Mary Poppins, presented by Center Theatre Group and producers Thomas Schumacher of Disney Theatrical Productions and Cameron Mackintosh, continues Tues.-Fri., 8 pm; Sat., 2 & 8 pm; Sun., 1 & 6:30 pm; through Feb. 7. Tickets: $25-$92. Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. 213.972.4400 or centertheatregroup.org
“Curiosity is one of the forms of feminine bravery.”
– Victor Hugo
There used to be a coffee shop on Sunset Boulevard called The Copper Penny. You could go there at 3 am (or pm) and hear some of the best stories in town…ever. Movie quality.
It was Hollywood campfire. You’d smell the marshmallows roasting. Well, now it’s a Mel’s Drive-In with Janet the iconic waitress. I eat there regularly when I’m in town, hoping to run into some storytellers. But, Sunset’s not exactly the same anymore. The marshmallows are roasting down the street at the Saddle Ranch Chop House. There’s a mechanical bull inside and they’re making S’mores on the patio.
For stories, it’s better to hang out at the stage door. Any stage door. Especially one labeled Mary Poppins at the Ahmanson Theatre. I know, I know, that’s Disney land this holiday season.
But, the story of Miss Poppins was originally authored by P. L. Travers. Between 1934 and 1988, she brought us eight Poppins books to rival the likes of J.K. Rowling and her Harry Potter.
Mary never met Harry but they have much in common: both British with a mysterious side, some whimsy, learning–lots of learning and their stories are chock-a-block full of magical characters.
Consider Mary’s Mrs. Brill, the harried housekeeper of the Banks family. Consider Jane Carr, a woman with a past, playing Brill on Broadway, now in LA. And our story begins…
For the few who are blessed, or cursed, to know at a young age exactly what they want to do with their lives…a world stage is a nice thing to have. Since she was “wee,” British/American actress Jane Carr knew she was meant for the boards.
“It was madness, of course,” she remembers. “My parents had nothing to do with it. We were very poor working class. Mom at the post office and dad was a steel constructor. I insisted on dance classes locally and got a scholarship to a posh performing arts school. Even so, it was still so expensive.
“Eventually, I had to go to Corona Stage Academy, a cheaper school.Â But it was better-rounded with stage combat, lots of drama and putting on shows. There was an agent attached to the school. He helped me get my first audition, at age 14, for a tour of England in Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web and I got it!
“I went off illegally and nobody noticed. In retrospect, I imagine my parents were very afraid. I roomed with one of the girls who was the stage manager and all of 22. She was the designated babysitter. It was England. If anything disastrous happened, I could be home in a couple of hours on the train from anywhere. And, I telephoned home once a week. No cell phones then.
“We stayed in ghastly places; one still had gas lighting in the mid-60s. But, I was making 15 pounds a week which seemed like riches at the time. It was an adventure and set you up in good stead, learning a lot from the older members of the company. I got a different education. I was always curious and read a lot. If you’re curious, you can do most anything.”
And, she did most everything.Â Spider’s Web held her in good stead for her next gig, the West End’s production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie starring Vanessa Redgrave. “She was doing Blow Up at the time,” says Carr, “and was incredible.
“She was elegant and great to you. We thought the sun shone out of every one of her orifices. Joely and Natasha were tiny wees then and us big Brodie girls would take them for walks to Trafalgar Square to give Vanessa a break.
“She was very different from Maggie [Smith] who did the movie. They never told us why the change. It’s what you find…the same part can be interpreted so differently and brilliantly.
“Maggie was great friends with Bobby Fryer, the film’s producer. I think he wanted Maggie early on. He was a lovely man. I went to his 80th birthday party in LA and later sang at his memorial. Rod McKuen was there, the writer of the Brodie music.”
Movies were next for Carr. She was cast from the stage production of Brodie to the film version. Then, Hal Prince cast her in Something for Everyone with Angela Lansbury and Michael York.
“You can imagine all us girls in swinging London in the ’70s,” says Carr. “It was the movies, fabulous, going to premieres! It made my career. It seems like minutes ago and it’s been 30 years.”
In between Carr enjoyed a busy film and television career, everything from Upstairs, Downstairs to Curb Your Enthusiasm. But, it was in the filming of the BBC television series It’s Awfully Bad For Your Eyes, Darling that Carr met her best friend in England, Joanna Lumley. In it, the two starred as posh London flatmates bemoaning the lack of suitable men, shortage of money, parental meddling and other pressing matters.
Life imitated art. “I was 21 years old and looking for a flat myself,” says Carr. Jo said ‘I have a spare room. Why not stay with me?’ I stayed sharing the flat for eight years. Joanna went on to be Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous. It’s almost royal in England. These days she has a beautiful house in London naturally, and I stay with her whenever I go.
