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Veteran character actor David Schramm talks about his showstopping role in Enter Laughing: The Musical
When The York Theatre Company decided to revive one of its most popular productions, Enter Laughing: The Musical, for its 50th anniversary, the first call made was to director Stuart Ross. After all, he was the one who reworked Joseph Stein and Stan Daniels' 1976 Broadway flop So Long, 174th Street into Enter Laughing: The Musical over a decade ago for the York, where it enjoyed two successful limited runs in 2008 and 2009.
But Ross wasn't sure lighting would strike thrice. "I was nervous about doing it again," he confesses. "The bar was set pretty high from the first time. And I wondered if, 10 years later, the show would feel too old-fashioned, or if people wouldn't want to see it in the #MeToo era because of some of its attitudes toward women."
Indeed, Enter Laughing: The Musical, based on Carl Reiner's 1930s-set semiautobiographical novel of the same name, is a throwback to an era when a young Jewish teen simultaneously pursuing fame and females seemed hilarious and harmless. Thankfully, with a few carefully considered tweaks (a number called "You Touched Her" was cut; "Undressing Girls With My Eyes" is now "Romancing Girls With My Eyes," etc.), the musical once again has audiences rolling in the aisles, not rolling their eyes.
Ross' other main concern about reviving the show was finding performers who could do justice to the old-school, vaudevillian humor. Casting the central role of David Kolowitz, so memorably played by Josh Grisetti a decade ago, was key. (Relative newcomer Chris Dwan won that plum part.) But for the role of David's pompous, alcoholic, but well-meaning acting teacher, Marlowe, Ross had an ace in the hole: 72-year-old character actor David Schramm, a Juilliard graduate and founding member of the lauded classical theatre troupe The Acting Company who also knows his way around lowbrow comedy.
"I've known David for decades," says Ross, though interestingly the stage veterans met out in L.A. while working on TV sitcoms: Ross as a director for Frasier and Schramm as curmudgeonly airline owner Roy Biggins on Wings. "Ever since then, I've always wanted to work with him. I knew he would understand this role inside and out. Better yet, as a director, I don't need to BS him, because instinctually, he always knows just what to do!"
The late, great George S. Irving originated the role of Marlowe on Broadway and did the first York run. But Schramm is thankful he never saw the Tony winner in the role. "I am happiest when I don't have to repeat something somebody else has done," he admits. "What I had to find for myself here was the fine line of being big but not too big so as to overwhelm the production, because when you step over it, everything goes out of proportion. Because of my physical size, I'm used to playing 'big' parts, but I seem to have a sensitivity detector that allows me to make sure the character comes off as a real person. My only concern now, because they insist that I use a microphone in that tiny space, is that people can hear me out on the street!"
That amplification is actually necessary during Schramm's hilarious solo "The Butler's Song." Framed as one of David's daydreams, the number finds Marlowe acting as his pupil's manservant, whose primary duty seems to be setting up liaisons with an array of Golden Age of Hollywood beauties. "He can't call you back at 5:30, at 5:30 he humps Alice Faye. Then Jean Harlow at 7, Mae West at 11 and somewhere between them Fay Wray." Yes, it's ribald, but it routinely brings down the house.
"I know there are performers my age who would be afraid of having to memorize something like that, but somehow, I always get there," Schramm says. "The bigger issue for me is that, unlike with a long Shakespearean monologue, you can't take a breath and stop to think; the music keeps on going, so no matter what, I have to keep right on going."
In addition to that showstopper, two other factors attracted Schramm to the role. "There have been a handful of Marlowes in my life," he admits. "I don't mean broken-down, drunken hams, but there have been many people who took me under their wing to help me achieve my dream of being an actor, from Ewell Cornett, who was the founder of Actors, Inc. in Louisville [now known as the Actors Theatre of Louisville], to John Houseman, who was my teacher at Juilliard and my mentor for 15 years. In a way, it's nice to honor them."
Schramm also sees his younger self in the character of David, whose overbearing parents aren't too keen on his showbiz aspirations. "My mother was supportive of me being an actor, but my dad was very reticent -- until I got a scholarship to Juilliard and then he did everything but personally pack my suitcase," Schramm recalls. "The funniest thing, though, is I had an uncle who owned a series of pharmacies and his kids had no interest in the business. So he and my father got in cahoots and bugged me to become a druggist -- just like David's parents do in the show! I am so grateful I got to say, 'Thanks, but you can keep your penicillin.'"
Top image: David Schramm in Enter Laughing: The Musical. Photos by Carol Rosegg.