Her Hairspray co-star, Harvey Fierstein, called her the hardest working actress in show business, and Kathy Brier may very well be. Not only is the young actress with the sparkling smile currently starring in the daytime serial "One Life to Live," but she is also making her Broadway debut in the Tony-winning musical Hairspray at the Neil Simon Theatre. Brier is the new Tracy Turnblad, the full-figured Baltimore youth with a heart of gold who manages to transform herself and her entire city with a few moves on the dance floor. And what moves they are. Brier dances with a thrilling abandon and also possesses a terrific belt that sends her many solos soaring. I recently had the chance to chat with the exuberant actress, who amazingly manages to combine her days as soap star and Broadway diva with great aplomb. That interview follows:
Question: How does it feel to be making your Broadway debut?
Kathy Brier: I think it's mind-boggling! It's just starting to sink in four months after I made it. [Laughs.] It's amazing; it's quite a show to make a Broadway debut in. It can kick your ass [laughs]. I've definitely trained for it — danced for 13 years, sung for 16 years, been acting professionally for 9. The part looks deceptively easy, but it's not. People ask me to describe it — if I could compare it to anything, I'd compare it to the emotional rollercoaster of the equivalent of a Momma Rose for a 16 year-old girl. Dancing-wise, it's kind of like the course track of A Chorus Line because you have a chubby girl doing two-and-a-half hours of dancing. And, this is a 16-year-old girl — her heart is on her sleeve, so there are those moments where you have to tap into that vulnerability of a 16-year-old and go to those places that are so easy for teenagers to go to. But as a 28, almost 29-year-old girl, it's been awhile since I've been there! [Laughs.]
Q: What do you think of the character of Tracy? Do you see any of yourself in her?
KB: I was actually very much like her as a young girl. I was always full-figured as a young woman, and I was a dancer. That's what I wanted to do — I wanted to be a dancer. I'm very outgoing like her, and I've never let my figure stop me. So, it's actually very similar. It was just trying to get back into that mental space of being that age and being at that place in your life, which is probably the biggest challenge for me.
Q: Tell me about your dance training.
KB: I took ballet, tap, jazz in ballet schools on Staten Island and Snug Harbor. I studied for 13 years. Nowhere big, but I was always a very good dancer. I would never say I was a "dancer dancer." I certainly wouldn't say that, but it was always a passion. One of the things that I love about doing the show is that I do get to dance. Q: How did the casting for Hairspray come about. Did you audition originally?
KB: No, they wouldn't see me originally because I didn't have a Broadway credit, and I didn't have an agent. And, [casting agent] Bernie Telsey had never seen me before, and I tried to get auditions but they would not see me. The first time they saw me was for the standby when the show had just opened. And, it was the first time Bernie had ever seen me in the office, so I think he was a little wary of putting me in front of the creative team, because they wanted someone, obviously, who had been on Broadway before. I had three callbacks, but they never put me in front of the creative team. So, when they were looking for replacements, at that point, Bernie just brought me in, straight into the creative team — because at that point I had gone through all the other hoops [laughs] — so I skipped all those other levels again, which was very nice of him to do. When they saw me, it was kind of like, "Why haven't we seen this girl before?" But I think everything happens when it's supposed to, and I think had I been seen originally for it, I don't know if I would have been ready for it, quite frankly, because I really had to work [at it]. . . I went in eight times over an eight-month period. A lot of times I would fall flat on my face in the room. It's such a delicate part, to carry off Tracy the right way. Not many people can capture it correctly, and so they really worked with helping me get her correct spirit. And, so I think if I had auditioned earlier, I don't think I would have gotten it. I think things happen when they're supposed to. I certainly don't think I was meant to be the person to originate the role. [Laughs.] . . . But I'm having a great time doing it now, and I think it happened because I was ready for it on so many different levels: I was ready to make that step in my career, I was prepared for it. I think I'm doing a pretty good job considering I'm doing this and "One Life to Live," and most of my days are 16 hours long. It's been rough the past month-and-a-half, but I'm learning so much about myself and the business on so many different levels.
Q: Did the cast welcome you?