“Recently, she did something fantastic and very brave for the Gurkhas. They fought in all the wars but were never allowed to have their families and citizenship in England. And, she did that for them with Parliament. The Gurkhas named a mountain after her and everything.”
Carr never lost touch with theater. She worked often at the Chichester Festival Theatre started by Sir Laurence Olivier. Again, she was a favorite to work with seasoned actors…more than once with Maggie Smith. Now in her 30s, Carr’s backstage education in theater and friendships with its royalty grew.
“We did The Way of the World with Joan Plowright. Chichester is in Sussex near where Maggie and Joan each lived. They loved working there because it was home. Maggie was always ready early and would come into my dressing room and sit and chat before the show.
“When we did Merchant of Venice with Sir Alec Guinness as Shylock, he was trepidatious. He hadn’t been on stage in 13 years. There was ‘no Sir Alec, just Alec,’ he told me. ‘Since I’ve been knighted, nobody knocks on my dressing room door.’ And, I said, I will. And, so I did. He was writing his first book at the time, and he’d tell me stories about meeting James Dean and others in Hollywood for the first time.”
Carr had also been a part of the Royal Shakespeare Company for years. “When Nicholas Nickleby came along,” she remembers, “I was in the London end of the company and it was being done in Stratford. Later, when I knew they were doing it again and setting up a US tour, I jumped at it.
“I went up to Trevor [Nunn] and said, ‘Can I be in it, please? And, he said, ‘Yes, you can be in it.’ I think directness is best. People can only say no. And, people often have! But, sometimes they say yes.
“I jumped across the Pond and played Fanny Squeers and all the accompanying roles.Â Everybody played the odd baby and prostitute. I changed my costume 30 times during the evening. It was a looong night. People wonder if you get tired. You do! But, it wasn’t the acting; it was that I had to change my clothes so often. It’s hard work.”
It was worth it. Nicholas Nickleby was the theatrical event of the year. “A lot of fuss was made,” says Carr. “And, I stayed a bit longer in LA. And, I met Mark. And, a little longer…”
Mark is Mark Arnott, her actor husband and father of son Dashiel. “We got married quite quickly,” she says. “The winds blow some and there you are. I just loved it here in LA. This is comfortable. I liked it and I found somebody I wanted to marry.
“It’s a tough place for a character actress. I often wonder what my career would have been if I’d stayed in London. My great friend from there, Harriet Walter [RSC alum & Tony nominee for Mary Stuart] says, ‘I wish I did more telly and film.’ But, she fell in love with New York and lives there. We’re just gypsies,” says Carr. “Just love to be somewhere for a bit.”
Her “bit” in LA has lasted for 20 years. “When you’re a mother, that stops your traveling. You want a stable life for your kid.” This is true even though she and Arnott divorced after nine years. “We’re better as friends,” she says. “I flew home from New York for his second wedding. I offered to give him away!”
Home is important to Carr. “It’s funny. When I’m away, I get homesick for LA, not London, LA.” It’s because it’s the place you have your kids, and they’re in school, and you’re together with other parents. You have to have some friends outside of the profession. It’s a richer life and makes it easier to portray ‘real’ people.”
Her son Dashiel was named for Hammett, a favorite writer of Carr’s. “But we dropped an ‘l’ on his first name. The numerology book we read said he’d have a more charming life that way.” And, it sounds as if the book may have been right.
In 1988, Carr was cast as Louise Mercer, the head of a support group for divorced and separated people in the NBC series Dear John starring Judd Hirsch and Harry Groener, among others. “I almost immediately got pregnant. They hid me behind desks until they could figure out what to do with me. Woody Harrelson was supposed to be the father of the child in the story.
“The series ran four seasons. It was perfect for me. Paramount had a daycare center for Dash. So when I wasn’t acting, I could go play with him. I don’t think that would have happened in England. Judd and Harry and the others pitched in and bought Dash a proper English pram. I would wheel him all over the lot.
“Star Trek was going on there. And, when the pram came by, different ones would look in and say, ‘Hi, Dash, hello.’ He was never afraid of scary monsters after that. He thought they were very nice people.
“I couldn’t imagine a better work experience at the time. It was lovely money. And, if you’re in the theater your whole life, it was a treat to go to work and do something brand new each week.
“But, when it was over, I went back to the same old acting life…going out and auditioning. A lot of writers came through the show and went on to other shows so I got a lot of guest stars.”
Theater too was never far away.Â Carr has worked often at the Ahmanson, Mark Taper, Pasadena Playhouse, South Coast Repertory, David Galligan’s S.T.A.G.E. benefits, and even in San Francisco and San Diego when she could coordinate timing with Dashiel’s school vacation schedule.
