In 2001, I ended up making last-second plans to get to New York to see Jane Eyre before it closed. Let me tell you, I had bought the CD, and immediately, I was won over. I can still remember the stop light where my car was stopped, and I was listening to “Children of God” and thinking, “Wow, this is amazing!”
I’ll always be indebted to Alanis Morissette for saving the show that one week because it allowed the producers to keep the show open long enough for me to see it. I was finishing up my second year of teaching then, and the last day of school was the Friday after the Tony Awards. Jane Eyre announced its closing date the next day, and I realized that I needed to move my NYC travel plans ASAP. On Saturday morning, I was flying out to NYC. I saw Bells are Ringing before it closed on Saturday night, and I saved the Sunday matinee time slot to see the final performance of Jane Eyre.
At Jane Eyre I was sitting next to a woman who had seen the show seventeen times, if I recall correctly, and she was crying through the whole thing. It was an amazing show. I wanted to do the Stage Door Johnny thing (I’ve since stopped, though it’s been a temptation many a time), so I ran out of the theatre once the lights went up to line up at the stage door. I got there right away, and as a mob of people encircled the door, I was right in front.
Shortly after the mob formed, a woman with two kids pushed her way to the front of the group and planted herself right in front of me. Oh was I mad. But at that time I was a little less assertive than I’ve learned to become in the years since, so I didn’t say anything to stand up for myself.
Across from me there was a couple, perhaps in their early thirties, maybe younger. She was dowdy, her straight brown hair pushed out of her eyes, no make-up to cover up her blemished skin. He was just a dopey-looking guy, hair parted down the middle. Both were wearing solid-colored t-shirts and shorts. They had a stack of Jane Eyre Playbills they were waiting to get signed.
The dowdy woman was clearly annoyed on my behalf. With contempt she stared at the mother and said something to the effect of, “That’s rude.”
“Would you mind your own business,” the mother said dismissively, looking away.
“Thank you,” I mouthed to my dowdy benefactress.
“He was here first, and you just cut in front of him,” she continued.
“You know what, I’m here and I’m not leaving, so you should just be quiet.” She had a curt tone, with that New Yawk accent that gave her the perfect amount of “You talkin’ to me” attitude.
It went from being a little tiff to becoming noticeable to people standing behind us in the mob.
“We’ve all been waiting in line, and you just cut in line in front of everyone, and that’s not fair. You should wait in line at that back. You’re rude.” Pause. “And you’re ugly.”
Now them’s fightin’ words, and Mamma Hen pulled out the big guns.
Loudly she said, being sure to cast her eyes over the crowd of patiently waiting fans, “I don’t know what your problem is. I’m just here with my son and his friend who are in Les Miz waiting for their friend who’s in this show to come down with a poster she was having signed for them.”
After a few moments of silence, her little Gavroche stepped out and said—and yes, tears were in his eyes—“My mom is not ugly!”
By the way, for the record, he was right.
Anyway, the moment she mentioned Les Miz, you could feel the crowd shifting from general discomfort to awe that two Broadway actors were in our midst. One tween-aged girl ventured through her awe to talk to the boys, and Stage Mamma Hen even stepped in to offer her a backstage tour.
The point of all this was (kinda) that the dowdy couple had arrived at the Brooks-Atkinson after having left early from Bells are Ringing, which explains how they had gotten to the front of the mob even before I did. When I heard that they had been to see the show, I said something like, “Oh, I loved it! What did you think?”
“Well . . .,” my dowdy benefactress said with some hesitation, “she wasn’t Judy Holliday.”
I remember hearing that before I went to the show and after, such as in Ken Mendelbaum’s review of the CD.
Lately I’ve read about how Laura Bell Bundy isn’t Reese Witherspoon.
Let me tell you how much I hate that. And it is precisely the Bells are Ringing notices that got me started. I do need to let you know that I adored every second of Bells are Ringing, and the CD is actually probably one of my most-listened to Broadway albums.
Now, it’s entirely possible that when Faith Prince began the run perhaps she wasn’t communicating the charm that is so critical to the success of the show, but that’s also part of the magic of the theatre—that doing a part for weeks or months allows the performer to grow in the character. By the time I saw the show, Faith Prince was every bit as adorable and charming as Ella Peterson must be. I had fallen head-over-heels in love with Ella by the third scene.
I’ve since seen the movie, and Judy Holliday is wonderful and charming and all that jazz, but she doesn’t have the trademark on cute. In fact, I would venture to say that what I’ve heard of the Original Broadway Cast recording with Holliday, she seems lacking in that charm on that recording.
Judy Holliday is dead. There’s not going to be any more chances for Judy Holliday’s name to shine up in lights. She’s dead. Gone. So long, dearie, and heaven hopping.
And Marlon Brando is gone. And Kim Stanley. And Gwen Verdon. And Ethel Waters. And a whole heck of a lot of other talented people. But the scripts lives on. The music lives on. Yes, Ella Peterson was written for Judy Holliday, but . . . Juliet Capulet was written for a teenage boy. And yet talented people are still committing suicide on stages all over the world.
So, if we ever want to see this gem of a show again, it’s going to have to be starring someone other than Judy Holliday. I know that sounds obvious, but there were those who didn’t realize that in 2001.
Faith Prince will never be Judy Holliday. I’ll repeat that. Faith Prince will never be Judy Holliday. So what? Judy Holliday could never be Faith Prince. Bernadette Peters will never be Ethel Merman. Ethel Merman could never be Bernadette Peters. I will never be Oscar Hammerstein. Oscar Hammerstein could never be me.
If that is to be our fate—that our creativity and success is measured by those we are not—then I think we’d all best roll over and die.
I agree that it is entirely appropriate to say, for example, “Actress Jane Smith is lacking the sweetness to creating an entirely sympathetic Sally Jones,” but to say, “Well, she’s not as good as Wilhema Van Butternose” is futile.
And a work that is good—and Bells are Ringing is excellent—will survive for a very long time. Yes, the right person needs to be cast, but if you want Judy Holliday and only Judy Holliday, you’re going to miss out on so much. Sadly, when it came to Bells are Ringing, many people did.
So Charlotte d’Amboise isn’t Donna McKechnie. Donna McKechnie hasn’t cornered the market on extreme talent. I have a feeling that there a hundred people out there who could be a smashing Cassie. Charlotte d’Amboise is one of them. Good for her. I’m happy a true Broadway talent got the part.
Please note: If you were a potentially dowdy person who got in an altercation while waiting in line for autographs at the final performance of Jane Eyre, please understand that I was not talking about the dowdy person you are thinking or even the same final performance of Jane Eyre. If you refuse to believe that, then please understand for those other dowdy people who I was really writing about, I didn’t mean to offend or hurt them in any way by writing this. I just felt it added to the character development. In fact, I still am very thankful that they said something when I wouldn’t stand up for myself.
June 5, 2007