Friday, February 29, 2008

Dorothy Loudon: An Appreciation

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The American musical had a bright spot with this fearless comedienne-actress who could have you howling with laughter one moment and crying your eyes out the next. (Case in point; look at her signature roles - Miss Hannigan in Annie and Bea in Ballroom. About as night and day as you could imagine). Loudon managed to survive a string of early flops: the prophetically titled Nowhere to Go But Up that lasted two weeks, The Fig Leaves Are Falling which ran a whopping four performances (yet garnered Loudon her first Tony nomination). She was the best thing about Lolita, My Love a decent if ill-advised adaptation of Nabokov's novel, which opened and closed out of town in Boston. There is a recording of her performing the showstopping "Sur Le Quais", a Gallic romp for Charlotte Haze in the middle of the first act. After playing Edith in a short-lived revival of The Women in 1973 (opposite Kim Hunter, Alexis Smith, Rhonda Fleming and Myrna Loy), she spent the mid-70s touring. Mike Nichols personally asked her to audition for the role of Miss Hannigan in Annie and took a supporting role and made it a star turn, triumphing at the the 1977 Tony awards over co-star Andrea McArdle. The success of Annie brought Michael Bennett and Ballroom calling. Though the show was a failure, her performance was highly lauded and the only thing that prevented her from winning the Tony was the juggernaut of Sweeney Todd and Angela Lansbury. Incidentally enough, her next job would be replacing Angela in Sweeney. She played opposite Katharine Hepburn in The West Side Waltz, took on Patricia Routledge's role of Dotty Otley in the Broadway premiere of Noises Off and was one of Jerry's Girls. One song that she got to sing in the latter was the highly irreverent and politically incorrect "Have a Nice Day." Cut from La Cage Aux Folles early in its Boston previews, the song was an expression of a character's bigotry, with a lyrical punchline so offensive that only someone of Loudon's ability could make it funny. She rarely appeared on film, but made an impression as Carol Burnett's replace on The Garry Moore Show in the '60s and was a perennial favorite at the Tony awards. She also was featured on many Ben Bagley recordings, as well as many cast recordings and compilation albums produced by Bruce Kimmel in the 1990s. Loudon's final appearance on Broadway was in the first preview of the Lincoln Center revival of Dinner at Eight. Due to her failing health, was forced to withdraw and Marian Seldes stepped in. She died in November 2003 at the age of 70, losing her battle with cancer. The following May, at the Theatre World awards, she received a tribute in the closing of the ceremony by Peter Filichia, which prompted a spontaneous full-house standing ovation in her memory. (I was there). One of the great disappointments in my theatre-going career is having missed out on the opportunity to see her perform live. Enjoy these two clips of her bringing down the house. The first is her performance at Sondheim - A Celebration at Carnegie Hall in 1992, where she puts a new spin on "Losing My Mind" and "You Drive a Person Crazy." The second is much-talked about performance from the 1983 Tony awards. The evening was a celebration of George Gershwin, as the Uris Theatre became the Gershwin Theatre, and the line-up featured many stars performing various songs. Loudon had the choice task of performing this obscure little Gershwin number, "Vodka." (I would post her "Fifty Percent" from the 1979 Tony awards, as it's a devastating and captivating performance - when the Tony's allowed performers to perform entire songs... but the youtube clip is of an inferior quality).

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