Interview with HARVEY EVANS
July 25, 2012
BK: Hello, Harvey Evans and welcome to Kritzerland. As they say in SWEET CHARITY, so let me get right to the point: You’ve had an incredible, long career doing several iconic and groundbreaking shows and working with several geniuses of the musical theater. WEST SIDE STORY and Jerome Robbins, GYPSY with Jerome Robbins, HELLO, DOLLY! with Gower Champion, FOLLIES with Harold Prince and Michael Bennett, and you also worked with Bob Fosse on REDHEAD, which was your first Broadway show. How did you get your start?
HE: Hello Kritzerland. Right off, I think I've had a guardian angel on my shoulder, leading me to all those people and shows. Some I sought out, some just fell in my lap. My association with Bob Fosse goes back to 1955 and the national company of DAMN YANKEES. I was 17 when I came to New York from Cincinnati, and got that job as a dancer, touring for a year. That led to dancing for him in the PAJAMA GAME movie, and coming back to New York for NEW GIRL IN TOWN, which was actually my first show on Broadway. Then came replacing in WEST SIDE STORY, and then REDHEAD. One thing about those early years was that if a choreographer, director or producer liked your work, they would hire you again and again. Not so today. Way too many chefs, with no history to back them up.
BK: How was it going into WEST SIDE STORY as a replacement? Did you work directly with Robbins?
HE: Replacing is never easy; it seems you never get enough time, you're going cold into a family that’s already been formed, and all you want to do is please everyone. I find it stressful. I was not able to audition for WEST SIDE originally, but after I saw the run-thru, I became obsessed and had to be in it. My audition for the first Jet replacement consisted of an afternoon dancing with Jerry Robbins. I say with because he was working on N.Y. EXPORT: OPUS JAZZ, a ballet, and he used us to experiment steps on. Right off he made me relax, and I had one of the best afternoons of my life. I think one of the things a performer works toward all their life is freedom, and he gave me that, so you will never hear me badmouth him. As Chita says, “He made us better.” And I got WEST SIDE. His assistant, Howard Jeffrey, put me in the show and I got two weeks rehearsals instead of one. During the run, the Jets were booked on the Ed Sullivan show to do "COOL", and Jerry came in to work with us for a week. He brilliantly re-staged it for television, but I got injured the day before shooting, and had to be replaced. I also had my nose broken on stage during the rumble and still finished the show that night. Ah, youth. Fifty years later, I can remember most of the dances in WEST SIDE, but none from the last few shows I did. Good choreography tells a story, bad choreography is a series of back handsprings.
BK: And then you got to do the film of WEST SIDE STORY. Tell us a little bit about how all that happened and the experience of doing it.
HE: I was in GYPSY when we heard about the movie being cast, and those of us who had done the show were called in to screen test. Everyone said “Don't bother, Jerry will never take you out of GYPSY for the movie,” but he did. That’s that angel on my shoulder I mentioned earlier. We were contracted for two months, it took nine. It was a glorious job, Jerry behaved and only blew-up when you weren't doing your job. They kept referring to it as this little movie that might not be accepted by the mass movie audiences, and the camera didn't seem that big, but when we saw it, we were blown away, it was huge. We still keep in contact with each other, and have reunions every few years. Bobby Banas, one of the Jets had twelve of us write about our experiences doing the film and he got the book published. It's called OUR STORY, THEN AND NOW, JETS AND SHARKS and it’s available on line at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. It goes into great detail about everything, including Jerry Robbins getting fired. Buy it, it's juicy.
BK: Are you kidding? I bought it and loved it. I must tell you that I was obsessed with WEST SIDE STORY as a young teen – I wanted to dance like that and did all over the streets of Los Angeles. In fact, I eventually took dance lessons from David Winters – I was so inept he practically threw me out of the class. Fifteen years later he had to choreograph me on the Donny and Marie Show – I wasn’t any better. After WEST SIDE STORY you did another film that was a favorite of mine back then – in fact, I saw it about five months before it came out at a sneak preview at the Village Theater in Westwood. That film was Blake Edwards’ classic thriller, EXPERIMENT IN TERROR. How was it working with Mr. Edwards and the then debuting actress Stefanie Powers?
HE: I was at that same sneak and got depressed because I had such a small part and they cut one of my scenes with Stefanie. I'm glad you like it, so does the NEW YORK TIMES – they call it a forgotten gem. Blake Edwards was terrific and very funny, he let Taffy and I make up our own dialogue at the swimming pool. I say Taffy because at that point she was Taffy Paul and we had known each other before that. She was hired as a Jet girl for the WEST SIDE movie, but got let go, because she was too young and still in school. She is a terrific person, very bright and we see each other occasionally.
