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Jane Connell in Leading Ladies, The Alley Theatre; PC: T. Charles Erickson

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Jane Connell and Chris Duva in Leading Ladies, The Alley Theatre; PC: T. Charles Erickson

Interviews

Born to Clown - An Interview With Jane Connell, Ludwig's Favorite Actress

Born to clown
Character actress a veteran comedian of TV, film, Broadway
By EVERETT EVANS
November 1, 2004
Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle

"I was born a character person," Jane Connell declares.

"I was always eccentric, never a conventional beauty. I grew up in the Depression, the youngest of four kids. I wanted to make people laugh, because making my family laugh helped us forget our concerns. And I found that I could do it."

Connell has been making people laugh ever since, via TV appearances, occasional films and more than a dozen notable Broadway shows. With her droll manner and flair for the comic gesture, inflection and facial expression, she specializes in odd ducks -- most famously in the 1966 hit Mame, originating the role of mousy nanny Agnes Gooch.

The Oxford Companion to American Theatre describes her as "a tiny woman with a giant, squeaking voice" and "a favorite supporting player on Broadway for more than 40 years." She's upholding that tradition in the Alley Theatre's world premiere comedy, Leading Ladies. Connell plays Florence, a rich old woman, purportedly dying yet perpetually rallying, duped by two actors masquerading as her long-lost nieces.

Playwright Ken Ludwig created the role for Connell; it's her fifth time in one of his shows. Besides romping through his backstage farces Lend Me a Tenor and Moon Over Buffalo, she played the hero's bossy mom in the hit musical Crazy for You and the Widow Douglas in the short-lived Tom Sawyer.

"When I auditioned for Tenor," Connell recalls, "Ken jumped over a row of seats to whisper to (director) Jerry Zaks. I thought, 'This is promising.' Jerry later told me, 'Ken really wants you but we've promised an audition to someone else.' I thought, 'That's the kiss of death; she'll be great and get the part.' But she didn't. I did. Since then, everything with Ken's been a love affair."

She loves that her current role is short on stage time, long on impact. "The less I have to do, the better. But it's wonderful when everything I'm given to do is perfection. Ken doesn't write jokes, as such. He writes funny situations."

Connell sees much of herself in Florence's abrupt shifts and outspokenness. "That happens with age. You don't care so much what people think. In Florence's case, it's also because of her wealth. She's used to being waited on. Because the others are so eager to impress her, the fact that she doesn't care makes it funny."

Offstage, the 4' 11'' dynamo can seem surprisingly . . . well, normal. But the periodic quirks -- the faux-severe command, the hands flying to her face in mock desperation -- betray the veteran comic actress.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Jane Sperry Bennett met actor Gordon Connell when he played piano for a college melodrama. They wed in 1948, gained early experience on radio and toured in stock. When their Straw Hat Revue did well at summer theaters in the northeast, they decided to brave New York. Connell made her New York debut in the hit 1955 off-Broadway staging of The Threepenny Opera. Her Broadway bow came the next year in New Faces of 1956, introducing the sardonic paean April in Fairbanks ("I'll never leave it... alive") and sharing a dressing room with fellow "new face" Maggie Smith.

She played wacky Princess Winnifred in the London premiere of Once Upon a Mattress. "I was absolutely thrilled to get that role," Connell says. "Gordon was doing Julius Monk's Upstairs at the Downstairs, so our daughters (then 2 and 7) came to London with me." Her daughters, both musicians, live in New York.

Her big break came in Mame, which Connell recalls as one of those rare cases in which every element clicked from the start. She relished having Broadway's top composer of the '60s, Jerry Herman, craft a big comic solo (Gooch's Song) especially for her. "We knew the show would be a smash. Jerry's songs, Gene Saks' direction. It had strokes of genius, like Jerry saying, 'I don't want to open with a big number, I want just these two sad little figures adrift in New York.'" So Connell as Gooch launched the brassy musical with, of all things, a hymn ("St. Bridget, deliver us to Beekman Place") as she led orphaned Patrick in search of his Auntie Mame.

Connell and family spent most of the 1970s in Hollywood. Her plentiful TV work included a half-dozen turns on Bewitched in such typically Connell roles as Queen Victoria and Mother Goose. "But I always found (TV work) a bit nerve-wracking. I kept thinking how things should be done. I don't like feeling rushed. After 10 years, we felt lonesome for New York and we moved back."

Connell got back on track when director Mike Ockrent cast her as the imperious duchess in Me and My Girl, the smash 1986 revival of London's biggest hit of the '30s. A master of period style, Ockrent also directed her in Crazy for You. Between them, Ockrent and Ludwig provided most of Connell's Broadway opportunities of the past 20 years. Ockrent's death (of leukemia) in 2000 deprived her of one of her favorite collaborators. "It's been a great loss for the theater."

Another artist's passing colored Connell's triumphantly funny turn in The Full Monty. She assumed the role of feisty accompanist Jeannette in 2001 when its originator, Kathleen Freeman, became ill with cancer. After Freeman's death, Connell played it for a year on Broadway, then toured for more than a year. Showgoers convulsed by her gravel-voiced sarcasm when the show played here last year likely had no inkling of the backstage shadows.
"I loved the character," Connell says. "But there was too much emotion wrapped up in Kathleen's death to fully enjoy it. I liked Kathleen so much and she was so great in it. Eventually, I could lose myself in the show. But the situation affected my feelings about it."

