Badham will be here first (and last, and most). As the guest of the Metro Theater Company/Edison Theatre production of To Kill a Mockingbird, she will attend a post-performance reception following Friday's opening-night performance and will appear at post-play discussions twice on Saturday. In addition, on behalf of the National Endowment for the Arts' Big Read program, on Saturday and Sunday afternoons Badham will introduce three screenings of the movie.
When, at age eight, she was plucked from obscurity to play Scout, Badham could not have known she would spend the rest of her life recalling her memories of that film. Most actors devote their careers to pursuing, like the elusive Holy Grail, that one career-defining performance. Badham stumbled onto her grail before she even knew she was looking for it. Of course, it didn't hurt that in her film debut she had the good fortune to be cast opposite that most generous of actors: Gregory Peck. Even before she could say "Tom Robinson," Badham received an Oscar nod (she would lose to another child actress, Patty Duke).
All too soon she would make the disillusioning discovery that her film debut had spoiled her. Both on and off the set, Peck had treated Mary like his own daughter. On her next film, This Property Is Condemned, in which she portrayed Natalie Wood's younger sister, Wood barely gave her the time of day. Gone was the sense of camaraderie and family. So at the ripe old age of fourteen, Badham retired. She married and raised a family in rural Virginia.
But as the decades have gone by and Mockingbird's stature has grown to near-mythic proportions (the Library of Congress named it the second-most influential book after the Bible; the American Film Institute selected Atticus Finch as the most popular movie hero), Badham has been called upon to share her memories of Atticus and Boo Radley. Although surely many of those specifics are dim, one memory remains crystal clear: her special relationship with Peck. They remained friendly right up until his death in 2003.
In the mid-1990s the venerable star toured throughout America in a one-man show titled A Conversation with Gregory Peck. While it's true that some viewers came to see a movie star in the flesh, mostly they came to spend an evening with Atticus Finch. The bulk of their questions concerned Mockingbird. Especially this one: Are you still in touch with the two young actors who played Scout and Jem? You could almost feel a catharsis-like relief ripple through the theater every time Atticus affirmed that he was. In Louisville and Winston-Salem, Peck created a sensation when he announced that Mary was in the audience, then invited the grown-up Scout to join him onstage. "It is so touching to see the two of you together," a Louisville woman called out from the balcony. "This is really quite an evening for all of us who grew as human beings from having seen that film." Indeed it was.
Kristin Chenoweth will make only one appearance this weekend, but it should be a doozy. She will sing Saturday night at the Fox Theatre with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. Here's hoping that a good mixer is running the soundboard; otherwise Chenoweth runs the risk of drowning the symphony out. She packs power. But despite her celebrity and an excess of talent, Chenoweth faces the challenge imposed on all those who would be Broadway stars today: How do you sustain a career in a shrinking market?
The perennial truth is that there's only one surefire way to become a bona fide Broadway star, and that is through the association with a long run. Chenoweth has a résumé filled with impressive credits (The Apple Tree; her Tony Award-winning Sally in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown; Candide at Lincoln Center), but Glinda in Wicked is her only long run.
Certainly it's not her fault that the New York theater she grew up hoping to conquer has changed. But like too many performers before her, she runs the risk of making lots of fast money from television and then realizing that all that TV time counts for very little in the long arc of a stage career. Granted: Patti LuPone is twenty years older than Chenoweth. But LuPone has built her lore on her associations with Evita, Anything Goes, Sweeney Todd and now Gypsy. How many people even remember the name of the TV series in which she starred for four years? (Life Goes On.)
As life goes on in St. Louis this weekend, surely we will be treated to fond memories of Gregory Peck from Badham and a high-voltage performance from Chenoweth. Badham then returns home to her family in Virginia; Chenoweth, to where? Let's hope it's not too long before she's back on Broadway, doing what she does best in a long, long run.
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