Though she is best known to theatrical audiences for her work Off-Broadway in such plays as House/Garden, Freedomland, Labor Day, The Batting Cage and The Food Chain, actress Veanne Cox has delighted Broadway fans in the short-lived musical Smile and the Neil Simon comedy The Dinner Party. But it's her work in two high-profile musicals in which she has shone most brightly: in a comical, Tony-nominated turn as frenzied bride Amy in the 1995 revival of Stephen Sondheim's Company and, currently, in the emotionally charged Jeanine Tesori-Tony Kushner musical Caroline, or Change.
In the latter Cox tackles what may be the most difficult role of her career, a stepmother in 1960's Louisiana caught in the midst of two separate battles: one with her maid Caroline, who is battling for her own dignity and the welfare of her family; and a battle to win the love of her stepson and the support and attention of her new husband. Though a demanding part, Cox manages to bring much-needed humor to the musical as she imbues Rose Stopnick Gellman with just the right amounts of dignity and humanity. I recently had the chance to chat with the humorous actress, who candidly discussed her role in Caroline as well as her work as heckler Toby, who lost a toe on one of the greatest episodes of the Emmy-winning TV series "Seinfeld." That interview follows.
Question: How did you originally get cast in Caroline, or Change?
Veanne Cox: I had worked with [Caroline book writer and lyricist] Tony [Kushner] on a couple of projects: one playing an adulteress French woman and another, a workshop of Helen where I played Phylicia Rashad's role — one of the gods, and then I worked on another play of his where I played a maid, so I had worked with him on three different projects. They weren't [full] productions, but they were workshops of plays that he was either mentoring or plays that he had translated or he had written or was directing. So, he had asked me to challenge myself many times, and sure enough, the greatest challenge [laughs] was asking me to be in a musical that he wrote, which was not what I was expecting. Q: Were you involved in the workshops of the musical?
VC: Yes, I was involved pretty much from the beginning. I think I missed the first workshop, but from then on I did all of the workshops over the last two or three years.
Q: How do you think your role or your performance or the show has changed since the Off-Broadway run?
VC: On a personal note, I think it's changed my performance immensely. Even now my performance is still morphing. When you play something that is so beautifully written, it's like living a real life on the stage. So, day to day things grow and change just like in real life. It's such a lovely thing — you don't have to work so hard to try and make it alive. This is where you have to rise up to the level of life that's actually there on the page. I also think the play itself expands with the space. It could play an enormous opera house of 15,000 [capacity], and it played beautifully down at the Public. I think its proportions expand with the space that it's in. I've seen plays ruined or made by the actual space that they're in, so I think that that is a real factor, but in this particular piece, I think it's better on Broadway. I think it's become bigger and more expansive in terms of its breadth and life, and that it fills the space beautifully and becomes more magical. . . . Down at the Public, that's a small, sort of cavernous or tunnel-like space, and that didn't lend itself quite as well to the piece.
Q: Do you find audience reaction different in the two venues?
VC: No, I think the audience — which goes back to what I said regarding the spatial relationship of the play, I think you get what you get — reaction was very supportive throughout. But there is something to be said [about being on Broadway]. God knows, I'm like Miss Off-Broadway [laughs] because I've basically dedicated my life to doing new works Off-Broadway. I love Off-Broadway, and I think it's so valuable and wonderful, but there is something magical, there's something special about Broadway — the audience's expectations and what they're given. You rise to the level of what's expected of you. . . . Personally, I think that [the move from Off Broadway to Broadway] had the same effect on me. Down at the Public, it was very difficult to go back to 1963 and play to an audience that exists in 2004 and do the things that I'm asked to do, which is to offer [Caroline] literally pennies. And it's embarrassing. One of my greatest achievements in the role is not [as] an actress, but just getting over my own reaction to the pettiness of the gesture in today's ideals. That was very big for me down at the Public, and I felt like I apologized a lot just for my existence. And for some reason on Broadway, because of the expanse, because of the more breadth, the more space, I feel like there's a little more life to be lived. The audience isn't so close saying, 'Oh dear God. What on earth does she think she's doing?'
Q: Was that difficult in rehearsals with the other actors — did your embarrassment for the character hinder your work with your co-stars?
VC: No, because [director] George [C. Wolfe] allowed every fiber that came up to be put under a microscope and magnified and understood. So we weren't allowed or expected to hide anything.
Q: Your character in the musical is in a very difficult position as a new wife and stepmother. Was there anyone you drew on for your performance?
