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Cinderella - Broadway

Rodgers and Hammerstein's take on the classic tale.

Tony-Winning Cinderella Star Harriet Harris on Her Favorite Comic Villains & Most Unforgettable Roles

Tony-Winning Cinderella Star Harriet Harris on Her Favorite Comic Villains & Most Unforgettable Roles
Harriet Harris
Harriet Harris reflects on playing Amanda Wingfield, Mrs. Meers, Madame & more.

When Harriet Harris declares, “I am a very shy, reserved person,” fans of her work might assume she’s kidding. In the three decades since this Tony-winning Texan graduated from Juilliard, she has made the most of every juicy role in classics, comedies and musicals, with a specialty in larger-than-life villains we can’t help rooting for. Currently “having a blast” as Madame, the evil stepmom in the Broadway premiere of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, Harris chatted with about six roles that demonstrate her fearlessness on stage and screen.

Role That Launched My Career
“One of my favorite jobs was my first: I toured for three years with the Acting Company [1977-80]. We would go around the country and then come back to New York for a brief season, and it was one of the best things I ever got to do. The first roles I played were Peasant Woman #1 and #2 in Mother Courage, so you can see that I was in it for the glory from the get-go! After that, I was a boy soldier in King Lear, then I had one line in a musical called Chapeau by Alfred Uhry and Robert Waldman. I got better parts the next year, and even better parts the year after that, and it helped me figure out what was good acting and what I might be able to do on the stage. [Touring] makes you game and ready to try anything.”

Role That Was My Big Break
Jeffrey [1992, in seven roles] was both tremendously fun and surprisingly important to the people who came to see it. It was produced off-Broadway at the same time as Angels in America, which was the serious play about AIDS; we were the safe sex comedy love story. It wasn’t either/or: The same people came to both plays because they tackled a big, important subject. [Gay men] would bring their parents to Jeffrey and then come out to them; it was a life-affirming celebration. I played all the women’s roles, including a sexaholic, a healer, Jeffrey’s mom, a socialite, Mother Teresa and a game show hostess. I am a mild-mannered person, and I was shocked at some of the things I had to say in Jeffrey. But I thought, You can’t worry about ‘What will my godmother think?’ Get with it! You’ve got to do this play.”

Role Was the Most Exciting
Thoroughly Modern Millie [2002, as actress-turned-white slave procurer Mrs. Meers; Best Featured Actress Tony Award] was an incredible, almost dreamlike experience. I had seen the movie before I met [librettist] Dick Scanlan, and when he told me what he was working on, I said, ‘Mrs. Meers is a great part.’ Then [Millie screenwriter] Richard Morris came to see Jeffrey and told Dick that he had found Mrs. Meers. Dick said, ‘Oh, she’s not right for it.’ But when Richard passed away, Dick decided to honor his memory by giving me a shot at the workshop. I came up with a lot of ideas, like the horrific accent, which I showed to my Chinese-American cohorts. They found it funny, and so incorrect that it was all right. At one point, after some [negative] feedback, it was suggested that I might have a Swedish accent. Who could be offended by that? But it was a little late—we had my costumes—and the whole thing passed. [Director] Michael Mayer cast a lot of people who hadn’t done musicals, so it was a brave show in many ways. The whole experience was sweet.”

Role That Was the Most Conniving
“I loved playing Bebe Glazer on Frasier [1993-2004]. She was his agent, and she would go to any extreme for him. Of course, there was always a back-end for her, too! My friend Joe Keenan, a wonderful comic writer, wrote a lot of my episodes. One time, I went out on a ledge during contract negotiations and Kelsey [Grammer] came out and saved me. Another time he was being made fun of because of a crane, and it’s possible I had the crane killed. There was also one where I had to stop smoking because I wanted to marry a gazillionaire, and Frasier sat with me while I went cold turkey. I went to school [at Juilliard] with Kelsey, and I adored playing Bebe with him. She was an evil genius.”

Role That Was the Most Meaningful
“The most important to me of all the roles I’ve done would have to be Amanda in The Glass Menagerie [2007], which Joe Dowling directed at the Guthrie. That’s the play that made me decide I wanted to be an actress. I read it when I was 13, and I just thought, ‘If you can do things like this with your life, it would be a life well lived.’ Amanda is somebody who could have had almost anything, but she made a fatal marriage, and she paid for that mistake—and not being able to move beyond it—every day. It poisoned not only her life but that of her children. Like a lot of dysfunctional families, [the Wingfields] drive each other crazy, but they really need each other. Amanda is an incredibly vital, entertaining and brilliant woman, and Joe’s production was really funny and sad. It was a dream come true.”

Role That Brought Me Back to Musicals
Cinderella [as Madame] has been a joy. I had seen [the 1965 TV version] once and never thought about it again, and yet when I listened to the music, I thought, ‘I know all of these songs, and I want to enjoy what’s coming next.’ The fun part of playing a ‘bad’ character is to suggest why the person is bad without saying ‘Please feel sorry for me.’ In Cinderella, you’ve got this really, really good girl, so you’ve got to have something to balance it. And given that there is also a fairy godmother, played gloriously by Vicki Clark, I get to be pretty bad! Every night, Vicki and I run into the wings and say, ‘Why don’t we get to do anything together?’ I have a fantasy that Vicki and I will do Mame, which would be so much fun. Everybody in Cinderella is marvelous, and I’m having a blast.”

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