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GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Jeffrey Broadhurst of 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang'

Jeffrey Broadhurst has been in six Broadway musicals, most of them hits (his latest is Chitty Chitty Bang Bang); has worked with such legends as Liza Minnelli, Bette Midler and Jerome Robbins; and counts many other highly respected talents as personal friends. Therefore, he's established enough in the musical theater community that he shouldn't risk ostracism with the following confession: Before he was cast in 1999's Minnelli on Minnelli, he didn't know that Judy Garland is Liza Minnelli's mother.

"I hate to admit this...all my friends scream at me...I'm going to sound like the biggest idiot...," Broadhurst says, half laughing, half apologizing, before he relates the following memory from an early rehearsal of Minnelli on Minnelli: "Liza kept saying 'Mama this,' 'Mama that,' and I turned to [another dancer] and I said, 'Who is her mama? Who's she talking about?' He was like, 'Wha?!'"

In his defense, Broadhurst points out that he had been strictly ballet right up until he started dancing on Broadway—growing up in Myrtle Beach, S.C., he attended schools with virtually no theater programs and performed (outside of dance class) only in theme-park revues. And he attempts this excuse: "Minnelli, Garland, it's not the same name. It's an honest mistake!"

In Liza's show, Broadhurst was one of five gentlemen accompanying her as she performed songs from movies directed by her father, Vincente Minnelli (a tour followed the show's limited run at the Palace Theatre). It wasn't the first diva vehicle in which Broadhurst had won a highly coveted chorus-boy role: He played Tulsa in the Bette Midler Gypsy in 1993. On that occasion Broadhurst's lack of musical theater expertise may have helped him get the job. He had to audition in front of all the powerhouses who had created Gypsy, including book writer Arthur Laurents and composer Jule Styne. "All of whom, at the time, I didn't know that much about, certainly not enough to visually recognize them, so I wasn't nervous or anything," he says. He did, however, know Gypsy choreographer Jerome Robbins, whom he had worked with on Jerome Robbins' Broadway.

In the late '80s, Broadhurst was dancing with Karole Armitage's company, but planning a move into musical theater, when he heard Robbins was seeking ballet dancers for the Jerome Robbins' Broadway ensemble. Broadhurst had been classically trained at the North Carolina School of the Arts but didn't really see a future in ballet past Armitage's avant-garde troupe. "As a swing in Jerome Robbins' Broadway it prepared me to do everything that ever could come down the road. And not only do it but not be in a panic about doing it," Broadhurst says. "If I look back on my life, not only about dance, I probably got the education of my lifetime during that time."

On his next show, Crazy for You, he worked with another premier choreographer, Susan Stroman. "It was just joy," Broadhurst says. "She is an amazing person. She has an incredible respect for the people that are working with her, and she's not threatened by your input and your collaborativeness. She welcomes it." He's also been in Kiss Me, Kate and The Boys From Syracuse on Broadway, as well as tours of The Music Man, Chicago and West Side Story, which has been his favorite to perform (he did selections from it in Jerome Robbins' Broadway). "For men, West Side Story is the best choreography I've done, I've seen, maybe will ever see!"

Nobody would mistake Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for a classic like that, but Broadhurst says his current job has its own rewards. "I know it's such a cliché to say, but it really is a great family atmosphere going to work: It's friendship, camaraderie, that unique backstage bond. I've worked with a lot of those people before." And he finds something special in each number he does in Chitty: "'Bamboo' is very athletic, and I like that about it. 'Funfair,' I think, is the best-structured number. Visually I think it's beautiful. 'Bombie Samba' comes from out of nowhere, but it's great, it's exciting. And 'Toot Sweets' is cute, it builds the story."

Hoofing around a candy factory and serenading a rattletrap car are only some of Broadhurst's professional activities these days. During the week, he goes to the theater after working a full day for an interior design firm. "It's great to have different creative outlets in your life," he says. "It gives me sort of a balance. I really enjoy it, and at least for right now it's possible for me [to do both]." Broadhurst began making furniture after he had moved to Los Angeles for Gypsy—"I was there temporarily and I didn't want to go spend a lot of money for stuff, so I thought, 'I'll just make it'"—and his interest in design grew from there. When he was back in New York doing Kiss Me, Kate, he enrolled at the Parsons School of Design.