BK: I can’t believe we were at the same sneak preview! As they say in GYPSY, small world, isn’t it? So, let’s talk about Mr. Champion, who was so brilliant. You went into DOLLY as a Barnaby replacement. Again, did you work directly with Champion or were you put in by others? Clearly he liked you since he used you in his film BANK SHOT. Tell us about your DOLLY experience – which Dollys did you work with, and then tell us about doing Bank Shot.
HE: Yes, Gower was brilliant in a different way from Jerry. Jerry was heady, Gower was show business. He was another example of getting repeatedly hired. I first worked for him dancing in a movie called THE GIRL MOST LIKELY. Back then in Hollywood there was this thing called Central Casting, and you couldn't belong unless you got a movie, and you couldn't get a movie unless you belonged, a real Catch-22, and Gower championed me (pun intended) and got me into it. A few years later, he hired me for BYE, BYE BIRDIE, but at the last minute I got a call to go into GYPSY as Tulsa's understudy and took that and got to play it with the " Merm". If I had done BIRDIE, I think I would have been Harvey Johnson, but I wouldn't have been as good as Dean Stolber was, his voice cracks so brilliantly on the cast album. Then I worked for Gower as Barnaby in the first national tour of DOLLY with Carol Channing, and since it was a new company, he directed it himself. It seemed that everyone, men, women and dogs had a crush on him. He was gentle, but very strict. Then I did the movie for him called BANK SHOT. I only worked a few days, but it was a very relaxed set and I enjoyed it a lot. Doing this interview, there is a lot of “then I’s”, but that’s how it used to be. If we still had Gower, and Fosse and Bennett, think how good Broadway would be. And I might get a job. LOL. The Dolly's I worked with besides Channing were Eve Arden, Betty Grable and Bibi Osterwald, and all were wonderful to work with.
BK: You’re listed on the imdb as having also been in the film MARY POPPINS as one of the chimney sweep dancers. True? If so, how was it to work on that rather amazing film?
HE: In a low financial period in L.A., the angel on my shoulder had me run into Dee Dee Wood, a choreographer friend from New York, who said she needed acrobatic dancers for a movie she was doing with her husband and would I be interested? I said no, I only wanted to act, then she named some of the dancers, all idols of mine from the dance world, and the angel said, “Do it, I have a good feeling about this,” so I said yes. She said, “Be at Disney Studios Monday morning,” and she was off. I got home and thought, “Is this for real, she didn't even tell me the name of the movie.” But I showed up, and was told to go to the back lot, where a huge circus tent had been set up. Dancers and more dancers kept arriving, and I thought, “What is this, an audition, I thought I had the job?” Then Dee Dee and Marc and another man arrived, and I just stood there and thought, “Oh My God, that’s Walt Disney!” and we were welcomed. And that was my first clue that something good was up. Then we learned that this movie was from a favorite book of Walt's called MARY POPPINS, and it would be a huge number, hence so many dancers. As we started learning the number, we realized how elaborate and hard it was going to be, with lots of stunt work, but Marc and Dee Dee were such a joy to work for; we all rose to the occasion, with no complaints. It was incredibly hot rehearsing under the tent, so we all started wearing as little as possible, sort of like the Olympics gym team. Mr. Disney had a golf cart he would drive from his office to the tent, many times with visiting celebraties, including Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, to show us off, so we knew he was proud of the number. The director wanted to cut the number down, but Disney said absolutely not. That number and “Cool” remain the hardest dancing I've ever done. At the wrap party, we saw the film, and our mouths dropped, and if it weren't for that angel, I would have missed out on this.
BK: You also got to play Duane in the TV adaptation of APPLAUSE, where you got to play alongside Miss Lauren Bacall. Any stories about doing that and working with Miss Bacall? Hold nothing back.
HE: No comment!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Just kidding, she was fine with me. Lee Roy Reams, who was Duane on Broadway, and I have been pals since we were kids in Cincinnati, and I know Bacall loved him and she would compare anyone to him, but we got along fine. He had another gig, so he couldn't do the TV version. We rehearsed and filmed in London, and a month there on per-diem is not bad – however, the finished product didn't turn out too well, too much overacting.
BK: Before we move on to FOLLIES, you’d already done one Sondheim show – his most famous or infamous flop, ANYONE CAN WHISTLE. What a cast and what a wild ride that must have been. That show was really trying to push the boundaries of what musical theater could be – it was, perhaps, too ahead of its time. Tell us about that experience.
