Good Girls Don't ... Or Do They?
Sandy Duncan and Susan Egan -- two girls-next-door -- get down and dirtyBy Blake Green
MY FRIEND Martha, the theater maven, sees everything. So naturally this includes "Chicago" and "Cabaret," the two reigning Kander and Ebb musicals on Broadway.
Both are edgy, dark tales: "Chicago" is a late '20s story of "murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery" -- as promised in its opening lines -- and "Cabaret" is set in a seedy nightclub amid all the decadence and craziness of Berlin at the dawn of Nazism. "The end of the world," as one of its characters views it.
So this may explain Martha's reaction upon hearing that the shows' starring roles of Roxie Hart, the latest murderess on Cook County Jail's death row, and Sally Bowles, the sleep-around, boozy, coke-head chanteuse at the Kit Kat Club, are now being played by Sandy Duncan and Susan Egan, respectively.
"You gotta be kidding!" Martha exclaimed -- hardly a unique response from those of us whose image of Duncan has been cultivated by her surrogate mother character on the sitcom "The Hogan Family" in the '80s and '90s; the Barney's mom you saw on the videos that preceded the children's television show of the same name, and the peppy soul who extolled the healthy virtues of Wheat Thins in the commercial. In one of her best-known stage roles, Duncan played Peter Pan, the boy who never grows old, on Broadway in 1980.
At times, she's been so pigeonholed, the blonde, blue-eyed Duncan says, "I thought I'd lose my mind. I wanted to scream, ‘That's not me, guys!"'
Egan's transformation from dewy innocent also has raised eyebrows. Introduced to Broadway audiences in 1994 as Belle, the plucky, silver-throated heroine in "Beauty and the Beast" (for which she was nominated for a Tony), she went on to play Princess Leonide, the spunky young heroine of last year's "Triumph of Love," and to star in a number of regional productions of such feel-good, sugarcoated musicals as "No, No, Nanette," "State Fair" and "The Sound of Music."
"I'm always the ingenue," the actress observes, less than happily.
Nobody is enjoying the shock waves more than the two actresses, who've been more than ready to shed the good-girl, squeaky-clean image for -- if not down-and-dirty (Duncan promises that we're never going to see her in the altogether) -- considerably grittier parts.
"Playing a bad girl is a hell of a lot more fun," Duncan says, using the words "very wholesome, girl-next-door-ish" to describe the way people have been envisioning her since she made her way from Tyler, Texas, to Manhattan in the mid-'60s. Back then, she admits, "there was a certain naivete, a wide-openness, to who I was, young and coming from Texas. And there was this southern thing of being the good girl who doesn't like disapproval, so I went along with what was expected.
(Last week Duncan injured her foot and was out of the show for several performances. She expects to return Wednesday evening.)
"But after years of living," she says, "I have a different perspective." Even so, as she settles into the moxie of Roxie, Duncan is reconciled that she'll always be "a bit perky, no matter what -- although they're calling it ‘feisty' now that I'm over 50."
Egan, 29, is enjoying herself in her new incarnation as Sally, whom she calls "damaged goods." A vivacious Southern Californian, Egan these days sports a black, vampish bob and green nail polish onstage and off. Like Duncan, who also was nominated for a Tony her first time out ("Canterbury Tales" in 1969).
"I'm having a great time walking around stage in my underwear," Egan says. Her parents flew in to see the show the other night, sitting, their daughter felt, "altogether too close to the stage. I'm sure my father was more comfortable with me as Belle."
Despite appearances to the contrary, Egan is convinced she's always been more flapper than saint: "I can only look the way I look, and I look like the totally clean-cut, good girl. I got away with murder in high school. No one assumed I could do anything bad.
"Finally I'm getting to do a role that gives me something to chew on," she says. "I needed this."