"Everything you do informs everything else you do," Broadhurst says about pursuing two careers simultaneously. "You have to take opportunities when opportunities come, but I'm not a big believer in sitting around waiting for opportunities to come." Remembering the fallow period in which he made his Broadway debut (Black and Blue was the only other new musical of note that season), Broadhurst knows performing opportunities may be limited at times. "So for me the answer was to create something else that I could do."

Before branching out into another field altogether, Broadhurst had branched out from theater into movies and TV. He stayed in L.A. for about four years after filming Gypsy, guesting on Beverly Hills, 90210 and Baywatch—where he played a serial killer who got punched out by David Hasselhoff—and appearing in such films as Mel Brooks' Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Dudley Do-Right and a TV movie about the parenticidal Menendez brothers. He also danced in last year's Kevin Spacey-as-Bobby Darin biopic Beyond the Sea.

One of his last jobs in L.A. was a featured role in a production of Promises, Promises—starring Jason Alexander, Jean Smart and Fred Willard—at Reprise!, L.A.'s version of City Center Encores! "That was the sort of impetus for me to get back to New York and work in the theater again," Broadhurst says. He had never fully acclimated to the Southern California lifestyle anyway. "Walking out on the street in New York is all the motivation you need to get off your butt and go do something. Los Angeles is not motivating. You're incredibly isolated," he remarks.

The difference was even more pronounced when it came to work. "There, you're a marketer of oneself. I couldn't even get an agent until Gypsy had come out because they had nothing of me on tape. If I'd had me walking on a soap opera saying hello, I would have had tape and that would be wonderful. Meanwhile, I had done two or three Broadway shows at that point, but it meant nothing to them. We all know you can't tape a Broadway show, but if they don't see it, they don't imagine it."

Broadhurst almost didn't get the audition for Gypsy, even though it was held in New York. During the run of Crazy for You he heard from a friend in singing class—who was practicing Tulsa's solo, "All I Need Is the Girl" —about an upcoming made-for-TV movie of Gypsy. He learned Tulsa's dance by watching the old Rosalind Russell Gypsy on video but was turned down trying to schedule an audition, probably because Tulsa candidates were already being screen-tested. So he just showed up at the women's chorus call and persuaded the casting people to see him. The earlier Jerome Robbins credit on his résumé didn't hurt, but Broadhurst says his crashing the audition may have been what really impressed them: "In a way, now in hindsight, I think that's what the character would have done, and so I think they saw that."

Broadhurst remembers his starstruck first days of rehearsal: "Bette was in the studio singing the score. There was a pay phone by the studio, and I called my mom and I held the phone up to the door: 'Listen, she's singing!'" He also laughs about some unwelcome encounters on the set: The scenes that take place in theaters were filmed in L.A.'s historic old vaudeville houses, which had been abandoned for years by performers but were infested with rats. "Out in the street, when we filmed my number, before the takes they would have to run down the alley with keys and clap boards and try to scare them away," Broadhurst says. Of course, nothing could diminish the thrill of working with Midler, whom he describes as "giving and supportive and funny and human—I have nothing but wonderful things to say about her."

A few years later he worked with another divine Miss M, and he gushes about that experience too. "Loved Liza! She treated us like gold," he says. "She's the kind of person that really roots for you, because she knows what it's like to be on that side as well. So you're in the middle of your audition song and she stops you and comes up and tells you she wants you to do this during it, and she's holding your hand and she's working with you."

Minnelli was fond enough of Broadhurst and the other dancers to invite them to her birthday parties in later years, and he celebrated one New Year's Eve at her Upper East Side home. From his superstar acquaintances to international engagements (he has taught dance in Japan and in Italy was a cologne spokesmodel and regular on the Fantastico variety show), Broadhurst has forged a multifaceted career. Reflecting on what he's discovered about working in musical theater, he states: "Never take yourself and the business so seriously that you forget that it's not brain surgery. I think a lot of my time in my youth was wasted on what was I going to do next. Sometimes I didn't stop to really enjoy the process. Now, I love the process. I revel in it. I know that it doesn't last forever.

"It's a time in one's life, and you have to stop and enjoy what's happening now, because it will be gone," Broadhurst concludes. "I don't remember a lot of what I did in the shows, I don't remember the choreography, but I remember the times at the shows, the people, the fun, the laughter. That's what you remember in life; it's not the steps."

Photo of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: Jeff is immediately to Raúl Esparza's right, performing "Me Ol' Bamboo" [photo by Joan Marcus].

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