DIVA TALK: A Chat with Curtains' Debra Monk; Buckley at Feinstein's and "Hairspray" on Screen

News   DIVA TALK: A Chat with Curtains' Debra Monk; Buckley at Feinstein's and "Hairspray" on Screen News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Debra Monk in Curtains.
Debra Monk in Curtains. Photo by Joan Marcus

DEBRA MONK
In 1997's Steel Pier Debra Monk stopped the show nightly at the Richard Rogers Theatre with a song titled "Everybody's Girl." About that song, Monk recently told me, "When I was first asked to do the first reading I did of Steel Pier, it was up in the Nederlander office, and Johnny and Fred always would sing the score. We were just reading the piece, and they would sing the score, and that's how they always did it. Fred sang 'Everybody's Girl,' and I remember thinking, 'Okay, this man is so brilliant,' and I just took everything he did — every single phrasing, every pause. . . . I did that song just like Fred did it! So, everything you hear in me with that song is a combination of what Fred taught me and any kind of move that [choreographer] Susan Stroman taught me. I mean, that was it. That's how I learned it."

A decade later, the Tony-winning actress is back on a Broadway stage in Curtains, another Kander and Ebb show (with a book and additional lyrics by Rupert Holmes). The song that's bringing audiences at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre to a near frenzy is, you guessed it, delivered by Monk. Its title? "It's a Business." Monk, who won her Tony Award for her work opposite Jeff Daniels in Lanford Wilson's Redwood Curtain, has great fun belting out such lyrics as "I'm not devoid of culture, but my feet are on the floor. It's a business. I do the Kama Sutra with a Richard Rodgers score. That's good business. Yes, green's my favorite color and I don't mean on grass. It's a business. And the shows I do do business. Yes, I'm good at doing business. And if you don't like my business, sweetie, blow it out your . . ."

I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Monk about her latest role as the brassy, loud-mouthed theatre producer Carmen Bernstein. That interview follows.

Question: How did you originally get involved with Curtains — when did you join the project?
Debra Monk: Six years ago. [Director] Scott Ellis had heard about this show . . . [which has] been around for 20 years apparently. Scott had heard about it after we had all done Steel Pier together and said, "Why don't we do a reading?" And, I was asked to do that reading six years ago.

Question: Were you involved in all of the subsequent workshops?
Monk: Yes, I was involved in every workshop. Question: How much has your role changed in that time?
Monk: It's changed, but of all the roles, it's one of the roles that has stayed pretty much the way it was originally. . . . I can't talk about the actual plot of the show, but she has definitely changed as far as the plot goes. But as far as the character — being the producer and the song "It's a Business" — those things were always there, who she is.

Question: How would you describe Carmen?
Monk: Well, she's not anybody who is currently a female producer in New York. [I want to] clear that up. [Laughs.] This play was written 20 years ago, and [the late book writer] Peter Stone's idea for this woman was based on women that he had met 20 years ago before anybody else who is currently producing was producing. But she is a tough producer; however, her passion is for the theatre. She is a theatre animal — she doesn't know how to do anything else, and she absolutely loves and adores the theatre and will do anything to get her show onstage.

Question: In that way, can you relate to her? Would you say that your passion is for the theatre?
Monk: Yeah, my passion is for the theatre. I don't think of myself as quite the tough broad that she is, but I think the great thing about this show is it's a real love letter to the theatre. Anybody who loves the theatre, I think will relate to this show.

Question: What's it like getting that big response after "It's a Business?" When I went the audience went wild.
Monk: It's thrilling. It's one of those once in a lifetime — if you're lucky — situations. It's just thrilling, and it also makes me sad because it's too bad that Fred [Ebb] can't be here to enjoy that. That is such a Fred Ebb song, it's so him: that incredible, clever, wonderful mind, funny mind in all those lyrics. It's thrilling, but at the same time I wish he could be here to enjoy it because he would just be so excited.

Question: Were you close with him?
Monk: Very close.

