A talk with Helen Gallagher, who's getting back into the theater habit with Handy Dandy
Says Gallagher, "It's a two-character play in which I play an activist nun [Sister Molly Evans] who is protesting that a nuclear plant is in Cambridge [Massachusetts]. Nicholas Surovy plays a judge who's so annoyed that I'm always in the papers and in his courtroom so he sends me to prison where I start to go crazy and lose my faith. It's an easy play, all song-and-dance," she says, her voice dripping with irony.
"But," I tell her, "I remember talking to your old pal Gwen Verdon [with whom Gallagher did Sweet Charity in 1966] about her 1972 play Children! Children! -- her only foray into dramatic acting. I asked her, 'So, is doing a play much easier than doing a musical?' She looked at me as if I were a moron and said, 'Of course!'"
"Well," Gallagher says with her eyes lowered, "that was HER thought on it. I find it MUCH more difficult than doing a musical."
With a last name like Gallagher, I'm not surprised to hear that she's had some experience with nuns: "I was raised by them and I liked them. Not all of them, of course, but I'm the type of person who likes demanding teachers. That meant they cared and believed you could achieve. I teach [at HB Studios] and have since 1956. I am a difficult teacher, and so my students improve."
Gallagher likes strict directors, too. "I loved George Abbott," she tells me, "and he could singe your soul. He had no compunction in telling you what he thought. He'd say to me, 'That was very summer stock,' but I loved him for it." She also debunks the legend that everyone, always and without exception, called him "Mister Abbott." According to Gallagher, "We all called him 'Mr. A.'
"By the way, Jerry Robbins was no easy person to work with," she adds, "and I adored him in Billion Dollar Baby and High Button Shoes." She contrasts Robbins with the now-forgotten directors of her first two shows: The Seven Lively Arts, which limped through 183 performances in 1944-45, and the subsequent 12-performance disaster Mr. Strauss Goes to Boston -- "which," says Gallagher, "is where we went to try out and where we should have closed."
Still, that was not her shortest run. Nor was Cry for Us All, the 1971 nine-performance flop in which she had one song. ("I loved my part," she says enthusiastically, then drops her voice and adds: "Until they cut it.") No, her shortest-running show was that notorious three-performance fiasco of 1958, Portofino -- the one about which Walter Kerr wrote that he couldn't say for sure that it was the worst musical of all time because he'd only been going to the theater since 1919.
"Those were the three longest performances of my life," Gallagher says. "We opened on Friday, closed on Saturday. I begged them to close out of town. BEGGED them on my hands and knees! They said, 'Oh, no, it'll be okay.' I played an aviatrix, and playing an aristocrat was George Guetary" -- an actor who had been born in Egypt and raised in France. "He had it better than all of us because, with his thick accent, you couldn't understand a word he was saying -- which, for that show, was a blessing. I've never before or since done a show as bad as that. Walter Kerr was right."
By that point, Gallagher had had a history with Kerr. She'd appeared in the 1949 revue Touch and Go, for which the soon-to-be-famous critic co-wrote sketches and lyrics -- and directed, too. "After it closed on Broadway," Gallagher recalls, "they wanted me to go to London with it. Now, I was what you'd call an H-A-P in that show -- which is a nice way of saying 'Half-Assed Principal' -- because I didn't have all that much to do. So I said, 'I don't want to go to London but I'll go if you give me that great 11 o'clock number.' So the English -- never do business with the English! -- sent these contracts around, and every time I got mine, it said I'd get 'a song.' I told my agent, 'Howard, I don't want 'a' song, I want THAT song.' They finally had to put it in my contract. But when I got to London, they couldn't send this strange child on stage at 11 o'clock unless they gave her a lot more to do the rest of the night. So I ended up one of the stars of the show." She cackles at the thought of it, then adds: "But it wasn't that I was smart and concocted a plot to make myself a star of the show. I just thought I could do the song and never foresaw how my getting it would impact the show."
Her favorite co-stars? "Ruby Keeler, Bobby Van [both of No, No, Nanette], and my darling Harold Lang [of Mr. Strauss Goes to Boston], who taught me every rotten thing I've ever learned in life. He got me drunk for the first time, when we were in Boston; took me to my first strip joint, when we were in Las Vegas; and took me to my first gay bar, over on the East Side. I was the only woman in the room but I knew every guy in there."
Her favorite roles? "Ado Annie, which I did at City Center. I played it as if she was a 14-year-old who was just waking up to her sexuality. Rodgers and Hammerstein said I was the best brunette to play the role; Celeste [Holm, the original Ado Annie] was blonde." Gallagher also loved playing Agnes Gooch during the Broadway run of Mame: "When I saw Janie Connell as Gooch," she says of the role's creator, "I fell in love with what Janie was doing and the part. Gooch takes that show and puts it in her back pocket. What a sneak!"
Of course there have been disappointments. "After David Alexander did such a good job directing Pal Joey," she says of the acclaimed 1952 revival for which she won her first Tony, "I insisted that he do Hazel Flagg." This was to be Gallagher's breakthrough role. "Well, that was my mistake," she decides. "It wasn't his fault. The wrong producer, the wrong theater, the wrong leading man. I was a very young 26 and John Howard was a very old 45; but he looked a little like Frederic March, who did Nothing Sacred [the movie on which Hazel Flagg was based]. This guy used to do mathematical crossword puzzles -- don't ask me what they are -- which he'd add up every which way. That's the kind of mind he had, but it wasn't an actor's mind. He wasn't loose at all."
What Gallagher has to say about her experience in Sweet Charity is surprising. She played Nicky, friend to Charity, played by Gwen Verdon. "But I did at least 100 performances as Charity," she tells me. "Gwen had a two-year-old child, Nicole (Fosse). She'd already had one boy who was living on the West Coast and she felt bad that she was an absentee mother. So when she had Nicole, she decided that she would become a mother and I'd often have to go on for her. That was the most exhausting show. Well, all of her shows were, because Gwen never trusted anyone else on stage -- meaning if it was a show that had to be upheld, she'd uphold it on her shoulders and wasn't convinced anyone else could. I was so glad every time she returned to Charity. I'd say to myself, 'I did it again, climbing those mountains, and now I can go back to my own part.' It was exhausting. And it's rotten when you're standing behind the curtain and the audience hears 'At this performance...' and starts groaning. Well, I knew I'd have them by the end of the performance, and I did. But I still wasn't happy to hear them moan at the beginning."
I scan her bookshelves and notice that there's no copy of The Making of 'No, No, Nanette', Don Dunn's exposé on the producer, director, leading man, ingénue, and who knows who else being replaced on the troubled but eventually successful 1971 revival, for which Gallagher won her second Tony. "I never read it," she says with a sneer. "But I daresay that if you interview anybody about any show they were in, they could have told you the same horror stories."
And then there's Maeve, whom Gallagher played for the entire 14 year-run of Ryan's Hope -- the soap opera for which she won three Daytime Emmys. "It probably killed my career in theater," she says, "but I don't care. It made me independently wealthy."