HE: Wild ride indeed! Who would have thought that after GYPSY, Arthur Laurents and Steve Sondheim would write a flop, and I paid my own way to New York to be in it. However I wouldn't trade the experience for ten CHORUS LINE’s. Out of town was the most intense thing I've ever experienced. Angela Lansbury almost got fired due to an artistic difference with Arthur, and what if she had gone back to California and given up Broadway? No Angela's Mame, no DEAR WORLD, no Mrs. Lovett; it's too depressing to think about. The show was a little ahead of its time, but dated very quickly. The cast was very devoted to the creators, especially Herb Ross, who choreographed some brilliant dances. The book and the score for shows are always saved, but the dances just die. I hate that. Thank God Goddard Lieberson insisted on recording it, so it lived.
BK: Okay, FOLLIES. Those of us who were lucky enough to see the original production (I saw it in LA) are simply unable to forget it. It’s etched indelibly in our minds. I still remember it as if I’d seen it yesterday. For me, it remains the greatest musical theater experience of my life. Everything about it was perfect, and yes, for me, that includes the book. It must have been incredible to work on a show as complex as FOLLIES – nothing quite like it had ever been done before. Tell us about your experience with FOLLIES.
HE: I think the reason those who saw it originally had their minds were blown was because the production team was working at the peak of their creativity. Boris Aronson's powerful set let us play the show on so many different levels – not like the last one, where you got confused about where people were supposed to be – Tharon Musser's lighting, and certainly Florence Klotz's magnificent costumes all worked together to enhance Hal's wonderful, detailed staging, Michael's brilliant choreography and Steve's score. You can't imagine what it was like to hear “I'm Still Here” for the first time. Having done some regional productions I know that if even one of these elements is lacking, the show won't work. It was near perfection originally, and hasn't been since. If you were not one of the leads, it was frustrating to perform, since you never got much stage time. But we all knew we were a part of something groundbreaking, and constantly defended it. Whatever was lacking in the original book, it was certainly better than all the new rewrites we have to sit through. Leave original books alone, PLEASE.
BK: How did Harold Prince and Michael Bennett split the director duties? Did they both talk to the actors? Did they delegate scenes?
HE: I remember Hal directing most of the book scenes, because Michael had so many numbers to do. The opening had not been as effective as they wanted, so the last day in Boston, a new prologue went in, and Michael told Hal, “I can't do any more, if this one doesn't work, get Ron Field.” Well, it worked brilliantly, and our morale, which had been low, soared to the sky. We knew that Hal and Michael had many disagreements about how to make the show better, but they were pros and didn't let us see them. Hal liked the book, and Michael wanted a rewrite. Bob Avian, Michael's right hand man said Michael was unhappy with the results, knowing how good his work was. Once in a lifetime.
BK: The recording of the cast album must have been fraught with tension – having to do four three-hour sessions in the usual day, and Capitol’s decision not to do a two-LP set, meaning that Dick Jones, the producer, and Sondheim had to figure out all the cuts in advance of the session. How was it that day?
HE: I'm fraught with tension at every recording session I've ever done, so it was normal for me, but no one was happy with the cuts. Bring back Goddard Lieberson or Tom Shepard. I remember that the recording studio was less than ideal, and one speaker was not working. Thank you Bruce for giving the recording the chance it deserves.
BK: It was amazing to go back to those original session tapes and do this remix, and I’m hoping everyone, including you, will be pleased with the results. You’re an incredible survivor, Harvey Evans, still working, still out there. It was so much fun to see you in the film ENCHANTED. How was that to work on?
HE: ENCHANTED was a joy, because I was working with old friends, and they treated us so well. Instead of calling us old, they called us “the gentle people.” John “Cha- Cha” O'Connell, the choreographer of MOULIN ROUGE and STRICTLY BALLROOM was fantastic with us, as was the director Kevin Lima. At our age, it was so nice to be appreciated. However, having worked for Disney in the 60’s and now, they sure have gotten skimpy with their money. Bring back Walt.
BK: And then you did the LA production of LEAP OF FAITH. Let’s talk about that experience for a minute. The show had been through, at the time, almost eight years of readings and workshops. It opened here, was much criticized, few changes were made during the run, and then they changed creative teams, did a revised workshop, went to Broadway, and still failed. First of all, is it hard to keep the spirits up when a show is not well reviewed? And second, was it better in the old days, when producers just had an idea for a show, hired people, and just did it, without all those years of readings and workshops?
HE: At this stage of my life, when I get a job I don't judge it, I just do it, it's so much more fun. And it stops the depression of knowing you are in a clinker. That cast was extraordinary and I had a great time. I'm sorry they were treated so badly, but yes, it was better in the old days. Nowadays, too many chefs, who don't know their theater.
BK: Harvey Evans, you are a delight and we all thank you for your years of wonderful performances and for doing this interview.
HE: My absolute pleasure.