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Tales of Times Square: Sessums on the City Pride Month reflections by celebrated author and journalist Kevin Sessums
On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, we asked Kevin Sessums — former Executive Editor of Andy Warhol’s Interview, Contributing Editor at Tina Brown and Graydon Carter's Vanity Fair, theater critic at Towelroad.com, author of the New York Times best-selling memoirs Mississippi Sissy and I Left It On the Mountain, and current editor-in-chief of sessumsmagazine.com , an online magazine of culture, conversation and current events — to reflect on his intersections with Times Square, LGBT history, and the theater over the years, drawing on his life and work. We will share these installments, prepared throughout the month, during the week leading up to World Pride on June 30.
NATHAN LANE, GEORGE C. SCOTT, AND EMMA THOMPSON’S GAY UNCLE
by Kevin Sessums
Nathan Lane — who has taken up a kind of sublease on Time Square since his first Broadway appearance in 1982 in Present Laughter with his mentor George C. Scott — recently starred in Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus by queer artist Taylor Mac at the Booth Theatre on 45th Street. The pairing of Lane and Mac is not only a theatrical event but also a cultural one in the gayest sense of the word. In the grandest sense, Lane and Mac could be called clowns and yet they transcend their clownishness with transgression and joy and just enough sense (the socially conscious sort) of injury and injustice.
Emma Thompson spoke to this notion of clowning in the Vanity Fair cover story I did on her for the February 1996 issue. In many respects, she could have been talking about Lane and Mac, especially their collaboration in Gary. “Though you’ve made a name for yourself these stately Merchant Ivory dramas,” I told Thompson, “I think the secret to your portrayals has always been in your eyes. You’ve got the corneas of a clown.”
“I did a very interesting course in Paris once,” she began, then paused and laughed at the sound of he own voice. “Now, that’s a sentence … I did this French course with this clown, Philippe Gaulier … I learned the notion about three very particular disciplines that he’d invented, which were Tragedians, Clowns, and Buffoons. His notion was that the Tragedians play to the gods. The Buffoons were sort of the subhumans — sort of the people from the swamps or the leper colonies who were in to amuse la jeunesse doree and had nothing to lose and, therefore, whose gift was parody. They always trod a very fine line because they were brought in to be grotesque, but if they went over the line, they could lose their lives . … Then there were the Clowns. Clowns are between the two. They play to the heart. That made so much sense to me. If you take it out of that specific context and you think about artists — a writer or a painter or a composer or a poet -in some ways you can absolutely associate that with playing to the gods, whatever that might mean. There is a sense of the sublime there. We don’t really do grotesques, the sort of freak shows. It’s very ancient, but it’s still a part of our nature. Maybe it’s rock’n’roll. Maybe it’s that tabloid press. Maybe it’s daytime talk shows. Maybe that’s what it is, but there is something necessary about it. That middle ground — this clowning — is very interesting. It’s very …. humane. The really good clown comes on and fails miserably. Just by coming on, a clown makes people laugh, because you’re saying, ‘I shouldn’t be here at all. I can’t do this. It’s about failing. It’s wonderful because laughter is a celebration of all our failings — that recognition. that were are not gods, that we are human. That’s what clowns are for for. They are important. And that’s definitely what I am.”
“One of my favorite performances of Emma’s was as the Fool in King Lear,” her ex-husband Kenneth Branagh told me, remembering their younger days as members of the Renaissance Theatre Company. “She was absolutely magnificent — one of the best pieces of acting I’ve ever seen. She obviously does have a very sharp sense of comedy — but also of pathos.”
“I was brought up by actors, and one learned that the important thing really is to have a laugh,” Thompson insisted. “My father was terribly ill almost all my life. He had his first heart attack when he was 35 and I was 6 or 7. He had a blood condition and died when he was 52.” She smiled at some private memory of her father, Eric Thompson, the writer and narrator of the popular BBC children’s television show, The Magic Roundtable, as well as a successful West End director of Alan Ayckbourn comedies. Her mother is the actress Phyllida Law, who appeared as Ursula opposite Thompson’s Beatrice in Branagh’s spirited film version of Much Ado About Nothing. “He was ill all the way through, but somehow it was the way my parents dealt with that — the humor which they brought to the situation. My uncle also was very ill because he had serious car accident when he was about 25. He lived with us and was like my third parent. He was gay and didn’t really come out until he was 44. He was one of the funniest men on the face of the earth. He died when he was 51 of a brain hemorrhage. I was brought up by very witty people who were dealing with quite difficult things — disease and death … I was brought up by people who giggle at funerals. If you want the tone of my family, it’s very Sydney Smith — the 18th century writer. Very ironic — always a sense of poking fun at himself, yet there is also a tremendous humanity and kindness to it. It’s incredibly broad-shouldered that view of life.”
