Regarding Highly Regarded Oct. 7 Show…Interview Part 2: Carole Demas & Sarah Rice on The Fantasticks and “Much More”

By ROB LESTER****Time: 2 PM –Date: Saturday, October 7–Place: Laurie Beechman Theatre, 407 West 42 Street.  Now, on to the interview, Part 2:  Sarah Rice has been a frequent presence in cabaret circles.  Her award-winning show of vintage movie songs, sweetly titled Screen Gems,  was also an audience favorite. She is a dogged collector of rare material, an eager learner who will research, toil, and commit to memory a piece new to her even just for a themed open mic night at The Salon where she’s been a frequent participant.  She’s also co-hosted her own open mic, with singer David Vernon, and is a gracious supporter of other singers, from neophytes to old pros.  Comfortable in multiple genres, she’s as at home with a quaint novelty ditty as she is with an aria in another language.  I recall her quirky sort of art song sung as a cat and her being joined in concert with another soprano who similarly had one foot (or lung) in classical worlds and one in popular song: Marni Nixon.  Sarah, an avowed cat fancier, who championed an animal charity, coordinating benefits at Birdland for them (although cats and birds don’t always peacefully co-exist), with a menagerie of musical talent, including Carole Demas. Sarah, who is at the ready with song histories and her trusty unusual favorite instrument —have theremin, will travel — for uniquely evocative sound. She returned to Manhattan’s Metropolitan Room, for one last hurrah for one last solo show in its last month before closing while readying its new location to re-launch in 2018.  And she’s frequently asked to sing Stephen Sondheim material in the long-running series Sondheim Unplugged at Feinstein’s/54 Below where she’s often called upon to represent Sweeney Todd, the classic show and her solo as Johanna, “Green Finch and Linnet Bird.”  She’s also played Anne in the master’s A Little Night Music.  And she’s not afraid of Virginia Woolf: she was in The Waves, an off-Broadway production based on her stories. 

She’s got operetta roles under her belt, sung everything from Bernstein to Blitzstein, from the leading lady stalked by The Phantom of the Opera (on stage) to The Phantom Lady (film), along with Sullivan duties: singing the oeuvre of Gilbert & Sullivan; being invited by KT Sullivan to perform at the Cabaret Convention;  and, of course, the Sullivan Street Theatre’s legendary The Fantasticks as one of the many Luisas who’ve been “better far than a Metaphor can ever, ever be.” She remembers the the confetti floating in the air as well as “the rats scurrying down below in the basement.” Ah, the glories and glamour of professional show business and small budgets.    

“My first New York City job was in The Miser,” muses the lovely lady never miserly with kind words for others or thanks for attention from critics and press, never solipsistic.  I recall her sidling up to me at an overlong awards show where audience members were starting to abandon ship and she was scheduled late in the show.  She asked me if I really thought she should do her big number or do something short and sweet in the interest of time.  I remember telling her that many singers could do a spiffy, spunky upbeat number, but that no one I knew could replicate the moody, character-specific piece she had been asked to do.  She went on and brought a restless crowd back to life and was embraced with appreciative applause.  

Sarah Rice sings. Photo: Maryann Lopinto

Sarah and Carole, across the brunch table, trade memories of their days and nights in The Fantasticks: “Did you ever work with….?”  “What was the name of….”:  “Did you know that F. Murray Abraham was once in the cast?”…. “You know, you can hear them turning the pages of the music on the cast recording during “I Can See It.”  (I wonder later if it’s on the line “I can hear it!”…. “Remember the awful bathrooms?” …”And that confetti would be everywhere, in your shoes when you got home….”  “Oh!  And the dust for the Old Actor’s costumes got a laugh, but it was talcum powder and it would get in our lungs…”  

I asked Sarah about lines and details that might have changed since the show’s original script.  “They changed this line about the Girl’s eye color changing.  “It was gold, it was mauve. Tom had a thing about the colors.”  Chewing on her breakfast special, she chews on the word “mauve,” mulling over memories.

 

The Fantasticks!  Above:  Sarah and company when she was in the cast

“There were some changes made in the number ‘Round and Round,’ and she details a few musical adjustments.  She chuckles over a substitute for the lyric using the words “attempted rape” when a well-meaning politically correctionist used a synonym in a production.  But the person  didn’t know the ins and outs of all slang and chose a word that worked on one level, but was also a vulgar alternate for genitalia in some circles.  Likewise, when the script discusses pirate “booty,” the word meant something quite different to some teen audiences who would guffaw each time it was invoked.  But the show and its songs survive the changing times and changing slang.  

