Four Tony nominees are wrapping up a run of the Stephen Sondheim musical “Follies” in Los Angeles this weekend and heading for Broadway for this Sunday's Tony Awards.
In her small, brightly-lit dressing room, Jayne Houdyshell looks like a babushka. She’s wearing sweats and a short robe. Her gray hair is in pin curls under a red kerchief.
It’s a couple of hours before the curtain goes up in this lavish revival production of Sondheim’s “Follies,” which is up for eight Tony Awards in all.
Ostensibly, the show is about a group of former showgirls reuniting for one last hurrah, decades after their shimmering descent down a once-glamorous staircase. Like many of the women’s hopes and dreams, the theater in which they used to shine is about to be flattened.
To prep for her turn as Hattie Walker, once hot but now not, Houdyshell said she stares in the mirror to “veg out for a bit.”
But for her show-stopping number “Broadway Baby,” it’s all about the vocal warm-ups. Her performance of the classic Sondheim song earned Houdyshell her second Tony nomination.
“I think for me, one of the things that’s so special about the song is that it really talks, in the most straightforward and truthful way about aspiration and hope,” she said. “And weathering disappointment and rejection, and all those things that go into being an actor.”
Houdyshell’s first Tony nomination was in 2006 for a part she played in "Well," her Broadway debut at age 52. The Topeka native said she spent nearly four decades in the nation’s most successful regional theaters because they offer a greater range of characters and styles of plays for working actors than Broadway typically does. At this point, she said, she’s been in about 300 shows.
At the center of “Follies” are two bitter and jaded couples, full of recrimination and regret. One mismatched pair is Phyllis Rogers and Ben Stone, played by Jan Maxwell and Ron Raines. Both are up for Tonys as lead performers in a musical.
Daytime drama fans may recognize Raines as Alan Spaulding in the longest running soap opera in history, “Guiding Light.”
He jokes that he’s been an overnight success on Broadway.
“Thirty-seven years in New York as a working actor, doing the thing I love and wow! It’s all happening at once!” said Spaulding.
His portrayal of the stone-hearted Ben is so convincing that, during a recent intermission, women cursed his name in the ladies room.
But he argues it’s impossible to play Ben as a nice guy.
“If you play him a nice guy, you’re not doing your job,” he said reclining in an EZ chair before a show. “But he doesn’t mean to be bad; he doesn’t mean to be miserable. He doesn’t think he’s that way, but he’s a miserable guy and there are victims and carnage around him.”
His wife Phyllis, played by Jan Maxwell, handles much of that emotional fallout. But that character savors the prospect of revenge in the blistering number, “Could I Leave You?”
The song is in response to Stone’s request for a divorce.
“She’s no dummy,” Maxwell says about her character.
Midway through singing her reply, Phyllis realizes the stark reality of parting for good: Community property — half Ben’s assets. And Phyllis quips:
“Could I bury my rage with a boy half your age in the grass? Bet your ass!”
The actress who originated the role of Phyllis on Broadway, Alexis Smith, took home a Tony for her performance in 1971. But that doesn’t intimidate Maxwell, who explained the different renditions of this song.
“Alexis did a very, very staid, calm version of it in one place," said Maxwell, "and I actually have been in a relationship for 30 years, and so for me, I don’t just, I don’t stand in one place and be sardonic and ironic.”
Pondering her fifth Tony nomination, Maxwell joked that after this year’s award show, the American Theatre Wing will have to invent a new category for actresses like her who “just won’t take a hint. They want you outta there, but I keep coming back.”
After the final curtain at the Ahmanson this weekend, Maxwell, Raines and Houdyshell — along with their castmate Danny Burstein, who’s also nominated for best actor in a musical — will dash from the stage door to a private jet. That should return them to New York in time for them to strut the red carpet outside the Beacon Theatre. And for us to watch them on TV.
Break a leg!
Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to the wrong venue for the Tony Awards.