"High Anxiety" Isn't Just a Film Title to Madeline Kahn, Newly Derailed on Broadway
People Magazine, May 15, 1978
To Mel Brooks, Madeline Kahn is complicated and, like his wife, Anne Bancroft, "incredibly talented."† "Oh, what does Mel know?" Kahn asks rhetorically, answering instantly:† "Everything, just everything, I love him with a passion."† The complicated Kahn was seeking comfort in Brooks and her movie career (Oscar nominations for Paper Moon and Brooks' Blazing Saddles, co-star in his current High Anxiety) after being railroaded two weeks ago from her new Broadway hit, On the Twentieth Century.
A musical version of the 1930s play about a bitchy actress on that grand old train, it had been a bumpy ride for Madeline even before the Boston tryout.† (She had vetoed Danny Kaye as her co-star.† "You sign him, you lose me.")† Director Hal Prince ordered her fired then, but the producers wanted her name as collateral for the $2 million advance sale.† The show opened February 19.† Kahn stole the notices, and the trouble began.† The reviews of Madeline by co-workers (who included Imogene Coca and John Cullum) ranged from "a genius" to "crazed."
One week after the premiere, while the original cast album was being recorded, Madelineís voice began to grow hoarse.† "The schedule was ludicrous," she says.† "Three weeks of singing a semioperatic score nonstop?† I needed a rest."† On March 6, on her doctor's advice, she skipped a performance, and understudy Judy Kaye, 29, moved into the spotlight for the first time.† "A star is born!" burbled the show's composer Cy Coleman -- and the word was relayed to Madeline.
Over the next seven weeks she missed eight more performances.† Across West 44th Street Liza Minnelli was performing The Act on a foreshortened schedule and lip-synching a few numbers.† "Liza did seven shows, I had to do eight.† Perhaps it was psychosomatic," Madeline admits.† "But it became very unpleasant with the management.† I was harassed constantly.† Finally I had my agent ask just what they wanted me to do.† 'To leave,' I was told.† So I left."† With a reported $100,000 settlement, Madeline can afford to shop around for her next part, and she still has a reputation for professionalism.† "I have appeared in crap," she concedes, "but I never treat it as such.† Never!"
At 35, Kahn has a near-operatic lyric soprano, remarkable range as a comedienne -- and an identity crisis.† After a kaleidoscope of roles involving multicolored wigs and accents ranging from Teutonic to Southern, she finds that audiences donít know the real Madeline Kahn:† "I've played all the crazies.† I could ride bareback down Broadway and nobody would recognize me."† Four years of analysis has at least helped her find herself.† "In Hollywood I thought I was large and klutzy, like the characters I played," she admits.† Even on talk shows, she says, "I never acted kooky, but I did fill a time slot slated for a woman who was expected to display interesting neurotic behavior."
For the present, Madeline will rest in a new seven-room co-op on Park Avenue, across the river and far away from Queens, where she was raised, and Hofstra U., where she first landed stage center.† A year ago her longtime boyfriend, Ted Bentell, a clothing executive, gave her an ultimatum:† Get married or else.† She opted for else, perhaps because her parents (her father was a garment manufacturer) have amassed five divorces between them, and Ted married another lady.† Now, says Madeline, "I'd like to meet some eligible men."† The portrait playing in her head is of someone who is "kind, attractive, at least to me, intelligent, and with a sense of humor both socially and sexually.† The latter," she adds, "doesn't mean I'm looking for a man who makes jokes in bed."