BWW Interviews: Kurt Peterson and Victoria Mallory Talk “When Everything Was Possible”
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by Joseph F. Panarello
New York's City Center can be a dark and unwelcoming place on a Friday afternoon. The recently restored interior is obscured by shadows and the only light comes from the merciless worklights over the stage which only partially illuminate the two performers beneath them. Yet, even through these shadows, the admirable skills of two Broadway veterans are evident as they recreate their roles in WEST SIDE STORY. Both actors appeared in this musical classic over forty years ago at Lincoln Center.
Kurt Peterson and Victoria Mallory achieved great acclaim for their performances as Tony and Maria in the Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim musical masterpiece. It led the two of them to other major roles in what some consider to be the "Golden Age" of Broadway. It was a time before ill-suited television stars were cast in shows solely for the marquee value of their names. Between them, Peterson and Mallory appeared in DEAR WORLD, FOLLIES, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. There were also significant regional productions of CARNIVAL!, COMPANY and THE FANTASTICKS and the still talked-about SONDHEIM: A MUSICAL TRIBUTE which Kurt produced. It should also be mentioned that Kurt was featured in THE BAKER'S WIFE; the musical that seemed to try-out forever before giving up the ghost and never making it to New York. At this rehearsal, though, the two of them are preparing for a one-night concert titled, WHEN EVERYTHING WAS POSSIBLE: A CONCERT WITH COMMENTS.
The WEST SIDE STORY segment is receiving the most attention from director Larry Moss at this point. Under his guidance, the two mature performers are revisiting their roles of love-smitten teens. It's the first time they've gone back to these parts since 1968. Victoria Mallory has just spoken some scripted introductory lines as herself and in a split second she assumes an Hispanic accent and the demeanor of a young Puerto Rican girl. The transformation is astonishing.
Kurt Peterson pulls off a similar achievement. In no time at all he becomes a Polish-American teenaged boy, singing with a voice that is virile, supple and blending beautifully with Mallory's still-lustrous lyric soprano. They are so effective that it is easy to imagine them reprising these roles in a full scale concert of the show. Heck, if Jose Carreras and Kiri Te Kanawa could record these roles under Bernstein's baton, why shouldn't Peterson and Mallory perform it in a complete concert?
Peterson's office is diagonally across the street from the City Center. It's a comfortable place and well suited to a conversation with the singers. The two friends are happy to discuss their careers and the upcoming (April 29th) concert. They also discuss their friendship.
The two met in school. "It was the first day at AMDA-the American Musical and Dramatic Academy here in New York," Peterson remarks. Mallory continues, "It was a small school on 23rd Street and 2nd Ave in 1966. Our class had maybe twelve or thirteen people in it. AMDA is much larger now and is all over the city. Our small class allowed for us to do some incredibly intimate work. It was a fabulous school with great teachers." Peterson recalls that the first time he heard Mallory sing, she performed "Yes, My Heart" from CARNIVAL!-a musical she eventually starred in at City Center when it was presenting full-scale revivals.
Peterson and Mallory did plenty of work together at AMDA, but their first truly professional work they did as a team was Lincoln Center's WEST SIDE STORY. Mallory looks back on the experience with great fondness for the rehearsal period. "We were directed by Lee Theodore Becker, who had been the original Anybody's. She was just fantastic to work for. She put the complete original staging up and brought in all the nuances. You know, all those incredibly character driven moments. There was motivation for every movement. She was very generous to us, too. She was supportive and it was a fresh experience for her to work with two young people; I was only nineteen years old and Kurt was twenty. It's an extraordinary show and being part of the rehearsal process where the direction was very specific and disciplined, where we worked hard and had the thrill of having Leonard Bernstein come in, well, I can't describe what that was like!"
Peterson chimes in by commenting, "How many people can say that they had Lennie Bernstein as their rehearsal pianist? Now remember, this production was part of The Music Theater of Lincoln Center, which was under the leadership of Richard Rodgers. He was at always there, dressed in a suit, and was very supportive." Mallory sums up their recollections by saying, "It was a dream, an absolute dream!"
Looking further back on WEST SIDE STORY, Mallory comments, "I'd done twenty musicals before that show and was really enjoying the rehearsal process." Peterson interjects, "Vicki had more experience doing roles than I did and she was dancing before she was born. She was this incredible triple threat from the get-go. I, on the other hand, was shaking. I'd only done small roles in the chorus and summer stock with a performance in THE FROG PRINCE, and suddenly I was on the stage of the State Theatre [now The David H. Koch Theatre] where you stand on the stage and almost die. It's huge!"
One memory of the production that they both share was that Robert LuPone [brother of Patti] was playing Arab and he suffered a back spasm. "They had to bring the doctor in because when you have a back spasm, you can't do anything." Mallory remembers.
Peterson recalls that the stage directions called for him to jump over a fence "I was really good at it," he reminisces. "There was one very important performance; it wasn't opening night, but someone important I wanted to impress was out front--and I missed the jump!" He and Mallory laugh over their recollection of that and through her giggles she explains, "It was a very high fence, though!"
When asked if either of them had seen the 2010 revival of WEST SIDE STORY there is an awkward moment and a pause. Peterson explains, "We were there on opening night. Let's just say that our memories are so keen and the work we did in our show was so strong that it was difficult not to miss some of things when you see a revival. What I particularly missed was the work of Jerome Robbins. His sense of detail was missing."
Something that Peterson felt that revival lacked was the way director Arthur Laurents handled the character of Lt. Schrank. "There should have been more energy in his scenes. Schrank is the figure that those kids go against. He's the proletarian figure; the 'father' and he should to be performed in a strong manner so the kids can go against him. The actor was directed to throw away his lines, but that's all Arthur's doing. I'm sorry. I say this with all due respect; he's gone."
