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On Stage: the Bea Arthur you never knew

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"I didn't want to be an actress," says Bea Arthur, whose new cabaret act comes to the Park West Tuesday for a ten-day run. "I wanted to be a little starlet. June Allyson killed me--I thought she was the end. I wanted to be like her, very small and very blond. But there I was, this tall lady with large breasts and a deep voice."

So Arthur studied acting under Erwin Piscator, the leftist German director whose notions of "epic theater" influenced Bertolt Brecht. A refugee from Hitler's regime, Piscator had established his Dramatic Workshop at the New School for Social Research in New York. "We did repertory every weekend," Arthur says, "and he cast me as Lysistrata and Lady Macbeth and Clytemnestra. I looked cute in one of those togas, but I couldn't act worth, you'll pardon the expression, shit."

She learned by doing, working in a string of low-budget off-Broadway productions. A 1949 staging of Gertrude Stein's verse play Yes Is for a Very Young Man teamed her with a cast that included Kim Stanley, Anthony Franciosa, and her husband-to-be Gene Saks, who later directed her in Mame. She portrayed Queen Gertrude in an experimental Hamlet (the title role was played by Irish actress Siobhan McKenna) and a brothel keeper in Ulysses in Nighttown, Burgess Meredith's adaptation of Joyce's Ulysses starring Zero Mostel (with whom she later worked in Fiddler on the Roof). In Ben Bagley's satiric Shoestring Revue she appeared with fellow newcomer Chita Rivera; and when she starred in Shaw's Heartbreak House, a New York Times critic called her "an Amazonian siren who hides her perplexity about life under a cloak of devastating charm."

Most important was the 1954 staging of The Threepenny Opera, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's satire on crime and capitalism. That production of the 1928 musical launched the careers of John Astin, Charlotte Rae, Ed Asner, Jerry Orbach, and Arthur, who earned $45 a week and shared a dressing room with the show's leading lady, Weill's widow Lotte Lenya. The original-cast CD, reissued by Decca last year in honor of Weill's centenary, is highlighted by Arthur's razor-sharp rendition of "Barbara Song," a caustic torch tune about a woman who's fallen for the only man who didn't treat her like a lady. The tune was written for a soprano; Arthur sang it an octave down. Her skillful use of Sprechgesang--mixing speaking and singing to dissect the character's dramatic journey--rivals that of Lenya, a master of the style.

"She influenced me more than anyone, possibly with the exception of Sid Caesar," Arthur says of Lenya. "She told me, 'Never do anything unless you can't not do it.'" The dictum defines the precision that characterizes Arthur's work, whether spitting one-liners on Maude or bouncing through the comic showstopper "Bosom Buddies" in Mame.

In her cabaret show, ...And Then There's Bea, With Her Friend Billy Goldenberg at the Piano, Arthur says, "I throw in 'Bosom Buddies'--a very short version of it, just to get it over with." The Broadway-bound production combines anecdotes from her long career with a selection of her favorite songs--ranging from a Bob Dylan number to material by accompanist Goldenberg, whose musical Queen of the Stardust Ballroom was seen a couple of seasons back at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire. Though she doesn't sing "Barbara Song" ("I couldn't; it's not me anymore"), she performs Lenya's signature song from Threepenny: "Pirate Jenny," a ballad about a downtrodden wench who dreams of being a pirate queen and wreaking vengeance on the men who've misused her. With its shattering combination of rage, pathos, sexual heat, and bitter humor, "Pirate Jenny" will display a side of Bea Arthur that The Golden Girls never went near.

...And Then There's Bea runs May 22 through 31 at the Park West, 322 W. Armitage. Tickets are $30-$55; call 312-902-1500.

--Albert Williams

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Courtesy Weill-Lenya Research Center.

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