What's New on the Rialto
Talking and SingingBy Rob Lester
It's all about anniversaries. One hundred years ago composer Jule Styne was born. And it's now been forty years since Mimi Hines began her memorable time singing Styne's melodies, replacing Barbra Streisand on Broadway in Funny Girl. Thirty years ago, Miss Hines met Mark Sendroff, a fan who became forever more a friend, her manager and her lawyer. So, thought Mr. Sendroff, why not celebrate all of the above and have Mimi revisit the great Funny Girl score at New York's crown jewel club, Feinstein's At The Regency? He'd been wanting her to play there for some time; he and Allen Sviridoff, who books the room, noted the anniversaries and voila: there's a hook for a cabaret show. Miss Hines spoke with me on the phone from her hotel room (at the elegant Regency, of course) three days before the run of her show. She was friendly, happy, and perky on the telephone as she was on stage at Feinstein's on opening night.
"Forty years! I hadn't realized it had been forty years," she says of her opening in Funny Girl, which she played in for 18 months. "But Mark Sendroff knows everything. I call him 'Mr. Broadway'. I've called him that ever since we met." Mr. Sendroff, I mean Mr. Broadway, got to see her play the role on the day they met, thirty years ago. It was one of two times she did a production of the show outside New York. Wanting to revisit the role after her Broadway performance, she let herself be convinced to play it in a less than ideal venue. "It was what we used to refer to as 'a joint'" she cracked. (She corrected one of the books I had consulted, which said she'd taken the show on a tour after Broadway. Don't believe everything you read.) She laughed about the marquee at the restaurant/theatre in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. It said, "Steaks, Chops, And Mimi Hines In Funny Girl." Talk about billing! She remembers being happy to do the show again and arriving to discover that - oops! - they had neglected to come up with any scenery or costumes. Rather than walk out, she swung into action and located her old costumes in the costume archives ("fortunately I still wore the same size") and borrowed furniture from friends for the set. She remembers having to find some cast members, too. But the show must go on and it did. And the lesson is, "assume nothing"; now that Mr. Sendroff has taken over, he makes sure everything is in the contract.
In person, four decades after those recordings, her voice sounds richer, more powerful, more delicately shaded. Her control is impressive; the only thing more sustained than her long, strong, can't-go-wrong endings is the applause. The ovation which welcomed her to the stage on opening night - and back to New York night clubs after a long absence - made her teary. It was a case of audience and entertainer embracing each other. The crowd included singers Karen Mason and Christine Pedi, sitting among friends, long-time fans, and those from the media. But I think perhaps no one had a better time than the funny girl herself. Or maybe me.
It was almost as much fun just interviewing her on the phone. I asked about a song from Sweet Charity, "Pink Taffeta Sample Size 10," which appeared on her first album. I thought perhaps she had "rescued" the song after it was cut from the show. "Oh no," she told me, "it was part of the score when I recorded it," and she recalled chatting with the composer at Maxim's. "One day Cy Coleman sat down at the piano and said, 'Hey, I want you to hear a song from this new show I'm writing' and he played us the songs.'" As was common then, she recorded the song before the musical opened, along with one of the others, "Where Am I Going?". She laments the very recent passing of Mr. Coleman, who played at Feinstein's in his last year. However, she had not been following the out-of-town melodrama of the Sweet Charity revival. A mention of the star's broken foot brought us back to a not-so-funny Funny Girl memory. When the show moved to the second of three Broadway theatres it resided in during her run, she tried out the new stage. She was ready, but the stage was not, and her foot got caught, causing a major injury. I'll spare you the gory details, but she went on stage and danced.
In the cast as Fanny Brice's pal Eddie was Phil Ford, Miss Hines' longtime partner and constant friend. She speaks warmly of him. "He's 85 now and still dances and plays the clarinet every day!" They toured together for many years, appearing in clubs and theatres, and on television. This all began in, of all places, Alaska, when yet another lady, Ford's partner at the time, broke her ankle. Enter Mimi Hines, age 18, whom he'd just seen at a club in beautiful downtown Anchorage. First attracting widespread attention on Jack Paar's TV show, they continued to work together for decades, doing a comedy and music act and co-starring in shows such as Hello, Dolly!, Sugar Babies and I Do! I Do!. They were married for some years, but didn't let a little thing like their divorce get in the way of a sure-fire show biz team continuing to work and be friends. She reports that Ford is touched to hear that fans still meet her after a show and talk about seeing the team way back when, on the the road in East Wherever, or on The Ed Sullivan Show, holding on to memories, programs, and photos.
