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Alice, Sweet Alice - An Interview with Alice Playten

Alice Playten
Though her biggest exposure to a national audience may have come from a now legendary mid-'60s Alka-Seltzer commercial (where, as a young bride she offers her husband a hearty repast of "marshmallowed meatballs and poached oysters"), New York theatre audiences and Broadway cast album mavens know the diminutive Alice Playten from her Broadway musical appearances. Seen on Broadway beginning as a pre-teen with Merman as a replacement Baby Louise in Gypsy, she went onto create roles in the originals casts of Oliver!, Hello, Dolly!, Henry, Sweet Henry, George M!, The Last Sweet Days of Isaac, Seussical and Caroline or Change. In a rare trek outside of her beloved New York, Playten is here in Seattle about to open in the role of Toinette, maid-servant to Cleante, in The Imaginary Invalid, and I caught up with her for a post-rehearsal nosh and chat.

David-Edward Hughes:  You are such an inveterate New Yorker, and one best known for your roles in musicals, Alice. How did this project come your way?

Alice Playten:  The phone rang! It was Jerry Manning, an artistic associate at Seattle Rep. I knew him from NY Theatre workshop, where he was an artistic associate, and I'm a member there, or what they call a "usual suspect." There are a hundred or so of us. So it was really out of the blue; Jerry left a message saying "I know you don't go out of town much, but would you be interested in coming here, we're doing The Imaginary Invalid." Well, I love Molière, I'd never been to Seattle, I know Seattle Rep is one of the great places to work, I love Jerry Manning, and I think in the message I asked who's playing the title role, and he said Rocco Sisto. Well, he and I have never worked together, but I'm such a fan of his. He's such a wonderful actor and I was not disappointed when I met him, I adore him. And the timing was right! I am thrilled to be here doing Molière, who remains a really interesting writer in this day and age.

DH:  What is your role like?

AP:  Well, I am still figuring it out, but Toinette is the classic "knows all" servant girl in Molière who makes a lot of events take place or organizes the master for whom she works. The smarty pants servant girl, and she is fun to try to figure out. I primarily interact with Rocco who plays Argan the Imaginary Invalid, but also Argan's daughter Angelique. I am constantly setting things in motion. It's a farce. We are not slamming any doors in this particular farce. At least not yet! We have a revolving set, so there are a lot of entrances and exits, interesting underscoring and things being set in motion before we start tech.

Alice Playten, Rocco Sisto and Julie Briskman

DH:  What lures you out of New York to do a show?

AP:  I don't not go out of town. It always has to be the project and the where, and who's involved. On a personal note, my Mom passed away in June of last year. She, god bless her, was a fabulous woman, and she was elderly and she always looked forward to seeing me, and I her, so I had to pick and choose carefully the last few years. I pick and choose carefully always, I hope but I make mistakes in there sometimes. When I was doing Caroline or Change on Broadway and it was closing, we got an offer to do it at the Ahmanson in Los Angeles and in San Francisco, and my Mom was obviously so supportive of that, and she was less fragile at that time. But that was a kind of tug at that time in my life, to weigh offers against. And I have my husband there, and I'm happy in my life, but it's good, I'm glad I am here.

DH:  How did Caroline or Change come about for you? It was so different from most of your past work.

AP:  It was different from anything, and it was an extraordinary adventure. Again, I got a call one day from my agent who said they wanted me for a workshop at the Public. And I asked who wrote it, and he said Tony Kushner, and Jeanine Tesori. And I asked who's directing? And he said George Wolfe. And I said, and the reason I wouldn't do this would be? I admire all those people so much. It was the first of three workshops spread out over a couple of years. We always knew it would be at the Public, and then it moved to Broadway. It was a very significant event in my life, working at that level. George Wolfe is a remarkably good director. I'd think about things, and see things as if he is in the back of my head somewhere. He asked such interesting questions about my actions. "Why aren't you in the house at that point?" He wouldn't know the answer either, but he initiated my thinking about it. Spacial relationships. George really is a brilliant director. And he's a lot of fun. And I am thrilled to remain in touch with Tony Kushner. It was a significant event for all of us associated with it.

DH:  How much better does it get than starting your career on Broadway, in the original Broadway company of Gypsy with Ethel Merman as your Mom?

AP:  It was an experience that was not wasted on me. I got to stand onstage every night behind the curtain as the overture was played. That was places. There's a sound that you can never get the same. I have four speakers in my stereo and I put on the CD and you can't get it alive enough to compare to what that sounds like on the stage. And, yes, I worked with Ethel Merman and she was fantastic. Since Baby Louise and Baby June and all the babies grow up, we were just in the first six scenes of the show, and then I went upstairs to do my homework, and I did it to the score of Gypsy every night. And only Baby Louise and Baby June stayed for bows, all the others went home. And every night I would come down and watch Ethel Merman do "Rose's Turn," and this was my early education. It wasn't legendary then, now it is. You'd see Judy Garland and Liza or Van Johnson watching "Rose's Turn" in the wings as well. Maybe they were coming to have dinner with Merman or something. And I have these memories, tucked in the corner of my childhood.

