In a 2006 Broadway musical whose cast was packed with skilled comedians, Beth Leavel managed to upstage them all with her remarkable ability to wring a laugh out of even the most mundane material.
The vehicle was “The Drowsy Chaperone,” an innovative show whose wry narrator recounts the story of his favorite musical, only to have its characters magically come to life and act out their story in his apartment.
Leavel, who previously appeared in Lyric Theatre's 2004 production of “Annie,” played the title character in “The Drowsy Chaperone,” a lush whose motto was to “keep an eyeball on the highball in your hand.” Leavel's comic tour de force won her a best featured actress Tony Award.
Leavel returns to Oklahoma this week to star in Lyric Theatre's “Call Me Madam,” a 1950 musical loosely based on Perle Mesta's life. During the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, Mesta's extravagant parties in Washington, D.C., earned her the title “the hostess with the mostest.”
“Sally is a woman who walks into a room and demands to be the center of attention,” Leavel said. “You love her tenacity, her boldness and her lack of fear. She was one of the boys and they respected her for it.”
A year before he wrote “Call Me Madam,” Irving Berlin had introduced “Miss Liberty,” a musical whose plot revolved around finding the woman who served as the model for the Statue of Liberty. Most of its reviews were negative and the musical failed to recoup its investment.
Still smarting from the poor reception “Miss Liberty” had made, Berlin focused his energies on “Call Me Madam,” a score that proved the songwriter hadn't lost his gift for melody. Among its standouts are “The Hostess With the Mostes' on the Ball,” “It's a Lovely Day Today,” “Something to Dance About” and “You're Just in Love.”
Yet despite Berlin's Tony Award-winning score and the fact that musical theater legend Ethel Merman was cast as Sally Adams, “Call Me Madam” has languished in the American musical theater annals. The musical has never had a Broadway revival and this marks Lyric's first outing with the show in its 50-year history.
“I feel like we've opened this vault and here's this new treasure,” Leavel said of “Call Me Madam.” “Perle Mesta found joy and success by giving great parties where people had a blast. She had a real zest for life and knew how to make people happy. I think we could all learn something from her.”
When someone encounters people who are naturally funny, you wonder how early in life they became aware of their gift, something Noel Coward called “a talent to amuse.” Not surprisingly, Leavel said she was quite young.
“I remember teachers would send me out in the hall when I was in grade school,” Leavel said. “I was constantly reprimanded. And while I wasn't a class clown, I certainly knew how to make people laugh.”
Leavel's Broadway resume includes an impressive list of shows in which she played comedic characters: Anytime Annie and Maggie Jones in “42nd Street,” Tess in “Crazy for You,” Ellie in “Show Boat” and Frau Blucher in “Young Frankenstein.”
“I honed that (comedic) skill because it kept getting me work,” Leavel said. “Experience teaches you the language of timing and the technical aspects of comedy. Your audience lets you know what's funny.”
“Call Me Madam” has been inextricably linked to Ethel Merman since its Broadway premiere in 1950. It was one of only two stage musicals Merman got to recreate her starring roles in for film, the other being “Anything Goes.”
“Irving Berlin wrote ‘Call Me Madam' for Ethel Merman and it was certainly a star vehicle,” Leavel said. “It's a real privilege to be given permission to personalize this role for my strengths, to give birth to this woman through Beth Leavel.
“Once you tune into the language of this musical, you enjoy how it celebrates the comedy of this period. We have a more sophisticated comedy ear today but it's nice to revisit a show like this. It's a fun musical that's a delicious wink to the audience.”