Question: What are your memories of him?
Monk: He was one of the funniest people I've ever met in my life — truly one of the funniest people. He was a brilliant, brilliant man. But he was also a great mentor for all of us that knew him. He was a great teacher. Every time you worked with him, anything he gave you — any note, any suggestion — was always right on the money; as is, by the way, [any suggestion from] John Kander. They're just really, really smart people. They know their business; they know everything about a song. They know how to phrase a song — they know everything about it. They were just the greatest. Not only that, but they really, really loved being in rehearsals and laughed more than anybody else would laugh. John is a great man of the theatre, and Fred was a great, great man of the theatre.

Question: Do you like the rehearsal process?
Monk: I love it especially when it's with great people. When you're in a room with the best in the business — which is Scott Ellis and [choreographer] Rob Ashford and Rupert Holmes and David Loud, our conductor, and John Kander — it's thrilling. It's a thrilling time because these people — all they are doing is working to make the show be the best it can be and make you look as great as you can. There [are] no egos involved as far as trying to get whatever they want across the stage. It's all about telling a story, so this rehearsal process was a joy. Other work processes aren't always a joy because there's fighting or whatever [else] going on. But that was not ever part of this process. This was all about having fun, telling the story, and making it the best it could be.

Question: How much did Curtains change from the recent out-of-town tryout to Broadway?
Monk: A lot. There's been, I think, about ten minutes taken off — a lot of cuts. My song was put in a different place, which is great. Also, my choreography changed for my song. There's been a lot of choreography changes. We had a cast change — Ernie Sabella joined our cast [as Sidney Bernstein]. There's been set changes, there's been costume changes, there's been book changes. There's been a lot [that's] changed.

Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for your character?
Monk: I love the song "Show People." I just think it's such a great song, and it's a great moment [where] all of us are onstage together. It's such an exciting moment the way the whole arc of that song and how it builds. It's one of those songs where the choreography, the direction, the set, the costumes — all of it just comes together so beautifully and naturally. It's really, really fun to do.

Question: When did Rupert Holmes come on board?
Monk: He came on board after Peter Stone passed away.

Question: Do you know how much of the original book is left?
Monk: I can't tell you exactly how much is left, but I only can tell you that Rupert Holmes is probably the reason we're here [on Broadway]. He really took it and changed the mystery. I don't want to talk about it too much because I don't like to give away any of the plot. But there are definite things that were Peter's that are still there, and there are definite things that are Rupert's, and it's just been this incredible compilation that has worked.

Question: Have you always been funny? When did you discover you could make people laugh?
Monk: In high school I guess. I never thought about it. I was never an actress in high school. I didn't start acting until I was in my twenties. I was just a funny cheerleader. I hadn't even seen a show until I was in my twenties, so I was very late getting into the business.

Question: When did that change?
Monk: When I went to college. I was late going to college as well, and I went to this very small college up in Maryland. I was going to be a teacher, and I had to take a speech class [as] part of my curriculum. It was such a tiny little place that the man who ran the theatre department taught this speech class, and he asked me to try out for a play, which was The Birthday Party, which to this day I don't know what the hell it's about, and I auditioned and got into it, and I had not a clue! [Laughs.]

I didn't know what blocking was; I didn't know any word they were using. All I knew was, "Oh my God, this was really fun." My family were really hard-working, blue-collar people, and I didn't know the idea or concept of working and having fun. I thought you just worked and made money to support your family. I didn't know that you could actually work and have a good time. I just didn't know that existed, so I was thrilled. I went on because my teacher said I wasn't ready to go. He said, "You have a lot of passion, but you're not really technically skilled. You'll never make it in New York," so I went to graduate school. Then I came to New York, and then I didn't get a job for four years. My first job was the one I wrote, Pump Boys and Dinettes. My whole trek has been very slow, like the turtle. [Laughs.] Thank God, I can still walk and talk and remember lines while I'm still working.

Question: You seem to switch back and forth between musicals and plays. Do you have a preference?
Monk: No, and I also love doing movies and television. I really wait for the job to come. Whatever job comes up, I just want to keep working. The jobs don't always come, so you take whatever is available and hope it's a good one. I've been very, very fortunate to work with great, great people and [on] great pieces.

Question: Would you say musicals require the most stamina?
Monk: Oh God, yeah! This is a tough show for all of us. It takes a lot of stamina and energy, and we're all pretty tired, but we're also having such a great time. It kinda buoys you up, but it's a tough show for everybody.

