Theater Week Magazine, March 8, 1993
Madeline Kahn explores new territory in The Sisters Rosensweig.
A look of sylvan calm on its face, a three-foot-high terra-cotta deer peeks through the leaves in the living room of Madeline Kahn's Park Avenue apartment. Seated just a few feet away, the owner of the faux fauna presents in her countenance the semblance of a deer, but one lacking in tranquility. It is a deer about to enter a mysterious and frighteningly unknown part of the forest.
"I'm in the process of moving to a different chapter in my career, and that's tough for anyone," says the popular actress and comedian, who made her Broadway debut a quarter-century ago. "If you have a long career, you go through several different turns in the road, where you shift into different parts. You shift into another gear, or turn a corner, and show how you could be used. There are the elements about being a female which I could play now that might be of interest, as opposed to the ones I played 10 years ago or 20 years ago. Here's what I'm like now, and here's what I can do now. And you have to reinvestigate yourself, to figure out where you're at," to know what it is you want to do.
Things are going very well these days for Madeline Kahn. She has received glowing reviews for her performance as Gorgeous Teitelbaum, one of the sisters in Wendy Wasserstein's Sisters Rosensweig, which opened last fall at Lincoln Center. Now, after finishing its sold-out run at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater, the critically hailed, bittersweet comedy about the sibling rivalries among three sisters, and their difficulties with the men in and out of their lives, is moving on March 3 to the Ethel Barrymore Theater on Broadway. And Kahn, as well as the play, her director -- Dan Sullivan -- and her co-stars, who include Jane Alexander, Robert Klein, and Christine Estabrook, will be eligible for Tony nominations. But something is on her mind.
Her personal investigation, she says, has concluded that she is interested in dimension, in showing what lies underneath the surface of a character. While she is basically happy with her place in the profession and her accomplishments so far, until The Sisters Rosensweig, she says, many of the roles she has played have been "just bits -- they really haven't allowed me to go as far as I could go."
Those roles have brought her two Academy Award nominations and three Tony nominations: for the not-too-bright carnival performer Trixie Delight in Paper Moon; the riotous Marlene Dietrich-sendup Lili von Shtupp in Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles; the go-go dancer Chrissy in David Rabe's In the Boom Boom Boom at Lincoln Center (a major exception to the "bit" perception, a part she calls "a highlight of my career"); the tempestuous Lily Garland in the musical On the Twentieth Century; and Billie Dawn in the 1989 revival of Born Yesterday ("a wonderful role" made difficult, she says, by the inevitable comparison to the original Billie, Judy Holliday).
The long résumé also includes the Mel Brooks movies Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety, History of the World, Part I, as well as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother, The Cheap Detective, and Betsy's Wedding. But just about all of those roles have involved comedy, and there's the rub.
"I still love comedy," says Kahn, who celebrated her 50th birthday last September. "I think it's interesting behavior, and it shows something about the spirit, which I like. But I also like bringing depth to what I do. And I guess I would feel frustrated if in the future I were just to play the roles of older women who were bearing hatchets and killing people or being weird. I don't think that'd be too satisfying."
Which is why, she says, she feels very fortunate to have been cast in the role of Gorgeous Teitelbaum. Gorgeous is a housewife, a mother, the group leader of the Newton, Mass., Beth-El sisterhood on its tour of London, and the host of a call-in, psychological-advice radio show who has given herself the title of "Doctor" and who does not hesitate to give even possibly unwanted advice to blood relatives. But Gorgeous is also a deeply caring woman whose riotously funny demeanor hides a troubling and depressing secret.
Yes, Kahn says, The Sisters Rosensweig is a comedy, and Gorgeous is a comic character, but the play and Gorgeous are much more than that. And the role, finally, gives her a chance to show what she can do. Suddenly, a flicker of a smile crosses her face. Now that she has had a chance to express her concerns, she seems more relaxed -- and her petite body, svelte figure, perfectly coiffed red hair, and still-youthful face create a look that is nowhere near her age.
"I see Gorgeous as a woman who may have certain burdens to bear at the moment," Kahn says, "who may have certain crises in her life, which she's not discussing, because she's strong. And life has also thrown some good fortune her way: the tools with which to handle these problems. I see her as a woman of great vitality, great strength. I've seen women like this, so-called 'ordinary women' who seem to have an amount of energy which really shocks me."
Gorgeous, Kahn says, is not worried about what people think of her, is not concerned about how her sisters will react to her vehement opinions. "She tries to help, and does what she feels she has to do, wants to do, is obligated to do. She's just focused on getting her task done, even though she's clumsy, and that's where the humor comes in. But I see her as someone of great courage, the kind of person who will tell you that you have spinach in your teeth or that your blouse is open, rather than the person who won't, who thinks I'd better not, because I'll embarrass someone."
Gorgeous might be considered "well, you could say, meddlesome," she says. "Sometimes, when I'm doing the role, I hear what I'm saying, and I think 'Oh, God, I can't believe I have to say this. I would never say such a thing.' But beneath that, her impulse to help is much more important."