KB: They did; they completely embraced me. They were just so wonderful to me. I completely approached the role 360 degrees from the way Marissa [Jaret Winokur] did . . . I kind of approach it more, I don't know how to explain it. It's basically more just guttural. She's just much more centered. Marissa's character — and I loved watching Marissa, she was so specific in her choices; she provided a really easy template for me. It was easy watching her — I always knew what her intentions were. But we were trained so differently that we just approached it from the opposite ends, but in a way, I think we wound up in the same place, but we just approached the role from a different avenue.
Q: Do you have a favorite moment in the show?
KB: My favorite moment in the show — when I watched it for six month, when I was learning it — was "Timeless to Me." I think that is my all-time favorite number. I think it's such the heartbeat of the show. My favorite moment on stage is probably "I Know Where I've Been." I just love that moment; there are so many things that I can connect to in my life in that song, and it's just such a great ride for myself every night. That song — I kind of remind myself of everything I've gone through to get where I am. And it's my time in the show to just sit back and enjoy what I'm doing for five minutes. Not that I don't enjoy the rest of the show, but I actually sit back while I'm on the stage and [think], "This is pretty damn cool!" [Laughs.] My least favorite moment when I first took over was the opening because I felt like I was being shot out of a canon. When I first started — probably for the first month — I would go downstairs ten minutes before and just stand on the stage and listen to the audience and get used to [them] because there are 1,400 people in that theatre, and you open that show by yourself, with your eyes closed and the curtain goes up! [Laughs.] That was my least favorite moment for a long time, but now it doesn't bother me at all.
Q: How is it working with Harvey Fierstein?
KB: He's amazing. Everybody across the board has really embraced what I do. I guess I kind of shook the show up a bit when I first came in because here [were] people who [were] used to doing it for a year a certain way. And I came in and did [my interpretation], and they all went along for the ride. And Harvey is especially amazing because he had to change a lot of his own stuff with me. And he's very gracious and very open. And the first time I went on I wasn't really nervous at all because all I had to do was look at him. He's solid, he's such a pro. He's very supportive and very giving. So, I'm very lucky. I am extremely lucky and honored to still be able to do it with him.
Q: Take me through your average day.
KB: I get up at 6 AM most of the time to go the studio. I'm at the studio by 7. I usually work from 7 to 6 PM. Then I'm at the theatre. I have to start getting ready at 6:30. By the time I'm done with the show, it's 11. By the time I get home, it's 11:30. By the time I learn my lines for the soap opera the next day, it's one o'clock. So I get anywhere from three to five hours of sleep a night. And, for Hairspray, I should be getting eight to ten. [Laughs.] The past month-and-a-half has been pretty crazy. It's been a test in stamina, and the past month-and-a-half has been hard because everybody's been sick, so it hasn't been easy. But I take it one day at a time. And that's the only way I can do it. Last week I filmed four days at the studio and did eight shows. So most of my days were 16 hours long, and when you look at that and you're sick, you're gonna freak out! So, what you have to do is take a step back and just go through every moment. I also have to learn to take care of myself and learn my limits. So I'm learning so many things on so many different levels. And part of that is how to pace myself.
Q: What other roles have you played in musicals?
KB: I've done lots of regional theatre. My first big job here in Manhattan was in Bat Boy. I played Ron, who was the little boy — he was kind of like a cross between Eminem and Kenny from South Park. And I played the mayor of the town; she was Dolly Partonesque. That was my first big thing in the city where people started to know who I was or at least recognize my name. But regionally I've done tons of stuff — I've basically played almost every part that I could play that was correct for my age. I played Fanny Brice in Funny Girl. And, even some [roles] that I shouldn't have played, that weren't right for my age. I played Libby Tucker in I Oughta Be in Pictures, I played Rizzo in Grease!, I played Princess Winnifred in Once Upon a Mattress. Basically, when I got out of college for the first three years, that's what I did — I worked regionally all over, playing every lead that I could possibly play that was right for me. After about three years of doing that, I made the decision that if I wanted to get anywhere in the business, I had to stop doing regional work. So I decided to stick it out here [in Manhattan]. I had a temp job out here for three years, and I pounded the pavement and could not get arrested. But I kept at it, and I didn't give up. I was very specific in the things that I went to audition for. I did tons of workshops here in the city, tons of Off Off Off-Broadway stuff. I just kept at it and didn't give up. It was very frustrating during those three years, too, because I was told if you lose weight, you could work now because you're pretty enough that you could be an ingenue. But I lost all this weight and got down to a size six, and I was still told that I was too fat. And it was really funny because I got so frustrated at that point that I went [off] the deep end and gained all the weight back — and then some — and chopped my hair off and dyed it black. And, that's when I got Bat Boy! And I think it was because I decided to be who I was, I decided not to ascribe to anyone else's idea of what I had to be to work. And ever since I've done that, it's kind of been steadily going up and up, no looking back. I think that's been one of my biggest lessons is to just be true to myself, which is the message of Hairspray: Follow your dreams, and stay true to yourself.
