DIVA TALK: A Chat with Mack & Mabel's Christiane Noll Plus "Broadway: The American Musical"

News   DIVA TALK: A Chat with Mack & Mabel's Christiane Noll Plus "Broadway: The American Musical"
 
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Christiane Noll and Scott Waara in Mack and Mabel
Christiane Noll and Scott Waara in Mack and Mabel Photo by Diane Sobolewski

CHRISTIANE NOLL

As wonderful as she sounds on her various solo ("A Broadway Love Story," "Live at the West Bank Cafe") and cast albums (Jekyll & Hyde, Little By Little), my favorite Christiane Noll recording can be found on the 1999 CD "The Stephen Schwartz Album." On that Varese Sarabande disc, Noll wraps her rich, rangy voice around "Just Around the Riverbend" from the hit Disney film "Pocahontas." Just listen to the array of colors she brings to the Schwartz lyric. Noll begins the song gently and then lets her belt soar as the song continues; her singing is at its most beautiful on the song's final line as she sings in sweet head tones "just around the river" while gliding into a belty finale. Noll is now lending her voice to the songs of Jerry Herman in the Goodspeed Musicals production of Mack & Mabel, which plays the Connecticut theatre through Dec. 12. Noll portrays silent-screen star Mabel Normand, the role created on Broadway by Bernadette Peters, opposite the Mack Sennett of Scott Waara. I recently had the chance to chat with the talented singer-actress about her latest role. That interview follows:

Question: How are preview performances going?
Christiane Noll: Good! It's always, I think, a little frantic getting [the show] up at the beginning, but it's really wonderful up there, kind of slowly [heading] to something really good.

Q: When does the show officially open?
CN: The official press opening, I believe, is on the 27th of October.

Q: How did you get involved with the production?
CN: I auditioned. [Laughs.] My manager, Matthew Sullivan, has been talking to me about this project since they first mentioned doing it way back with the Reprise! series. He has been trying to get me to think that I can do it or want to do it. . . . I've sung some of the music before on some of my albums. I concertize with Don Pippin quite a bit, and he was involved when they did the show at Lincoln Center. Matthew and I went to see it, and he said, "You should be doing this." [Laughs.] Then it came up that Goodspeed was working on it, and all the same people were involved, and they were really determined to get the book in some sort of shape. That's always been the sticking point of the piece. Everybody says, "The score is great, but we can't really sit through it." I really think that they have chopped it down to something that's very clean and clear and concise and tells a story very clearly. I'm really proud of them for all the work they've done. Q: Has Jerry Herman been involved with this production?
CN: Oh, yeah. He showed up the second week of rehearsal and stayed through the first week of performances. . . . I was teasing him: "You've been with the girls now — now you have to go with the boys [of La Cage]." [Laughs.] But he'll be back. He's very definitely involved, very seriously involved. It's his baby. He says this has always been his favorite score, and he wishes that it would be better received than it has been.

Q: Is there any word yet on whether it might tour or transfer?
CN: No, yes, no, yes. [Laughs.] There's been no word because no one's really seen it yet. Lots of buzz and lots of intention. If anything, I think the "worst" thing to come out of this is Jerry Herman would have a really wonderfully working book that would be easily licensed anywhere, and people would be far more apt to do it on a regular basis.

Q: How has it been working with director Arthur Allan Seidelman?
CN: He's wonderful. He's got the funniest little giggle, and he just gets very tickled. It's so funny. But he's very grounded and really thoughtful and respectful and helpful. At first, he's definitely the kind of director that lets the actor find his own way, which can be wonderful if you have a lot of strong ideas right out of the gate. He lets you go off running, and then once you get out there and start playing around a little, he'll say, "How about this? How about that?" But at the very beginning I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do with [Mabel]. I knew the end of the show — I had that figured out. But at the beginning I was still going, "I don't know." So I felt like I was thrashing about for awhile. He and Jerry both were very supportive and kept nudging here and there, and eventually I was like, "Oh, okay, I get it now."

