JIM BROCHU: I grew up in Bay Ridge, which is about 45minutes, maybe an hour, on the train from here. And I was very lucky in that we had a theater in our apartment house. It was very classy back then -- we had a pool, a bowling alley and this 300-seat theater. My father was on Wall Street, but he had a lot of show business connections. And one of his best friends was Ed Zimmerman, who was the father of Ethel Merman. He got us Ethel’s house seats for Gypsy. September 10, 1959 – that was the date that changed my life. We saw Gypsy and then went backstage to meet Ethel afterwards. After that, I went back and told the guy who rented the theater in our apartment that I wanted to rent the theater for a night. He said, “To do what?” I said, “I’m putting on a show.” And we did. I got all the neighborhood kids together, starring me, of course. And we raised some money for the Cancer Society. That was the beginning. I said I would no longer be a priest. (I was always reaching for the stars – I knew I was destined to be the first Brooklyn-born Pope!) That was the beginning of it.
Then when I was 15 years old, I met Zero Mostel backstage at the Alvin Theater. It was May 11, 1962. That was the first time I saw A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum – a Friday, four nights after the show opened. It knocked me out of my chair. Zero Mostel -- I had no idea who this was. I’d been going to the theater for a few years but I had never seen this name before or what he did, but he was the star of the show so I thought, well, he’s got to be something. And, Gerard, he just knocked me off my chair. He was amazing -- a force of nature that was on that stage. AfterwardsI went backstage to see David Burns, who was my mentor. Whenever I went backstage to see Davy in one of his shows, I’d always sneak out on to the stage before I went to his dressing room – just to stand on a Broadway stage. This time, when I went on to the stage -- boom -- I ran into smack into Zero Mostel. He was soaking wet. I was in a uniform (I was in a military school at the time). He looked at me and said, “Who are you? General Nuisance?” I was petrified. “What are you doing here?” I said, “I came to see Davy Burns.” He said, “Well, you never come to see.” I said I would. He said, “Well, you better.” He didn’t know what he was getting himself involved in, you know. Because I would. I’d go hang out with Zero. He just had a huge influence on me. I went to see Forum many times and whether it was a conscious effort or not, I was absorbing, I was watching. I was really learning from Zero.
I saw Fiddler on the Roof many times as well. The first time I saw Fiddler I was in college. I had a classmate who was just a brilliant young man, a year younger than I was. He knew the whole canon of the American musical theater and could sit down at the piano and play it from memory. So we were both excited that Fiddler was about to open in New York. He said, ‘Well I know Maria Karnilova [who won the Best Featured Actress Tony Award for the role of Golde in Fiddler]. I said, “Oh yeah? Well I know Zero Mostel.” “You do not.” “Yes I do”. “You do not.” “I do.” Then he said, “Let’s go to New York and see the show.” I said, “Good, my father will get the tickets.” So Stephen Schwartz [Wicked] and I went to New York together. We saw the second night of Fiddler on the Roof and we went backstage to see Zero, who was so gracious and wonderful. I have great memories…
The phone rings – the ring tone is Ethel Merman belting “Some People” from Gypsy. Brochu answers and then returns to the interview.
So, as I said, I started to observe, and then, in 1970, I got my first off-Broadway show – it was an Israeli revue called Unfair to Goliath at the Cherry Lane Theater. So here I am, a good Irish-Catholic boy – I’m Jew in my heart as my priest says – but the reviewer for the New York Post, a man named Jerry Tallmer, in the last line of his review writes, “the cast is great and if they ever decide to do the Zero Mostel story, Jim Brochu is my choice for the part.” Now I was 23 years old in 1970, and that kind of put the seed in the back of my head, which gestated for the next 40 years.
And then when I was doing The Big Voice [the musical inspired by Ethel Merman which Brochu wrote and performed with his partner of 25 years, Steve Schalchlin], I was thinking about what comes next. I learned a long time ago as an actor that you can’t wait for something to happen. You can’t wait for a casting call that 14 other people are gonna be as right, so I started to write for myself. I was looking through a pile of theater arts magazines, and saying ‘keep this one, throw this one out,’ and then there was this one with Zero on the cover, and he was doing this: [He points a finger at interviewer] and I went ‘Oh!, maybe this is it.’ And I just started to read everything. I thought what a great dramatic life this could be and how funny he was. So I read everything for about four months. It all gestated, and a few weeks later I sat down to write the play, and it just flowed. I thought I was getting to be his age when he died—thank God I’m older now than he was when he died. We did one reading of it, one thing led to another, and the play really took on a life of its own.
What struck me about Zero was that he was a survivor. He worked through so many obstacles -- as a Jew he was denounced by his parents, disowned by them; as an entertainer he was blacklisted; as a man he almost lost his leg in that bus accident -- and yet he overcame all of it. And then, as fate would have it, he was forced to work with his arch enemy for their greatest hits. It’s almost Shakespearean in the way these people were thrown together. Isn’t there some irony in that? To achieve the greatest heights you have to work with somebody you hate. I think that’s fascinating – great theater also.
