February 10, 2000
Hometown girl makes good, even when she's not the good girl.
by Rob Kendt
Doth Susan Egan protest too much? The pixie-sized actress best known for playing Belle in the Broadway musical of Beauty and the Beast has seemingly spent the years since trying to define her type away from that Disney heroine—developing the gender-bending multi-character lead in The Triumph of Love, taking a dark, saucy role in the L.A. premiere of Hello Again, or, currently, playing Sally Bowles in the gritty Sam Mendes production of Cabaret at Studio 54 on Broadway.
She admitted as much in a recent interview, saying of her Cabaret role: "It certainly helps to break that good girl image."
But what's wrong with that good girl image?
"Belle isn't me," said Egan, who's back in her native Southern California for a series of concerts. "I'm no closer to being Belle than I am to being Sally. But the first thing you do in a public way tends to stick with you. Belle is what we aspire to be; she's a great role model. Sally's in a different place entirely; she's much more human in her flaws. She's sort of the queen of denial with style."
Indeed, Egan's current Goth-meets-Louise-Brooks look does put her miles way from Belle, still further from Marian in The Music Man, a role she said she recently declined to audition for.
In the Sondheim revue Putting It Together, a co-production between L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum and Cameron Mackintosh that played at the Taper in fall of 1998, Egan played a sort of ingenue, albeit sharpened and refracted through a Sondheim lens; she turned the outrageous list song "More," for instance, into an aria of materialism on the order of "Glitter and Be Gay." But she left the show before it made it to New York last fall—as much because she'd been there, done that, as because the Roundabout Theatre offered her Cabaret.
There was also the matter of a Mackintosh crash.
"He was making it very tough to say yes" to the show's Broadway move, Egan said. "Cameron plays hardball, and this time he lost. I don't like playing any ball."
There's no doubt she's serious about redefining her type: She said she went to the Cabaret audition "looking like crap, as if I were on heroin, and sounding like crap. I wanted to show that I didn't have an ego about sounding or looking good."
She also wanted to show she could hang with director Mendes' low-rent, unromantic conception of the role, in which he's cast a number of non-singers, from Jane Horrocks to Natasha Richardson to Jennifer Jason Leigh. What does a "real" singer do in such a role?
"I know, people say, ‘If Sally were a great singer, why would she be in this dive?' But how many great singers do you know who've gone down the drain because of drugs?" she asked rhetorically. "Also, I don't play Sally as a good singer. I don't use vibrato. I do play her as if she has good pitch. And some critics have said it's actually better to have a trained singer, who can choose to hit the note well or not hit it well."
She'll likely choose to hit all her notes well at her upcoming concerts at Pepperdine University Center for the Arts in Malibu, Feb. 11, and at Citrus College Haugh Performing Arts Center in Glendora, Feb. 12, and in a 75-minute cabaret show she'll do at the Orange County Performing Arts Center's Founders Hall, Feb. 17-20. The week of shows was booked before her Cabaret run, and will include, she said, about half familiar Broadway tunes and half unsung songs by new musical theatre writers like Michael John LaChiusa, Stephen Lutvak, Craig Carnelia, and Matthew Sklar.
"It's partly to say Broadway's alive and well, thank you very much, and even the established composers aren't resting on their laurels," said Egan.
Neither is Egan, who still holds on to a convincing sense of awe at her success: "There's still a part of me that thinks, Oh my God, I can call David Zippel on the phone, tell him I'm putting together an album, and ask him if he's got any material, and he says, ‘Sure, come on over,' and for three or four hours, he'll play me songs. I'm still pinching myself that I'm actually in this world and not still this girl from Seal Beach playing Godspell on my stereo."
The byproduct of Egan's redefinition onstage is reconsideration for on-camera roles. She has a powerful ally in her corner: her manager, Holly Lebed.
"When I was 21 and in Bye Bye, Birdie, I met with agents, and I was looking for how they would see me," she recalled. "I knew there was this Woody Allen movie, and he was casting a college student; it was the part Juliette Lewis got in Husbands and Wives. I'd mention that part to the agents, and they'd go blank and want to talk about my singing voice, and seeing me in Birdie. When I met Holly and mentioned the Woody Allen movie, she picked up the phone, talked to Juliet Taylor, and got me an appointment the next day. She looked at me and saw an actress, not a musical theatre ingenue."
And with the edgier, more ravaged look she's sporting since Cabaret (she'll return in a few weeks and continue at least through July), Egan said that this pilot season she's getting seen more for the "funky Downtown artist" roles, the "black sheep sister instead of the sweet sister." With occasional sitcom guest roles, animated musical gigs (Hercules, Lady and the Tramp II), and roles in independent films like last year's Man of the Century and Kiss and Tell, Egan quipped, "Yeah, I'm working my way out of the chorus."
For information about Egan's concert at Pepperdine, Feb. 11, call (310) 456-4522; for the one in Citrus College, Feb. 12, call (626) 963-9411, and for the OCPAC cabaret, Feb. 17-20, call (714) 556-2787.