Q: Do you have any roles that you would like to play?
KB: I'd love to do something new. Of course, I could give 20 million roles that I'd love to do on Broadway. I'd love to do Fanny Brice in Funny Girl. That would be wonderful if they ever revived that; that would be fun to do. And I'd love to play Winnifred in Once Upon a Mattress, and when I get older, I'd love to play Momma Rose in Gypsy — that's one of the all-time best female roles in history. But I think that it's important to produce new work and do new work. There's a young musical composer named Lance Horne. I've done some stuff for him, and he's just amazing. I think he's one of the next big up-n-coming writers. And then there's Larry O'Keefe, who wrote Bat Boy, who's another young brilliant writer, and I think it's important to support their work because the medium can't grow if we constantly do revivals. I'm hoping that someone's just willing to write something for me someday. That's what I really would prefer to happen more so than doing a revival, not that I'd turn down a job! [Laughs.]
Q: Who were some of the performers or singers that influenced you?
KB: That's a good question. . . My mother loved the radio, so she had radios throughout the house. The radio was constantly on. I don't know if I've ever looked up to or admired someone in particular. [Performing has] always been something that I had to do. Of course, there are people that I love — I love Bette Midler, I love Carol Burnett. I think my role models have more been the women in my life, my grandmother and my mother. They're very strong and eccentric women, and they have great spirits. I think they've been my role models more than anyone. I've never really tried to emulate anybody; it's just kind of been my own clock, my own gut sense of who I am and what makes me tick. . . I got my musical theatre interest love from my grandmother. She would always play musical theatre scores in the house.
Q: Do you know what you'd like to do next?
KB: I'm signed at "One Life to Live" for three years, but hopefully I'll be nominated for an Emmy. [Laughs.] If that happens, maybe it will open up some other avenues for myself. My two goals right now after this: I would love to do a sitcom or put out a record, an album. Because I started out singing R&B, I had to train to do musical theatre. I think maybe that's why my voice has an interesting quality to it, because I didn't sing that stuff naturally. As soon as I started singing, my inclination was to sing R&B and rock-and-roll. Those are the two things that I would love to do next, but knowing me, that's probably what I won't do! [Laughs.] The funny thing is when I was auditioning for Hairspray that year, I vowed never to do two things: one was a children's show and one was to do a soap opera, and I wound up doing both in the same year! I ended up doing this little show called The Prince and the Pauper at the Lamb's Theatre. It didn't start out as a children's show, but the avenue the producers took it in turned it into a children's show. And, the soap has really put me on a different playing field, career-wise, because there are something like 11-million viewers. There's not a night when I don't walk out of the stage where there's a least a dozen people waiting at the stage door, [fans] from "One Life to Live."
(Kathy Brier stars in Hairspray at the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 42nd Street. Call 212-307-4100 for tickets.)