Before Duncan's Roxie got to Broadway, the actress played the role for a few weeks in the touring company. "We were out there in the Bible Belt," she says, "and you could hear audible intakes of air" in the audience when, at the top of the show, she hurls "you son-of-a-bitch" at her lover, kills him and then shouts "I gotta pee" as her exit line.
"It was obvious," she says gleefully, "that was not what they were expecting."
Several years ago, when "Free Fall," the three-character show Duncan wrote for herself, was produced in the Berkshires, people walked out when she turned into a gay man spouting language they deemed inappropriate.
"It's hard to change the public's perception," she says. "I've been part of people's sensibilities for so long -- and if you're on television long enough, they really feel like they know you. That doesn't give you a whole bunch of room to move around, to create a clean slate."
Even her family has plugged into the image: When one of her teenage sons saw a photograph of her dressed as the seductive Roxie, Duncan says, he exclaimed, "W-h-o-a, Mom!"
Both actresses have created histories for their characters -- partly imaginary, given the confines of the story, partly based on individuals they've known and on personal experiences.
"Roxie is a lot like my aunt," says Duncan. "She wakes up in a whole new world every day. She follows her instincts. She's also a survivor" -- which is something the actress can relate to through the loss of sight in her left eye following a brain-tumor operation just as her career was getting off the ground. "I'm also real nearsighted in my right eye, so working onstage is a radar system for me.
"I've invested a lot of personal experience and data in all the roles I play," Duncan says. "Each is grounded in reality for me and very much connected to parts of myself, some of which people are familiar with and some they're not."
‘SALLY IS REALLY a charmer -- high energy, whimsical, funny," says Egan. "She's very entertaining. But once you dig past the superficial level, you find she's not very smart, she doesn't go much deeper and she has a lot of problems. She's the quintessential denial-with-style girl.
"I think Sally is dead within a year, but she goes out in flames." Comparing Belle to Sally, Egan's found a common thread -- "they're both loners" -- which also connects to her: "I am, too."
Actually, both Duncan and Egan insist that, all along, they've been creating roles that, beneath their nice-girl exteriors, weren't just sweetness and light.
Duncan -- who points out that she played "a tart, a major wench" in her first Broadway role -- believes she's always been a character actress. "Even in ‘The Boy Friend' (1970), I played Maisie, the quirky one." More recently, on NBC's "Law & Order," she was a "streetwise smart-ass," a role that may recur on the series.
"When you're young," says Duncan, "you cooperate a lot more than you do when you get older." Borrowing Roxie's line that "I'm older than I ever intended to be," she adds, "Knowing what I know now, I'd have been far less accessible and cooperative.
"Now I have a luxury I didn't have then: I can assess my material and pick the things I want to do."
Egan says of her ingenues: "I tried to bring a sense of humor to them or a third dimension. I played them a little off-center." She got the role of Belle, she believes, because when she auditioned she made them laugh.
"It's not that I feel above the ingenue. They're often the hardest parts, the thankless roles." But Belle, she says, "closed as many doors as it opened for me. I've had a hard time being seen for projects, because people just assumed I was dull." Even at Disney, the powers-that-be were reluctant to audition her for the voice of Meg in the animated film "Hercules."
"Meg's definitely not Belle," says Egan, who "knew they wanted a 1930s, fast-talking dame." When she got her chance, she did her "Barbara Stanwyck impersonation" for them and got the job -- and, with the release of the movie, some recognition that "‘Oh, she's got a dark side."'
There haven't been any offers since Egan stepped on stage as Sally last month, giving up a chance to come to Broadway in the fall with the Sondheim revue "Putting It Together," in the role she played in the Los Angeles production. But she's not sorry. "Some pretty cool people from the film industry have come to see me, and I've heard they were pretty shocked." She smiles.
Only the future will determine if big-time Mean Queen roles are in store for Duncan and Egan. Miss Hannigan in "Annie"? Medea? Lady Macbeth? "My background in college was Shakespeare," says Egan, jumping at the suggestion. "I'd love to do something in... [Central Park]. Just not Juliet."