Lunch With Rita Gardner Turns Out To Be “Much More” For Three Old Codgers

rita_b_w_sketch_full_iiAll of us have many heroes or people we look up to or just appreciate over the years. When you get a chance to meet one of those people, it’s like “every secret prayer, every fancy free”. When they turn out to be as nice as Rita Gardner, it’s “like your wildest dreams multiplied by two.”

Yes, those are lyrics from “They Were You” from, arguably the best musical ever written, “The Fantasticks.” And Rita Gardner started her long acting and singing career as the original Young Girl (Luisa) in that show which opened in 1960 and is still running in New York today. Recently three of her biggest fans met her for lunch- Dick Wobbe broadcaster on Classic 99 (still going strong on the web), Robert Boyd, college professor and former reviewer for “Talkin’ Broadway” and yours truly- also formerly of Classic 99 and now reviewing here on my blog, Stage Door St. Louis. At the end of our two-plus hour lunch, this personable and generous lady had us all mesmerized with her tales of a long and glorious career in show biz.

Dick Wobbe and yours truly flanking the great Rita Gardner during our all-too brief lunch.

Dick Wobbe and yours truly flanking the great Rita Gardner during our all-too brief lunch.

Ria Gardner has closed her run at the Studio Theatre of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in Amy Herzog’s “4000 Miles.” She was marvelous as the loving, wise-cracking grandmother to a young man who has bicycled from Seattle to her rent-controlled New York apartment. Although this gig at the Rep is over, her 50-plus years on stages around the world is not ending. She’s got some wonderful plans for the months (maybe years) ahead which she also shared with us.

But let’s start at the beginning- when she came into auditions for “The Fantasticks” looking- as she called it- like a hippie. Actually, hippies came a little later, but she told us she was all in black, bundled up (it was February) and a bit scraggly. Producer Lore Noto was a big fan already and, although director Word Baker had his eyes on another actress, Rita was finally chosen and joined with the now legendary Jerry Orbach, Kenneth Nelson (more about him later) and the rest of that memorable cast.

The original cast of "The Fantasticks."

The original cast of “The Fantasticks.”

No one could have guessed how successful this perfect little love story would be. Anyone who has seen it knows how magical it is and this was her springboard into this great career. Susan Watson had replaced her in “The Fantasticks” and, ironically, she replaced Susan in the Broadway production of the musical “Ben Franklin In Paris.” This show brought another legendary actor in her life- Robert Preston. “How sweet that man was,” she reminisced. “He had a lot of problems in his life at the time, but he was so kind to everyone. On my opening night, he sent flowers and a bottle of champagne to my dressing room.”

Broadway, off-Broadway, touring shows, regional theaters, film and television have filled her life along with her current one-woman show, “Try To Remember: A Look Back At Off-Broadway.” When booked, she uses the opportunity to combine her show with a master class in acting when appropriate. Major roles in “Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well and Living In Paris,” the musical version of “Wings,” “Side By Side By Sondheim,” “Steel Magnolias,” “The Gingerbread Lady,” and the national tour of “Kiss Of The Spider Woman” are just a few of her accomplishments. And, of course, she originated the role of the grandmother in “The Wedding Singer.” Although that character was pretty salty, she told us how they eventually had to cut one of her songs because it was so raunchy, they were truly afraid it would alienate the audience.

Roberta Peters and Rita Gardner "knock 'em dead" at a benefit for the O'Neill Theatre Center.

Roberta Peters and Rita Gardner “knock ’em dead” at a benefit for the O’Neill Theatre Center.

Her film career has included “Mr. Gibbs,” and “P.S. I Love You” among others and she’s been in several television series including the soap, “The Guiding Light” and every version of “Law & Order.” “However,” she mentioned, “I never got to do an episode when Jerry Orbach was with the show.”

But she and Mr. Orbach did reunite and have a successful stint in the 1963 revival of Marc Blitzstein’s classic 1930’s musical, “The Cradle Will Rock.” Playing the piano for this production was Leonard Bernstein. Mr. Bernstein knew Mr. Blitzstein and would stop singers in rehearsal to instruct them on how a particular song was to be interpreted. Ms. Gardner gushed about Leonard Bernstein saying “you couldn’t imagine how he played piano. It became a totally different instrument under his talented fingers. The man just gave off an aura of greatness. It was magical just being in his presence.” In fact, she and Jerry would look at each other occasionally at rehearsals and just say, “My God, it’s Leonard Bernstein!”

