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The Girl Next Door Comes Home

October 18, 1987|HERMAN WONG | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — In a tiny backstage office at Jones Hall, hours before yet another performance of "My One and Only," Merilee Magnuson was counting the days before Costa Mesa, the last stop of a 17-city tour. It would be her homecoming.

Stars Tommy Tune and Stephanie Zimbalist and the show's score, newly served musical morsels by Gershwin, may get the most attention Wednesday when the show opens a five-night stand at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. But the evening also will belong to Magnuson, the show's dance captain, a Laguna Beach High graduate who studied drama at UC Irvine.

"Oh yes, I'm excited," said the 36-year-old, exuding girl-next-door vivacity. "Sure, I've been back to see family and friends, but not in a show, not in a very long time."

Seventeen years, to be exact. The last time she played Orange County was in 1970 at Anaheim Convention Center, when as a 19-year-old, she starred as Alice in Wonderland in the national touring extravaganza, "Disney on Parade."

But her homecoming won't be all sweet nostalgia.

It also will bring to mind some hard truths about the pains of would-be stardom. And, for now at least, it will be the end of the road.

In the early '70s, when she launched her drive to scale the heights of show-biz, the heady success of the 80-city Disney tour made stardom seem magically within reach.

But Magnuson has spent most of the ensuing years in relatively small roles or in chorus lines. "My career, I guess, has been fits and starts," she admits, "more one of small steps, not long strides."

Even now, with "My One and Only" -- a show she considers one of her career high points -- her role is largely off-stage, monitoring dancers during performances and assisting Tune at rehearsals, and serving as an understudy for the top supporting role.

And like hundreds of other aspiring ingenues from the cultural hinterlands, she has learned to live always on edge, with endless auditions and weeks of joblessness.

Yet, after all these years, Magnuson still thinks of the entertainment world as a kind of wonderland.

"She's an exceptionally hard worker with tremendous energy, and she's stayed a very sweet, radiant person," said director-choreographer Tune, who cast Magnuson in his original Broadway production of "My One and Only" and in his earlier "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas."

Magnuson's own assessment: "I've always loved performing. I love to lift people's spirits, to make them laugh and feel good. This can be a terribly frustrating business, but it can be the most thrilling."

In the late 1960s, when she was song leader, homecoming princess and honor-roll student at Laguna Beach High, Merilee Magnuson seemed a natural for success. At 16, she was a soloist with Lila Zali's Laguna Beach Civic Ballet Co. and won a scholarship to a summer ballet school in Tacoma, Wash., run by the Robert Joffrey organization.

In her early 20s, thanks to her image as a Disney princess, roles seemed to fall into her lap. First, chorus bits in Hollywood, in the films "Mame" and "Blazing Saddles." A stint as a dancing bunny at Manhattan's Radio City Music Hall. Then, as member of the dance corps in the musicals "Gigi" and "Irene" in both Los Angeles and New York.

Truly smitten with show biz, Magnuson set out to make it a full-time career. She moved out of the chorus to small parts in light opera shows, summer stock vehicles, television serials and such films as "The Chosen" (which starred Magnuson's then-boyfriend, Robby Benson).

She did earn a few lead roles, in an off-Broadway revue called "Dancing in the Dark" and in the satirical musical "Nunsense" in Cleveland, where she originated the role of a daffy, dancing novice and did the choreography.

Generally, she stayed in the secondary ranks, as was the case in the Broadway and touring companies of "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas." And between plays, she suffered the actor's usual lot: chronic unemployment and blows to self-esteem.

"Actors live such a frail balance," she said in Houston last week. "You feel so lucky, sometimes even guilty, to be working at all, because so many friends are not. In New York, you have only 5% of the Equity members who are working at any one time.

"When you're not working, it's hard to feel good about yourself. You're so down. Once I didn't leave the apartment for a week, until I just told myself to get on with it and stop moping."

Magnuson found stop-gap "survival jobs," usually as a leader of aerobic classes, a dancer in productions for corporate conventions and a performer in television commercials hawking fabric softeners, kitchen cleansers and other housewife-type items. "I must have that you-can-trust-me, all-American housewife's face," she laughed.

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