As much as she loves Gorgeous now, Kahn admits that when she first read the script, more than a year ago, she had her doubts. "I could see that this character could be a cliché," she says, "and that the humor could be very sketchlike, sort of like a skit on Saturday Night Live. I was wondering what they had in mind, and whether they had asked me to do a reading of the play because they figured I can do comedy and they wanted to paint this nightmare yenta. I knew that going deeper into the role, you could say the same words and you could be a far more complicated person. But I didn't know if that's what they were after."
After the reading, though, and after discussions with Wasserstein, Sullivan, and Andre Bishop, the artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater, Kahn concluded that the goal was depth, not just laughter.
That, she says, made her feel good, and she signed on for the production. But, she adds with a sigh, no decision is ever black and white: exploring a character is not easy.
"I'm always in conflict," she says, "because on the one hand comedy is fun, but I know that underneath it is usually something difficult. And I sort of do and don't want to go there. Part of me doesn't want to go into the deep water, even though I'm glad to be steered that way. But at the same time, I don't want to go there. So there were times during the rehearsal when it wasn't fun. But you know that's just because work isn't always fun. In the end, it was gratifying. And of course it turned out very well, because Dan Sullivan created an atmosphere where he didn't accept the easy way out."
One ripple in the deep water, she says, is the relationship between Gorgeous and her older sister, Sara, played by Jane Alexander. "Even though they are sisters," Kahn says, "they will never really understand each other. And this happens in real life. I've had people who have seen the play come up and tell me that there is someone they're related to, a sister or a brother, and they just never liked each other, they never understood each other, they never got along, and they accept it, that's how it is; they send each other a birthday card once a year and that's it. And there are other people with the same problem who say they never have accepted it; it remains a problem.
"It's amazing how there can be people born of the same parents, growing up in the same home, who turn out so different. And it's a little painful, in a way, to have to play these people. Sara and Gorgeous will never be really close. They get a step closer, and that's lovely, but it's a little sad. Sometimes I think it's amazing how this play and the way it has been directed bring out so many more elements than we ever expected: the gray areas, the humor, the clumsiness, the bittersweet quality, the poignance."
Partly for those reasons, she says, she is looking forward very much to the move from the 299-seat Newhouse to the much larger Barrymore. "Everyone involved thinks that this play has always been the kind of play that would lend itself well to being on a regular Broadway stage as opposed to a smaller thrust stage," she says. "And a lot of the things I have to do will transfer well, because they are large. The actions are large, the feelings are large.
"And it may also be somewhat of a relief to be upon a stage rather than being looked down at, to play out to a group of people located in one area and be able to transmit my message in one direction rather than being peered down at from three sides and know that at any given moment a larger segment of the audience isn't really seeing my face, so I have to transmit the message with my whole body. Of course, you always do that, but you know that some people aren't going to get it. So I'm looking forward to the benefit of all of the audience being in front of me."
As she speaks, her voice is not that of the classic comic Madeline Kahn, that infant-like intonation once described as filtered through a ceramic nose. She does not offer her famed impersonation of the quintessentially loopy, voluptuous and voracious sex siren, the loony-tune femme fatale. (Lili von Shtupp in Blazing Saddles accepting a flower: "Oh, one wed wose, how wovewy!") But despite her attempt to keep things serious, a variation on that old sound occasionally peeks through. Once in a while, especially in a long sentence, she will squeak excitedly into a higher register and become, for one breathless moment, a relative from Queens exclaiming over a fabulous find at Loehmann's.
Queens, in fact, does play a part in her heritage. Born in Boston, Madeline Kahn moved with her mother to New York (her parents were divorced) and grew up, she says, "in various parts of the West Side of Manhattan and later on, as a teenager, in Queens." She went to Hofstra University on Long Island, studied theater and opera, and opted for the former, making her Broadway debut in New Faces of 1968 (one of her co-stars, incidentally, was Robert Klein). Her next Broadway appearance was with Danny Kaye in the Richard Rodgers musical Two by Two. Her first major Hollywood role came in 1972 as Ryan O'Neal's nagging fiancée in What's Up Doc?
Now, 21 years later, she is hopeful that her role in The Sisters Rosensweig will lead her in a different direction. She is open, she says, to all possibilities, and cites as an example what she did last summer.
"I did something I've never done before," she says. "I did three weeks of summer stock. I knew I would be doing The Sisters Rosensweig, so I thought I would jump in and do a musical. I did Hello, Dolly!, which is an old warhorse, but I had never seen it, so I came with no preconceptions. I studied the role from the standpoint of its having been based on The Matchmaker, by Thornton Wilder. I approached it as maybe Ruth Gordon or Shirley Booth might have done when they originated the roles on stage and screen, rather than as the vehicle for all those musical ladies, some of whom camped it up. I treated it as a regular straight role, with music added. And I had a wonderful time. I found it very rewarding."
A look of contentment appears on her face, and she smiles. Madeline Kahn may be 50 years old, but she is still Gorgeous.