Around The Town

Sin Twisters

Get Them Straight, Please! Monday for One Night Only: Tony Nominees Anita Gillette and Penny Fuller Sin Again.

 By: Ellis Nassour

April 11, 2023: Broadway and 86th Street: Tony nominee Anita Gillette crossed the street and was immediately recognized by a fan, who asked for an autograph. He produced a piece of paper and a pen. She signed. The fan gushed, “Thanks so much, Miss Fuller!” “Miss Fuller,” said Gillette to herself. “Penny Fuller! Will they ever get us straight?”

Get Them Straight, Please! Monday for One Night Only: Tony Nominees Anita Gillette and Penny Fuller Sin Again.

 By: Ellis Nassour

April 11, 2023: Broadway and 86th Street: Tony nominee Anita Gillette crossed the street and was immediately recognized by a fan, who asked for an autograph. He produced a piece of paper and a pen. She signed. The fan gushed, “Thanks so much, Miss Fuller!” “Miss Fuller,” said Gillette to herself. “Penny Fuller! Will they ever get us straight?”

West 44th Street, Tony nominee and Emmy winner Penny Fuller is exiting Sardi’s. Two of the Theatre District’s autograph hounds are eager for photos and autographs. She politely complies. As she walks away, one shouts, “Thanks, Miss Gillette!” Fuller gave a back-handed wave, then stopped, turned, and glared. “Not again,” she murmured. “Anita Gillette! Will they ever get us straight?”

“It happens all the time,” laughs Gillette. “We could probably go in and audition for each other. No one would know. On the street here and wherever we go in Los Angeles, we’re constantly mistaken for each other. It’s a bit hard to explain since one, me, is about three inches shorter. And one’s a blonde – that would be Penny, and I’m a redhead.”

You won’t have any problem keeping them straight Monday at 7 P.M. at Birdland Jazz Club (315 West 44th Street) as they present Sin Twisters: The Next Frontier. Just remember one’s a redhead and the other’s a blonde. 

The revue is “a hilarious and harmonious revue in song and reflections” that explores the ladies’ long friendship. These Tony nominees and screen stars will share stories about shows they’ve done (or might have done) as well as give voice to many of the Broadway songwriters they’ve been fortunate to work with over nearly six decades, including Irving Berlin (Yes, and Gillette became a beloved family friend), Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, Kander & Ebb, Arthur Schwartz, Jule Styne, and William Finn.

Sin Twisters: The Next Frontier i
s directed by Barry Klein, with music direction by Paul Greenwood on keyboards. The evening is a joyful testament to the glories of the American musical theater as well as to the enduring bonds of friendship. Gillette won the MAC and Bistro Awards for her one woman show After All (Birdland). She’s headlined clubs and stages across the country and in London.

She’s probably best known as Miss Mona in Moonstruck, or Miss Mitzi in Shall We Dance ; not to mention her 14 Broadway shows including, Chapter Two (Tony nomination, LA Drama Critics Award), Cabaret (Sally Bowles), CarnivalGypsy opposite the legendary Merman, Guys & DollsAll AmericanThey’re Playing Our SongBrighton Beach Memoirs, and Berlin’s Mr. President

She relished her memorable turn as Tina Fey’s mother on 30 RockQuincy opposite Jack Klugman, and in episodes of Modern Family, Chicago Med, Elementary, Sex and the City, Frasier, Law & Order, and Mad About You. She has appeared on every major game show in addition to being a foil for Johnny Carson on at least 50 episodes of The Tonight Show.

Fuller was recently seen on Broadway in Anastasia and the 2017 revival of Sunday in the Park with George. She began her Broadway career starring in Barefoot in the Park, three Shakespeare-in-the-Park productions, and the musicals CabaretRex, and Applause (Tony nomination). 

Recent Broadway productions include Horton Foote’s Dividing the Estate and Neil Simon’s The Dinner Party (Tony nomination). She’s done regional work and was seen Off-Broadway in Love, Loss and What I Wore; and Beautiful Child.  

Gillette and Fuller have notebooks and headfuls of career anecdotes. As you will hear/see at Birdland Jazz. “It’s time we let them out of the bag,” laughs Gillette.

Sin Twisters is a devilish spoonerism of a title,” explains Fuller, “but quite apt and accurate.” Gillette states, “Sometimes, I think we’re twin sisters. But, be forewarned, this isn’t one of those ‘And then I did that, and then that’ shows.”

“Not at all,” chimes in Fuller. “There’re songs we sang in shows and some we would have liked to have sung. It’s us as actors, women, marriage, becoming mothers. It’s also fun. We’ve certainly done our share of comedy.” Reminiscing, Gillette and Fuller spoke of those that greatly influenced them.

“Ethel Merman, in my first Broadway show [Gypsy, 1959, replacement understudy in 1960 for June and Hollywood Blonde Thelma],” says Gillette without hesitation. “When I wasn’t onstage, I was in the wings watching. I never missed seeing her do ‘Rose’s Turn.’ She began to notice me, and we became acquainted. She was wonderful to me. I loved her. Something that’s rarely mentioned is that she was a great mother.

