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One Night with Fanny Brice

nytheatre.com q&a preview by Chip Deffaa
April 28, 2013

What is your job on this show?
Playwright.

What is your show about?
ONE NIGHT WITH FANNY BRICE is a one-woman show about the legendary entertainer Fanny Brice, featuring such signature songs of hers as Second-Hand Rose and My Man.

When did you know you wanted to work in the theater, and why?
When I was a little kid, watching "The Mickey Mouse Club" on TV, I wanted to be part of something like that. I told my parents, and I told a neighbor, who used to babysit me. He was Jack Gottlieb--Leonard Bernstein's right-hand man and intimate friend--and he became my lifelong friend. He told my parents that I was artistic and would enjoy dramatic school--he recommended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I started going to their classes for kids, and then began acting in plays, which I loved. I was also befriended by an old-time vaudevillian, Todd Fisher, who taught me songs and dances, and directed me in shows, told me stories about Gypsy Rose Lee and her momma (with whom he'd worked in his youth), and helped introduce me to the history of show business. I loved the whole world of the theater. I had other interests, too, of course; I was on the swim team, etc. But the theater held the greatest fascination. And once I began seeing Broadway shows, I was thoroughly hooked. Writing and directing plays is great fun. I do other writing, too, of course. I've had eight books published, dealing with subjects ranging from F. Scott Fitzgerald to jazz; and I've had six plays published. But the theater is the most fun.

What are some of your previous theater credits? (Be specific! Name shows, etc.)
I enjoyed writing/directing the Off-Broadway show "George M. Cohan Tonight." That was a labor of love--master showman Cohan had been a hero of mine since I saw "Yankee Doodle Dandy" on TV as a kid. I wrote the show, not knowing (or caring) if anyone besides me would be interested--and it's been done everywhere. Lots of cities in the US, as well as London, Edinburgh, Seoul. It's been fun, too, making cast albums--not just of that show, but of other shows of mine, like "The Seven Little Foys," "One Night with Fanny Brice," "The Johnny Mercer Jamboree," "Theater Boys..."

Is there a particular moment in this show that you really love or look forward to? Without giving away surprises, what happens in that moment and why does it jazz you?
One of my favorite moments in "One Night with Fanny Brice" is when the star--in this production, Mary Cantoni Johnson (portraying Fanny Brice)--sings "After You've Gone." This occurs right after Brice--who was then America's highest-paid singing comedienne--divorced her no-good spouse, Nicky Arnstein. He may have treated her badly, but she still loved him. The actress has a chance to bring a great deal of emotion to the song. Mary Cantoni Johnson is very much in touch with her emotions, and she pours her heart into this song. For me, the performance is very powerful and affecting. The song would not have the same impact if the performer were not so open to her feelings. But it's a good moment in the show, and Mary makes it count. I get chills watching her.

Groucho, Chico, Harpo, or Zeppo?
I love all of the Marx Brothers--they're so entertaining and wonderfully anarchic--but witty, ascerbic Groucho has always been my favorite. One of my few regrets is that I never managed to meet him. Other showbiz notables, from George Burns to Carol Channing, have told me I would have enjoyed him.

Who are your heroes?
George M. Cohan--known in his day as "The Man Who Owned Broadway"--has fascinated me since I saw James Cagney portray him in the film "Yankee Doodle Dandy" when I was nine. That's still my favorite film. (And I treasure the autograph Cagney gave me.) I wrote a 10-page report on Cohan for school, in third grade. It wasn't assigned--I just went ahead and wrote it. As an adult, I've written six different shows about him, and they've all gotten productions. (You can learn about them at www.ChipDeffaa.com.) Cohan wrote plays, he wrote songs, he directed, he acted, he produced. I liked his wllingness to do everything. He's been a good role model for me. My other boyhood hero, author-adventurer Richard Halliburton, has nurtured another side of me--the side that loves to hike, swim, explore, travel, have advetures. And Joseph Campbell, the expert on myths--the man who so famously advised "follow your bliss"--has been another hero of mine. It means a great deal to me that my next show, "Irving Berlin's America," will have its world premiere this year at the theater that Joseph Campbell and his wife, Jean Erdman, founded, the Open-Eye Theater (now run by Amie Brockway Henson). All of these people pursued their dreams. Anyone ardently pursuing his or her dreams can inspire me, be a kind of hero to me. I might see some ballet dancer or choreographer on their way up (a Jack Sprance or a Katherine Lamagdeleine, or a Ben Youngstone or a Samantha McCoy), and if they'r giving it their all, and performing honestly, and with hearet-wrenching passion and joy, and are adding beauty to the world... they're heroes to me. The actors I work with again and again (Jon Peterson, Beth Bartley, Jack Saleeby, Emily Bordonaro, Matt Nardozzi, Michael Townsend Wright)--because they're reliable as well as talented, good-hearted--are sort of like heroes to me.