“The magic of Tom and Harvey’s music is that—no matter what stage of life you’re at— you can relate to it.”  Sarah Rice is attuned to audiences: making them comfortable, knowing and sensing what they are going through and how to get them from point A to point B.  She makes her point:  “This show allows them to connect to their own past, and their own connections with The Fantasticks and Harvey and Tom.  We’ve allowed them to reconnect to that part and then to return.”  She was very motivated to work with Carole on this project, to make it personal, to celebrate their friendship and their relationships with writers Schmidt and Jones: “It was all about the possibilities.  This is the most ‘us’ of anything we’ve done.  It’s been illuminating.”  And, in her own experience with studying and playing the material, she emphasizes the depths and layers, no matter what age you visit or revisit it: “You keep finding things.”  

I loved watching Sarah knock them out with ‘Old Maid’!” enthuses her co-star. “Watching her, in those little wings, I was freezing cold, feared losing my voice and must bring a sweater next time.”  The number from 110 in the Shade is chilling yet sympathetic as Sarah sings the role of Lizzie, eyes wide open, lamenting the present and fearing the future of a single, shy woman stuck as caregiver/virtual housemaid to her father and brothers.  So many emotions are played close to the bone in the piece, while elsewhere hope and optimism spring eternal.  

If you’d been a fly on the wall at the performance I saw, you wouldn’t just be hearing your own buzz; here’s what was overheard or directly told to the performers. Often between sobs, sighs and smiles:  

One of the best things I’ve ever seen in cabaret….”  

“We were sitting there, reliving part of our lives.”  

….. “I was transported.”  ….

“The blend of your voices was heavenly, but each of your voices was spectacular in its own unique way.” …

“I loved the stories, the humor, the personal memories and the photos…”  

 “We were somewhere between laughing and crying the whole time!”

 Indeed, one not-easy-to-please longtime reviewer was sobbing with emotion, two pianists who are popular presences in cabaret were bowing to the singers over and over.  Those who knew the material well said they’d heard it in new ways and a number of people urged them to continue with the project as a theatre piece. A noted female composer who was around in the off-Broadway heyday of Schmidt and Jones used the adjectives “beautiful” and “spectacular” and Tom Jones was upstairs beaming and maybe dreaming a bit, a walking living legend.

In 1960, when The Fantasticks first burst onto the Greenwich Village theatre scene, Carole Demas was playing her own first professional theatre scenes: “It was regional theatre—and I was paid!” she crowed. “I was a minstrel.” It was with Champlain Shakespeare Festival with an actor named Roy Kelley and a guitarist named Chuck Eldred strummed. She had, however, tried to trod the boards with the Bard before that, in As You Like It —and she liked it.  And she’d trotted along a different kind of stage before the Shakespeare Festival that preceded her NY Shakespeare gig which had begun when she and longtime pal and colleague, NYU classmate, and co-star in the long-lived TV show that keeps re-flowering The Magic Garden, Paula Janis and their brothers (see Part 1 of this article). Miss Demas was indeed Miss Vermont in the famed Miss Universe contest in Miami Beach. She doesn’t quite describe the Miss Universe episode as an out-of-this-world positive experience. She reported to me, “The whole thing was a hilarious debacle that deserves a story of its own!”  Or maybe another breakfast at our favorite midtown diner.  (We talked so long I was afraid the waiters were sure we’d never leave, or at least wouldn’t sing “Hello, Carole, well, hello, Sarah…” if we dared to return.)