“In fact,” she continues, “I don’t know if I’d be doing what I’m doing if it hadn’t been for Ethel. I found out I was pregnant not long after I joined the company and they were going to fire me. Ethel raised a ruckus and said, ‘No, you’re not. She stays!’ So, I owe at lot to her.”

Fuller feels she’s “one of the most fortunate people on the planet because I had four great instructors that included acting teacher Alvina Krause; David Crane, who developed acting techniques; producer, director, acting coach Milton Katselas [who studied under Elia Kazan and Lee Strasburg at the Actors Studio]; and actress and dramaturge Diana Maddox.

An incident Fuller still vividly remembers happened during the bows in Rex (1976). She played Anne Boleyn/Princess Elizabeth opposite Nicol Williamson, with Glen Close as Princess Mary. We heard this gasp from the audience. I couldn’t see it, but Nicol slapped Jimmy Litten, an ensemble member. I reached behind and pulled him into the line to do his bow. Glen and I, actually, everyone was in shock”

She assesses Litten was being a bit too friendly with the star. Not forewarned of Williamson’s ego and temper, “He was always saying, ‘Hey, Nick, let’s go out for this or that’ and that night he made some smart remark. Nicol heard it and snapped. I told Ethel Merman. She let out this roar, ‘He did what? I would have slugged him right back!’” There were career triumphs and disappointments aplenty.

In the latter category for Gillette, it was 1965’s Kelly, which had been hyped to the heavens. “I thought it was going to be a hit. Wonderful people were involved: composer Moose Charlap [Peter Pan] and actor Eddie Lawrence [Bells Are Ringing] on book and lyrics, Herbert Ross, a veteran of so many hits, was director/choreographer.

“It looked good on paper; then they put the show up and it didn’t hold up. They tried to fix it. When you try to fix something that’s broken, it doesn’t get any better. Then, came the firings. It got messier and messier until none of us knew what was going on. They were making changes faster than you could blink. It became famous as the most expensive one-night-only flop of that time.”

For Fuller, it was not getting the role of Fran Kubelik in Promises, Promises, [1968]. “I auditioned and auditioned, but half the bunch wanted me, the other half didn’t. It was devastating and led me to head to L.A.”

However, one door closes, another opens. She began a long career in TV, winning an Emmy for her portrayal of Mrs. Kendal in the adaptation of The Elephant Man, after she co-starred in the national tour; co-starring with Bette Davis in the TV movie A Piano for Mrs.Cimino [1982], and in the landmark series China Beach [1989]; and roles in films, such as All the President’s Men [1976].

She recalls the pleasure of working in the TV movie” with the very classy film legend Claudette Colbert and  Ann-Margret, The Two Mrs. Grenvilles, adapted by Dominick Dunne from his novel. “It was a delectable twist on numerous of Hollywood film noirs: chorus girl marries above her station only to be regarded with great disdain by her mother-in-law – and, after a dreadful and fatal accident [or was it?], great suspicion.”

Gillette was honored by none other than Tennessee Williams, who when casting a play told the producer he “wanted talented women with a flair for comedy, like Anita Gillette, who could then turn around and be devastated by what life and my prose was doing to them.” So, they got Gillette.

There were laughs, good times, and happy memories working opposite Jack Klugman , as his wife, in the long-running Quincy. Then came  All that Glitters [1977], “which I thought would be a hit. It barely lasted one season. It was way ahead of its time in that it reversed the traditional male/female power dynamic as only Norman Lear could.” Her next foray on Broadway, in Neil Simon’s Chapter Two [1977], won her a Tony nomination.

They agree that Tony nominations helped their careers, because, as Gillette remembers, “It brought me attention, and I had a good run in L.A. I played plenty of roles [Shall We Dance, Moonstruck], but never became a movie star; and in my next Broadway show, I came in as a replacement [They’re Playing Our Song, 1979]. But no one every promised me a rose garden-“

“Indeed, not,” adds Fuller. “I won the Emmy and didn’t work for a year! But don’t get me wrong, I love show biz! Later, I received nomination after nomination for TV movies and such, but that was it. The first time was the charm!”

Fuller returned to Broadway in Applause [1970], opposite Lauren Bacall, winning acclaim and a Tony nomination as Eve Harrington. She has nothing but accolades and stories of Miss Bacall’s graciousness – the type of thing about Miss Bacall you don’t usually hear. Fuller was still in the musical when Anne Baxter, who won an Oscar as Eve in All About Eve. “How fortunate I was to work with those two legends.” 

 Then, in 1986, came another blow. “A show I loved and that didn’t become a hit was A New Brain at Lincoln Center.” It was by William Finn, directed by James Lapine, with Kristin Chenoweth co-starring, and Graciela Daniele directing and choreographing. “It was a bit ahead of its time, but audiences loved it. I came offstage second night and said, ‘If they don’t like this, I don’t know what they’ll like!’ They didn’t like it!”

If it’s one thing these almost twins have learned is that show business is fickler.
“To still be alive and kicking and working is one of the great miracles of our lives.”

At Birdland Jazz and Sin Twisters, you can expect more tales out of theater school, such as Fuller talking about a “very different David Merrick” than we hear about; and Gillette on working with some “very interesting” co-stars. Sin Twisters is $40 plus $20 food/beverage minimum. Reserve at www.BirdlandJazz.com or call (212) 581-3080.