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Sarah Jessica Parker Revisits Musical Roots


By Tony VellelaSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 27, 1997


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.

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"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.