On familiar grounds

BROADWAY MUSICALS

On familiar grounds

Send in the song-and-dance gal : Catherine Zeta-Jones in ‘A Liitle Night Music.’

On screen Catherine Zeta-Jones has been a famous smoulderer, a one-woman heat source. When Antonio Banderas unfastens her bodice in The Mask of Zorro — the 1998 movie that introduced her to most Americans, including her husband, Michael Douglas — you feel he ought to be wearing oven mitts. Watching her slither in her jewel-thief cat suit in Entrapment (1999), Sean Connery visibly liquefies.

It was this quality, the sultry glamour she brings even to cellphone ads, that Trevor Nunn had in mind when he cast her as Desiree, her first Broadway role, in his revival of A Little Night Music, which also starred Angela Lansbury and Alexander Hanson and opened at the Walter Kerr Theater on Dec 13. For good measure she has been equipped with a fiery red wig, and when she makes her first sustained appearance, performing in a little snippet of play within the play, it’s as if a gas jet had suddenly flared.

A Little Night Music, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Hugh Wheeler, is in large part about aging and mortality, and traditionally the part of Desiree, a famous actress at a turning point in her career, has gone to someone older than Zeta-Jones, who is 40 but looks younger. Glynis Johns was 49 when she created the role on Broadway and gave the part a hint of someone clinging to her past.

But Nunn said recently that a noticeably younger, sexier Desiree was important to his conception of the show, which ended its acclaimed London run in July. He went back to the source of A Little Night Music, the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), and there, he said, the Desiree “is a wonderfully glamourous actress — you’d say she was 39 or so.”

He added: “Everything of course makes sense when that’s the age group. She’s at the point where she has to decide whether she still wants to be living out of a suitcase or whether she wants a life that’s more settled. But Desiree is pretty much the sex symbol of her age. She’s on all the posters, the text says. She’s Hedda Gabler, she’s Nora in ‘A Doll’s House.’ She’s an actress who plays roles where the sensibility is sexual and glamourous.”

The other thing Nunn knew about Zeta-Jones, besides her glamour and sexiness, was that she was, as he put it, a “song and dance girl, a real theater animal.” For most Americans her Oscar-winning performance as the vamping, song-belting Velma Kelly in Chicago was a revelation, but in fact she grew up in the musical theater, and movie stardom came her way somewhat by accident. At 22 she was cast as a lead in The Darling Buds of May, a British mini-series, and overnight became so popular that, as she said, laughing, “I could never ride the Underground again.”
Nunn recalled auditioning Zeta Jones, then 18 or 19, for a part in the Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical Aspects of Love. “I was tremendously impressed, but she was slightly older than the role called for.”

“He wrote me a letter,” Zeta-Jones, who in person is warm (but not scorching) and unpretentious, said last week over brunch on the Upper West Side. “He said, ‘You did a wonderful audition, but you’re too pretty for the role.’ ”

She laughed and added, “I’d take that any day now, but at the time....” She shook her head and used an un-newspaperlike expression, giving it a little Welsh emphasis. These days Zeta-Jones, who grew up in Mumbles, a little town outside Swansea, has pretty much tamped down her accent, except when talking to her mother, and then, according to her husband, the two of them sound as if they’re not even speaking English.

Recalling her teenage years in London, Zeta-Jones said: “I was a chorus girl. That’s all I ever wanted — to be onstage. I would queue up for auditions and then change my costume or put on a different leotard and audition again. It might take me two tries, but I always got the job. I figured out what they wanted.”

When Zeta-Jones was five, her mother sent her to the Hazel Johnson School of Dancing, in the church hall just down the street, to channel her energy. At nine, she won a nationwide audition for Annie, and moved to London with a chaperone and a tutor. “I loved it.” she said. “I loved everything about it.” At 11 she was a British tap-dancing champion, and at 19, cast as an understudy, she took over the lead in a West End production of 42nd Street.

Almost ever since, she said, and especially after Chicago, she has wanted to return to the stage, but for one reason or another the right part never came along. She was hitting golf balls on a driving range in Canada last summer when Nunn called about A Little Night Music. “He said, ‘Darling, I’d love you to do this, but I’m afraid I can’t use your dancing,’ ” she recalled. “I said, ‘Not even a split, not even a jeté?’ ”
She added: “There’s no jazzy hands, no high kicks, no fishnet stockings, but really that’s what excited me. With most musicals you have to fill in the gaps, but here you have what’s already a beautiful Chekhovian play, and the music is a bonus. The characterisation is everything. It’s not one of those shows where you can dig about three inches and come out the other end. You can keep digging and digging and digging.”

Except for some waltzing, nobody in A Little Night Music dances much, and Desiree, though the center of the story, doesn’t even sing as much as some of the others. She has one big number, which happens to be the only one that has escaped from the orbit of the show: Send In the Clowns. Even people who have never even heard of A Little Night Music know the Frank Sinatra version, the Barbra Streisand version, the Judy Collins version.

“I’m just so happy to be there,” she said after explaining that because of Hollywood economics she wasn’t seeing many interesting movie parts these days.
“I’d read the phone book with the people here, people of this calibre,” she said. “I feel at this point in my life I’m in my second chapter. You have to be quite frank with yourself. There’s that wonderful curve, and then this is the way it is: the second act. It’s great that now I can go back to my roots but in a completely different way.”

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