After finding that excerpt from my Emma Thompson story in Vanity Fair, I read up a bit about Sidney Smith. “Whatever you are by nature, keep to it; never desert your line of talent. Be what nature intended you for, and you will succeed,” Smith wrote, ““Do not try to push your way through to the front ranks of your profession; do not run after distinctions and rewards; but do your utmost to find an entry into the world of beauty.”
One such Lane toward such a world is found in Nathan’s protean talent. I talked to him for The Daily Beast back during his run in 2010 in the musical version of The Addams Family. He even talked with tremendous humanity and kindness about George C. Scott and that production of Present Laughter.
THE INTERVIEW (2010):
David Letterman has called Nathan Lane "the czar of Broadway." But I like to kid him — we've been acquaintances for 30 years now—by referring to his role in the modern theater as our neo-Ethel Merman. Just as the Merman of yore could yoke a musical to her own singularly tireless shoulders for over two hours, Lane has yoked a few to his own and lugged them to successful runs. He, like Merman, is the consummate pro. And, yet, like Merman, the brashness of his onstage talent is tempered by an offstage vulnerability, a vulnerability he has displayed in his non-musical roles, among them the title one in Butley and in several of his good friend Terrence McNally's plays, including Love! Valour! Compassion! and The Lisbon Traviata. His next dramatic role is a future production of The Iceman Cometh in Chicago, in which he'll play Hickey opposite Brian Dennehy as Larry Slade to be directed by Robert Falls.
But the two-time Tony Award winner—for his now legendary portrayal of Max Bialystock in the musical of The Producers and as Pseudolus in a revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum — opened last night in his most recent role as Gomez Addams in the musical of The Addams Family, co-starring, among others, Bebe Neuwirth as Morticia Addams. The out-of-town tryout in Chicago was met with mixed reviews and much gossip along the Rialto back here in New York about strife within the creative team as well as the cast itself. Jerry Zaks was brought in as the show's carefully billed "creative consultant" to tighten its Borscht Belt aspects when the flights of fancy of its initial duo of directors and designers, the Brits Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, proved to be a bit too fancy and flighty for American tastes.
I met Lane yesterday for a late lunch a few hours before his opening night.
KEVIN SESSUMS: So are your shoulders tired? You're carrying this musical on them, as usual.
NATHAN LANE: Yeah, I sometimes feel like Red Buttons in They Shoot Horses Don't They? Just call me Mother Courage. No, no, no. Look, it's more than just me. The whole cast is phenomenal. But I will admit it has been one of the most difficult and strangest journeys with a musical I've ever had. Jerry coming in was the best thing that happened to the show. It was necessary. We did a tremendous amount of work from the time we got back here till the beginning of previews. We did the work to try to tell the story better… Not everything turns out to be The Producers on the first preview. Most of the early negativity stems from the New York Post and its theater columnist Michael Riedel. He had nothing else to write about so we became his piñata for the season.
KS: He fashions himself a kind of modern day Addison DeWitt.
NL: Well, he's not as witty as Addison DeWitt. I think it's mainly theater people who read him. I don't know what to say about all that except that everything that is written in the New York Post is not true. I guess he and others were expecting the Sondheim/Tony Kushner Addams Family musical as directed by Peter Brook. It was always meant to be an entertainment. We are not trying to change the face of musical theater. I feel what we've finally come up with is extremely entertaining and funny and charming and surprisingly touching when you least expect it. I don't know what else you could want. It seems to be doing its job. People are certainly enjoying themselves. People are coming. Even Michelle Obama and her daughters were there the other night. Oh, honestly, I don't care anymore. Honestly, I don't give a fuck. We've done the best we could... [laughing] I think this might be my farewell to the musical theater.
KS: You’re joking I hope.
NL: Yeah. Maybe.
KS: You are a gentleman at the end of each performance and give Bebe Neuwirth the final curtain call. This is especially noteworthy after all the gossip about you two not getting along and about how unhappy she is in the production.
NL: That’s, again, something Riedel decided to run with. I do think that early on she was concerned about her character and wanting things to be better. She's certainly not unhappy. I'd wager this is one of the happier experiences of her career. Look, she recently got married to a wonderful guy and she has the lead in a new musical. I think she loves the cast and is an extremely hard worker. All of that was just blown out of proportion. No, she and I get along fine. She's a total pro.
