GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Jim Borstelmann of 'Young Frankenstein'
It's an exclusive club of performers who have portrayed multiple roles in one movie: Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, Jim Borstelmann... When the musical The Producers was adapted for film, Borstelmann got to repeat all the featured bits he had played on stage, including Scott, Roger DeBris' purple-clad choreographer with a crotch bulge; Donald Dinsmore, the lamebrain in coke-bottle glasses who auditions to play Hitler; and the lead Bavarian peasant in "Springtime for Hitler."
"He's sort of the Lon Chaney of this film," Producers director Susan Stroman says on the DVD commentary. Over another scene, she remarks that Borstelmann is "a wonderful comic, and a beautiful dancer."
When Stroman reteamed with The Producers' creators for their follow-up, Young Frankenstein, they invented a character for Borstelmann to portray: Ziggy, the village idiot. He also has a few other small roles as well as ensemble numbers in Young Frankenstein.
Borstelmann has been performing on Broadway nonstop since 1996, when he was in the original revival cast of Chicago. He left that show after four and a half years to join The Producers, which he was in for its entire six-year run. "I'm sort of a dichotomy," says the Long Island native. "'Gypsy' normally means going from show to show, but I've been able to 'sit down,' in three straight blockbusters."
Another amazing thing about Borstelmann's career is that he's gotten into all these hit shows without ever having to go to a cattle call audition. Even for the show where he made his Broadway debut, Jerome Robbins' Broadway, he was invited to audition. Jerry Mitchell, who was assistant to the choreographer on Jerome Robbins' Broadway, approached Borstelmann after seeing him in a New York City Opera production of The Pajama Game (starring Judy Kaye). Stroman recruited him for The Producers after he'd appeared in the Stroman-choreographed movie Center Stage—which she'd cast him in after seeing Chicago. And he got into Chicago...well, read on for that amazingly amazing story.
But first, back to Pajama Game, where he was one of the "Steam Heat" trio. Borstelmann has loved dancing and theater for as long as he can remember, but his No. 1 icon was always Bob Fosse. To do a signature Fosse number like "Steam Heat" was a dream come partially true. Partially, because there was another component to the dream. "My dream was to be in a Fosse show with Ann Reinking," he says. "When I was growing up, my buddies would have posters of football players, musicians...I had Ann Reinking in that backbend from Dancin' over my bed."
In 1992, he heard about a production of Chicago in the works at Civic Light Opera in Long Beach, Calif., that would be choreographed by Reinking and would star Juliet Prowse and Bebe Neuwirth. He scraped together money for plane fare and flew out to audition. While Borstelmann was learning the combination at the audition, a young man came over to him and said "I just want to tell you, I loved you in Jerome Robbins' Broadway." Trying to focus all his energy on winning the part, Borstelmann responded dismissively: "Thanks, but I really can't talk right now. I want to concentrate." A little while later, he discovered that the young man was Rob Marshall, who would be directing Chicago.
He got the part. During one rehearsal, Borstelmann recalls, "something came over me, and I just started crying. I walked over to the side, and Juliet was consoling me. Then Ann came over and asked what's wrong." And so he told her: about the bedroom poster, about the idol worship, about this unbelievable dream come true. Recounting this story for me in his Young Frankenstein dressing room 15-plus years later, Borstelmann again tears up.
The Long Beach Chicago had only a two-week run. But that would not be the end of his collaborating with Reinking. In 1995, he ran into her when they both went to see Ben Vereen in A Christmas Carol at Madison Square Garden. She told him that she would be choreographing Chicago for City Center Encores! that spring, and she wanted him to be in it. The show, of course, ended up transferring to Broadway, where it's still running, the most successful revival ever. Though Reinking and Borstelmann have both long since left Chicago, they've remained close friends and continued to work together. Reinking recently called him to assist her in choreographing some numbers for the concerts that Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin have been doing together in select cities.
Between the California and New York productions of Chicago, Borstelmann did another Fosse show, Damn Yankees, where he had the role of ballplayer Sohovik on the national tour starring Jerry Lewis (and choreographed by Rob Marshall). It was the beginning of another beautiful friendship. "He took me under his wing," Borstelmann says of Lewis, who after one early performance told him: "You got it. But you are throwing it away." The comedy legend Lewis then gave him some tips on comic timing: In the scene where Sohovik strikes out looking, Lewis advised him to pause before walking away from homeplate. "When you do this comedy thing [frowning after the ball whizzes by him], stay there. And then go," Borstelmann says Lewis told him. They now have their own little comedy routine. Lewis always calls him "Borstelburger," to which Borstelmann responds—in a very Jerry Lewis-ish voice—"Hold the mayo!" Borstelmann says "there is so much of" Lewis in his Young Frankenstein character, Ziggy. He goes to Las Vegas every year for Lewis' Labor Day telethon, and Lewis almost always comes to see him perform on Broadway.