Rita and cast at the recording session for "The Wedding Singer."

Rita and cast at the recording session for “The Wedding Singer.”

One of the biggest thrills of her life came when a good friend, opera star Roberta Peters called her one day and said, “Rita, I’ve got a one-woman show scheduled for a benefit for the O’Neill Theatre Center in Waterbury, Connecticut and I can’t possibly perform for that length of time.” This was later in the great soprano’s career (she has since retired from singing). “You must join me. I’ll do some of my opera, you’ll do some of your songs and then we’ll find some things to do together.” Well, that turned out to be one of the most successful gigs of her career as people are still talking about that show and how it knocked the audience out of their seats.

Rita as Luisa in "The Fantasticks." This photo was on the end table of her New York apartment in the Rep's "4000 Miles."

Rita as Luisa in “The Fantasticks.” This photo was on the end table of her New York apartment in the Rep’s “4000 Miles.”

Not only is Rita Gardner a throw-back to a gentler, more respectable time, she also appreciates how lucky she is and stays in touch with friends and colleagues she has met over the years. She talked about how sad she is that Tom Jones’ wife is very ill. Mr. Jones, lyricist for “The Fantasticks” and many other successful musicals, is currently working on rewriting the 2005 musical based on the great Ruth Gordon (another old friend of Rita) film, “Harold and Maude.” Although that production (starring Estelle Parsons) didn’t work out, Tom and composer Joe Thalken are going to try it again and the York’s Jim Morgan would like Rita to play Maude this time around.

As for the other mastermind behind “The Fantasticks,” Harvey Schmidt, Rita said he has moved back to Texas with another old friend of hers, his wife Margie. Another dear friend, Jerry Herman stays in touch as well. He, of course, came in to try to rescue “Ben Franklin In Paris” when it was floundering at the box office (several other composers are rumored to have helped as well) and wrote “Too Charming” and “To Be Alone With You” for stars Robert Preston and Ulla Sallert. But he wrote several specialty pieces for Rita as well for her one-woman show.

Other projects on the horizon for Rita include a trip to Oregon to meet with composer Doug Katsaros (“Altar Boyz,” among others), lyricist Amanda Yesnowitz and book writer Ken Davenport to do a reading for a new musical adaptation of “Somewhere In Time.” Not busy enough? How about participating in a Pinter One-Act Festival. Harold Pinter is one of her favorite playwrights so she couldn’t pass this one up. And, of course, her one-woman show continues to flourish including her next gig in Boston later in February.

A recent publicity photo of Rita Gardner.

A recent publicity photo of Rita Gardner.

Bob Boyd broached an interesting question- who has ever given an unsolicited kindness to you? Although admitting there were many, she singled out Laura Benanti who steered her in the right direction when vacillating on an important career decision but  she then turned the question around and spoke about her co-star in “The Fantasticks,” Kenneth Nelson (who played Matt, the young boy). He was offered a part in a new play, “The Boys In The Band.” Society not being as liberal as they are today, he was afraid of being stereotyped by appearing in a play about the gay subculture at the time. Rita asked him, “Is it a good script?” Answering in the affirmative, Rita encouraged him to take it and, of course, it turned out to be a tremendous- if somewhat provocative- success.

Kindness and a good heart are rare commodities anywhere these days and you don’t normally associate either with actors. Rita Gardner proved to be “not evil, but (‘much more’ than) a little worldly wise” and charming as she chatted with us three admirers as if she’d known us all her life. The long lunch we enjoyed with her reminded me, if you’ll excuse one more “Fantasticks” indulgence, of a time when “life was slow and oh, so mellow.” Thank you Rita for being as sweet and breath-taking as I’ve imagined you all these years.

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A special thanks to the Repertory Theatre- Becky Hadley-Cutright, Lory Bowman and Steve Woolf for setting up our lunch and convincing Rita that we were three reputable (despite being critics and radio personnel) and respectable gentlemen.

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