“I never see Broadway shows,” said one particularly well-dressed theatergoer, who nonetheless stood in a long line to scan his ticket on a rainy Monday night. He’d make an exception for Anderson.
Anderson, who rose to fame as a Playboy model before donning that famous red swimsuit on “Baywatch,” isn’t known for singing or dancing (aside from a stint on “Dancing With the Stars”). Nevertheless, she’s made the leap to the Great White Way. In a prior era, who knows how receptive the public would be to Anderson’s debut on stage; she’s spent more of her career as a punchline than a performer. But times have changed and so have attitudes toward Anderson, who has returned to the public consciousness as her life is being dramatized in the unauthorized Hulu series “Pam & Tommy” (where she’s played by Lily James). Anderson has no involvement in the show, which depicts the release of her and ex-husband Tommy Lee’s stolen sex tape in 1996, shortly after their quickie wedding.
Through the show, people have admitted to perceiving Anderson through a new light. Now her portrayal as a blond-haired ingenue whose escapades are sensationalized to sell newspapers is considered inspired casting. “Chicago,” which has been running on Broadway for 25 years, centers on Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, two merry murderesses who try to leverage their celebrity as they await trial in jail. Since Anderson stepped into the role last week, ticket sales have gone up nearly 9%, according to Broadway World.
Robert Herman, 61, bought tickets to “Chicago” for one reason. “I was inspired by the depiction of the cruelty the world imposed upon her,” he said in reference to “Pam & Tommy.” Herman, who lives on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, happened to be visiting Manhattan during Anderson’s eight-week limited engagement, which ends on June 5. “It’s kismet.”
“It’s very autobiographical for her — being exploited. Roxie was exploited, [Pamela] was exploited,” said Herman. “It’s a great pairing, whoever thought of it. Now can she sing? Can she dance?”
“I think she can dance,” his longtime friend and theater date Hillary Rivnan, of Manhattan, chimed in. “I don’t know about the singing…”
Never mind, Herman said. “I’m looking forward to giving her a standing ovation.”
At this recent performance, Anderson certainly had the audience on her side, singing lyrics that felt oddly on the nose despite being written nearly 50 years ago. In her first musical number “Funny Honey,” Roxie shares her adoration for her husband, Amos, who at first takes the blame for her crime, but then turns her into the police. “What if the world slandered my name?” she croons with a knowing wink.
Musical theater chops have not been a requirement to play Roxie, a role that’s been previously portrayed on stage by a mix of Broadway legends and Hollywood stars such as Gwen Verdon, Ann Reinking, Brooke Shields, Ashlee Simpson and Melanie Griffith. But as “Chicago” has aged and expanded its pop culture reach, getting adapted on screen with Rob Marshall’s 2002 Oscar-winning movie starring Renee Zellweger and Catherine-Zeta Jones, the Broadway production has had a tendency to throw the kitchen sink at its stunt casting choices. Did you miss the turn from “Real Housewives Beverly Hills” staple Erika Jayne as Roxie? So did we.
“I’ve seen some bad celebrities in this show, so I was ultimately ready to have a good time,” said 24-year-old Dominic Crisonino of Jersey City. “She really holds her own. It’s so fun.”
His friend Liz Mercun, who also traveled from Jersey City, affectionately added, “It’s so campy.”
Not everyone in the audience was there to witness a redemption arc.
“I really wanted to see Hugh Jackman in ‘The Music Man,’” admitted 38-year-old Veronica Lloyd, in town from Annapolis, Maryland. But admission to that revival, also starring Broadway favorite Sutton Foster, isn’t cheap. That’s when she noticed a targeted Facebook ad touting Anderson’s Broadway debut. “I found this seat, and it was under $200. I thought… how could I not?”
Another ticket buyer, Indiana native Stefani Russell, had zero familiarity with Anderson or “Chicago.” While at dinner at a nearby dumpling restaurant, the patrons next to her convinced her to see the show. By intermission, however, she was hooked.
“I had no idea what the show was about,” Russell, 30, said.
Paulie Devlin, a theater buff, also hadn’t previously seen “Chicago” professionally. After watching Anderson’s episode of “E! True Hollywood Story” as a child, Devlin, now 27, became a life-long fan. “Clearly I’ve modeled my whole life after her,” she said, motioning to her cheetah-print dress and bold red lip. So it was a no-brainer to fly from Boston to watch the musical.
“I had to do anything and everything to see her,” Devlin said. “She’s the pinnacle of resilience and being yourself and not giving a shit.”
Following a standing ovation, tens of theatergoers made a beeline to the stage door to stake out a spot in the hopes of getting a glimpse of Anderson up close. In true “Chicago” fashion, Lana Gordon, who plays Velma Kelly, a vaudevillian whose celebrity diminishes as Roxie’s star rises, dutifully signed a few Playbills before ducking out, knowing the masses were waiting for a certain blonde bombshell.
As devotees elbowed their way to the front of the barricades, chaos almost broke loose when security from Ambassador Theatre put up a second barricade. That allowed people who wandered up to get a better spot compared to those packed in the back of the first barricade who’d been waiting longer. One tourist, who came to see “Chicago” for her 16th birthday, politely asked to squeeze in next to a man to catch a better look at and maybe even an autograph from Anderson. Surely, an adult man would share the space with an eager teen?
Wrong. Clutching his Playbill like it was a holy text, he turned over his shoulder and bellowed “Fuck! Off!” Fortunately, fellow theatergoers came to the girl’s defense. And Anderson, who came outside moments later, happened to grab a Playbill from the birthday girl’s father’s outstretched arms. Victory!
Devlin of Boston was looking for a more permanent souvenir. “I asked her to sign my arm so I could get a tattoo, but she said no,” Devlin said. She still got an autograph on her Playbill, which should suffice. “I’m going to take it to my tattoo artist.”
And she’s sympathetic to Anderson’s life in the public eye. “God bless her, after everything she’s been through.”