In March 1983, Debbie Reynolds sat down with Playbill to discuss stepping into the starring role in the Tony-winning Kander & Ebb musical Woman of the Year—but much of the conversation centered on her daughter, Carrie Fisher, who had recently replaced Amanda Plummer in Agnes of God, also running on Broadway. On the anniversary of Reynolds' death, we look back at her excitement over Fisher's success, her winding journey to Woman of the Year, and her indefatigable optimism.
Now that Raquel Welch has left Woman of the Year, the part has passed along—with Einstein-like logic—to the ever-peppy Debbie Reynolds, who arrived in that title role last month almost by divine right. For one thing, The Los Angeles Times actually did name her Woman of the Year back in the ’60s for her gung-ho charity work. For another, she and the movie on which the musical is based are both proud and durable products of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, still twinkling ‘n’ shining long after Leo the Lion has been reduced to a low-voltage roar.
[Simultaneously] her daughter, Carrie Fisher, is appearing on the other side of Broadway, at the Music Box in Agnes of God, which, like her mom’s, is a Tony-winning role. “We’re following the best, in the best,” declares Debbie, the eternal cheerleader.
It’s hard to imagine two parts more diametrically opposed, but that’s the way they like it—and, together, they constitute the first working mother-daughter act on Broadway since 1979–1980 when Maureen O’Sullivan was in Mornings at Seven and Mia Farrow was in Romantic Comedy.
“The two of us on Broadway at the same time—it’s a whole new thought for me,” Debbie admits. “I’m just happy I lived long enough for it to come true. I think it’s fabulous to be in New York now when my daughter is an adult—not 15 and in the chorus of Irene, as she was before. That was such a bad year for me, anyway, that year I was here in Irene, because I was separating from my husband. He’d driven us into bankruptcy, and I was having all these meetings with lawyers and trying to pay back all this $2 million debt. It was so traumatic I don’t remember anything about the show other than the people I worked with. This time, I’m not going through a divorce and I’m not broke and I’m hoping I’ll get a chance finally to enjoy New York, which my daughter adores. She wouldn’t live any place else. I never felt that, so I’m looking forward to meeting New York for the first time. The last time was just work, work, pain, pain, meetings, meetings, lawyers, lawyers—it was too much.”
No doubt about it, having Carrie in a hit in another part of the Broadway forest doubles Debbie’s pleasure—but getting her daughter there practically made a wreck of Mother Reynolds. “I was terribly nervous because Carrie had been rushed into the part. She had only ten days to replace Amanda Plummer—which is impossible—but she had a very fine coach who was a real miracle worker, and she came through. She did just fine. I had to go home and take a Valium.”
She spent her daughter’s opening night hovering in the wings like a mother hen and then, as soon as the curtain came down, left her to the limelight, exiting by the backstage door so abruptly that some of the press speculated in print the next day that she was avoiding a collision with her ex, who was the Proud Papa in the audience that night. Nothing of the sort, says Debbie. “I just didn’t feel that Carrie’s moment should be diminished by an old scandal or by Eddie Fisher or Debbie Reynolds.”
The next days he returned to the theatre and tried to watch the performance as an actress, but she came away from it raving not unlike a parent. “I think she’s extraordinary. This is probably her biggest stretch, and it shows what a fine actress she is.
“I know I would never, ever, take on that role—certainly not in so short a time—so I admire her tremendously. It’s an exhausting part physically, mentally, emotionally, every way. I’d be worn to a frazzle trying to do that every night and two matinees. I love to sing and dance—that’s what makes me happy—and a dramatic actress, I suppose, is happy with the drama.”
That different-strokes-for-different-folks adage is particularly applicable to Debbie & Daughter. "It’s not generally known, but Carrie is a splendid singer. She doesn’t want to do that, you see; she wants to prove herself as an actress so she isn’t compared with me or Eddie. Except for the fact that we went in different directions—I went into musicals and she went the dramatic route—our careers are kinda comparable. When Carrie was 17, she did her first film, Shampoo, with Warren Beatty and followed that with Come Back, Little Sheba with Laurence Olivier on television; when I was 17, I got my first shot at M-G-M, miming Helen Kane’s ‘Boop-Boop-a-Doop’ number in Three Little Words, and that led to Two Weeks With Love where I sang ‘Aba Daba Honeymoon’ with Carelton Carpenter. Then, when we were both barely 18, Carrie did Star Wars and I did Singin’ in the Rain—two hugely successful cult classics.”
