BWW Interview: Drama Desk & Outer Critics Circle Nominee Jim Brochu
Jim Brochu is a current Drama Desk Award nominee and a past Drama Desk Award winner, both in the category of solo performance. He won in 2010 for Zero Hour, the biographical show he wrote and performed about Zero Mostel, and this year he's nominated for Character Man, which he also wrote. Brochu scored Outer Critics Circle Award nominations for both shows, too.
In Character Man, Brochu chronicles his career while paying tribute to his fellow character actors of stage and screen. The play wrapped its off-Broadway run at Urban Stages in April, but Brochu will reprise it in September for a one-off in Rockland County and a short run at Barrington Stage in the Berkshires. It will also be presented next January at Stages Rep in Houston.
Just like 2006's The Big Voice: God or Merman?--which Brochu and his partner, Steve Schalchlin, cowrote about their relationship--Character Man entertainingly weaves memoir with showbiz stories and songs. But whereas the Big Voice songs were originals (by Schalchlin), Character Man features showtunes from the likes of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Take Me Along, Chicago, 70 Girls 70 and Cabaret--songs that were introduced by "character men" such as Jack Gilford, Barney Martin, Jackie Gleason and David Burns.
Burns in particular figures prominently in Character Man. The two-time Tony winner and original Horace Vandergelder in Hello, Dolly! was a friend of Brochu's father's and became his mentor and role model. Brochu also tells about how he got to know another of his character-man idols, Cyril Ritchard. And in a recent interview with BroadwayWorld, Brochu shared some more thoughts on life as a character man and the stories behind his stories.
How did your father know David Burns? You don't say in the show.
My father was on Wall Street and he had a lot of celebrity clients. He worked with Ethel Merman's father, Ed Zimmermann, the accountant for my dad's firm. One client would lead to another, I guess. Davy started out as a client of my father's--he bought municipal, tax-free bonds--and then they became friends.
While Character Man is foremost a tribute to the character actors you love, it also tells a lot about your father's life story. Or are you planning another show that's strictly a memoir of him?
I don't know if it's going to be another show; it'll definitely be a book. There's a book I'm working on called Watching From the Wings where I'll talk more about my father and his backstory. My father had a sad life, I thought. He eventually just retreated from the world. He stopped drinking just 'cause he had no taste for it anymore, and he quit his job--he was near retirement age, but only like 58, and they said, "We'll retire you at full pension if you promise not to work for any other company." So he went back to the little apartment in Bay Ridge and hardly ever left.
Did you start creating this show after you finished Zero Hour, or were they written concurrently?
This show has been in the back of my mind probably for 30 years, but I don't think I had the life experience to pull it off. Zero Hour came when I realized that I was approaching the age that Zero Mostel was when he died, 62. If you look at my high school yearbook, it says, "Jim Brochu, the Zero Mostel of La Salle." So even at age 16 I was being compared to Zero.
How did Character Man evolve from the show you first performed at the Triad in 2012?
At the Triad it started as a cabaret piece. I knew there were, like, 10 songs I wanted to do. My director, Bob Bartley, said the stories around them should be a part of it, the arc of the show. He's the one who really helped forge it into a play from a nightclub act. I used to do "Captain Hook's Waltz" to talk about Cyril. It just didn't move the show forward in any way, so we cut that. A story went in [during the off-Broadway run] about Cyril telling me a story--I don't want to give it away, but it's about when he and Rex Harrison and Moss Hart are having dinner at Sardi's. That hadn't been in there before, and once again it was Bob who said, "Didn't he ever tell you a great story?" It turned out to be the biggest laugh of the night.
Another big laugh is your quick mention of seeing Noel Coward eating Kentucky Fried Chicken with Colonel Sanders. Noel Coward and Kentucky Fried Chicken--hard to imagine!
Davy Burns' dressing room was a watering hole for people, and during Hello, Dolly! it was astonishing, the people who would come in. In 1964, nobody knew who Colonel Sanders was. If you go to YouTube and put in "Merv Griffin, David Burns, Colonel Sanders," you'll see a 20-minute clip of Davy introducing Colonel Sanders in the audience, and nobody knows who he is. Colonel Sanders would come backstage with buckets of chicken, of Kentucky Fried Chicken. It wasn't KFC then. He was a master marketer; he would wear the white suit--he looked just like his picture. And Noel Coward came by one night, I remember Gene Kelly coming in, Jack Benny came back, George Burns, just massive amounts of stars would come backstage. I remember George Burns saying to Davy, "You're the greatest comic actor of the 20th century." From one Burns to another.
In the show you mention that Barney Martin told you back in 1969 that as a "character man," you wouldn't work till you're 40. Did that turn out to be true?
No, he was a big liar. I didn't work till I was 50! [Laughs] I spent a lot of time writing, and I actually gave up the stage for maybe 10 years just to concentrate on writing and producing. In Los Angeles I produced 16 plays and directed another 10 of them. But my heart has always been on the stage. So I knew I had to come back. It's impossible to live 3,000 miles from your heart.
You moved out to L.A. because of a deal with Disney, and you speak briefly but pointedly in the show about your experience working there, calling it "the ninth circle of hell." Care to embellish?
