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Character Actors

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I was thinking about Hello, Dolly! the other day. There seems to be a revival of the show on Broadway now. Did you hear about that? Anyway, then I thought about Carol Channing, David Burns, Charles Nelson Reilly, Sondra Lee, and Eileen Brennan from the show’s original incarnation. If you think of it, it’s an odd grouping. What they all have in common is that they were all character actors. Both Channing and Burns are certainly eccentric. And the same could be said for the rest of the cast. But what makes this most interesting is that there’s no typical romantic ingénues in the cast.

And staying in the past, there were Judy Holliday (Bells Are Ringing, for instance), Zero Mostel headlined Fiddler on the Roof and A Funny Thing, Once Upon a Mattress Carol Burnett, Ethel Merman (in so many…), and Nanette Fabray in Make a Wish.  Leading roles also went to Nancy Walker and Phil Silvers in Do Re Mi; House of Flowers star was Pearl Bailey; and Jackie Gleason and Tammy Grimes were the draw in Take Me Along and The Unsinkable Molly Brown, respectively. And that’s just a few. Even Angela Lansbury played leading roles (Anyone Can Whistle, anybody?) better suited to a character actor. Hey, Barbra Streisand could easily be in the character actor category.

Today we have Christopher Fitzgerald (Wicked, Young Frankenstein), Mary Testa (Xanadu), and Jackie Hoffman (Hairspray, The Addams Family). Nathan Lane is one of the few character actors of our time to play leading roles. And he’s always terrific even when the vehicle is not. Why can’t Fitzgerald star in How to Succeed? Mary Testa can do everything, and if you don’t believe me listen to her genuine star turn on The Queen of the Mist. She may not be a perfect choice for Eliza or Maria von Trapp (hmmmm?) but she would be a terrific lead in a host of other shows. She has the humor but she can also sell a romantic song and portray vulnerability. This is also exactly a description of Judy Holliday. And Jackie Hoffman is certainly a crowd pleaser in a leading role if she could tone it down a little.

All these people, past and present, lend humor to their roles. And a bit of spice also. None of them are stiff baritones or winsome sopranos. They bring flair and style to their roles. And audiences certainly relate better to them since they seem like us.

So, let’s have some imagination, producers!


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