Betty Buckley and Tovah Feldshuh have been in the business of Broadway for more than four decades, and are each bona fide stars there. And although Buckley, the Fort Worth native who won a Tony for Cats, and Feldshuh, best known for starring in William Gibson’s one-woman play Golda’s Balcony, had never worked together before, they’ve crossed paths at various events. Then in 2010, they finally got their chance working together, in a New York workshop of the musical Ruthless! It was good prep for a bigger project they had already inked, a revival of Joseph Kesselring’s 1939 comedy Arsenic and Old Lace, which opens tonight at the Dallas Theater Center.
The actresses play the Brewster sisters, two widows who have a knack for poisoning men with their “wine.” The production is directed by Scott Schwartz, son of composer Stephen Schwartz (Pippin, Godspell, Wicked). Scott was born just a few years after Buckley and Feldshuh made their Broadway debuts (1969 and 1972, respectively). But they each signed on to the project because of him. Scott Schwartz directed Golda’s Balcony (2003-2005) and Buckley has loved his work since she saw his off-Broadway production of Bat Boy: The Musical in 2001.
The stars sat down to talk about their careers and coming together for this revival. Here’s part of the conversation.
Parts of this interview originally appeared in the February issue of Arts+Culture Magazine, which is on stands throughout North Texas now. Below this interview is a bonus chat with Dallas actress Diana Sheehan, who understudies both Buckley and Feldshuh.
TheaterJones: It’s hard to believe that you two have been in the same circles for so long and haven’t worked together until recently. What has that experience been like so far, and what have you learned about each other?
Tovah Feldshuh: I’ve always had a thing for Betty. If you’re a New Yorker and attend the theater, Betty Buckley is an icon. I’ve never worked with this leading lady, so it’s great. Also, I tend to do shows that are one-person shows so I can have more control of my life, so I could bring up two children and keep a marriage sane, which I’m proud to say I’ve been doing. So it’s a pleasure to be in play with other people.
Betty Buckley: Quite a lot, for me. I thought it was really good that we got to do that workshop. Even though we didn’t have many scenes together, we had just enough to get some insights as to what potential dynamic might be like as the Brewster sisters. I think that was cool that we got to get acquainted in that show.
TF: Without being immodest, our jobs in New York were similar. We had leads in plays. I haven’t had the opportunity to share the stage with another leading lady on Broadway. Leading men, yes. So [Arsenic] has wiped out my fear of it.
BB: (To Tovah) Did you have a fear of it?
TF: It’s not that had a fear of you, it’s the classic smalltime mentality about two leading players on a stage together has to be mitigated by the sense of generosity and giving, and there’s no question that that comes from her; not to mention the fact that we don’t even have the lead in the show. Mortimer does, and that’s a marvelous actor from here [Lee Trull, a member of the DTC acting company]. This is an ensemble play. It’s more Twelfth Night than King Lear. We are two colors in a wheel of many colors.
TJ: What did you think about this play, before and after revisiting it?
BB: At first I thought the idea was a bit dusty. And then I read the script and thought it was seriously funny.
TF: I never would have done this play under any other circumstances. I would have done it on Broadway of course, with Betty and Scott Schwartz. The reason it’s done a lot is because it’s so well constructed. It’s a crazy analogy, but when I did Romeo and Juliet for Jack O’Brien, all you had to do was sit back into the part of Juliet and do what was required of you and it would deliver itself. Not so with Measure for Measure, with problematic plays that are not finished and the writing isn’t as good. But this writing is really good.
I haven’t done a comedy in a long time, last comedy I did was Lend Me a Tenor for Jerry Zaks [in 1989]. Things like the debacle in Arizona happen, and Betty and I and our company still get paid to step into a comedy of this proportion. It’s a thrilling thing to be part of comedy. It’s a great sandbox, and it’s a lot cheaper than therapy.
BB: Being in the theater is a privilege and an incredible gift. I was in a new comedy off-Broadway last year, White’s Lies, it was brand new and every day there were line changes, people trying to figure out how to make it work. This we know works.
