by David Drake
When comedy writer extrordinaire Bruce Vilanch first penned jokes for his pal Bette Midler in 1975 for her legendary Broadway concert Clams on the Half-Shell, he smirks, “I didn’t know it would take this long to get on the other side of the footlights.” Now, after decades of writing special material for countless stars–and winning six Emmy Awards for supplying his delicious wit to hosts of such annual telecasts as the Oscars, Grammys, Emmys and Tonys–Vilanch has finally entered Broadway’s center stage spotlight, starring as Edna Turnblatt in the Tony-winning tuner Hairspray. After touring the show for a year, Broadway.com caught his effortlessly commanding performance–and snappy up-to-the-minute ad libs–at the Neil Simon Theatre. The following afternoon, he chatted us up.
So, it’s been two weeks on Broadway now. How’s it feel?
Fabulous. It’s so intimate. I mean, on the road I’ve been playing these barns–old movie palaces, 3,000-seaters–so everything we were doing was so much bigger that my performance had reached Jones Beach level. So to work the confines of the Neil Simon, I had to be hosed down. What’s wonderful now is that you can do something very small and they can actually see it.
Yeah, I remember Martin Short once said in an interview, when he was doing Little Me on Broadway, that the challenge for him–between acting on stage and acting on film–was to see how large he could be on film and still make it believable. Whereas on stage, it was the opposite.
Hmmm…[Laughs] And did you find any moments with Martin where he was small?
Having now played over a dozen cities in Hairspray, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned?
That audiences around the country are very smart. Actually, I’d learned that before–from touring my own [solo] show, and also from touring with people like Bette Midler. But I hadn’t toured as a performer in a big show eight times a week. So I guess what I’ve learned with Hairspray, namely, is that anything you do during the day you will pay for it onstage at night. Especially when you’re an older bride.
Speaking of being a bride–and a “mother”–how many actresses have you played with as your daughter?
As of last night when the understudy [Shannon Durig] went on, I think I’ve done it with seven. Hmmm…seven girls. [Laughs] I’ve never done it with seven girls before!
Well, Todd Susman was my husband on the road, and he’s here with me now. So…
You’ve been pretty monogamous.
How about your own mother? She’s such a delight in your documentary Get Bruce. Has she seen the show yet?
Only seven times. Including Mother’s Day in San Francisco. Which, there, was like the Hairspray National Holiday.
What was it like to perform the show in Baltimore?
New Year’s Eve every night! Cause, you know, really, how many musicals are there about Baltimore?
Oh, I know. I’m from Baltimore.
Well then you know. They got major excited. I mean, that Corny Collins prize of “a scholarship to Essex Community College” was like a three-minute laugh!
Well, I lived that joke: I actually went to Essex Community College on a scholarship!
Oh, I’m sorry. [Laughs.] But actually, it was in Baltimore that the whole breaking the fourth wall and doing ad libs during “Timeless to Me” started. The second night we were there they had to cancel the show because Hurricane Isabel hit. So the next night, when [Susman] grabbed my boobs in the number, I said, “You know, if this place ever floods we can just float out on these.”
Do you think of those ad libs in the moment
I did with that one. But partially, I do [the ad libs] because it’s a good place to take a breath. For a larger girl who has to do a dance number–and sing–it’s a great place to stop, catch your breath, and let the audience laugh.
Speaking of making people laugh, everyone knows you’ve written for the Oscars. But you’ve also working on quite a few Tony Award broadcasts. How many have you done?
Well, I did this year for Hugh Jackman. Two years for Rosie O’Donnell. And one year when there was no host–yes, the infamous “no-host year,” when the show ran so long they had to cut a production number from one of the new musicals. Oh, and one year when Nathan Lane hosted.
Any especially memorable moments from working on the Tonys?
Oh, quite a few. I guess I’ll have to go back into my Tony trove. [Laughs.] But like this last year we did this cool thing with Carol Channing and LL Cool J. Dave Bloom and I wrote the rap thing, but a lot of it was created at rehearsal, on the hoof. See, Carol didn’t want to read the teleprompter, cause she had to wear her glasses. But I said, “Oh no, you must!” Cause, you know, in real life, she’s got these gangsta’ glasses–makes her look like she’s in somebody’s posse. So the look was great, so funny. And then when Hugh Jackman came back on stage afterwards, I gave him that line, that “Carol Channing had just been arrested for a drive-by shooting.”
Do you always sit backstage, coming up with some of these lines during the actual show?
I do, I do…
So you’re really on the premises–on call, like a surgeon.
The doctor is in! But it’s really like a party and you’re there to keep that going, make it fun. Most of it is pretty much set–with the host and all–but it’s wonderful to be there to capitalize on something that just “happens.” And it happens it enough times that it’s worth it.
Speaking of award show hosts, you’re gonna be sharing Broadway with a lot of them this season.
It’s staggering, isn’t it? Billy Crystal, Whoopi.. It’s gonna be quite a group! And Dame Edna too, whom I’ve also written for.
Planning on hanging out together after your shows?
Well, I enjoy their company. But of course, like me, they’re all older brides, so… maybe they’ll just all want to go take naps when they come off stage.
Have they seen you in Hairspray yet?
Actually, Billy and Whoopi haven’t. But Bette came with Lily Tomlin to see it in L.A. at the Pantages. And Lily told me afterward, “Bette just kept crying. And finally, I had to start crying myself just to keep up!” Plus Barry Manilow came, Melissa Manchester, that whole original cast.
Wasn’t Melissa Manchester one of Bette Midler’s first back-up singing Harlette?
She was. Along with Gail Kantor and Merle Miller, Melissa was one of the original three. We called them “Miss M’s Celestial Choir.” Barry found them. They were all session singers for commercials. Then Melissa got a recording contract and Charlotte Crossley stepped in, whom I call “The World’s Oldest Free-Standing Harlette,” cause she did it for a long time. But now she’s playing Motormouth Maybelle on tour with Hairspray!
Well, since all roads seem to lead back to Hairspray, I’m going to throw out some names associated with the show. Give me your inital response. Marc Shaiman?
Brilliant. The World’s Oldest Brilliant Teenager.
I certainly thank him for all the advice. And for all the candy he left in the dressing room. Which Michael McKean didn’t eat, but I seem to be. [Laughs.] He left this very large chest called “Harvey’s Hot Nuts,” which is actually filled with gum drops and stuff. Something he picked up at Disneyland, I think.
Shameful. She wore that red ribbon at the Republican Convention, and I just thought that was an incredible hypocrisy.
Speaking of political issues, gay marriage?
How about the one you ad libbed about in the show last night, New Jersey’s Governor McGreevey?
Like I said, I’m available. Give him my number.
And finally, a blast from the past. The lady who starred in 1978’s Platinum, your Broadway debut as a librettist: Alexis Smith.
Oh…Alexis was fascinating because she was a real “creation.” She was just a very shy kid who was “created” by the people at Warners Brothers to be this fabulously elegant, cool character. But underneath it all she was terrified, just this little girl. And that never really changed.
Any thoughts on where Platinum stands now, after 25 years?
The Great Overlooked Musical of the 20th Century! [Laughs.] Encores! is not big enough for its revival! Maybe a co-production with Encores! and L.A.’s Reprise!, and the Kennedy Center and the National Theatre of Great Britain!!
Sounds like your dream project! Any others you’re wishing for?
Other than doing a big musical on Broadway? Just that porn movie with Brad Pitt.