On a warm fall afternoon, hordes of pedestrians are pushing their way down a busy street in Times Square. Few, if any, notice the petite, auburn-haired woman speaking quietly on a cellphone and leaning against a delicatessen window. But if anyone had bothered to give her a second glance, they might have recognized the comedy star known worldwide for her work on “Will & Grace,” a hugely popular show that was a fixture on prime-time TV for eight seasons.
Celebrity takes you only so far on the Rialto, and New York can be notoriously fickle when it comes to Hollywood performers who yearn for a turn on the Great White Way. For Megan Mullally, the fact that her face is known to millions, that she’s won two Emmy Awards and that she’s about to headline one of the biggest shows opening on Broadway this season means little. Right now, she is just another actress getting ready for her Broadway close-up. And as she prepares for the bow of the new Mel Brooks musical, “Young Frankenstein,” the blunt question hovering over the $20-million production might also be asked of Mullally: Can you deliver the goods?
“I’m ready,” she says, dashing back from 42nd Street into her small dressing room at the Hilton Theatre. “It’s a whole new challenge. This show is one of the most totally exciting things I’ve ever done.”
It’s not exactly a Broadway debut. Mullally appeared 13 years ago as Marty in the 1994 Broadway revival of “Grease,” and as Rosemary Pilkington in 1995’s “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” This time, she’s starring with Tony-winner Roger Bart, along with a cast that includes other Tony recipients Sutton Foster, Andrea Martin and Shuler Hensley, plus Fred Applegate and Christopher Fitzgerald. As with the stage production of “The Producers,” Brooks wrote the music and lyrics, and co-wrote the book with Tom Meehan (“Annie”); Susan Stroman directed and choreographed the show, which is faithful to Brooks’ iconic 1974 film comedy. But that’s where the similarities end.
With opening night approaching next month, Brooks has speculated that some critics and writers may be “gunning” for the new show. Some of the flak, he says, could be a reaction to the boffo success of “The Producers,” which led to a record 12 Tony Awards and generated millions from a six-year Broadway run. Skeptics may also be sharpening their knives because of the backers’ decision -- before the show even opened last summer for previews in Seattle -- to charge $450 and $375 for prime seats to “Young Frankenstein.”
But when it comes to Mullally’s performance, the buzz and audience reaction at previews suggest she may be on the verge of a Broadway triumph. Any doubts that she’d be able to translate her wisecracking persona from the small screen to a live stage are dispelled within seconds of her first appearance as Elizabeth, the madcap fiancee of Dr. Frederick Frankenstein. Dressed in a stunning gown and flaming red Rita Hayworth wig, she struts, flirts and flounces her way through a musical that greatly expands the film role made famous by Madeline Kahn. At a recent preview in New York, the audience cheered as she belted out her show-stopping numbers.
Gone is the whiny, high-pitched voice of Karen Walker, the zany, pill-popping character Mullally played on TV; now she’s a glamorous socialite who sings power ballads that veer into the lower registers. If there’s a lingering connection, it’s that the actress -- like Walker -- oozes an infectious confidence. As Mullally sees it, proving herself in a live show eight times a week, far from the soundstages of “Will & Grace,” is an opportunity more than a hurdle.
“Working on that show was the greatest experience,” says the 48-year-old Mullally, lounging on a sofa in a T-shirt and sweatpants. “But it was like so much else on TV -- we had easy hours, fun people and great material. We were overpaid.” Then she leans forward, suddenly getting more serious: “You know how it is. You get there at 7 in the morning, you leave at 7 at night -- if you’re lucky. You sit around in a trailer all day. I really don’t like that at all.”
The chance to be in Brooks’ new musical, she continues, “allows me to do something I’ve always wanted to do. There’s nothing more exciting than getting up on a stage live and telling a story from A to B in an unbroken arc. We’re all very passionate about this. And I’m so comfortable in this world.”
She’s also having a laugh or two. Midway through an interview, costar Bart bangs loudly on the door of her dressing room, demanding in a gruff voice: “Megan, where the hell is the pantyhose I left in your room last night?” Suddenly, we’re back on the “Will & Grace” set. “They’re mine now, honey,” she cracks. “Tough luck.”
Regaining her stride
The year didn’t begin so promisingly. Soon after “Will & Grace” capped its final season, Mullally launched a TV talk show. It flopped. For the first time in years, she had no immediate plans.
She told her agent she wanted two things: a “Boston Legal” episode and a Broadway musical. Both quickly fell into her lap. Still, the actress never dreamed the show would be one of the season’s most eagerly anticipated productions.
Brooks and Stroman considered several actresses for the role of Elizabeth, but Mullally shot to the top of their list when she became available after her talk-show misfire. News of their interest came out of the blue one Wednesday night in January, when she received a call in her West Hollywood home: Could she fly immediately to New York and audition on Friday? There was no time to waste, because Brooks would only be available to see her that day.
