NEW YORK — Sarah Jessica Parker climbs the three flights of stairs backstage at Broadway's Broadhurst Theatre, readies herself a cup of ginger tea, and settles into an overstuffed armchair.
"I haven't done a musical in 16 years," she smiles, recalling that her first major role, the lead in "Annie," happened in the mid-'80s when she was 13. The energetic actress is now starring in the revival of "Once Upon a Mattress."
Portraying the hapless Princess Winifred in the sendup of the "Princess and the Pea" fable, Parker romps through songs, dances, comedy scenes, and a healthy dousing of water when her character swims the castle's moat.
"I'm having a fantastic time doing this show!" she exclaims. Despite a mixed critical reception, the production has been enjoying near sellout houses. For Parker, it represents a full-scale return to center stage in a musical. Last season, she replaced Megan Mullally as the ingnue in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" halfway through its run, opposite her boyfriend, Matthew Broderick.
Although the producers had originally thought of her to open in "How to Succeed," she decided to decline the offer. "I was scared," she confesses, having been away from live musical performing for so long. "And it seemed like it should be Matthew's show. The two of us shouldn't be terrified at the same time."
When the show's producers, the Dodger Organization, secured the rights to revive "Mattress," they sent it to her. "I read the book, I listened to the recording, and I thought it was wonderful."
Broadway-watchers call it "an audience show" because it receives such a strong, positive reaction night after night, even though reviews have been less than flattering. For Parker, this has been quite sobering. "I've never been in anything that wasn't beloved by the critics - all of them. And I don't mean me necessarily, but the work of all the people on stage. So this was a tough experience. But, then, people love the show. They stand at the end."
Because the part was originated by Carol Burnett, the actress endured the inevitable comparisons. But two seasons ago, she embarked on another acting adventure: portraying a frisky, independent dog in the sly, comical "Sylvia," by A.R. Gurney. The off-Broadway play proved to be a runaway hit and gave her the chance to explore untested waters for an actor.
"No one else had done it, so there was no reference point for people to compare to. There didn't seem to be any rules," she says.
Brought home by a love-seeking man into a city apartment shared with his distant wife, Parker's canine character floated between animal and human responses, alternately provoking laughter and pathos. "I had to be aware of not being too much human, or too much dog, or to be too cloying, and beggish. But, if you know those dangers, you can keep an eye out for them. It was much easier for me to create that part than to create this one."
She explains the early concerns about playing the four-legged lead: "The night the critics came, all the big shots were there, and there wasn't a laugh in the house. After the show, I was crying. We were afraid they wouldn't see the fun in it, the love in it." But the stone faces turned in glowing notices, and she enjoyed a long, laugh-filled run.
She has decided to broaden her range, try unusual roles, and avoid being stereotyped into certain parts. "I don't see the point in repeating myself. I do understand the inclination, financially and otherwise, to do the same thing again and again. But I'd be ashamed."
For many years, while living in Los Angeles and "into those same parts, like the best friend or the 'pretty girl,' it was frustrating for me."
It was not until Robert Altman cast her in "L.A. Story" that she found other types of roles being offered. In the past year, film audiences have seen her in "First Wives Club," "Mars Attacks!," "Extreme Measures," and "The Substance of Fire," with another movie, "Til There Was You," set for release soon.
She credits her upbringing for introducing her to the theater, where she feels most at home. "The truth of the matter is, my parents just liked the theater. They liked the ballet and the opera, and they took us to them." Along with her brothers Pippin, a writer, and Timothy, now appearing in the Broadway musical "Rent," she moved to New York City from Cincinnati when her father's career ambitions required him to move East.
Her mother's hesitation about television also influenced Parker. "The way women, young women were depicted in shows when I was younger, my mother thought was reprehensible." Parker's mother agreed to let her daughter work in the series "Square Pegs," set in high school, and centering on the awkwardness and tribulations of average students.
Even before her early teen years in the curly red wig, Parker had done serious acting. Playwright Harold Pinter cast her opposite Claire Bloom in a revival of his "The Innocents," which he also directed. And a steady stream of stage and film roles have taken the place of any formal acting training. She admits that "I'm not a school person," but she prides herself on "having the ability to pay attention and learn, working with good people."
She did take voice lessons when she was cast in "Annie." "Then I didn't sing for 16 years! When I went into 'How To Succeed,' I had two lessons with this cantor in Los Angeles, who's really great. But then, he's there and I'm in New York, so he put some stuff on tape for me to sing with every night."
Her work methods, she admits, can cause others to be concerned. "I'm slow," she confesses. "Not slow to learn lines, at all. I can learn lines really easily. It's slow coming up with the full character and really performing. Slow to learn choreography." She is also wary of "peaking in rehearsal," then facing "the danger that you don't really grow" as the show runs week after week.
And it appears she will have that opportunity, since the box office reports are strong. Many believe it offers a second option for parents eager to introduce their children to the joys of live theater, who would like something besides Disney's "Beauty and the Beast."
"Kids love it, and parents secretly delight in it. And even a couple of sophisticated intellectuals have been seen smiling, in spite of themselves. It's a fairy tale! And it's fun."