Question: Do you have any things you do to try and guard your voice?
Monk: I just try to sleep. I just try to be careful, [and] I don't go out a lot! [Laughs.] And, I'm older now, so it's harder, but I just try to be smart about it, have some balance in my life.

Question: Do you have any other projects in the works, or are you mainly focusing on Curtains?
Monk: No. When Freddie died, I really didn't think this show would continue. And, John made that incredible, courageous decision to continue. He wanted to, for Fred and for himself, to finish the four shows that they had written. And I just made a commitment to it. I told my agents — I said, "You know what? Wherever this takes me, I'm going to finish this show." When we went out to L.A. last summer, I didn't know if that would be the end of it. I thought, "Well, at least we're going to get a chance to do it in L.A." You just don't know, and I thought, "[It] could end there." So the fact that we actually got to Broadway is so exciting, and hopefully we'll get a chance to run it. And if we do, I happily want to be in it. I've signed for a year, so I hope I get to do it for a year. It'd be just great . . . The audiences have loved it, so we'll see what happens with everybody else. You never know. But I hope we get a chance to run it because I think it's a beautifully crafted show, and I think it's a well-done show.

[Curtains plays the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 West 45th Street; for tickets call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.]

BETTY BUCKLEY at Feinstein's at the Regency

Sometimes Mom does know best.

When Betty Buckley had but a month's time to create a brand-new show for a spring engagement at Feinstein's at the Regency, the Tony-winning actress put out feelers to friends and colleagues to offer song suggestions. Enter mom and former singer Betty Bob Buckley, who gave her daughter a short list and one piece of advice, "Sing these!"

Two of those songs made their way into Buckley's superb new show at Feinstein's at the Regency, Singin' for My Supper, and those World War II favorites were among the highlights of a beautiful program this past Wednesday evening that showcased Buckley's abundant gifts as a vocalist and song interpreter. In fact, I've yet to hear a more beautiful version of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's "All The Things You Are," and her rendition of "I'll Be Seeing You" was equally lovely. Buckley began her recital with a spirited "Ridin' High" before offering a terrific medley of "Sing for Your Supper," "Sing Sing Sing" and "Sing You Sinners" that reached a thrilling, belty climax. After welcoming her audience, the award-winning actress said the one revival in which she would love to star is Annie Get Your Gun because she feels as a true cowgirl she could bring authenticity to the part of Annie Oakley. That admission preceded a great pairing of Irving Berlin's "They Say It's Wonderful" and "I Got Lost in His Arms" that made a solid case for another revival of the classic musical.

Other highlights of Buckley's hour-long set — which featured Christian Jacob (subbing for long-time musical director Kenny Werner) on piano, Tony Marino on bass, Anthony Pinciotti on drums and Billy Drewes on reeds — included a fiery "Cry Me a River"; a haunting reading of Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George anthem, "Move On"; Matt Dennis and Earl Brent's jazz standard "Angel Eyes"; and an upbeat ode to the season at hand with Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's "It Might As Well Be Spring."

It was a James Taylor tune, however, that was the most moving of the night: "Fire and Rain." Buckley brought new depth to the 1970s tune, and she had the entire audience spellbound as she sang in delicate, yet emotional tones: "I've seen fire, and I've seen rain. I've seen sunny days that I thought would never end. I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend, but I always thought that I'd see you again."

Buckley concluded her evening with a rafter-raising version of "With a Song in My Heart" that brought the crowd to its feet, and her heartfelt version of Billy Joel's "And So It Goes" was a touching encore.

Buckley plays Feinstein's through April 7. Don't miss the chance to see one of the finest singing actresses in such an intimate setting; it is a master class in the art of storytelling through song.

[Feinstein's at the Regency is located in Manhattan at 540 Park Avenue at 61st Street; call (212) 339-4095 for reservations.]

