When Jennifer Frankel takes the stage as courtesan Gymnasia in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, she’s following in her mother’s own sandal-clad footsteps, as Diane Coupé was in the original Broadway production of the show back in 1962.
“I had left England for Vegas but I wanted to come to New York and try my hand there, so I auditioned and two weeks later, I had my first Broadway show, which was Forum,” Coupé says. “I was swing, so if anyone was out, I would go on for her. I had the chance to do almost all the roles, which was a great deal of fun.”
The one role she didn’t get to play at the Alvin Theatre, however, was Gymnasia, because of a major height difference between her and the character’s portrayer, Gloria Kristy.
“She was very tall, an old Follies girl, so I never had the chance to cover for her,” Coupé says. “It was such a fun, fun musical and an absolute ball to be around every night with all these funny men (such as Broadway vets Zero Mostel, David Burns and John Carradine).”
By the time Frankel was born, Coupé had appeared in eight Broadway shows, including Funny Girl with Barbra Streisand and Mame with Angela Lansbury, but had said goodbye to the Great White Way after performing in Coco in 1970. She went on to start a dance studio in Nanuet, N.Y., and just celebrated the 40th anniversary of its opening.
“Growing up, I spent most of my free time there at the dance studio,” Frankel says. “I would put on living room shows and perform when I could. I had the acting bug early.” Coupé says she saw a determination and focus in her daughter and knew early that she would want a career on the stage.
Frankel made it to Broadway in Ain’t Broadway Grand in 1993 and spent the next two decades appearing in such notable shows as Chicago, Monty Python’s Spamalot, On the Town and Catch Me if You Can.
For the latter show, Frankel was given the Gypsy Robe, awarded to the chorus member with the most Broadway credits on opening night of every Broadway musical that has a chorus. What was significant about her ceremony was that her mother had also received the Gypsy Robe for work in the 1965 short-lived Broadway show La Grosse Valise, and they became the first and only mother/daughter tandem ever to both receive it.
“When it was time to pass it on to the next person—Wonderland’s Grady Bowman—I was unable to go, so my mom came and passed it on for me,” Frankel says. “That was very special that she could be involved.”
Frankel actually took some time off from performing after that production and moved to the D.C. area to further her career in the fitness world, teaching and designing classes for Crunch in Virginia. A phone call from her agent saying she was offered the part of Gymnasia drew her back on to the stage.
“It’s hard to pull yourself away from performing. Once you’ve done it, it’s an odd, crazy bunch of people who bond with one another and I was looking for that experience again,” she says. “It was ironic that I was returning to the business in the same show that my mom first started in on Broadway.”
Coupé almost sacrificed a career on the stage for teaching, as well. She was raised in England by a mom who was a dance teacher herself, and sent to boarding school to study the performing arts.
“The interesting thing was that the people who ran the school knew my family were teachers and they automatically pegged me as a teacher and I actually taught at the school after I graduated,” she says. “I enjoyed teaching but I wanted to perform. I quietly went to London, auditioned, got a show and knew I needed to experience what that was like. Mom wasn’t happy but I wanted to perform.”
That passion is instilled in Frankel and she looks forward to making her Washington, D.C. debut with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
“Being out on stage and seeing an audience smiling and clapping is so much a pull for me,” she says. “I came into this business to entertain people and when you haven’t been around it in a while, you realize how special it is and how much you miss it.”
Coupé is planning to come down to see the show in December and offers just a little advice based on her experience with the musical: “I told her to just have fun with it. It’s a great time and she’ll figure it all out. I can’t wait to see it.”