22 December 2010

Marcia Lewis

The lights of Broadway have been dimmed,
ever since her smile left town.

Other people will tell you that Marcia Lewis had a wonderful voice. Teresa Stratas once compared it to “a trumpet in her head,” when we were rehearsing Rags, in 1986. With that rafter-raising instrument, Marcia held her own opposite Ethel Merman in Hello, Dolly! (Marcia’s Broadway debut), but she could sweeten and soften it, too, perhaps most notably in “Anyone Would Love You,” the centerpiece of her cabaret act.

What other people may not tell you about Marcia, who died yesterday at age 72, is that she had great legs. Perhaps wisely, she reckoned early on that her figure wouldn’t make her fortune, yet her stems were indis­put­ably boffo, and I believe they explain a curiosity of costuming in the 1996 revival of Kander & Ebb’s Chicago. Marcia earned a Tony nomi­na­tion for her turn as the prison matron, Mama Morton, but she was the only woman in the cast who didn’t wear tights. I believe the pro­duc­ers realized that, if Marcia ever did unveil her shapely glory, she’d upstage Ann Reinking and Bebe Neuwirth. So Marcia wore a pantsuit.*

When she sang, she was the joyous essence of New York theater. In the 1990s, she earned Tony nominations (not only for Chicago but for a revival of Grease), and we who loved her cheered. Even without sing­ing, she gave Elizabeth Ashley and Vanessa Redgrave a run for the money. Then in 2001, Marcia married a terrific guy, Fred Bryan, from Nashville, and retired from show business. We were happy for her, albeit full of remorse for Broadway’s sake.

Offstage, Marcia was soft-spoken, loud-laughing, very funny, and always dear. During the Boston tryouts of Rags, I was trapped by back­stage duties during the dinner hour and unable to visit Legal Seafood, a nearby restaurant beloved of all our company. At last I had a night free, but no one to go with: everybody else had eaten her fill of Legal Seafood. Marcia took me by the hand. “I’ll be your Oyster Bunny,” she said.

That evening, she told me stories of some of the odder roles she’d played, from a lady wrestler on The Bionic Woman (“My first lesbian character!”) to a frog-like alien in Ice Pirates. She told me about Merman and Miss Hannigan, whom she’d portrayed in Annie; about Massachusetts, where she was born, and Ohio, where she grew up. When dinner was done, she picked up the check — and thanked me for the privilege.

Marcia, acting in a movie from the 1970s.
In real life, this is an expression I saw only on those occasions
when Marcia had just received 38 pages of script revisions
and one of her songs was cut.

Marcia was in fact the only person I have known who never once said an unkind word about anyone else. Even when she’d more than earned the right.

In an incident that has itself become a Broadway legend, Marcia was performing opposite a big star actor who, one night before a show, called the entire company onstage to denounce her. She was miscast, he explained in the crudest possible terms, because she was not pretty enough to marry a man like him. Now, this fellow was a headline star and couldn’t be fired, though the horrified cast complained to their union (and he hasn’t worked on Broadway since). Meanwhile, the worst Marcia would say of her co-star was that he was “not a very nice man.”

She simply went on about her business, which was making people happy. You’ll get a clear sense of that when you listen to her exuberant rendition of Chicago’s “When You’re Good to Mama.” Or lend an ear to her big numbers from Rags, “Penny a Tune” and her duet with Dick Latessa, “Three Sunny Rooms.” As Rachel the fruit vendor, she makes you want to bite into every apple she’s got; you know they’re that sweet and juicy.**

The Fairy at Forty

I got an even better sense of Marcia’s mission — for really, that’s what it was — in her nightclub act. There, she’d resurrect the silliest songs and jokes if that meant getting a laugh. One character was a cruise ship lounge singer, “Miss Beverly Ames … to please”; another was a tippling child actress, Cookie Dimples. Most famous was the bedraggled sprite with a wilting wand who ruefully informed us that “Nobody Loves a Fairy When She’s Forty.”

Now Marcia’s gone, and I’m thinking not of the thundering, agonized Kaddish she sang with Teresa in Rags, but of another song from her nightclub act. In this number, she played a night nurse in a Boston maternity ward, Norma McCarthy (or, as she pronounced it, “Nawma McCawthy”), quite like the real-life nurse Marcia herself once was.

Alone on Christmas Eve with just the telephone, her own corny jokes, and one tiny newborn to keep her company, Norma at last took the baby in her arms and sang the words I’d tell Marcia now, if I could:

Anyone would — and I truly did — love you.

*NOTE: To compensate for the costumer’s neglect, I drew a sketch of Marcia as Mama Morton in tights, which she hung in her dressing room.

**Marcia won a Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical for Rags, as well as one for Chicago.


Anne said...

Beautifully written, Bill. Thank you for this appreciation.

Rhoda Penmark said...

Thank you, Bill. I've been overwhelmingly sad since I heard the news yesterday, but your writing rang Marcia's magical laugh in my heart.

amanda stevenson said...

I adored her. Bought her album. saw her shows. I'm really saddened!