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Perfect for the Part

Filichia isn't very good at coming up with casting ideas, but one of his buddies is. logo
John Lithgow and Norbert Leo Butz
(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
Okay, none of us can be good at everything. Lord knows, there are thousands of areas in which I fall short. But the one area in which I'm utterly incompetent is particularly frustrating because I should be good at it after all the years I've been going to the theater: Casting.

I was reminded of this when my buddy Jay Clark came from Fall River, Massachusetts last month to see one of John Lithgow's final performances in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Afterwards, Jay said to me, "You know, Lithgow would be ideal in a revival of The Happiest Girl in the World." I exclaimed, "Yes!" In case you're not familiar with the 1961 musical version of Lysistrata, it starred Cyril Ritchard, best-known for playing Captain Hook to Mary Martin's Peter Pan. I can definitely see Lithgow singing "Never Be-Devil the Devil," "Vive La Virtue," and other saucy E.Y. Harburg lyrics. For that matter, I can see him playing Captain Hook. Can't you?

Jay didn't limit himself to finding Mr. Lithgow his next job; he also had a great casting idea for Lithgow's Dirty Rotten co-star. "Norbert Leo Butz should play the Robert Morse role in Sugar," he stated, "and Craig Bierko should get the Tony Roberts role." It's a gift, I tell you.

Then Jay and I saw Judy Kaye in Souvenir. Afterwards, he said, "Too bad Madeline Kahn isn't around to do the national company." Now, whether or not there would ever actually be a national tour of this show, which (undeservedly) closed all-too-quickly on Broadway, is another matter; but there I was playing Yes-man again. After all, the late, great Kahn didn't just have an astonishing flair for comedy, which you need if you're going to play Florence Foster Jenkins; she also had a great coloratura soprano. Jay pooh-poohed my wild enthusiasm for his suggestion and reminded me that, since Kahn and Kaye have played the same role before (Lily Garland in On the Twentieth Century), he didn't need much brain-power to come up with it. Perhaps -- but the idea never occurred to me!

At dinner that evening, we discussed White Christmas, which we both happened to see in Boston at different performances. While Jay didn't have anything bad to say about Stephen Bogardus and Michael Gruber in the leads, he did note that "Jim Walton and Jason Graae would have been really great" in the show. ("Yes!") We touched on Barbara Cook's then-upcoming appearance at the Metropolitan Opera, which prompted Jay to say, "I'm sorry that she won't do eight shows a week anymore, because she'd be a great Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast." (Wouldn't she? Yes!) And then the deluge: Jay was soon casting roles in the past ("Too bad Donald O'Connor never played Buddy in Follies"), the present ("Why don't Liz and Ann Hampton Callaway do the Andrews Sisters' roles in Over Here!?"), and future ("Christine Baranski has got to play the Dianne Wiest role if the musical version of Bullets over Broadway ever happens.")

Jay also saved everyone a lot of work by casting the three leads in the upcoming musical version of Nine to Five: Randy Graff in the Lily Tomlin role, Judy Kuhn in the Jane Fonda role, and Sally Mayes in the Dolly Parton role. This time, I didn't just say "Yes!" Instead, as the suggestions rolled off his tongue, I said, "Yes! Yes! Yes!" Then Jay asked about the new edition of my book, Let's Put on a Musical, which Back Stage Books will be bringing out later this year. I told him that I removed 70 shows from the previous edition and added 70 new ones. Of course, he wanted to know which ones I'd dropped. When I mentioned Woman of the Year, he said, "You know who'd be great as Tess Harding? Cybill Shepherd." Then, when he asked which new musicals I added and I mentioned, "Thoroughly Modern Millie," he quipped, "Did anyone ever ask Eileen Brennan to play Mrs. Meers?" At last, I said not "Yes!" but "No."

I learned that Jay's talent for casting is not solely relegated to performers. When we discussed what would happen with all those Kander and Ebb musicals now that the lyricist is no longer with us, Jay decided, "Wouldn't it be great if John Kander started working with Sheldon Harnick?" I put on my best Will Geer in 110 in the Shade voice -- the one he used in the song "Raunchy" -- and said, "I'd like to see thay-ut."

I told Jay that, in all the years I've been seeing shows, a casting idea occurred to me just once: In 1991, when I caught Dana Ivey in The Subject Was Roses, she suddenly gave a smile and made a move on stage that caused me to think, "Wow, wouldn't she make a great Jean Brodie?" That's it; I'm done. Or maybe not: The other night, I went to see a friend play Harriet Stanley (nee Sedley) in a community theater production of The Man Who Came to Dinner and soon I was saying, "You know, Mario Cantone doesn't have the size, but he'd make a good Sheridan Whiteside." I'll confess, though, that the idea came to me because Evan Blank, who played Sherry (very nicely), somewhat resembled Cantone. When I phoned Jay and relayed this to him, he added, "I'd also like to see Mario Cantone play the choreographer in Smile." I think you can guess what one-syllable exclamation came out of me.

I know that Jay isn't the only wizard out there who's smart at casting. I'm sure that many of you have often said, "You know who'd be great for (fill-in-the-name-of-the-show)?" E-mail me with your suggestions, and I suspect that I'll soon be saying "Yes!" more times than Mildred Natwick and Molly Bloom combined.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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