When Features Editor Carey Purcell asked me to contribute to her Women in Theatre Week, she suggested I look back at 15 years' worth of Diva Talk columns. That led to the idea of a series of columns that would spotlight divas I interviewed throughout a certain calendar year. These compilations, which will run periodically, kick off with 2003, the year Broadway saw the arrivals of the Bernadette Peters revival of Gypsy, the Tony-winning Avenue Q, the Peter Allen musical biography The Boy from Oz, the international, long-running hit Wicked and the Rosie O'Donnell-produced Taboo, among others. Below are excerpts from interviews relating to these productions and more.
Idina Menzel, who was then starring in Wicked
Q: What was it like working with Joe Mantello as a director?
IM: I really owe it all to him. He challenged me to be better and really helped me discover who this woman was. When they are writing a new piece, they're not sure where they're coming from sometimes. The climate of who she is changes depending on a scene that's in or not, so you're constantly going, 'Okay, wait. Now, I'm actually funny sometimes!' He just helped me figure out every moment and be specific and helped me bring out the essence of who she is.
Q: Do you have a favorite song or moment in the show?
IM: I have several favorite moments; it depends on the day. I love singing the duet with Kristin [Chenoweth] at the end because I'm always in awe of how different our voices are, and yet, when we sing together in unison, how wonderfully they blend. That's an important statement for the characters and the people that we are in real life as well. I love singing the duet with Norbert [Leo Butz] because I get to be the ingenue. All the other roles I've had, I'm always the slutty supporting character [laughs], and now I get to sing the pretty love song, so I love doing that. I love flying and singing 'Defying Gravity,' which is my most favorite song in the show.
On her vocal influences: "I'm such a fan of the world, of everyone. [I remember] listening to Karen Carpenter sing and how beautifully and how simply she sang. I always say that Steve Perry taught me how to belt — the guy that sang for Journey because I used to sing along with him. He just had this great tenor voice, and it was so much fun to sing those songs. And Ella Fitzgerald is one of my idols. And Billie Holiday and Barbra Streisand and K.D. Lang and, in terms of contemporary singers, Sarah McLachlan and Mary Black. There are just so many great voices, people who communicate through song."
Sarah Uriarte Berry, who was then starring in Taboo
On her role in the Boy George musical: "My character is Nicola, originally Nicola Bateman, now Nicola Bowery. She is still with us [and] resides in London. She's a real person — she's into fashion and clubbing. She comes up with these fantastic, brilliant costumes and looks. She's actually an amazing seamstress: She does beading and sequining and all this incredible detail work, and she would come up with these fantastic looks. She hooked up with Leigh Bowery" — the character portrayed in the musical by George O'Dowd, aka Boy George — "in the clubs in London in the eighties. They developed a relationship. Even though he was strange and sort of slept with all sorts of people, they developed a very close bond and really loved each other. By the end of the show, she changes from being an obsessed fan of this amazing man to becoming a devoted and rather loving wife."
On playing a woman who is still alive: "I really am attacking this character as a character in a show, from a theatrical place. Nicola's sister, Christine, is the make-up and hair designer [of Taboo], so I have spoken with her some, just to get a little background information. But I've never met the real Nicola. I've seen video footage of her, so I can see some of her mannerisms. Some people are very theatrical just the way they are in real life. Philip Sallon, who Raúl Esparza is playing, [is] a really out-there, kooky, very theatrical person — you could almost do a direction imitation of him, and it works on a stage. Nicola's a bit more reserved. She's a little kooky, but she's a little more reserved, at least in the footage I saw, so I had to sort of take an essence of her and build a more theatrical character around that. On one of the videos I watched, she said, 'I hope I'm not portrayed as a doormat,' so I am trying to make her interesting and really have a heart and really be three dimensional. I hope she likes it."
Alix Korey, who was then starring in Listen to My Heart: The Songs of David Friedman
On the songs of David Friedman: "I think a lot of it depends on whether he's the composer or the composer and lyricist. For David's songs that he's written [alone], they tend to be more pop-oriented and anthemic. But when he writes with somebody else, he services the other lyricist. I wouldn't say there's a definite David song, [but] you can tell a David Friedman song [because] he always has a little catch phrase at the end." She adds, "I have a preference for great lyrics, that's all. As it happens, I think it's a lot harder to write a funny song, so I'm always impressed when it is actually [funny], when a funny lyric is funny as opposed to me having to kill myself to make it funny."
