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THEATER

If they could see me now...

To win the starring role in 'Sweet Charity,' Christina Applegate had to convince others -- and herself -- that she could sing

NEW YORK -- There would be no special treatment for Christina Applegate. If she wanted to star in the Broadway revival of ''Sweet Charity," the actress best known for her role as television teen vamp Kelly Bundy would have to prove she could sing and dance. She would have to audition.

Applegate wanted the part. She had always loved Bob Fosse, who choreographed the musical's 1966 debut and three years later directed Shirley MacLaine in the movie.

So she spent weeks preparing with a voice coach--she had never sung in public--and her dance teacher. For the tryout, she flew to New York with her mother, actress Nancy Priddy. Yet in her hotel room that morning, Applegate realized she was shaking as she worked on her hair.

It didn't get any easier when she arrived at the audition to perform for a lineup of Broadway royalty that included playwright Neil Simon, composer Cy Coleman, and director Walter Bobbie. As soon as she reached the floor, she could hear the voice of another aspiring Charity.

''I stepped back in the elevator and pressed 'down,' " Applegate recalls. ''I literally walked out into the street and said, 'What am I doing here?' The girl is such a good singer. I'm crap.

''And then that little voice that always keeps me going said, 'You have to do it. Whether you fail or succeed, it doesn't matter. You wanted to do this your whole life. So you're here. You've got your heels on. You've stretched. Go do it.' So I went back up."

That mix of pluck and vulnerability, world-weariness and wide-eyed optimism, has made Charity Hope Valentine special, even in the Federico Fellini film ''Nights of Cabiria," from which the character, a dance-hall hostess looking for love, was derived.

It's a spirit exemplified in the ''Sweet Charity" movie by MacLaine's showstopping performance of ''If My Friends Could See Me Now."

''They'd never believe it," the lyric goes--a lyric that now belongs to Applegate as the show continues its pre-Broadway run with a 10-day engagement starting Friday at the Colonial Theatre.

In hiring Applegate, producers Barry and Fran Weissler knew the 33-year-old actress could provide the pop cultural cachet to get a revival off the ground. A decade as Kelly Bundy on TV's ''Married . . . With Children" and her recent film role in ''Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy" has left her famous, with websites detailing her religious preference and bra size and even offering an ongoing, second-by-second countdown to her birthday, Nov. 25.

Her stage career, though, has been limited to guest spots with the West Hollywood burlesque act, the Pussycat Dolls, whose roster has also included Christina Aguilera and Gwen Stefani. The Dolls did ''Big Spender," a ''Sweet Charity" signature tune, but with Carmen Electra taking the lead.

Though Applegate graced the cover of Maxim as a Doll, her dancing skills went largely unnoticed.

Director Bobbie compared her with Bebe Neuwirth, who became famous on ''Cheers" but won a Tony in ''Chicago" four years after the sitcom went off the air.

''Most people thought Bebe Neuwirth was that woman in a gray suit sitting on the end of a bar with no sense of humor," he said. ''When she got out there and danced, it was a revelation. And that's what happened with Christina."

Applegate had tried out for the film of ''Chicago" but decided not to audition for the long-running stage version because, if she did Broadway, she wanted to originate a production. ''Charity" was hard to resist. A self-described Fosse fanatic, Applegate has seen the film several times. She loves Coleman's jazzy score, and Simon's script.

Tony Lipp, one of Applegate's agents at Creative Artists Agency, also encouraged her, even if the gig put her film career, thriving thanks to ''Anchorman," on hold for more than a year.

''When you look at roles that women get to play these days, there is a limited quantity of great, juicy parts," says Lipp. ''This opportunity made sense. She carries the entire show."

For Applegate, Charity is more than another role.

''She's so hopeful and trusting and loving and giving all of herself to every moment," the actress says. ''She's the most heartbreaking character I've ever played."

It's a part made famous by Gwen Verdon and MacLaine in the 1960s, and revived by Debbie Allen in 1986. But the Weisslers struggled as they cast the revival. A succession of name actresses--Jenna Elfman, Marisa Tomei, and Jane Krakowski--signed on to star before, one by one, dropping out.

''I'm glad they didn't handpick someone for this," says Applegate. ''Someone better prove that they can do it because this is a hard, hard role. I don't even know if I can do it yet."

On this day, in an almost empty room in a Times Square office building, the star is in her working duds.

That means no makeup. The skimpy, red tank-top worn for a morning press schmooze to introduce the revival has been replaced by a baggy sweatshirt. Picking at a vegetable tray, Applegate looks more like a sorority girl cramming for finals than the seductress in ''Anchorman."

''Is this OK?" Applegate asks politely before plopping on the floor. ''My back is killing me."

Putting together the Broadway revival of a show firmly set in the pre-feminist 1960s hasn't been easy, she concedes.

Behind the scenes, Simon and Bobbie have argued over the direction of the production. It reached a point where Simon decided not to come to rehearsals, instead sending his wife, Elaine Joyce, to keep watch. Composer Coleman also got involved. Before his death in November, he ran Applegate through many of the show's numbers.

''He was rough with her," says Priddy by phone from California. ''He kept making her do it over and over again, and kept making changes. She wasn't really used to being pushed that hard. She came away from that and said, 'Oh, they hate me, I don't want to do it.' "

But Applegate persevered. She brought her dog, a Chihuahua, and eight moving boxes from Los Angeles to New York, where the show was rehearsed. Her husband, actor Johnathon Schaech (''That Thing You Do!"), had to leave the country for a movie role. Alone, Applegate found herself in tears during those early run-throughs.

''I hurt my foot, I hurt my hip. I hurt my back. I hurt my neck. There were days when my body just shut down and I thought, 'This is literally an impossibility,' " she says. ''[Choreographer] Wayne [Cilento] said, 'It's not impossible, you can do it. You're going to get it and it's going to happen.' "

At least, she had danced for most of her life, stopping lessons only in the late '90s due to the time demands of her NBC sitcom ''Jesse," which ran from 1998 to 2000.

Singing presented a different challenge.

''It was pretty scary when she met the real dancers and singers she would be with," says Suzanne Kiechle, one of Applegate's voice teachers. ''She would sometimes say, 'I don't want to sing 'Sweet Charity' for a while.' So for two weeks, we sang 'I Don't Know How to Love Him' from 'Jesus Christ Superstar,' 'Cry Me a River,' and 'Out Here on My Own' from 'Fame.' She had some power. She had pitch. She just needed to develop the confidence."

That confidence will be tested during the next few weeks.

The early reviews -- from the show's opening runs in Minneapolis and Chicago -- have been mixed. The Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips called Applegate's performance ''sweet but tentative," and New York Post theater columnist Michael Riedel went so far as to bet Barry Weissler that he'll have to replace the actress before opening night April 4 at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre.

Weissler says he's not worried.

''The show is not in trouble," he said while ''Sweet Charity" was in Minneapolis. ''I need to fix the opening, and we need to have a new ending. But she has all the tools. There's a certain vulnerability to her as a person that shows up."

Applegate says she's also not concerned about what happens after ''Charity." While her LA home is rented and her film career is on hold, she's where she wants to be: headed for Broadway, playing this part.

''I can't look at what's going to happen as a result of this because I don't own that," she says. ''I only own what I'm experiencing, so therefore every day is my success.

''Every day I get that one step down, or hit that note I didn't hit the day before, or have an emotional moment in the scene or make someone laugh, that's it."

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com

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