Los Angeles Times

Monday, February 14, 2000 - Orange County Section

This Belle Is Having a Ball

Seal Beach Native Susan Egan Takes a Break From Broadway for a Series of Cabaret Performances in Southern California

Susan Egan is back home this week with her career as a leading lady in Broadway musicals in full flight.  She first won plaudits six years ago as Belle in Beauty and the Beast, and they continue to flow with her current starring role as Sally Bowles in a revival of Cabaret.

Of all the lessons she absorbed as an Orange County teenager singing in community and high school musicals, Egan says the one she falls back on the most is knowing how to wing it.  Through snafus with stage machinery, malfunctions with microphones and all the other small crises that would come up during her extensive early training, Egan learned how to hold things together.

“Now if something goes wrong, I love those moments. Some people freeze up, but I love flying with anything that comes,” the actress-singer-dancer said last week.

Egan, an effervescent talker, spoke between munching a cheeseburger and a half-order of fries at Ruby’s at the end of the Seal Beach Pier.  She had chosen the pier, her hometown’s leading landmark, as a meeting spot, placing her several hundred yards into the Pacific Ocean—as far a remove as Orange County allows from the New York City winter she barely tolerates.

Egan has taken a three-week break from Cabaret with a capital “C” to wing it alone doing cabaret with a small “c.” Her series of Southern California performances includes a four-day run of solo shows at the Orange County Performing Arts Center’s intimate Founders Hall beginning Thursday.  On Friday, the night she turns 30, the audience might consider serenading her in turn with “Happy Birthday.”

Egan sparkled during a newspaper photo shoot on the pier’s boat ramp, swinging her lithe, short yet leggy frame around posts and beams with a dancer’s agility and a model’s camera presence.  Then came her chance to back up that boast about being able to thrive when things don’t go according to script.  Walking up the ramp, her duties as a camera subject finished, she forgot about a low overhang and smacked her forehead against a wooden plank, right above the hair line of her black-dyed Sally Bowles jazz-age flapper ’do.
Instantly, Egan the trouper was “on,” making a quick recovery.

“Fourteen years of ballet makes you the biggest klutz in the world,” she said cheerfully, then confided that during her run in Beauty and the Beast she earned the nickname “Calamity Belle.”

Egan broke her right arm during the show’s Broadway run, then broke a foot when Beauty came to Los Angeles.  The arm cost her 10 days of performances; she slipped while being chased by wolves on a stage slick with condensed vapor from dry ice. She broke the foot tripping over a piece of scenery that was supposed to move but didn’t.  She soldiered on.

Egan says her streak continues: ‘In Cabaret one night, I opened the door right into my face during an exit.” 
As a cabaret singer, Egan should be safe.  The gig doesn't call for being chased around the stage or hasty exits.  The key is to project a winning personality and a sense of up-close self-revelation.

Getting Away From Innocence

Egan promises a show that touches on her career highlights, including “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret and selections by Stephen Sondheim.  But she is reserving about half of the program for songs by lesser-known songwriters—“the composers who if you wait five minutes you’ll have heard of them, too,” including Michael John LaChiusa, Matthew Sklar, Michael Weiner and Craig Carnelia.

They and others, including Beauty and the Beast composer Alan Menken, have been lavishing new songs on Egan for her planned first solo album.  She wanted to record last summer but postponed it to begin a one-year hitch as Sally Bowles.

When the album comes, she said, “It will be all about Broadway’s alive and well, thank you very much, and there’s a whole new generation of composers to look at.”

Egan played her first non-singing dramatic lead last year in the independent film Man of the Century.  She aims to be a quadruple threat as a performer-impresario, having started a New York-based company, Bird/Dog Productions, with business partner Mike Rafael, a veteran manager for touring Broadway productions.  Egan says Rafael landed their first big artistic partner, Billy Joel, who is working with them on two musicals—one is a revue of his songs, the other, based on an original story the singer-songwriter has in mind.  Egan says both are a few years from fruition.

Meanwhile, there are Cabaret and cabaret.

The musical, set amid the decadence of Germany during the years Hitler was ascending to power, should dash any remaining assumptions pegging Egan as the cute ingenue she played in Beauty and the Beast and Bye Bye Birdie, the touring production with Tommy Tune that established her as a national figure in 1992.  Egan says that after Beauty she steered clear of parts smacking of innocence.  In 1998 she played a comical sex scene as an adulteress in LaChiusa’s Hello Again.  Now Cabaret allows her to prove her range as she revels, scantily clad, in unBeautyous squalor.

Cabaret has showed I can be . . . a drug addict and ugly and raw and edgy,” she said, brandishing a French fry between long, thin fingers.  Egan says the idea of this production, directed by Sam Mendes (director of the acclaimed film American Beauty), is not to let Sally come off as the fetching, star-powered figure Liza Minnelli created on film, but as a lost soul of questionable talent.

“The whole concept is, ‘If Sally were a really good singer, why would she be in this seedy club?’  I didn’t want to sound good, so I chose this voice like Janis Joplin, who I love. And it wreaked havoc.”

For the first time in her 15-year performing career, Egan suffered hoarseness and had to take two weeks off in August.  She says she was deliberately using incorrect vocal techniques to create the sound of an untrained singer; working with a coach, she learned how to get the same effect with proper technique that wouldn’t strain her voice. 
“I’m grateful for the two weeks of fear,” she said, noting that she wasn’t afraid her voice would be permanently damaged but that she wouldn’t be able to sing the part of Sally as she envisioned it.  “Not only have I recovered, but I know so much more about what the vocal cords do.  I have so many more choices in my bag of tricks.”

From Ice Skating to Singing Lessons

As befits a Southern Californian, the automobile had a lot to do with Egan’s early development as a musical star.  Her mother, Nancy Egan, recalled in a separate phone interview that her daughter’s first exposure to show tunes came during rides to and from ice skating practice at a rink in Costa Mesa.  From ages 5 to 10, Susan trained as a competitive figure skater.  Her mother says the coaches started pegging her as Olympic material, but it was too much pressure.  Susan started losing sleep, and her parents pulled her out of skating.  She concentrated on ballet lessons, which she had begun as an adjunct to her skating.

At 14 she began private singing lessons, partly because one of her friends wanted to take them and needed to carpool.

Janet Ritschel, her first voice teacher, says Egan did not stand out immediately as a stunning talent.  What propelled her, the Huntington Beach voice coach says, was a tremendous work ethic and a winning personality.
 “The talent was there, but there are a lot of people with talent.  You have to have something special, and people notice her.  She has a charismatic way of meeting people and . . . [she] lights up when auditioning and performing.”

Ralph Opacic, Egan’s early mentor as a theater instructor at Los Alamitos High School and then as director of the Orange County High School of the Arts, says determination and a lack of jealousy were her early hallmarks.
“It took her beyond other talented people who get discouraged when they don’t get that audition, don't get that part…Some of her closest friends were in lead roles while she was [in lesser parts].  Rather than be competitive, she was supportive.”
Egan’s cabaret shows are an extension of that desire to work and extend her reach.
“Because I have a lot of discipline, I’ll keep myself doing these cabaret acts.  You grow very quickly when you challenge yourself,” she said.

For Egan, the challenge of her 30s is finding a way to continue her career growth while following some personal yearnings.

“All of my friends are married with children, and I have a dog,” she said.  Egan grew up wanting a family of her own, “and I still think I will. These are the dues I’m paying as an actress.  I’ve poured my 20s into my career, it’'s going in the right direction, and I’m going to spend my 30s balancing it up.”


                -Mike Boehm