But Carole has a lot to say — about The Fantasticks (which ran 17,162 performances in its original run and a revival that just closed this year in midtown ran for 4,390 performances)….about her friendship with Paula (which has lasted 63 years)….and a marriage that began in mid-1962 (which had a run of five years) and soon she had her first agent and auditioned and snagged the ingenue lead (and her Equity card) in Morning Sun, at the Phoenix Theatre, a project penned by Fred Ebb in his pre-Kander days. Bert Convy, who’d work again with Ebb in the original cast of Cabaret was in the cast, and opera star Patricia Neway played the mother.  As Mother Abbess, she’d tried to solve a problem like Maria in the original Broadway production of The Sound of Music.  Carole was soon cast as one of the nuns in a production of the show at the Paper Mill Playhouse, just as she was about to accept a quite different image, accepting a quite different job she’d also auditioned for: being a Playboy Bunny! A girl’s gotta eat—and not every show lasts more than a weekly paycheck. For example, the Ebb and flow of Morning Sun shone only for nine performances, after its opening night (53 years ago–to the very day—that this article is appearing online, in case you thought there was no method to the madness).  When the sun set on Morning Sun, however, her first substitute plan was substitute teaching, something more reliable. Other jobs followed, including covering for Broadway leads (now she’s back in the theatre district with a cover charge and food and beverage minimum, tasting a special success!).  

Other gigs for the gal included singing Sondheim (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum as the maiden who only knows how to be “Lovely”) and, not so incidentally, although it is isn’t even mentioned in Thank You for Your Love, Carole did get a crack at the role of the Girl in The Fantasticks in a regional production before she got to do so in New York City from 1966 to 1968, although she was “on call’ as a cover for others and for some stints for two years or so.  If you do the math and have even foggy vision, you know that Carole Demas looks remarkably young for her age and would easily have to show ID to get the senior rate at the movies or at Duane Reade on the first Tuesday of each month.  So, it’s not all that surprising, that a decade after her NYC debut as Luisa (yes, The Girl does have a name) she still could carry off playing the sweet 16-year-old when she filled in for Sarah Rice. In between, she played the daughter of Joan Bennett or Hans Conreid in various venues.

As the 1960s ended, she originated off-Broadway leads in the shows Rondelay and How to Steal an Election (before the days of dimpled chads and Bush and Trump trumping the popular vote).  Later decades brought the angst of David Merrick with the ill-fated The Baker’s Wife whose yeast never rose and whose bread was cast off when thrown overboard, like a certain castoff from the cast named Demas.  (The famously troubled show with a great Stephen Schwartz score never did get to Broadway.) But, of course, there was the high point of creating Sandy on Broadway in Grease, a show she still has connections to, being invited to reprise moments recently at Feinstein’s/54 Below.  But, among all the many high and lows, Schmidt and Jones stand out: she got to work with them again as they created Philemon.  

Carole, who has played roles in four Schmidt/Jones shows, described the process of creating Thank You For Your Love as “an intense, respectful and very loving collaboration” with the performers themselves, the musicians—harpist Maria Banks and musical director/pianist/male vocalist Joe Goodrich and veteran director Charles Repole, along with producer/sound designer Stuart J. Allyn (he joined us at the diner; he also joined Carole in marriage and other adventures). While our waiter patiently brought eggs and toast (French and rye) and beverages (juice and tea, no rye), bringing to the table in the back any desired items while my interviewees explained what they’d metaphorically brought to the table,  Carole commented, “Sarah and I conceived it and started having meetings with Stuart once we had a shape of things to move forward with. Then Sarah, Stuart, Joe, Charley and I all had so much to bring.  Maria is not only a truly fine harpist, and consummate professional, but a generous and positive  presence which was another plus.  Our rehearsals were full of creative ideas, energy, focus on details, some disagreements that were always worked through successfully and to the good.  All of that takes a lot of time and care, as you know.”  With the two singers, it’s a case of mutual admiration society, to quote the title of a song introduced by another musical theatre star, Ethel Merman.  

About working director Charles Repole, Carole added, “He is brilliant and deeply thoughtful.  He has enormous talent and experience.  He understands actors.  He understands material.  He is creative with even the small details.  He can feel the potential arc of your show and help you arrange it.  He has a great sense of humor and a passion for the theater.  He inspires such trust that you listen and make the changes he feels are important, even if you are already married to certain things he isn’t sure will work the way you planned them.”

And one more thought from the ever-thoughtful (in both senses of the word) Miss Demas: “The sense of purpose that Sarah and I have felt about it from the beginning has forced us to be very transparent and brought up a lot of memories and emotional stuff for both of us.  We both felt we had so much at stake, wanting to do right by our individual and combined goals to create something worthy of Tom and Harvey—- our feelings for them, the rumbling of this idea in our hearts for so long and our deep respect for their work.  The intimacy and trust in this project have been deeply satisfying and energizing.”  

For those of us in the audience, so is the show!!