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Object Lessons 

Angie Schworer’s smart take on a dumb blond

Thursday, Jun 5 2003
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Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

After collecting millions of dollars of investments for a Broadway show they’re literally banking on being a flop (for tax purposes), the eponymous con men in Mel Brooks’ 1968 movie, The Producers (played by Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder), hire a buxom secretary for what might be written off as office entertainment.

Lee Meredith portrayed the Scandinavian Barbie doll, Ulla, with a bleached platinum wig, a combo halter top/miniskirt, and eyes blinking robotically when almost anything was said to her. (She may have been fluent in Swedish, but that dimension never emerged.) Given the instructions, “Get to work,” Ulla, in a Pavlovian response, would demonstrate her most marketable skill, gyrating and cavorting like a go-go dancer. The film first screened when what was then called the women’s liberation movement was finding its stride, and one of the day’s topics was the treatment of women as objects. While Meredith’s Ulla was Brooks’ Borscht Belt answer to Betty Friedan, Christopher Hewett’s swishy, puckered-lipped stage director, Roger De Bris, was a gay activist’s nightmare; and civil rights wasn’t even on the radar. Everyone’s as dumb as a post in The Producers. Well, maybe there’s an exception.

Leggy Angie Schworer, who plays Ulla in Brooks’ stage adaptation at the Pantages, argues that even in Brooks’ universe of blatant clichés, of pratfalls and backfiring ploys, things are not necessarily what they seem. (Brooks expanded the role of Ulla for the stage. She now has a love interest and an entrance song: “When You Got It, Flaunt It” — what some might call a philosophy.) Contrary to the film version, Schworer describes her stage Ulla as “dumb as a fox.”

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“I like Ulla because she knows what’s going on,” Schworer says while driving along Franklin Avenue, negotiating thick Hollywood traffic like the New Yorker she’s become since moving there from northern Kentucky 13 years ago. “In the first scene I knock on the door and ask if I can audition — who in L.A. or New York would actually do that? — meaning she’s fearless and has never been told no in her whole life. We’re so afraid in this life, afraid of not being liked, afraid of being told no. And Ulla always gets what she wants. And let’s face it, Mel’s writing is funny. It’s about making fun of the stereotypes rather than being the stereotypes.”

Schworer says her point is supported by the women in the audience who offer her character affirmation during one of Ulla’s prize moments.

“There’s a line late in the play, everybody’s in trouble and Leo, with Ulla by his side, says, ‘Should I go to jail or go to Rio?’ Women yell out, ‘Rio!’ I like having the women on my side, because if I were just an object it would be just the men, and maybe not even them.”

 

Leaning back against the 101 Coffee Shop’s light stucco wall for a photo shoot, Schworer squints into the sun, blithely ignoring catcalls from passing motorists and the stares of construction workers perched on the roof of the hotel across the street. She’s physically animated, walks with an almost strident gait and speaks with a husky voice. Is she as tough as she looks?

“No. I just act like I am,” she says.

Schworer grew up in rural Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, with four brothers and an older sister. From the age of 5 through high school, she took weekly dance lessons at Ziegler’s Studio of Dance (where she eventually taught). Schworer says that even though she could do gymnastic contortions with ease, she wasn’t good enough to be in a formal dance company.

“Nobody who’s really trained takes one class a week,” she explains with self-deprecating sarcasm.

After not graduating from Northern Kentucky University (which she attended on a dance scholarship), she spent a couple of years hoofing as a showgirl in Atlantic City, in Tokyo and at MGM Studios in Orlando before her first New York audition for chorus girl in The Will Rogers Follies. If you got it, flaunt it.

“I had the first prerequisite of being 5-foot-8, so I flew there on February 9, 1991. It was freezing cold, a friend of a friend said they needed more women for this Broadway show. Tommy Tune wanted to hire me, and I’ve been there ever since. Broadway has been my bread and butter.”

Which suggests that Schworer performed regularly on Broadway. “Oh, no,” she clarifies. “Up to this point, I’ve always been an understudy.” In fact, in 12 years, she performed seven shows and three national tours — all as an understudy.

“In Sunset Boulevard, I did get to do the token call girl who plays the glamorous movie stars. I did ensemble.”

She tried forays into other media, and describes those struggles in terms painfully familiar to L.A.: “It’s hard in New York, because if you work in the theater, people in TV don’t care.”

When The Producers opened on Broadway two years ago, Schworer was not the first but the second understudy for Tony Award winner Cady Huffman. She learned the role by watching from the wings. “Nobody ever figured I’d actually go on,” Schworer says. “I think I had three or four rehearsals when I did the show from top to bottom.”

Schworer must have felt some schadenfreude when Huffman came down with the flu just as the first understudy was out of town. “In all those months, I did the show 6-point-5 times on Broadway.” (The “point-5” refers to a performance where Huffman started the show but was too ill to complete it.) Director Susan Stroman and Mel Brooks saw Schworer seize the role, and invited her to star in the touring production.

The tour took her right to her hometown, Cincinnati, where her performance, and Mel Brooks’ praises of it, vindicated her life to a skeptical family. “When they found out how much money I made, they got off my back,” she says.

Schworer says that life in New York hasn’t so much toughened her as it has opened her eyes to a calming acceptance of reality. “The tough-girl thing was just a façade. I’ve become more settled in my own skin. As an actor, you go through so much of life saying, ‘I wish I had that, or I wish I could sing that.’ As you get older, you say, ‘I’m this, I sing that, I’m not an ingénue’ — you get it, you live with it, and it doesn’t mean you’re bad.”

“I always say, this will be the last show — what am I going to do to top this? I don’t know. There’s a part of me that’s happy to be healthy and alive, and still being able to do a backwalkover on the desk and settle into a split.”

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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