Thursday, April 23, 2009

Marilyn Cooper (1936-2009)

"What's so wonderful?"

That's the line most closely associated with character actress Marilyn Cooper. Her distinctive delivery of that line in "The Grass is Always Greener," the eleven o'clock showstopper from Woman of the Year was enough for her to win the Tony award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. Cooper, a regular supporting actress in countless shows, died yesterday at the age of 72 in the Actor's Fund Home in New Jersey.

Cooper made her Broadway debut in Mr. Wonderful, a vehicle for Sammy Davis Jr, in 1956. The following year she was part of history as Rosalia in the original cast of West Side Story, or the leader of the pro-Puerto Rican faction in "America." It's been reported that Arthur Laurents liked her so much, he wrote the role of Agnes/Amanda in Gypsy specifically for her. (She would also play a variety of roles in Hallelujah, Baby!) Cooper appeared in I Can Get it for You Wholesale, replaced Jane Connell as Gooch in the original Broadway production of Mame (that must have been nothing short of riotous), standing by for Eydie Gorme in Golden Rainbow and understudying Bernadette Peters in the 1971 revival of On the Town (in which she appeared as Lucy Schmeeler), Two by Two, Working and Ballroom. She also made appearances in the all-female Odd Couple revival and Broadway Bound. Her TV appearances included Lilith's mother on Cheers and Fran's paternal grandmother on The Nanny. She was also Mae Peterson in the Tommy Tune national tour of Bye Bye Birdie.

However, it is really the role of Jan Donovan, the frumpy housewife married to Lauren Bacall's ex-husband in Woman of the Year that garnered her what is probably the biggest critical success of her career. The musical was carried by Bacall throughout the entire evening. However, late in the second act Cooper entered in a bathrobe and curlers, with her entire high pitched nasal deadpan delivery. The hilarity grew out of the incredible dichotomy of the women's lives: one a successful career woman, the other a housewife and mother - and a friendly expression of their envy for each other. Suffice it to say, Cooper walked away with the show. Cooper took home the Drama Desk and Tony awards for her work. To see the scene and song in all its glory, click here.

The cast album performance of the song captures every nuance of humor, making it one of the most enjoyable cuts on a theater album (which is out of print for whatever reason). A comic talent like Ms. Cooper's doesn't come around so often. Though never a star, she was one of the most reliable professionals in the NY theatre scene and her death is definitely a big loss to musical comedy fans.

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