On her recent stint in Chicago, playing Mama Morton: "You walk out, sing a song, sit down. You say some funny lines, sit down. Say some more funny lines and then leave. You don't even have to change your costume. You just come back, sing another hit song, you have some funny lines, and you're done! I'm a lazy old gal, [so] this is a great part. I got to watch everybody else dance their asses off, and I never broke a sweat… And the people in it, that ensemble is fabulous. They are dynamite performers, and I never got bored sitting on the side watching the dance numbers. They were just so great."
Stephanie J. Block, who was then starring in The Boy from Oz
Q: Was it intimidating to try to portray Liza Minnelli? How did you approach the role?
SB: Yes, it was crazy intimidating. [Laughs.] The thing was, when I was doing the auditioning process, I guess I never really absorbed the fact of what sort of dilemma I'd be in, or what sort of weight this character would have. And when they offered me the job, I cried and I screamed, and I called my boyfriend and my family and my voice teacher back at home. And, when I was sitting on the plane going to San Francisco, I thought, 'What have I done?' [Laughs.] As I said to you before, I had always admired her work, but it's not something that I had ever incorporated in my career or had ever tried to do a Liza Minnelli impersonation, for lack of a better word. But the creative team kept saying, 'That's not what we're looking for. It's not the Liza Minnelli story. It's not the Judy Garland story. It's the Peter Allen story. So we're looking for a much more human and personal approach to this character because everybody seems to think they know Liza, but they know her from her performances and this star-powered woman.' The scenes that I do, they're really quiet moments with her mom playing cards or discussing things with her husband, and I don't think she would be over-the-top as we would envision her on stage when she closes that door and is at home in her own living room with her husband. So, little by little, I started putting in more inflections and mannerisms, and they were wonderfully patient. . . . Isabel Keating had done Judy several times and had been part of the [Boy From Oz] workshop. So when I watched her in rehearsals, and she had already embodied Judy Garland, it was like, 'Oh my word, do I need to put more Liza in the character!' . . . I think one of the main reasons why it's a different take and it's a little more delicate is because Liza is still alive. That is a very important reason why we can't 'go there,' so to speak, so I'm able to 'go there' when I do my big production number and become that Liza that people recognize. And, you know, I think it's staying much more true to who she was. I think a lot of people think of Liza in the last ten, twenty years, instead of going back to 1964. When I was doing the homework and watching this woman, or this girl I should say, grow into a woman, grow into a star. It's amazing to see her transformation. In all the homework that I've done, it's really when she met Fred Ebb and Halston that things started to change, and this woman that we know now was born. So, going back and watching 'Sterile Cuckoo' or Liza Minnelli on 'The Judy Garland Show' or any of the variety shows that she performed on — Michael Douglas, Merv Griffin — she always had this magnetic and star quality about her, but so vulnerable, so raw, so pedestrian, and that's what really I caught onto. That's what I thought I'm going to bring to this girl — this vulnerable, raw and needy girl — in the first couple scenes, and hopefully the audience will see the transformation from the girl to the woman to the star in the second act. What we see in the second act is closer to how we envision her today.
