REMEMBERING ANN REINKING By Peter Filichia
The date: August 27, 1977.
The place: The theater then known as the 46th Street and now called the Richard Rodgers.
The show: CHICAGO.
Some might assume that this is the same CHICAGO whose marquee still graces the Ambassador on 49th Street. Hasn’t it been around forever?
No, this was the original production that had originally starred Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera.
But now, twenty-six months after the Broadway opening, their respective roles of Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly were being played by Ann Reinking and Lenora Nemetz.
And for the last time.
Nemetz had been with the show since the first day of rehearsal, albeit as a cover for Verdon. As events played out, she went on as Roxie a number of times before being awarded Velma in July of 1976.
Reinking joined her as Roxie the following February. My (literally) six times seeing both meant watching them play adversaries for 140 minutes of the two-and-a-half-hour show. But during their divine “Hot Honey Rag,” the warm smiles Reinking and Nemetz gave each other suggested mutual admiration as well as genuine affection.
You never know, though. During OVER HERE! Patty and Maxene Andrews came across the footlights as loving sisters, but anyone who saw them off-stage will tell you that the show could have been retitled STAR WARS; each was Darth Vader and Kylo Ren to the other.
But on that August 27th performance I at least learned for certain what Reinking’s opinion of Nemetz was. You may recall that in the second act of the John Kander-Fred Ebb-Bob Fosse masterpiece, Ms. Kelly is showing Billy Flynn how she’ll act “When Velma Takes the Stand.” It’s a number where Nemetz had to perform an abundance of semi-acrobatic tricks while enacting Fosse’s never-easy choreography.
After it ended, Roxie was to come out and say (among other things) “It stinks.” (If it sounds severe, remember that Velma was callous to Roxie when the latter entered Mama Morton’s cell block.)
Yet at this performance, Reinking came out, looked Nemetz right in the eye and said “Velma! That was really good!”
Granted, the creators of CHICAGO might not have been pleased at Reinking’s taking such a liberty with her improv; she may have confused that night’s audience as well. Still, wasn’t it nice of Reinking to give a public tribute to Nemetz?
It was also very revealing of the woman who died last week at a much-too-young seventy-one. I didn’t know her to any real degree, but I, as well as everyone I’ve talked to over the years who knew her better, found her oh-so-nice, warm and welcoming. After ten minutes, you felt as if you were her old and cherished friend.
Rob Nunez, who was the company manager at the Paper Mill Playhouse when Reinking choreographed APPLAUSE at the New Jersey theater in 1996, was quick to agree when I mentioned this. “After one car ride with her,” he said, “I felt we were the best of friends.” He reported that their relationship continued long after the production had left the Garden State.
Just before Reinking had started work on that APPLAUSE, she got plenty herself when she reprised her Roxie at Encores! She was the one link from the original production for a glorified staged reading that was slated for less-than-a-week’s run but became a record-shattering production that only a pandemic could stall.
Figures don’t lie: Reinking was almost two decades older from the previous time she’d played the merry murderess. And yet, even when she said the line “I’m older than I ever intended to be,” she didn’t seem it, certainly not commensurately.
Bebe Neuwirth got the Tony for Velma, for Reinking – having played Roxie before – wasn’t eligible. But those of us who had loved Reinking in the first iteration and those now seeing the show were glad to have her interpretation on the revival cast album.
History rather repeated itself when Neuwirth did “When Velma Takes the Stand” at her own final performance. My buddies Matthew Curtis and Nikki Grillos were there, too. “She told Bebe to do it again,” said Curtis, “and she did – and the crowd just went crazy.” But not before, as Grillos accurately reported, “Neuwirth said, ‘Well, she’s the choreographer!’”
Yes, she was. The revival’s credits read “Choreography in the style of Bob Fosse,” which is accurate. However, Reinking didn’t follow a step-by-step blueprint of the original. It was – and here’s no surprise, given about whom we’re remembering – warmer.
Warmer, indeed. Judy Gettelfinger, whose daughter Sara was in the tour of FOSSE – which Reinking had co-directed and co-choreographed – told of her devotion to her performers she liked and respected. “Ann came to every show Sara was in and always waited afterwards to give her a hug and catch up,” she said. “She was Sara’s idol.”
Many of the obituaries mentioned the word “leggy,” and indeed, Google searches of “Ann Reinking” and “leggy” yield 11,200 entries. Many of us were first impressed with her and them when she was in the ensemble of COCO. Leggy? You feared a chorus girl’s salary couldn’t sustain the endless purchases of pink razors and shaving cream that she’d need.
After COCO Reinking had two very different Broadway ensemble experiences: WILD AND WONDERFUL, which opened and closed on the same night, and PIPPIN, which would run 1,944 times longer. She wasn’t remotely there for all of it, though, for she won an ensemble role in the aforementioned OVER HERE!
However, more than one critic noticed her and singled her out for attention. Douglas Watt in The New York Daily News said it best: “The high spot is a fine Lindy display by the stunning Ann Reinking, whose chiseled bad-girl looks should take her far.”
If you try to hear her on the extraordinarily entertaining cast album of OVER HERE! you probably won’t. In the one number in which she’s credited, she sings along with everyone else in “Charlie’s Place.”
She wound up going from one Charlie to another, for her next Broadway assignment was the 1975 musical GOODTIME CHARLEY. Larry Grossman once told me how fervently she was courted to play Joan of Arc in the musical that he, bookwriter Sidney Michaels and lyricist Hal Hackady had written.
“She was living with Fosse at the time,” he recalled, “and when the producers of OVER HERE! wouldn’t let her out of her contract, Fosse actually offered them money. But still the producers wouldn’t agree to it.”
(They knew they had a good thing going – so they didn’t want her to go.)
Fate played a hand. At one performance, John Mineo, Reinking’s dance partner, accidentally dropped her in one of the show’s more demanding numbers. She was so hurt that an ambulance had to be called. Everyone connected with the show knew that she’d been offered GOODTIME CHARLEY and wasn’t able to take it, so as she was lying backstage waiting to be driven to the emergency room, Maxene Andrews said, “If you think this is bad, in your next show they’re going to burn you at the stake.”
Not quite, but as Hackady always remembered, “Annie was dancing in a big number during the Philadelphia tryout when a piece of scenery hit her. I could tell that she was severely hurt, but she kept on going as if nothing had happened. That’s when I officially fell in love with her.”
Soon after, so would Clive Barnes in The New York Times, who, when reviewing GOODTIME CHARLEY, called Reinking “glisteningly sweet.”
If Barnes ever came to know her – and I hope he did – he would have known that he was more right than he could have surmised.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’ll be contributing to the new magazine Encore Monthly starting in January.