DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Chicago and "Office" Star Melora Hardin

News   DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Chicago and "Office" Star Melora Hardin
 
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Melora Hardin
Melora Hardin

MELORA HARDIN
Those familiar with the Emmy-winning NBC series "The Office" know that actress Melora Hardin, who made her Broadway debut in 2009 as Roxie Hart in the long-running, Tony-winning revival of Chicago, can sing; in fact, her wholly inappropriate rendition of "Son Of a Preacher Man" was humorously featured in an episode of that situation comedy. However, just how well Hardin sings was not apparent in the aforementioned episode: To completely enjoy all aspects of her voice, you will have to check out Hardin's newest solo recording, "All the Way to Mars," which arrives on the LML Records label Feb. 9. Hardin can belt — she offers impressive takes on Andrew Lippa's "Raise the Roof" and the Les Miserables heartbreaker "I Dreamed a Dream" — but it is actually the middle part of her chest voice that is the most beautiful, with its rounded, silky, vibrato-filled tones. Just take a listen to her gorgeous rendition of the Burt Bacharach-Hal David classic "Close to You," which was made famous by the Carpenters. Hardin is also a songwriter, who specializes in somewhat naughty double entendre: Her delivery of "A Boy and His Cat" is particularly wonderful. Other highlights of the forthcoming disc include the rarely heard Laura Nyro ballad "I Never Meant To Hurt You," Bernard Ighner's touching "Everything Must Change" and the Chicago showstopper, "Roxie." The 16-track recording, which was produced by director Richard Jay-Alexander and musical director Ben Toth, concludes with a new Christmas song penned by Toth and Nell Benjamin, "Come with Me For Christmas."

I recently had the chance to speak with Hardin about her new recording, which is currently available for pre-order on Amazon.com; that interview follows:

Question: Before we get to the CD, I wanted to go back to your run in Chicago, which was your Broadway debut. How did it live up to your expectations? What was the experience like?
Hardin: Well, you mean just that it was a dream come true? [Laughs.] It was amazing. I was in complete heaven. I've been dancing all my life and studied at Joffrey Ballet when I was 13 and singing all my life. For me to get up eight times a week and do those three things that I love so much — singing, acting and dancing — I was just completely in heaven. I really was. I was sad to be done.

Melora Hardin as Chicago's Roxie Hart
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Did it make you want to do more theatre?
Hardin: It made me definitely want to get back immediately. That's part of why I'm here, to meet with people and talk with them about what's happening and what's going on and what's coming up. It was so satisfying and such a good place for me. It felt so right and so natural. It just felt so good. I loved it so much that [when] I got food poisoning, I literally called the stage manager and said, "If I can do this without fainting or vomiting on the audience, I'm gonna do the show tonight!" [Laughs.] So I did the show that night. It wasn't that pleasant for me, but I think the audience still really enjoyed it. That's how much I loved it! [Laughs.] Question: How did you find doing eight shows a week?
Hardin: I loved it. I was only there for ten weeks. That's part of why I didn't want to miss even one show. I really liked getting up and dancing every night and singing every night and acting every night. Just working those muscles felt good to me. When you really look at it, beyond the rehearsal period, it's basically two hours out of your day. It's the best two hours out of my day that I spent. And, some of those two hours you get an audience that's over the moon about what you're doing. Other times you get an audience that can't speak any English, so they're just looking at you with their mouth agape. Even the ones looking at you with their mouth agape are still at the stage door wanting your autograph because they had such a good time. Though they miss the subtleties, they don't miss the fun of the show. I think that even if you're not having a great time, I felt a strong responsibility to always give 150 percent because I felt like you never know whose life out there you're changing. You never know who you're making laugh that needed to laugh or who you're making cry that needed to cry or who you're making go home and be all hot about their partner because of the show. [Laughs.] I felt a great responsibility about that, and I felt like I never wanted to give anything less than I had to give.

