family.
TM: Getting back to your current theatrical family: Tell me about working with Carol Burnett. The past few months must have been an incredibly difficult time for her, with the death of Carrie.
LL: I can’t imagine how difficult. There’s no greater loss. Carol was so generous to share her time and her life story; Carrie wasn’t there physically [at rehearsals], but she was certainly there in spirit. It was an intensely emotional time filled with sadness, healing, love, and hope…all the stuff you learn about with time. It was an amazing experience to be around someone who was willing to show you that vulnerability. Of course, everyone rallies around if they have a brain and a heart…and this company is filled with talented, brainy, heartfelt people. Michele Pawk and Donna Lynne Champlin are luscious actresses, Frank Wood is brilliant in the show. And, of course, we had Hal at the helm. There is no one better.
TM: What do you have planned right after the Chicago run?
LL: The day after we close, my sweetheart, Steve, is taking me to Paris. Isn’t that fancy? I can’t wait to go. And speaking of going: I have two shows today, so I’ve gotta get in the tub, then eat some tuna fish and get to the theater.
TM: Wait! I know you collect overheard audience comments. Anything new?
LL: Yes–you will love this one. It was Mother’s Day, so the entire audience had taken their dear old moms to brunch at The Pump Room, then to see “the Carol Burnett play starring Alice.” As I made my first entrance in Act One, Scene 1, a voice that could melt rubber shrieks from the front row, “Is that Linda Lavin? It doesn’t look anything like her!” That was my “Hello, welcome to the stage!”