Saturday, August 18, 2012

Leslie Becker: Wisconsin’s Reigning Dolly Levi, Hello, Dolly! Fireside Theater


Leslie Becker is an award-winning actress, singer and writer who is best known for her work on Broadway and as the author of the bestselling guide, The Organized Actor
As an actor, she originated the roles of Cumie Barrow and Governor Miriam Ferguson in the Broadway Musical Bonnie and Clyde, which opened at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in New York on December First, 2011.
  She also originated the role of The Queen in Rodger and Hammerstein's Cinderella which opened at Madison Square Garden and toured the country for two years in 2000-2002. In addition, she was in the Broadway production of the Tony Award winning revival of Anything Goes, starring Sutton Foster and Joel Gray, the Tony Award winning revival of Nine (musical), starring Antonio Banderas.
She toured the country in Broadway hits Wicked, Show Boat, Beauty and the Beast and more.

Leslie has an interesting journey. She has been in the business since she was very little. When Leslie was five years old, her mom put Leslie and her sister in the ballet. Leslie was with a ballet company for about ten years. By the time she got to high school, she was always singing in chorus and trios and things like that.
 In her senior year, the high school production was Oklahoma! Leslie wanted to play Laurie.
 She was always a singer but she’d never studied She studied extra hard with a private teacher and got her voice up to playing Laurie and got cast.
 That was when she realized she was really a singer, also. She was very fortunate. When she got out of high school, she got cast as Liesl in The Sound of Music when she was eighteen. She went immediately into doing principal roles.
She has been blessed to play so many amazing roles from the time she was eighteen till now. She has truly played her dues. When she got up to the Broadway level production contracts, she started out as a swing. Then she went from being a swing t having her own track and understudying a principal. 
Then she was her own principal. It has not been any kind of an overnight success. It has been incredibly joyful, but she has done it the right way…she has paid her dues! This last year has been extraordinary. Bonnie and Clyde really had impact on her career. It was the first time Leslie was originating a principal role in a Broadway show. Unfortunately, the show ran for only thirty-three previews and thirty-six performances.  The show was so well received by audiences and they kept coming back to see the show multiple times. Going into opening night, they were sold out all during previews and everyone was saying it was one of the best things they'd seen on Broadway in a long time and that they were going to be the next biggest hit. Unfortunately the critics didn't agree and their run was cut off short, much like the real lives of its title characters. Leslie believes there were many other reasons for its quick closure too, but it will go down as one of those unanswered questions. Still when you mention Bonnie and Clyde, industry folks and the public are still shocked by its short life. Luckily it was archived at the Performing Arts Library. Leslie tends to look forward though. She feels the show had the journey it was supposed to have. It was unfair and sad and broke all of their hearts, especially those who had been there for three years over a three year trajectory to Broadway, and more for the creative team. It will always be in her heart. 
                
Leslie is now stepping into the shoes of a major musical theater iconic character, a character with a rich lineage. She tells me that she got the role the old-fashioned way...her agents at The Mine got her the audition for Wisconsin’s Fireside Theater. When she first saw the audition information, she thought, “Hello, Dolly! Look at that. That sounds fun." But she says that honestly, she had never thought of playing Dolly, simply because she didn't see herself as a Carol Channing type. But once she started working on the material, she realized it actually was a really good fit and as she continued to prepare for the audition, she wanted the job more and more. Leslie was grateful that her agents and Ed Flesh (the director) could see that great fit before she did. And how fortuitous that she ultimately booked the role!