Melora Hardin as Jan Levinson on "The Office"
photo by © NBC

Question: When we first spoke while you were in Chicago, I have to admit that I had never seen an episode of "The Office." But now that it's in syndication I'm a bit obsessed. Will Jan be returning to the show?
Hardin: As of this season, I stopped being a regular. But I definitely will be back. I hear I'll be back. I'm seeing the exec producer next week. We're having lunch next week to catch up and stuff. I get that on my Twitter account all the time - "When's Jan coming back? I miss Jan." I'll have to tell him that I'm getting so many Twitter questions, I need an answer. I need him to tell me something. Will I or won't I, so I can let people know. Question: What's it like on the set of the show?
Hardin: Everybody's kind of doing their own thing. I would say that everyone gets along really well, really good professional relationships. It's pretty calm actually. It's a very relaxed set. There's really not any screamers. Everybody's just pretty mellow — definitely a lot of laughter about what we're doing. We always laugh when we're working and when we're doing scenes. There's one scene in the dinner party where Jenna [Fischer] and I literally could not stop laughing. We had to just keep going and going. I don't know how many takes we did before we could finally stop cracking up.

Question: Is there much improv?
Hardin: Yeah. It's definitely 100 percent written but it's also… Brian Baumgartner once said it's 90 percent improvised and 90 percent written. I feel like that's kind of true because we always do it the way it's written, but we also always kind of play. So we do it the way it's written, and then we sort of say, "Okay now let's just do a crazy one." We also have a thing called the candy bag where you can kind of draw from the candy bag that has ideas from the writers of things you could do or where you could go. It's a little bit of both, I'd say.

Question: How did it come about that you would sing "Son of a Preacher Man" to the baby on the show?
Hardin: I did Les Miz at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. Mindy Kaling heard that I was doing that and she's like, "We've got to write something for Melora to sing!" So she wrote that basically for me hoping I would do something outrageous which, of course, I did. [Laughs.] It was just so ridiculously over the top. I tried to do a little Celine Dion and a little Mariah Carey.

Question: Getting to the new CD, how did it come about?
Hardin: Richard Jay-Alexander and I had created an act, which we did at the Catalina Jazz Club in Los Angeles. Everyone really liked it, and we really liked it and we really liked working together. I think we had kind of always said, "Yeah, we should make a record together one of these days." I'm friends with Clint Eastwood — I did a movie with him, "Absolute Power." Clint had requested that I sing at this place where he was getting honored, the Thalians Ball, so I went and I sang. I have these two different CDs which I've made which are all my original songs. They're kind of a different time of me. The last CD was over ten years ago. Richard was like, "That is not you anymore. I don't mind that being part of your history. I think it's great, but I want people to know what you're like as a singer now because you're much more multi-faceted. There's so much more to you and to your voice." He didn't want me to have to give [those first two CDs] to Clint, I guess, [laughs] even though I think Clint has a pretty open musical mind being a musician himself. In any case, Richard said, "Okay, it's time. We gotta make the record." It was such a joy. Richard and I collaborate really, really well together, and my musical director Ben Toth is wonderful. He did all the arrangements. It really was sort of like we walked in for three days… we did everything live. The musicians and I walked in together. We recorded 17 songs in three days, and we walked out. It's not Pro Tooled — we did maybe two fixes on the whole record. It's a live experience, and it really is what we did in the room. It's got an honest, raw feeling to it in that regard, and I'm really proud of that. What you hear there is what you're gonna hear when you see me live.

Question: A few of the songs are songs that you've written. Tell me a bit about your songwriting process.
Hardin: I've been writing songs all my life. My mom said I wrote my first song when I was two. [Laughs.] I really write a lot. I do a thing where I tend to listen a lot and then I write a lot, and then I listen a lot. I don't write all year round. I kind of do writing spurts. I love to write when I'm driving in Los Angeles. It's a big driving town. When I'm driving alone or when my kids have fallen asleep in the back on a long road trip, I tend to write a lot. One of the songs on the record, called "Fading Away," I wrote on a long road trip from Mill Valley, California, to Los Angeles.

