DF on the Myth and Allure of “Irreplaceable” Performances

The great Ethel Merman, recording her signature role

The great Ethel Merman, recording her signature role

A sad truth that’s dawned on me as I’ve gotten older: We may all be, as our doting mothers told us, “unique” – but we’re also, all of us, replaceable.

This may be even truer in the theater than in the rest of life.

Growing up, I heard people say that Ethel Merman was Gypsy, and Gypsy was Merman – you couldn’t have one without the other. Yet, 15 years after Merman, Angela Lansbury made a claim on the role of Rose, first in London, then on Broadway. Sure, some people(!) still felt Merman owned it – but Lansbury had her own following. More important, she and this production proved the show was very much viable, even without the “irreplaceable” original.

Since then, we’ve had many Gypsy revivals, and many acclaimed Roses. Merman’s performance remains a benchmark, but its daunting shadow grows paler. Her name no longer inevitably comes up as a point of comparison in Gypsy revival reviews. I shudder to think this, but… maybe to younger audiences, who first knew the magic of Gypsy through Patti LuPone, the “historical precedent” they dimly remember is Bernadette Peters!

Rose's Turns -- Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone

Rose’s Turns — Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone

The Phantom of the Opera really puts paid to the notion of irreplaceability. In April 1991, when Michael Crawford left the show, producers and others nervously wondered what would happen at the box office. (Do I need to tell you that was almost 10,000 performances ago?)

Similarly, during tense negotiations with Actors Equity, Andrew Lloyd Webber insisted it was necessary that his then-wife, Sarah Brightman, be imported from England to play Christine – her talents were so special, so distinctive, the show couldn’t be done without her. Well, in the quarter-century since her departure, nearly every soprano ingenue in New York has proved that Brightman was, indeed, replaceable. (Idle question: How many audience members attending recent Phantom performances would even know who Crawford and Brightman are?)

Phantom's "Irreplaceable" Originals -- Michael Crawford, Sarah Brightman

Phantom’s “Irreplaceable” Originals — Michael Crawford, Sarah Brightman

Don’t get me wrong – basically, I think it’s a good thing that actors and others are replaceable, and roles can be recast. Theater is a living thing – I don’t want it to dry up because a particular show or role should become a shrine to a departed performer.

At the same time, I think I share with many theater-lovers the pleasure of recognizing and celebrating those elements that, to each of us, seem so precious that they’ll never be repeated. When it comes to theater, those memories are the best of all.

With that in mind, I set out to come up with a couple of performances that I think of as… I won’t say irreplaceable, since that’s demonstrably untrue. How about unequaled in my experience?

A few came to mind instantly – Deanna Dunagan in August: Osage County. Mark Rylance in Jerusalem. Linda Lavin in Tale of the Allergist’s Wife. But these are well-known examples, their distinctiveness much discussed in the press.

So instead, here are two other examples – both in supporting roles, and both (as it happens) in Sondheim musicals. I’m not sure either would be on everybody’s list, but both are performances I’ve never seen equaled – and don’t expect to.

Ethel Shutta as Hattie in Follies

In some ways, the entire Follies original cast is irreplaceable. Part of it is in the timing – in 1971, most could have been – and some actually had been – in the Ziegfeld Follies and other, similar revues. (Ethel Shutta’s costume included a sash labeled “1923” – in fact, she’d made her Broadway debut in The Passing Show of 1922.) And they were an extraordinarily gifted and cleverly cast group: Alexis Smith, John McMartin, Dorothy Collins, Gene Nelson, Yvonne De Carlo – all of them brilliant and shattering.

Yet I’ve seen great performances in Follies revivals since then –in some cases, replacements who were as good as or perhaps even better than the originals.  Ethel Shutta’s Hattie, though, remains unequaled. For one thing, there was nothing “actress-y” about her – in her bulky suit and thick-soled shoes, she looked like my own grandmother, and nothing like a performer. You could really imagine her brought to the reunion out of mothballs, as it were, from a convalescent home somewhere – and going back as soon as it was over. (By contrast, other Hatties – including Betty Garret, Linda Lavin, and Kay Ballard – looked like they were still in show business.) Add to that Shutta’s fiercely confident, “let me show you what I can still do!” delivery, and… well, it was unforgettable.

Danielle Ferland as Little Red in Into the Woods
Danielle Ferland as Little Red in Into the Woods
For me, the casting of Little Red is the biggest challenge in Into the Woods – the pitfalls inherent in that role are a microcosm of the major challenges of the whole show.   She’s simultaneously cute and unnerving – a little girl with a voracious appetite (this is both literal and metaphoric in very tricky ways). How do you show that on stage? Choose an actress who’s too old, and the risqué humor is gone. Choose one too young, and it’s vulgar.

Danielle Ferland somehow captured every aspect of Little Red in a way that was both funny and naughty. Some of it had to do with her rather odd looks – like a cherubic child, but Ferland could also appear prematurely, blowzily housewife-ish. Look at her from one direction, you saw Shirley Temple; from another, Shirley Booth. And Ferland had great comic timing, a clarion voice beyond her years, and considerable emotional range. I’ve seen some pretty good Reds since then, but none who captured what Ferland did.

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 OK, now it’s your turn.  What are some of your favorite, unequaled performances?

4 replies »

  1. I’m going to say Rosalind Russell in “Wonderful Town,” a performance preserved on kinescope from the 1958 TV production. There have been many Ruth Sherwoods of note: Carol Channing, Elaine Stritch, Lauren Becall (none of whom left a record) and, more recently, Maureen Lipman, Karen Mason, Kim Criswell, Donna Murphy and Brooke Shields (all preserved on audio or video in some way). I can’t speak to Channing, Stritch or Becall, but it seems to me that only Stritch may have come close to the magic of Rosalind Russell.

    Russell had lived with the role a long time, having done “My Sister Eileen” on stage, film and radio before the musical came along. The material, especially in the musical, was hand crafted for her and it fit her like a glove. Each line delivery was a winner and the songs put over in a way that no “real” singer can match.

    The contemporary Ruth Sherwood’s on record – Mason and Criswell’s two studio recordings in particular – have always seemed forced and showy, trying to match a performance style that has slipped away into memory. Murphy, an always electric performer, certainly helped bring “Wonderful Town” out of semi-obscurity in the 21st century, but like so many of her comedy performances (“Anyone Can Whistle”), there was a layer of artifice to it. She was always playing a CHARACTER and never just BECAME Ruth Sherwood. Plus, by the time I saw her, she had begun missing performances on the regular and seemed to want to be anywhere else. So they brought in Brooke Shields….and I like to think Roz turned over in her grave.

  2. Totally agree with LIttle Red, I loved her too. How about Ben Vereen in Pippin? Obviously someone like Robert Preston in Music Man (and Victor/Victoria.) Harvey Fierstein in Hairpsray. The thing is that these are performances where the person developed the role, so much of themselves went into it, and then everyone else coming after them just imitated them. The flip side is that the role wasn’t that much to begin with and they turned it into something.

  3. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Patrice Lumumba in the 2013 production of A Season in the Congo at the Young Vic. He was breath-taking. I don’t even know where to begin describing that performance.

    I loved Little Red in the HBO version of A Normal Heart.

  4. I think it’s fair to say that THE PRODUCERS was hard to imagine without Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. None of their replacements ever created the same chemistry and magic–certainly not at the box office!

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