Carol Lawrence Coaxes the Blues Right Out of the Horn
The actress-singer-dancer meets Mame at the Helen Hayes Performing Arts Center in Nyack.
Carol Lawrence achieved theatrical immortality at an early age, as the original Maria in West Side Story. Her other Broadway credits include Nightlife, Saratoga, I Do, I Do, Subways Are For Sleeping, and Kiss Of The Spider Woman. She also works in film and television, most recently in a leading role on Touched By An Angel. Her autobiography, Carol Lawrence, The Backstage Story, was published by McGraw-Hill; her new book, I Remember Pasta, is a tribute to her mother's cooking.
Now, Lawrence is essaying one of the most coveted title roles in the musical theater canon, in Jerry Herman's Mame at the Helen Hayes Center for Performing Arts in Nyack, New York (phone 845-358-6333 for information). When I met with her recently for our TheaterMania interview, the singer-dancer-actress seemed to possess all of the ebullience necessary for the part.
TM: When did you first realize how much you loved to perform?
CL: From the time I walked, I began to dance. Once I got into a tap class, heard those little sounds set to music and found people helping me express what was already there, dance took over my life.
TM: Where did you study?
CL: I won a scholarship to the Edna McCrea School of the Dance in Chicago. Miss McCrea was a highly dedicated teacher who believed in formalized training. She took over my life. I was 12 when she said to me, "It's time to have your own nightclub act." I picked out numbers and costumes, got an agent, and said I was 16--so I could work in the Chicago clubs. My mother had to drive me to work. My dream was to come to Broadway.
TM: So, your family encouraged you?
CL: My father wanted me to become a lawyer. The only time he really approved of me was when I was getting all A's. I won a full scholarship to Northwestern University, but I wanted to come to New York City. My father said, "No!" I did convince him to take us to New York for a two-week summer vacation to see what an audition was like. The first audition that I found was an open call for Borscht Capades. By the end of the day, I was in the show and my father disowned me.
TM: Tell me about West Side Story
CL: I got the part after 13 auditions. There is an Actors' Equity law now, "The Carol Lawrence Law," that states you cannot audition people more than three times without paying them. At the 13th audition, I rehearsed with Larry Kert, who became my Tony. Then Jerry Robbins said to Larry, "Get out of here." I was left onstage alone. Jerry said, "I want you to hide." Hide? It was an empty stage. He said, "I'm going to bring Larry back. He will sing (Maria) and if he can find you, you'll do the balcony scene." Jerry always had to keep you off balance. There was this old brick wall at the Mark Hellinger Theater; two feet up was a tiny iron grating like a miniature fire escape. I climbed the ladder, which was falling off the wall, in my pink shirtwaist dress. I got onto the perch and put myself in a fetal position to be as small as possible. They brought Larry on, he sang "Maria," searchingly. At the end of the song he said, "Maria?" and looked into the orchestra pit. "Did she fall off?" I whispered, "Tony!" He spun around and became Spiderman: He scaled that brick wall! We did the scene clinging to each other because we didn't know if the perch would hold up. After it was over, there was not a sound in the theater, then they applauded and Leonard Bernstein walked down to the foots and said, "You've got it." I started to cry. He said, "You don't have to come back except to do the show."
TM: Did you have any idea that the show would turn out to be a classic?
CL: We knew it was something momentous. Once you got on that roller coaster, you couldn't help but know that it was a very important piece.
TM: What are your memories of opening night?
CL: Our opening Washington, DC, was the most incredible experience I've ever had in theater. When the final curtain rose, we were lined up for the bows. The audience was silent. We looked at them and they looked back at us. I thought, "They hate it, it's a flop." Then, as if Jerry Robbins had choreographed it, they leapt to their feet screaming, applauding, crying and cheering. It was the same reaction we had on opening night in New York. The rest is history.
TM: What was it like working with Robbins?
CL: He was the perfectionist genius; the most creative human being, the taskmaster. Jerry came from the ballet world, where the choreographer and the corps are master and slave. You're always being humiliated into proving yourself. That's great for a dancer--you leap higher and you turn faster. But you cannot humiliate or intimidate someone into being a better actor, because you're robbing them of the confidence it takes to risk. Fortunately, we had Leonard Bernstein there on a daily basis. He was the most encouraging, loving, caring, human being. He would always find a way to make you feel better about what you were doing.
TM: How was performing on Broadway in the '50s different from today?
CL: We were not allowed mikes--no amplification in the theater at all. Jerry wouldn't even have foot mikes, because they amplified the dancing too much.
TM: Tell me about your current project, Mame.
CL: We're running at the Helen Hayes from June 17 through July 9. I love the part.
TM: Did you have any idea when you left Illinois that your life would turn out this way?