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July 11, 2014

Bill Russell: From The Passion Play to the Drag Show

What would Jesus think?

Would he approve of Bill Russell?

After all, Russell got his theatrical start by appearing in a passion play that dutifully and sincerely honored Jesus’ name.

It apparently didn’t hold much sway over young Russell, who wound up writing PAGEANT -- a show that features drag queens.

Well, there IS a book called THE HUMOR OF JESUS, so maybe the famous Galilean would have laughed as hard as anyone else who sees the show that Russell wrote with Albert Evans and Frank Kelly.

If Jesus missed it during its 1991-92 year-plus-long run, well, it’s back in town, now in previews at the Davenport Theatre prior to a July 14 opening.

That’s 1,753 miles from The Black Hills Passion Play, in which Russell started annual appearances when he was five. “Well, where else could a kid go who was interested in theater but stuck in Spearfish, South Dakota? It was hardly a hotbed of theatrical activity. The Passion Play was the only game in town, and our parents let us do it because they thought it was a wholesome activity.”

Russell stops to smile at a memory wafting through his head. “Actually, we kids only appeared twice in the show -- at the beginning when Jesus made his Palm Sunday entrance and not again until the end at the crucifixion. If our folks only knew what we were doing with all the time in between,” he says before giving an extraordinarily mischievous smile.

Thus, by the time Russell had reached the second grade, he had two two full years of theatrical experience under his 22-inch belt. “I wrote and directed a production of CINDERELLA,” he says, “and while I know that a lot of kids do things like that, I talked teachers into letting kids out of class to see it. And they did.”

CINDERELLA, too, would not seem to be a logical stepping stone to a show in which young men impersonate young women. But let’s not forget that when Russell finally did come to New York in the late ‘60s he went to audition for HAIR with his eye on the Margaret Mead role.

“I went to an open call at Theatre 80 St. Marks,” he recalls. “I did ‘Tip Toe Through the Tulips with Me’ for Tom O’Horgan -- but I did NOT do it like Tiny Tim.”

Note to young ‘uns: Russell isn’t referring to Bob Cratchit’s son, but to an eccentric entertainer who enjoyed a brief vogue in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s; truth to tell, Tiny Tim’s falsetto rendition of the song revitalized the 1929 hit.

Says Russell, “What I did instead, though, is start off slowly tip-toeing and then speeding up making it faster and faster. I really did a good job of it.”

If you’re thinking Russell got the part, think again. “I was working for Music Theatre International at the time,” he says, “and when I got to work, I opened up the Times and I saw this article about the HAIR audition and read” – he says this very quickly to show that he still remembers every word lo these forty-plus years on – “‘a courteous thank-you from Mr. O’Horgan terminated some auditions like that of a young man doing a Greyhound imitation of Tiny Tim.’”

Russell shakes his head as if to clear it. “I was devastated, and not because I didn’t get the part. I mean, I hadn’t even got started in musical theater and ALREADY I’d been panned by the NEW YORK TIMES.”

Better times were to come – although Russell almost squandered the opportunity to work on PAGEANT.

“It started with Bobby Longbottom,” he says of the noted director. “After he and his friends had been touring in 42ND STREET for a couple of years, they were a little bored. So when they were in the middle of a Boston run, they decided to put on a show for the company. They whipped up ‘The Miss Bradford Hotel Beauty Pageant,’ because that was the name of the hotel where they were staying and sang songs like ‘I Enjoy Being a Girl.’”

The 42ND STREET company enjoyed seeing them as girls, and thought it was the best show they’d seen since PRETTY LADY. “So,” says Russell, “Bobby called, told me about it and said, ‘This is a musical.’ But I was reluctant, for I felt that pageants had been satirized to death.”

Still, Russell ran the idea by Evans and Kelly, with whom he’d collaborated on a TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE musical. Their enthusiasm convinced him to go ahead.

“We went to the Miss America Pageant for three consecutive years,” he says, “but only to the semi-finals, three nights before the finals. That’s the night they do swimsuits, talent and evening gowns. One year we met a beauty pageant enthusiast who had plenty of Miss America pageant tapes. We were fascinated as we watched them all.”

This homework immeasurably helped them to create their PAGEANT characters: Miss Bible Belt, Miss Deep South, Miss Great Plains, Miss Industrial Northeast, Miss Texas and Miss West Coast, all of whom vie to become the next Miss Glamouresse. She would win the honor of representing the hallowed (if fictional) cosmetics company.

Note that only Miss Texas represents a state while the other misses tout entire regions. “Oh,” says Russell, more than ready to explain, “Texas’ beauty pageants are even bigger than Miss America. They have about 70 contestants. One of the lines that our Miss Great Plains says came directly from one genuine Miss Texas contestant. She actually said – and I quote -- ‘I perform for shut-ins, cripples and people who are dying. Some of them haven’t been entertained for eight to ten years.’”

The original PAGEANT ran 58 weeks at the Blue Angel on 43rd Street, now home to a Japanese restaurant. Now there’s hope that the new production will do as well or better.

“And it would have done even better if we’d had an original cast album,” he says with regret. “That just never happened for us then, and we’re hoping that this new production will get us one. While the show does get done quite a bit through Samuel French, we know it would be produced more if we could record an album.”

Nevertheless, PAGEANT has been produced in London, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago, Stoneham (Massachusetts) and The University of Kansas, Russell’s alma mater, under his direction.

If there had been an album in 1991 and a new one now, Russell says there wouldn’t be very much difference between the two. “Surprisingly, the show hasn’t dated that much. To think that when we started writing it in the mid-‘80s I feared that pageants were passé. Since then, they’ve had quite a resurgence.”

Some references had to be updated, of course. “Miss West Coast used to be introduced as a graduate of EST,” he says, citing the so-called group awareness training program that started strong in 1971 and finished weak in 1991. “Now she’s said to have been ‘personally introduced to Scientology by Kirstie Alley.’ We also had to do a little updating for the judges, all of whom are chosen from the audience. Other than that, it’s surprisingly not much different.”

Good thing that he didn’t have to toil over PAGEANT, because Russell was required to do substantial work on another of his ‘90s musicals: the fondly remembered SIDE SHOW, currently receiving raves from critics and audiences at the Kennedy Center.

To those hundreds who keep asking him if Broadway is in that production’s future, Russell says, “Let’s just say that there is some interest in bringing it in.” But he says this with his hands flat out in front of him as if he’s pushing away the rumors and saying “Hold on. Nothing’s at all certain.”

While the new PAGEANT is providing many moments that will yield lasting memories, Russell doesn’t expect that any one will trump the incident that happened when the show had its first off-off-Broadway airing at Riverwest on Bank Street in 1986.

“I’d invited my father, who’s called ‘Cowboy’ – yes, as if it were his actual name,” he says. “Everyone who knows him calls him that. My step-mother came with him and I got them good seats right near the stage. Afterwards, my step-mom said, ‘Miss Texas was really funny.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, he doesn’t even like to win anymore, because he has so much more fun when he loses.’

“And my father said, ‘HE?!?!’ That was a man?!’”

Russell laughs wildly at the memory before continuing: “And my step-mother said, ‘Oh, Cowboy, they’re ALL men.’ Dad was shattered, because I think he was a little sweet on her.”

As the vision of the original Miss Texas pops back into Russell’s head, he says, “Well, that actor really did have great legs.”

         — Peter Filichia

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