The incomparable Rachel York stars in 42nd Street
I still remember the first time I ever saw Rachel York on stage. It was the 1995 Broadway production of Victor/Victoria with Julie Andrews, and York’s performance as Norma Cassidy persists as one of the greatest musical comedy performances in modern Broadway history.
It’s no wonder, then, that York has been an almost constant presence on both the New York and national stages ever since. In addition to Broadway credits like City of Angels, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, York has spent a lot of time on the road headlining big national tours of Kiss Me, Kate; Camelot; and—most recently—Anything Goes.
Now, York returns to the Boston area for 42nd Street, her third appearance at Reagle Music Theatre. (Her last two turns at Reagle netted her IRNE Awards for both Into the Woods and Hello, Dolly!) “You know what I love about it,” York said, “I love that they’re able to have big, huge production values. So many productions are scaled down because of budgets. Reagle is able to have these big productions, which is very exciting. There are many great things about it, and I love working with the people here. They’re such sweet, dedicated, talented people. It’s always a joy.”
York plays Dorothy Brock, a temperamental past-her-prime diva that is cast in a new, big Broadway musical. The show is called Pretty Lady (and it’s being bankrolled by her sugar daddy), and Dorothy hopes that it will once again propel her to stardom. But on opening night, Dorothy falls and breaks her ankle. Her understudy, Peggy Sawyer, ultimately opens the show in her place and becomes an overnight sensation. 42nd Street, in all its cheesy, flashy glory, is the quintessential showbiz musical. “It reminds me of why I got into the business in the first place,” said York. “The glory of Broadway, sweating for your craft, and going through hell for your craft.”
But, it turns out, despite being a Broadway star, York has more in common with Peggy than Dorothy.
When she was 17, York was cast in a dinner theater production of Kiss Me, Kate. It had been her first professional audition, and it became her first professional job. A few days before the show opened, the actress who played Kate fell ill. Being that there were no understudies and that York was the only one who could really sing the role, she was plucked from the ensemble and had only two days to learn the show.
Still, I couldn’t help but ask York about what she had in common with her character, Dorothy Brock, half-hoping that it would result in some sort of stage door confession. “I’ve never been a prima donna,” York said. “I can honestly say that’s the opposite of my reputation in the business. Dorothy has her reasons, and so I always try to find the reasons why she’s acting like this—and there are reasons. In her mind this may be one of her last chances to really make it big. She feels that she’s earned it and has been around the block. It’s a broken ankle that makes her realize what she’s doing. She’s always let her addiction to theater and stardom keep her from her own bliss. We’re all people in the theater, and so even the prima donnas have an underbelly.”
Another big difference between York and Dorothy is their thirst for stardom. Aside from the fact that York is inarguably a Broadway diva and—also inarguably—one of the finest stage performers of her generation, it’s always been about the work for her. “When I started out in this business,” she said, “I never said to myself, ‘I want to be a star.’ I wanted to be an actor’s actor, and that’s kind of how it’s gone. I’ve stayed true to that goal. I didn’t want it to be about the ego. Studying to be an actress is really a study of human behavior; it’s a study of empathy. It’s not about the ego.”
But for all of York’s humility, as we chatted I kept thinking to myself, “This woman should already have a Tony. I hope she knows that.” And so, of course, I had to ask her about the circumstances surrounding the infamous, nearly categorical snub of Victor/Victoria at the 1996 Tony Awards.
In the months and weeks leading up to award season that year, the buzz around town was that Rachel York had the supporting actress Tony all sewn up. She was nominated for—and won—the Drama Desk Award that year, which is generally part of the momentum that catapults the top contenders right into the Tony race. But when the Tony nominations came out that year, Victor/Victoria received only one nomination: for Julie Andrews. It was a snub heard round the world. (Thankfully, the show was recorded and is available on DVD, so York’s performance lives on.)
“I worked very, very hard every night in that show,” York said. “There was a feeling. Everybody came to me and said, ‘You’re going to win the Tony for this.’ Almost every single night I heard that. It was a bit of a letdown. It was sad, and not just for me, but for so many people in the company. People who have seen it really enjoyed it. It’s remembered very fondly in Broadway history. But them’s the breaks. That’s the way it goes. You’ve got to move on.”
Julie Andrews, just a Tony Award away from her EGOT, found the snub so egregious (her word) that she declined her nomination for Best Actress—an award that most agree she would have handily won. In a dramatic post-curtain speech to the audience, Andrews made headlines for this gutsy move.
“It was really beautiful that she did that, actually,” said York. “She didn’t do it for herself; she did it for the company and for her love of the company. I thought it said a lot about her.”
For the better part of an hour, York regaled me (or humored me) with candid and passionate anecdotes and sidebars. From talk of a recent lunch at Andrews’ home and being locked in Liza Minnelli’s dressing room to her hopes for a future for her Grey Gardens with Betty Buckley, it was basically a conversation that gay dreams are made of.
All of which is to say this: Rachel York is as good as it gets, and she’s ours until Aug 13. Don’t miss 42nd Street.
42ND STREET. THROUGH 8.13 AT REAGLE MUSIC THEATRE, 617 LEXINGTON ST., WALTHAM. REAGLEMUSICTHEATRE.COM