Yeah, easily. I wrote a pilot called Louis, for Louis Anderson. The premise was, he was an obituary writer in his 30s, living with his mother--Pat Carroll--and they live a very quiet existence and then her sister, the crazy Vivie, moved in and changed his life, and how they were trying to get this guy to have a life. So the first meeting I had with these two people--one of them was about 17, and he said, "We have a really great idea. We're going to take the Louis character and make him 13." I said, "A 13-year-old boy still living with his mother--how unusual. The point of the humor is he's being treated like a 13-year-old and he's in his 30s." "Oh, well, just try it our way." And so the descent into Disney hell began of these weekly meetings where it just got worse and worse and worse. And this 17-year-old telling me what's funny and what's not funny. I kept praying that CBS would not pick up the pilot, because that meant my life was at Disney, and thank god, they did not. It was just horrible. I would approach the Disney studios and my stomach would do a flip.
I'm surprised that didn't make you turn around and run back to New York. Instead, you stayed out in L.A. for years.
Twenty-two years I was exiled. I had an offer to run a theater out there. I ran the El Portal Theatre, which was built in 1926--a gorgeous old Broadway kind of theater. I had three theaters and ran an acting company of 80 people. Then, of course, it's all about the friends that you make. Lucille Ball became my great friend.
How did you get to know her?
Through a script I wrote. I wrote a play called The Lucky O'Learys. Kate Hepburn was a friend of mine, and I sent it to her first. She said [imitating Hepburn], "I think I'd be totally miscast. You should get Lucille." I found Lucy's address in a map to the stars' homes and wrote a note saying I had taken her comedy class in 1977, and I wrote this and Kate Hepburn thought she'd be good for it, and I also play backgammon. Two days later the phone rang, and it was Lucy. I went over and met her that day and we bonded, and I spent every day with her till the day she died. It was an extraordinary friendship.
As you relate on stage, your widowed father dated Joan Crawford for several years when you were a teen. What can you tell us about her?
Joan was a great lady. Don't believe what you read about her. She was not a monster. She had a problem: She was an alcoholic. But Christina Crawford has been lying about her for years, destroyed her reputation, and I think it's the saddest thing ever. She and I got into it one night on the Larry King show. I told her, "You're lying about your mother. Stop it." Now she's making money off of it again. That's a good thing to do: make money off of a dead celebrity, your mother. Joan was lovely and funny. With Joan one night, we were watching a pizza commercial, and she said, "Oh, it would be fun just to go out and get a slice of pizza." And I said, "Well, let's go." "Oh, no. Do you know how long it would take me to be Joan Crawford when I leave here?" 'Cause she was just in her snood and no makeup. Joan believed in that old star system and would not leave the house until she was Joan Crawford. Lucy, on the other hand, you'd say, "Let's go for the pizza," and she'd say, "Okay" and slap on some lipstick and go out the door.
According to what you tell us in Character Man, apparently you were never shy about approaching actors you admired--it's how you got to know Cyril Ritchard. Would you advise others to just go for it like that?
Absolutely. Somebody said to me once, "You're not afraid of the devil before dawn." I was never afraid to talk to people, 'cause I loved them. I think they knew I was approaching them with love and not stalker craziness. We're of a certain fraternity, us character men. We gotta stick together. So, no, never be afraid to talk to somebody. The most they can do is say "get lost."
A show that name-drops the likes of C. Aubrey Smith, Dolores del Rio, Madeline Carroll and Frank McHugh is definitely for people with certain interests--and of a certain age. Is there even an audience for Character Man among younger people?
There is. We tried out the show in Rahway, New Jersey. Most of the audience came from the colleges around, and 90 percent of them had absolutely no idea who I was talking about. But it made them want to know more. They said, "Oh, I recognize his face." That's the curse of the character people--that you never remember their names, just their faces. I love that it inspired a younger generation to find out more about these people and about the history of the theater. I feel like I'm a link in a chain to the past and, hopefully, to the future of young character actors coming along...who won't work for 20 years! [Laughs]
Have you already started writing your next project?
I have. I can tell you a little about it. It's called Taylor and Finn, and it's a two-character play about P.T. Barnum, where the old Barnum meets the young Barnum--the Barnum at the end of his career meets the Barnum just starting out. I'll be playing the older Barnum. It's kind of a metaphysical play, but they also play other people in each other's lives. We'll do a reading of see how it sounds out loud. Always start with a reading. The audience tells you so much.
What about another collaboration with your partner, Steve?
Steve and I are writing another show, a revue called Manhattan Clam Chowder. All the songs are pretty much written, so it's up to me to put a book around it. He's got a new show called New World Waking, and he's written a Mass. He's been very prolific since we got back to New York.
Penguin Rep will present Character Man at Rockland Community College in Suffern, N.Y., on Sept. 13. The show is scheduled to run Sept. 18-28 at Barrington Stage in Pittsfield, Mass., and next Jan. 24-Feb. 15 at Houston's Stages Rep.
Character Man photos by Carol Rosegg; Zero Hour photo by Stan Barouh