Question: Do you keep a tape recorder with you in the car?
Hardin: I do. I have a tape recorder, and I just sing into it. I like to write that way. Sometimes I'll just get melodic ideas, and then I'll go home and sit down and add the lyrics. Or sometimes I'll get a lyric idea that I love. Usually it's pretty combined. Usually I get some kind of a lyrical concept and a melody and work with that.

Question: Who would you say are your musical influences?
Hardin: I have such incredibly eclectic taste. I would say I grew up listening a lot to Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland and Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell. I grew up listening to those because my parents were kind of into folk music. My mom could tell that I was going to be a singer very young, so she really introduced me to the singer-actor types like Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand. Those were my early influences. As time went on, I discovered Fleetwood Mac and the Beatles and all the rock stuff. I still have an incredibly eclectic group [that I listen to] — I have classical music, and I have lots of Doris Day and Julie London and Nat King Cole. I have all the very pop people like Shawn Colvin and Tori Amos. One of my best friends, Paula Cole, wrote a song on the record — I've got all of her records. Even before we became friends, I had all her records. I like lots of really cool bands. As a writer, I think I've definitely looked at Cole Porter a lot and studied it. I love that style of writing, and I love that time of writing, and I do write some songs that are in that vein. I think Alanis Morissette's really cool, I think Mary J. Blige is great. It's all over the map. It's not all that focused, and then I love Broadway stuff. The first time I saw Les Miz on Broadway, in the early '80s I guess, I really sat on the edge of my seat and said, "I want to do that!" I wanted to sing "I Dreamed a Dream," I wanted to play Fantine, and then I got to do it at the Hollywood Bowl. That was pretty amazing. I think that opened up a whole bunch of incredible musical theatre songs. I love the song "Once You Lose Your Heart" from Me and My Girl and "I Feel Pretty" from West Side Story. There are just all of these incredible songs that you can sing, and it's a whole different kind of experience because they're so theatrical.

Question: Tell me about the title of the CD, "All the Way to Mars."
Hardin: That comes from one of my original songs on the record, which is called "Ride Your Rocket." In the song I say, "I wanna ride your rocket all the way to Mars." [Laughs.] It's funny and kind of tongue-in-cheek. Richard basically said it was perfect for the record. He writes in his liner notes that he feels like the record is a culmination of everything that I've been doing in the last year and a half musically, which has been a big rocket ride in the sense that I debuted on Broadway and I've been writing songs. Before I debuted on Broadway, we did my singing act and then we did Les Miz and then I did Chicago and then sang at the Thalians Ball… all these things musically that have been crystallizing in the last year and a half for me. Question: Is there a chance of bringing your act to New York?
Hardin: Definitely. I'd love to do Joe's Pub. We do have plans for that. It's just a matter of finding a break in my acting schedule to be able to commit a full week-and-a-half here in New York, where I can say that no matter what comes up — even a Robert De Niro movie or a Martin Scorsese movie or whatever — I'm gonna have to be doing this act. That's the hard part, but we're gonna find a time for that.

Question: What other projects do you have on your plate?
Hardin: I just did a movie called "Knucklehead," which is a family comedy. I think it's really cute with one of the big wrestling stars, Big Show. He's a big WWE star. I think it's a really sweet film, and it comes out in April. The record comes out Feb. 9, and people can pre-order it now on Amazon. . . .My husband and I made a movie together, "You." [Visit youthefilm.com] It's pretty neat because we made it with our own money. He wrote it, I directed it, we both starred in it, and our family's in it. . . .We've been screening it, going to different cities in the country and screening it to really great response. That was exciting. We're kind of gathering together our next project. He and I are collaboratively working on what that's going to be and hopefully we'll be able to film that in 2011.

For more information visit melora.com.

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

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