Marti Webb, the West End star, who was then in rehearsals to play Mrs. Meers in the London production of Thoroughly Modern Millie
On joining the London company of Evita: "Elaine [Paige] was going to go on holiday, so I went in for a month. And [director] Hal [Prince] was absolutely fantastic, he was wonderful. He came and directed me in, and just gave me so much confidence. And, he insisted that I stay to do more shows. I said, 'Well, no, I'll come back when [Elaine has] left.' She was staying another six months. And he said, 'No, stay, because it's very involved with all the changes, and I want people to be used to the fact that you're here.'" On the creation of "Tell Me On a Sunday": "Andrew [Lloyd Webber] came in and asked me out for dinner with Don Black, the lyricist, and they took me to dinner at Mr. Chow's. I've never forgotten it. . . After we had the meal, Andrew came up to me and said, 'Well, Don and I have written a couple of songs, which we'd like you to sing. Would you be willing to record them?' And I said, 'Of course! Oh, I'd be delighted.' He said, 'Now, Marti, I'll sign you for a recording, if that's all right, but because of a conflict of interest, I can't manage you. Don's done some management, so is that all right?' This fantastic gift had been given to me. I just couldn't believe it. … [Tell Me On a Sunday] grew daily, weekly, with different songs and different ideas. It was just amazing to be there at the conception of the show. You're so rarely there when it happens — especially watching Andrew just compose one song after another and Don would turn up with a lyric. . . . Then, after the end of recording, Andrew says, 'We're seeing the BBC today, Marti, so will you come along?' And I turned up, and Andrew played all these different things for them, and then they said, 'Could we hear Marti sing live?' And I remember singing 'Tell Me On a Sunday' with Andrew playing the piano, which was fabulous. I love doing it with Andrew, nothing quite like the way Andrew plays it. It's just different. Same when he does '[Don't Cry for Me] Argentina.' There's something different, just something wonderful the way he does it. And then, suddenly, there we are — we're doing ['Tell Me On a Sunday'] on television, which was so remarkable for me, who'd hardly done any television. It was quite exciting, the most amazing time. It really was."
Maria Friedman, the Olivier-winning actress who was then making her U.S. debut at the Café Carlyle
On the appeal of the works of Stephen Sondheim: "I think his subject matter — where he talks about ordinary people, cranky people. There's no king or queen there or mass murderer, just ordinary people finding a voice. I like the dilemmas that these people find themselves in. I can relate to them; I think everybody can relate to them. The ordinariness makes them so extraordinary. I've always found that when people talk about heroes, I just want to talk about everyday people, because I think [that's what] we all are. They're everyday heroes, his characters. And there's always three, four layers going on. Nobody ever just says, 'I love you.' They'll say, 'I don't love you or I wish I loved you or maybe I could love you.' And they're saying it all at once. 'Maybe I did love you or maybe I still can.' The gamut, the emotional range that one is allowed to play — I can sing these songs literally every night, and I find something new. Not only is technical stuff a great challenge, but he also writes in speech patterns, so you have to have the discipline of making it real. You're fantastically supported, but at the same time more exposed. He's marvelous, just marvelous. And can be so funny as well. And full of heart. There is no question in my mind that the man's heart is pumping with compassion and understanding."
On her experience in Ragtime: "Oh, it was wonderful. I wish you'd seen our production. All the writers say that was 'it' for them. It was very very stripped down, very bare. We had no set — I mean it was one plain wooden thing, which represented various things like the boat. And we did it in one costume, I had two. We told the story very, very simply and very beautifully with the most magnificent actors and singers, a cast of 30, so smaller, everything smaller. There wasn't a single night of the run where we didn't get a full standing ovation, not one, matinees or evenings. And in England we don't stand, so it's the very first production I've ever been in. . . I've had personal standing ovations for things like Passion when I came down, but this was as the very first person in the ensemble walked on the stage, the place were on their feet. It's a wonderful show . . . I've become very close to Terrence [McNally], Lynn [Ahrens] and Stephen [Flaherty] as a consequence of their work. They know how to do it. Boy, they know how to do it! . . . I love Terrence's economy in his book writing. Playing Mother — it was stripped down so that every word had some significance and weight, again, something other than what she was actually saying. The same with Lynn's lyrics — they're subtle, they're full of heart and love. I love their work, and Stephen's music is rhapsodic and delicious and difficult!"
Stephanie D'Abruzzo, who was then making her Broadway debut in Avenue Q
Q: Were there any performers that particularly inspired you when you were growing up?
SD: When I was growing up, I wanted to be an amalgam of Julie Andrews, Madeline Kahn and Bernadette Peters. I wanted Julie's voice and looks — I thought she was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen when I saw "Mary Poppins" as a kid. I wanted Madeline Kahn's sense of humor; I thought she was also gorgeous. And I wanted Bernadette's sass and talent and all of their comedic abilities. I thought that these women were just about the best things I'd ever seen.
