Musical film icon Shirley Jones insists that playing "42nd Street" 's Dorothy Brock, the self-centered has-been of a star with the morals of a street cat, is nothing short of "delicious."
"She is no Mrs. Partridge," continues the gracious 70-year-old Jones, who is perhaps best known for playing the relentlessly wholesome matriarch in the 1970s sitcom "The Partridge Family." "If they had offered me a Mrs. Partridge-becomes-a-grandma role, I wouldn't have done it."
That said, Jones—who won an Oscar for best supporting actress for her performance opposite Burt Lancaster in "Elmer Gantry" (1960)—concedes that the prospect of returning to Broadway after close to 40 years was terrifying. "I was scared to death. Do I want to do this after 38 years? Can I do eight shows a week? Will my body and voice hold up?" She adds, "If Patrick weren't doing it with me, I wouldn't be here. Patrick takes care of me."
Jones says it seriously, although she hardly suggests a woman who needs "taking care of." Patrick is actor-singer Patrick Cassidy, Jones' son and co-star in Broadway's long-running revival at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts. Jones and Cassidy, performing together for the first time in recent years, joined the Depression-era show, awash in optimism and innocence, on May 7. A mother-and-son duo acting in the same Main Stem production is unprecedented, they contend.
The two Los Angeles-based performers, who meet with me in Jones' sublet on the Upper East Side (Cassidy, his wife, and two kids have a sublet in the same townhouse), are totally straightforward. They admit frankly, for example, that hiring Cassidy to play the tough but suave comeback producer, Julian Marsh, was an accommodation to Jones.
"And had I auditioned for the role, I wouldn't have gotten it," notes the graying 42-year-old Cassidy, who bears a strong resemblance to his late father, Jack Cassidy (with whom Jones last performed on Broadway in "Maggie Flynn" in 1968). "For starters, I don't audition well. And secondly, they never would have imagined me for this role. I've had an eclectic career. But in many ways, ironically enough, this is the most natural part for me.
"I see Julian as a combination of my father and a radio announcer, with a clipped New York sound," Cassidy comments. "I'm a tenor, but I brought my voice down for this role. There's a certain affectation in Julian. He speaks well, but you're not quite sure where he comes from. He's like my father, who grew up in Richmond Hill but learned about fine places to dine and what books to read. When someone says, 'Julian is chewing a cigar,' it's not simply a metaphor."
A broader acting challenge: "It's a period piece and there is the danger of becoming campy," he says. "There's a fine line between comedy and camp. And you always have to keep it real."
Onstage, the two characters inhabited by Jones and Cassidy are at comic loggerheads. Offstage, both mother and son talk about the "bonding" they've experienced during their "42nd Street" stint.
"Patrick is still my son, still my baby," says Jones, mom to Shaun and Ryan Cassidy and David Cassidy's stepmother. "Yet I'm now seeing Patrick as an adult and an actor onstage. He's a damn good actor. It's wonderful to see how he works."
Adds Cassidy: "The bonding is not just in the theatre, but outside the theatre as well. We walk together, go to restaurants together. There's something amazing about all this. In a month it will be over. As I get older, I find I cherish the special moments more. I will remember this for the rest of my life."
From Different Worlds
Jones and Cassidy come to their current gig from profoundly different worlds. The universes from which they've emerged reflect disparate times, sensibilities, and experiences.
Jones was the only daughter of a brewery owner in Smithtown, Penn., a farming and coal-mining community. Show business couldn't have been further from her roots. Yet she demonstrated a natural talent for singing as a child, and by the time she was a teenager, she was performing in summer stock and local theatres. Still, she toyed with the idea of becoming a veterinarian and continues to be an animal activist. (Her golden retriever, Buff, who greets me at the door when I arrive, was a stray that Jones picked up two years ago.) Jones never did pursue veterinary studies; her career took off just as she was headed to college. At the urging of a pianist with whom she had worked at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, Jones auditioned for Rodgers and Hammerstein's casting director. It didn't take long for Jones to be making her Broadway debut in "South Pacific" (1953), leading the way to her memorable performances in such Rodgers and Hammerstein films as "Oklahoma!" and "Carousel."
"I was under a five-year personal contract to Rodgers and Hammerstein, the only performer to have one," she recalls. Right from the beginning, she worked steadily. Among her other notable film credits: "The Courtship of Eddie's Father," "The Cheyenne Social Club," Robert Anderson's "Silent Night, Lonely Night," and "The Music Man," which has special meaning to Jones and Cassidy. While shooting that film, she was pregnant with Patrick.
"I've always had a connection with that musical," he says. "I'd love to play Harold Hill."
Observes Jones: "My career was like Peggy Sawyer's. I am the original Peggy Sawyer [the lead in "42nd Street," who becomes a star overnight]. It was all very serendipitous."
By contrast, there was nothing serendipitous about Cassidy's professional journey. For starters, show business was the family business. There were his parents and his brothers, Shaun Cassidy and David Cassidy, both teen idols of the 1970s. "I was launching my career from the time I came out of the womb," Cassidy laughs. Nevertheless, his journey was not always smooth sailing and, to date at least, he has not enjoyed the kind of high-profile careers that his brothers and parents have. (His brother Ryan is a set decorator.)
"Coming from the family I did was a huge advantage in getting a major agent almost immediately," Cassidy acknowledges. "At the same time, I was not really taken seriously. After all, my brothers were a couple of teen idols. I had to carve a niche for myself, make a real effort to do work that was respected, critically acknowledged, as opposed to being a flash in the pan. I saw the price of being a teen idol. It's all fleeting."
Jones interrupts: "David and Shaun were on the cover of records and magazines. They made millions of dollars and then, within two years, it was all gone. Fifteen years later, they had to start from scratch to be taken seriously as actors. Their father [Jack Cassidy] was furious with them. But he loved the way Patrick was proceeding." (In 1994, David and Shaun appeared on Broadway in "Blood Brothers.")
Continues Cassidy: "I felt I had fortitude and my goal was longevity. I came to New York to study acting"—at HB Studio—"and get cast in plays."
And indeed he did. His Broadway credits include "Leader of the Pack," "Aida," "Annie Get Your Gun," and "The Pirates of Penzance." Cassidy originated the role of the Balladeer in "Assassins" at Playwrights Horizons and played Randy Curtis in "Lady in the Dark" at City Center Encores!, in addition to performing in national tours and regional theatres nationwide. Cassidy has also acted in a host of TV movies and series.
"My goal now is to do 'Sunday in the Park With George,' " he notes.
Jones says, "I take it one day at a time. I never had any great dreams. I guess that's because it all happened for me so quickly." Beat. "I think I might like doing a straight play."
At the moment, however, mother and son's thoughts are focused on "42nd Street," a production that Jones describes as a "pure entertainment that makes audiences feel good and leave the theatre with hope."
"There is something to be said for escape, especially when life is not easy," observes Cassidy. "Escape makes it possible to deal with the perils of life. That doesn't mean I don't like theatre that talks about what's happening in the world. There is a place for both."
Cassidy checks his watch. It is time to end the interview. He is off to play softball, representing "42nd Street" in the annual Show League games.