Q: Were you able to see any of Mabel Normand's films?
CN: I did a lot of research looking around for some films and clips. I found a lot of stuff online, which was great, little 15-second snippets here and there. The thing that really struck a chord with me is people think Mack and Mabel, and they think the zany, over-the-top goofy thing, [but] Mabel Normand was funny because of how real she was. She's actually the one that wasn't mugging. There's a funny clip I remember seeing, and she was wearing these big, old oversize pajamas, completely covered from head to toe, certainly very modest. But then these men started to come into her room, and she hurled herself to close the door. She looked down and picked up the rug and she wrapped it around her, and now she was presentable and she opened [the door]. But it was very real. There was no making faces. That was more Fatty Arbuckle's thing. There's another clip I remember with the Marie Antoinette segment, which is part of the show. She's wearing a huge wig and a big costume. She's curtseying, and because of the weight of the dress and the weight of the wig — with a very deadpan face, her face never changes — she ends up going all the way down to the floor and then tries to get back up by pulling on the guy's pants next to her. And, of course, they fall down and make all sorts of faces. But she's just as serious as can be. That was surprising because I kept expecting to see this clown in an overdone, silent-movie stereotypical thing that we think of these days. And that really wasn't the case. I found myself just giggling at how charming she was.

Q: You were also in The Baker's Wife at Goodspeed. How is it performing there?
CN: I was at the Norma Terris twice. I did Lizzie Borden and then The Baker's Wife. The Norma Terris is an incredible little playground as far as I'm concerned. They are a well-oiled machine. There's a lot of time in between productions. They bring in the whole writing team to really work on it. I think it's akin to the O'Neill Festival, which is down the road, except you get a full production with sets and costumes and lights, and it's glorious. But you really feel sheltered and that you can experiment and play because it's not for the critics. It's just for the patrons there, and they all come to see it. They're very savvy theatregoers because they see tons of stuff there all the time. And the Chester's just a delightful little thing. The Opera House is also incredible. The amount of history — you come up across the bridge, and there's this glorious building perched up on the riverbank. It's all the same staff in terms of production and the people building everything, so you know that they know what they're doing. It's kind of neat to be in the big house. It's a longer run, but for this I think it was a good thing to give us that extended preview period, so we can really feel what the changes were that were made and move forward from there.

Q: Do you have a favorite moment or song in Mack & Mabel for your character?
CN: It's changing all the time I must say. [Laughs.] I actually like a smaller moment. After [Mack] sings "I Won't Roses," [Mabel] has a little response to that: "Who needs roses?" It's just a really sweet, cute moment, and I get to be very honest and funny. I think in that very short period of time I hit a lot of the different notes. I make people laugh, I make people kind of misty. It's very charming.

Q: Any other projects in the works for you? Recordings? Workshops?
CN: Well, I had just been doing a bunch of [workshops] right before I went [to Goodspeed]. I have a lot of concerts set up for January, February and March. There's a couple things I'm looking out for in the future but nothing that I can talk about yet.

Q: Do you enjoy the concert work? How does that compare for you to being in a theatrical production?
CN: I have to tell you I was really grateful that I had those concerts while I was touring with Urinetown. I adored doing Urinetown, and what an incredible company we had — people came in with so much in their little gift basket to offer. It was amazing and just so funny and so clever. But any time you do a long run like that, eventually you're just going to get into that zombie phase — "What city am I in?" [Laughs.] I was really grateful that I got to disappear for a couple days periodically. At least once a month I was out doing something and then came back and felt refreshed. Even though I did not have time off and sometimes I was working when they were traveling, [which meant] getting up at four in the morning to be on a six o'clock flight to get back to do a four-show weekend. I did it, but I still somehow felt newly revitalized with the show because of doing something different. I like the concerts — you never get to hear anything sound that good anywhere as you do in front of a 75-piece orchestra.

Q: That must be pretty thrilling to sing with such a huge orchestra.
CN: The first time I almost stopped singing. "God that's so gorgeous!" Just to hear a real string section. You don't get to hear that anymore. At Encores! you do, but even that is not a full symphonic string section. It's a whole different thing when you're standing up there with the Cleveland Orchestra.

Q: If something happens with Mack & Mabel after this run, would you like to stay with the show?
CN: I would love to keep playing around with her. The character's journey spans about 20 years, and you get to see her go from a girl to a jaded, tired old something-or-other. [Laughs.] You hit every note you could possibly hit, and I love that kind of stuff. . . If [it ends here], it's been a wonderful experience, and I'm really glad that I got to work on it. And to be with Donna McKechnie [who plays Lottie]. I'm sharing a dressing room with Donna McKechnie! We were all giggling when we started to have rehearsals. I'm up there dancing, and [Donna] stepped on my foot. I was so excited — I can now stop [working]. Donna McKechnie has stepped on my foot! That's thrilling. [Laughs.] I'm not so much a star-struck fan person generally, but I ask her little questions here and there, and I try to be very respectful. . . But she's now starting to tell us little stories here and there about Michael [Bennett] and all sorts of other things she's done and people she's known. They just kind of sneak out here and there, and I think she's writing a book right now. And as she's writing the book, they're fresh in her mind, so we're getting the fresh stories. We feel really blessed. She's really an amazing lady.

