DIVA TALK: A Chat with Renée Zellweger, the "Hart" of "Chicago," PLUS Diva News

DIVA TALK: A Chat with Renée Zellweger, the "Hart" of "Chicago," PLUS Diva News Happy New Year, diva lovers! Today's column features my final interview from the recent press junket for Miramax's "Chicago."
Renee Zellweger in Chicago.
Renee Zellweger in Chicago. (Photo by David James)

RENÉE ZELLWEGER
Renée Zellweger, a 2002 Academy Award nominee for her performance in "Bridget Jones's Diary," heads the cast as Roxie Hart in the Rob Marshall directed film, which is now in theatres around the country. What follows are excerpts from the conversation the film actress had with me and a half dozen journalists at New York's Essex House.

Question: How did you get involved with the film of "Chicago"?
Renée Zellweger: 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 your musical background? Had you done musicals in high school or college?
RZ: I tried out for Hair in college, and I watched Hair from the audience and enjoyed it very much . . . I sang in the shower a lot, and my brother told me to shut up a lot, and I sang a couple of notes in "Empire Records." I played a girl who wants to be a singer but who's too scared to sing and can't really sing, so there's that. And, then, of course, there were a couple of fabulous vocal moments in "Bridget Jones."

Q: Did you study voice at all for the film?
RZ: Yeah, we had class. I didn't know how to sing properly. I didn't know how to enunciate. I thought singing was hitting the tunes . . . I didn't understand about the silent breath, the diaphragm. I didn't understand about enunciating and elongating your words, and I didn't know how to breathe properly and how to protect your vocal chords. I didn't know, so I learned. And, I didn't know the songs [laughs], and that's kind of a problem, so I had to become familiar with that. And that was all part of singing class at the Rob Marshall School of "Chicago" in Toronto.

Q: For someone who's virtually never sung, what did the vocal coach do for you?
RZ: We just enjoyed ourselves. We had play time. She enjoyed it so much. It was fun for her to get behind the piano and have a mic and do the thing. So, she taught me, that's all. She helped me warm up, vocal exercises, how to warm your voice up so that you could access it. And, let me tell you, it saved me a week ago in Transylvania. They had this original song, and they decided they wanted to go for it. And I was screaming all week up in fake snow on the Transylvanian mountain top because I get killed, and then I see my dad killed, and I'm screaming up the mountain. I'm screaming at my father down the mountain, and I'm wailing like an animal in the snow being shot. And that doesn't really make for really great singing in Bucharest on a Saturday after work. So I did her exercises all the way down, four hours from where we shot, and it probably saved me because I sounded — I'm well now — I was much worse and had to sing that final song that's in the end credits. Oooh boy, that was something, and without her it would have been quite something. It would have been a very "Bridget Jones" moment.

Q: Since you've not sung before, do you remember what Rob Marshall said was the reason he wanted you for the role — your acting . . .
RZ: He probably told me, but when someone compliments me in that way, the sound of the blood rushing to my face is so, so loud that it blocks everything out, and all I feel or hear is my discomfort, honestly. So when somebody starts saying things like that to me, I don't know how to receive it, and so I kinda go, "uhhhh," and the sound of it is all — and I miss it, [but] I'm sure he did.

Q: Did you get to see the stage musical before filming?
RZ: I haven't seen it. I didn't want to. I didn't want to because I didn't want to have an idea of what it was supposed to be in my head . . . I would like to see it now, I think. As strange it is, I'm such an impostor. I'm an impostor in this world, and I'm an impostor on that stage, and I'm an impostor in the Roxie role because I feel like there's bound to be somebody else who's worked for a really, really long time who deserved to have this beautiful experience that I've had, and I can say that I was blessed with having it because, boy, it was life-enriching in so many ways, and yet I feel covetous of 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: Now that you've done a movie musical, would you consider doing a musical onstage?
RZ: If Rob Marshall is directing it and standing in the wings like my talent-show mom, I'll be there!

IN OTHER DIVA NEWS OF THE WEEK: Clear the decks! Clear the tracks! Though already available to American Express Gold Card members, tickets to the upcoming production of Gypsy — starring two-time Tony Award winner Bernadette Peters — will go on sale to everyone else January 19. Diva lovers will be able to purchase tickets by calling Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or by logging on-line to www.telecharge.com. Gypsy — starring Peters in the demanding role of Rose — will play Broadway's Shubert Theatre on West 44th Street beginning March 31 with an official opening scheduled for May 1. To date, others in the cast include John Dossett as Herbie, Tammy Blanchard as Louise, Kate Reinders as Dainty June, Julie Halston as both Miss Cratchit and Electra, David Burtka as Tulsa and Kate Buddeke as Mazeppa . . . Faith Prince, who just completed a run in Lincoln Center's moving production of A Man of No Importance, will bring her cabaret act, "Leap of Faith," to Cabaret at the Prince, Feb. 5-16. Prince's act features tunes from her same-named DRG release, including "If I Were a Bell," "Adelaide's Lament," "Is It a Crime?" and "Something Wonderful." The Prince Music Theater is located in Philadelphia at 1412 Chestnut Street; call (215) 569-7900 for reservations. Judy Kuhn is next up at the Prince, May 7-18 . . . Tony Award winner Donna McKechnie will get the chance to belt out "I'm Still Here" at this weekend's presentation of Follies in Concert at the Michigan Theater. McKechnie will play Carlotta Campion in the Jan. 4 and 5 concerts at the Michigan theatre, where she will be joined by Harvey Evans (Buddy Plummer), Kurt Peterson (Ben Stone), Marti Rolph (Sally Durant Plummer) and Virginia Sandifur (Phyllis Roger Stone). Brent Wagner directs the production, which also features Peter Bauland (Dimitri Weismann), Wendy Bloom (Stella Deems), Julia Broxholm (Hattie Walker), Marisa H. Dickmeyer (Young Sally), Anne Eisendrath (Young Heidi), Brian Hissong (Young Ben), Brynn O'Malley (Young Sally), Deanna Relyea (Solange La Fitte), Martha Sheil (Heidi Schiller), Ingrid Sheldon (Emily Whitman), George Shirley (Roscoe), Toni Trucks (Margie), Malcolm Tulip (Theodore Whitman) and Paul Wyatt (Young Buddy). Tickets for Follies in Concert are priced between $25 and $45 and are available by calling the League Ticket Office at (734) 764-2538 or (800) 221-1229. For more information, go to www.michtheater.com . . . And, finally, in an interview for the Fynsworth Alley website (www.fynsworthalley.com), Tony Award winner Betty Buckley tells writer Robbie Rozelle about the possibility of an upcoming Carrie concert. Says Ms. B, "Well, I hope so. Seth [Rudetsky] has this vision, and I hope that he can pull it off. The [composers] have been reticent about letting it be done again because the reviews were so savage. Although we had just as many good reviews as we did bad, it’s just the bad were really, really bad . . . I think their score is just outstanding, extremely operatic. I think it was just a mismatch of director and material. Although Terry Hands is a very talented guy, he just didn’t get the Americana aspect of the thing that the guys had hoped for. It’s just a thrilling score, and I’m very proud of the work we did."

VCR Alert: The sixth season of "Oz" — the acclaimed jailhouse series — premieres this Sunday, Jan. 5 at 9 PM ET on HBO. The final season of the gritty series will feature performances from several Tony Award winners. In addition to Rita Moreno and B.D. Wong, who are series regulars, the sixth season will boast Tony winners Betty Buckley, who returns to her role as Suzanne Fitzgerald, an inmate's mother; Patti LuPone, who will play an archivist in the prison library; Phyllis Newman, who portrays a U.S. Senator in the final episode; and Joel Grey, who will appear as one of the Oz inmates.

REMINDERS Betty Buckley in Concert:

May 31, 2003 at Benaroya Hall in Seattle, WA

Liz Callaway in Concert:

Jan. 4-6, 2003 The Songs of Frank Loesser at the 92nd Street Y in New York, NY
Feb. 14-15 Stephen Schwartz and Friends at the Edison Theatre at Washington University in St. Louis, MO
Feb. 3 at the Wintergarden in the NYC World Financial Center in New York, NY
May 16 Broadway Showstoppers in Philadelphia, PA

Barbara Cook in Concert:

Jan. 31, 2003 at the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts in Long Island, NY
Feb. 14-16 at the Byham Theater in Pittsburgh, PA

Linda Eder in Concert:

Jan. 3 and 4, 2003 with the Baltimore Symphony in Baltimore, MD
Jan. 25 at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, CT
Jan. 30 at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza in Thousand Oaks, CA
Feb. 1 at the Vilar Center for the Arts in Beaver Creek, CO
Feb. 14 at the Proctor's Theatre in Albany, NY

Patti LuPone in Concert

Jan. 8-12, 2003 at the Mohegan Sun Cabaret in Uncasville, CT March 27 at the East County Performing Arts Center in Cajon, CA ("Matters of the Heart")
March 28-29 at the McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert, CA ("Matters of the Heart")
March 30 at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, NV ("Matters of the Heart")
April 5 at the State Theater in New Brunswick, NJ ("Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda")

Maureen McGovern in Concert

Jan. 30-Feb. 2 at Orchestra Hall with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in Detroit , MI
Feb. 7-9 at the San Diego Museum of Art in San Diego, CA
Feb. 14-16 at the Marcus Center with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Milwaukee, WI
March 4-15 at Feinstein's at the Regency in New York City
April 12-13 at Center Stage—Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael, CA
April 14-19 at Founder's Hall, Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, CA
May 30 - 31 at the Palmer Events Center with the Austin Symphony Orchestra in Austin, TX
June 7 at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, MN

Well, that’s all for now. Happy diva-watching!