DIVA TIDBITS
Last week I had the great pleasure of watching about 20 minutes of footage from the upcoming star-studded "Hairspray" film, based on the Tony-winning Broadway musical, which, itself, is based on John Waters' original 1988 film. Adam Shankman, who directed the new movie musical, introduced the brief screening for an audience that included a gaggle of New York press as well as "Hairspray" producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, theatre veteran Harvey Evans and director Richard Jay-Alexander. It was evident that the project was a labor of love for Shankman, who informed the audience that filmmaker Waters had called him earlier that day to say how much he loved Shankman's version. Though it's impossible to judge a film by a few clips, it does seem that Shankman has captured the contagious joy one feels when watching the stage musical at the Neil Simon Theatre. The new film also bursts with vibrant color — as if a child's super-sized box of Crayola crayons had exploded onto the set and magically fallen into all the right places. Newcomer Nicole Blonsky seems ideal for the role of feisty teen Tracy Turnblad, and in the film's toe-tapping opening, "Good Morning Baltimore," she is appropriately exuberant, full-figured and big-voiced. Blonsky also has a wonderful interaction with a truck in the aforementioned "Baltimore" (don't worry, no spoilers here), and John Travolta — looking as he's never looked before — joins Blonsky for a rousing "Welcome to the '60s" that spills out onto the streets and billboards of the Maryland city. The screening also treated the crowd to brief clips of Michelle Pfeiffer (as Velma Von Tussle), Christopher Walken (as Wilbur Turnblad), Brittany Snow (as Amber von Tussle), James Marsden (as Corny Collins), Zac Efron (as Link Larkin) and Queen Latifah; the latter has great fun with Motormouth Maybelle's anthem, "Big, Blonde & Beautiful," which boasts several new lyrics penned especially for the film. If these segments are any indication, come summer it will be hard to stop the beat of "Hairspray."

Three-time Tony nominee Judy Kuhn will bring her acclaimed tribute to the late Laura Nyro to Joe's Pub this fall when she plays the intimate room Mondays, Oct. 1, 8, 15 and 22. Show time each night is 7 PM. Kuhn recently debuted her Nyro program, titled Serious Playground: The Songs of Laura Nyro, for Lincoln Center's American Songbook series, and when she reprises that concert for Joe's Pub, the former Chess star will be backed by an eight-piece band. The upcoming engagement will also celebrate the release of her forthcoming CD of Nyro tunes. Joe's Pub is located within the Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Street. Tickets, priced $30, are available by calling (212) 967-7555 or by visiting the Joe's Pub box office.

Tony Award winner Kristin Chenoweth, recently on Broadway in the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of The Apple Tree, has donated memorabilia from her personal collection to benefit the upcoming AIDS Walk NY 2007. The auction, entitled "Kristin's Closet," will feature a host of items, including signed and caption photos; Playbills and CDs from the actress' past productions; and clothes worn by Chenoweth to various events, including a costume from the City Center Encores! production of Apple Tree. Also up for bid will be a headshot session with a theatre photographer, tickets to the Off-Broadway revival of The Fantasticks and the chance for one fan to have Chenoweth play "personal stylist." The "Kristin's Closet" auction will begin April 15 and will run through May 1. All proceeds will benefit AIDS Walk NY, which is set for May 20. Last year, Chenoweth's auction raised more than $7,000 for AIDS-related charities. For more information visit www.kristinchenowethfanclub.org or www.aidswalk.net/newyork.

A by-invitation-only developmental reading of Craig Shemin's The Green Room will be held April 23 at the 45th Street Theater. Original Avenue Q stars Stephanie D'Abruzzo and Jordan Gelber will be joined by Jimmy Bennett, Tim Cain, John Gaines, Tom Galantich, Tom Mizer and Amanda Weeden for the 8 PM reading. Lisa Gilbar will direct; Melanie T. Morgan will be the stage manager. The Green Room, according to press notes, is "a fictionalized comic portrayal of the evolution of the television medium through the years as seen through a small group of performers and producers gathered in the green room of a studio." In a statement playwright Shemin said, "It's really about how what is now a big corporate industry began as a very small mom & pop business and how the people who started it all watched as the world around them changed. . . It's not really about television – it's all about a small group of very lucky people who happened to be in the right place at the right time." Interested industry professionals may request tickets by sending e-mailing greenroomplay@yahoo.com.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

(l.-r.) John Travolta and Queen Latifah in "Hairspray"; James Marsden and Brittany Snow (center) in "Hairspray"
(l.-r.) John Travolta and Queen Latifah in "Hairspray"; James Marsden and Brittany Snow (center) in "Hairspray"