NEW YORK — Cady Huffman comes on stage at the St. James Theatre in New York one hour and five minutes into the hit musical "The Producers."
But the Tony-winning leading lady still gets to the theater early.
"I want time to warm up for the dances. Then, the hairdresser comes in to prepare me for my long, blond wig. I can't do it," she explains, because "she hides my mike pack in the top of the wig."
Next, into her makeup and costume. Then her favorite part: extra time to stand in the wings and watch headliners Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick perform.
"It must be obvious to the audience how much they adore each other," she says, beaming.
When Ms. Huffman does come on stage in her part as "Ulla," she makes quite an entrance. Her skin-tight white dress is really a swimsuit that was taken apart and put together as a dress; her 5 ft., 9 in., frame shoots up to 6 feet when she puts on high-heeled dancing shoes; and her use of a Swedish accent perks up the dialogue and sends the laugh meter soaring.
"A year before we started rehearsals, I knew Cady was the one for 'Ulla,' " admits producer, writer, and composer Mel Brooks. "I asked her to do a read-through for some backers. She was this big, blond, beautiful girl, who somehow had mastered a Swedish accent in a day. 'If we go [to Broadway], you're going too,' I told her."
"He kept his word," Huffman says. To master the Swedish accent, she hired a drama coach at $125 an hour. "Then I did the read-through for the backers, and got a check for $100. I went in the hole, but it was worth it. I knew we had something - the backers were turning red in the face from laughter."
I met Huffman backstage late in the afternoon. In her dressing room was a young woman with short blond hair and no makeup, wearing a baseball jersey and cap. "Hi," she said, jumping to her feet and announcing, "I'm Cady." Seeing my surprise, she giggled, "It's me all right - the real me."
"We were supposed to play softball today for the Broadway Show League, but we got rained out. It's too bad: Matthew [Broderick] is really a good player.
"We have fun. The boys don't let me do too much out there. If things get hectic, they'll yell - 'She's a leading lady!' "
Huffman has been married for eight years to Bill Healey, the basketball coach at Hunter College here in New York. "I wake up to sports news on ESPN. I love it," she says. They keep her career in perspective by living in New Jersey, along with two dogs and four cats.
"Sometimes I'll do my vocalizing as I drive over the bridge to Manhattan. The other drivers may wonder, but I keep on singing!" she says.
Huffman, a native of Santa Barbara, Calif., wanted to perform on stage since she was six. "My mother had been a dancer, and I used to go to modern-dance class with her. It was only after I begged and begged that she gave me ballet lessons for my seventh birthday. At nine, I was taking classical singing."
She did a few commercials, and then stage jobs in nearby Los Angeles. Her biggest thrill was going to New York and auditioning for Bob Fosse.
"All my friends said, 'Why are you doing that? His show "Big Deal" has only African-American performers.' I wanted to dance for my idol!" She and Fosse clicked immediately. He could see she was excellent, professionally trained, and not afraid to work. He hired her - and she was a standout, the only tall, leggy blonde on stage.
"I was 20 and at the peak of my dance career. I learned so much from Fosse; he made me a better actor. There was never a moment when you were dancing with him that the steps didn't mean something. He taught me to focus and have purpose. It turned out to be his last show. I don't know how to describe what I took from him, but it was a lot."
Next came a starring role in the hit musical "Will Rogers Follies." "I was up for a Tony, but didn't get it. I had to wait exactly 10 years to be nominated for 'The Producers,' but I got it!"
Those 10 years proved lean for Huffman. "Blake Edwards wrote 'Big Rosemary' for me, but it didn't get to New York. No one would take me as a serious actress. I went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and did Shakespeare. I worked as an actress in England and Italy, but not at home, only commercials and TV guest spots."
Now she's in a Broadway superhit, "The Producers," which critics say will run for years.
"It's live theater, soyou never know what to expect," she says. In one scene, she and Broderick, who plays a timid accountant, have a big kiss. He becomes so excited, he gets tangled up in his coat while taking it off and cavorts around the stage. On a recent night, the audience was in hysterics as he just kept going and going.
"It wasn't until Nathan Lane started to giggle that I broke into laughter - not ladylike, but giant snorts," she says. "It stopped the show. I don't know who was having more fun, we or the audience!"