Mallory chimed in, "And the changes. I mean, what did they do to the 'Somewhere' ballet? And the last scene?" On a positive note, she adds, "It was thrilling to hear that score played by a big orchestra and it was thrilling to see the original choreography-what was left of it-performed so well."
After a few concerts and a Georgia production of THE FANTASTICKS, and Mallory playing Lili in the City Center revival of CARNIVAL!, the next major Broadway show for the two of them was the legendary FOLLIES. Mallory had been cast and was playing several minor roles and Peterson was one of the last actors to sign on. Originally the role of Benjamin Stone was to be played by Jon Cypher, but when John McMartin was brought in, Peterson was cast as his younger counterpart because of the strong resemblance between the two men. It was well into the rehearsal period that Mallory was awarded the role of "Young Heidi" and the way it came about is priceless:
"When I auditioned for FOLLIES," she recounts, "Michael Bennett had seen me in both WEST SIDE STORY and in CARNIVAL!. Other members of the creative team weren't that familiar with me, so I auditioned with everyone else in show business who wanted to be in that show! Back then they actually auditioned in theaters, and as I left the stage Hal Price came out of the audience and walked up to me to tell me that there was nothing for me in that show. I was so astounded that he was actually speaking to me that I actually said-and this is verbatim-'Mr. Prince, I don't care if I do nothing in the show, I'd give anything to be a part of it.' Shortly afterwards I got a contract in the mail-just like that. When I showed up for the first day of rehearsal (and actually for quite a while) I had nothing to do. I was in heaven. It was just one of the most exciting things I've ever experienced as I watched the show develop. Then along the way I was made a waitress who served drinks to Buddy. Then a couple of weeks into rehearsal I got 'One More Kiss', and then Michael Bennett came and told me he'd put me in a couple of dance numbers. In Boston they asked me if I'd like to understudy Young Sally-which I did. I was having a ball!" There's a lesson to be learned from the manner in which Mallory approached this show and her success followed well into the show's run:
FOLLIES had been running for about a year when Mallory was called into the office of Producer/Director Hal Prince. "I read a few lines from a script," she recalls, "Then he asked me to be Anne in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. My experience in FOLLIES was pretty remarkable because it served as a stepping stone to another experience that was very special."
Did either of them ever feel that FOLLIES would go on to become the classic it is? Mallory thinks for a moment and says, "I hoped it would. It was one of the highlights of my life! I have to say that while we were in Boston almost everyone began to realize it was something really special." Yes, FOLLIES was really special. Since its first Broadway incarnation in 1971, it's been revived in New York by the Roundabout Theater in 2001, by City Center's Encores! in 2007, and in 2011 via Washington's Kennedy Center. There was also the star-studded concert version that played at Lincoln Center's Avery Fischer Hall and was televised on PBS. As actors, FOLLIES played a significant part in both their careers. Peterson comments, "There's a wonderful streak that happens when you're part of a landmark musical. There's a respect that's really wonderful." The show opened many doors for them.
One such door that was opened for Peterson was the launching of his co-career as a producer. One of the co-producers of FOLLIES was Fritz Holt who was preparing the London production of GYPSY starring Angela Lansbury. Peterson used his charm and business sense to help raise money for that production, which eventually moved to Broadway. He also produced the one night concert called SONDHEIM: A MUSICAL TRIBUTE that featured the talents of Lansbury, Mallory, Len Cariou, Hermione Gingold, Dorothy Collins and a whole host of Broadway's greatest talents.
A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC holds a very special place in Victoria Mallory's heart because it was in that show she met her husband, Mark Lambert, who played opposite her as Friedrich. The couple moved to California where Mallory had a recurring role in television's "The Young and the Restless" as well as "Santa Barbara". The couple had a daughter named Ramona Mallory who is following in her parents' show business footsteps.
In fact, in the recent Broadway revival of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, the role of Anne was played by Ramona Mallory. For her mother, it was a very powerful moment to see her daughter take on the role that she'd originated in 1973. "As soon as she stepped out on that stage, Mark and I just grabbed each other, " recalls Victoria Mallory, "and the tears began to gush. My heart was just exploding with pride and joy. She's one of the most hard-working, dedicated and all-about-the-work young people I know. She worked hard and got on her own merits. It was another thrill of a lifetime for me." Victoria Mallory explains that she didn't give her daughter any tips or direction for playing Ann. "She had a director who was very, very specific about what he wanted. If she asked me for something I would helped, but I've been her coach and teacher all her life and I knew her work ethic. I was aware of the thought and work she put into creating this role, and then have a director guide her into the way he envisioned things made things work out differently. She's an adult and it was her time. I wanted her to have it for herself."
In WHEN EVERYTHING WAS POSSIBLE, the two friends recount how they lost touch when Mallory and Lambert moved to California. Years went by without any contact between the two. Then Mallory's daughter decided to move to New York. It was then that Peterson's phone rang and his friend and former co-star asked him to look after Ramona while she got settled. There were quite a few other people in New York that could have received that call from her, but she knew she could rely on Peterson, who had married "dishy dancer" Julie Peterson. Of course he accepted the responsibility and the friendship picked up where it left off without missing a beat.
One of the songs that the duo sings in WHEN EVERYTHING WAS POSSIBLE is specially written for the evening. Titled "There Once Was A Time", it boasts music by Jesse Wiener and a lyric by Kurt Peterson. It's the perfect closing for the concert and they perform it with charm and conviction:
There once was a time