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Right Up His Alley

Jim Dale finally gets his chance to star in the musical Busker Alley. logo
Jim Dale
(© Joseph Marzullo/Retna)
As soon as Jim Dale heard the title Busker Alley, he knew the show was for him -- except it wasn't. Dale first heard about the show in 1994, when the show's director, Tommy Tune, cast himself as Charley Baxter, a fellow who busks outside London's West End theaters for a living. Alas, the Sherman brothers' musical version of the 1938 film St. Martin's Lane ran into trouble in Florida when Tune broke his foot against a lamppost, and the show shuttered just weeks before its Broadway debut. Dale admits that he would have taken over the role if the management had called him and if he were available, but the phone never rang.

Fast forward to 2006, when Dale received a phone call from director Tony Walton, asking him to star in a one-night-only benefit presentation of Busker Alley for the York Theatre Company. And that's just what he'll be doing on Monday night, opposite his former Barnum leading lady Glenn Close.

"I read the show and listened to it," says Dale. "I found that the songs the buskers sing to the people in the queue sound like those hand-clapping numbers I remember from my younger days, and the songs that the characters sing in the scenes are quite wonderful. So I said yes. Now I'm learning to play the ukulele and do a ventriloquist act. I've been privately rehearsing for six weeks, because Equity only gives us 25 hours rehearsal. Tony is creating a seven-layered cake with icing in the same time it takes do a sponge pudding. No one will be on book, and it'll be choreographed and costumed."

Dale makes it quite clear that he doesn't look at the performance as a one-night stand. "I wouldn't have done it unless I thought something could happen afterwards," he says staunchly. "It'll only happen if we put on a bloody good production and have the right people in to see it."

Those who do get to see the show will find that Charley Baxter is a simple man, so content to play the ukulele in St. Martin's Lane for people en route to the theater that he doesn't ever think about performing onstage himself. One night, however, a young girl named Libby St. Alban -- to be played on Monday by Jessica Grové -- steals what Charley has earned. He runs after and catches her, but when he learns that she's homeless, he offers to put her up in his place for the night.

"But there's nothin' dirty goin on," says Dale. "It's all very innocent. What's interesting is that she ridicules what he was doing as a busker, but in such a way that he realizes she has talent. He offers to have her join him in the act -- and she can stay with him, too. In the months that follow, though, she wants to be inside one of those theaters. The reason I knew the show was for me is because in the 1940s, when I was a kid going to theater in London, I'd see these buskers outside. I loved them -- especially the ones who spoofed Wilson, Keppel, and Betty. They were these two men and a woman who did an Egyptian sand dance in the music halls."

When Dale went to see Me and My Girl, a show in which he'd star almost a half-century later on Broadway, he was so impressed by what he saw and heard that he made an instant career decision: "I was in the second balcony, hearing 2000 people laughing. It was very different from what I was used to in the town of Rothwell, England, where the most I heard was 100 people cheering at a football game. So I said to my father, 'I want to do that.' And he said, 'Learn how to move.'"

Ana Gasteyer and Jim Dale
in The Threepenny Opera
(© Joan Marcus)
That turned out to be good advice. Dale recalls one particular night when he was 17 and performing as a stand-up comedian in Glasgow. "They didn't like English comedians there," he says. "I walked on the stage, and before I could get my name out, something hit the stage. It didn't bounce. It was an enormous old English penny. What the kids in the second balcony had done was taken these pennies into their workshop and sharpened them on stone so that they were razor sharp. Then they'd fling them at the person on stage. After the third penny, I kept perspiring but didn't stop moving."

Still, Dale feels that his experience touring music halls in the United Kingdom was well worth the occassional brush with danger. "You met such unbelievably talented and original artists," he remarks. "One woman had a 10-feet wide Elizabethan skirt. She'd lift her skirt while she was dancing, and you'd see 12 pairs of feet underneath it. Those theaters no longer exist, but they once did in every town in London, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. People had their regular seats every Tuesday night or Saturday matinee. I shared that world for two years, which doesn't sound long, but it was 48 theaters a year -- meaning I played 96 theaters in no time at all."

These days, the theaters he plays are usually on Broadway, where Dale has given acclaimed performances in such shows as Barnum, Joe Egg, Scapino, and The Threepenny Opera. But it's the city, rather than the venue, that speaks most to the Tony Award-winning star. "I love acting in New York," he says. "And I love having a live audience I can relate to, because I can hear them, feel them, and touch them."

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