LA Times 5-10-98
Former Belle Is Having A Ball

In her latest musical, Hello Again, Susan Egan does things that would have made even the Beast blush. 

Susan Egan wants to make one thing perfectly clear.  She is not Belle, the sweetheart of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast that she played for 700 performances on Broadway, at L.A.’s Shubert Theatre and elsewhere.

Egan says it took convincing to even get a shot at seductress Meg, the role she went on to play in Disney’s animated film Hercules.  “Belle’s a good girl and Meg’s a bad girl,” she says.  “I think they finally let me audition to humor me, because I was working for them at the time.”

Disney casting agents should see her now.  As the Young Wife in Michael John LaChiusa’s musical Hello Again, at Hollywood’s Blank Theater Company, she seduces a young man, does some naughty things with him in a movie theater, then is so passionless with her husband, she can substitute a pillow for her body during their lovemaking.

Sad and sophisticated with her husband in one scene, sly and funny attempting oral sex with her movie companion in another, Egan’s Young Wife is self-assured and engaging.  So is Egan, a perky redhead who give ingenuousness a good name.

Raised in Southern California, she came home after her last show, Triumph of Love, closed on Broadway in January.  Triumph was exhausting,” says the 28-year-old actress of Marivaux’s 18th century comedy of errors, in which she played Princess Leonide.  “The character never leaves the stage—it was like playing Belle, the Beast and Gaston.  I thought I was just burnt out on musical theater.”

When Egan’s agent suggested Hello Again, she headed for the theater with plans to tell director Daniel Henning she couldn’t do his show.  “But by the end of our meeting, I was so excited about this show, about this space, about this musical, I realized I wasn’t burnt out on musical theater.  I just needed to be excited again.”

No matter that she’s playing in a 49-seat house instead of the 1,100-seat Broadway house where she starred in Triumph.  Guiding a visitor through the tiny dressing room she shares with nine other actors and racks of costumes, she seems amused by, rather than critical of, its compactness.  And the tiny auditorium doesn’t just give the audience a chance to hear her voice without a microphone—“you also don’t have to make these huge facial expressions.”

Egan talks an almost stream-of-consciousness monologue, punctuating her comments with perfectly timed throw-away lines, many of them delivered as knock-offs of actresses she admires.  She’ll do a Joanna Gleason moment, then sing a few bars of a song the Carol Burnett might.

Set to perform with Burnett next fall in Stephen Sondheim’s Putting It Together at the Mark Taper Forum, Egan confesses that Burnett, Julie Andrews and Mary Tyler Moore “are always in my head.”  She is so enamored of Moore’s Laura Petrie character in the ‘60s classic Dick Van Dyke Show—a character she says she actually mimicked from time to time in Triumph—that she recalls being nearly speechless when Moore once came backstage after that show.

While Egan’s arts-oriented parents took her to films and plays regularly as a child, she says her entry into musical theater was “kind of a fluke.”  When she was 15, she says, she took voice lessons because her best friend was taking them and needed a carpool partner.  Enjoying the lessons, she soon started trying out for and getting leading roles at her high school, which in her senior year became the Orange County High School of the Arts.

“There are opportunities to perform in theater at every level in Southern California, and I took advantage of all of them,” says Egan.  “I worked in every single civic light opera, from nonprofessional community theater to the Long Beach Civic Light Opera.  I got to play Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street when I was 17 and Nannette in No, No, Nanette.”

In 1990, while an undergraduate at UCLA majoring in anthropology, she worked in summer stock with Tommy Tune in Bye Bye Birdie in St. Louis.  She soon left college to join Tune on the road with the show for a year.  “I thought it would be a really great opportunity to see if this was indeed what I really wanted to do.”

She never went back to UCLA.  Instead, in 1992, she originated the ingenue role in State Fair on the road (a role she reprised briefly on Broadway in 1996, when Andrea McArdle was injured in the show’s final weeks).  With Tune’s encouragement, she also moved to New York in late 1992, saying that “it just seemed like the right thing to do.  I always knew that my foot in the door in this industry was going to be as a musical theater ingenue.”

In early 1993, she successfully auditioned for Beauty and the Beast.  But she almost didn’t go to the audition, she says now.  “You know, short red hair.  I thought I looked like Peter Pan.  I just couldn’t see myself as the most beautiful girl in town.”

She similarly worried a few weeks ago, she says, that they’d never cast a second “skinny redhead” with Burnett in Putting It Together.  But that show’s director, Eric Schaeffer, says that among Egan’s strengths is “she takes the qualities that she has and uses them.  One of the things I just loved about her is her freshness.  She’s just very appealing, and she’s very funny.  She has a great sense of humor and knows how to carry it across the footlights.”

Egan remembers her roots.  She performed in a 1996 benefit concert at her high school alma mater and is directing a production of Triumph of Love there Thursday through next Sunday.  “She’s a role model in many ways,” says the school’s executive director, Ralph Opacic.  “Her graduating from here is an example that a stage career is accessible—Broadway may not be as far off a goal as students think it is.  She’s also using her talents to give back to the school.”

Opacic praises Egan’s discipline and drive as well as talent, and so does colleague Gary Beach.

“She’s always got 17 things going, which I think is a reason she’s the success she is,” says actor Beach, who performed with her in Beauty and the Beast and will perform again with her in August in South Pacific in Sacramento.  “She doesn’t let anything disappoint or stop her.  Everything is a forward movement.”

Besides occasional work in TV and film, Egan is gathering material for a cabaret act and tucking songs away for a future album.  As producers, she and business partner Michael Rafael are working with Billy Joel on two projects, she says, including a future original musical and a Broadway-bound show based on Joel’s established songbook, which will have a workshop in New York in July.

With all that, she should finally leave Belle behind her.  “Belle opened a lot of doors.  It was a dream come true.  But I am an actress making choices; I’m not really Belle.  I think Triumph of Love broke [the Belle] image in New York and this show is breaking that image here.  I know they thought they had me pegged, but they don’t.  I’m going to keep them surprised.”

 --Barbara Isenberg