Jerome Robbins in the play ties it all up. When the show first started, in the second act when I do the mother speech, I was doing “If I Were a Rich Man,”because I thought people demanded it, that they wanted to see Zero singing and dancing. But I realized from the very first public performance that this was not what the show was about, recreating “If I Were a Rich Man.” So that’s where the speech [where Zero remembers his mother] came in. I had read a thing in Playbill about how Zero would not go in the theater on opening night and how Jerry Robbins got him back in there. So I took that sentence and tried to figure out why he wouldn’t go in. And it’s my theory as to what happened. Part of it is true -- that Robbins did bring him in and force him to go on. So I chose the song “Chaveleh (Little Bird)” for the sequence. One of our producers said we have to pay for that, so I sent the script to Sheldon Harnick [lyricist of Fiddler]. He wrote me back he said ‘Jerry[Bock, composer] and I give you this.’ It touched me so deeply.
Yes, Jerry Robbins and the Hollywood blacklist. It happened and it hurt people, killed people. Zero always felt that it was the blacklist that killed Phil Loeb, who lost his job and then died at the Taft Hotel. Of course, who knows how we would all behave? As Zero says, Robbins was very weak. He had a career that he loved and he wanted to be a director. In 1953, Ed Sullivan, who was really a truly wicked man, threatened to expose Jerry Robbins as gay in his column unless he named names. So not only did he have pressure from the Committee [House Un-American Activities Committee] to name names, his career was about to be ruined on many different levels. And back then there was the social stigma of being queer. Of course he capitulated and gave names. He said he gave names that he thought had already been given, but he certainly named Madeline Lee. Madeline and I had a long talk about it one night. She came to see the show and sat in the front row. And just as I got to the part about the blacklist, which I intro by talking about Madeline, I looked over and she was sound asleep. Well, she was 86 years old at the time. I thought what should I do? I waited till I got to a sentence just before and I pounded the table. She jumped up. And then I said, “And then there was Madeline Lee”. I thought she was going to stand up and take a bow! If there was an excuse for Jerry Robbins to do it, it was probably that he would have lost his life, you know.
But he was not a nice man. There’s that famous story about Billion Dollar Baby in 1945, when he was giving notes to the cast on the stage of the Broadhurst Theater. He kept backing up towards the orchestra pit and nobody said a word. He fell in and nobody went to help him. They just left him there. At the very first matinee I did in Florida, a very old lady with dyed jet black hair and coke bottle glasses came up to me at the end and said, “I am Norma Rabinowitz Kraine and Jerry Robbins was my first cousin. He and I grew up in the same house together until we were 18 years old.” I took a breath and I said, “Well I guess you got an earful this afternoon.” She said “He was not a nice man.” That’s all she said.
I was doing this show somewhere and at the talk back afterwards, there was this bunch of college kids. They asked how much of the play is fictional and I said, none of it. Then they said, “That thing about people losing their jobs because of their politics, that didn’t happen did it?” They knew nothing of the blacklist! There’s a line in the play that I really try to hit home every night -- that if we don’t talk about it, it’s going to happen again.
The other thing that surprised me was his friends. They started to come in droves to the show. And most of them came with their arms crossed: ‘Somebody thinks he can be Zero? Oh, yeah? Show me!’ And by the end, now we are all friends. They gave me stories for the show -- Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, Theodore Bikel gave me some wonderful things that are in the play now. So that’s been a wonderful blessing. And all the family has come. Esther Mostel – his niece – all of 86 years old got to the St. Clements Theater [where the production opened in New York in 2009]. She was in a walker and she couldn’t climb the stairs. So our two stage managers just picked her up and brought her up 30 stairs. And she had hands in places that she hasn’t had hands in places in a long time. So she really enjoyed the show. Ha! Ha ha!
So Zero brought me back to New York. I originally went to LA for the television work and I love it there, but this is my home. I feel like the prodigal son, coming back after 22 years wandering in the LA desert. We started the show in Los Angeles, from there we went to Houston and San Francisco. I did a couple of shows in Boston and then we went to Florida. We did a 16 week run in Coral Springs and sold out this 400-seat theater every night and that’s what gave the shape to the New York show. Then the final touches were in Washington, just before we came up here last year. We won the Ovation in LA, the Carbonell in Florida, the Helen Hayes in Washington, and the Drama Desk in New York. Jesus, as an actor – thank you, thank you! We came here for 12 weeks but when that was up – the reviews were love letters -- the producers said we can’t close this. So now we are going to stay here in New York.
So Zero brought me back, and I brought Zero back. He’s a star again. He likes that. I don’t know what I feel when I put him on, or get inside of him, but I know I do. I really don’t know what I do. I got thrown out of every acting class I was ever in. I know he’s very close to the surface. You can see it come out, and I have to hold him back. I ask him to take over, and I take a big breath and then I go out and I have a lot of fun. It’s fun to be him, fun to be ranting and raving. I’m kind of a quiet guy so it’s fun to yell and scream and get angry and make them laugh.
The most surprising thing is that people are still buying tickets and it looks like we’re going to be here for a while. I have to go to Florida in October to the Jupiter Theater, and then after a year in New York we get to have a little vacation. So I just came back from an audition for replacement for me while I’m away. But I’ll come back. As Iong as I have breath in me, I will continue to do Zero.