BY CARY GINELL
In the final installment of our interview with Nancy Dussault, Nancy talks about her early years on Broadway.
VCOS: Do Re Mi was your Broadway breakthrough in 1961. What was that like?
NANCY: That was a great experience for me. I was surrounded by the greatest talent there could possibly be. Jule Styne loved my voice and would always ask if I liked his songs. He rewrote a couple of things for me because I wasn’t so sure I liked them. The whole audition thing for that show was amazing. That was in the era when you always auditioned in the theater. Now, it’s always in a room somewhere. We auditioned on the stage of the St. James and I was the second person to audition. And I got the job that day, which is almost unheard of. They asked me to sing a folk song and I didn’t know one. So I sang a classical piece that wasn’t in English, and Jule Styne went crazy. So he kept me there, singing for a half an hour, even doing scales. And I could hear Comden and Green say, “Oh, for God’s sakes, she’s great, leave her alone!”
The next day, I went in with my agent to David Merrick’s office, and he talked to me for a long time, and then made me leave the room so he could negotiate. None of that happens anymore. Garson Kanin, who was the director, came up on stage right before I sang and said, “Oh, my dear, we’ve heard so much about you. Thank you for coming, bla, bla, bla,” and boy, you don’t get any of that anymore! So from the beginning, it was extraordinary. I was up for a Tony and we ran for over a year in New York and then I had to tour with it for a while. My biggest regret, always, has been, and I hate saying that, but they had asked me to go to London and my answer was, “I can’t go. I’m married.” I had never even mentioned it to my husband. A year later I said to him, “You know, they asked me to go to London” and he said, “We could have gone.” He was working for an international company and he said he could have gone in a minute. So I never sang in London. And that I do regret. But I could now – I could go and do cabaret there (laughs)
VCOS: Tell me about working with Phil Silvers.
NANCY: I absolutely worshipped Phil Silvers. He was so quick and so funny, because there were scenes in that show that were much more dramatic. I was kind of stunned by how good he was and how facile he was.He’s like Dick Van Dyke in that regard. Every single rehearsal, he was a little bit different and always better. That’s the way Phil was. He was always better. He had a great attachment to me because I was such a novice. I would listen to all his old show-biz stories. Are you familiar with the show?
VCOS: I’ve never seen it, but I know the score well. Nobody ever does Do Re Mi anymore.
NANCY: Well, the book isn’t so great and I remember hearing Phil say, “They’re hoping I’m going to ad lib and do all this stuff for them, but I’m not. I’m going to do it as written until I’ve squeezed everything out of it.” In the show, I had a song called “Cry Like the Wind” where, supposedly, Phil Silvers’ character, Herbie, comes into a pancake parlor and hears me singing, pulls a chair down stage, turns the chair around so his back is to the audience, and says, “Sing it for me, kid.” But he was always so darling.
On opening night, he pulled the chair down, swung it around, looked at me, smiled, gave me a big wink, and said, “Just give it to ’em, just give it to ’em.” I really liked him. I recently met one of his grandchildren. He had twin babies while we were doing that show. But when I met one of his grandchildren, I got so emotional when I was talking to him. I said, “I just need you to know how wonderful he was.” He was such a generous performer and was so encouraging to me. He taught me things about being on stage and how to handle myself and not upstage myself. At one point during rehearsal, he said, “Come on down here when you say that line, come down here with me. You deserve to be in this position on the stage.” Things like that.
I couldn’t get over how musical he was. A lot of comedians are extremely musical; I think it has something to do with their sense of rhythm and life that they have in them, but he sang great! There also all of these extraordinary character actors in that show, but when I think about him, I wish I had made a point to keep him in my life, because he had such a profound effect on me.
VCOS: And you got to work with Nancy Walker in that show, too, didn’t you?
NANCY: Yeah, she was in that show, too, and everybody said, “Oooh, she’s kind of hard, watch out for her,” but I became extremely close to her and knew her until she died. I was very close to her daughter, too. I’m still in touch – not a lot – but am still in touch with a couple of the dancers who were in the show. The show was great fun. They had the sexiest, most beautiful chorus girls in the world in that show. We were surprised because we got really good reviews. I don’t think we really expected that. But we had a really good run and had a lot of famous, famous people come see the show. President Kennedy came and Ingrid Bergman came, all those kind of people.
VCOS: Did you get to meet President Kennedy?
NANCY: No. He came and went fast (laughs).
VCOS: You did Sound of Music after that, which was still the show’s original run.
VCOS: Tell me about playing Maria. Who did you follow in that role?
NANCY: Everybody always says that I succeeded Mary Martin, but I didn’t. I came after Karen Gantz and I was in the whole last year of the show. I was very young when I did that (laughs). I remember I was late to my final rehearsal because I was out in front of the theater, watching them put my name up on the marquee – above the title…and my name is LONG. So they came outside screaming for me. The day we opened, I had done a run-through in the morning and then a full-dress in the afternoon, and then did the show that night. And I thought to myself, “Oh, my God, I did the whole thing three times!” I remember the director told me I had to take naps to prepare. Why? I was 25 years old. I had Mary Martin’s dressing room, which had blue silk on the walls and little chandeliers – oh my God, it was a magical time for me! And that was one of those shows that people came to over and over again. To this day, I still really like – and I have to confess this – being in a show that families come to, because I still meet people who say, “My mother took me to see you when I was eight” or something like that. They never forget.
VCOS: Who was in that show with you?
NANCY: The lead was a man named Donald Smith, who was British. I don’t remember who all the kids were, I know that one of them I had a big discussion with because he became so attached to me that it became sort of a problem, because he didn’t have a mother. So they had to request that he be taken out of the show for a while. I didn’t mind sharing the stage with all these kids – they always tell you to watch out for animals and kids – maybe it was because I was so young, I don’t know, I just loved the whole thing.
VCOS: Somehow I get the impression that kids brought out the best in you.
NANCY: They did, they did. That was quite a thing. To be in such a big, famous show, and people still – STILL – and that’s a l-o-o-n-g time ago, and I still meet people that say, “Oh, my God, I saw you in The Sound of Music.” Whenever someone approaches me and says, “Ohhhh…” I say, “Sound of Music, right?”
VCOS: And then, twenty-five years later, you’re doing Into the Woods.
NANCY: That was great. I went in and met James Lapine and he asked if I wanted to do it on the road or in New York, but I had an apartment in New York, so I went. I did that for nine months.
VCOS: Who did you replace as the Witch?
NANCY: Phylicia Rashad, I think. That was great fun.
VCOS: Did you meet Sondheim?
NANCY: Yes, I knew him from the sixties. In fact, I want to write to him and find out why I knew him, because he used to come over for dinner and I don’t remember why (laughs). I don’t remember how I knew him so well. He lived in the neighborhood and my husband at the time was a very big man in advertising, and I was a really good cook. But he came over for dinner. I’ve never known him well at all. I got to know him better when I did Side By Side. He’s become easier and easier to talk to as he’s gotten older; he’s just a little more comfortable around everybody and is really quite extraordinary.
VCOS: Is there a show that you regret not doing?
NANCY: Sweeney Todd. I’m sure there are others. What I did get to do was a gigantic concert with the Pittsburgh Symphony, where George Hearn was there and it was an all-Sondheim evening. But we did a huge chunk from Sweeney Todd, and working with George was really something. He’s so powerful that he’s almost overwhelming on stage. But so generous and so darling. But I’m really sorry that I never got to do that show. I don’t know if I’d have the energy now (laughs).
Nancy Dussault continues in Love, Loss & What I Wore through this weekend. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.