David Letterman has called Nathan Lane "the czar of Broadway." But I like to kid him—we've been acquaintances for 30 years now—by referring to his role in the modern theater as our neo-Ethel Merman. Just as the Merman of yore could yoke a musical to her own singularly tireless shoulders for over two hours, Lane has yoked a few to his own and lugged them to successful runs.
He, like Merman, is the consummate pro. And, yet, like Merman, the brashness of his onstage talent is tempered by an offstage vulnerability, a vulnerability he has displayed in his non-musical roles, among them the title one in Butley and in several of his good friend Terrence McNally's plays, including Love! Valour! Compassion! and The Lisbon Traviata. His next dramatic role is a future production of The Iceman Cometh in Chicago, in which he'll play Hickey opposite Brian Dennehy as Larry Slade to be directed by Robert Falls.
“We’ve done the best we could... I think this might be my farewell to the musical theater.”
But the two-time Tony Award winner—for his now legendary portrayal of Max Bialystock in the musical of The Producers and as Pseudolus in a revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum—opened last night in his most recent role as Gomez Addams in the musical of The Addams Family, co-starring, among others, Bebe Neuwirth as Morticia Addams. The out-of-town tryout in Chicago was met with mixed reviews and much gossip along the Rialto back here in New York about strife within the creative team as well as the cast itself. Jerry Zaks was brought in as the show's carefully billed "creative consultant" to tighten its Borscht Belt aspects when the flights of fancy of its initial duo of directors and designers, the Brits Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, proved to be a bit too fancy and flighty for American tastes.
I met Lane yesterday for a late lunch a few hours before his opening night.
So are your shoulders tired? You're carrying this musical on them, as usual.
Yeah, I sometimes feel like Red Buttons in They Shoot Horses Don't They? Just call me Mother Courage. No, no, no. Look, it's more than just me. The whole cast is phenomenal. But I will admit it has been one of the most difficult and strangest journeys with a musical I've ever had. Jerry coming in was the best thing that happened to the show. It was necessary. We did a tremendous amount of work from the time we got back here till the beginning of previews. We did the work to try to tell the story better… Not everything turns out to be The Producers on the first preview. Most of the early negativity stems from the New York Post and its theater columnist Michael Riedel. He had nothing else to write about so we became his piñata for the season.
He fashions himself a kind of modern day Addison DeWitt.
Well, he's not as witty as Addison DeWitt. I think it's mainly theater people who read him. I don't know what to say about all that except that everything that is written in the New York Post is not true. I guess he and others were expecting the Sondheim/Tony Kushner Addams Family musical as directed by Peter Brook. It was always meant to be an entertainment. We are not trying to change the face of musical theater. I feel what we've finally come up with is extremely entertaining and funny and charming and surprisingly touching when you least expect it. I don't know what else you could want. It seems to be doing its job. People are certainly enjoying themselves. People are coming. Even Michelle Obama and her daughters were there the other night. Oh, honestly, I don't care anymore. Honestly, I don't give a fuck. We've done the best we could... [laughing] I think this might be my farewell to the musical theater.
You're joking I hope.
You are a gentleman at the end of each performance and give Bebe Neuwirth the final curtain call. This is especially noteworthy after all the gossip about you two not getting along and about how unhappy she is in the production.
That's, again, something Riedel decided to run with. I do think that early on she was concerned about her character and wanting things to be better. She's certainly not unhappy. I'd wager this is one of the happier experiences of her career. Look, she recently got married to a wonderful guy and she has the lead in a new musical. I think she loves the cast and is an extremely hard worker. All of that was just blown out of proportion. No, she and I get along fine. She's a total pro.
When you had the bit part as a police desk sergeant in the film Addams Family Values, was it your dream one day to play Gomez?
No, I can't say that it was. Raul Julia, who played Gomez in the movie, was just the sweetest guy and so talented. We were waiting for Angelica Huston, who was playing Morticia, to come out of her trailer. There was some issue she had that dared not be discussed and she was refusing to come to the set. There was a very long wait for Miss Huston. Finally, after several hours, she deigned to arrive. Raul said to her, "Do you know Nathan Lane?" Through lowered lids, she said, "No, I do not." More out of anger than anything else that she had kept everyone waiting, he yelled at her, "Did you not see Dee Leezban Traviata?" And she said, through even lower lids, "I'm afraid not." He yelled at her even louder, "Well, he was breeliant!!!" Anyway, that's all I remember from my one day of shooting Addams Family Values.