This is not Leslie’s first association with Dolly. She played Irene Molloy about eight years ago at the West Virginia Public Theater. 
That is a theater that Leslie has worked at a lot. They do eight shows a summer, each with one week of rehearsals. It is high speed, Leslie calls it kamikaze theater. It was one of those one week for rehearsals, one week of performances, and out of there. All she was really focused on was what she had to do as Irene. Beyond that, she saw a regional production of it about twenty years ago starring Karen Morrow. Leslie actually knows Karen, saying she was wonderful in the role and incredibly funny. She has also seen a few clips of Channing as Dolly. 
She purposely did not want to go and view anyone who was iconically related to the role because she really didn’t want to fall into the trap of trying to be them or fearing that she could not be them. She really wanted to look at the text she was given and creating something unique, obviously following the style of the script.
 They were into the second day of their second week of rehearsal when Leslie and I spoke. Leslie received the material about a month before they began rehearsals. She had time to really look at it. She realized that it REALLY WAS a good fit for her. Sometimes, there are those roles that you get to play that you find you will get to play for a very long time, when the opportunities present themselves.
 She gets the opportunity to play this role in Wisconsin and learn from it and grow from it there.  She’s hoping this is now a role that she will get to play for the next ten to fifteen tears of her life.
 Number one, Leslie has a natural strength about her.  She walks into a room and takes center stage and makes everything go in the direction she wants it to go in which is a rather Dolly quality. Leslie is also bringing to the table the gentler side of Dolly. Those moments when Dolly is talking to Ephraim, we see vulnerability in a woman who is generally happy with her life, but realizes that something is missing. 
 I think it is an important quality to bring to Dolly because it could have a tendency to be funny and brassy and over-the-top. And yes, the show is a comedy, but the show is also fills with so much heart. It is deeply moving and the writing is quite profound at times. And she  really wants to honor that.The one part of the script that scares Leslie is the same thing that terrifies any actress taking this on: THE EATING SCENE! Because Ed and Fireside have done the show before, Ed knows how to block it.
Obviously, blocking something in the round is a very different thing from a proscenium stage. The first week was spent with “where are we going and what are we doing?” in each of these moments. The eating scene was skipped over because they didn’t have the food yet. The day after our interview, they were launching into this scene. When I interview Ed, I’ll get the scoop on this. Michael Haws (Horace) and Leslie have discovered in their own rehearsals that even though this is a conversation between the two, it is actually a  solid monologue for Dolly with him interjecting from time to time. She is not even listening to him. It is definitely a challenge on many levels.
 Leslie wants to believe that future audiences will have the same love for Dolly. The last show presented at Fireside was Legally Blonde.
 Traditionally, Fireside is a theater that attracts a mostly older crowd. They are specifically do “younger” shows to attract a new crowd.
 From Leslie’s understanding, Legally Blonde brought in an entirely new audience for them. Leslie wants to believe that that will carry over for Dolly. She’s hoping that they want to see other things.
  Dolly appeals to so many ages. Leslie’s nieces and nephews saw her last time around in Dolly as Irene when they were very little. Here she is eight years later and they are coming to see her in this and they are very excited. They used to sing Before The Parade Passes By and Put On Your Sunday Clothes , from years ago,  all the time.  Leslie thinks it’s a show that has the ability to reach every age.     

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Ed Flesch, the director, is also the artistic director of the Fireside Theater. Ed is definitely honoring the style of this show. In fact, Ed and Leslie have had discussions on this very issue.
The unique thing about the Fireside Theater is that it is theater in the round. That part of it is not traditional Dolly. Leslie feels that it adds an even more amazing element to the show. There is a relationship between Dolly and the audience.
In this situation, the audience is “right there.” It is very personal. Every audience member in the audience can see faces. It is adding this very special quality to it. Leslie is in love with this show. She knows that in the cannon of musical theater it is extremely iconic. It is extraordinarily special.
When asked who would be a great Dolly Levi, the first person she thought of was Beth Leavel. The show has not been on Broadway since 1994 when Carol Channing reprised her role.  A revival of Hello, Dolly is probably going to come up soon to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary in 2014. With the role now under her belt, who knows, Leslie could be Dolly Levi for the revival. "I can dream, can't I?"