IN OTHER DIVA NEWS OF THE WEEK: Set your VCRs! Two-time Tony Award winner Bernadette Peters will sit down for a chat with hosts Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa on "Live with Regis and Kelly." Peters, currently starring as Momma Rose in the hit revival of Gypsy, is scheduled to appear on the morning chat show Jan. 16 and will perform a song from the Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim Arthur Laurents musical. "Live with Regis and Kelly" airs in the metropolitan area on WABC-TV, 9-10 AM ET. Check local listings for broadcast times. . . . Speaking of Gypsy, the revival at the Shubert Theatre will lose its first original lead player this month. Julie Halston, who plays the dual roles of Miss Cratchitt and cosmetically challenged stripper Electra, will leave the production to star in the Roundabout's Twentieth Century revival. Halston's last performance is scheduled for Jan. 24; she will be replaced by Gayton Scott, who appeared with Halston in another Roundabout production, The Women. Scott joins the Gypsy company Jan. 26. . . . It's been a busy week for Wicked star Kristin Chenoweth. Not only will Chenoweth make her solo Carnegie Hall concert debut Sept. 10, but she has also landed her first feature-film part. The Tony-winning performer will have a lead role in a new movie musical helmed by Peter Spears. Titled "Asphalt Beach," the motion picture is described as "being in the spirit of Hairspray and Grease." Similar to the Wicked storyline, the feature film concerns two girls whose paths cross at school. The young women are from different ends of the social spectrum; Chenoweth, according to the Hollywood Reporter, will play the "spoiled rich girl." . . . Nora Mae Lyng, who co-starred in last season's Amour, will head the cast of Center Stage's upcoming production of Sweeney Todd. Lyng, who was also one of the original stars of Off-Broadway's long-running Forbidden Broadway, will play Mrs. Lovett in the Baltimore production, which runs Feb. 20-April 11. Lyng replaces Center Stage alum E. Faye Butler, who withdrew from the production to care for her ailing mother. Joseph Mahowald, of Broadway's Les Misérables and Jekyll & Hyde, will play the title role of the knife-wielding Sweeney. Irene Lewis directs. Sweeney Todd will play Center Stage's Head Theater, 700 N. Calvert Street in Baltimore, MD. Tickets, priced $35-$60, are available by calling (410) 332-0033. For more information, visit www.toad.net/~centerstage. . . . Native New Yorker Maude Maggart is currently making her Algonquin Hotel Oak Room debut in Shaking the Blues Away — A 1920's Cabaret. The young singer's show is inspired by her grandmother's career as a dancer in George White's Scandals of 1926. Accompanied by Shelly Markham on piano, cabaretgoers can expect to hear Maggart's versions of "Stardust," "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody," "Love for Sale," "Why Was I Born," "Love Me or Leave Me" and "I Want to Be Bad." Maggart continues her run Jan. 12, Feb. 1 and Feb. 2; show time is 9 PM. The Algonquin Hotel is located at 59 West 44th Street; call (212) 419-9331 for reservations.
Betty Buckley in Concert:
Jan. 12 Receives Legend of Cabaret Award at Nightlife Awards at Town Hall in NY, NY
Liz Callaway in Concert:
Jan. 17, 2004 in Asheville, NC
Jan. 31 in Sibling Revelry in Boston, MA
Feb. 7 in Sibling Revelry in Riverfront, IL
Feb. 13 with Jason Graae in Salt Lake City, UT
Feb. 14 with Jason Graae in Palm Springs, CA
Feb. 26-28 with Jason Graae in West Palm Beach, FL
Feb. 29 with Stephen Schwartz and Friends in Wilton, CT
April 23 with Jason Graae in Sutter Creek, CA
April 24-25 with Jason Graae in San Rafael, CA
May 1 in Sibling Revelry in Orono, ME
May 8 in Sibling Revelry in Purchase, NY
Patti LuPone in Concert:
Jan. 23, 2004 at the Eissey Campus Theatre in Palm Beach Gardens, FL
Jan. 24, 2004 at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, FL
Feb. 27-29, 2004 at the Myerhoff Hall in Baltimore, MD
March 12, 2004 at the New Jersey PAC in Newark, NJ
March 13 at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ
Louise Pitre in Concert:
Jan. 31, 2004-Feb. 8 in Sweeney Todd with the Calgary Opera Company at the Jubilee Auditorium in Canada
February 13 at the Capitol Theatre in Windsor, ON
February 28 at the Sanderson Performing Arts in Brantford, ON
February 29 at the Silverthorn C.I. Auditorium in Toronto, ON
November 4 at the Brock Centre for the Arts in St. Catherines, ON
November 5 at the Oakville Centre for the Performing Arts in Oakville, ON
November 6 at the Dr. J.M. Ennis Auditorium in Welland, ON
November 11 at the Heritage Theatre in Brampton, ON
November 12 at the Imperial Oil Centre in Sarnia, ON
November 17 at the Markham Theatre in Markham, ON
November 20 at the Stockey Centre in Parry Sound, ON
November 21 at The Living Arts Centre in Mississauga, ON
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching!