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In She Loves Me, comic character actor Peter Bartlett reaffirms that there really are no small parts
Peter Bartlett has wanted to play the Headwaiter in She Loves Me since he was a teenager. Okay, perhaps that's a bit of an exaggeration. However, the septuagenarian actor says he memorized every word of the original 1963 cast album of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's effervescent chamber musical when it was released, and he knew he wanted to be in it. He just wasn't sure which character he could play.
"Oh I don't know, I probably had my eye on that role, even at 19," he admits with a chuckle. "I'm one of those performers who people always told, 'You're going to work when you're older.' And I assure you, I did not like hearing that! But it was actually true. Despite coming to New York in 1968, I really started to work very late. Once I got into character roles in my forties, I never stopped."
Although he counts golden-age-of-Hollywood funnymen like Franklin Pangborn, Eric Blore, and Edward Everett Horton among his influences, Bartlett has made his name in new plays and musicals, not revivals (though many of those tuners, like The Drowsy Chaperone and Never Gonna Dance, send up an old-fashioned style). Much of that is thanks to his two-decade-and-counting collaboration with playwright Paul Rudnick. The pair met on Rudnick's award-winning, Off-Broadway gay rom-com Jeffrey in 1993, and the wry writer went on to craft characters tailor-made for Bartlett in shows like The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, Rude Entertainment, and The New Century. The playwright highlighted Bartlett's talents as both a verbal and physical comedian: he's master of classic vaudeville shtick such as withering glances, exasperated eye rolls, depressed sighs, flailing rubber arms, portentous pauses, damning with faint praise, and double takes.
All of those skills are on superb display in his 15 or so minutes onstage as the nameless but notable Headwaiter in the Roundabout Theatre Company's Broadway revival of She Loves Me, now playing at Studio 54. Tasked with keeping up "A Romantic Atmosphere" in the cozy, dimly lit, Budapest boîte Cafe Imperiale, Bartlett's Headwaiter has to contend with all sorts of entertaining interruptions during his sole song and scene, from a clumsy server noisily fumbling plates to unwitting lonely heart pen pals Amalia Balash (Laura Benanti) and Georg Nowack (Zachary Levi) getting into a screaming fight. All the while, Bartlett dashes about, nailing every evil eye and punch line. Even when he tells Amalia that she's "a nice presentable girl -- not a beauty-contest winner, but you should see some of the others," he gets laughs, not hisses. He's really just trying to be comforting in his own awkward, hilariously honest way.
This is actually the second time he has played the part. Back in 2011, Roundabout staged a one-night-only benefit concert of She Loves Me featuring Bartlett and a number of his current costars, including Jane Krakowski, Michael McGrath, and Gavin Creel. "Scott Ellis [who directed the benefit, the current production, plus a 1993 revival] asked me to do the concert," Bartlett says. "Afterward as time went on, there was a lot of talk about doing a full production on Broadway. And for some reason they were always interested in me playing that part. When I went into Something Rotten! last year, it was in the contract that if they asked me to do She Loves Me, I could leave. I was with Something Rotten! for eight months -- I guess it's madness to leave a really good paying job! But hey, I'm 73-years-old and I thought, 'Let's mix it up, keep it interesting.'"
In She Loves Me, Bartlett doesn't appear until the very end of Act I and then not again until curtain call ("I keep saying that I better find some elaborate craft to do backstage!"), yet he's put as much work into creating the Headwaiter as if he were a lead role. "God bless Scott, he's given me a lot of free rein," Bartlett says. "You know I just play, and if it's too much he lets me know. Even the other day I said to him, 'I think I've taken too much time there. I'm going to pull that back.' You don't want to lose the story of those two people, Amalia and George, so that’s important. I've done these sort of parts before, but the quality of this piece allows me to lean into these moments. I guess I work on instinct after all these years in the business… just last month I realized that I've had my Equity card for 50 years. 50 years! I couldn't believe it."
Does that mean he's planning on quitting soon? "I'm happy to be working!" he says "Retirement does go through my mind at this age but then I think, 'What precisely would I do?' I'd rather show up at the theatre."
Photo of Peter Bartlett in She Loves Me by Joan Marcus