Ed is a Dolly aficionado. It is his favorite show. This is kind of his baby.  He has done it five previous times. He has delved into the material from all facets. Not only Hello, Dolly! ,the actual musical script, but also The Matchmaker and The Merchant of Yonkers. All of this, as well as the other source material, all great for background research.  
Is Hello, Dolly one of the top five best musicals ever written? That is a really tough question for Leslie. When one thinks of the traditional shows of musical theater, it is absolutely up there…if not top five, definitely top ten.
It is a 435 seat theater with a balcony and an upper level. They have a staircase that is built from the upper level to the lower level on to the stage for the big Dolly number. It is fabulous. Leslie questioned how this could possibly done in the round.
They have found a way to do it. In addition to that, on the physical stage in the middle of the circle is a twelve foot wide pit. For scenic changes, they lower the lifts down into the ground. The sets are put on that and the lifts raises back up for the scenic changes. It is really quite amazing to watch how they do it and they do it for all their shows. That is how the theater is built. Sacramento Music Circus is another theater that Leslie has worked in. Read my chapter on Carol Swarbrick’s experiences there. Leslie also loves Carol!
Once the show opens, it will play through October 21st. It is a very healthy run which is very exciting. It is almost a full two months to run the show seven shows a week. She will solidly be getting this role into her body.  
      Leslie just recently appeared in the Broadway production of Bonnie and Clyde. Leslie’s approach to Dolly is very different. Bonnie and Clyde was a totally original piece. Leslie was part of that from the very beginning. Her role was built on her. When she first got in the show, she was cast to be in the ensemble and to play a featured role of Governor Miriam Ferguson, the first female governor of Texas. When they were at the La Jolla Playhouse, a scene had been written for Clyde’s mother. Leslie was asked to play that part, as well. As they started to do that full, the actor’s dream happened. Ivan Menchell , the book writer, went to Leslie and said he had no idea how important the presence of Clyde’s mother was to the story until he heard her speak those words. He would literally throw scenes at her and she would improve them. Clyde’s father was brought into the scenes played by Victor Hernandez. Ivan and  Jeff Calhoun, director, working together made these principal roles.
Everyone realized these were the missing pieces in the story. It was really the creative team creating this ON Leslie. As this was happening, Leslie just immersed herself in that character.
Leslie believes that with Dolly, she will constantly be tweaking her performance. Obviously, she will not be changing blocking and those aspects. Particularly with this show and with this theater, with the audience “right there”, having the audience response will be an enormous piece of this puzzle because they ARE so present. When she makes her entrance, she will be passing out business cards to the audience. There is a real communication with the audience. Once she hears their response, and getting the rhythms of their laughter and response will make a huge difference over the next few weeks. Leslie is an actress who wants to know what she is doing. She doesn’t like to go out there and “wing it.” She wants to be open enough to listen to the actors and be fresh every single performance.

The day before our interview was the cast’s first day in the theater. At that time, Leslie had an “aha” moment. This is a rare thing for this theater. They normally don’t move into the theater into the first day of tech. That occurs this upcoming Monday. Thank heavens, they moved in this week! Because of these season’s shows, Legally Blonde closed as scheduled a week earlier affording this cast more time. Her “aha” moment was that she knew more than she really thought she knew. She didn’t expect to have retained as much as she did. It was more of an acknowledgement to her that she had done her homework. She doesn’t say this to stroke her ego. She is proud of the work she has done. She has a long way to go still.
There will be many others as this journey gets underway. She is daily finding connections she did not know about.   
Leslie feels that the Fireside Theater is the most unique incredible place she has ever seen. The Fireside Theater is not just a theater. It is almost like walking into Disneyland. The theater is its own thing. It is also. It is considered a dinner theater although you do not have dinner in the theater. There is a totally separate place for that in the same building. In 1964, the same year that Dolly opened on Broadway,  Dick and Betty Klopcic build an intimate, sixty by sixty pyramid-shaped restaurant. It was named The Fireside after the cozy fireplace at its center. At the other end was a convention center. This was augmented by shops and other businesses. 
Fireside Theater
A local high school was doing a high school production. Something happened to their space. They called the Fireside convention center to see if they could use that space to put on their musical. After that, the Klopics thought about turning it into their own theater. All the businesses in the center of that complex were going out of business and the Klopics bought  those buildings as well. They connected everything. When you walk into the physical space, it feels as if you are walking into a whole city. There is a little main street lined with shops. The restaurant serves over a thousand people. At the very end of that is this theater in the round. It’s not like anything that Leslie expected.