Mullally was caught off guard.
“I was running around my house in a state of complete confusion, because I hadn’t auditioned for a musical since 1995,” she recalls. “And I had to figure out what songs to sing. This was crazy. My husband suggested ‘A Summer in Ohio’ from ‘The Last Five Years,’ because he thought Mel would think it was funny. I picked ‘Adelaide’s Lament’ from ‘Guys and Dolls.’ When I got to my hotel, I told the people at the front desk flat out: ‘Listen, I’m going up to my room now and I’m going to shut myself in the bathroom. I’m going to belt out Broadway show tunes until 3 o’clock in the morning. I hope nobody complains.’ ”
There were no complaints at her audition the next day. “I fell head over heels in love with her,” Brooks says.
For Stroman, Mullally’s audition “was one of those moments you dream of in show business. Although we all know her from TV, she’s a real theater animal. She knows how to surf an audience for laughs, and she’s got a musical theater background. What Megan has is something you just can’t teach an actor -- it’s the gift of romantic comedy.”
They cast Mullally on the spot.
While the movie starring Gene Wilder had been risque, the Broadway show is even randier. Kahn portrayed Elizabeth as a Jewish ice princess; Mullally is “more like a haughty fiancee” out of a Noel Coward comedy, Meehan says. The challenge, Mullally says, has been to spice up and expand her character.
Early in the show, Elizabeth sings “Please Don’t Touch Me.” It’s a brief scene in the film that, on stage, has been transformed into a big production number. When Mullally first heard the song, she gasped. “I called my husband and said, ‘Honey! I get to belt out the words ‘tits’ on Broadway! I’m standing on a steamer trunk with people dancing around me and I sing ‘tits!’ at the top of my voice!”
But it was just a warm-up for “Deep Love,” the 11 o’clock number that Elizabeth croons to the well-endowed Monster, with whom she’s just spent the night. The audience cheers as she pumps her fist in the air, but what is Mullally actually singing about?
“This song works on two levels, and everyone will enjoy it,” says Brooks, uncharacteristically beating around the bush.
“It’s a great example of understatement,” says Meehan, trying to help.
“Oh, come on,” Mullally says, breaking into a grin. “It’s a song about an enormous shlong.”
Finding her voice
Few would have guessed that Mullally was destined for a career in show business. As a child, she was a quiet girl who sang Broadway tunes in the privacy of her bedroom. It wasn’t until a teacher at her high school in Oklahoma City insisted that she sing in public that people saw her talent. “I sang ‘Razzle Dazzle’ from ‘Chicago,’ and the kids -- all of them wearing their little Izod shirts and madras shorts -- went crazy,” she recalls. “I was stunned.”
Mullally studied ballet and acting at Northwestern, then moved to Los Angeles in the 1980s, hooking up with the William Morris Agency. She got TV work but never forgot her Broadway ambitions. With “Will & Grace” in 1998, she became an overnight celebrity. Still, Mullally notes dryly that she and her husband of four years, Nick Offerman -- an actor currently appearing in Comedy Central’s “American Body Shop” -- are not part of L.A.'s storied night life. “We aren’t into the Hollywood thing at all. I mean, I never see anybody doing coke. . . . I miss all the good stuff. Where does that happen?”
She has, however, immersed herself in Los Angeles’ stage scene, nurturing her theatrical roots by becoming a member of the theater company Evidence Room, and starring in “The Berlin Circle” in 2000 and “Mayhem” in 2002. Her performances brought her awards and critical praise.
“What I love about L.A. theater is that, even more than New York, it seems to be a place where you can take chances and do the craziest things,” she says. “You can go out on a limb and I love it.”
As for “Young Frankenstein,” Mullally has committed to performing in it for a year. She and Offerman have taken temporary residence in an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, but she’s already homesick for Los Angeles. “Can you believe it? I’m at the point now where I miss the Beverly Center,” she says wistfully.
Besides “Frankenstein,” Mullally continues to record albums with her group Supreme Music Program, and she has a cameo in “Bee Movie,” Jerry Seinfeld’s upcoming animated film.
If she followed conventional wisdom, the actress would enjoy her current change of pace on Broadway, then head back to Hollywood with ideas for a new TV show or movie. The idea is to keep moving forward. But given her druthers, Mullally would do a lot more musicals, and she’s in no hurry to leave Karen Walker behind.
“Once you’ve been known for a TV character, you’re supposed to run as fast you can in the other direction so that nobody associates you with the character again, so you don’t become Gilligan or something,” she said. “But I love Karen, just like I love the character of Elizabeth. I know her well. We’ve become very good friends.”
Asked about the future, Mullally fires back with a question of her own: Would you believe “Karen: The Musical” on Broadway?
“Think of the possibilities!” she says. “Hey, it could happen.”