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STEPHEN SONDHEIM
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Beth Fowler: A Real Lady On Stage

While one show on Broadway laments what ever happened to class, another show three blocks away answers the question. You'd be hard-pressed to find a classier woman on Broadway nowadays than Beth Fowler, currently in The Boy From Oz.

I recently sat with Fowler in her Imperial Theater dressing room to talk about her solid and impressive career. Even more impressive is that unlike many performers today who knew exactly what they wanted to do when they were born; Beth "fell back on" performing after being a teacher of music for several years. "I figured I could always go back to teaching... I just never have as much as I loved it."

Fowler was no stranger to Broadway having grown up in nearby New Jersey/>/>. "I won't tell you what my first show was" Fowler joked not wanting to give away her age. Then with a hearty laugh she said "No, I'm not shy about my age...my first show was Carousel when I was 10."

"The only thing I remember about that show was the gunshot. The gunshot and the Carousel, of course. Later I got to see Streisand in Funny Girl, Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly and Barbara Harris in A Clear Day..., Merman in Gypsy and all of that – with no dream of even being in the business. I just loved it and enjoyed it very much. So when I left teaching to try this, it was because I was encouraged by people who I worked with in community theater. What really got me was that Gantry was my first audition for a Broadway show and I got the chorus and understudied the lead. I said to myself 'oh..ok, I guess I'm supposed to do this.'"

So what did that first experience do for Fowler? "It gave me confidence. It gave me an agent. It also convinced me, because I was the kind of person that needed to be convinced, that I was capable of competing. It was a couple of years later that I got Night Music, and by that time I had seen Company, Follies, and of course Forum and West Side Story."

What was it like for Fowler, a relative newcomer to find herself suddenly cast in a Sondheim show and working with Hal Prince?

"I was HYSTERICAL! I was in awe of these people because I knew who they were. I remember sitting in the cocktail lounge in Boston/>/> and Jonathan Tunick was in there. I was very nervous being in his company and he made some reference to the fact that the big wigs were upstairs in one of the rooms working on such-and-such. I said what do you mean the big wigs? Why aren't you up there – you are as big of a star to me as any of them. And he replied 'Oh my' and I said 'no wait a minute, I was a music teacher, I know what you do.' I was in awe over the work he had done and he just loved that. Ten years later at the first read through of BABY, he had written the arrangement for 'Patterns' and everyone, including me, was in tears when I finished. He just came over to me, held me and said 'that was a present' It was a moment of truth for my life – that he wrote that arrangement for me singing that song. It was one of the true treasures of my whole career."

Beth admits that while she doesn't exactly remember her impressions of Sondheim during her audition, she does remember Hal Prince. "I haven't thought about this in years. I remember that I sang 'Very Next Man' because that was kind of a show off song for me because it showed off my legit voice and a strong middle – which is what they look for. I'm not sure what I sang for the ballad – I believe it was 'The Black Swan'. Now the thing was – at the callback I had to read for Hal and I read both Petra the Maid and then the Countess and they chose me, my agent said, because I could do both. That was their problem – they needed a cover in the quintet who could do both those roles vocally and dramatically – so THAT is why I got the job. Hal got excited after I did the two readings because here I had the vocal chops and could also flip around and do both the sophisticated and earthy thing."

Being relatively new in the business at the time, Fowler now admits to being slightly embarrassed about having fluffed up her resume back then. As Murphy's Law would dictate, during her interview, Hal noticed she had been in Little Mary Sunshine and asked where she had performed that role. She replied, "Bergen County Players" and Hal laughed and said "OK! No more questions – I don't want to know!"

Beth had a second opportunity to work with Sondheim in 1989 when she took on the role of Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd at Circle in the Square. She remembers the experience very fondly and says "I don't know how anyone could NOT be so much in awe and thrilled to work with Stephen."  She continues with an anecdote: "There's a kinescope of the recording session of Company and in it Stephen is in the booth with Tom Shepard during 'You Could Drive a Person Crazy' and they were having pitch problems or something – he says to Tom, 'I'll go talk to the performer.' I remember sitting in my parents living room and watching this and thinking 'oh my god I would die if this ever happened to me…so a few weeks after we opened there was a party in his house and we're all having drinks, food and a good time – and he showed the film 'Something For Everyone' because Hal had directed it and Angela (Lansbury) was in it. Then we had dessert and I am sitting at this card table and the projector is here, I'm over here and Stephen is here (and I already had a couple of drinks already) and Stephen leans over and says, 'you know I have the kinescope of the recording of Company – is there anybody interested in watching this? And I just started sobbing – I can't believe I am here – at Sondheim's home and being offered to watch this…" Fowler laughs at the memory and then relays that she realized at that moment she was living her dream.

