The Fabulous, Extraordinary, Hilarious, and Wonderful Ruth Williamson (First Time Ever in Buffalo)
by Anthony Chase
In White Christmas at Shea's
There is a special tier of rarified Broadway performers. These are astonishingly talented people with vivid personalities whose names might not be known by the general public, but who are entirely familiar to hardcore fans. Every single person in the world of Broadway knows the name Ruth Williamson. She’s the go-to gal for characters who need to pop with comic vitality and sing with the clarity of a golden bell.
Memorable Ruth Williamson roles on Broadway include the 2004 revival of La Cage aux Folles, the 2000 revival of The Music Man, Little Me with Martin Short, Guys and Dolls with Nathan Lane, Marvin Hamlisch’s Smile, The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940, and Miss Hannigan during the run of the original production of Annie.
Ardent fans know that she is the singing voice of drag icon Charles Busch for such shows as Die Mommie Die (www.youtube.com/watch?v=gsX3mrsExds) and The Divine Sister.
Fans of the FX television series, Nip/Tuck, will recognize her as Mrs. Grubman, the plastic surgery addict.
“They killed me off in season four of Nip/Tuck,” recalls Williamson, “but I got a terrific send-off, singing ‘This Girl’s In Love With You,’ with Burt Bacharach himself at the piano!” (You can see that at www.youtube.com/watch?v=4zDv17r6-Z0.)
Ruth Williamson is now appearing at Shea’s in Irving Berlin’s White Christmas. It is her first engagement in Buffalo—ever. If you’ve never seen Williamson in person, this is a platinum opportunity.
“I don’t generally tour,” admits Williamson. “But White Christmas has such a sensational role for me, and it’s only a three-month commitment. It also pays very well! I call these three months ‘my annuity.’”
The sensational role that has lured high-octane Williamson to the provinces is Martha Watson, the concierge at a quaint Vermont Inn that’s seen better days.
The plot of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas has been modified from the 1954 movie that starred Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera Ellen. Additional songs have been added. In the film, Williamson’s role was played by another great funny lady of Broadway, Mary Wickes. The part has been amplified and given some great Irving Berlin tunes for the stage version.
In White Christmas, two army buddies become Broadway celebrities, and go to Vermont where they find that their former commander is now the proprietor of an inn and has hit bad times. Business is lousy. The weather is warm and customers are scarce. The guys devise a plan to save the day. Before they’re through, they’ve sung a slew of Irving Berlin songs, including “White Christmas” and “Count Your Blessings,” they’ve done a bunch of lavish dance numbers, and they’ve worn a whole lot of gorgeous costumes.
“I get to sing the iconic Irving Berlin song, ‘Let Me Sing and I’m Happy,” and I also get some delightful Irving Berlin tunes that will be less familiar,” confides Williamson. “I love ‘What Can You Do with a General?’ and I sing ‘Falling Out of Love Can be Fun’ with the girls.”
The conceit is that her character is a former Broadway performer.
Williamson is famed for giving every woman she’s ever played a libido, including the Salvation Army officer in Guys and Dolls, which she played on Broadway to great acclaim.
“With Martha,” says Williamson, “it’s all pretty much on the page. She’s in love with the general. Yes, I am the love interest of this show!”
Martha is also a meddler, allowing Williamson to indulge in some of the show’s best comedy.
“I’ve heard the Buffalo audience is very responsive,” she says. “As the funny woman in the show, I sure hope that’s true!”
Indeed, the famously effusive Buffalo audience should be a perfect fit for Williamson and the camp dose of holiday nostalgia provided by White Christmas.
While Williamson is indelibly associated with Broadway, she reveals that for the past few years she’s actually lived in Los Angeles.
“Back in 2000, I was doing The Music Man,” she recalls, “and I had to wear these enormous hats. The milliner was not experienced in theater, and the hats were too heavy. Stage hats need to be lightweight. I developed a scalp infection that would not heal, and I had to leave the show. I accepted a role in Kristin Chenoweth’s first television pilot and was getting ready to fly to California when I got a call that the pilot was canceled. I had the distinction of losing a Broadway show and a TV series on the same day! Well, I decided to head out to California anyway.”
Williamson had made the trip to Los Angeles in the 1980s and, like a true Broadway baby, had hated it.
“But in 2000,” she says, “I was a little older and I fell in love with LA. I was getting a lot of work. Then came the writers’ strike, which went on forever. After the strike was over, television was entirely different. It was either reality shows, or any part that was right for me was going to a celebrity.”
Luckily, the theater yearned to have Williamson back.
“There is a lot more theater in LA than there used to be,” she says. “I’ve done Hello, Dolly! and the Reprise series out there, and television when I can get it.”
Williamson’s association with drag icon Charles Busch is intriguing. Busch is an off-Broadway legend, the author and star of such shows as Psycho Beach Party, The Lady in Question, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Die Mommie Die, and The Divine Sister. (In Buffalo, Jimmy Janowski plays all the Charles Busch roles.) Williamson appeared in his musical, The Green Heart, as well as in Queen Amarantha, and in You Should Be So Lucky. But when Busch’s characters sing, the voice is actually Ruth Williamson’s.
“That started with Die Mommie Die,” reveals Williamson. “They recorded the song ‘Why Not Me?’ using some girl studio artist. The voice sounded generic, and when Charles heard it he said, ‘Nobody is going to believe that’s me. I need a more neurotic voice. Get Ruth.’”
She laughs as the recollection.
“He later explained to me, ‘It’s a compliment, darling. Judy Garland had a neurotic voice.’”
Williamson has done White Christmas many times, from Los Angeles to Broadway, including performances with Buffalo’s John Scherer and Jeffry Denman.
Coincidentally Denman is also in Buffalo at the moment, doing The Holiday Guys with Marc Kudisch, their tribute to Christmas and Hanukah at MusicalFare.
“I love those guys!” enthuses Williamson. “They’re two of the best Broadway talents around, and you just know it’s got to be a great show with them in it. I wish I could see it!”
Williamson will be a little busy this week, including a five-show weekend at Shea’s, performing to 3,000 each time.
“We’ve got a great show!” says Williamson. “James Clow—what a voice! He’s got a true Broadway voice. And David Elder is so charming, and what a dancer! Mara Davi is wonderful—she actually replaced Sutton Foster in Drowsy Chaperone. Stefanie Morse is wonderful. They are like a family to me, and I know you will like them.”
Busy as she is, Williamson has a short list of Western New York attractions she hopes to see.
“Niagara Falls is a possibility,” she admits, “and I really love Frank Lloyd Wright, so Buffalo architecture is on my list. We’re only there for one week, so I hope to fit in what I can!”
While Ruth Williamson is having a look at Western New York, Western New Yorkers should seize this opportunity to see the Divine Ruth Williamson!
For tickets, call 847-0850, go to www.sheas.org, or to the Shea’s Ticket Office at 650 Main Street. Irving Berlin’s White Christmas continues through Sunday.
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