There are a handful of Broadway Musicals that require the producer to go out and hire a battle-axe.
She can have a husband, in which case her function is to be the hen that pecks him.
Such is the case with Parthy Hawks, wife of Cap'n Andy Hawks, in "Showboat".
The tradition started back in 1927, with the original Broadway cast.
Parthy was played by Edna May Oliver.
She was a wonderful character actress who resembled Margaret Hamilton, but was not as nice looking.
She had a hatchet-face.
She was a child-frightener.
Someone once asked her if she had ever sung.
She replied "With a face like mine, who's going to ask me to sing??!!"
Thus, Parthy had no songs in "ShowBoat"
The thing about battle-axes is that they almost always know why they were hired.
Edna May was asked to re-hone her face for the mid-1930s Broadway revival of "Showboat".
The first movie version in 1936 had someone playing Parthy who I can't remember, and was never famous.
But in the remake, in 1951, Parthy was Agnes Moorhead.
This was a role that was right in her wheelhouse.
From her very first appearance in film, in "Citizen Kane", as young Charles Foster Kane's mother, who gives her son away to tycoons who raise him, over the very meek objections of her husband (the beginning of her hen-pecking career), she was a battle-axe, but she very shrewdly underplayed it, to devastating effect.
It wasn't until later on that she became the first campy battle-axe as Endora in the "Bewitched" TV series.
Not that long ago, in a Broadway production that I saw, Harold Prince hired Elaine Stritch to play Parthy.
For the first and perhaps only time, Parthy was given a song.
They put a little baby in her lap, and had her sing "Why Do I Love You?" to it.
I don't know whose idea it was, but it was very effective.
Stritch, a well-known battle-axe in real-life, perhaps had to be coaxed into playing the role, lest the Broadway crowd start saying "Well, there's Elaine in real life".
So maybe the conversation went something like:
Stritch: Hal, I ain't playin' no friggin' battle-axe.
Prince: But Elaine, everyone thinks you are one anyway!
Stritch: So let 'em! I ain't playin' her!
Prince: Well...how about this? We give you a friggin' baby. And you sing to it. And they'll love you for it.
At least they won't think you're SUCH a battle-axe!
Then, as she grew more and more comfortable wearing the mink stole of battle-axedom, she enlisted to play Alec Baldwin's total battle-axe mother on "30 Rock".
I'm given to understand that even Baldwin was afraid of her.
Next time, more Battle-Axes of Broadway.
My books ,"Show Runner" and it's sequel, "Show Runner Two", can be found at the Amazon Kindle Store.
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- mark rothman
- Hi. I am, according to my Wikipedia entry,(which I did not create) a noted television writer, playwright, screenwriter, and occasional actor. You can Google me or go to the IMDB to get my credits, and you can come here to get my opinions on things, which I'll try to express eloquently. Hopefully I'll succeed. You can also e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Perhaps my biggest claim to fame is being responsible, for about six months in 1975, while Head Writer for the "Happy Days" TV series, for Americans saying to each other "Sit on it."