Harriet Harris has proved herself time and again to be one of the theater’s most reliable comic actresses, stealing scenes and gaining laughs in such shows as Mame, Old Acquaintance, Cry-Baby, and, most notably, Thoroughly Modern Millie, for which she won the Tony Award for her hilarious turn as the evil Mrs. Meers. Now, she is delighting audiences again with her work as the alcohol-challenged singing teacher Madame Dilly in the Paper Mill Playhouse’s production of the classic musical On the Town — a role she previously played at L.A.’s Reprise — and she’ll return to Broadway in January as Monica Reed in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s upcoming revival of Noel Coward’s Present Laughter. TheaterMania recently spoke to Harris about these two projects.
THEATERMANIA: Madame Dilly is obviously a fun character. In fact, this is the second time you’ve played her in recent years. Why do it again?
HARRIET HARRIS: It’s a delightful role to get to do. It’s always nice to be a comic villain — although she’s not so much a villain as a desperate woman that has to maintain a hold on her student because times are hard and she needs an income.
TM: Did you have memorable singing or acting teachers in your life who you use for this role?
HH: I don’t draw on anyone, but I have had many memorable teachers. I had a lot of charmingly inconsistent teachers and I’ve had teachers who are very sweet and supportive when I’m in the room, but I wonder what they say when I leave. They’re sort of like a shrink — are they really going to say, “you’re so boring, and your problems are nothing” while you’re with them? No they’re not. A teacher isn’t going to say that you’re completely without potential. Madame Dilly can’t either, because she has to keep her students, but that conflict of what a teacher has to offer and what she can elicit is age-old. I like the idea that she’s teaching a young modern student a dying art. She’s asking Ivy to sing in a way that people don’t sing anymore and approach her art in a way that people don’t anymore. Still, there’s nobody I know I would say deserves the amount of ridicule Madame Dilly does.
TM: She does drink a lot, doesn’t she?
HH: She’s forced to drink, because there’s no way she could get through these lessons. I think she’s getting worse and worse and worse students. A friend of mine is a teacher here in New York, and she always says that if she’s got students in a Broadway show, she’s just flooded with students, but if there’s nobody that’s made it into a cast for a while, then it’s different. I think Madame Dilly does recognize that Ivy has got so much going for her that she could be something. Well, if only she could sing, she could get a job.
TM: As an actor, is there a particular challenge to playing drunk?
HH: I think you just try different things, and like anything else, you see what seems true and funny as opposed to true and sad. But no, I don’t think it’s very hard. The challenge is playing sober.
TM: Is this your first time working at Paper Mill?
HH: Yes it is, and it’s so pretty out there. And the theater is massive; it’s bigger than the Marquis. But the brook is pretty, the reception rooms for the audience are lovely, and the staff seems to be wonderful. I’m having a great time.
TM: In January, you’re returning to Broadway in Noel Coward’s Present Laughter. Have you ever done this show — or any Coward — before?
HARRIET: No, I haven’t. But I think it will be wonderfully entertaining. I’ve worked at the Roundabout a number of times and I have very close friends in the show. I’ve always wanted to work with Victor Garber. I’ve never gotten to do that, and I think he’ll be pretty fabulous in this role. Lisa Banes is one of my best friends; I’m crazy about Brooks Ashmanskas, and I’ve worked with Richard Poe a number of times. One reason I’ve never done this show — or even seen it — is that I’m generally not that interested in plays about the theater. I just think why would anyone want to see this? But then I did Noises Off this summer and it was wonderful and so much fun to do — and that’s why you want to do theater!