Q: In a couple scenes you're going back and forth between two puppets and two voices. Does that ever get confusing?
SD: That's actually less confusing than anything else. The hardest thing about that is figuring out when to breathe. Because, especially that first cafe scene, you really want that dialogue to be bang, bang, bang. And, finding a spot to breathe has always been the toughest part. But no other voice than Kate's could possibly come out of Kate for me. And, no other voice other than Lucy's could come out of Lucy. My other biggest concern during scenes like that is not to stumble on a line that I know that Jen [Barnhart] is puppeteering on because I'd feel really bad about messing her up. She's so good that she could follow anything I did, but it's just a guilt thing. It doesn't help being Roman Catholic, too. [Laughs.]
Julia Murney, who was preparing for the Actors Fund benefit concert of Chess Q: What are your memories of the Funny Girl concert last year?
JM: That was another one, where actually Audra McDonald was supposed to do that. She was doing "Mister Sterling" at the time, and she suddenly realized there was no way — she had to be on the set at like 6 AM the next morning, not in New York. And, so, I got a call about three weeks before the concert saying, "Would you like to come and do this?" They actually had me come over and sing through — they were shifting people all along until the last minute. They had me come and sing through "Don't Rain On My Parade" and "People." I didn't really know the show; I had seen the film a long, long time ago, and I remember thinking, "'People' is cheesy. I want to do 'Rain On My Parade,'" and then I saw the scene that goes with "People." It's a beautiful scene, and it makes the song mean a completely different thing . . . . It was a great honor, it was kind of ridiculous to go from "I'm not in the concert" to "You're in the concert and you're singing 'People.'" It was amazing to get to work with all those women, get to hang out with them, and Peter Gallagher, I cannot say enough about Peter Gallagher. He was the prince of the evening. He was such an even keel. And you would think, perhaps, a man could lose his mind with 16 women — or maybe not, ask Antonio Banderas. [Laughs.] But he was just so wonderful and gracious. And somebody put this really well and said, "Watching the show, he didn't pick favorites." He kissed me the way he kissed Lillias the way he kissed. . . And it kind of made it flow a little more. He was wonderful, and he really helped us all along.
Q: How was the last Hairspray performance for you?
KB: Oh, it was sad. I had wished that I had more time to prepare, to think, 'Oh, it's the last time I'm going to be doing this scene,' but it happened so quickly that on my last show, I just told everyone, 'Hold it together because people paid a lot of money,' and then at the end of 'You Can't Stop the Beat,' I burst out crying. I just loved doing that show so much, and I'm so close with everybody there. We're such a family, and now I'm going to be right across the street.
Q:What's your take on Audrey?
KB: I think that she just sees the best in everything. She's very very trusting . . . Her issues with men and stuff just come from her childhood . . . her father left her. She has such a low self image that she thinks that nobody would ever like her, and I think she tries to please people, but she has a really good heart.
Bernadette Peters, who was starring in the Broadway revival of the classic Arthur Laurents-Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim musical Gypsy, helmed by Academy Award winner Sam Mendes
On the character of Rose: "What’s pushing her is what she didn’t have in life: opportunity. Her mother deserted her — that’s a pretty devastating thing. I think that motivates her as well as [the desire] to give her children what she didn’t have. 'I’m not going to let them sit away their lives like I did!'"
On hitting the road in the 1961 tour of Gypsy: "I remember the dressing room scene especially. I was just in the chorus originally, but I understudied Agnes, and I understudied Dainty June, and towards the end I played Agnes. I remember that second act, going to Wichita where all the strippers were, the burlesque cast… At [Chicago’s Opera House], I remember in order to make a cue, I had to start about five lines ahead, just to run to get to the center of the stage. That stage, I’d never seen anything so big in my life!"
Carolee Carmello, who was concluding her run Off-Broadway in William Finn’s Elegies prior to stepping into the role of Penelope Pennywise in Broadway's Urinetown. Q: Do you find it more difficult stepping into a role rather than being involved in the original rehearsal period?
