Feel free to speak to Charlotte Rae when you see her on the street.
“I get recognized a lot,” the actress acknowledged, “and most of the time I love it. I enjoy all the privileges, the little kindnesses. When I come along, people’s faces light up--or the garbage man waves and gives me a thumbs up. I have to be very careful or I’ll get addicted to it.” She smiled contentedly. “I just enjoy making people feel good. It’s like you’re using what you’ve got the way you’re supposed to.”
These days, Rae (formerly of television’s “Diff’rent Strokes” and “Facts of Life”) is using those talents in her role as the hovering, smothering mother of Jack--of Jack and the Beanstalk fame--in the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical “Into the Woods,” which opens a 6-day run tonight at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.
“The work is so rich,” Rae said. “Each day you find new things that sparkle--something new about your character or someone else’s. I can’t tell you how thrilling it was to go to New York and rehearse. I had so much fun I couldn’t believe it. We worked our little buns off. Normally I don’t even like musicals. But I wouldn’t have traded this experience for the world.”
Contacted in New York, librettist/director James Lapine offered a brief but equally warm assessment. “Charlotte is a very talented comedienne who brings a lot of warmth and humor to the role,” he said. “It was wonderful to work with her. She gives so much support to her fellow cast members.”
For Rae, being a senior member (no age revealed) in a very young cast has its advantages.
“Oh, in the beginning, they fell all over me a little because I was Charlotte Rae,” she said, “but now there’s none of that. I never pass on advice. I just treat everyone like we’re equal; no head is higher.”
Similarly, the actress dismisses the notion that the “struggle” part of her career is over. “I’m always struggling. I can’t give you details. . . . Just because I’m established, it’s not that simple.”
No indeed. In the batting of an eye, Rae is both a TV diva (referring to “Facts of Life” as “my series” and to her co-stars as “the girls”) and the less-sturdy version who, at the end of the interview, blurts out: “So, did you like the show? Did you like me?”
Rae remembers only one performer who had absolute certainty about herself--Ethel Merman. “She’d say: ‘Why should I be nervous? I know the part; the audience doesn’t.’ ”
Rae chuckled, recalling the vulnerability of auditioning for a role--something she did for “Into the Woods.”
“A lot of actresses who are well-known wouldn’t do that. But it’s fine with me. As far as cattle calls are concerned, yeah, I’ve had my share of them. I’m grateful that I’ve passed that (stage). I hope so, anyway.”
Rae glanced around her one-story Brentwood home--'50s attractive, yet decidedly unglamorous.
“That’s why I live so modestly,” she said matter-of-factly. “I want to be able not to worry about being poor later in life. When you get older, your values change. . . . You want to get in touch with yourself, do the things that are priorities to you. The only thing is, the priority list gets so (crowded). So you have to prioritize your priorities.”
Along with social concerns (Rae is a member of the Friendship Force, a worldwide intercultural travel organization), work remains high on the list. “I want to do my one-woman show,” she emphasized. “I have a lot to give audiences--and they have a lot to give me. I know we’re going to have a good time. I’ve always been very versatile and my range is wide, vocally as well as dramatically. I’m at a point now where I don’t care if I have to showcase myself to show everyone the colors I’ve got.”
Rae acknowledges that in the past she’s been most closely identified with comedy work.
“There’s nothing wrong with making people laugh,” she noted. “We all need to laugh. Sometimes I get all these laughs inside of me and there’s no place to let ‘em out.”
Yet she appears especially proud of her dramatic stage credits: Lola in “Come Back, Little Sheba” and the Nurse in “Romeo and Juliet”; the plays she most hankers for include “Happy Days,” “The Glass Menagerie,” “Mother Courage,” “The Madwoman of Chaillot” and “The Cherry Orchard.”
The Milwaukee native (born Charlotte Rae Lubotsky) recalls that her earliest encouragement came at age 10, when the father of one of her baby-sitting wards told her she should sing professionally. “Then he gave me an extra dime,” she said. “It was kind of reaffirming, though, because I thought I sang well, but I figured it was just the reverberation in the shower.”
While still in high school, she began working on a radio show, playing a variety of characters--with a variety of accents. Next came children’s theater, college at Northwestern and a slew of radio and television work in Chicago.
“I had such ambition ,” she recalled wryly. “It was really amazing.” A move to New York netted such stage credits as Mrs. Peachum in the original “Threepenny Opera” and Mammy Yokum in “Li’l Abner,” a career she balanced with raising two sons. (Now divorced, Rae is a doting grandmother to Carly, who’s spotted in photos wearing a grin and an oversize “Into the Woods” sweat shirt.)
Rae is also grinning a bit these days.
“What have I got to prove?,” she asked rhetorically. “Who am I doing it for? I know I’m talented. They know I’m talented. If I’m meant to do something, I’ll give it my best shot. If I’m not meant to, OK, I’ll accept it. I may shed a tear or two, but then it’s over.
“We all try to do good things where people can have a good experience together. But I don’t have to show them I can play every role in Shakespeare. I know I’m a good actress.”