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Quick Wit: Ruth Williamson

Currently in The Music Man, the actress talks with Michael Portantiere about her hero, her dream role...and a certain theater critic. logo
The hilarious Ruth Williamson has appeared on Broadway in Epic Proportions, Little Me, Guys and Dolls, Smile, The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940, and the original Annie. She's been seen Off-Broadway in Charles Busch's The Green Heart (for which she received a Drama Desk Nomination) and Queen Amarantha, as well as in The English Teachers and the Encores! series' DuBarry Was a Lady. Williamson also has extensive regional theater credits, and you may have spotted her on the big screen in any number of films (including Malcolm X) or on TV in Law and Order. Most recently, she worked on the "if-you-blinked-you-missed-it" series Wonderland. (Even if you didn't blink, you missed Williamson on that show; she had a great part in the third episode, but Wonderland was idiotically cancelled after only two airings.)

Right now, the lady is delighting audiences as Eulalie MacKecknie Shinn--the mayor's wife--in The Music Man. TheaterMania wanted to see if Our Miss Ruth is as funny offstage as she is on. And she is. But make no mistake: This brilliant stage clown is nobody's fool.


When you were a kid, Ruth, is this where you thought you'd be in the year 2000?

Oh, no. I thought I'd be a big star.

What's your favorite song from a musical?

I'd have to say "Something's Coming" from West Side Story.

If there were a musical based on your life, what would it be called?


Who's your personal hero?

Charles Busch. He has seen qualities and capabilities in me that I never saw in myself, and he's handed me material that brought those qualities out in me. He's been my angel since I met him in 1995.

Your personal villain?

Ben Brantley. How can I not say that? He's killed the last four jobs I've had. It's not even that I find his reviews insulting, I just don't understand them. I can't follow his logic. And he uses words that don't exist in my dictionary.

If you were to cast Ben Brantley in a show, what role would you give him?

The Devil in Damn Yankees.

What role would you love to play that you'll never get to play?

Captain Hook in Peter Pan. I'd love to sing that song, with those wonderful lyrics..."Who's the creepiest creep in the book?"

What role would you love to play that you might, in fact, get to play?

Kay Thompson. There's a musical about Lena Horne in development called Stormy Weather, in which Kay is a very prominent character.

What's the most memorable thing that ever happened to you on stage?

Martin Short would improvise frequently in Little Me and, one night, I made the mistake of improvising back at him. I played his mother. At the beginning of the show, after the "Rich Kids' Rag" number, there was a cup left on the floor. Marty pointed at it like it was a snake or something, and then he picked it up. I ad-libbed, "Oh, darling, did you forget to take your medication?" And he launched into what seemed like a 15-minute pantomime. Well, I learned my lesson!

What's your pet peeve?

People in the audience walking out of the theater during the curtain call. Of course, we fix them at The Music Man!

What's your favorite sound?


What was your favorite childhood game?

In my girlfriend's neighborhood, we used to play "Wagon Train." It was like a movie we would act out.

What gets you really choked up?

Remembering my parents when they were young. They've both passed on.

What's the most memorable thing that was ever written about you in a review?

I find John Simon's reviews hilarious. I don't think you're really in show business until you've been Simonized. He said in his review of The Green Heart that I had a figure like a pruning hook and a face as long as a legal brief. I laughed out loud when I read that.

What won't we get to see you do on Wonderland?

I played an Upper East Side lady who comes into the emergency room with her husband because she's been feeling sick. Once I get there, I start exhibiting all this terribly abnormal behavior: I take my clothes off, I come on to everybody, they find out I've eaten ficus leaves. Then it gets very intense as I start telling a psychiatrist that my libido is out of control, I'm lusting after everybody and everything, I spend all day surfing the internet for porn. You think the character is insane, but it turns out that she has this horrible, degenerative brain disease, and the story becomes very dark and sad. There was a beautiful scene with her husband at the end. I think it's the most challenging thing I've ever done as an actress.

Do you prefer comedy or tragedy?

I don't know. They're awfully close to each other. Oh, all right...comedy!

Morning or night?


Rock or show tunes?

I like both. But I think I'm much more of an old hippie, so I'd have to say rock.

How funny is it that the maiden name of your character in The Music Man is very similar to the name of one of Broadway's greatest dancers?

It's very funny. The first day of rehearsals, I walked up to Susan Stroman and said, "So, you've cast me as Eulalie MacKecknie Shinn"--and when I said "MacKecknie," I did a layout. What's also funny is that Stroman's got me doing a big tour jetée in the show at one point.

When the casting was first announced, someone told me, "Ruth Williamson's playing Donna McKechnie Shinn." Have you heard that one?

Yes. I don't know why they didn't just get Donna to do the part!

What's your favorite line in the show?

Eulalie's advice to the players--I mean, her Delsarte ladies. She tells them, "Always, always keep your face to the audience."

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