“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.”
Weissler set up a pre-Broadway tour that stopped in Minneapolis, Chicago, and Boston, allowing Applegate & Co. ample time to hone the production. But even before it left town, Sweet Charity got caught in the shallows. First, Cy Coleman died. Then New York Post theater gossip Michael Riedel reported that Neil Simon wasn’t speaking to the director—though Simon’s wife was showing up at rehearsals. (The rift has since been repaired.) Then the reviews came in. “Christina Applegate’s thin, reedy voice is never going to be mistaken for a brass band,” began Variety’s review of the Chicago show, alluding to the number “I Am a Brass Band.” “That will stay the bad news all the way to Gotham, big spenders, but she’s no celebrity charity case, either.” The notice went on to defend her honesty and “teenlike joy.”
And then came Applegate’s big bad break. The day after a Chicago performance that Applegate claims was the best yet—“everybody was on fire and then this crap happens”—she entered stage left, twirled around an ersatz Central Park lamppost, and while saying, “Did you ever have one of those days that was perfect? I have!” she broke the fifth metatarsal in her right foot. Applegate kept going for twenty minutes before giving way for the on-site understudy.
“She was destroyed,” Barry Weissler said. “But what do you expect? Tommy Tune was the same way, the night he had to go to the hospital after breaking his fifth metatarsal. That show [Busker Alley, a Weissler production] never came in. I couldn’t find someone to quickly go on. Here, I have Charlotte.”
That would be Charlotte d’Amboise. The daughter of ballet pioneer Jacques d’Amboise was contracted to replace Applegate if the run went long enough. She was already starring in another role originated by Gwen Verdon: Roxie Hart in Weissler’s revival of Chicago. But she lacked a marquee name, and had yet to open a show in a starring role. At 41, she was long overdue for the kind of star turn youngsters Shoshana Bean and Sutton Foster have enjoyed after their own 42nd Street–style melodramas (in Wicked and Thoroughly Modern Millie, respectively). And Weissler eagerly played up that theme, telling Riedel, “Charlotte d’Amboise has been waiting to become a Broadway star. If anything is going to do it for her, it will be this show.” Perhaps UNDERSTUDY TRIUMPHS would sell more tickets than TEEN IDOL COMEBACK anyway—particularly a teen idol who hadn’t been winning over the critics.
“I hung up the phone. I don’t even remember what I said. All I know is that I didn’t stop until I heard what I wanted to hear.”
So the announcements rolled out, one after the next: Christina out! Charlotte in! Weissler didn’t exactly fire Applegate, but the Monday after the break, he told Riedel that the notion of Applegate’s opening the show on April 21 was “a little crazy.” Still, it was clear Applegate did not like the news. Noooooo! On Wednesday, Applegate’s husband and publicist went to the barricades. They divided up the labor: Publicist Ame Van Iden told the New York Post, “She is absolutely not down for the count,” while actor-husband Johnathon Schaech went to the Daily News with a pluckier “She’s going to open that show.”
The day of the critics’ opening in Boston, not even the posters outside the gloriously ornate Colonial Theatre knew who the star of the show was. They still bore Christina Applegate’s innocent pout, but a pink sash draped just over her head read NOW STARRING CHARLOTTE D’AMBOISE, DIRECT FROM BROADWAY’S CHICAGO!
Onstage in front of an empty house, D’Amboise was scrambling to learn the part. Fran Weissler stood in an aisle, wearing a black poncho and a worried expression. “My stomach hurts,” she said. “Was it those potato chips?” someone asked. “No. I wish it were the potato chips! Whatever happens, one of these extremely talented, lovely actors is going to be heartbroken. That’s never unimportant.”
D’Amboise certainly seemed to be on the verge of her big break—particularly if the next day’s papers raved. What a great showbiz story! Milling around backstage were not only the Post’s Riedel, but also New York Times reporter Jesse McKinley, who was working up a 2,500-word star-making portrait of D’Amboise for the top of the Friday “Arts” section.
As Sweet Charity’s would-be savior fiddled with her wig before the curtain, her face was visibly tense. “I’ve got a lot to think about,” said D’Amboise. “I don’t feel safe to relax in any way.” A few years back, D’Amboise had told a reporter she was a “replacement queen”—a remark she’s come to regret. Was this finally her shot? “First of all,” she said, “I have no idea if I am completely opening it. I have never gotten a final on that.”
So then, opening night. Cue the orchestra, dim the lights! Oh, why bother. It was—ask anyone, really—a mess. A stray piece of a drumstick flew into the critics’ rows during the “Brass Band” sequence. Songs went by too fast, or off-key. D’Amboise flubbed a new line tacked onto an almost brand-new ending. But there was a doomsday giddiness in D’Amboise’s voice later that night as she tramped three blocks to Chau Chow City restaurant through a spring snowstorm. “It wasn’t great. I don’t know if you noticed, but I was pretty much improvising the choreography in ‘I Am a Brass Band’!”