There were no such touchy-feelies when Borstelmann worked with another legend, the famously difficult Jerome Robbins, though he's quick to say "You can learn a lot from certain people, if you can put personality aside." Borstelmann himself harbors no animosity toward Mr. Robbins ("I can never call him Jerry Robbins"), but he recalls a rehearsal of the West Side Story rumble where Robbins demonstrated how Riff should fall into Tony's arms after he's stabbed. Borstelmann was playing Tony, and after the rehearsal, "everyone came up to me and said [sotto voce] 'Why did you catch him?'"
Borstelmann joined Jerome Robbins' Broadway as a swing in 1989 and stayed till it closed in New York in September 1990. He then continued with the show on tour for another year or so. Besides Tony, his roles included Chip in On the Town and a bottle dancer in Fiddler on the Roof.
When Borstelmann was first cast in Jerome Robbins' Broadway, it was—fittingly—his father who delivered the news. "I was mowing the lawn in Long Island and my father [who had answered the phone] calls out, 'Jimmy, Broadway's calling!'" Borstelmann remembers. "My dad really encouraged me—which is very rare, to have the father do it. [There were] always Broadway shows playing in the living room...that's how my siblings and I grew up. He loves the big-band era, he loves music, he loves the arts, so that's how I was exposed to it." Borstelmann describes his father, who was a banker, as "a Jerry Lewis type, very funny, very animated."
It was Borstelmann's sister, Jan, who took her adolescent brother to a community theater after she caught him in their North Babylon, NY, home "leaping and jumping and dancing all over couches in the basement" while a record was playing. "I'm a natural dancer," he says. "I never really trained. It just came natural to me, it was a gift." Perhaps because he didn't have to put a lot of effort into learning to dance, Borstelmann hasn't actually put a lot of effort into forging his dance career. "I never really took it seriously, like it was going to be a career. It sort of picked me, somehow," he says. "I never really applied for it—I mean like dedicated my life to it, like 'I must train...I must get a picture and résumé...I must get an agent.'" To this day, he doesn't have an agent, or a résumé, or a current headshot (he says the one in the Young Frankenstein program is "about 10 years old").
Borstelmann performed in community-theater musicals as a teen, and in school shows too, but had virtually no formal training. He didn't bother with college since in high school, "I would create and daydream and lead my class in song," he says. "I would crack the teachers up and they'd say: 'Pass him. He's going to be fine. He's not going to need chemistry.'"
Throughout high school, Borstelmann and his sister would come into the city on weekends for theater. They'd get in early so they could take a jazz class with Phil Black before the matinee. One of these excursions stands out in Borstelmann's memory. "One day I saw A Chorus Line, and at night I saw Chicago. It was the most unbelievable day of my life," he says. "But the real one that did it for me was A Chorus Line. I couldn't believe that show. It's the greatest in the world." He went back to see it a few more times, including during Ann Reinking's run as Cassie. But he hasn't gone near the show as a performer. "I wouldn't audition for it," he says. "When you're in a show, you know it, you figure it out, it becomes 'oh, gotta do that again.' This was always a special jewel to me. I would never want to know that show as a job."
After high school, Borstelmann spent one summer taking ballet and modern classes at the Chautauqua Institution upstate. Some instructors in that program invited him to join the Buffalo Ballet, and he trained and performed with that company for a year. "I didn't want to stay there," Borstelmann says. "All I cared about was Broadway dancing. Ballet was too regimented and strict, not too much personality [is allowed on stage]." He felt the same pull when he later enrolled in Rebecca Harkness' ballet academy on the Upper East Side of Manhattan—and was much more interested in the theater dance classes being taught by Lee Theodore on another floor in the building.
Borstelmann's first professional theatrical job—also the first professional show he ever auditioned for—was a revue called Disney Summer Magic, which was presented at Radio City Music Hall in 1985. His ballet training came in handy, since the classic Disney numbers re-created for the show included the ostrich and hippo ballet from Fantasia. "How about growing up in Long Island and going to Buffalo to get to New York?" he laughs.
Following his Disney summer, he went to China to perform with a modern dance troupe. Back in the States, he started getting roles in regional theater: as one of the Sharks in West Side Story at Fisher Theatre in Detroit (he'd been a Jet in high school) and an apostle in Jesus Christ Superstar at Kansas City Starlight Theatre. In that late-'80s production of Jesus Christ Superstar, one of Borstelmann's fellow ensemble members was Roger Bart—now the star of Young Frankenstein. Borstelmann returned to Starlight for Oliver!, where he appeared with another future Tony winner, Donna Murphy (who played Nancy to ex-Monkee Davy Jones' Fagin).
