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Taking over well-worn, but beloved roles

Taking over the role of Cliff in the Broadway revival of "Cabaret," Michael Hayden says, "was like being shot out of a cannon."

Mr. Hayden, who rocketed to the top of the A-list of stage performers six years ago as the lead in the acclaimed revival of "Carousel," joins the growing number of established actors who have assumed roles in long-running shows when the original performer's contract runs out.

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For producers, it's a chance to extend the life of a show. For performers stepping into vacated roles, the reasons range from working with well-respected directors to acting in great roles. "I'd never 'replaced' before," Hayden explains, dressed in a T-shirt and jogging shorts in his Studio 54 dressing room, home of "Cabaret." "Everyone kept telling me it wasn't a very good role, but I knew Sam Mendes had directed it, so I said I'd consider it."

Mr. Mendes, celebrated for directing "The Blue Room" in London and New York, is currently represented on movie screens with his first feature film, "American Beauty."

Hayden saw "Cabaret" and concluded that it had a great dramatic part and an incredible story. He worked through the usual rehearsal period "with a stage manager for a week, who basically gave me the blocking, with no one else on stage." He received additional direction from Mendes's assistant, BT McNicholl.

"The night I went in was the first time I went through the whole thing with everybody there," Hayden says.

Following his Tony-nominated leads in "Tommy" and "Titanic," Michael Cerveris chose to accept the title role in the wild off-Broadway rock musical "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" when its star and co-creator, John Cameron Mitchell, bowed out after two years.

Like Hayden, Mr. Cerveris rehearsed alone, with a stage manager. "The first time I actually got to do it with the other cast members was at a rehearsal that afternoon before I went on. It was an astonishing experience."

Cerveris initially agreed to do the role for one month, during Mitchell's vacation, but decided to come back for a full run starting last spring. Strong reviews proclaimed him equally credible in the part. He will open the Los Angeles production before the end of the year.

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Sandy Duncan, known to Broadway, film, and television audiences for more than 20 years, has had a different relationship with taking over roles. "It's all I really have done," she says with a laugh.

Ms. Duncan recently assumed the part of the tough-as-nails, media-hungry murderess Roxie Hart in the hit revival of "Chicago." Previously, she took over for Twiggy in "My One and Only," for Valerie Harper on TV's "The Hogan Family," and was the first to try to compete with the memory of Mary Martin as "Peter Pan" by taking on the role in a revival.

"There's not a lot of new product," she explains backstage at the Shubert Theatre, following a Saturday matinee.

Putting new people in existing roles can also make audiences think differently about that show. "Smokey Joe's Cafe," the longest-running musical revue in Broadway history, based on the songs of '50s hitmakers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, will close in mid-January after logging more than 2,000 performances. By cycling in a variety of guest stars, ranging from Lesley Gore and Tony Orlando to Gloria Gaynor and Rick Springfield, the show has maintained its vitality.

Some long-running hits, such as "Ragtime," "Phantom of the Opera," and "Miss Saigon" are not star-dependent, since audiences have become familiar with the show itself.

Dramas have a more complicated route to follow when applying this idea. The recent Tony-winning "Sideman" featured a string of well-known performers in the lead role, such as film actors Christian Slater and Andrew McCarthy, and Scott Wolf of TV's "Party of Five." These name replacements permitted it to remain open long enough for Tony voters to see the show, which led to its Best Play win.

The trend is likely to continue. The revival of "Annie Get Your Gun," starring Bernadette Peters in a Tony-winning performance, will boast someone new to the Broadway stage beginning Dec. 23 when Peters goes on vacation - Susan Lucci, known for her work on the TV soap opera "All My Children."

Duncan feels that there is a danger, however, in producers choosing the wrong person. "Some of the people I hear that they're considering for some roles ... I think, that person can't sing or dance! When they do that, it trivializes the hard work that came before in those roles. And I don't think it's fair to the audiences."

She includes creative satisfaction among the reasons she chooses to step into a show.

"If I see someone doing wonderful work, and I don't think I can contribute anything new or different from what they're doing, then I don't think I could do it."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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