Back Stage West

April 9 - 15, 1998

Bye Bye, “Beauty”

 

It’s readily apparent after meeting Susan Egan why she’s had such success.  The Seal Beach, Orange County native, who rose to fame playing Belle in Disney’s hit musical Beauty and the Beast, has boundless energy and a positive attitude that immediately puts you at ease; this is one Broadway diva who is anything but that.

Photo by Jamie Painter

She recently returned to L.A. after an exhausting run of Marivaux’s Triumph of Love, wanting nothing more than to take a break from musicals.  But along came Blank Theater Company artistic director Daniel Henning, who talked Egan into taking a role in the West Coast premiere of Hello Again, Michael John LaChiusa’s risqué musical remake of Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde.

Although Egan had to be talked into doing the musical under Equity’s non-remunerative 99-Seat Plan, she quickly found an enthusiasm for the piece and its ensemble.

“I look at this cast and it just blows me away,” said Egan in a recent interview.  “I mean, I saw Alyson Reed in the movie A Chorus Line.  That was huge to me.  And talking to Marcia Strassman—she played Mrs. Kotter, and we always made fun of my mom’s tuna casserole because of Welcome Back Kotter.  These people working for free in a 50-seat theatre!”

(The cast also includes such credit-heavy talents as Jennifer Leigh Warren, Richard Kline, Paul Anthony Stewart, and Steve Girardi, Michael Halpin, Jay Michael Ferguson, and Larry Sullivan Jr.)

Apart from the cast, what appealed to Egan was the chance to work on a true ensemble piece in such an intimate space, without the complications and microphones of a Broadway show.  Another attraction was her role in Hello Again—a repressed 50s housewife who in one scene fellates a college boy in a movie theatre—is another step in “breaking that Disney image.”

Not that she’s one to complain about her experiences as Belle, a role that got her a Tony nomination but which she almost didn’t try out for.

“I thought it was a rotten idea,” she admitted.  “I hadn’t seen the movie, but everyone said it was so amazing.  I thought, Don’t ruin it.  I also thought, I look like Peter Pan, I don’t look like Belle.  They’re not going to cast me.”

But she got the part, which she attributes to composer Alan Menken liking her voice (“that very Lizzie Callaway kind of pop belt thing”) and to her not having seen the movie, which gave her a fresh take on Belle.  She pointed to the experience as instructive for actors.

“You never know what your opportunities are going to be.  Thank God I went to that audition.”

Belle Belter

Egan’s return to local stages is a homecoming of sorts, since she credits her background working in local community theatre and the civic light opera circuit as preparation for her jump to Broadway.

“Most people don’t think of Los Angeles as a theatre town, and that you have to go to New York to be in theatre, and it’s really not true,” Egan said.  “By the time I got to New York, I had a lot of ingenue roles on my resume.  I think I was probably a couple of years ahead because of all the great opportunities here in Southern California.”

Egan started ice skating at age five and later took ballet lessons, but attended UCLA for two years as an anthropology major, until she got the lead in No, No, Nanette at St. Louis MUNI.  That summer the MUNI was also doing Bye Bye Birdie with Tommy Tune, in which she nabbed the young lead part of Kim, then later got to recreate it in Tune’s national tour.

“The tour was my first real professional experience,” she said.  “I took a year off from school and thought, OK, I’m going to decide at age 20 if this is what I want to do with my life.”  The work decided for her: she was soon cast in a six-month tour of State Fair, at the end of which she “just kept my stuff in a suitcase and went to New York.”

Not long after came Beauty, in which she played Belle for two years in New York and Los Angeles.  What kept her going were the audiences.

“On days when I was just really tired, I would try to go out in front of the theatre before the show,” she said.  “I don’t look like Belle at all, so nobody knew who I was.  I’d watch the people come in, and you see these little girls in their plastic Pocahontas sandals and their Ariel earrings.  It’s impossible to phone it in after that, because they’re so excited.”
While Egan appreciated that Belle was no kewpie ingenue (“She’s smart and charismatic, not a damsel in distress—she can save herself and everybody else while she’s at it”), she was still an ingenue.  For the petite Egan, that meant typecasting.

“People like Hal Prince were saying ‘No, she’s Belle.  She’s not right for this,’” Egan claimed.  “Well, I’m actually not Belle.  I was an actress making choices, but I’m glad it was so convincing.”

So when Triumph of Love came along the next year, she saw it as the exact opposite of the Beauty experience: seven actors, one set, no spectacle.  And while the role was in some ways still an ingenue, it had a wider range than most.  “Here was a show where I got to wear my short hair and look like myself,” Egan said.  “I got to be funny and bad and mischievous and wrong, which is always interesting because usually ingenues are always so right.”

Although Egan finished the show’s Broadway run in January, she hasn’t left it behind: In May, she will direct its West Coast amateur premiere at her alma mater, the Orange County High School of the Arts.  She said she relished working with the kids at OCHSA, whom she finds “much more talented than I was at their age.  I know I should befriend them now, because in five years they are going to be stealing my jobs.”

Egan sees the experience as less a platform to launch a directing career than as an educational mission.  Her main concern: teaching them how to create their own performances.

“A lot of times you’re in a show with a director who’s not an actor’s director,” Egan said.  “What I’m interested in doing with these kids is teaching them how to get a performance for themselves, from themselves, by themselves.”

Too Big?

Of course, Egan didn’t come to Los Angeles only to work onstage for nothing and inspire high-schoolers.  She also wanted to do more film and television work, and indeed recently finished a spot on The Drew Carey Show, her first sitcom in more than two years.

“Sitcoms are like summer stock,” she said.  “You put it up in three days and then you do it in front of an audience, so it’s a really great transition from theatre into camera work.”

Egan admitted that her theatre background sometimes works to her disadvantage on sitcom auditions—but perhaps more in perception than reality.  “I’ve made choices they thought were too large, and they said, ‘It must be because she does so much stage; she doesn’t know how to work in front of a camera.’  I mean, come on—the way Kramer comes into a room on Seinfeld would play to the back of Carnegie Hall.”

Egan has the right attitude about auditions, though: “They’re a numbers game.  You just have to go in and do consistently good work and know that you’re not going to be right for most of it.”

And she’s not just sitting around waiting for the next call, either: Egan’s production company, Bird/Dog Entertainment, is working with Billy Joel on two projects.  From her own experience on the other side of the table, she’s found that producers and directors don’t want you to fail.  Quite the contrary.

“I tell the kids at OCHSA that you have the job walking in the door, it’s just a matter of losing it.  Somebody would walk in with such an amazing look, and I would pray she could sing.  I’ve also watched people come in and sabotage themselves, either with excuses or a chip on their shoulder.”
If there’s one lesson she’s learned from her experiences, it’s that success isn’t everything.

“The goal isn’t to be successful; it’s to be happy,” she said.  “And so it doesn’t matter if I’m doing things in New York or teaching high school or I drop it altogether and sell coffee.  The goal is to be happy, and people and relationships are what makes you happy.”

As an example, she recalled the great actors she met when they brought their kids to see Beauty.

“Meeting Annette Bening, who I admire greatly, and Meryl Streep—they were so kind.  You start seeing patterns and start realizing it shows through in their work,” she said.  “And the people I met who weren’t nice, you start looking and you see they’re really unhappy people.  But the Carol Burnetts, the Julie Andrewses, the Paul Newmans, the people who could not be more successful but give back to the community in whatever way they can—those are the people who are amazing, and I aspire to be a quarter of what they are.”

With such a sound head on her shoulders, Egan is already well on her way.

 

J. Brenna Guthrie