Having worked with and befriended so many, Mimi Hines could drop more names than there are in the phone book. However, in our conversation, the names came up ever so casually as part of the conversation. In discussing a tune she still sings because it was her mother's favorite, I mentioned a recording by Tony Bennett and she told me how she and Phil Ford opened for him many times. Sammy Davis, Jr., Ethel Merman, and a special favorite, George Chakiris ("I adore him!") are also mentioned fondly. She speaks with great affection and admiration for the ladies she recently toured with in Nunsense as Sister Mary Amnesia. Using adjectives like "dear" and "wonderful" for any mention of her fellow nuns, such as Georgia Engel, who was at a table near me on opening night, having a wonderful time. Mimi has a special friendship with her Sister Mary Regina, Kaye Ballard. "Every time someone we worked with dies, Kaye and I call each other." They commiserate and Kaye says, "Well, we're on the list, too, you know." Miss Hines prefers to focus on the positive and most of her memories are happy; you may have seen her sharing a few in the recent documentary Broadway: The Golden Years.
But no need to use the phrase "the golden years" when describing this vibrant, still vocally strong, high-energy performer, unless it is reference to her playing a senior citizen in the York Theatre's all-star concert version of 70, Girls, 70 five years ago, or her most recent stage role as Pippin's grandmother in this year's Los Angeles production (her character's carpe diem anthem, "No Time At All" is in the show at Feinstein's). And she has elaborate praise for Pippin's leading men, Sam Harris ("He handled it just perfectly, growing and growing with each performance.") and Michael Arden who played the title role. She reacted like a proud and doting real-life relative, interviewing me when I told her I'd just seen Arden's superb appearance at Wall to Wall Sondheim. "Oh, that Michael Arden!!" she gushed, and gasped audibly. We agreed that he is a "very special talent" and will be a major star.
The new show is not all Funny Girl: it includes another melody by Jule Styne, "It's Been A Long, Long Time" ("and it has been!" she says) and "My Shining Hour." An exquisite moment in the show is "And I Was Beautiful," a Jerry Herman tune she fell in love with when she performed with the songwriter in a revue of his material. Her pianist is Fred Barton, and that's an a new match. They met five days before opening, but their instant rapport is evident during the show. He plays with sensitivity and flair, and is more than supportive. His singing is an added bonus; they are delighful in duet and play off each other like old friends. Asked what else she likes about her Feinstein's act, she says, "My gown is by Bob Mackie," and sounding a bit blase for the first time, she added, "and that's always nice." Often on the road, but making her home in Las Vegas, she's happy to be in New York again. She hasn't been here much since a stint on Broadway in the 1990s as the teacher in the revival of Grease.
Getting back to Funny Girl, Miss Hines has mostly nice things to say about the late Johnny Desmond, the leading man she inherited from Barbra Streisand. He was her dashing Nick Arnstein for all of her 18 months in the role. Well, she says, there was the performance where their seduction scene didn't go as scripted. Desmond happened to be in an angry mood one day, and either his temper or teeth were a bit too sharp, for in the nuzzling scene, he bit Mimi on the ear and she began to bleed profusely. The leading lady, none too happy, was carried offstage and her understudy was rushed on to finish the show. By the next night, with ear and dignity both intact, it was back to (show) business as usual. Beyond this, there was no bad blood between them.
If you're guessing her parents named her after the Rodgers and Hart song "Mimi," introduced by Maurice Chevalier the year before she was born, you're correct. Because of this, the French entertainer became a friend. A treasured souvenir is a telegram he sent her on an opening night, in which he rewrote the song's lyric line, "you funny little good-for-nothing Mimi" as "to my funny little good-for-everything Mimi."
It's grand to have this very entertaining entertainer at New York's posh non-"joint," a very long way from "Steaks, Chops, And Mimi Hines In Funny Girl." But I'm glad she's still the funny girl, and as they say about singers, she's still got the chops.
Mimi Hines continues in a 40th Anniversary Celebration of her starring role on Broadway in Funny Girl at Feinstein's at the Regency through April 2. Jackets are suggested, but not required. Feinstein's at the Regency is located at 540 Park Avenue at 61st Street in New York City. For ticket reservations and club information all (212) 339-4095, or log on to Ticketweb.com.
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