When Larry Kert goes to work, he goes to work.
Take his national tour of "La Cage aux Folles" last year.
"We bus-and-trucked from El Paso, Tex., to Providence, R.I.--one-nighters, split weeks," the actor said cheerfully. "Four-hundred-mile trips on the bus. Sometimes you'd arrive in town at 6:30 for an 8 o'clock show--go to the theater, shower, shave, do the show, go back to the hotel, get up at 8 a.m., get back on the bus and go somewhere else. I'd say, 'Where did we just come from and where are we going?' But overall, it was a very rewarding experience--because of the show, and because I was starring with my best friend."
At Long Beach Theater
Through Oct. 23, the actor (whose big break came in the role of Tony in the original 1957 Broadway production of "West Side Story") reprises that experience--minus the travel, at the Terrace Theatre in the Long Beach Civic Light Opera production of "La Cage aux Folles," opposite that same best friend, Harvey Evans.
"It's been a magical relationship on stage," said Kert, 57. "From the first day of rehearsals, we knew it was right. The show is not about homosexuality. It's about commitment, relationships; (the protagonists) happen to be two guys raising a son. Friendship, loyalty, deceit--they're emotions everyone lives with, heterosexual or homosexual. And because Harvey and I were such great friends (they met in "West Side Story") we didn't have to work out any of that as actors. We knew everything about each other there was to know."
Unsure About Response
What Kert was not as sure of was how some audiences might respond to a show in which most of the male cast spends the evening in drag. "There are ignorant people everywhere," he said bluntly. "People who think they're going to get AIDS by sitting in Row H, Seats 101 and 102. We went to some places--Louisiana, Alabama, Tennessee--where we didn't know if they were going to string us up; well, they stood on their seats and cheered."
As for long-lasting tolerance: "Maybe they'll walk out of there saying, 'Well, I wasn't disgusted by seeing him touch the other guy's face.' But I'm not sure that's going to mean anything the next day if they see two guys walking down the street swinging arm in arm."
After more than 30 years on Broadway (where credits include "Cabaret," "Side by Side by Sondheim," "Ziegfeld Follies 1956" and "Mr. Wonderful"), the Los Angeles native has had more than his share of successes--and failures.
Audience Said Ciao
"I love roller-coasters," Kert smiled. "And I've been on one all my life. Two years ago I did 'Rags,' a $6-million production: it ran for four performances. Or 'La Strada' with Bernadette Peters and me: one performance. Or 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' with Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain: four previews and we never opened. The audience reaction was the most shocking thing I'd ever seen. I had a song, 'Ciao, Campari'--and in the middle of it, they'd yell 'Ciao!, ' put on their coats and walk out."
Yet right on the heels of those career lows have come some of his biggest triumphs. In the midst of his "La Strada" depression, Kert was invited to director Hal Prince's Christmas party. Out of that came an offer to understudy Dean Jones in Stephen Sondheim's new musical, "Company." Although Jones opened in the role, he left the show after two weeks. Kert stepped in, did 17 months on Broadway, then 12 months in London. That year, the Tony Award nominating committee broke precedent by nominating a replacement best actor (Kert) in a musical.
Filling Other Shoes
Then, as now, he expresses little trepidation in stepping into a role originated by another performer.
"Dean Jones and Larry Kert were leading men who were very similar," he agreed. "But when I do this role, there's nothing about Gene Barry (Broadway's Georges) in it. My approach to the score is much different. I sing it. Gene act-sang. Also, Gene and (co-star) George Hearn did not have a great relationship--I know this because George is a friend of mine. They looked at each other like this (averting their eyes). That's the difference with this production. Harvey brings a smile to my face, just mentioning his name."
Another thing that's got Kert smiling is the prospect of a six-month sojourn on the West Coast. "Nothing's happening in New York right now--and since I don't have an English accent, it's hard to get a job on Broadway," he said. "I'd like to come out here and be an actor. I'm a singer-actor who moves--I'm not really a dancer--but for a long time I wore a shingle around my neck that said 'Singer.' Now I'm starting to feel confident about myself as an actor."