ShowMusic  Winter 97-98
More Than A Beauty

Confessions of an ingenue: “I’d much rather play Ado Annie than Laurey in Oklahoma!  I get stuck playing Laurey, because I look like Laurey, not Ado Annie.  But usually the ingenues bore me and everybody else,” declares Susan Egan, whose redheaded, all-American good looks and soaring yet sweet voice do indeed suit her for Laurey, but whose directness and appreciation for a good joke also signal the Ado Annie lurking within.  “I’m always trying to add a sense of humor to my characters, to make them a little more real and three-dimensional.”

Egan has finally found the part that calls upon the Ado Annie side of her personality (and much more).  In October she opened in New York with the leading role in Triumph of Love, a new musical based on a 1732 comedy of the same title by the French playwright Pierre Marivaux.  Egan plays Princess Leonide, a strong-willed young woman who will go to any length in order to win the man she loves, including adopting several false identities.  Leonide is just the latest in Egan’s search for strong roles, which includes her 1994 break-out as the book-loving Belle in the stage version Disney’s Beauty and the Beast; Meg, the bad girl with heart of gold in Disney’s film Hercules; and Alice, the Gilded Age-era cat burglar, in a studio recording of Drat! the Cat!

Egan has also directed her career down nontraditional paths for a young musical theatre actress.  She co-founded a production company and a theatre troupe.  She is a writer, with a movie script (co-written by Chris Salazar) under consideration in Hollywood.  If that weren’t enough, she found time to act in television shows, movies of the week and soap operas during her off-hours while with the New York and Los Angeles runs of Beauty and the Beast.

Egan’s current show, Triumph of Love, originated at New York’s Classic Stage Company as an off-Broadway adaptation of Marivaux’s play by writer James Magruder.  That production’s director, Michael Mayer (who also directed the musical) inserted a Cole Porter number, “What Is This Thing Called Love?” into the action and thought it worked so well that it “planted a seed,” as he told Playbill magazine.  He convinced producer Margo Lion (Angels in America, Jelly’s Last Jam) that she should back a musical version.  The two enlisted composer Jeffrey Stock and lyricist Susan Birkenhead, and Magruder remained with the team to write the book.  Triumph of Love, in its new form, opened at Baltimore’s Center Stage last winter, moved to the Yale Repertory Theatre, and finally opened on Broadway last October at the Royale Theatre.

For Egan, Princess Leonide was just the kind of role she was looking for; she became involved through casting director Jay Binder, who had cast her in Beauty and the Beast.  Egan who loves commedia dell’arte and writers like Moliere and Voltaire, was thrilled by the possibilities in Marivaux’s comedy about the battle of emotion versus reason.  “In Moliere, the obstacles are always something physical,” she says.  “There’s no dowry or class distinction between the lovers.  In Marivaux, the conflict is always internal, a philosophy about love or a promise that you can’t break, which I think is more interesting.”

In Triumph of Love, Leonide, Princess of Sparta, arrives at the rural retreat of brother and sister philosophers, Hemocrates (F. Murray Abraham) and Hesione (Betty Buckley).  She has seen and fallen in love with their nephew, the handsome Agis (Christopher Sieber), a naïve young man raised on a steady diet of books and logic, and Leonide is determined to woo and win him.  In order to join this repressed threesome, she disguises herself as a male student, Phocion, and as the inevitable complications begin to build up, she takes on two additional female characters.  This quadruple-faceted role, which creates situations varying from highly comic to deeply serious, is an enormous challenge: it’s a great deal of singing (solos and ensemble pieces) and the necessary constant stream of physical comedy timed to the split second.

But Egan was ready.  “I’ve always wanted to play a character who is the instigator of the action, as opposed to the victim or the reactionary character,” she says.  “Also, it’s interesting for my character to not necessarily be right.  What Leonide does is very manipulative, and in the second act she questions whether these Machiavellian techniques are indeed the right way to go.  I’ve always wanted to play the seductress, but I don’t look like a seductress, so I don’t normally get to play it.  And I’ve always wanted to play a boy, more in that Shakespearean sense of all of these women who are disguised as men—Portia and Rosalind and all these sort of characters.”