CC: Yeah, a little bit because you have to fit into what’s there. But at the same time, you know a lot more of what the tone is of the piece. When you’re starting out with something from scratch, everybody’s finding their way at the same time, so it’s a little bit of too many cooks spoiling the broth sometimes. [Laughs.] And when you’re stepping into a show, the parameters are already established. . . . And I’m a big fan of having somebody tell me exactly what they want, as opposed to letting me flounder around and figure it out. So, I don’t mind. I’ve had the opportunity to replace in several shows in the last few years, and I don’t mind it. I’m grateful to have a job, and if somebody has established the part in a good way, I have no problem stealing all her good stuff! [Laughs.]
Q: One final question. When people hear the name Carolee Carmello, what would you like them to think?
CC: I guess in life I would like them to think she’s a great mom and a good person. I just want to be a good influence on my kids and a good person in the world. Professionally, someone once said something about me that I heard indirectly that I thought, ‘Wow that’s a really nice compliment and I’ll have to remember that,’ and it sort of fits this question . . . . Someone was trying to describe me to a person who didn’t know what I do, and they said, ‘She’s the Cherry Jones of musical theatre.’ [Laughs.] And I thought, ‘Well, that’s a really great compliment because she’s a brilliant actress,’ and I’ve always sort of thought in my life of growing up watching musicals that it’s hard to find people who are really good actors who do musical theatre, and I sort of hope that I’ll be thought of that way.
Renée Zellweger, who was starring as Roxie Hart in the Rob Marshall-directed film of Chicago
Q: How did you get involved with the film of "Chicago"?
RZ: Rob Marshall, he called, and Jack — my manager — spoke with him on the phone, and [Jack] called me and said, "You should read the script." And I did, and I didn't understand it — at all. [Laughs.] "The gun, the gun, the gun, the gun, oh yes, oh yes, they both reached, they both reached for the gun!" I'd never seen the musical. I didn't know what it was about. I didn't know the music. I didn't know the story, so it didn't really translate on paper to someone who had absolutely no knowledge of what that meant — that it's a performance piece, that it's a song. I was just picturing people walking down the street saying, "the gun, the gun, the gun" 100 times. And I'm thinking [that] I probably wouldn't be very good at that. And, so I thought, "No, I don't think I should do that 'cause I didn't have enough understanding of it. There's not a thing that I could possibly contribute to this process. I should stay away.
And Johnny called me back and [said], "So I read this new version of the script that Bill Condon did, and it's gorgeous, and I spoke to that Rob Marshall on the telephone, and he's brilliant, and you should go down to the Four Seasons and meet him." And I said, "You know what, regardless, it's going to be 'the gun, the gun, the gun, the gun,' and I don't think I can do that. I've never done that before. How am I going to make that convincing? I can't make that convincing." And he said to me, "You will get off this phone and you will go down to the Four Seasons, and you will meet with that Rob Marshall," and he hung up on me. And I did. . .
I sat down at the table at the Four Seasons . . . and [Rob], for some reason, had in his mind that it would work, and that there would be singing and there would be dancing, and it would it all would just be fine, and I bought into it. I must have been a fool, but I bought into it, and I didn't care at that moment. I was so inspired by his creative brilliance that was right there on the table — and his passion about it. It was contagious, and as a person, he was so inspiring. He was so bright, and he was so generous; even in his criticisms about things, he was so generous. And he had so much insight; he was wise, and he was such a pure spirit that I thought, "I can't walk away from this man and let him leave the Four Seasons right now and never see him again because that would be a great mistake in my life, and I know it. [So] I'm gonna go and spend six months of my life with this person and trust him completely and be part of this magical world that he's going to create, and that's it."
Q: What was the day like when Kander and Ebb came to the set?
RZ: Well, again, I'm really ignorant . . . and, then they explained to me [who they were]. And having impostor syndrome anyway, to be up on the piano with them . . . They came into the room, and by then I knew who they were and that they had written "Roxie" and I was going to perform it for them. It was terrifying. It's like holding someone else's baby who's just born. It's a huge responsibility. You just don't do it cavalierly. That was quite a moment for me. And then we had fun. I got them singing it, too. We were all three singing it. It was such a delight. Then, it was a joy.