Years later, after Borstelmann himself had broken through on Broadway, he made the decision—which seemed curious to some—to leave his dream job in Chicago to be a swing in The Producers. But thanks to Nathan Lane's vocal-cord polyps, he got to perform repeatedly, and in a featured role. During Lane's frequent absences, his understudy Brad Oscar would play Max Bialystock. And Borstelmann would go on in Oscar's role, Franz Liebkind. After a year, Borstelmann was promoted from swing into the ensemble track that had been vacated by Jeffry Denman. It entailed all the parts Borstelmann later played in the movie, including the blind violinist in "The King of Broadway" (which was cut from the film) and a little old lady. He also covered the role of Roger DeBris.
Borstelmann credits Susan Stroman with opening a new chapter in his career with The Producers. "I think she took me to that next level of being a principal and playing parts. She trusted me enough to make that transition. Now I was speaking and singing and having the timing and playing scenes."
He continues: "From Susan I learned not only a work ethic—being responsible and playing roles—but that as a dancer you have to act through your dance movements to tell the story." Comparing Stroman to the other great choreographers he's worked for, Borstelmann says, "Susan is so clever. She has wonderful movements, she uses a lot of props. [Dancing by] Annie and Bob, it's subtle. It could just be a shoulder, a hip, a hand says so much. And Mr. Robbins sort of incorporates it all: less is more, more is more, lyrical ballet, beautiful lines."
One of the first things Borstelmann remembers Stroman saying to him is "I love the way you move for being such a big guy." At a husky 5'11", he doesn't look like your typical chorus boy. Matthew Broderick put it more bluntly. When they met doing The Producers, Broderick told Borstelmann that he and wife Sarah Jessica Parker had seen his previous show. "When Sarah and I went to Chicago," he recalls Broderick saying, "I said to her: 'You know what? I like the fat guy!'"
When Borstelmann moved from Chicago to Producers, he went from a role in a single monochromatic costume to one with 16 costume changes. In Young Frankenstein, where his parts include shoeshine man, mad scientist and wolf, he has about 10 changes. But he encountered something new with this show that he hadn't experienced in his previous Broadway outings: bad reviews.
"We were very saddened by that," he admits. "People are nuts for this show; they stand up and go crazy. I don't know if they [the critics] necessarily reviewed all of us so much as compared it to The Producers and talked about the inflated ticket price for, like, one percent of the house. That's really what they concentrated on, $450 [for 'premier' tickets]. I think that had everything to do with the disappointing reviews: They weren't open to just review us and enjoy us."
In Young Frankenstein, Borstelmann is Shuler Hensley's understudy as the Monster. He'd love to have a part like that to play regularly (he's slated to go on in the role when Hensley takes a week off in April). "When you understudy, you have that desire," Borstelmann says. "It gets frustrating: You get out there [to cover a role], and the audience really eats it up. But then it's over, and you have to wait and wonder when you'll go on again."
To fulfill his desire for bigger speaking roles—maybe even on a sitcom—Borstelmann acknowledges that he probably needs to get an agent and to brave the audition process. His only audition since he made his Broadway debut was for the movie Chicago (he wasn't in it). But he notes: "I feel like I'm auditioning every time I'm on the stage. To get in that fluorescent-lit room and sing your 16 bars—that really doesn't tell them what you do. What I do is what you're seeing on the stage, because I'm into the role, I have the clothes on, I have the moves down."
While Borstelmann was in Chicago, he indulged in a favorite pastime offstage and landscaped the fire escapes of the Shubert Theatre, where the show was then playing. The garden—which has morning glories, geraniums, ivy and impatiens, among other flora—has been maintained by cast members of subsequent shows to play the Shubert, and Borstelmann says you can still see it in bloom in warmer weather from 44th Street. His apartment's fire escape fronting 9th Avenue in Hell's Kitchen is full of plants too.
In addition to gardening, Borstelmann counts cooking and bodysurfing among his hobbies. He does the latter when he visits his parents, who have moved to Florida, and the former just about any chance he gets, especially after receiving high-quality Le Creuset cookware as a Christmas present.
Photos of Jimmy, from top: with some Transylvanian lovelies in Young Frankenstein; with idol-turned-friend Ann Reinking; clowning with Jerry Lewis backstage on the Damn Yankees tour; in his dressing room at the Hilton Theatre earlier this winter; on left, with Bebe Neuwirth and David Warren-Gibson in Chicago. [Young Frankenstein photo by Paul Kolnik; Chicago photo by Dan Chavkin]
Updates on some previous Gypsies of the Month: