How to succeed in show business? First and foremost, a performer better be prepared for the gypsy life. It comes with the territory, even for the most successful entertainers.
Just ask Kathy Fitzgerald, the first lady of Valley stages in the 1980s and early ’90s. She’s enjoyed an incredible 30-year run on stage, film and TV.
But with all her success, Fitzgerald’s family is bicoastal while she’s in Phoenix rehearsing for “Gypsy.” Her 12-year-old daughter Hope is back home in New York going to school while husband Roger is in Los Angeles teaching drama.
Knowing life on the road first-hand comes in handy as Fitzgerald steps into the well-worn shoes of Mama Rose, the most monstrous stage mom ever to command the stage. It’s Fitzgerald’s first time taking on the most demanding female role in musical theater.
Why did she say “yes” to the exhausting role when Phoenix Theatre’s artistic director Michael Barnard came a-calling last summer?
“Mama Rose is iconic. She’s like King Lear for women in musical theater. There comes a time when you just know you have to take on Mama Rose,” says Fitzgerald.
Being compared to iconic performances adds to the challenge of playing the slave-driving mom of burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee and actress June Havoc. Ethel Merman originated the role on Broadway, a triumph repeated on the Great White Way by Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly and most recently, Patti Lupone. Rosalind Russell gave Mama her defining screen presence in the 1962 film. Bette Midler tried Mama’s tyrannical personality on for size in the 1993 TV adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s 1959 landmark musical.
The above actresses put their own stamp on Mama Rose, who from all reports browbeat her daughters into acting on touring “family” shows in Depression-era America. But Fitzgerald says no actress has “gone as dark” as the real Mama is depicted in her daughters’ tell-all biographies.
Says Fitzgerald: “In the books, Mama is so dark and complex I had to quit reading them. I would never do to my kids what she did to hers. As far as I’m concerned the person in the books is not even the same person in the musical. They had to sweeten her up for the stage.”
Part of that sweetening is in the form of candy salesman Herbie, Mama’s long-suffering beau who suffers even more as her fourth husband.
In a change from his bigger-than-life roles at Childsplay, D. Scott Withers portrays an ever-patient suitor who ultimately fails to truly warm Mama’s cold heart. Mama is dead set on making her kids into stars a la Shirley Temple and no man – or marriage – is going to stop her.
“Gypsy” is Withers’ first time working with Fitzgerald. And he’s ecstatic over his good fortune. He remembers first setting eyes on his co-star in Actors Lab’s “Six Women with Brain Death,” one of the longest-running and most successful musicals in Arizona history. That was over two decades ago.
“The minute Kathy came on stage, I thought, ‘Wow! Who in the heck is that?!’ She’s just terrific. And now all these years later I’m finally on stage with her.”
Impresario Ron Newcomer had the same “bug-eyed” reaction when he first saw Fitzgerald on stage. It was 1986. She was auditioning for Ado Annie in “Oklahoma!” The long-time Tempean and founder of the long-gone Musical Theatre of Arizona remembers it like it was yesterday.
“First, you have to realize that producers and directors see hundreds even thousands of auditions. Every once in a great while someone walks out and just knocks you over with their charisma. That was Kathy. Audiences just loved her. I wasn’t at all surprised when she went off to New York and did very well there.”
Actually, it was Fitzgerald who was surprised she moved to New York. She had quite the career here, working non-stop for MTA, Actors Lab, Actors Theatre, Arizona Theatre Company, Southwest Shakespeare Company and even getting voice work. What’s more, she’d bought a house in Scottsdale.
Despite all the “buzz” about her locally, Fitzgerald hadn’t set her eyes on Broadway.
Then fate intervened, as Fitzgerald puts it. She was starring in Actors Theatre’s 1993 production of the one-woman show “Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.” Unknown to her, there were New York producers in the Herberger audience checking her out.
After all, she was the first actress other than Lily Tomlin to take on that heady, heavy Tony-winning show. Not just any actress could do “Search for Signs” and do it well.
“The next thing I knew I was on my way to New York,” says Fitzgerald.
She made her Broadway debut Oct. 22, 1995, in Johnny Burke’s “Swinging on a Star.” Although the musical revue got lukewarm reviews, Fitzgerald got enough raves during the show’s four-month run that the phone started ringing – every actors’ dream.
Fitzgerald said “yes” to Broadway long runs such as “Damn Yankees,” “9 to 5” and “The Producers.” In the latter Broadway sensation, she stole scenes for six years as Shirley Markowitz, the buzz-cut butch lighting designer, a role she reprised in the 2005 film.
Prior to “Gypsy” rehearsals, Fitzgerald finished an 18-month Broadway stint as Madame Morrible in “Wicked.”
Fitzgerald will be far from home for two months. And while reflecting on her time away from loved ones, she says something that makes you really believe she’s nothing like the monster mom stirring up a storm on Phoenix Theatre’s stage.
How so? Well, when asked to name a couple of her best loved productions, Fitzgerald responds lickety-split: “That’s easy. My daughter and my happy marriage to Roger.”