KS: When you had the bit part as a police desk sergeant in the film Addams Family Values, was it your dream one day to play Gomez?
NL: No, I can't say that it was. Raul Julia, who played Gomez in the movie, was just the sweetest guy and so talented. We were waiting for Angelica Huston, who was playing Morticia, to come out of her trailer. There was some issue she had that dared not be discussed and she was refusing to come to the set. There was a very long wait for Miss Huston. Finally, after several hours, she deigned to arrive. Raul said to her, "Do you know Nathan Lane?" Through lowered lids, she said, "No, I do not." More out of anger than anything else that she had kept everyone waiting, he yelled at her, "Did you not see Dee Leezban Traviata?" And she said, through even lower lids, "I'm afraid not." He yelled at her even louder, "Well, he was breeliant!!!" Anyway, that's all I remember from my one day of shooting Addams Family Values.
KS: Your first big break on Broadway was in a revival of Noel Coward's Present Laughter at Circle in the Square, in which you played Roland Maule opposite George C. Scott's Garry Essendine. Was he a mentor of yours? One doesn't expect to see Nathan Lane and George C. Scott in the same sentence much less the same play.
NL: Actually, he was a mentor of sorts. He was incredibly supportive. He took a real liking to me. He loved me I guess, really. It was a great time. My Broadway debut. He was incredibly sweet to me. Then nine years later we did On Borrowed Time by Paul Osbourne back at Circle in the Square.
KS: Did he play the grandfather or Mr. Death?
NL: He played the grandfather. I played Death — otherwise known in the play as Mr. Brink. I got a call from Ted Mann, who ran Circle in the Square, saying George wanted me to do this play with him and I thought, wow, what a hokey old piece of theater this is. I said, "Why doesn't he want to do King Lear and I can play his fool?" Ted told me to call him and tell him that I didn't want to do it, but that George would not be happy about it. He gave me the number but he said, "Don't worry. He never picks up the phone. You can leave a message on his machine." So, of course, it rang one time and then I heard that voice of his. "Hellooooh." I said, "Hello, George, it's Nathan." And he said, "Oh, hello, Peaches!" And then he told me he really wanted me to do this play.
KS: Wait a minute. Back up. George C. Scott called you Peaches?
NL: If he liked someone, he called them Peaches, yeah. So anyway, I went through the whole thing and told him I didn't think I was right for the part. I even said that in the Lionel Barrymore movie of the play, the part of Mr. Death was even played by Cedric Hardwicke. So George said, "When I die I don't want Cedric fucking Hardwicke to take me. I want you." So I said OK. And it became a sort of bookend to my first experience with him. It was a bad time for him. When we started rehearsing his wife Colleen Dewhurst had just died. And he was drinking a lot. He would drink in the morning and all through the day. Then sleep in the afternoon to sober up for the night's performance. So there were some difficult performances during that run. He loved Gallagher's Steak House. So we'd all go there and try to get him to eat something and he'd end up just having vodka. He had this big white limo that would carry him around. One night after a vodka dinner at Gallagher's I walked him out to the white limo and he turned to me and said, "I know you didn't want to do this play and you only did it for me. I'll always love you for that." And then he fell into the back seat of the limo.
KS: You are so good, Nathan, when you guest on David Letterman. Would you ever consider hosting a talk show?
NL: Are you suggesting I should replace Regis? No, I don't think so. That's a hard job.
KS: You and Letterman are so funny together but, like George C. Scott, one wouldn't think of the two of you as simpatico.
NL: Oh, no. He and I are more similar than you think.
KS: You’re both kindhearted curmudgeons?
NL: I think he and I just understand each other. You know, he had never seen me on the stage. And after all these years of my appearing on his show, for some reason he wanted to see me in that Mamet play I did, November. Of course the night he was there it was a very quiet house. It's a big deal for him to go out. He never goes out. So afterward he came backstage to see me. So he walked into my dressing room and I said, "My God. This is like running into Garbo at the supermarket." He was very, very sweet. He's not like someone you can say, "Well, should we go out and have a drink?" So we just sat in my dressing room for 20 minutes or so and talked. He couldn't have been more gracious and kind. We finally ran out of conversation and he said to me, "Well, I guess you want to rinse out a few things." And then he turned to go, but then turned back to me and said — and this is so typical of him — he said, "You're so much better at what you do than I am at what I do." And I thought, why did you have to leave me with that? Why can't we both be great at what we do?
KS: You both are weathermen at heart. That's how Letterman got his start. That's the connection. You each have the soul of the meekest of meteorologists.
NL: And it’s always cloudy with a chance of rain.