In her salad days at the studio, Debbie did her darndest to make M-G-M stand for Makes Greater Musicals; indeed, the critical consensus is that they didn’t come any greater than Singin’ in the Rain, a delightfully dizzy take-off on the early “talkie” traumas. At the time, though, it was Just Another Assignment—and a source of sheer terror for the then-unsurefooted Debbie: “I had never danced, and I had to dance with Donald O’Connor and Gene Kelly. To this day, I don’t know how I did it. I wasn’t ready. I was in tears every day. I’d usually be under the piano, crying, and Fred Astaire would come in from the rehearsal hall next door and pull me out and say, ‘Come watch me rehearse. It’s hard for everybody. It’s hard for me. I’m still working just as hard as I was when I was your age. But you’ll make it. You’ll be fine.’ He was an inspiration for me that way. What he and Gene did on the screen looked so easy, but it was really the result of hard work. They rehearsed forever. I still don’t know any other way to do it—just rehearse, rehearse, rehearse until you drop, and eventually you get better.
“The talent was there, I guess, as it is with so many young people just starting out. But talent isn’t enough. You also have to have the courage to act on it, and I think that’s something you’re born with. My father moved from Texas with no money, slept in the park for a year, to move us because we were really poor and he didn’t want us to live a life like that. He had the guts to come to Los Angeles and live like a bum to get us there. Then we were all still poor for a while, but slowly we started to do better in life. It’s courage. My mother had the courage. I had no clothes when I came into the movies—I had a skirt and a blouse—and she went to night school to learn how to draft patterns and make clothes.”
It will have been 35 years in June since Debbie made her movie entrance. She arrived as Miss Burbank of 1948, and two talent scouts covering that beauty contest—one from M-G-M and one from Warner Bros.’—tossed a con to see who’d take her to the studio first. Warners got the toss, and Debbie got a year’s contract at $65 a week—only, at the end of the year, all she had to show for it was one movie (The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady) and a new name (Jack L. Warner handled the rechristening himself). “He didn’t really like anything about my real name. He didn’t like Mary, he didn’t like Frances, he didn’t like Reynolds. He was going to name me Debbie Morgan because there was a Dennis Morgan, but I resisted and we finally compromised: I could stay Reynolds with the name Debbie. Of course, I didn’t answer to it for three years. I resented it. I liked Frances Reynolds. I could have grown up with that nicely, too—but then, if I had, there wouldn’t have been so many millions of Debbies in the world.”
That hassle over the Debbie-dubbing probably prompted Warner not to go back for seconds; her option was dropped. Debbie picked herself up, dusted herself off, and made a beeline for M-G-M, where she was signed for seven years at $300 a week. The rest is movie-musical history; Debbie pranced and strutted her way through scores of cinematic song-and-dance, and the beat goes on long after the fall of the Hollywood dream factories—via her much-traveled nightclub act.
“I’d like not to have to stop performing ever, but there’ll come a time when I won’t want to dance anymore—within the next five years, I’d say—but, of course, I say this every five years, and I’m still doing it. I said I wouldn’t dance after I was 35, and then when I got there, I said, ‘Oh, I’m feeling OK.’ Then I hit 40 and I said, “Now, that’s it! I’m not going to dance anymore. That’s when Gower Champion stopped,’ and then I thought, ‘But I feel good, why should I stop?’ Now I’m 50, and I don’t feel I have to stop. Chita Rivera laughs at me. She says, ‘Well, Debbie, why should you stop? I haven’t.’ She’s right, she’s right—and she’s still dancing as great as ever.”
For the record: Debbie’s favorite role is The Unsinkable Molly Brown. That got her into the Oscar running in 1964, and the game-plan was that a stage revival of it would get her back to Broadway in 1983. “It was all set. Harve Presnell was going to co-star with me again, Peter Gennaro was going to choreograph, Albert Marre was going to direct—we were all signed, sealed and delivered. Then troubled waters hit financially while I was in Australia on an eight-week tour. I got back in December, expecting to go right into rehearsals, and discovered instead the whole deal was off. I had turned down Woman of the Year to do it, too—so I phoned the Nederlander office myself to see if they had set anybody up for it and they hadn’t. I guess I slid right into first base.”
Not only did the unsinkable Debbie Reynolds make it to a life raft in time, she’s amazed to find the vehicle is a perfect fit: “It’s an M-G-M musical!” Smooth sailing, Debbie!