[Letterman] said, “You’re so much better at what you do than I am at what I do.’ And I thought, why did you have to leave me with that?
Your first big break on Broadway was in a revival of Noel Coward's Present Laughter at Circle in the Square, in which you played Roland Maule opposite George C. Scott's Garry Essendine. Was he a mentor of yours? One doesn't expect to see Nathan Lane and George C. Scott in the same sentence much less the same play.
Actually, he was a mentor of sorts. He was incredibly supportive. He took a real liking to me. He loved me I guess, really. It was a great time. My Broadway debut. He was incredibly sweet to me. Then nine years later we did On Borrowed Time by Paul Osbourne back at Circle in the Square.
Did he play the grandfather or Mr. Death?
He played the grandfather. I played Death—otherwise known in the play as Mr. Brink. I got a call from Ted Mann, who ran Circle in the Square, saying George wanted me to do this play with him and I thought, wow, what a hokey old piece of theater this is. I said, "Why doesn't he want to do King Lear and I can play his fool?" Ted told me to call him and tell him that I didn't want to do it, but that George would not be happy about it. He gave me the number but he said, "Don't worry. He never picks up the phone. You can leave a message on his machine." So, of course, it rang one time and then I heard that voice of his. "Hellooooh." I said, "Hello, George, it's Nathan." And he said, "Oh, hello, Peaches!" And then he told me he really wanted me to do this play.
Wait a minute. Back up. George C. Scott called you Peaches?
If he liked someone, he called them Peaches, yeah. So anyway, I went through the whole thing and told him I didn't think I was right for the part. I even said that in the Lionel Barrymore movie of the play, the part of Mr. Death was even played by Cedric Hardwicke. So George said, "When I die I don't want Cedric fucking Hardwicke to take me. I want you." So I said OK. And it became a sort of bookend to my first experience with him. It was a bad time for him. When we started rehearsing his wife Colleen Dewhurst had just died. And he was drinking a lot. He would drink in the morning and all through the day. Then sleep in the afternoon to sober up for the night's performance. So there were some difficult performances during that run. He loved Gallagher's Steak House. So we'd all go there and try to get him to eat something and he'd end up just having vodka. He had this big white limo that would carry him around. One night after a vodka dinner at Gallagher's I walked him out to the white limo and he turned to me and said, "I know you didn't want to do this play and you only did it for me. I'll always love you for that." And then he fell into the back seat of the limo.
You are so good, Nathan, when you guest on David Letterman. Would you ever consider hosting a talk show?
Are you suggesting I should replace Regis? No, I don't think so. That's a hard job.
You and Letterman are so funny together but, like George C. Scott, one wouldn't think of the two of you as simpatico.
Oh, no. He and I are more similar than you think.
You're both kindhearted curmudgeons?
I think he and I just understand each other. You know, he had never seen me on the stage. And after all these years of my appearing on his show, for some reason he wanted to see me in that Mamet play I did, November. Of course the night he was there it was a very quiet house. It's a big deal for him to go out. He never goes out. So afterward he came backstage to see me. So he walked into my dressing room and I said, "My God. This is like running into Garbo at the supermarket." He was very, very sweet. He's not like someone you can say, "Well, should we go out and have a drink?" So we just sat in my dressing room for 20 minutes or so and talked. He couldn't have been more gracious and kind. We finally ran out of conversation and he said to me, "Well, I guess you want to rinse out a few things." And then he turned to go, but then turned back to me and said—and this is so typical of him—he said, "You're so much better at what you do than I am at what I do." And I thought, why did you have to leave me with that? Why can't we both be great at what we do?
You both are weathermen at heart. That's how Letterman got his start. That's the connection. You each have the soul of the meekest of meteorologists.
And it's always cloudy with a chance of rain.
Kevin Sessums is the author of the New York Times bestseller Mississippi Sissy, a memoir of his childhood. He was executive editor of Andy Warhol's Interview magazine and a contributing editor of Vanity Fair and Allure. He is a contributing editor of Parade. His new memoir, I Left It on Mountain , will be published by St. Martins Press.