Broadway Second Bananas - The Top-Ten Scene Stealing Roles
We all love the Sweeney Todds, the Mama Roses, the Dolly Levis, and the Harold Hills of musical theatre. They are such stuff that legends are made of. Larger-than-life personalities on which you can hang an entire musical. We love our lead characters, but many musicals have such wonderful supporting characters, and some of these lively personalities come close to (or actually accomplish) stealing the show right out from under their star's feet. This week's list is my celebratiion of the Top-Ten Scene Stealing Roles of the Broadway Musicals, the second bananas who have their own special magic.
Guys & Dolls - Nicely-Nicely Johnson
Guys and Dolls is full of colorful characters, all poised to steal the spotlight at one time or another. So how is it that, Nicely-Nicely Johnson, a gambler who is not the brightest bulb on the marquis, manages, in the last half hour of the show, to win the audience over? Simple: the eleven o'clock number "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat." After losing on a crap game bet, a bunch of low lifes must go to the Save-a-Soul mission for a prayer meeting. Nicely-Nicely confesses his sins through this hysterical show stopper, which soon ignites the entire chorus to join in and bring the house down. Dripping with tent revival like testimony and tongue- in-cheek humor, the song elevates Nicely to one of the most memorable characters in the show.
Mame - Vera Charles
Mame is one of those musicals that demands a big diva-type star with a larger-than-life personality to pull off this charismatic character and her eccentricities. Mame's best friend, the acerbic, alcoholic actress Vera Charles is a nice grounding balance to Mame's effervescence. Vera enjoys most of the musical's best one-liners, and two hysterical numbers including "The Moon Song (The Man in the Moon Is a Lady) and the catty duet with Mame "Bosom Buddies" Actress Beatrice Arthur set the standard for this juicy supporting role that character actresses (and drag queens) are dying to sink their teeth into.
A Little Night Music - Countess Charlotte Macolm
Caustic wit has always been one of my favorite kinds, and it flows so freely from Countess Charlotte Malcolm. The near-suicidal wife of a dragoon who has been cast aside for Desiree, the more vibrant and sexual lead character of A Little Night Music, it is Charlotte's on-point directness and her ability to make an uncomfortable situation feel like an impossible one that make her steal every scene that she is in. At one point she dryly says "I often fall asleep laughing, contemplating my own existance." This character makes depression a ot of fun, or at least appear that way. On a side note, I often dream of Joanna Gleason playing this role. Her always unique take on a line reading would bring such depth and humor to Charlotte Malcolm.
Oklahoma! - Ado Annie Carnes
"I'm Just a Girl Who Can't Say No" sums up the character of Ado Annie Carnes of Oklahoma! This secondary vixen, whose salacious sex life is the obsession of every farmer and cowboy, all but pulls the focus from the romantic leads. Is it her cluelessness or her libido that makes her so funny? It doesn't matter - without her, Oklahoma! is nowhere near as much fun! If we think about it, the seriousness of the central story is amost spooky if you consider the psychotic stalker-esque nature of Judd Fry. We need Ado Annie and her shenanigans to add some levity to the proceedings.
How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying - Bud Frump
There are villains we love and then there are villains we love to hate. Bud Frump, the weasely nephew of the big boss in How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, is one of the latter. The nemesis of the altruistic J. Pierrepont Finch, the window washer climbing up the corporate ladder, Frump is always laying plans for his own ascension. His stratagems blow up in his face, but we delight in each attempt and watching him get his comeuppance. It is these scene-stealing moments that often make "How to Succeed" Bud's show.
Les Miserables - Eponine
Aren't we all suckers for unrequited love? Don't we just love to sing power ballad-style torch songs of emotional disembowelment? Don't we all want to die helping the object of our affection find the other woman that he loves so that THEY can be together. We are all doormats in one way or another, and this is why we all love Eponine from Les Miserables. She actually has a very short time onstage (approximately 17 minutes) and yet we all feel for her, cry for her, and walk away singing "On My Own" as if we were about to be shot on a barricade.
Grand Hotel - Otto Kringelein
Speaking of tragedy, Otto Kringelein, the dying bookkeeper of Grand Hotel: The Musical, is such a loveable and original character that, in spite of being a supporting role, he is the heart of the piece. Having saved up his money for one last hurrah staying at the most elegant hotel in the world, we are so absorbed in how he relishes the small things and how he celebrates each final breath of life, that he moves to the forefront of the show for us. His song and dance with a baron at the hotel bar "We'll Take a Glass" is one of the most life-affirming moments of the musical theatre. Grand Hotel may be an ensenble show, but it is Otto who steals every scene he is in.
Chicago - Amos Hart
Good ol' "Mr. Cellophane," Amos Hart may be the only character in the musical Chicago who isn't a lying, cheating, swindling crook. Wanting nothing more than to just be loved by his wife, he is even willing to take a murder rap for her. We feel sorry for the poor schlub who everyone takes for granted. When he finally comes down into the spotlight to claim his identity, the song that is written for him to song underscores his invisibility. He even apologizes to us for taking up our time. How does that not just break your heart? He steals the second act of Chicago with this vaudeville-style turn.
Show Boat - Joe
The spirit of the epic musical Show Boat is captured in the insistant "Ol Man River." The mournful ballad tells of the hardness and cruelty of life, comparing the journey with the Mississipi River and its relentless, compassioness, and indifferent journey. The vessel that is chosen to deliver this effective theme is the black dockworker Joe who powerfully renders this scene-stealing song several times throughout the show. Any performer who can live up to the song's climbing octaves and achingly truthful lyrics is bound to steal the show.
Bye, Bye, Birdie - Mr. MacAfee
I am convinced that it is, in part, Paul Lynde's indelible performance as this exasperated father that the role of Mr. MacAfee is one of the scene stealing characters of Bye, Bye, Birdie. Lynde put a stamp on this role and basically decided how it should be played to maximize the laughs of a parentw ho cannot deal with the crazy antics of his star-crazed teenage daughter. The part as written, however, is top-notch comedy and this is a case where the right material melded with the right actor to make true theatre magic. Mr. MacAfee gets two great songs, "A Hymn for a Sunday Evening," an embarassingly goofy tribute to Ed Sullivan, and "Kids" an over-the-top diatribe against the younger generation and their peculiarities. Every character actor wants to play this twitchy curmudgeon and milk it for its laugh potential.
That's my top ten! What is yours?