A Penny for Her Thoughts
Penny Fuller reminisces about her extraordinary career as she prepares to wow the crowd at Birdland.
That sounds improbable until one realizes that the lady is Penny Fuller, who has certainly done her share of musicals as well. Remember Applause, the musical that's all about Eve, and Rex, all about Henry VIII and his wives? Fuller sure does. In a twinkling, she's back in 1969, detailing how Applause happened. "I was in California playing the ditsy but adorable wife of a detective in a pilot called The Wylies," she says. "That show was so bad, it wasn't even shown during dead-pilot season. Then Hal Prince flew me in to audition for Company and, afterwards, as I came out the stage door, I met a friend who said, 'What are you doing here? I'm stage-managing Applause. They wanted to audition you but you were in California, and they wouldn't fly you in.' So I went in, met Ron [Field, the director], auditioned, and then went back to California. They decided on Diane McAfee. I'm told they all said to each other, 'We're either going to make her a big star or we're making a big mistake.' "
Apparently, the latter happened; some weeks later, Fuller got a phone call. "I was at this exclusive hairdresser's located across the street from a car wash," she recalls, leaning her head back to show that her locks were being soaked at the time. "My manager said, 'Darling, they want to fly you to Baltimore and have you replace Diane in Applause.' I got on the plane -- well, I did get my hair dried -- and [production associate] Phyllis Dukore gave me a third-row-center ticket for that night. I didn't want to sit there because I knew the cast would see me, and Diane hadn't been told. But Phyllis said, 'Oh, if anyone asks, just say you're visiting your aunt in Baltimore.' Shuuuuure! So the show begins and Gene Foote comes out, does a pirouette, sees me -- and gasps."
So, how was McAfee in the part? "Wonderful," says Fuller. "A much better singer and dancer than I, but too young. You didn't believe she'd ever be cast in a part written for [the character played by] Lauren Bacall. By the way, Bacall has a bad rap, but she's a good broad -- and I mean that as a great compliment. She could have avoided being in on the firing, but she insisted she be there when Diane was told." Fuller points out that there was some consolation for McAfee; she was with Applause long enough to meet Brandon Maggart, who played Buzz Richards. She later married him and gave birth to the singers Maude Maggart and Fiona Apple.
And what of Rex? "That will be not one but two chapters in my autobiography," Fuller says dolefully. "I kept a diary in which I wrote pretty early on that I didn't think the music (by Richard Rodgers) was right for these larger-than-life people. Contrary to what's been said, Hal Prince didn't take over [from director Ed Sherin]. He just came in to advise." And what about the famous incident where ensemble member Jim Litten said "That's a wrap" during a curtain call and star Nicol Williamson heard it as "That's crap" and assaulted the lad? Fuller's eyes get very tired-looking: "There's still discussion on what was really said," she tells me. "I came off stage and heard quite a few 'fuck-yous.' I decided I didn't want to know what had happened -- and then I thought, is this what the Germans said, 'I don't want to know?' I went into Nicol's dressing room and told him, 'We know you want this show to close. Now that you've pulled a stunt like that, we're going to run forever.' "
Fuller's first big break had come in 1963, when, as the ingenue in a play in Westport, she met performers Larry Hugo and Ludi Claire. "They became my theater parents," she says. "They helped get me seen for Barefoot in the Park; I wound up as an understudy and eventually took over. I did 789 performances as Corie, and that's what officially made me crazy." She addresses what Tony Roberts, her leading man, has recently been saying about their off-stage relationship: "Yes, we were a couple. We broke up while we were still doing the show, but we were decent about it, and no one felt the tension. We didn't meet there, though, but in the Waa-Mu show at Northwestern, where we did a number about Wyatt Earp. Every guy had to pick up a girl and put her on his shoulder, and Tony picked me because I was the smallest one. We could still do the number a few years ago, but I don't know if we could do it now."
Next, she auditioned for Sally Bowles in Cabaret, She didn't get it but was offered standby. "Everybody told me, 'Don't take it! You've starred on Broadway!' And I said, 'But not in a musical.' After just four rehearsals, I had to go on at a matinee, and I was hung over. Oh, God! Your sins will find you." At Birdland on Monday, under cabaret guru Barry Kleinbort's direction, she'll sing songs from flops (Bring Back Birdie, Dance a Little Closer, Foxy, It's a Bird...It's a Plane...It's Superman) and from such hits as Cabaret, The George White Scandals of 1924, Golden Boy, Pal Joey -- and, of course, Applause. (She'll sing one of Eve's songs and one of Margo's.)
Shouldn't Fuller have played Margo some years later, just as Anne Baxter did? "Nobody ever asked me," she says mournfully. "But I did dream a few weeks ago that I was playing her and I was singing a song I hadn't thought of for 30 years -- the one that was replaced by 'Something Greater.' I can't remember the title." It's "Love Comes First," Ms. Fuller, and if you sang it, it would be fitting. From your enthusiastic discourse and vivid memory, we can see that the love of performing comes first with you.