As the show went through its first two productions, it changed, according to Egan, by shifting the focus a little in certain scenes, and with streamlining the action.  “What we discovered in Baltimore and Yale is that the show absolutely works,” Egan says.  “The audience followed the story, they bought it, and the second act is one enormous pay-off, where people are laughing the whole time.  It’s exactly what a farce needs to be.  It has a lot of heart and people have said they’ve cried as well as laughed, so that’s a tribute to the writers.”

Egan’s preparation for the demands of Triumph of Love started when she was a child growing up in Southern California.  She was mostly interested in ice skating and ballet, and she went to musicals with her parents.  She finally took singing lessons in her teens, as something to do with a friend, but at that point, she says, “It all clicked.”  She performed in musicals at the Orange County High School of the Arts, as well as in community theatre, local civic light operas and summer stock, playing roles such as Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street, Nanette in No, No, Nanette, and Kathy Selden in Singin’ in the Rain.  She caught Tommy Tune’s eye when she played Kim MacAfee in a St. Louis production of Bye Bye Birdie.  Tune cast her as Kim in his touring production of the musical, for which she took a year off from her studies as an anthropology major at UCLA.  “Tommy Tune had a great influence on me,” Egan says.  “His energy is contagious.  He’s involved in theatre for all the right reasons.  The star of the show will set the tone for the entire company, and Tommy is definitely an example to follow.  He made that company [Bye Bye Birdie] a lot of fun.  Tours can be either really great or really horrible, and he really kept it light and airy and fun to travel with.”  When Birdie ended its run, Egan was cast as Margey Frake in the tour of State Fair (which she also played on Broadway), so she officially dropped out of school and, with Tune’s encouragement, moved to New York City, where she was immediately cast for a production of Baby back in California.

Several months later she returned to New York and auditioned for the role of Belle in the stage version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.  It was a rigorous series of auditions, and she was nervous singing for composer Alan Menken, but she did well enough to continue on to audition for Disney chairman Michael Eisner and then-studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg.  “I didn’t know who any of these people were.  Probably my ignorance is what saved me!” Egan laughs.  When she finally heard she had won the role, the first thing she did was rent a copy of the movie, which she had never seen.  “Belle is a great character.  She is not a damsel in distress.  She can save herself and everybody else while she’s at it.  She’s intelligent, she’s considered odd and an outcast.  [Writer] Linda Woolverton created this young woman that everyone can relate to, because everyone has felt like the outcast.  It’s also a wonderful lesson; Belle is the one character who can see beyond the exterior to know that the beautiful Gaston is really a beast, and the ugly Beast is really a prince.”

Beauty and the Beast opened on Broadway in April 1994, to mixed reviews; many critics viewed it more as an extravaganza for tourists than a legitimate Broadway musical.  But Egan herself received good notices, and the show was a box office success.  Egan went to Los Angeles when the show opened there, playing Belle for more than 700 performances.  “I loved it!” she says.  “The cast was extraordinary.  I really loved them.

“It was also an education, because we were the laughingstock of New York.  I’m sort of a Sondheim snob, but then being in this big spectacle musical made me realize that this is still quality theatre.  There is a place for this on Broadway, just like Passion and other shows.  Because it was Disney, we brought a lot of first-time theatregoers to the show, who then were enamored of the live theatre experience and would buy tickets for other shows.”

Although Beauty and the Beast totaled up 13 Tony Award nominations that year, including one for Egan, the show departed the annual Tony ceremony empty-handed, except for Ann Hould-Ward’s win for costume design.  Egan found that not winning taught her a valuable lesson.  “It makes you put your values in the right place,” she says.  “I’m not here to win awards, I’m here to do good work for the audience.”

