By Brandon Voss
Originally published on Advocate.com March 30 2009 12:00 AM ET
The course of Legends! never did run smooth. A vehicle for two aging divas, James Kirkwood's play centers on a pair of rival Hollywood has-beens who are given an opportunity to star in a play together (also called Legends!) in order to revive their careers. A true case of life imitating art imitating life, the cattiness and bickering between the actresses playing the parts became as bad backstage as it was written on the page.
Originally presented as a pre-Broadway tour in 1986 starring Carol Channing and Mary Martin, it closed on the road before making it to New York. Best known as a Tony-winning bookwriter for A Chorus Line, Kirkwood documented the delicious details of the disaster in his book, Diary of a Mad Playwright: Perilous Adventures on the Road With Mary Martin and Carol Channing.
Another pre-Broadway national tour in 2007, this time starring former Dynasty costars Joan Collins and Linda Evans, also flamed out before reaching the Great White Way. Collins later aired out the dirty laundry of her off-stage battles with Evans in London's Daily Mail.
In a way, it would've been somewhat disappointing had last Monday's staged reading of the play at New York's Town Hall (a benefit for Friends in Deed — The Crisis Center for Life-Threatening Illness) been drama-free. Here the lead roles of Sylvia Glenn and Leatrice Monsee would be played by drag legends Charles Busch and Lypsinka, with Whoopi Goldberg appearing as Aretha, the sassy maid. Lypsinka's male alter ego, John Epperson, had adapted the comedy for the reading, and Mark Waldrop (who helmed Bette Midler's 1999 Divine Millennium tour) was directing the event. I wouldn't have missed this for the world.
But from the energy of the largely gay crowd outside the theater, I sensed something was amiss the moment my boyfriend Nick and I arrived on the scene. As we got closer, we spotted sheets of crisp white paper taped to the front doors with the following notice: "Due to illness, the part of Aretha, played by Whoopi Goldberg, will be performed by Lisa Estridge."
"I was dreading that," groaned Nick, who knew that Goldberg had been out sick from The View that morning. "Dreading. That works on two levels because Whoopi has dreadlocks. See what I did there?" But with the immediate threat of rioting on West 43rd Street, there was no time to congratulate him on his wordplay. Then, all of a sudden, the crowd's mood seemed to shift, thanks to the close proximity of other celebrities. Just moments before the show began, Parker Posey breezed past Michael Kors and Law & Order: SVU's Richard Belzer. It was a veritable who's who of local notables that regularly attend one-night theatrical benefits.
As luck would have it, the seats behind ours were occupied by Statler and Waldorf, the elderly hecklers from The Muppet Show — if Statler and Waldorf were gay, horny, and wore turquoise jewelry. There were actually many such Muppets scattered throughout the audience, but the two behind me were the only ones I could hear. And smell, thanks to liberal applications of Aramis for Men.
Currently appearing in Broadway's Blithe Spirit alongside Angela Lansbury and Rupert Everett, Tony-winner Christine Ebersole took the stage first to make a formal announcement about Goldberg's absence. Quieting those who had neglected to read the door signage, Ebersole encouraged the crowd to be supportive of Estridge, who had been Goldberg's rehearsal stand-in. "Isn't this how it starts?" she asked. "Shirley MacLaine and all that?" Ebersole knew her audience; it was one of the few rooms in town where you could kill with a Pajama Game reference.
Lesbian author Fran Lebowitz appeared next and positioned herself on a stool to fulfill the show's narration duties with her signature dry, deliberate delivery. Mad Men's Bryan Batt soon entered to much applause as smarmy theater producer Martin Klemmer. We learned that Martin hoped to bring Sylvia and Leatrice together in Legends! the play-within-a-play, with the financial backing of — Brad Pitt? Yes, it immediately became apparent that Epperson's idea of an "adaptation" actually meant "drastic pop-cultural update." Therefore, those hoping to hear what 1986 audiences heard were out of luck; instead, the new script contained wisecracks about the likes of Ann Coulter, Anna Nicole Smith, and Sally Field's Boniva commercials.
As big-haired maid Aretha, Estridge entered next and did an admirable job, all things considered. But the role had been beefed up and tailored specifically for Goldberg by Epperson, so Aretha's streetwise sass rarely rang true. "'Child, please,' indeed," echoed Statler to Waldorf behind me. Later, a line about "what witch doctor Barbara Walters goes to to look so good" didn't land without the wide-eyed look everyone knew Goldberg would have undoubtedly shot the audience. You know the look: Kenan Thompson does it during The View parodies on Saturday Night Live.
