BWW Interview: THE RIVALS at Bristol Riverside Theatre
Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Rivals, a comedy of manners, did not receive a warm welcome in it's first performance at Covent Garden Theatre in 1775. After a rewrite, however, it captured the audience's hearts and funny bones, and has been delighting audiences ever since. A new musical version of The Rivals, with book and lyrics by Richard Kellogg and music by Stephen Weiner, will hit the stage at the Bristol Riverside Theatre October 30th under the direction of Eric Tucker. The Rivals is the story of a wealthy young woman, Lydia Languish, who will lose a portion of her wealth if she does not marry someone of whom her guardian, Mrs. Malaprop, approves. Between mistaken identities, scheming servants, and unintentionally misused words, The Rivals is sure to have audiences laughing. The all-star cast includes Harriet Harris, who has portrayed Bebe Glazer in Frazier, Mrs. Meers in Thoroughly Modern Millie, and Felicia Tilman in Desperate Housewives, among many other roles. BroadwayWorld recently had the opportunity to speak with Harris about her experience with The Rivals.
BWW: Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get into acting?
Harris: Well, I was a kid and I think my mother was encouraged to send me to a local theatre school to overcome my shyness. So that's how it started. And it's been a good thing. I think it was one of my godmothers or at least somebody who thought that this kid has really gotta learn to speak up for herself. It was just a really great way to find a voice.
BWW: You've done live theatre as well as TV. What do you like about each of those mediums?
Harris: I think if it's a long-term job on TV, then you really see the same people every day and you interact with everybody around the studio in a way that you build a show. If it's a theatre piece, then you're in a rehearsal hall, and you know those people really, but then you move to the theatre and you meet new people.
With a TV studio, for instance, if you're doing a sitcom, then you show up and immediately everybody looks at each other and goes my life is dependent on you from the get go. So that's an interesting way of working, where you know everybody has to be heading in the same direction at all times because another show is not going to just come along. It's not like another Broadway show is just begging to get into this house and we'll have jobs anyway.
But the crews in Broadway theatres are so wonderful and I have gotten to have relationships with them, but you just don't start from day one that way. I guess that's a difference. I wouldn't say I enjoy one or the other more. I see value in both of them and love doing TV when I'm doing it and I love doing live theatre when I'm doing that.
BWW: You've played a variety of different roles over the years. What are some of your favorites?
Harris: I love the part I'm doing now-Mrs. Malaprop-I just think it's a really beautiful part. I played the ingénue Lydia when I was younger and there was a wonderful actress who played Mrs. Malaprop, but I never thought I'd be right for Mrs. Malaprop. I guess I was so in love with my own part that I didn't see how great Mrs. Malaprop was, but it's a wonderful role, particularly with what Stephen Weiner and Peter Kellogg have done with it. She has a more resonant story than she was allowed to have in the play because she's merely a figure of fun in the play. In the musical she has more to do and has more of a turn, which is fun to do.
Other parts that I have really loved doing-of course Mrs. Meers in Thoroughly Modern Millie and Amanda in Glass Menagerie. I loved doing Hay Fever-that's one of my favorite plays. People rarely do it, but I got to do it a couple of times, and Judith Bliss is just one of the greatest parts ever. Bebe Glazer on Frasier is just a tremendously good part. Felicia Tilman on Desperate Housewives was a wonderful role in which I got to do a number of really fun things. Royal Family that I got to do this summer, I adored and I adored everybody in that. To play Fanny Cavendish was a real highlight.
I tend to fall in love with what I'm doing in the moment and everyone in this show is so great. There aren't many of us in the show, so we've all gotten to know one another pretty well, and they're all spectacular.
BWW: The Rivals has been adapted a few times from its original version in 1775. What is it about this story that still appeals to audiences today?
Harris: It is very very funny. There's a comedy of manners aspect to it; there's a comedy of errors aspect, where people aren't necessarily in love with the people they think they're in love with. I think that's entertaining to audiences to find out when are these people going to wake up. I think that resonates in people's lives-that you fall in love with who you fall in love with, you think, and then you end up marrying the person they really are. Characters getting to know one another and either appreciate each other more deeply or separate from one another because they need to-I think that's something that an audience can key into right away.
And there are so many different generations in the show and class distinctions because it's an 18th century British play. Class distinctions are pretty clear as well as what people's expectations are based on that. Yet there's an idea that the servants are smarter than their masters, and that's fun for people too-to realize that they know more than the other people on stage.
BWW: The term malapropism was coined as a result of this show because throughout the play, Mrs. Malaprop misuses words-using a word that sounds similar but is not the correct word for what she means. Tell us a little about how your character's misuse of words adds to the comedy of the play.
Harris: It's unexpected. Just when you think you know what she's going to say, she says something different. Or you think it's time for her to say something ridiculous, and then she doesn't. It's very clever the way it was written-they aren't used with regularity, so you never quite expect it. At some points in listening to Mrs. Malaprop, you may find yourself wondering if you should even listen to her and try to figure out what she's saying, and then at other times she makes perfect sense.
BWW: This version of the show is a musical-is there a particular song that stands out to you as a crowd-pleaser?
Harris: Since we haven't had an audience yet, it's hard to say what the crowd-pleasers will be. But I think the music is so great in this show. It is entertaining, diverting, and energizing. And then there are songs that just go cutting through all the frills of what one thinks love is or what the expectations are. There's one song in particular that's my favorite in the show called "My Heart has a Mind of its Own". It's a beautiful song that I really enjoy getting to be part of but I also think it's perfect because it's not what you expect of these people having been with them for the 1st act. I don't know that you think these people are capable of that song. But all of the music is really terrific, and boy can the cast sing them.
BWW: Why should audiences come see The Rivals as Bristol Riverside Theater?
Harris: If people love theatre they'll love the show. I think they'll have a wonderful time. The reason to come to theatre is to be with people and to hear stories and walk away with some kind of insight either in your own life or in life in general, and maybe that's hard to do sometimes with a musical comedy, but I think this show definitely offers that. I hope it will be a beautiful and fun evening in the theatre. People will enjoy it enormously.
BWW: If you could reprise any of the characters you've played, which one would it be and why?
Harris: I never thought I wanted to do Mrs. Meers again, but we got to do it for an Actors Fund for just one night, and it was ever so much fun and I adored being with so many of the people we originally do that with. But, I think that's it maybe...I just kind of really like to move on to the next thing. I like to do something new.
BWW: Our final question is a silly one, just for fun. Mrs. Malaprop, Mrs. Meers, and Felicia Tilman are all characters that have secrets-Mrs. Malaprop is pretending to be someone else in letters she writes, Mrs. Meers is running a slavery ring out of her hotel, and Felicia Tilman is seeking revenge for the death of her sister. If they were planning a bank heist together, who would be the leader?
Harris: Felicia of course. I think she'd do everything and have the others sit in the car...she's not much of a team player. Mrs. Malaprop is quite rich, so she doesn't need to plan a bank heist.
BWW: Any final thoughts you'd like to share with our readers?
Harris: Come and fall in love because that's what this show will feel like. I've fallen in love with everybody in the cast and the creatives, our wonderful choreographer, and just everyone. It's a beautiful place to work, and if people don't know the Bristol Riverside Theatre, they should come and get acquainted with it. Have dinner and see a show.
Get your tickets for The Rivals at Bristol Riverside Theatre today by visiting www.brtstage.org. The Rivals will run October 30-November 18.