Belle was not Egan’s sole work for Disney.  When she heard about the role of Meg in Disney’s Hercules, she was determined to audition for it.  Meg is the opposite of Belle, a cynical sort forced by the evil Hades (James Woods) to carry out his nefarious orders.  Quite against her will, she falls in love with the hero, Hercules (voiced by Tate Donovan).  “Disney didn’t want me to come to the audition,” Egan recalls.  “They didn’t see me as Meg.  They didn’t think I was right for the role.  So I had to beg and plead and I finally got an audition, and I surprised them: ‘Oh, Susan has a dark side.’

“Meg was drawn to be like Barbara Stanwyck and those 1940s dames from the movies,” she adds.  The Lady Eve is what they really took her from.  I’m a huge fan of those old movies, so I was doing my impersonation of those women.  They filmed me while they recorded, and they definitely took expressions and mannerisms from me, which was fun to see.”

Egan has also become associated with Varese Sarabande and the record label’s producer Bruce Kimmel, whom she met when she sang with her friend Jason Graae on one of the numbers for his solo album, You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile.  The experience was so much fun that “Bruce started sticking me on these records,” she notes.  She recorded “Little Dream” for Sondheim at the Movies, and “You Can Fly” and “I’m Flying” for a Peter Pan compilation.  Egan took special pleasure performing Alice Van Guilder, an 1890s New York debutante by day and cat burglar by night, for the first studio recording of Drat! the Cat!  The 1965 musical flopped, despite a witty book and a lovely score treasured by fans who managed to acquire a bootlegged recording of the original cast.  “I long to do that role on stage,” Egan says.  “I think Alice is incredibly funny, and I’m always appreciative of writers who make ingenues that are funny.”

Off-stage, Egan co-founded the acting troupe Favored Nations with fellow Beauty and the Beast star Burke Moses.  “We wanted to put together a group of actors in long-running Broadway musicals who, on their nights off, want to flex their acting muscles.  It was to create a ‘gymnasium’ for us, so when you’re getting tired of Belle and Gaston, you can, on your Monday nights, do something else.  We put together a group of 10 people—Audra McDonald, Marin Mazzie, Sally Mayes, Karen Ziemba, Burke Moses, Brian Mitchell, Jason Graae, Philip Layle, Jonathan Freeman, and myself.  You can do anything with those people, and we did.  The word got out, scripts started being delivered to us, we would read them and the ones that we like we produced in black box productions.  It’s turned out to be really successful.”

Egan also formed the production company Bird/Dog Entertainment with Michael Rafael, who had been general manager of Favored Nations.  For their first project, they approached Billy Joel, whose songs impressed them as inherently theatrical, to see if he would consent to their creating a musical based on his existing catalogue.  He not only agreed, but also asked about the possibility of writing an original musical.  “We’re actually exploring both,” Egan says.  “Original musicals take a couple of years to develop and it will only take about one year to develop the songbook musical, so that’s what we’re doing.  We just did a choreographer’s workshop with it and everybody’s really excited.  We’ll do a full workshop in the late winter or early spring.”

How does Egan find the energy to juggle so many different projects at once?  “They all feed each other.  It’s not like I’m trying to do two separate things.  Tommy Tune does it really well.  He can direct a show and be in a show and do both at the same time.  When we were doing Birdie, he was directing Will Rogers’ Follies.  “I’ve also realized how much I’ve picked up on the producer side by working with so many Broadway producers.  I’m trying to carry those lessons with me and keep mentors out there.  Margo Lion is definitely a huge help, a successful woman in the business who has produced risky projects like Jelly’s Last Jam, Angels in America, and Triumph of Love.  That’s what I aspire to do, innovative things like that.  Just when I could get really stressed about Triumph of Love, I don’t, because my mind is on the Billy Joel project.”

Egan also looks to a star she has never met, but sees as someone on whom she would like to model her own career.  “I’ve never worked with Julie Andrews, but I aspire to be someone like her.  She is not only incredibly accomplished and talented but is just gregarious and a wonderful, genuine human being.  Everyone who worked with her in Victor/Victoria said she knew everybody’s name in the ensemble, everybody’s name backstage.  The star sets the tone for the show, and I definitely aspire to be somebody who can be both accomplished and a generous person.”

 

Paula Vitaris