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'Night Music''s Polly Bergen is Back in Baltimore

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Sitting down last week with the legendary Polly Bergen ranks right up there with some of the best theatre experiences of my life.  I'll admit I was very nervous, and even managed to spill a bottle of water all over the place!  She didn't miss a beat, sopping up the water and continuing her story while I bumbled around like a fool.  But that incident just speaks to the graciousness of a terrific lady – professional, but very human.  The truth is, we hadn't been talking more than a minute and she immediately put me at ease.  Spilled water notwithstanding, the interview flew by. 

James Howard:  Well, here we are the day after opening night!  I appreciate your taking the time for this interview.

Polly Bergen:  No problem.  (She smiles.)  It has been pretty exhausting.  Twelve hour days leading up to last night!  But it was so exciting, wasn't it?  I had the best time!

James:  It certainly was exciting.  So, tell me how did you find your way to your CENTERSTAGE debut and Baltimore?

Polly: (Director) Mark Lamos and I live about 20 minutes apart up in Connecticut, and we met up at a dinner party being given by A.R. Gurney – there's a really small social circle in Connecticut.  Anyway, we got closer, seeing each other at various parties and things, and this past Christmas he said, 'Polly, I'm doing A Little Night Music in Baltimore.  I think we'd have a lot of fun – it's really just 1 song and a few great scenes!'  Well, I am basically retired, from the stage at least, but as a favor… so I said, 'Sure.  When it gets closer, if I'm not booked with something, I'll do it.'  Next thing I know, he calls, saying my manager says I'm free, and we start soon!  (Laughing)  I really love Mark, so here I am! 

James: So what do you think of Baltimore? 

Polly:  Baltimore is one of the most beautiful towns, really.  And trust me, I don't say that about every place…  There is just something so quaint, old and beautiful about this place.  I'm so glad to be back.  When I was here shooting Cry Baby, I spent three months here.  But the hours were 5 PM to 5 AM, so I only saw it at night, but even that was wonderful.  I just love it here!  Now that we've opened, and things are settling in, I can't wait to get out and see everything in daylight! 

James:  Tell me about Madame Armfeldt.  How does she fit into the story of A Little Night Music?  What does she represent? 

Polly: Hmm.  Her purpose is to explain the reason for the story and why it is happening, all from her wisdom and knowledge.  She was a famous courtesan who never went to bed without getting something – a chateau, jewelry – you must get assets!  (She smiles.)  She is also trying to teach her daughter (Desiree) not to throw her life away and screw just for romance.  She is also trying to teach her granddaughter not to be a replica of Desiree.  I think she is also the epitome of Sweden – there is no night; she's dying, but won't sleep – no one knows when to during 24 hours of daylight!  I think she is a funny, caustic and sad woman.  From what I gathered during rehearsals (and from some friends who are real Sondheim fanatics) is that no one else has really played that before.  I find that she chronicles her life with joy, but she fears that she threw out the one love of her life because he only gave her a wooden ring.  It was foolish, really, because that ring was a valuable heirloom.  Apparently no one else has really played her with a touch of sympathy.  I think it makes her more interesting that she is unsure. 

James:  You were Tony nominated for Follies.  Congratulations!  Why do you think that production was so roughly reviewed?

Polly:  Well, I always said, 'a blind dog with three legs could get a standing ovation for singing 'I'm Still Here'!'  But honestly, I think that was the first production of that show that actors were cast for acting first, singing second.  The director felt that that the acting was more important, so we really acted the songs.  Singing was about a continuation of the scene.  I thought they were great – none of us were really singers (at least not anymore) – Blythe (Danner), Judy (Ivey), Treat (Williams), none of us.  And as you know Sondheim is TOUGH.  We all struggled, and you know what?  We got better and better and better!  God did we work hard.  And what a cast, right?  You know that was Kelli O'Hara's first time originating a role on Broadway, too.  Hmmm.  I guess there are just certain expectations for certain shows, especially Sondheim. 

James:  I have to tell you, I saw the revival of Cabaret eight times, and you were my favorite Fraulein Schnieder.  I thought it was so amazing that you got exit applause after your big act two scene. 

Polly:  You really saw me in it?  You are one of like 15 people I know who saw me in that!  I LOVED it so much.  I wanted it so bad before it opened.  I wanted to be seen and they simply would not even see me!  Then I did Follies for them (Roundabout) and the next thing you know, they are asking me to do it!  I absolutely loved it!  I got to work with Raul Esparza, who I just adore.  He is so talented, I love everything he does, don't you!?  (She laughs.)  And I also got to work with my dear friend, John Stamos.  You know, I thought he was just the best.  I mean really.  A lot of theatre people dismiss TV actors, but I say give them a chance to prove themselves, you know?  There are many of them who want to do their best work.  Johnny was one of them. We had a ball. By that point in the run, we rehearsed with like the 4th Assistant Director or something, so we gave each other notes, too.  To start with, he was pretty nervous. [The Emcee] was a rough character, and he struggled.  I told him, "Don't worry about whether the audience likes you!  Should they like the Emcee?"  And it clicked!  Boy, was he good.  (She laughs.) He told me one day, "Polly, could you bring down your German accent a little?  I don't understand a word you are saying!"  I did, but it was hard!  I really worked at that accent! 