Q: You were also in one of my favorite musicals, Dreamgirls. Tell me about that experience.
RR: Well, it was my first spoken part because Ain't Misbehavin' was all music. And, I remember I was scared, I was really terrified at first, but Ben Harney and Cleavant [Derricks] kept telling me, 'You're a natural, you're a natural,' and then I did the show, and [director] Michael Bennett once told me, 'You're a natural,' and I said, 'Okay, I believe you.' So I started my first speaking role.
Q: And you eventually played Effie?
RR: I played Effie — I closed the show as a matter of fact. I'm in the Lincoln Center archives.
Q: What was that role like to perform?
RR: That was the most awesome thing that I've ever done in my entire life. It was my life because I was a nightclub singer in Detroit, and it was part of my life.
Q: What was like it getting to sing "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going"?
RR: The song! There were times when I truly enjoyed it, and there were times when I wanted to find Jen [Holliday] and just jump on her head for creating it and making it so rough on us! It was really a test, and it was so awesome. She did such a fabulous job in the way she did that song, and it was a hard act to follow. Read the complete interview here.
Helen Schneider, the American-born singing actress who triumphed in the German production of Sunset Boulevard
Q: What do you think of the character of Norma Desmond?
HS: I think she's one of the most complex, amazing figures certainly in theatre, never mind musical theatre. She's operatic in scope . . . . she's interesting. I never seemed to get tired of finding new things. I had a wonderful cast, which enabled me to really kind of explore the character over the two years, and it grew and it changed within the context of the direction, but it was a wonderful, wonderful experience for me, and it was my first experience operating in that much of the German language because when I first came to Germany, I did not speak German. And, I didn't speak German or work in it until 1987 when Helmut Bauman at the Theater des Westens invited me to do Sally Bowles. The deal was that he would send me to Berlitz in New York, and that began my work in the German language, which [is] quite a language [laughs]. . . . I think that it worked very well in German. The character was so wonderful for the German language because she's so dramatic and tragic, and the language is wordier. The man who adapted it is named Michael Kunze, who is remarkable. I think he will be a legend in adaptation. He created an incredible adaptation, really incredible — the words he put in Norma's mouth were astonishing. I just really enjoyed it. Like I said, it was difficult; it was quite a challenge for me, but I loved doing it.
Q: You also did one of my favorite musicals there as well, Evita.
HS: Same adapter actually.
Q: So, that was in German, too?
HS: Yes, that was in German also.
Q: Was the production the original Hal Prince staging?
HS: No — I was asked if I was interested in doing Evita for [the Bad Hersfeld Summer Festival] . . . . They periodically do musicals, but musicals different from the norm. They asked me about it, and I had never played Eva Peron, and it's certainly another remarkable figure, but playing the thousand and second Evita didn't interest me at all, frankly, and I said that, and they told me to bring my dream director and let's talk. So, I brought a man from Vienna, a remarkable director [named Hans Gratzer]. Hans is one of those amazing people because as experimental as he is, he has a great understanding of tradition. I've worked a great deal with him since Evita. We did an abstract, scaled down, black-and white Evita that was, I don't know, kind of amazing. No sets, no dancing . . . Well, there was movement. It was structured, it was formalized. The ruin that it was done in, it’s a 1,600 seat venue, it has stone walls. It's an ancient Roman Abbey . . . with these incredible arches, it's just an amazing place in the mountains of Germany, and so it's quasi open air. And the set was this stone, which was so amazing, and staircases, massive staircases and some long tables. It's rustic up there, so there's no modern staging, which meant that the non-set that did exist, which was some chairs and a table, were moved by eight men dressed as Eva's bodyguards. The only thing that's state of the art was the lighting in that place. So it was amazing. I mean the music was the original music—we did a lot of work on it and restructured a few things, but it was an interesting production. And we ran it for three years, three summers — we sold out three summers which was kind of wonderful.
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to [email protected].
Diva Talk runs every other week on Playbill.com. Senior editor Andrew Gans also pens the columns Their Favorite Things and Best in Show.
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