HARVEY EVANS: AS GOOD AS IT GETS
On Christmas Eve, Broadway veteran Harvey Evans passed away at the Actors Fund Home in Englewood, New Jersey at the age of eighty (he would have turned eighty-one on January 6th). One of the best-loved members of the New York theatrical community with fifteen Broadway shows to his credit (all but one of them musicals), his was a career dating back to 1955, when he danced in the ensemble of the national tour of Damn Yankees. In an interview in 2007 with Playbill Magazine, he claimed to have been seventeen at the time, which would have meant he was born in 1938. Only thing is, he was born in 1941. My educated guess is that he fudged his age, much as Michael Bennett did as a sixteen-year-old when he was cast in a West Side Story tour for his first professional gig.
And speaking of West Side Story, Harvey is featured prominently in its 1961 film version as Mouthpiece, a Jet, memorably filling the frame at the end of “Jet Song” as the camera zooms in on his face for an extreme close-up. In Steven Spielberg’s current remake, there’s been a misunderstanding over whether or not he has a cameo playing a Gimbels Security Guard due to his name showing up in the credits. Actually, it’s Bert Michaels, who also played a Jet (Snowboy) in the 1961 film. Whatever the reasons for the mixup, if you read in any of Harvey’s obits that he’s playing this part, it’s not the case.
Harvey’s history with WSS dates back to when, as Harvey Hohnecker, he joined the original Broadway production as a replacement (he switched it to Evans in the early 60s). He missed out on the original casting of WSSsince he was in another Hal Prince-produced musical at the time, New Girl in Town (his Broadway debut). “They told us we couldn’t audition, because they wouldn’t take us out of New Girl and put us as dancers in West Side Story,” he told Playbill. When I saw the first run-thru, I thought that WSS was the most fantastic thing. So I went to Hal and asked him if I could audition for the first replacement cast and he said yes. And I became part of that show.”
He also went into such classics as Gypsy and Hello, Dolly! (as Tulsa and Barnaby). He played in the national company of the latter with Carol Channing before taking over the role in New York. “I also got to do it with Betty Grable and Eve Arden. They were all fantastic.” The truth is that from the time he began, Harvey immediately became a go-to dancer for the best choreographers of the day: Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins, Gower Champion, Joe Layton, Herbert Ross and Michael Bennett. Due to short stints on the West Coast (and his dancing prowess), he can be spotted in the big dance numbers of a couple of major film musicals, such as Silk Stockings, The Pajama Game and Mary Poppins as a chimney sweep.
Born in Cincinnatti, he exhibited a talent for movement early on leading his parents to enroll him in a dance school at the age of four. Having read an article in LIFE Magazine about Damn Yankees he fell in love with Gwen Verdon. He told himself, “I would love to be in Damn Yankees.” Not so long thereafter, he got to New York and was cast as a dancer in its national company. Life imitates art (or at least LIFE Magazine). Check out his moves (dancing with none other than Gwen Verdon) in “Who’s Got the Pain?” from Damn Yankees as seen on an Ed Sullivan special in 1973.
About his time on Broadway from the late fifties and onward, Harvey is quoted as having said: “This is not for ego or anything, but I’m blessed with the fact that when I started in the business, all the greats were around doing a show a year. I really sort of tutored or apprenticed under Bob Fosse, and Gower Champion and Jerry Robbins. I remember on the movie of West Side Story, he gave us a ballet barre every morning. I was a tap dancer really and he would specifically tell us what our problem was. I remember thinking, ‘This is remarkable. It’s Jerry Robbins that is teaching me dancing.’ So, I was blessed with that. I feel sorry for younger people in the business because there are no people that continually do shows like there was. Gower did a show a year. Bob Fosse did a show a year. Joe Layton did a show a year. Jerry Robbins did.”
Harvey also had a long association with the musicals of Stephen Sondheim. As a replacement in Gypsy and West Side Story, he moved onto originating parts in Anyone Can Whistle (1964) and in Follies (1971) as Young Buddy. He is prominently featured as part of the 1973 all-star one-night only recording of Sondheim: A Musical Tribute (the Scrabble album) singing a cut song from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and backing up Angela Lansbury with Tony Stevens (his one-time partner) on Anyone Can Whistle’s “Me and My Town.” One of Harvey’s personal favorites was standing by for Jim Dale in Barnum, which after proving how good he was, got him its national tour. He was also in the original casts of Sunset Boulevard (1994) and the 2002 revival of Oklahoma!, in addition to touring in La Cage aux Folles, playing opposite his West Side Story cast mate Larry Kert, the original Tony.
Not only was I fortunate enough to spend two hours with Harvey in 2013 interviewing him, but I got to see him in a number of shows during his heyday. Follies, of course, but also in a 1970 revival of the British musical The Boy Friend, opposite Sandy Duncan, where they stole the show with their Charleston number. And a year earlier than that, I saw him in a rare non-musical role as George Gibbs in a beautiful production of Our Town (with Henry Fonda as the Stage Manager). The cast included such Broadway stalwarts as Ed Begley, Mildred Natwick, Margaret Hamilton and John Randolph. “After the first reading, I felt that I wanted to get everybody’s autograph,” he said.
On television he got to star opposite Ann-Margret in a one-hour adaptation of the off-Broadway spoof of 1930s musicals Dames at Sea, as well as playing Duane, Margo Channing’s hair stylist, in a TV version of the Tony Award winning Best Musical Applause. But Harvey’s heart always belonged to Broadway, and he got a lot of love back in return from everyone he ever came in contact with.
As far as my long and wide-ranging conversation with him went, I’ve been listening to it again after eight years and it reconnects me to what a wonderful guy he was. I’ll never forget the joy of discovery when he showed up on screen in the big dance number “That’s How You Know” in the 2007 Disney musical Enchanted. Outfitted in yellow with a porkpie hat, check out the YouTube video below and follow him. Delight in his moves and the joy he generates — that smile! (his entrance is at the 1:07 mark):
Look for Harvey at the 1:07 mark.
For many, Harvey Evans will remain immortal for his performance in Follies, mainly because of his performance on the original cast recording. The highlight is, of course, at the very end; his haunting line reading of “Sally?” delivered in a way even he would have to acknowledge achieved perfection — probably the greatest last line ever spoken to end a Side B. The pain and wonder in his voice makes me tear up every time. “When I die, my tombstone will say, ‘Here lies Harvey Evans. He was in FOLLIES,’” he was quoted to have said. And even as mercilessly cut as the album is (we don’t get the full version of “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow/Love Will See Us Through”), it manages to contain beautiful work from him as well as his co-stars, Virginia Sandifur, Marti Rolph and Kurt Peterson. As fate would have it, the four of them would do a 2003 concert version of Follies in Ann Arbor, Michigan, thirty-two years later portraying their elder selves. Here’s Harvey singing “The Right Girl” from that production, as good a way to say goodbye as I can muster.
Rest in Peace, dear Harvey.
05 The Right Girl.m4a
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If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, follow me here on Scrollstack and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.