Sitting alone in her room


    Susan Egan has some surprising advice for aspiring Broadway stars: “You’re already halfway there.”

    Currently starring as Sally Bowles in the long-running Broadway production of “Cabaret,” she has taken time off to honor her commitments for a one-week series of Southern California concerts, including one at Pepperdine Friday.

    “When you get roles in plays, it happens overnight. You book concerts two years in advance,” she says. Happily, this week she is escaping the single-digit degree weather back East to perform here.

    Egan also originated the role of Belle for the Broadway production of “Beauty and the Beast,” staying with the production for 2-1/2 years, and has done numerous voice overs, including the cartoon character Meg in “Hercules.”

    She was appearing with Carol Burnett in “Putting It Together” at the Mark Taper Forum, but negotiations for its New York production became “goofy,” she says. Thinking the producer didn’t want her, she auditioned for Cabaret. Now she knows the seeming lack of interest was a negotiation ploy — one that backfired for the producer.

    And she found a job she loves. “Sally Bowles is a role,” she says. “Cabaret is a play with music — an opportunity to break this good-girl image in New York. And are you kidding? Sam Mendes!” she adds of her director.

    How to best explain her character? “There’s not a lot of logic to her. She jumps from topic to topic. She’s Holly Golightly with a drug problem. She makes bad decisions. By the end of the play, you know she’s going to be dead in a year.”

    Quite the opposite of the upward-bound life Egan seems to be living.

    Born in Long Beach, she was raised in Seal Beach and attended Los Alamitos High School, which her senior year became Orange County High School of the Arts. She credits her music teacher there for firing her interest in musical theater. “He made choir. He gave me a lot of stage time. I learned how to keep going when the set is falling down. I can set up a mike anywhere. Now, when the set falls down on Broadway or the mikes go out, I actually embrace it.”

    Not that Broadway was immediately hers. She waited tables at the Olive Garden and folded T-shirts at the Gap. “I sold jeans to Tom Hanks. I can’t wait to meet him again. I know his size.”

    She moved from school performances to community theater, appearing with the civic light operas of Long Beach, La Mirada and Santa Barbara. “Every CLO in Southern California, I’d go to the audition.” She worked her way up from chorus to roles.

    Then came a lead in summer stock, a production of “Bye, Bye Birdie” in St. Louis, starring Tommy Tune. Soon, they were calling each other “Sousous” (a ballet step) and “Tune.”

    Egan was midway through her junior year at UCLA when Tune asked her to join his national touring company of Birdie, directed by Gene Saks. “I left college, but I didn’t leave my education,” she says.

    Tune is still her inspiration. “He taught me, by example. He’s still in the business for all the right reasons. He lives absolutely in the moment, totally dedicated. He never became a diva.”

    He convinced her to move to New York, telling her New Yorkers would understand her. There, she auditioned for Belle. “I thought it was such a rotten idea to do the show,” she recalls. She hadn’t yet seen the movie and auditioned with a song from another musical. “I read it differently,” she explains of her success. Nervous singing in the presence of songwriter Alan Menken at the second callback, she was less nervous at the third. “Eisner and Katzenberg were there. The blissful part was I hadn’t known of either of them.”

    Focusing on rehearsals and wondering if the show would work, she didn’t think about her first opening night on Broadway. “When you lift your head and realize where you are, it’s overwhelming.” The opening night party was “nuts.”

    During the run of Beauty and the Beast, she met “every” celebrity and their kids. They came backstage because the kids wanted to meet the characters; she recalls being excited at chatting with, among others, Warren Beatty and George Bush. She took Polaroids at these occasions. “I try to pinch myself every so often.” Her advice to others at these times is, “Don’t be so overwhelmed you can’t get your job done.”

    Other advice she offers at the master classes she teaches: “Take advantage of everything you have at the moment. Your classmates are with you for four years. They’re the directors and filmmakers of tomorrow.

    “Don’t live in the future. Don’t wait for Broadway. You’re halfway there. Look around. Enjoy the process.

    “And then you get to Broadway, and there’s still not enough money for the production or not enough wing space — no place to put the sets when they go offstge. You think, ‘It’s Broadway. They should have figured that stuff out.'”

    Egan turns 30 next week and is lamenting the lack of a boyfriend. How is this possible considering her perfect looks and peppy personality? “People mistake me for my roles,” she suggests. “People are intimidated. And then I’m so tired, and I work at night.”

    A boy broke up with her mid-December. She says the Armani sweater she bought him for Christmas looks great on her, and he later told her he had a terrible New Year’s Eve. Meantime, she harnessed the tears for Sally.

    Yet, she says, she is a loner, a voracious reader who prefers going home and reading. She says she “picks the brains” of literary friends. “I’m looking for the Algonquin Round Table — take away the alcoholism.”

    She currently lives in a famous New York hotel. “It’s very, very Sally acting four blocks from the theater.” Hotel life serves her well. “Sally’s exhausting. Living in this hotel, I get towels and they change my sheets.”

    A typical day for her ends at 2 or 3 a.m., after she and her friends, mostly theater people, get together after their shows. During the day, she auditions, has voice-over work and does a Pilates workout. She and a friend have started a production company, hoping to produce an off-Broadway play. On Wednesdays, her full day off, she may see a matinee performance of another production. She aspires to write — not direct, she emphasizes. She hopes to write a novel, “The kind of book I would have loved to have read when I was 20, from the backstage point of view.”

    She has extended her contract for Cabaret through July. Then, she says, she might like to perform Saint Joan, or Rosalind with “Shakespeare in the Park,” or even make another film. “It’s easy to get burned out on theater. One day a week off is never enough. But if you keep coming back to the boards, it keeps you honest.”

    At Smothers Theatre, she will perform Broadway and film songs — Sondheim, Gershwin, Menken, Schwartz — as well as those composers she calls, “If You Wait Five Minutes, They’ll Be Famous, Too.”

    “It’s Valentine’s week. I’ll explore love — the good, bad and ugly. I’m sure all of this is therapeutic.” She’ll cover “first love, teen angst, making oneself right for someone one isn’t right for.”

    She will also include a smattering of patter. “I got into the business to play roles,” she says, doubting that she is interesting enough to chat with an audience. “But people like the personal stories — stories to put the human face on what you think is this glamorous world.”

    Like the time she picked the fuzz off Terrence Mann’s tongue when the famed actor playing the Beast was in his costume that included furry paws. Like the time she dislocated her elbow in the middle of Beauty and the Beast when she slipped on congealed dry ice. Like the time she broke her ankle, also in Beauty. “I do things with abandon. I’m not saying I would change it. I’m just saying it gets me into trouble.”

    Susan Egan appears Friday only, 8 p.m., at Pepperdine University’s Smothers Theatre. Tel. 456.4522.