By Peter Filichia –
Florence Henderson may be known as Carol Brady to millions upon millions, but to those of us who follow Broadway, she’ll always be the leading lady of four musicals that she did in New York from 1952 through 1964.
Lately, Henderson has been touring the country in Florence Henderson: All the Lives of Me, her one-woman show. Just before she came to the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton last week, I got a chance to chat with her.
Peter Filichia: So how did it all start for you?
Florence Henderson: Music was my salvation. I was the youngest of 10 children.
FH: Yes, the tenth child born to a dirt farmer and his wife in Dale, Indiana. It didn’t make for a promising future.
PF: Traditionally, when parents have that many children, by the time they get to the youngest, they’re out of gas.
FH: Mine were definitely out of gas. I was born towards the end of the Depression, so my poor family had gone through all that, too. Frankly, Dad was drinking too much. But the nuns I had noticed that I could sing, and they put me in a choir. Soon I was singing at those masses — in Latin.
PF: So with The Sound of Music not yet written, how does a Catholic girl in Indiana discover musicals?
FH: Through the movies. Oh, those Fred and Ginger musicals! And later, the Jane Powell ones. That’s when I knew that my goal was to entertain people the way that they did.
PF: What was the big break?
FH: I had a best friend who was as rich as I was poor. She had a connection to Kirsten Johnson, the opera singer, who was starring nearby in Carousel. I was given the chance to sing for her, and I still remember exactly what she said after I did: “This child deserves a break.” She was instrumental into getting me a scholarship into the American Academy of the Dramatic Arts in New York.
PF: After which Wish You Were Here followed.
FH: I was only 18 and so thrilled to be in a Broadway show. I still remember the one line that (director) Josh Logan gave me: “Can I still see the game?” That line was like Shakespeare to me.
PF: You must have worried that you wouldn’t say it for long, for the show did get less than good reviews.
FH: But Josh Logan got us all together after the bad reviews and said, “This show will run.” And we believed him — and he was right. Actually, what was bothering us more the day the reviews came out was the heat. We had opened in June, if you can believe it — I mean, of all times of the year! — and the air conditioner had broken, so it was sweltering in that theater.
PF: Your next show was with the songwriting team that had worked with Logan on South Pacific.
FH: Yes. I auditioned for the revival of Oklahoma! Afterward, a man came up to me and said, “That was lovely,” I didn’t even know it was Oscar Hammerstein until someone told me. Boy, was I naïve! But he and Mr. Rodgers cast me. The day before I was supposed to play my first performance, my father died. And they wouldn’t let me leave the show.
PF: In a manner of speaking, Mr. Rodgers did make it up to you.
FH: Oh, he became a genuine mentor to me. Ten years later, when they were making a new recording of Oklahoma! he wanted me to sing Laurey again. He also recommended me as Maria for the national tour of The Sound of Music, a role that I wound up playing more, I think, than anyone else. And when The King and I was announced for the Music Center of Los Angeles, I’m told that he said, “Get Florence!” And so I got to do it with Ricardo Montalban.
PF: Mr. Rodgers didn’t discriminate on his coasts, for he had you at the Music Theater of Lincoln Center, too.
FH: Yes, as Nellie Forbush in South Pacific. I was so grateful that we got to record it, because I loved singing those songs.
PF: You almost got to sing more Rodgers and Hammerstein songs, because they were the first ones approached to write Fanny. But they didn’t want to work with this new producer called David Merrick.
FH: Yes, I remember David Merrick.
PF: If you had one word to describe him from your experiences in Fanny, what would it be?
PF: Duly noted. What do you remember most about The Girl Who Came to Supper?
FH: Being in an elevator in a Philadelphia hotel when I heard the news that President Kennedy had been shot. That threw me into such a tailspin. It was worse for poor Jose Ferrer, for he had to learn a new song in a hurry. The one he’d had to open the show — “Long Live the King — If He Can” — was actually about an assassination, and suddenly it wasn’t funny any more. This put a strain on poor Noel Coward, too, who had to come up with a new opening number in no time flat. He didn’t have time or maybe even the energy to write a brand-new one; we were all pretty wiped out by what had happened – and I don’t mean the tryout. So he reached into his trunk and got out a song from a show he’d written 25 years earlier (Operette), rewrote it a little and Jose had the number you know today: “My Family Tree.”
PF: Tessie O’Shea had quite a turn in the show, with a whole medley of British music hall numbers.
FH: And won a Tony for it, which she very much deserved.
PF: She must have been a tough act to follow.
FH: Oh, she was! Noel Coward knew that, too, so he went to work and wrote me a song called “Here and Now” that he hoped would stop the show, too. At the risk of sounding immodest, it did.
PF: Given that The Girl Who Came to Supper was based on Terence Rattigan’s The Sleeping Prince – which became the film The Prince and the Showgirl with Marilyn Monroe – it’s hard to believe that the woman who would play Carol Brady would have a Marilyn Monroe part.
FH: That IS funny, isn’t it?
PF: Have I set the record for the Florence Henderson interview that took the longest to mention The Brady Bunch?
FH: Easily! Honestly, I didn’t even want to do a series. I saw myself doing musical theater my whole life. My manager said, “Just get down there and audition, will you?” And I had to fit it in while rehearsing for a Dean Martin show, too. But I went and did a scene with some actor – I don’t remember who, but it wasn’t Robert Reed. I was surprised when they asked if I could come back and do the pilot – and then, suddenly, it was the next five years of my life.
PF: When you do an interview, what question do you know you’re going to be asked about the The Brady Bunch?
FH: Everyone always wants to know about that rumor that I had an affair with Barry Williams, who played my son Greg.