Harriet Harris on Creating an 'Offbeat' Career as a Character Actor | Playbill

Special Features Harriet Harris on Creating an 'Offbeat' Career as a Character Actor

The Tony winner is currently Queen Aggravain to Sutton Foster’s Princess Fred in Once Upon a Mattress.

Harriet Harris and Francis Jue in Once Upon a Mattress Joan Marcus

Sutton Foster is sort of the America’s Sweetheart of Broadway. A gifted musical theatre comedienne, she’s quirky and insanely likeable. Any character—and thus any actor—set as her antagonist is sure to flounder and fail, leaving Sutton on top with her wide, winning smile.

Unless that antagonist is Harriet Harris

The pair made musical comedy magic together in 2002’s Thoroughly Modern Millie, with Foster as the titular flapper living single in New York City and Harris as Mrs. Meers, the villainous hotel housemother selling her boarders into white slavery in Hong Kong. Both actors earned Tony Awards for their performances. And though Mrs. Meers does fail in her sinister plot to kidnap Millie, Harris was so deliciously evil and entertaining that if you weren’t necessarily rooting for her, you were at least rooting for more of her.

“That was my first Broadway musical and we’re still ticking!” exclaims Harris. New York City Center has reunited the duo for the Encores! production of the Mary Rodgers musical Once Upon a Mattress, running through February 4. Foster is Princess Winnifred. Harris is the adversarial Queen Aggravain, who is intent on preventing a marriage between her son, Prince Dauntless, and the woebegone princess from the swamplands. And again, Harris is the perfect foil for Foster. Where Foster is “Shy,” Harris shines as sly.

This is the third Encores! production Harris has taken part in, so “it’s not new, but it’s always horrifying,” she says. Encores! is as equally famous for its two-week rehearsal period as for its star-studded casts. “Maybe that’s part of it…the big dare of it all.”

The heart of the Encores! mission is to revisit, often some lesser known, works of the American musical canon. Once Upon a Mattress made its Broadway premiere in 1959, starring Carol Burnett as Princess Fred, and then was revived in 1996 with Sarah Jessica Parker in the lead role. However, the musical’s take on “The Princess and the Pea” fairytale has become a popular school and community theatre title. “It’s remarkable to me the people who have come up to me and said, ‘My big sister played your part,’ or ‘My uncle played your part!’” laughs Harris. But she what the audience may be surprised by is Amy Sherman-Palladino’s (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, The Gilmore Girls) new adaptation. “It’s the same, but it’s different. And I think it will be fun for people rather than a sacrilege. It’s sharp and pretty wonderful,” she says.

Harriet Harris, Michael Urie, Cheyenne Jackson, and Nikki Renée Daniels in Once Upon a Mattress Joan Marcus

Harris is glad to be back at Encores!, especially to be reunited with her Thoroughly Modern Millie castmates—not only Foster, but also Francis Jue (who plays the Wizard in Once Upon a Mattress) and Cheyenne Jackson (Sir Harry). “That was 20 years ago, and Sutton is still doing this astonishing feat. Francis is still funny and wonderful, and Cheyenne is absolutely gorgeous and thrilling to listen to,” she says. She’d also previously worked with Michael Urie and J. Harrison Ghee in other projects.

Though Harris has eight Broadway show credits in addition to her three Encores! runs, her home is in California—a move she made along with Jeffrey in 1993. After a hit Off-Broadway run at the WPA Theatre and the Minetta Lane, the Paul Rudnick play transferred to the Westwood Playhouse in Los Angeles. Harris went with it, along with much of the New York cast, including John Michael Higgins, Bryan Batt, and Edward Hibbert. Prior to that move, she’d been in New York since Juilliard School’s Drama Division, where she graduated with a BFA in 1977.

The Los Angeles move was advantageous and got Harris noticed in Hollywood. But then, the big January 1994 earthquake really scared her, and she questioned her decision to stay. She called one of her best friends in New York: “He said, ‘Are you working?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Well, I think you should stay out there because nobody's working here. And it's never been colder. So, if you come back, you’re just gonna freeze and starve like the rest of us. And if you stay out there with the earthquakes, it'll be a quick death.’”

She booked several guest roles in television series in her first years in Los Angeles, including the Kelsey Grammar vehicle Frasier, and then lead roles on the short-lived sitcoms The 5 Mrs. Buchanans and Union Square. She was building an acting career and even getting enough recognition there to book Broadway work from L.A.

A gifted comedienne, Harris’ stage resume is stacked with some well-known character roles. There’s Mrs. Lovett, Lady Bracknell, Sister Mary Ignatius, Mrs. Antrobus, Vera Charles, and Amanda Wingfield. And she seems to have a bent for being bad. Her television career also included a several-season arc as the vengeful Felicia Tilman on Desperate Housewives, and she was the wicked stepmother in Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella on Broadway.

Harriet Harris in Cinderella Carol Rosegg

However, the years prior to her L.A. move are steeped in classical theatre. And she credits that base for her versatility. “That’s what we were trained for,” she says of the years of classical theatre she did following Juilliard. “When I was in school, everyone thought their career was going to be classical theatre. There had been a huge Renaissance in regional theatres. They were doing these shows with 20 people, 26 people. The companies had money then. And people were coming. People did want to see that. I think the thinking at the time was, if you can do that, then you can apply all those skills. The people I started out with are enormously versatile.”

Harris believes that theatre training has changed a bit in recent years. The emphasis is no longer on creating range, but rather leaning into what’s immediately employable. “The best thing a young and gorgeous person can do now is just play young and gorgeous and make the most of that, because that is your bread and butter,” she says. “I think people are encouraged to stick with what is getting work now. It’s just a different way of looking at it.”

Harris learned early on in her career that she wasn’t the ingenue and the best thing she could do for herself was diversify. That’s the kind of advice she gives young actors today, saying, “You increase your chances of working. And not only do you want to work because it's money, but you want to work because you want to get better at what you're doing. And you can only do that, really, by practice.” So then came the bitter Elizabeth Proctor who might later inform Felicia Tilman, or the Lady Macduff that might give way to Eleanor Roosevelt.

“The only ingenue I ever played was Elektra, who ended up killing people,” she says, full-out laughing at the admission. “I was always off-beat.”

Photos: Production Images of New York City Center's Once Upon a Mattress

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