At Chau Chow, three circular tables were awkwardly pushed together. It was the cast’s first evening together since beginning Boston tryouts. On the wall behind, two fierce gold dragons faced each other on a field of red. And at one end of the tables, her foot propped up in a black ski boot on a neighboring chair, sat—who? Christina, of course. Did you think that she’d gone away? Applegate had been a shadowy presence in Boston—hanging out in the boys’ dressing room, popping into the audience. Later, she described her role in Boston as an off-court booster. “Kobe Bryant, people like that, they stay on the sidelines and cheer their team on,” she said, choosing a curious role model.
D’Amboise sidled up to Applegate, who rose for a lengthy hug. They whispered to each other for a long minute. Applegate greeted her guests and introduced herself to me. How’s the foot? “It’s great,” she chirped. “I’m swimming, I’m doing Pilates!” The group ordered vast amounts of food, and drank a vile-tasting cocktail called a Flaming Lamborghini. D’Amboise, sitting on a tennis ball—helps the hamstring—was taking it all pretty well. “Did that song just happen really fast?” she asked Janine LaManna, who’d taken over the week before as one of two Charity sidekicks.
And yet it was a little weird. Who was the star? Each made a toast: D’Amboise raised her ice water to “rolling with the punches,” and Applegate—clinking a glass with a chopstick and propping herself up on her boot—announced, “I just wanted to say how happy it is to see you all, and to say that I still want to live in a big apartment with all of you.”
The next morning, the reviews were dismissive of the show, though kind to D’Amboise. The Boston Globe summed up the prevailing sentiment: “Why Sweet Charity? Why now?” Later that night, the cast struggled to tighten the production. “The Rhythm of Life,” a funk number about a sixties cult, lacked religious fervor. The script was being tweaked. And crammed into the schedule was a photo shoot of D’Amboise. Shortly before seven, she posed on a set couch, twirling a cane and vamping in front of a Rothko-style painting flooded with blinding orange light. “Try to go back as far as you can without hurting yourself,” the photographer told her. D’Amboise stayed put. She snuck a dance step between shots. Mysteriously, half her photos were shot in stark silhouette. They were arty enough, but why shoot her if you couldn’t see her face?
That night’s performance was much tighter, and it was a more assured Charlotte d’Amboise who twirled her final twirl on the lamppost, reprising the opening line at the show’s close. “Did you ever have one of those days that was perfect? I have. This isn’t it. This definitely isn’t it. But … there’s always tomorrow.”
The next morning—the morning of D’Amboise’s splashy Times profile, headlined “For Her, The Show Goes On”—Weissler called his director. The show, he said, was not going on: Weissler was shutting it down. The advance, which never exceeded $2 million, had been dwindling since Applegate’s name had dropped off the marquee.In shock, Bobbie worked the cast for three more hours. “I didn’t want the rehearsals to stop, so I told no one,” he says. Eventually, he dropped the bomb. He and choreographer Wayne Cilento caught a plane back to New York, and spent the flight in silence.
And that was that. Until the following Tuesday, when Weissler made a startling pronouncement: The show would, indeed, go on. Again. But not with D’Amboise. Christina Applegate would appear as Charity when the show opened on May 4—two weeks late but just in time for the Tony-nomination deadline. What’s more, as if she hadn’t been tortured enough, Charlotte d’Amboise would soldier on in the first week of previews, from April 11 through 17, when Applegate could take over. The news went out before the cast was told: Co-star Denis O’Hare found out when his agent read the release on Broadway.com. Instead of going back to Chicago, D’Amboise returned to rehearse frantically, while Applegate took notes and continued physical therapy. It was still too early for her to take the stage.
After a photo shoot in Soho on a balmy Thursday (if you’ve got a new story to sell, sell it!), Applegate kept her driver waiting while she bummed a cigarette. “I don’t smoke,” she noted dryly, as an assistant gave her a light. “Except when my life gets a little … interesting.”
She is not sharing an apartment with the entire cast. Weissler originally wanted to house her in an apartment at the Time Warner Center, but she asked for a downtown house with a yard big enough for her dog. On the ride uptown, Applegate shared a Polaroid of the chihuahua-dachshund mix dressed as a princess for Halloween. Then she worked on remembering how she got the show’s cancellation canceled. “I don’t think I even cried,” she said, “except on the second night, just by myself. Break your foot and two weeks later a show is closed! But I let it out and pulled up my bootstraps.”
The next day, in the theater lobby, the star’s recollection was clearer still. “You know, a lot of that I really can’t discuss,” she conceded, when asked if she did any of her own fund-raising. “I made phone calls, but my main call, the one that actually worked, was the one that I had with Barry. He had already made a lot of calls. And he and I had never really talked about why I was doing the show to begin with. I think that struck a chord in him.” Did she personally invest in the show? “No, I did not. But I personally invested my soul in the show.”