Fireside Theater Stage
When they rehearsed in the rehearsal space, things looked differently, obviously, from when they got on stage. This past week has been about taking what they had learned in the rehearsal space and transferring it to the stage. They have made a lot of tweaks and adjustments. Then the props come into the mix, and with that, even more adjustments. Kate Swan, the choreographer, is very impressive to Leslie. They are working on a small stage. It is about twenty-five feet wide. Kate is not lessening the choreography for a small space. She is utilizing the space with gorgeous dancers.   
The Dolly number has been choreographed and Leslie loves it so much. That is another “aha” moment for Leslie. The sheer love and joy for Dolly upon her return back to the Harmonia Gardens, all of the people that she and Ephraim were kind to, and to see them welcome her back and for her to see that they are glad to have her back where she belongs is the height of the show for Leslie.
Dolly is sacred to Leslie in the fact that there is a definite style to this show.  Leslie does not want to call it a complete musical farce but there are definite moments that are very much musical farce. It is a very specific style; that is sacred to Leslie. You don’t go in there and say let’s do this as a modern piece and keep the style. She doesn’t have a sacred feeling as to how Dolly should be done. She purposely chooses not to have that. She wants to believe she is putting her own spin from the heart as opposed to, “I want to be the wacky Dolly, etc.” It is more of an internal spin. 
Carol Swarbrick and Karen Morrow can only play it with aspects of who they are in order for it to work. The same is true of Leslie.
When she first started, Ed and Leslie spent about a half hour or so really talking about Dolly and who he thinks she is and Leslie talking about who she thinks she is. They have co-mingled! They have a very shared vision of who Dolly is. That has been great.
Leslie knew she was going to be a great Dolly after that first monologue to Ephraim.  This was another great fit for Leslie. This is about who she is as a human being. Dolly is a woman who has great joy for life and loves being around people and a part of the people and that is how Leslie feels about herself.  
The show is performed to tracks. Because this show has been done before, these tracks are from their last production. They are not midi tracks. This was recorded with a full orchestra in a recording studio. When they did Legally Blonde, since it was a new show for Fireside, the cast sang the ensemble numbers on the tracks to help augment them. It truly does sound as if there is a full orchestra present. Singing to tracks is an adjustment. It will always be the same. It is also the challenge. Theater is LIVE and there are challenges associated with that. Sometimes, things don’t land at exactly the right time. Fireside has been doing this so long, they have everything in place. Leslie trusts the sound people to make sure that everything falls into place.   
Leslie thinks Jerry Herman is one of the greats. The role she has always longed to play is Mame. It’s funny to her that Dolly has come up first. Her desire to play Mame is even stronger since taking on Dolly. For Leslie, an aspiring lyricist/librettist, she’s written a few things. Jerry is someone’s whose cannon of work she has looked at. She thinks he is just extraordinary. She met him and Carol Channing when she was doing Beauty and the Beast in Los Angeles .They came backstage. This was ’94 when Carol was doing her last tour of Dolly. When they came backstage, she got to meet both of them in a meeting that she still cherishes to this day.
Kelsey Grammer
The biggest change that Leslie has seen in this business since she began has really happened in the past ten years. There is now a real attraction to “celebrity” stars. Sometimes those “celebrity” stars are real incredible and talented and made to be on stage. Many of them are not. They may be amazing TV actors, but they are not always amazing theater actors. It has created a trickledown effect. Series regulars decide that they want to do Broadway.  Of course they can get on Broadway and they can get a play, but that play they are doing is no longer available to that actor or actress who have spent their lives on Broadway because the “producers” want a celebrity name in there. That person who is no longer able to get work on Broadway starts branching out to do regional theater. Those people who were doing regional roles no longer have the roles that were once available to them. Broadway celebrities who once would never had done this level of theater are now doing this level of theater. Broadway has a pretty full Broadway schedule right now. Shows are opening and closing all the time, but there is that trickle down effect. It feels like there aren’t as many jobs.  

May that never happen to Leslie and here is for a Dolly filled career!

Thank you Leslie Becker for the gifts you have given to the world and will continue to give!


With grateful XOXOXs ,


Check out my site celebrating my forthcoming book on Hello, Dolly!
I want this to be a definitive account of Hello, Dolly!  If any of you reading this have appeared in any production of Dolly, I'm interested in speaking with you!

Do you have any pics?

If you have anything to add or share, please contact me at Richard@RichardSkipper.com.


NO COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT INTENDED.  FOR ENTERTAINMENT PURPOSES ONLY!



Please do what YOU can to be more aware that words and actions DO HURT...but they can also heal and help!    
              
My next blog will be... My Exclusive interview with Harvey Sabinson, Press Rep for Hello, Dolly! 1964-1970

Thank you, to all the mentioned in this blog!


  
Here's to an INCREDIBLE tomorrow for ALL...with NO challenges!


TILL TOMORROW...HERE'S TO AN ARTS FILLED DAY

Richard Skipper, Richard@RichardSkipper.com                            

 
This Blog is dedicated to ALL THE DOLLYS and ANYONE who has EVER had a connection with ANY of them on ANY Level!
    





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