VC: I don't have a connection to stepmothers in my life, but I do have a connection to loss because my brother died of leukemia when I was a child. My mother took on a maid for a brief period of time after that happened because there were three other kids to take care of, and it was overwhelming for her. So, she took on a maid for a very brief period of time, and the reason it was brief is she couldn't deal with the situation of not being able to have this maid become an equitable part of the family structure. So I totally relate to the character, not as a stepmother, but certainly in terms of the loss that's in the family and the family structure breakdown because of loss. And also the maid situation, I also had an experience with that.
Q: Because it's such a difficult role, I was wondering if you have any nightly rituals or preparations before you go onstage. How do you get ready for a show?
VC: Oh, my God. That's so personal! [Laughs.] Well, I do . . . I always do a vocal and a physical warm-up. Vocally it's based on Kristen Linkletter; physically it's based on yoga and Suzuki. On top of the Suzuki, which is basically stomping, I do physical punching into the air to get rid of all the fear and the loathing of having to walk out onstage and deal with the anger and resentment that's thrown at me each night [by the other characters in the musical].
Q: Is that difficult to deal with?
VC: Oh my God. [Laughs.] There are times when I just want to throw up my hands and say, 'Forget it. I'm out of [this house].' Or, I want to fire the maid. [Laughs.] There are times when I just want to look at [Caroline] and say, 'Okay, you're fired. Get out.' But I can't do that. [Laughs.] Or I just want to leave the household. I just want to say, 'Well, forget it. I am giving my life to you.' I have offered my life to this man to save his family and to become the mother of this child that hates me and a man that is completely shut off from my love and affection and [my] desire to achieve a successful family structure. She has done it for love, and she's giving 100 percent, and she's getting absolutely nothing back. She's getting more than nothing back — she's getting negative energy thrust at her constantly. [Laughs.] And, so every night before I go on, I literally punch until I'm out of breath because I have to be really, really strong in order to survive it.
Q: How long are you contracted with the show?
VC: Nine months. [Laughs.] I don't know how long I'll hold up . . . . because the audience initially responds to her with negative energy as well — like, 'Oh my God, who does this woman think she is?' And then musically — I'm not the world's gift to musical theatre, [laughs] but musically I'm thrust what I've been told is an incredibly difficult role. I just did it because it was my job. . . [Some nights I feel like] I pull notes out of thin air. Truly, I believe that it's divine intervention, and sometimes it escapes [laughs], sometimes I pull them out of the air wrong. For the most part those notes come somehow, from somewhere. I truly think the whole show has some divine energy behind it.
Q: Caroline definitely touches people in a place that many shows don't.
VC: Not that many shows even try to — they don't make an effort to go to those places.
Q: You were also on one of my favorite 'Seinfeld' episodes. What was that experience like?
VC: [Laughs.] It was fabulous . . . Several people have told me over the years that it's their favorite episode because it's a really funny episode, and I got to be really funny. And that's what I brought out most from the experience. It was terrifying to go into this fabric of people that was just perfect. The good thing about it was that Jerry Seinfeld — and not everybody is like this — he wants people to be as funny as they can be. He does not get in their way. He does not say, 'Oh no, I'm the funny one.' He says, 'Carte blanche. Go for it. Be funny. Do your thing.' He was the most magnanimous, generous comic person that I've ever worked with on television.
Q: It was smart of him because he wanted to have the best show he could.
VC: Exactly! And that's how you get the best show is by telling everybody, 'Be funny.' It was a tremendous experience, and his generosity was wonderful.
Q: I would think that you probably get recognized a lot from that performance.
VC: I do. You know what, I get people recognizing me from behind my back. People come around because they hear my voice or they hear me laugh. I guess I have a distinct voice. I don't know whether that's good or bad — whether it's irritatingly distinctive [laughs] or just distinctive. People recognize me just from my voice. People say that coming to the theatre. They'll say, 'I knew I knew you from somewhere, and then I heard you speak, and I was like, "Oh my God. That's that girl from 'Seinfeld.'"'
Q: Are you involved in any other projects at the moment?
VC: Because my family was in town for only three days, I actually turned down a reading of a new Chris Durang play, but I loved it so much. I want to do it so badly. That's the one that really intrigued me, and I think he's written a beautiful play. I'd love to be part of it. I have to contact him and tell him why I said no. It certainly wasn't because of the material — I just loved it.
Q: And, last question, when people hear your name, what would you like them to think?
VC: You know, all I've ever wanted was to be a great lady of the theatre. At this point, I wouldn't call myself a great lady of the theatre, [but] I'd call myself a lady of the theatre because it is my great passion. It is the only thing I'm passionate about — I don't even own a television!
