Two summers ago at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, Lea DeLaria became the literal reincarnation of brassy New York cabbie-on-the-prowl Hildy Esterhazy in the New York Shakespeare Festival's production of the Leonard Bernstein/Betty Comden/Adolph Green classic, On The Town.
DeLaria, who until then had been best known for her irreverent stand-up comedy, stopped the show nightly. The critics loved her, and her press inevitably led to predictions of stardom. She won Obie, Theatre World and Drama Desk awards. And now, with the show opening on Broadway at the Gershwin Theatre November 19, can a Tony nod be far behind?
"Don't say that!" DeLaria pleads. "But I'm knocking on every piece of wood I can find! I'm a rustic sort of lesbian, so I have lots of wood."
Was she prepared for the response?
"Not just no!" roars Lea. "Hell, no! I dreamed of this all my life, and when it happens, I'll keep pinching myself waiting for the other shoe to drop. After our opening [in Central Park], I started to read the Times review and couldn't. The opening paragraph was about me. My manager began reading. The second paragraph was about me, and I fell to the gutter. When the third paragraph was about me, I began weeping. When the fourth paragraph was still about me, my manager started crying!
"I knew audiences would like me," she continued. "I mean, I knew I was funny, that I could act and sing and that people like watching me do those things. But I felt like I'd been anointed Saint of Broadway! Who thinks that's going to happen? I'll always remember that moment. It's once in a lifetime. Now, every time I turn around, it's another huge dream coming true." DeLaria has been enamored of musical comedy since childhood. "I was this six-year-old weirdo theatre person in the Midwest [Illinois], where the thought bubble over most everyone's head had a pick-up truck or a motorcycle in it! As a teen, while everyone drove around in their trucks, drinking beer and throwing the cans in back, I was in the basement tap- dancing on plywood and singing, 'Broadway rhythm's got me!' I could hit a high C. I still can. Only now, it depends on what key you're in. It's a high C in the key of Lauren Bacall, but not in the key of Bernadette Peters!"
Naturally, Merman was an inspiration. "Totally!" DeLaria agrees exuberantly. "When I started doing school musicals, Mom said I should write Ethel and send a tape of me singing. Since she didn't have a daughter, maybe, she'd adopt me! Garland and Ella Fitzgerald were my idols, too."
In college, DeLaria majored in drama and even wrote plays. But as much as she loved theatre, at 19, the tiny dynamo ("five foot one-and-a-half inches") went in another direction: stand-up comedy. Her initial base was in the lesbian and gay cabaret circuit, but thanks to talk-show appearances, she soon reached broader appeal, eventually having specials, videos and CDs.
The roots of her stand-up, she says, came from being the class clown in Catholic school, taught by nuns. "They've seen me on TV," she laughs uproariously. "They know how I turned out and are still doing novenas around that!"
As doors opened, DeLaria attempted to get into film, "but I just couldn't get the roles." When she did Li'l Abner for City Center's Encores! series this year, she discussed that problem with co-star Dana Ivey, who told DeLaria, "You were always right for those roles, but you had to grow into them. Maybe you weren't old enough or mature enough -- maybe not tall enough. Or someone felt you didn't have experience. Now you're gonna work!"
For a long time, says DeLaria, she felt she wasn't straight enough. "That was Hollywood!" she observed. "In theatre, they don't give a hoot! Talent always wins out."
After her impact in On The Town, movie offers came. "But," notes DeLaria, "no way was I going to turn down making my Broadway debut." While she waited, Encores! called. "They wanted me for Marryin' Sam, and I said, 'All right, but you're aware I'm a woman!'" DeLaria didn't disappoint in the showstopper department. At the end of "Jubilation T. Cornpone," the applause was deafening. "I thought City Center was falling in," she says. "I wish I could describe what ran through me. Suffice to say, it was dreams come true stuff."
But it had also happened in Central Park's On The Town. "That's what I kept hearing. But I had a quick change after 'I Can Cook, Too.' Blackout and I was gone! I could hear the ovation, but I wasn't out there." For DeLaria, On the Town's a pleasure. "I'm onstage with people I've paid to see in shows. The best part is my sailor, Jesse Tyler Ferguson. He's just out of college, and this is his first show. Some people find me a bit intimidating. Not this guy! He stepped up and, as they say on the Ricki Lake Show, tore the roof off the mother! He knows how to set it up for me to be funny, stand back and let me be funny, and exactly when it's his turn."
What's been most unbelievable? "In a magazine poll, I made the same list as George Gershwin! Can you believe that? The biggest thing is I've achieved this moment and haven't had to spend one second in the closet. I couldn't be more excited if I had a date with Sigourney Weaver!"