James:  I remember my entire family sitting in front of the TV glued to The Winds of War.  What was that experience like?  And how about working with Robert Mitchum? 

Polly: Ahh… maybe my favorite role!   You know that was 12 hours of television we shot for the first part?  Herman Wouk HATED Rhoda (Ms. Bergen's Emmy-nominated role in both Winds of War and War and Remembrance).  And I thought, 'No!  She's really just a victim of her time.  I mean, she follows her husband making a home from scratch everywhere they went.  I brought a sympathy to the role, I think.   But Mitchum and I – we go back to the original film Cape Fear.  We've been friends for years, and his wife and I work for the same charity.  Anyway, casting was 100% against my playing the role.  I auditioned ten or more times.  And they couldn't cast anyone.  Everyone turned it down.  Later, I was told Mitchum insisted I do it.  So there I was at home, cooking a Thanksgiving dinner for thirty-four people!  And I get the call.  Three days before shooting was to begin on a $50 million dollar movie and I'm cast.  That was a Thursday, we started filming on Monday!  Boy, did I tease them when I got nominated for an Emmy for a part they didn't want me for!  You know, come to think of it, I think I watched the first episode of the show from a hotel here in Baltimore!  I'm pretty sure it was here.  That day the East Coast had the worst snowstorm in a century and I couldn't get home to Connecticut.  How funny! 

James:  And now you are Lynette's mother on Desperate Housewives!  What is it like on that set?  Are you going back now that the writer's strike is over? 

Polly:  I love to play with Felicity Huffman.  She is such a powerhouse!  I can honestly say I have never worked with a nicer group.  I don't care what the tabloids say – I never saw anything but respect and care from anyone.  What a great place to work!  I had known Nicolette (Sheridan) for some time, and you know, she is just so warm and FUNNY!  Eva (Longoria-Parker) is absolutely delicious!  I had invited some friends – who told me the ENTIRE Desperate Housewives story before I got to the set – to the set, and she posed for pictures and was so truly gracious.  And Marcia Cross is a simply heavenly woman.  I regret that I didn't get to really work with Teri (Hatcher) because I respect her work so much.  And of course, they just brought in Dana Delaney, another dear friend, to stir things up!  But I worked mostly with Felicity, who is wonderful.  She is fun and has a great time, but she (and all of them) are very serious about the work.  Even working with the kids was great fun.  One time, the littlest girl had to come in, go to Felicity, then get handed off to me.  She would NOT come on!  So Felicity noticed she loved the grapes on the food service table.  So Felicity grabbed a handful and lured her into the scene.  What a pro!  And hey, I got to do scenes with Richard Chamberlain, who played my gay husband!  You can't beat that.  As far as going back, I can't see any reason why they would need tohave me back, they've got so much else going on.  But it's a soap and they didn't kill me off, so who knows?  Would I go back if they asked? In a heartbeat!  (Laughing) Tell you readers to write the show – "BRING BACK POLLY!"   

James:  So what advice do you have for our readers who would love to have a career as long and successful as yours? 

Polly:  Well, this is such a cliché, but don't become a performer unless you want it more than anything else in your life.  Other than that, you need to know that luck plus talent plus making your own luck plus being driven is what really gets you there.  And if you are fortunate enough to have them listen to the great teachers and coaches.  Wait!  About preconceived notions… you need to show the people you are auditioning for that even though you don't fit their idea for a role, you might still work out.  Look at what happened with me playing Rhoda!  It's funny, but the things I really WANTED, I got, even though it was so hard to get.  It was always the stuff I was 50/50 on or didn't care either way that I never got.  Now of course, the minute I "retired" I got more work than ever. 

James:  Ok.  Last question –a two parter.  What is your favorite role?  And what role do you still want to play? 

Polly:  Generally, I say that the last role I played was my favorite.  But really, it is always the parts that are furthest from me that people think I can't play – like Rhoda or my part in Cabaret.  Hmmm I guess any part that Angela Lansbury or Marian Seldes would be up for would be parts I'd still like! 

James: (Laughing)  Maybe a one-woman Deuce?

Polly:  Exactly!  No, seriously, I've always wanted to play Big Mama.  I've never done Tennessee Williams. 

James: Thank you so much Ms. Bergen!  Enjoy Baltimore.

 

A Little Night Music continues through April 13 at CENTERSTAGE.

 

PHOTOS courtesy of CENTERSTAGE.  Production still by Richard Anderson.

 

 


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