Broadway's Best Beth
Filichia has admired Beth Fowler's work in roles from Mrs. Segstrom to Mrs. Potts to Mrs. Woolnough.
"Here's the funny thing," Fowler told me when I visited her in her dressing room on the third floor of the Imperial last week. "Last year, when my agent called to say that [director] Phil McKinley wanted me to come in and audition, he said that I should prepare to sing 'Don't Cry Out Loud.' So I went out, bought the CD and the sheet music, worked on it for a week -- and then I called my agent and said I didn't want to go in for the audition. 'Oh?' he said. 'Why?' And I told him, 'Because it's a pop song and I'm just not a pop singer.' He said he'd get word to Phil. Two days later, my agent called me back and reported that Phil said, 'I don't want to hear a pop singer do it. I want to hear Beth Fowler sing it, and she can sing it in any key she wants!' So I did -- and, by the time I got home, the message was on the machine that I got it."
Not bad for a woman who didn't really give a thought of going into theater when she was a youth. "My career really started in my grandmother's living room in Jersey City; all of my relatives thought I was wonderful and talented and beautiful when I sang 'The Halls of Montezuma,'" she says, laughing at the thought of it. "But I never had dreams of Broadway. We didn't even have any theater at St. Mary's High School in Rutherford (New Jersey), for it was just a small Catholic co-educational high school. I got a couple of state championships in the forensic league, but that was the closest thing I had to training."
So Fowler became a music teacher in Upper Saddle River, New Jersey in 1962. She did do a bit of community theater "where people said, 'You really should be doing this.' So I started doing some summer stock, where people kept saying, 'You really should be doing this.'" But she was content to stay in teaching -- until 1969, when school politics and the rift over whether or not teachers should unionize polarized the faculty: "I auditioned for Eliza Doolittle at a Pennsylvania theater and decided that if I got it, I wouldn't sign my school contract for the next year. The plan was to do theater for a couple of years until the teachers sorted things out, and then I'd return."
As a result of her first Broadway audition -- for the 1970 musical Gantry -- she was hired her for the ensemble as well as to understudy star Rita Moreno. Recalls Fowler, "During previews, she got a cold, and her husband -- a physician -- told her to take off. So I rehearsed with the stage manager from 9 to 11:30 a.m., at which point I had my ensemble rehearsal for the changes they were putting in that night. Good Catholic girl that I was, I knew all of Rita's lines and songs. What I wasn't prepared for was the sound of audience groaning when the announcement was made that the role of Sister Sharon would be played by me. But, after the first song, I could feel the audience thinking, 'Oh, thank God, she's all right.' After the show, my mother came back to see me, and so did another woman who was in the audience that night: Helen Hayes. Though I'd been stoic about the whole thing all night long, that's when I lost it and began to cry. So did my mother -- and so did Helen Hayes."
She had to be frightened when auditioning for Stephen Sondheim, no? "No," Fowler says, not wanting to sound immodest but just telling the truth. "The nuns taught me well in choral work and singing, so I wasn't intimidated by the music." She stops and thinks about that, then laughs a little. "Though they also taught me, 'You're not good enough to do this or that. Who do you think you are?'" She ruefully shakes her head. "But I got the job and I stayed through the whole run. I was supposed to succeed Patricia Elliott as Charlotte, but we closed before I could. Still, I was very proud that [director] Hal [Prince] wanted me to do it. I had been covering Patricia and went on one night; I was later told that Hal watched my first two scenes and said, 'We don't have to worry. She's an actress.' That meant a lot. I really needed that then. I mean, it was one thing to hear my grandmother say it...," she says, laughing instead of finishing the sentence.
The Internet Broadway Database fails to list Fowler's appearance in her next show: Over Here, the Andrews Sisters musical of 1974. "Maybe that's because I only came in for the end of it," she suggests. "I stood by for the sisters and Janie Sell. During the Christmas Eve performance, Patty Andrews was furious that her usual musicians weren't there playing for her, so she locked herself in her dressing room and refused to come out and finish the show. The hairdresser and I were stringing popcorn for the Christmas party we'd have afterwards when they told me I'd have to go on. I didn't even have a costume for it, so they really had to do a number on Patty to get her to open her dressing room door and hand over her costume -- not that it fit. I was safety-pinned into it and my battery pack -- they were enormous back then -- was put on so hastily that, by the time I got out there, it was dangling between my calves. Because I was to sing the melody, I was all over Maxene so it could be heard [through her microphone]. When we came offstage, she was furious, until I pointed between my legs, and then she got hysterical."
Though Fowler was only there for the final months of Over Here, she'd play even fewer performances of her next show: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976). "My agent didn't want me to take it because they offered me ensemble and understudy to Patricia Routledge," Fowler recalls. "He said, 'I think we're beyond that now.' But I said, 'I've had a crush on Leonard Bernstein since I was 16. If he wants my voice, he's going to get it!'"
This time, Fowler didn't get the chance to go on for the star. "But during a rehearsal," she relates, "I did get to do the big song" -- "Duet for One," in which she played not only incoming First Lady Lucy Hayes but also outgoing first lady Julia Grant. "Afterwards, Lenny came up and kissed me." She puts her hand over her heart. But that wasn't the only kiss she'd get from the show. "I got a husband out of it, too: John Witham, who was in the cast. And I'm still 'with-'im,' 27 years later."
As she is with the theater -- "though, when the opening night of Baby approached, I told my husband, 'I want the limo for my parents for I'm at an age where I might never have another Broadway show.'" If that sounds pessimistic, know that this was shortly after the night when she came to the theater and received a note from Sondheim saying how fine she was -- "and while I was reading the note, Richard Maltby was knocking on my door to tell me that my big song, 'Patterns,' was being cut."
Fowler pauses and reflects. "Things have come to me and I know I've been blessed. I know I have the goods, but I have friends who have the goods. My husband had them, too, but the business wasn't as good to him or some others I've known." So on she goes, from the one-night stand (Take Me Along) to the limited engagement (Peter Pan) to the sparesly attended flop (Teddy & Alice) to the big fat hit (Beauty and the Beast). On second thought, it'd be fine with me if the Tony nominating committee didn't give Beth Fowler a nod for Best Featured Actress in a Musical but, instead, a Lifetime Achievement Award.