[Caroline, or Change plays the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, 230 West 49th Street; call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com for tickets.]
IN OTHER DIVA NEWS OF THE WEEK The sixth annual Broadway Barks fundraiser is set for July 10 in Shubert Alley. The yearly event, which benefits local animal shelters and adoption agencies, will once again be hosted by its creators, Tony Award winner Bernadette Peters and Emmy Award winner Mary Tyler Moore. The event will also feature a host of celebrity guests, including Gary Beach, Stephanie J. Block, Christy Carlson Romano, Patrick Cassidy, Michael Cerveris, Kristin Chenoweth, Veanne Cox, Paige Davis, Beth Fowler, Jordan Gelber, Shirley Jones, Sandra Joseph, Isabel Keating, Swoosie Kurtz, Audra McDonald, Idina Menzel, Michael Mulheren, Donna Murphy, Denis O'Hare, Brad Oscar, Angie Schworer, Eric Stoltz, John Tartaglia, Jennifer Westfeldt and Rachel York. The day begins at 3:30 PM with an auction of celebrity autographed memorabilia with celeb presentations of pets from animal shelters set for 5:30 PM. (In the event of rain, Broadway Barks 6! will be held on July 24, also at 3:30 PM.) Co-founder Mary Tyler Moore recently said, "Bernadette and I feel particularly optimistic about finding homes for dogs and cats in our city. Broadway Barks joins forces under the Mayor's Alliance which fosters communication among all shelters and rescue organizations." And Peters added, "Over 300 animals have been adopted through the Broadway Barks events, and we're hoping that through this new partnership with the Mayor's Alliance, we will be able to double that number." Peters adopted both her dogs, Kramer and Stella, from city shelters. Additional auction merchandise will be available by logging on to www.BroadwayBarks.com. Proceeds from the auction and other donations benefit the aforementioned shelters and organizations. For more information call (212) 840-0770, ext. 477. . . . The Mabel Mercer Foundation and the Carlyle Hotel will join forces this fall to present The Cavalcade of Cabaret at the Café Carlyle. During the 15th anniversary Cabaret Convention at Town Hall (Oct. 18-24), the Carlyle will also present five evenings with different cabaret artists. Karen Akers kicks off the week of cabaret, Oct. 18 at 10:30 PM. The former Nine star will be followed by vocalist Sylvia McNair (Oct. 19 at 10:30 PM), Ethel Merman aficionado Klea Blackhurst (Oct. 20 at 10:30 PM), a double bill of Jeff Harnar and Julie Wilson (Oct. 21 at 10:30 PM) and singer-actor Craig Rubano. The latter will perform his new show, "At Long Last Love: The Songs of Cole Porter," on Oct. 24 at 7:30 PM. The Café Carlyle is located in Manhattan at 76th Street and Madison Avenue. There is a $50 cover for all shows. Call (212) 980-3109 for reservations. . . . Tony-winning actress-singer Phyllis Newman and her daughter, Amanda Green, will premiere a new concert, Bernstein, Comden and Green: A Musical Celebration, July 3. The evening, which will be held at The Venetian Theatre in Katonah, NY, will feature Newman and Green as co-hosts with songs interpreted by Sylvia McNair, Judy Kaye, Jason Graae and Hugh Russell. Musical director Michael Barrett will conduct the Orchestra of St. Luke's; show time is 8 PM. Tickets for Bernstein, Comden and Green are priced $31-$81. The Venetian Theatre is located at 149 Girdle Ridge Road in Katonah, New York. . . . Carol Channing, who recently appeared with rapper LL Cool J on the 2004 Tony Awards telecast, will premiere her new one-woman show July 23-25 in Los Angeles. Entitled Razzle Dazzle!, the multi media evenings will include stories from Channing's decades-long career as well as several of her trademark musical numbers and a few other surprises. A benefit for the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, the concerts at the Renberg Theatre will also include an appearance by British singer-actress comedienne Toni Morrell, who will offer a tribute to several ladies of song, including Marlene Dietrich and Judy Garland. Show time is 8 PM July 23 24 and 7 PM July 25. The L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center’s Renberg Theatre is located at The Village at Ed Gould Plaza, 1125 N. McCadden Place. Tickets, priced $50-$200, are available by calling (323) 860-7300. . . . Two-time Tony Award winner Donna Murphy, currently starring in the revival of Wonderful Town, will guest on the June 22 broadcast of "Live! with