The best part about Dee Hoty's career is that the older she gets, the better her roles. After having just completed two years in Mamma Mia!, first on tour and then on Broadway, she makes her Muny debut as the madcap title character in Mame.
"The great thing about theater is that a woman can age gracefully," Hoty says. "Theater is not like television and film, where you have to have a plastic face to work. And if you don't, you're thrown aside for the next 26-year-old who can play the 40-year-old's wife."
Like many an aspiring actress, Hoty's stage career began at her local regional theater. In 1975 she was an apprentice at the Cleveland Play House when that theater mounted the American premiere of First Monday in October, about the first woman to sit on the United States Supreme Court. (This was six years before Sandra Day O'Connor's appointment.) Legendary film stars Melvyn Douglas and Jean Arthur came out from Hollywood to play the leads. Douglas was 74, Arthur was 75, Hoty was 23. Nevertheless, she was assigned to be Arthur's understudy.
"Essentially my job was to baby-sit the stars," Hoty recalls. "I drove them back and forth from rehearsal every day. Melvyn Douglas could not have been a kinder or dearer man. But Jean Arthur was odd, to say the least. Peculiar and strange. People would whisper to me, 'You should learn these lines,' because she had a history of not finishing plays. But I was young and naive. I couldn't conceive of someone leaving a show.
"Then the play opened, and Jean Arthur's reviews were not good, and she never showed up again. I had five hours' notice before I went on. I carried the script in a ring binder. We felt we could justify that because the character always had legal briefs in her hands. They put me in a black robe. But they thought if they tried to age me, I'd look like a 23-year-old girl with lines on her face. Melvyn Douglas was so generous. He kept saying, 'So she's young. So what? She'll be the youngest justice ever.' He said, 'In the theater, people believe what we tell them to believe.'
"I have no real memory of that first performance except just trying to keep up. Then at the curtain call we were supposed to come out from opposite sides of the stage and meet in the center. I said, 'I don't feel right about this. You should take the last bow.' He said, 'No, my girl. We've rehearsed this, and this is how it's supposed to be.' When we met onstage, he took my hand and raised it in the air, as if I was the winner. And then this great veteran star stepped back and let me take my bow. It was an amazing experience. I was so moved."
But musicals were her true love. Hoty moved to New York in 1977 and got her "first big break" as the female lead in the national tour of Barnum opposite Stacy Keach. "I really learned from the best," she says. "Stacy was so kind to us. He threw a cast party in every city. I do that now when I'm on tour."
Over the decades Hoty has developed a reputation for being able to find substance in even the flimsiest roles. She received her first Tony Award nomination for The Will Rogers Follies, which ran two years. Her second Tony nod came for The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public, which only eked out two weeks. "The show had a really good book that got chopped to ribbons during rehearsals and previews," she says. "Things started getting fixed that weren't broken. Hal Prince says you can't truly be a success until you've had at least one colossal failure. I've had my flop."
A third Tony nomination came for Footloose, which opens at Stages this week. What should St. Louis audiences expect that show? "A good time and great choreography. You don't have to work very hard at Footloose."
Now, for the first time, Hoty gets to cut loose in Mame. "I've never really seen the Muny," she says. "But a few years ago when I was doing Lanford Wilson's Book of Days at the St. Louis Rep, I drove over to see it. I can still remember walking up the concourse to the chained gate and peering around the corner at that great, yawning stage."
It's a safe bet that next week, when Dee Hoty takes command on that great stage, no one will be yawning.