Being Bea: A Life Set to Music
Beatrice Arthur is “lying down, luxuriating in this hotel room flooded with sunlight,” she tells her telephone caller. She’s resting before the San Francisco opening of "... And Then There’s Bea,” an evening of songs and reminiscences she conceived with her accompanist, Hollywood composer Billy Goldenberg.
The same show--but with a different title, “An Evening With Bea Arthur"--will play Los Angeles tonight, for one night only, at the Wadsworth Theater in Brentwood, in a benefit for In Defense of Animals. "... And Then There’s Bea” then will play for a week, Dec. 26-30, at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza’s Fred Kavli Theatre.
The stage veteran and sitcom actress (“Maude,” “The Golden Girls”) says she judged a “Golden Girls” look-alike contest in San Francisco, the night before the interview.
Question: Were the contestants women or men?
Answer: I assumed they would all be men, but there were a few women too.
Q: Was the winner a man or a woman?
A: I really don’t know. I didn’t ask.
Q: What do you do in your show?
A: I tell a few amusing anecdotes. I do mention--my God!--how I started in drama school in 1947 with Tony Curtis, Rod Steiger, Harry Belafonte. I mention my first audition, which was a horror.
Q: How long is your show?
A: About 90 minutes, without an intermission. I’m terrified of boring an audience, which is very easy to do in a one-woman show, particularly with older women who keep saying things like “and then I sang.” We’re trying to treat this as a play, with highs and lows, ups and downs.
Q: But you do sing?
A: Sixteen songs. Did you know that Billy [Goldenberg] has had 32 Emmy nominations? But it’s not just his songs. We were going to do “Blowin’ in the Wind.” It’s one of my favorite songs. People would finally get to hear the lyrics. We tried it, but it was so preachy, so strong, a bit of a downer. We had to delete it.
Q: How did the show get started?
A: I’ve known Billy for 20 years. I didn’t want to do any more episodic TV. Billy had been after me to do something in which I sang. Rather than waiting for another great stage role, this sounded interesting. We toyed with the idea for close to four years. About 21/2 years ago, [producer] Barry Brown asked us to perform at an AIDS benefit in Palm Springs. Ten days before the event, we found out it was just us. We panicked--which one of us should get sick? But we went on for maybe 20 minutes. Then we added another 10 minutes at a benefit in Big Bear, and we added a few songs at the White Barn Theatre in Westport.
Q: When did the tour begin?
A: In April. And on the very first opening night, at the beautiful Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, instead of making an exit into the wings, I fell into the pit. They put me back on stage. Trouper that I was, I kept going. The following day, I was so sore. But I went on.
Q: Has the show changed?
A: We’re learning as we go and making changes. Some of it is slightly risque. One of the reviews said, under the main headline, “Raunchy but Rewarding,” which I thought was dear.
Q: Where are you taking it ultimately?
A: Daryl Roth, the producer, wants this to go to Broadway. I love the idea of London before Broadway.
Q: Why not a longer run in L.A.?
A: I don’t want to go to either New York or L.A. until everything is set. And L.A. is difficult. I was shocked when “After-Play” [Anne Meara’s play that featured Arthur at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1997, followed by a brief commercial run in 1998 at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills] closed so quickly. I miss the excitement of the New York and London theater districts, where if you don’t like something, you can leave and see the second half of something else, and restaurants stay open late. To have to drive to downtown L.A. or Pasadena [from Arthur’s home in West L.A.] is not easy.
Q: Your Wadsworth performance benefits In Defense of Animals.
A: I’m heavily into animal rights. I went to London and led a protest outside Harrods protesting the sale of foie gras . I’ve done commercials against Premarin, the post-menopausal drug that’s drawn from the urine of pregnant mares. I’ve written against bullfighting. One of the good things about so-called celebrity is that you’re able to advance your own feelings about issues.
Q: In Defense of Animals has led a campaign to change the laws that refer to pet “owners” and change the word to “guardians.” What do you think of that?
A: That’s kind of cute, but I think that’s going a little too far.
Q: Do you live with animals?
A: I have two Dobermans. They’re my buddies. I guess I never say I “own” them. I “have” them.
Q: Are you a vegetarian?
A: No. But I do draw a line. I would never eat veal or foie gras .
Q: Is a 32-city tour grueling?
A: I love performing for different audiences. Their reactions are not always the same. The towns do begin to drift together. Sometimes I forget where I am. But I always leave the light on in the bathroom.
“An Evening With Bea Arthur,” Wadsworth Theater, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., Brentwood, tonight, 8 p.m. $50-$100. (213) 365-3500. Dec. 26-30: "... And Then There’s Bea,” Fred Kavli Theatre, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Wednesday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Information: (805) 449-2787. Tickets at the box office or at (213) 480-3232 or (805) 583-8700.