DH:  And you worked for the legendary producer David Merrick on two shows?

AP:  Three: Gypsy, Oliver!, and Hello, Dolly!. The first three shows of my childhood David Merrick was my boss.

DH:  What memories do you have of Oliver!

AP:  It was a great experience. I loved our Nancy, Georgia Brown. She was a magnificent singer. I actually thought she was a better singer than the other singer who was coming up at that moment, who was Barbra Streisand. But Georgia's voice was so beautiful, so rich and deep. She could change the weight of her voice, from the quality she brought to a ballad to the quality she gave to a bar song like "Oom Pah Pa." She was great. And I'm still in touch with Bruce Prochnik who played Oliver. Always get a Christmas card, and we email.

DH:  Was Hello, Dolly! your first role as an adult?

AP:  I was the youngest person ever to play Ermengarde. I was only 16. So my first adult role was many years later. It was David Merrick's idea to take me out of Oliver! and put me into Dolly!. Of course I had to meet with Gower Champion.

DH:  So Merrick liked you?

AP:  He was one of the strangest men I have ever met. I remember when I was leaving Dolly! to do Henry, Sweet Henry - and I had been in Dolly! three years, in part because I wanted to finish high school without going out of town for tryouts and such —Helen Nickerson, a very sweet woman who was his secretary said, "You really have to go say goodbye to him, he's very fond of you." And I went up to his flame-red office, and there he was sitting as if he was the devil, in the middle of it. And he said (she assumes a gravelly, imperious tone) "I hear you're leaving!" and it was the strangest conversation to try to have. It's funny that he chose theater. I haven't read the books on him, but I have heard they are really good.

DH:   Henry, Sweet Henry is a show that you made a big splash in, even though its run was short. You had those two great numbers to sing.

AP:  Out of town I just had the one, "Nobody Steps on Kafritz," and it was stopping the show, so Bob Merrill wrote me another ("Poor Little Person") because they thought the audience wanted to see her again. Thank God! On opening night Ed Sullivan was in the house, and "Nobody Steps on Kafritz" really stopped the show for a very long time. He told the producers, "Get me that little Playten girl to be on the show." And then they decided to do the other number on the show, as it had more people in it. I got a copy of the video I think in 1990, and that was all ready a million years after I had done it. But I'm glad it's up on You Tube and Blue Gobo. I've sung a couple songs from the show since then.

DH:  What do you think caused Henry, Sweet Henry to fold prematurely in New York?

AP:  That's a good question. We had quite good reviews out of town, especially by the time we played Philly, the second stop. But in New York, Clive Barnes was the then new critic for the NY Times, and he'd seen Hair at the Public, and had decided that Hair was, pardon the pun, the wave of the future. And Henry being an older style show, he damned it with faint praise. I mean he gave the actors good notices, he praised me, as did the other papers. But what is interesting is when you look and see there have not been very many successful "rock" musicals. There's Rent, Spring Awakening and they are all three so far apart from each other. And meanwhile there is an enormous audience for the family musical from Oliver! to Annie to Mary Poppins.

And I will never forget, after the show closed I was on a TV interview show and Clive Barnes was also on it. And he said, "I was listening to the cast album recently. That was really a good score, wasn't it?" And I thought to myself "You helped kill our show!" So it really was coinciding with Hair that the show was dismissed. One show shouldn't be pitted against the other. Hair is wonderful, but so was Henry.

DH:  Any roles in shows you've missed out on through the years? Projects that didn't come to fruition?

AP:  I would love to play Sally in Follies. When I was younger and I saw the original I thought, when I am older that would be a role for me. And a project that never happened, but still holds a special memory, was a show that Richard Rodgers envisioned Don Scardino and me being in. He had us in to sing for him and meet with him, and he was very kind, but then we never heard more about it. He was older then, he had other projects that took off, and his health was declining. But to have originated a role in a Rodgers show, that would have been a dream come true.

DH:  We look forward to seeing you create many more roles in many more plays and musicals, Alice. Thank you and see you at the Seattle Rep.

AP:  I look forward to the Seattle audiences response. Thanks, David.

The Imaginary Invalid at Seattle Repertory Theatre, 255 Mercer St. in Seattle Center opens February 27, 2008 and runs through March 22, 2008. For more information go to the Rep web-site at

Photo: © Chris Bennion, 2008

- David Edward Hughes

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