TJ: Betty, you've done a lot of concerts in North Texas, and the staged reading of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later at Dallas Theater Center, but you haven't appeared in a full production of a play or musical here since your days at Casa Mañana. What's it like getting to work in a show near home?
BB: Growing up [in Fort Worth] I was a huge admirer of the Dallas Theater Center, I always aspired to work with them, so I was really happy when they called me for The Laramie Project. I met with Kevin Moriarty and said I’d like to work with you guys, we met and presented him with some ideas, and at that point I had just met with Scott about Arsenic and Old Lace. And then I called Scott and said maybe you should get together with Kevin, and that’s what happened.
TF: I never would have done this play under any other circumstances. I would have done it on Broadway of course, with Betty and Scott Schwartz
TJ: You both are crazy about the director, Scott Schwartz?
TF: Besides being brilliant, [he] is kind and good. He was a psych major at Harvard. If he was not a director, I would strongly suggest that we send him to the diplomatic corps. He’s a great negotiator and empowerer of people. I knew this when he was 28, since the inception of Golda’s Balcony. It’s a god-given gift and it’s a well-parented person.
BB: I sit there and look at Scott Schwartz from across the rehearsal room. I met his mother Carole when I was 21 and playing Martha Jefferson in 1776. We were on the road in New Haven, and her boyfriend was Stephen Schwartz. In New Haven, Carol’s role got cut. I met Stephen when he came to pick her up, and Scott wasn’t even an idea for them at that point.
TF: Let me say this, obviously Dallas Theater Center supplied Scott with a pool of actors who were excellent to audition, but this is Scott, he auditioned these people, he chose these people. The manifestation of Scott Schwartz’s personality and character has never let me down. There’s a reason [scenic designer] Anna Louizos and [wig designer] Paul Huntley and [costumer] William Ivey Long and Betty Buckley said yes. It has lot to do with this young director. It’s fun to be around him. He’s fair and just, he listens.
He’s so respectful of other people. Everybody’s idea holds credence.
TJ: Would you do this show again, elsewhere?
TF: Yes. In the next rendition of this I would request to do it in rep where we would switch roles.
BB: (laughs) No, I was afraid you’d say that! That’s too many lines to learn!
Actress Diana Sheehan relocated from New York to Dallas just a few years ago, and has already made a splash on local stages, notably in WaterTower Theatre’s productions of Grey Gardens and Black Pearl Sings! Next up is a once-in-a-lifetime opp: Understudying not one, but two of the greatest Broadway actresses of the past 40 years. She’s on standby to play either of the Brewster sisters in Arsenic and Old Lace, covering both Betty Buckley and Tovah Feldshuh. (She’s slated to go on for three performances on Feb. 25 and 26 for Buckley, who had prior commitments booked.)
Sheehan chatted about TheaterJones about the experience:
TheaterJones: So what is your job when you’re understudying two roles?
Diana Sheehan: This is a more technical job. Their job is the more of creative job. My job isn’t to create, it’s to accurately reproduce. Right now I kind of feel like a stage manager, because I have to keep track of business as it changes. As [director] Scott [Schwartz] makes directorial changes, as things shift, I just watch and listen very closely.
TJ: But when you go on for either role, you will be playing it as Diana would, rather than trying to copy Tovah's or Betty's performance, correct?
DS: Actually, [costumer] William Ivey Long helped me a lot―William Ivey Long, can you believe it? What he said to me that was so helpful is that he’s designing one costume, and I’ll have one look. I won’t look like either of the sisters, and whoever I play, I’ll look the same. I’ll have my own wig and costume. I think whoever plays these parts, you bring so much of yourself to them. I will play it with the same intentions as Betty and Tovah, but it will be my voice and my body and my energy and it will therefore be something a little different.
TJ: How has it been working with them?
DS: They’re wonderful. They’re incredibly hard-working, passionate, tireless actors, and it’s really inspiring. It’s an incredible privilege to get to witness their process and be a student of that.