Connell had no qualms about touring for a year. "I love going on the road. I've been married long enough that it's great to be away from home. When I'm home, I love to play house. But touring is a breathing time, when I can be myself and be totally selfish."

Connell, who turned 79 Wednesday, notes one advantage of maturity. "When I was young, I was always playing old women. In Threepenny, I wasn't 30 yet but I played the over-50 Mrs. Peachum. At the opening night party, after I'd taken off my make-up, Helen Hayes said to her husband Charles MacArthur, 'Come over here and see Jane, who's playing Mrs. Peachum. She's not even 50!'

"In those days, I put so many lines in my face. I don't have to put them in any more. Of course, now my days off are spent napping and going to the doctor. But the actual doing of the roles is identical. You get so into it that; if you're doing your job, you are that person."

Connell has every expectation that Ladies will go to Broadway. "Ken wants it to. And the Helen Hayes (Theatre), which will be perfect for it, is going to be free in January." She also says this will be her last stage role. "I don't want to have to try to memorize anything else. I'm not interested in another role. I want to take time off and take care of my other responsibilities. So this will be it. I can do this role till I actually croak."

Florence's abrupt shifts and outspokenness. "That happens with age. You don't care so much what people think. In Florence's case, it's also because of her wealth. She's used to being waited on. Because the others are so eager to impress her, the fact that she doesn't care makes it funny."

Offstage, the 4-foot, 11-inch dynamo can seem surprisingly . . . well, normal. But the periodic quirks — the faux-severe command, the hands flying to her face in mock desperation — betray the veteran comic actress.

Born and raised in Berkeley, Calif., Jane Sperry Bennett met actor Gordon Connell when he played piano for a college melodrama. They wed in 1948, gained early experience on radio and toured in stock. When their Straw Hat Revue did well at summer theaters in the Northeast, they decided to brave New York. Connell made her New York debut in the hit 1955 off-Broadway staging of The Threepenny Opera. Her Broadway bow came the next year in New Faces of 1956, introducing the sardonic paean April in Fairbanks ("I'll never leave it... alive") and sharing a dressing room with fellow "new face" Maggie Smith.

She played wacky Princess Winnifred in the London premiere of Once Upon a Mattress. "I was absolutely thrilled to get that role," Connell says. "Gordon was doing Julius Monk's Upstairs at the Downstairs, so our daughters (then 2 and 7) came to London with me." Her daughters, both musicians, live in New York.

Her big break came in Mame, for which Broadway's top composer of the '60s, Jerry Herman, crafted a big comic solo (Gooch's Song) especially for her.

"We knew the show would be a smash. Jerry's songs, Gene Saks' direction. It had strokes of genius, like Jerry saying, 'I don't want to open with a big number, I want just these two sad little figures adrift in New York.'" So Connell as Gooch launched the brassy musical with, of all things, a hymn ("St. Bridget, deliver us to Beekman Place") as she led orphaned Patrick in search of his Auntie Mame.

Connell and family spent most of the 1970s in Hollywood. Her TV work included a half-dozen turns on Bewitched in such typically Connell roles as Queen Victoria and Mother Goose. "But I always found (TV work) a bit nerve-wracking. I kept thinking how things should be done. I don't like feeling rushed. After 10 years, we felt lonesome for New York and we moved back."

Director Mike Ockrent cast her as the imperious duchess in Me and My Girl, the 1986 revival of London's biggest hit of the '30s. A master of period style, Ockrent also directed her in Crazy for You. Between them, Ockrent and Ludwig provided most of Connell's Broadway opportunities of the past 20 years. Ockrent's death (of leukemia) in 2000 deprived her of one of her favorite collaborators.

Another artist's passing colored Connell's triumphantly funny turn in The Full Monty. She assumed the role of feisty accompanist Jeannette in 2001 when its originator, Kathleen Freeman, became ill with cancer. After Freeman's death, Connell played it for a year on Broadway, then toured for more than a year. Showgoers convulsed by her gravel-voiced sarcasm when the show played here last year likely had no inkling of the backstage shadows.
"I loved the character," Connell says. "But there was too much emotion wrapped up in Kathleen's death to fully enjoy it. I liked Kathleen so much and she was so great in it. Eventually, I could lose myself in the show. But the situation affected my feelings about it."

Connell, who turned 79 Wednesday, notes one advantage of maturity.

"When I was young, I was always playing old women. In Threepenny, I wasn't 30 yet but I played the over-50 Mrs. Peachum. At the opening night party, after I'd taken off my makeup, Helen Hayes said to her husband Charles MacArthur, 'Come over here and see Jane, who's playing Mrs. Peachum. She's not even 50!'

"In those days, I put so many lines in my face. I don't have to put them in any more. "
Connell has every expectation that Ladies will go to Broadway. "Ken wants it to. And the Helen Hayes (Theatre), which will be perfect for it, is going to be free in January."

She also says this will be her last stage role. "I don't want to have to try to memorize anything else. I'm not interested in another role. I want to take time off and take care of my other responsibilities. So this will be it. I can do this role till I actually croak."

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