“I got a phone call, and then I kind of sat there and didn’t say anything,” said Christina Applegate, recalling the day she first heard that the musical Sweet Charity—her star vehicle, slated to open on Broadway in April—had been canceled. We were sitting at a rehearsal-room lunch table above Times Square, and we were not alone. Arrayed around Applegate, like a council of elders, was the extended Sweet Charity production team: husband-and-wife producers Barry and Fran Weissler; director Walter Bobbie; choreographer Wayne Cilento; Applegate’s stand-in for the title role, Charlotte d’Amboise; and two publicists. This was the institutional voice of Sweet Charity, and Applegate was trying her best to channel it.
“I hung up the phone. And then I went into a blind three days of just—I don’t even remember what I said, what I did, all I knew was that I was on a mission and it wasn’t gonna stop,” she said. “I just went, ‘Noooooooo, that’s not the answer I want.’ And I’m going to get the answer that I want in my life—in our lives,” she corrected herself, spreading her arms to take in the room. “I don’t know who I talked to. All I know is that I didn’t stop until I heard what I wanted to hear.”
“Good for you,” Barry Weissler said pointedly from the other end of the room. “Good for you. That’s why you are a star. Tenacious.”
“Yeah,” said Applegate. “To say the least, I suppose.”
For a Broadway musical to succeed, it helps to have an exciting showbiz backstory. Sweet Charity now has at least three. And yet, it all started so simply. The tale of Charity Hope Valentine, a naïve taxi dancer who keeps falling for the wrong guys, Sweet Charity has always been catnip for twinkle-eyed ingenues: Gwen Verdon starred in the 1966 musical choreographed and directed by her husband Bob Fosse, and Shirley MacLaine followed her in a 1969 movie adaptation subtitled “The Adventures of a Girl Who Wanted to Be Loved.” The plot was a sugary derivative of its film source, Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, in which our heroine was no dance-hall hostess but a mangy prostitute. Still, Fosse’s dance moves, Neil Simon’s book, Dorothy Fields’s lyrics, and Cy Coleman’s poppy score lent the corny plot some enduring charm. Fittingly, the Weisslers’ new revival was going to be 33-year-old Christina Applegate’s ticket out of former-teen-stardom—a storyline that might be subtitled “The Girl Who Wanted to Be Loved for More Than Having Once Played Kelly Bundy.”
Then Applegate broke her foot in out-of-town tryouts. Suddenly there was a new story to tell: Charlotte d’Amboise, Applegate’s talented, perpetually unsung standby, would replace the ailing Hollywood star—and save the day! Just as that story got some traction, Sweet Charity closed out of town. Then, mysteriously, it reopened four days later, with Christina Applegate again as the star. Rumors flew that Applegate personally kicked in the funds, that her agents at CAA bullied Weissler to revive the show—even that, maybe, the famously impish Barry Weissler faked the whole thing, X-rays and all. (A suspenseful switcheroo might sell tickets even better than the original backstory. This was Broadway, after all, and stranger things had happened.)
Meanwhile, there were two leads rehearsing, and Applegate, who hadn’t done so much as a plié for a month, was expected to jump (well, walk gingerly) into previews in two weeks. So what was happening here in this rehearsal room—Charlotte and Christina whispering and hugging, Barry and Fran all smiles, publicists hovering—could fairly be called creative spin.
“We’ve all been in this business a long time,” said white-haired director Bobbie, who’s steered four Broadway shows and performed in eleven more. “We know when we’re in a turkey. That’s not what happened here.”
And what about Applegate’s foot? For this group interview, she was sporting a Converse sneaker instead of her therapeutic cast-boot. She was, she said, on the road to recovery: Pilates, swimming, physical therapy; swimming, physical therapy, Pilates. So much depended, she believed, on attitude. “Sometimes you just don’t have room for negative thought. Even if one starts to creep in, I say, ‘I told you not to come around here anymore.’ Because worrying actually affects your organs, and your organs are what help heal your foot. So I can’t jeopardize my foot heal—”
Suddenly, as if on cue, everyone was singing. “The hip bone’s connected to the foot bone, the foot bone’s connected to the heart bone, the heart bone’s connected . . . ”
“There’s something to that song,” Applegate called out, ending the sing-along. “It’s not just some frivolous silly song. It all is connected.” “Focus and determination,” Fran Weissler chimed in.
“I’m determined and I’m focused,” Applegate echoed.
Barry Weissler is a fit man with an engaging smile, and his neatly trimmed beard is darker than his graying, slicked-back hair. He calls himself an “artistic producer” (“as opposed to money producer.”) Three years ago, he began working to bring Sweet Charity back to Broadway—just the kind of revival Weissler likes best. “I want to do shows that are user-friendly,” he said. “Very simple things that tell a story, that allow the performer to get inside the audience.” As so many of his revivals have shown (Grease, Annie Get Your Gun, Zorba), no one gets inside the audience like a recognizable brand name at center stage.
“Would I have done Sweet Charity without a star? No,” said Weissler. The role demands a great actress, a very skilled dancer, and a strong singer—the storied triple threat. Weissler brought on mid-career Hollywood types—first Jenna Elfman, then Marisa Tomei—but neither could hack it. “They were both great actresses,” said Weissler. “But they really couldn’t get the musical side of the show. So we went into an audition process—and I’m not gonna name the other stars because it would be embarrassing to them. Christina came out looking the best.”
Christina Applegate, best remembered as bleached-blonde teen bimbo Kelly Bundy in the nineties sitcom Married . . . With Children, had—unbeknownst to her pubescent admirers—danced regularly until the age of 27. Hollywood-born and -bred, she had also nurtured a lifelong infatuation with the work of Bob Fosse. In L.A., Applegate is neither a star nor a has-been; her grown-up sitcom, Jesse, ran for two years but was canceled in 2000. Yet with her lead role in last year’s Anchorman, a still-young Applegate was on the upswing, and to commit to Sweet Charity, she passed on Tim Burton’s remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Instead of trading lines with Johnny Depp, she found herself enduring a grueling private tryout with composer Cy Coleman. “When there’s a dream in a 7- or 10-year-old girl that doesn’t get fulfilled,” she explained, “you will always feel that loss in your life, and this came along and this was that dream.”