[For Goodspeed Musicals information, call (860) 873-8668 or visit www.goodspeed.org.]

BROADWAY: THE AMERICAN MUSICAL (The Book)

Next week, theatre lovers across the country will get the chance to view the eagerly awaited PBS documentary, "Broadway: The American Musical." The six-hour presentation will debut in the New York area on Thirteen/WNET Oct. 19-21, 9-11 PM ET. Those finding it difficult to wait for the debut of the program can head out to their local bookstore and purchase a copy of "Broadway: The American Musical" — the book. The wonderful 480-page publication by Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon is equally, if not more, comprehensive than the documentary, exploring 100 years of Broadway musical theatre magic.

I recently had the chance to chat with Maslon, who wrote the book's text as well as two episodes of the six-part PBS series. The Long Island native, whose father attended the same high school as Ira Gershwin and Yip Harburg, dedicates the book to his dad and his late mother who introduced him to the wonders of the musical theatre. "I think the first musical you see marks you forever," says Maslon. "When I was nine, I saw 1776, and so for years afterwards, I wondered what chorus girls were doing in musicals. I thought all musicals were about guys with wigs yelling at each other!" Maslon's come full circle with the Broadway series and book: At the recent L.A. premiere of the documentary, the author had the chance to meet William Daniels, who portrayed John Adams in the original Broadway production of 1776. "I got to meet the first man I ever saw in a musical, however many years later that is," says Maslon. "I was moved to tears that he showed up."

Earlier this week I was sent an advance copy of Kantor and Maslon's book, which traces the evolution of the musical theatre from the turn of the nineteenth century to the new millennium, including such current Broadway fare as The Producers and Stephen Schwartz's Wicked. A lavish coffee-table book, "Broadway: The American Musical" features over 500 photographs, many of which I'd never seen before. There are terrific pictures of a young Ethel Merman as well full-color spreads from such musicals as Cabaret, Sweeney Todd and Miss Saigon. The book is also filled with rare rehearsal photos, production stills, caricatures and show posters. "Michael [Kantor] had put together a database for the series," explains Maslon, "but then one had to go back and look for pictures that weren't in the series. When I had to deal with Follies, I thought, 'Oh God, how do you deal with Follies, especially since Ted Chapin's book is so good?' I knew I wanted to use lyrics from 'Broadway Baby,' but I thought if we looked hard enough, we could find a picture of [Follies cast member] Ethel Shutta when she was in the Follies. So there's a picture of her in [Stephen Sondheim's] Follies, next to a picture of her in the Follies, and that tells you everything you need to know about the show. It was a way of using the power of the images to tell the story."

The book, which took nine months to write, also provides complete lyrics to 15 classic Broadway songs, including "Rose's Turn," "You're the Top" and "Ol' Man River." "Songs are the building blocks of the American musical," says Maslon. "They're the text. I don't think there's really been a book that reprints the lyrics as the lyricist wrote it [with] some commentary on it. Or, in the case of 'You're the Top,' it actually annotates the material. I thought that it was really important that when people read through [the book], they could see groundbreaking lyrics. You can talk about Carousel all you want, but the only way to really understand the achievement of that show, in my opinion, is to see where they took [the character of] Billy Bigelow. The only way to really see where they took Billy Bigelow at the end of Act One is to read what Oscar [Hammerstein] wrote, so it was great that we could reprint the [lyrics to 'Soliloquy']."

Six detailed "Who's Who" sections are also featured in the book, covering 25 stars who made an indelible mark on The Great White Way. Among these actors are Gwen Verdon, Angela Lansbury, Ethel Waters, Eddie Cantor, Barbara Cook and Bernadette Peters. When asked whether it was difficult choosing which actors to profile, Maslon admits, "There was some negotiation. I guess I kind of worked backward. The last [section] has five [actors] instead of four. It's hard when people are still alive determining who's going to be a legend. Once I put Nathan [Lane] in, though, I thought we had to make sure that there's a clown in every group just to remind people that that's what Broadway is about. It's about Zero [Mostel] and Phil Silvers and Bert Lahr and Eddie Cantor. It's a tradition . . . . Also, in 1910, a black man was a comedian on Broadway in black face, but [in 1999] a black man is a leading man starring in Kiss Me, Kate. It's sort of subtle, but I hope if people even read just those sections, they'll see a continuity and an evolution in what kind of performers are on Broadway." Maslon, whose favorite musicals include 1776, On the Twentieth Century, Pacific Overtures and Golden Boy, concludes that the musical theatre is the only art form that's greater than the sum of its parts. "You can see a musical in Toronto," says Maslon, "or you can develop a musical in the West End. But a Broadway musical is really only a Broadway musical if it opens in these same dozen city blocks where it's been for 100 years. And, it's not the show just: It's coming out of the subway, the smell of the pretzel guy on the street, having a drink at Angus' afterwards and seeing Nathan Lane sitting in the back — it's buying the album, saving your program. It's just such an incredible live experience. Maybe you go the night Madeline Kahn's been replaced by Judy Kaye [in On the Twentieth Century] or maybe you go the night you bump into Kitty Carlisle Hart on the line for the ladies room. No other art form offers that thrill."

["Broadway: The American Musical" — by Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon — is published by Bullfinch Press. The hardcover book, featuring 200 four color illustrations and photographs and 310 black-and-white images, retails for $60. Maslon is also the editor of a volume of George S. Kaufman plays, "Kaufman & Co.: Broadway Comedies," now available from the Library of America.]

DIVA TIDBITS
Casting is complete for the upcoming New York City Opera production of Cinderella, which will star Taboo's Sarah Uriarte Berry in the title role. The starry company will also include Eartha Kitt as the Fairy Godmother, Lea DeLaria and Ana Gasteyer as the evil Stepsisters, Christopher Sieber as the Prince, Lypsinka's John Epperson as the Wicked Stepmother and Renee Taylor and Dick Van Patten as the Queen and King. Baayork Lee — of A Chorus Line fame — will direct the company and Gerald Steichen will conduct the orchestra for the mounting of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Nov. 12-21. For more information, visit www.nycopera.com.

Casting is nearly complete for the upcoming Passion concert to benefit Friends in Deed. As previously announced, Donna Murphy and Marin Mazzie will re-create the roles of, respectively, Fosca and Clara, which they created in the original Broadway production. And, Michael Cerveris will co-star as Giorgio, repeating the role he played at both the Kennedy Center and Chicago's Ravinia Festival. The threesome will be joined by Malcolm Gets as Colonel Ricci, John McMartin as Doctor Tambourri, Timothy Gulan as Sergeant Lombardi, William Parry as Lieutenant Barri, John Jellison as Major Rizzoli, Alex Gemignani as Private Augenti, Colleen Fitzpatrick as Fosca's Mother, John Leslie Wolfe as Fosca's Father, Matthew Poretta as Ludovic and Juliet Lambert as the Mistress. The role of Lieutenant Torasso remains to be cast. The 10th anniversary concert of the Tony-winning Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical will be held Oct. 20 at the Ambassador Theatre, 219 West 49th Street. Show time is 7 PM. Tickets for the one night-only concert are priced $150 and $500 and may be purchased by calling (212) 239-6200. VIP tickets are priced $750 and include a cast party; call (800) 996-5433 for VIP tickets only.

In cabaret news, Klea Blackhurst, who triumphed with her salute to Ethel Merman, will turn her attention to the works of Vernon Duke in her new show, Autumn in New York: Vernon Duke's Broadway. Blackhurst will present her tribute to the composer of "April in Paris" and "Autumn in New York" Oct. 22-Nov. 20 at the Manhattan nightclub Opia. The singer-actress will be backed by the Pocket Change Trio, which features Michael Rice on piano, Ray Kilday on bass and David Strauss on guitar. Show times are Fridays, Oct. 22 and Nov. 5, 12 and 19 at 7 PM; Saturday, Oct. 23 and Nov. 6, 13 and 20 at 9 PM; and Sundays, Nov. 7 and 14 at 7 PM. Opia is located in Manhattan at 130 East 57th Street, between Lexington and Park Avenues. There is a $30 cover and a $15 minimum for all shows. For reservations, call (212) 688-3939. Visit www.liveatopia.com for more information.

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

(Look for a condensed version of "Diva Talk" in the theatre edition of Playbill Magazine.)

The cover of Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon's "Broadway: The American Musical"
The cover of Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon's "Broadway: The American Musical"
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