As we spoke, Applegate took off her boot and peeled away the Ace bandage, and I found myself looking at The Foot. On her ankle is a tattoo symbolizing Agape, or “unconditional love”—the name of a New Age church she and her mother attend in L.A. There is a large bunionlike bump that, while painless, will never heal. “There goes wearing my Jimmy Choo mules,” she joked. She attached an ultrasound machine that resembled a Game Boy with a Velcro belt. It’s intended to speed the healing of the bone, and she got it for free because “I had an angel come into my life”—namely, a medical rep who’d seen the show and was looking to promote the $3,000 device.
Applegate admitted she was not thrilled by the way Barry Weissler handled things in the press when he switched to Backstory B: Charlotte d’Amboise as the standby who becomes the star. “I put my two cents in about that, definitely.” As for D’Amboise, “I don’t look at her as a standby. She’s my other Charity and I’m her other Charity. When I’ll feel like having a day off, she’ll play it again. We share. I mean, not really share—I’m not gonna be there Tuesday and she’ll be there Wednesday, it’s not like that. But we’re partners in this.”
As it turned out, they were partners on print ads, too. Up in his company’s crowded office at 46th Street, Barry Weissler showed me. “If you turn around, you’ll see the way we went for the time being with Charlotte d’Amboise.” On a poster board in the corner was the silhouette of D’Amboise taken in Boston, posed with hat and cane. “Because it’s a shadow figure, it could have been anyone,” Weissler explained—and as an “interim solution,” he’d featured the shots in an ad in the Times, with Applegate’s button-cute face alongside D’Amboise’s lithe shadow.
“Once I do my marketing magic, I sell the public on the product. Now they want that product. The minute I took the star away, the ticket sales faltered and the refunds were huge. Because as great as Charlotte is, they wanted what they thought they had purchased. It’s human nature.”
He credited co-producer Ed Schloss with helping to add $1.5 million to the initial $7.5 million dump. “He was despondent that we were closing.” Is Applegate an investor? “No,” he said. Are friends of hers among them? He paused over his Whole Foods turkey meatballs—a good while longer than it takes to swallow—looked up and said, “No.” How many phone calls did he and Applegate exchange that weekend? “How many phone calls? I feel like this is a deposition.” Industry sources say Schloss kicked in about $1 million and Applegate’s wealthy connections provided the rest. Christina Applegate’s fund-raising blitzkrieg may have been one of the most productive blackouts in history.
Weissler did say that the premature closing almost lost Charity its theater. The deal to transfer Twelve Angry Men to the Al Hirschfeld was almost set to close that day, until Weissler called Jujamcyn head Rocco Landesman to steal it back. “I had a battle on my hands, but thank goodness we prevailed. See, that’s an example of why you would never do this as a marketing ploy.”
“I don’t look at her as a standby. We share. I mean, not really share—I’m not gonna be there Tuesday and she’ll be there Wednesday, it’s not like that.”
By opening his show on the Tony deadline, Weissler is hoping the buzz of nominations will sustain momentum. With the refunds stanched, the advance is inching up well over $2 million, he says. Not awful, but not good. (Other sources estimate $1.5 million—closer to awful.) He’s predicting at least a $50,000-a-day increase once performances start.
“No one’s going to feel heartbroken,” Weissler said, smiling. “Charlotte’s job is to be a standby. Nobody said, ‘Hey, this is gonna be your big break, kid.’”
Well, actually, they did. Still, that’s showbiz. As Charlotte d’Amboise prepares for her first preview in her temporary dressing room—Applegate will move in when D’Amboise vacates—she’s far more composed than she was that nerve-racking evening in Boston. That is, until I suggest that she might be less than disappointed. “Who said I wasn’t disappointed?” she snaps, her face tightening. “It’s very disappointing that that’s the way the theater is, that you have to have a big name. It’s a safe choice that producers make. And sure, it sucks, but that’s reality. I don’t want to be a bitter person. So as much as I put my heart and soul into this, it’s not my heart and soul. I’ve gone way past that.”
Maybe she didn’t get enough time to make the role her own? “It doesn’t have anything to do with me growing into the role,” she counters. “Even if I were fucking brilliant and I had been doing it for a year, I don’t think anything would have changed.” Though D’Amboise is contracted to replace Applegate, an escape clause gives the production free reign to take on another big-name star, leaving her “skeptical. Always skeptical.” Of course, first the show has to have an actual run—not to mention an opening night, for which there is no guarantee. That first night of previews (a decently tight performance; D’Amboise even did a cartwheel), Applegate’s silhouette was on the Playbill. By May, it’ll be her spotlit face. Back in rehearsals, Bobbie and Cilento were doing their best to come up with one routine that suited both performers. Applegate was knocking a lot of wood these days; she was eager to try out her first steps, but she knew this was one aspect of the production she couldn’t control.
After Applegate and D’Amboise left the rehearsal room, a frustrated Walter Bobbie dropped the institutional voice for a moment, providing his own concise backstory. “This is a stupid story,” he said. “It never stops. But we keep making lemonade! We’re opening the biggest fucking lemonade stand you ever saw!”