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From Broadway To TV, An Actress' Death Takes Us Down Cultural Rabbit Hole


Cultural connections are everywhere now, thanks to the variety show that is the Internet. Today we bring you one example of the cultural rabbit hole. It begins in the newspaper, but takes us around a spiral from television to movies to Broadway, courtesy of NPR pop-culture blogger Linda Holmes. It all started when Linda read an obituary for a woman named Beth Howland.

LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: Well, Beth Howland was an actress. She died in December, as it turns out. But her husband didn't announce it until just this last week, which was apparently in accordance with her wishes. He said it was her Boston side. He said to The New York Times, they didn't want to make a fuss. She's best known to most people as the ditzy waitress Vera on "Alice." Not the one who said kiss my grits, but the other one.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Is anybody going to answer that phone?

BETH HOWLAND: (As Vera) Shh (ph) we don't want to caller to know that anybody's here.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I know you're not.

MARTIN: There were other aspects to her besides TV.

HOLMES: That's right. She was, among other things, a Broadway actress. She was in the original Broadway cast of "Company" - Stephen Sondheim's "Company." And she originated the role of Amy. And Amy is the nervous bride who does this wild patter song called "Getting Married Today."


BETH HOWLAND: (Singing, as Amy) Pardon me, is everybody here? Because if everybody's here I want to thank you all for coming to the wedding. I'd appreciate your going even more. I mean, you must have lots of better things to do. And not a word of it to Paul. Remember Paul, you know, the man I'm going to marry, but I'm not because I wouldn't ruin anyone as wonderful as he is. Thank you all for the gifts and the flowers. Thank you all, now it's back to the showers. Don't tell Paul, but I'm not getting married today.

HOLMES: And that song - I saw her record that in a clip from a documentary that was made about the recording of that cast album by D.A. Pennebaker. And that got me going because the most famous part of that documentary is this sequence in which Elaine Stritch is trying mightily to lay down the track for "Ladies Who Lunch."


ELAINE STRITCH: Oh, shut up. Actually though, shut up, see, is what I say to myself when I hear myself singing. Shut up. Because I know they're right. I know they're right. And I can't do it.

HOLMES: And that's on top of "Getting Married Today" and all these other things. "Company" is a really interesting, odd show.

MARTIN: Remind us, this came out in 1970 or so, right?

HOLMES: Right. And "Company," for its time, is really groundbreaking in that it has these themes about singlehood and relationships. And it follows this single man and all of his married friends. It's an odd little show. And right in the middle of this odd little show is this crazy patter song.

MARTIN: This crazy song that a whole lot of amazingly talented women then did their own versions of, right?

HOLMES: Right. There are clips of different people singing this song all over the place.


CAROL BURNETT: (Singing, as Amy) Listen, everybody. Look, I don't know what you're waiting for. A wedding? What's a wedding? It's a...


MADELINE KAHN: (Singing, as Amy) Prehistoric ritual where everybody promises fidelity forever, which is maybe the most horrifying word I've ever heard of...


JAYMA MAYS: (Singing, as Amy) Which is followed by a honeymoon where suddenly he'll realize he's saddled with a nut and want to kill me, which he should. So thanks a bunch, but I'm not getting married.

MARTIN: That was Madeline Kahn, Jayma Mays doing a version on "Glee" and, of course, the great Carol Burnett doing her own version. So, Linda, in your revisiting of all these performances, I understand you found one particular treasure?

HOLMES: That's right. I was looking at this song and I'm digging around, as you do, and I found one that showed up in 2012.


LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: (Rapping) Thank you all. Is everybody here? Because if everybody's here I'd like to thank you all for coming to the wedding. I'd appreciate your coming...

HOLMES: So that, of course, is Lin Manuel Miranda. As you may know, he is a Broadway composer who is about to win a bunch of Tonys for "Hamilton," almost undoubtedly. And this is just him goofing around, presumably at home. It's quite a video. And again, 2012. So who knew?

MARTIN: Even I, as not necessarily a student of this stuff, I can discern that this is probably a difficult song to sing.

HOLMES: Right. So if you want to know how to sing this song exactly right, here's the good news. We have you covered there as well. Because this rabbit hole is endless. So...

MARTIN: ...Wow, this is a deep rabbit hole.

HOLMES: It is. In 1984, for "The South Bank Show," which was an arts show on British TV, Stephen Sondheim did what they called a master class where he taught a bunch of students from the Guildhall School of Music how to sing various songs of his, including "Getting Married Today."

MARTIN: (Laughter).


DAVID: (Singing) Rest of my life.

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: Hold on one second, Dave. David, address that to her. Address that to her so you have somebody to play with. No, no, you're fixed on the congregation. You're fixed with...

MARTIN: Amazing. And Beth Howland took you to all these places.

HOLMES: This is how it works, right? You're in this culture where, you know, an individual actress who didn't want a big fuss made about her life is only a step from Lin Manuel Miranda, a step from Stephen Sondheim, obviously, a step from Elaine Stritch. And they're all - once you're talking about creative people, that creative work exists in this big web. And it's much less separated by the idea of the high and the low and the British and the American.

And there's a giant mushing of all this stuff together. And it's amazing how far you can get if you start at one place and you just say, what's the next step? What's the next step, you know? Because another one of those master classes is about "Send In The Clowns." You want to do 10 minutes about "Send In The Clowns?"

MARTIN: Oh, yeah, can we do that next time?

HOLMES: 'Cause you could.

MARTIN: This has been such a fun rabbit hole to go down with you. Thank you, Linda Holmes.

HOLMES: Thanks, Rachel.


BERNADETTE PETERS: (Singing) Somebody hold me too close. Somebody hurt me too deep. Somebody sit in my chair and ruin my sleep.

MARTIN: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 31, 2016 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous Web introduction to this story said that Beth Howland had died this past Wednesday. She actually died in December 2015; the announcement of her death was last week.