Ingenue With Depth

A Broadway star takes a break for a few hometown concerts - playing herself


Say it isn’t so.

Susan Egan, Beauty and the Beast’s bell-voiced Belle, Broadway’s ingenue du jour, a woman who owns musical theater’s “cute, perky gal next door” franchise—playing that princess of sleaze, Sally Bowles?

Not only playing her, but wowing the crustiest critics in New York.  Since taking over Cabaret’s starring role on Broadway last year, Egan has revitalized a character that has proved devilishly tricky to cast.  Natasha Richardson triumphed as Sally in British director Sam Mendes’ bruised, apocalyptic vision of the already-pessimistic Kander and Ebb musical.  Her successor, Jennifer Jason Leigh, did not; neither did Teri Hatcher in the Los Angeles production.  Egan, to the surprise of many, made a thoroughly believable Sally.

“It’s funny, that whole ingenue thing,” said Egan, who is taking a short break from Cabaret to perform some cabaret of her own—she will appear in concert Thursday through Sunday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center’s Founder’s Hall.  “People who don’t know me just think of me as Belle.  But anyone who really knows me said, ‘Oh God, you’re made for Sally.’  I’m not an ingenue—not in real life.  But I’ve been playing them for most of my career.  Thankfully, I’ve been playing really interesting ones.”

Reinventing them, to be accurate.  The Seal Beach native, undoubtedly Orange County High School of the Arts’ most famous graduate, made a name for herself by giving innocent, girlish roles unexpected depth.  She spent years in Southern California’s civic-light-opera trenches, then graduated to national touring productions of State Fair (Margy) and Bye Bye Birdie (Kim) before gaining national fame and a Tony nomination as Beast’s Belle.  In less talented hands, Belle could easily have been just another Disneyfied goody two-shoes.  Egan somehow created a character of surprising nuance: razor-sharp, self-reliant, bookish but not nerdy, and enlivened by a puckish sense of humor.

But anyone who has talked to Egan in the past five years knows she is anxious to smash the Belle jar.  She is also determined not to let her musical-theater bread-and-butter jobs eclipse her ambitions as a chanteuse.  Before she signed her Cabaret contract and joined the production in June, Egan made sure the small print included a three-week hiatus to honor previous commitments to three February concerts in Southern California.  The shows are an opportunity for Egan to give her gifted singing voice the kinds of challenges a single musical may not afford; she also uses them to promote the work of lesser-known, usually young songwriting talents whom she admires.

“The music I’ve chosen makes a statement that musical theater is alive and well and thriving, thank you very much.  About half the tunes are things that everyone will recognize from big Broadway shows, but I made sure that a lot of the music is new material.  I want to show that there’s whole new generation of composers who are expanding the boundaries of musical theater as an art form.”

Egan has also fashioned a theme for the concerts.  “I’m embracing the fact that it’s Valentine’s week.  I’m looking at love through music and theater and film.  It will be a concert that you can cuddle to.”


Am I That Interesting?

Such talk can be deceiving.  Sure, this is a woman who could pass for a teen at 29, still stays at her parents’ home when she’s in town and sleeps with her pooch, Willa the Wonder Dog.  But Egan’s savvy, determined image transformation is part of a long-term plan to expand and extend her career far beyond her ingenue beginnings.

“I always know that playing the sweet young thing was how I would break in to this profession.  For whatever reason, I have a knack for making vapid characters interesting.  But nobody can do that forever.  I admire people like Glenn Close, Matthew Broderick, Carol Burnett, Kevin Kline, all of whom have fashioned careers with many chapters.  That’s what I want for myself.”

One of those career chapters will be producer.  Egan has started a company in New York, Bird/Dog Productions, with a trusted friend—a man who tried unsuccessfully to secure the rights to Rent when it was an unknown diamond-in-the-rough.

“We have a lot of plans.  We’re in the process of buying the rights to a book we love.  It would be a play with music, not quite a musical.  We plan to find three different composers to write the songs.  It’s possibly a one-person show with a supporting cast, in the tradition of Hedwig and the Angry Inch or Wit.

“Ultimately I’d like to be [producing] independent films—projects I could do with close friends such as Brian Stokes Mitchell (Ragtime) or Audra MacDonald (Master Class).  We’re looking at doing things on digital video for possible release on the Internet.  Yes, I’ll always have one foot on Broadway, but it’s not what I want to be doing all the time.”

Still, you get the feeling that no matter how successful and multifaceted her career becomes, Egan will never lose her essential sweetness.  Last week, she attended a press conference for her alma mater, the Orange County High School of the Arts, pledging her support for the construction of a new campus in downtown Santa Ana. 

Even Egan’s approach to her concerts betrays a touch of “gee whiz” tremulousness beneath the cool professional veneer.  “I got into this business to play characters, not to play myself,” she said.  “All of a sudden I have to play me for 75 minutes.  It feels a little weird.  I say to myself, ‘Am I really that interesting?’”


Paul Hodgins