The role of Mrs. Lovett garnered Fowler a TONY Nomination. She didn't win that year – nor did she even expect to. "I knew I wasn't going to win – I was up against Tyne Daly who was doing the greatest role…now I have to tell you this story. The last week of Sweeney, Stephen (Sondheim) came to my dressing room and said a bunch of very nice things to me. And in that talk he included remarks which included the statement that he thought I would never get a part better than this (Lovett) – that there's no better part written for a woman. I thought it was a little odd at the time…I'm sure he didn't mean that I was never going to work again (she laughs) but I thought it was an odd thing to say…especially because a few years later I did Mama Rose and I know what an incredible arc and journey that character takes…so I just thought it was a very interesting thing that he said that…"

Many of Fowler's roles on stage have been that of a parent/mother figure (Peter Pan, Baby, Beauty and the Beast, The Boy from Oz) and although she has been married for 27 years, she's never had any children. Directors and the like have all simply told her she has that "quality." This quality has worked against her for some roles, she told me. She performed as Miss Mona in Best Little Whorehouse in Texas/> in Darien/>, CT/>/> and one of the reviewers wrote that watching Beth Fowler "was like watching your Girl Scout Leader play Miss Mona." No doubt the same initial reaction Susan Egan (Fowler's co-star in Beauty and the Beast) received when she landed the role of Sally Bowles in Cabaret.

Aside from usually playing the matronly role in many shows, Beth also tends to be the one sporting an accent. A New Jersey/>/> native, Fowler jokes "I think people are sometimes disappointed when I come out of the stage door to sign autographs." Having a "good ear" for dialects has helped her get away with it over the years. She first needed to learn an English accent for the role of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady – a role that (if she got) would determine if she left teaching for good. She does admit that she's been fortunate not to have needed to work with a dialect coach – until she signed with The Boy From Oz.

"It's a difficult one to just pick up. And I've been told that it's good that I don't sound like Paul Hogan (Crocodile Dundee)." The producers hired a dialect coach for the cast and Fowler also did homework of her own – not to mention listening to Hugh talk whenever she could and making mental notes.

Was Hugh correcting people's accents during the rehearsal period? "No, not at all. The only thing he said to me one day (which made me go hmm uh-oh...and it was really just him being nice) 'how are things going with the dialect coach? Is he any good' to which I replied 'I don't know (she laughs) you tell me! You'll need to be the one to tell me because I don't want you sitting in a chair on the stage thinking that you wished you had brought someone from home…" Hugh's wife, Deborah, also helped Beth pick up Australian nuances by running lines with her during rehearsals.

It paid off in spades, because Hugh, on several occasions has complimented her "Well, we had friends again in the other night and once again these people wanted to know 'Why don't we know her from home??" Part of the joke being that with Australia's small professional acting community and Beth's age, surely they would know of her – and the argument then would start with Hugh insisting that Beth is from New Jersey and not Oz.

Having played so many different roles over the years, I had to ask Beth if she's ever been mistaken for someone else. "Yes… and this is silly, but it's happened at least three times that I can remember over the years. 'I LOVED you in Company' and then I'd say 'Oh. Thank you very much but that was Beth Howland." Then they would say 'no..no.. I KNOW who Beth Howland is. It was you that I saw in Company.' I would try and argue with them but after a few times I just would smile and say 'thank you'. I always thought it was the oddest thing. And then I did this benefit with Stritch and we were at rehearsal and when I went up to her she embrace me like a long lost friend and said 'my god it sure has been years, hasn't it?! Life's been good to you with the TV and everything' and I am thinking oh crap, she thinks I'm Beth Howland!"

So what dream roles are on Fowler's list? "Kate" in Death of a Salesman. Friends want me to do MAME and I love singing the songs. I sang 'If You Walked Into My Life' at Carnegie Hall for a Jerry Herman tribute a couple of years ago. But to be honest, I don't have any real dream musical roles. I like to be surprised and to just do something really satisfying and fun."

That's exactly what doing The Boy From Oz has been for Beth. She never dreamed she would be playing a role in a show filled with pop music. "This (Oz) was really a surprise to me. I turned down the audition because I'm not a pop singer and I don't want to embarrass myself – I didn't think it was right for me. I thought the material was good and I liked the book."

Hugh being the star didn't convince Fowler to rush into the audition either, "I knew Hugh's work in Oklahoma, this was a terrific idea and I really hated saying no to the audition but I wouldn't take a role just because it was something I wanted to do… but they came back and said that I could sing in whatever key I wanted and 'they didn't want a pop singer to sing the song they wanted to hear Beth Fowler sing it.' So I did audition and by the end of that day I got the call."

With award season upon the theater community, Beth is sure to be one of the names being tossed around the voting committees. While awards are always wonderful to receive, it's clear that Fowler is already happy with the rewards of her career.

"I've been very blessed to be in wonderful shows that I've really had a good time with. I've never been happier with this show I am in now. I love coming to work everyday – the talented cast…It's just so much fun."




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