In Dashiel’s senior year at Waverly School in Pasadena things got trickier. Carr auditioned in LA for Mary Poppins‘ musical director and RSC alum David Caddick. She then flew to New York to audition again. They cast her immediately.
“It was quite a decision to make with Dash still in his last year and headed to NYU. I’m glad I did it. You don’t see them very much at that age. But, they do need feeding. And, his dad could take care of him. It was lovely to save money for this expensive schooling.
“I didn’t go to college and regretted it often so I was going to be sure my son did. Times have changed. In those days, you could be an actor and not go to university. Today, you’d be lost. I seem to be able to hold my own. As I get older, I’m not ashamed to say, ‘I don’t know. Tell me all about it.’ Then you know, and it all evens out.”
Initially, Carr only contracted for a year with Mary Poppins. “But being a terribly doting mother,” she says, “I felt I could stay through his first year at NYU. It was more comfort for me than him. He lived in a dorm and I hardly saw him. But, someone was there just in case.
“By his second year, he was desperate to get away from parents, as it should be. He’s a semester in London and one in Paris, as a film major at Gallatin, a branch of NYU with only 200 ‘self-motivated’ students. He makes his own schedule of classes and is having the time of his life.” Mom too.
She was in a top-grossing show on Broadway that the NY Daily News called “a roof-raising, toe-tapping, high-flying extravaganza.” Carr saw pals from LA and London often. She bumped into Judd Hirsch having a drink with Harry Groener. “Harry was doing Spamalot and Judd lives there–a New Yorker born and bred. He flies to LA to do Numb3rs and swooshes back by plane to New York. ‘One more sitcom,’ we commiserated. ‘Wouldn’t it be lovely?’
“I was searching for an apartment and Judd said ‘Don’t buy furniture. I have a lot in my barn in the Catskills. So I furnished my apartment with his furniture.” Among her other friends and visitors there were Angela Lansbury and Michael York from her old movie days in England.
But, perhaps her most memorable encounter was with famed fight and stunt director B. H. Barry, her stage combat and drama teacher from the Corona Stage Academy when she was just 12.Â He’s close to 70 now.
“He gave me things I still do today especially ‘how to approach a part.’ You get two columns. On one side, you list all the things you have in common with the character. On the other, all the things you don’t. The similar things you can leave alone. They’re already in your body. Focus and work on the things that are different.
“I still do it. Very simple idea. It works for me. Maybe not for everybody. We talked about it over dinner and he got tearful. It’s lovely to know people that long. All those shortcuts can happen.”
With Dashiel happily abroad, and Judd Hirsch’s furniture returned to the Catskills barn, Carr was ready to return home with Mary Poppins. “I’m ending in LA,” she says, “so my pals can see me here…singing, dancing and being silly. But, three years is enough. Don’t want to stay too long at the fair, you know.
“It’s been the blessing of all time, in a recession, to be in a big sparkling musical. It brings such joy to people, and I get to meet the kids who love this good old story. It’s going everywhere-Australia and Tempe, I’m not even sure where that is. When somebody’s sick in Timbuktu, they’ll call me and say, ‘Jane, do you want to play Mrs. Brill?’
“Tom Schumacher and the Disney Theatrical people have been wonderful to me as employers. It’s different to step in here, and they have me working with the stage manager and associate director on every change from the New York version.
“The touring set is very storybook. The New York set is 20 tons. You can’t tour that. Also, people are in a mirror image sometimes, on the opposite side of you. The door’s over here, not there. Your arms go up now not down. It’s great. It keeps me all ‘gee’d up,’ refreshed.
“It’s a bit like having the dream that actors have. You’re in the play, and you know the play, but everything is slightly different, and the people are different. But fortunately, in the dream, I have my clothes on. Usually in these dreams, you don’t.”
These days, the clothes she wears aren’t important for what she loves to do “more than anything.” Voiceovers. “It’s the most fun you can have without throwing up,” she says. “Even when you’re in New York, they can ‘patch’ you in.
“I persevered at it. Eventually, I started getting them. It’s an actor’s dream because you’re not on screen. You can be an old lady, a child, fat, thin…it just has to be through the voice. Kind of magical.
“You can also get panicked and not know what to do. Sometimes I do Mary Jo Catlett. We were in Lettice & Lovage together at the Pasadena Playhouse. I think in the audition ‘they really need her for this.’ Then they cast her anyway.”
But, Carr is very often cast herself…from Finding Nemo, to Family Guy to Phineas and Ferb, among so many others. “I’ve been frogs, birds, fish and even an angry squirrel. You all do it together and some old hand will say this is how an angry squirrel sounds.
“That’s what you’ll be doing in your dotage. They’ll push you up in your wheelchair to the microphone and there you are. An angry squirrel.”
Yet another actor dream.
Feature image of Jane Carr in Mary Poppins by Joan Marcus
Article by Geo Hartley