The grandiose entrances of Busch and La Lyp were by far the highlights of the evening. As Sylvia, Busch was a radiant vision in a chartreuse pantsuit, though she soon changed into a metallic silver gown. Receiving equal fanfare and applause, Lypsinka arrived shortly thereafter as Leatrice, decked out in a formfitting purple ensemble and a stunning fur cape. "According to the program, it's a faux from Fabulous Furs," whispered Waldorf to Statler a bit louder than necessary, just in case someone in my row was prying the lid off a can of red house paint.
As expected, one-liners between Sylvia and Leatrice flew from then on like globules of spittle at a Flavor of Love clock ceremony. Though they don't pack the same punch out of context, I scribbled a few of them down on a damp cocktail napkin I had shoved in my coat pocket.
"I'll have gin on the rocks — but don't make it too strong!"
"I'll play Harvey Fierstein's gynecologist."
"Three words that strike fear in the hearts of moviegoers: starring Kate Hudson."
Statler and Waldorf got a special thrill when a male stripper from Chippendales.com named Boom-Boom Johnson joined the party (don't ask). Played by Dashaun Young, who currently appears in slightly more clothing as Simba in Broadway's The Lion King, Boom-Boom encouraged the ladies to do the hand dance from Beyoncé's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" video before putting his bare backside to the audience and positioning himself directly in front of Aretha to whip off his thong. (Insert that Whoopi look again here.)
The first act pretty much ended with Busch and Lypsinka slapping each other and smacking each other's asses with their script binders. "That's the best use they got out of those scripts so far tonight," said Statler.
Nick and I stayed in our seats during intermission lest we miss any more Muppet wit or wisdom. Sizing up celebrity scene photographer Patrick McMullan's slender young male companion, Statler asked, "Is that his new boy toy?"
"Works for me," replied Waldorf.
Before the reading resumed, show queens got a tasty treat when Roma Torre and Donna Karger, television reporters from local cable channel NY1's theater-centric program On Stage, joined each other on the Town Hall stage to feign their own off-stage rivalry. Karger: "You hideous pig." Torre: "Thank you, Donna, you c-word, you."
In a stroke of metatheatrical genius, Torre then read her fake review of the reading thus far before the ladies extolled the charitable virtues of Friends In Deed. At her suggestion that Legends! might find future life on a legitimate New York stage, Torre was met not with applause but with tepid rumblings.
There was some brief business at the start of act 2 with a policeman played by tall drink of water Todd DuBail. Former Advocate cover boy Cheyenne Jackson had originally committed to the small role but bowed out of the benefit just days before due to a scheduling conflict. "This guy damn well better strip too," said Waldorf. Alas, he did not.
Because it's just that kind of a play, Sylvia and Leatrice accidentally scarfed down some hash brownies, which set the loopy tone for the remainder of the evening. "Do you think we might behave like Whitney Houston?" asked Leatrice on discovering the snack's secret ingredient. Hell to the no, but the setup did allow Lypsinka to stop the show in spotlight with a fantasy lip-synched performance for which she's famous. I wasn't familiar with the song, but suffice it to say that both Statler and Waldorf hummed along.
Before long, Batt's producer Martin reappeared to seal the deal on the play-within-a-play and wound up popping a few brownies himself. What followed was an epic exercise in mugging and physical comedy. "I kind of hope someone's cell phone rings," said Statler about three minutes into the scene.
Then came the part in the show where the actors pretend to screw up the lines, break character, and laugh at their flub, thus tickling the audience. "Sylvia, let's do the play," said Busch, reading Leatrice's line in error.
"That's my line," protested Lypsinka before addressing the audience directly: "She did that in every rehearsal, so I wasn't surprised." Neither was I; I'd seen a similar character-breaking bit done with more believability by Bernadette Peters and Tom Wopat in the 1999 revival of Annie Get Your Gun. (Yes, I'm that gay.)
Spoiler alert: Sylvia and Leatrice ultimately decide to do the play. The end. Well, sort of. During the first round of applause, Batt, Young, and DuBail returned to the stage for a cheeky song-and-dance number that repeated the lyric "the bitch is legendary." It seemed like overkill until I realized something had to waste time while the three stars changed into showstopping crimson evening gowns for their curtain calls. Seizing one last opportunity to steal focus, Lypsinka was quick to expose her impressive gams.
Throughout the performance, various subtle winks had been made to the audience to suggest that (especially without Epperson's admirable adaptation efforts) perhaps the reason Legends! never reached Broadway had more to do with a weak script than with backstage bitchery; when referring to the play-within-a-play's merits, characters would often break the fourth wall to clarify, "Not this play, but the one we're thinking about doing." In fact, I imagine that the only reason no one ever outright bashed Legends! was because its playwright died in 1989 of AIDS-related causes.
Yet somehow I don't think the late Mr. Kirkwood would mind my summing up the evening by paraphrasing a zinger from another sharp-tongued diva of a certain age, Bette Davis, when she infamously commented on rival Joan Crawford's demise: My mother always taught me to speak good of the dead. Legends! is dead. Good.