Three years ago, Georgia Brown rented out her Los Angeles home, packed her teen-age son off to his father's house and flew to London to begin rehearsals for the world premiere of "Roza." She checked into the Savoy, strolled by the Adelphi Theatre to check out the marquee and began costume fittings. Then came the news: The production had been canceled.
"I could've sued," Brown, 53, recalled cheerfully. "I could've stomped and screamed. But I knew that some day it was going to work."
She was right.
"Roza," the Julian More/Gilbert Becaud musical, eventually landed on its feet, and is at the Mark Taper Forum, where it plays through June 21. The story, based on Romain Gary's "La Vie Devant Soi," centers on the relationship between the French Madame Roza, an aging Jewish ex-prostitute, and Momo, the rebellious Arab teen-ager left in her charge a dozen years earlier.
"Part of the reason I believed it would happen again was the group of people involved," the British-born actress continued. "(Director Harold) Prince really is a prince."
Fortunately, Brown was also able to make an impromptu segue from the "Roza" cancellation into a production of "42nd Street" in London. "The role was really secondary," she said with a shrug, "so I took a lot of ego-pounding. But I was very grateful, working in the most exquisite theater in the world (the Royal Court). . . . And then 'Roza' happened again."
Since its opening at the Taper, the reviews have been decidedly mixed. (Says she: "I adore the ones who love me--and forget them. The people who hate me I remember for life.") Either way, Brown remains unswayed in her allegiance to the project--and her character.
"This is an important lady," she said firmly, "someone whose life I understand in that I went through the war myself. A woman who's survived a concentration camp and yet has no boundaries with religion, race. She has a houseful of (racially mixed foster) children, loves all of them--and doesn't want to make anybody over into her image. She wants them to sustain who they are and be proud of it. She reminds me of my own bubba (grandmother): very poor, 13 kids, 13 husbands--and by no means a (prostitute)--but she knew how to keep children and a home and life alive."
The role was originally essayed by the late Simone Signoret in the 1977 film "Madame Rosa," which Brown scrupulously avoided while working out the part. "But I did see it before we opened here," she acknowledged. "It was on cable, so I couldn't help it. She (Signoret) was so brilliant--but it's got nothing to do with what we're doing here. We're doing the book, not the movie. Still, if I'd seen it earlier, when we were in rehearsals, it probably would've scared me to death. She's a great actress."
Surely she must have played other roles originated by someone else?
"Not really," she said with a throaty laugh. "I started with 'Threepenny Opera,' which I'd never seen before; it was the first time it was done in England (1955). I went from that to a piece called 'The Lily White Boys' with Albert Finney; nobody had ever done that. I did Nancy in 'Oliver!'; nobody had done that. Then I created 'Maggie May'; nobody had done that. When I did 'Mother Courage,' I'd never seen anybody do that."
And no one, naturally, had ever done her one-woman story-and-song showcase, "Georgia Brown and Friends" (Los Angeles Actors Theatre, 1980, and the Westwood Playhouse, 1981).
It's a body of work that Brown ( nee Lillian Klot in Cockney Whitechapel) is obviously pleased with. Yet when she arrived in the United States in 1974, finding her own niche was not easy.
"I'd just come from an amazingly rich period of theater work in my life," she emphasized. "I did the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden, produced a series (for British television) about the history of the women's movement. I was doing cabaret, drama. . . . Then I came here and didn't know what to do. There was no theater--that I could see--and I couldn't deal with television, because it made no sense to me. I wasn't used to selling myself, or selling soapflakes. So it was a whole different milieu."
At the time, Brown was also undergoing some radical adjustments in her personal life.
"I was living with a man called Gareth Wigam, and we had to get married to come here," she explained. The charge standing in the way of their emigration "was something like moral turpitude. My son was then 5; he was born right in the center of the women's movement awareness. Politically, marriage just wasn't in the cards for me. So it was very embarrassing for me to say 'I do.' "
(In England, where her reputation was well known, the marriage was heralded in newspapers with a screaming headline: "Georgia Brown Weds!")
Times have changed. Brown has since divorced, found an emotional home here--and a professional one as well. Last year she and 32 other artists (including Richard Dreyfuss, Amy Irving, Marsha Mason, John Lithgow and Jobeth Williams) banded together to form Los Angeles Classical Actors. Last March they produced "Babbitt" for KCRW with Ed Asner; this November they hope to mount "Threepenny Opera"--they hope at the Doolittle. "Actors who do television lose their kishkas (guts)," Brown said simply. "Los Angeles needs (more self-generated Equity theater), and it's finally going to get it."