Regis & Kelly." Murphy, who received her third Tony nomination for her work as Ruth Sherwood in the Broadway revival of the Bernstein-Comden-Green musical, will perform her first-act show-stopper "One Hundred Easy Ways." "Live!," in fact, will present an entire week of Broadway segments: June 21 will feature the cast of Avenue Q singing "I Wish I Could Go Back to College"; Joey Fatone will perform Little Shop of Horrors' "Git It" June 24; and Bombay Dreams will offer "Shakalaka Baby" June 25. "Live!" airs in the metropolitan area on Channel 7 (WABC-TV) at 9 AM ET; check local listings. . . . Forbidden Broadway star Donna English will join the previously announced Estelle Parsons for the Paper Mill Playhouse's upcoming presentation of Harold and Maude: The Musical. English will portray Mrs. Chasen, Harold's mother, in the musical based on the 1972 film that starred Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort. Parsons, as reported, will play septuagenarian Maude in the musical about a 79-year-old widow who has an unlikely romance with the 19-year-old Harold. Featuring book and lyrics by Tom Jones and music by Joseph Thalken, the world premiere Paper Mill run — Jan. 5-Feb. 13, 2005 — will be directed by Mark S. Hoebee. . . . And, finally, an initial list of artists taking part in the 15th Annual New York Cabaret Convention has been announced. The week-long convention, which salutes the best of New York cabaret, will play Manhattan's Town Hall Oct. 18-24, 2004. Ticket prices for the convention are kept as low as possible with $25 seats available for all performances. Higher priced seats are available for $40 and $100. The "Gala Opening" night performance, Oct. 18, will feature the talents of Diane Alcorn, Brent Barrett, Jenny Burton, Barbara Carroll, Spencer Day, Christine Ebersole, Joel Grey, Allan Harris, Maureen McGovern, Sidney Myer, Daryl Sherman, Theresa Tova, Marlene VerPlanck and Wesla Whitfield. Show time is 6 PM. Family will be theme of the Oct. 19 evening, which is also set for 6 PM. Cabaret lovers can expect to see such family acts as Klea Blackhurst and Winkie Horman; Ann Hampton, Liz and Shirley Callaway; Heather, Sheila and Bruce MacRae; Andrea and Helen Marcovicci; Bill Charlap and Sandy Stewart; and KT and the entire Sullivan family. "Favorite Songs, Favorite Voices" is the title of the Oct. 20 evening, which will include songs rendered by Christine Andreas, Judy Barnett, Michel Bell, Opie Bellas, Eva Ladas, Jennifer Kruskamp, Karen Mason, Colleen McHugh, Beckie Menzie, Tom Michael, Phillip Officer, Sarah Partridge and Ida Zecco. The concert will begin at 6 PM. The legendary Julie Wilson will be feted Oct. 21 in a concert titled "Julie at 80." Those celebrating the famed singer-actress will include Barbara Brussell, Mary Foster Conklin, Baby Jane Dexter, Lynn DiMenna, Natalie Douglas, Sammy Goldstein, Jeff Harnar, Rebecca Kilgore, Valerie Lemon, Jeanne MacDonald, Sharon McNight, Todd Murray and Joanne Tatham. Wilson will also be part of the birthday celebration, which begins at 6 PM. Bart Howard, who composed such songs as "The First Warm Day in May," "Let Me Love You" and "If You Leave Paris," will be remembered Oct. 22. The concert, titled "Fly Me to the Moon," will feature Howard songs interpreted by Joyce Breach, Phillip Chaffin, Barbara Lea, Sylvia McNair, Elaine Stritch, KT Sullivan, Lumiri Tubo, Ronny Whyte and Barbara Carroll. The 6 PM concert will also include the presentation of the first Bart Howard Encouragement Award. Andrea Marcovicci will host the Saturday afternoon concert Oct. 23. The 2 PM performance, titled "Young at Heart," will feature tunes for audiences ages 9 to 90. Singing works from the Great American Songbook will be Bobby Belfry, Craig Carnelia, Daisy Carnelia, Jack Donahue, Sammy Horneff, Maude Maggart, Nancy McGraw, Mark Nadler, Stacey Sullivan and Paula West. The week-long convention concludes Sunday at 3 PM with "A Cabaret for Cole," saluting the works of the late composer Cole Porter. Among those taking part in the Porter celebration include Patricia Morison, Gretchen Wyler, Janice Dayton, Karen Akers, Nancy Anderson, Anna Bergman, Kent French, Sally Mayes, Georga Osborne, Craig Rubano, Karen Saunders, Rebecca Spencer, Bobbi Wilsyn and Faith Winthrop. Town Hall is located in New York City at 123 West 43rd Street. For more information about the upcoming convention, visit www.mabelmercer.org.
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching!