The comedic delight that is Mary Testa — most recently seen as General Cartwright in the Broadway revival of Guys & Dolls and as a muse in the surprise critical hit Xanadu — is about to make her return to the New York stage in a limited run of the new musical I'll Be Damned, which will play Off-Broadway's Vineyard July 1-18. Produced by Jaradoa Theater, the Rob Broadhurst and Brent Black musical also features Kenita Miller, Kurt Robbins, Emily Borromeo, Nick Gelona, Jacob Hoffman, Alison Luff, Anthony Martinez, Tiffany Topol, Gregory Treco, Daryl Ray Carliles, Stephanie Martinez and Valerie Salgado. Not only a thrilling singer, with a huge Broadway belt, Testa is also a stirring (and Obie-winning) actress, who was Tony-nominated for her work in the revivals of On the Town and 42nd Street. Earlier this week I had the chance to chat with the good-spirited Testa, who spoke about her latest theatrical endeavor as well as her solo concerts and her hope to return to Broadway; that brief interview follows:
Question: How did you get involved with I'll Be Damned?
Testa: Anika Larsen – who I did Xanadu with – it's her theatre company, and she asked me several months ago if I would consider playing the mother in this new musical. And I told her, "Well, if I don't have a job" — cause this is actually a showcase [Laughs] — "If I don't have anything, sure." I always like to keep working, and I didn't have anything, and here we are!
Question: Tell me a little about the show and the character you're playing.
Testa: The show is about a boy who is home-schooled and kind of kept sheltered. I play the mother of this boy. He has no friends because she's kept him sheltered and just to herself, so she's a flawed character, obviously. He sells his soul to the devil to make friends, to find a friend, and the friend he ends up finding is the devil. [Laughs.] So it's a little heightened-reality kind of show. My character is a mother who has never really had a fulfilling experience in love, so she has him apparently from a sperm bank. She is a flawed person who was not dealt with well by her family, her parents, so she tries to create this wonderful world with just the two of them, and at the end of the show sort of sees the errors of her ways of trying to keep him. It's kind of about trying to control love.
Question: You mentioned she's a flawed character. Are those more fun to play as an actor?
Testa: Oh, of course. I mean, pretty much every character's flawed in some way because every person is flawed in some way — if you want to look at it that way. She tries to create this wonderful world for him, and he has this wonderful imagination and creates a comic book all on his own. The kid who plays him is named Jacob Hoffman. I've never met him before. He's really wonderful. So, because she's sort of passed that to him, he has a wonderful imagination as well. So she's a fun character, but also, obviously, a broken character in a way.
Question: What's the score like?
Testa: Very good. The music is very good. It's a lot of different styles. These guys were students of Bill Finn, who's an old friend of mine, so there are moments when I really hear Bill's voice through them. But they're talented kids. . . . Because of time constraints, I don't think they're really able to change a lot of things . . . [but] hopefully they'll get to work on it more at another point. Question: I know the tagline for the show in the press notes is, "Is there a way to make people like you without having to sell your soul to the devil?" What are your thoughts about that?
Testa: [Laughs.] The blessed thing about getting older is you don't really care whether people like you or not. You kind of have to drop that. I don't know, really, how to respond to that, except I think what's much more interesting [is] the theme about how you control things rather than let things happen. I think that's way more interesting to me, and I think that's one of the themes of the show – there are some things you cannot control. You have to just open up and let stuff happen, and I like that better. [Laughs.]
Question: This show reunites you with Kenita Miller, who was also in Xanadu.
Testa: Who I adore, yes.
Question: Was that show as much fun to do as it was to watch?
Testa: Xanadu? Oh, it was great fun. I still miss it, actually, and I still run into people who miss it. I was at the Public Theater yesterday seeing Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which is wonderful, and I was standing in line picking up my tickets and this woman ran up to me and she said, "You're Mary Testa, aren't you?" And I said, "Yes." She said, "I saw Xanadu thee times. I loved that show!" Now, Xanadu's been closed for quite a while, you know, but I still get people [who are fans]. Apparently, she spotted me at Starbucks, which is on the corner of 8th Street and Lafayette, and I had a little walk to go before I got to the Public, and she followed me. She was going there anyway, but she thought, "Oh, my God! I gotta tell her about Xanadu. I loved it so much." So people really enjoyed it, and it was a blast to do.
Question: The show you're doing now is being presented Off-Broadway. Is there a difference for you in doing a show on Broadway or Off-Broadway?
Testa: No, not really. It's just the pay! [Laughs.] It's been very challenging lately, I must say. I know I'm not the only one, but it's been very challenging in this business lately, because there's really not a whole lot going on. There [is] for some people, but for me and quite a few other people I know, there's nothing going on. And, it's challenging to be an adult and worry, now, about money. I mean, it's challenging at any age, but somehow, when you're younger, you sort of put blinders on and you kind of go, "Oh, whatever! I'll get a waitressing job and stuff like that." But it's a very challenging time right now. Broadway is a nice compensation at times; at least you make a fairly decent living. It's always exciting to work on new musicals and it's always wonderful, but working for free is really a drag. Personally, all I've been doing is benefits and working for free for what seems like months and months now. So while I'm grateful to have an opportunity, I do wish another Broadway show would come along so that I would have a paycheck.
Question: Why do you think things have gotten a bit more difficult? Do you think it's the economy?
Testa: I guess it's the economy, and also, what I'm seeing lately is projects that are just really young. It's all about really young [people]. I mean, I'm really not sure what's going on. You know, I've had times where I've been unemployed and stuff, but I'm just a little fearful lately about the future. I hope something happens in the fall...
Question: What's happening with your one-woman show, The Sleepless Variations?
Testa: Well, we did it last year at Cape May Stage, and it was very, very successful as a concert version. And we are going back this year, July 12, and Michael [Starobin] and I have put together an entirely new show, which we're very excited about. So we're doing a brand-new show July 12 at Cape May Stage, and then I guess we'll try and do it in the city. I'm not sure. The Sleepless show, I'm not sure what's going to happen, because we worked on it for a long time. It seemed to me that the concert version was the most successful incarnation of it, and now Michael and I have two complete shows. So we just have to book 'em somewhere and do them. My problem is, though, I cannot put together, and nor can Michael – Michael and I have worked together for years, and we're very good at working together – we cannot seem to put together a really commercial show. [Laughs.] Our shows are always really left of center, with a lot of material people don't know and new stuff and concepts that are not your usual "cabaret acts," 'cause we're not really into that. Jason Graae is a dear friend of mine, and I was talking to him yesterday, and he was like, "Can you please put a show together that has standards in it?" [Laughs.] And I was just like, "I just can't! I just seem to not [be able] to. It doesn't call to me." But we are doing the brand-new show July 12, and I'm excited about it. It's kind of wonderful, actually.
Question: What is the theme of the new show?
Testa: Well, the themes of the show are philosophies of life and classics in all varying categories. We do a couple of numbers about Chekhov. We do some Shakespeare sonnets that are set to music; Michael actually set one to music that's absolutely gorgeous. And classic characters, as far as classic stock characters – I'm going to do "Change," actually, from New Brain, so that's one thing that people have heard. So it's kind of about that, about how the classics sort of bleed into all areas of life and how you should really look at life in a certain kind of way. You shouldn't take things too seriously, and you should count the fact that you have friends. My opening song is a song called "O Lucky Man!," which is from a movie from the 70's called "O Lucky Man!," a Lindsay Anderson movie. It's an Alan Price song, and I don't think a lot of people know it, so it's basically life philosophy. So that's what the new show is, and I think it's going to be very good, actually. I'm excited about it.
Question: You mentioned Bill Finn before. When did you two start working together? How did you meet?
Testa: We met when I was in college, actually. I was 19 when I met Bill. I was at the University of Rhode Island, and we were doing a ten-show season. I was doing a production of Antigone where I was in the chorus, and we had to sort of sing, and I wasn't intending to go into musical theatre. I was just going to be a straight actor, but I happened to make some sounds. And we were doing one of Bill's shows. He had graduated from Williams College, and they were going to do one of his musicals. It was called Scrambled Eggs. And, the head of the department said, "Who do you want in your show?" And he said, "I want that girl." So that's how I met him. And then, when I moved to New York in 1976, he called me and Alison Fraser and a woman named Kate Pessek, and we started singing together — that's how In Trousers came about.
[For tickets to I'll Be Damned, phone (212) 868-4444 or visit Smarttix.com. The Vineyard Theatre is located at 108 East 15th Street in Manhattan.]
I received a great note this week from Tony winner Donna McKechnie, who is currently rhapsodizing Australian audiences with her acclaimed solo show My Musical Comedy Life — directed by Richard Jay-Alexander — at various venues in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney. The Tony-winning A Chorus Line star allowed me to share her joy with the readers of this column. Wrote McKechnie: "This is one of those times in one's life when you realize in the moment that this will stand as one of the great experiences in your life, without having to reflect on it two years later and discovering it then. Without a doubt it has to do with Richard Jay-Alexander putting all of this in motion last September when he had dinner with David Campbell and his wife Lisa at the Lobster Joint near his apartment. Months later it was all in place from the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, to Melbourne, then to Sydney. It has been nothing short of a whirlwind. I don't think I had time to even have jet-lag! I performed in the Gala as I stepped off the plane it seems (my first time spending a day on a plane). Then a new musical director, Australian Matthew Carey, was a blessing to learn a complicated show in two days, then rehearse two other musicians the day before my three shows. It was exhilarating for me to feel so embraced by that community in Adelaide. Along with David and Lisa, Heather Muirhead was a brilliant producer. Then on to Melbourne the next day, rehearse, open that night, so tired, but the positive energy of the audience lifted me off the ground, and I had a great time on stage and off, meeting fabulous people. Cell phone pictures were all over Facebook that night!
"The next day, Sydney, where I am now. Wow, what a city, what wonderful people! Matthew rehearses new musicians tomorrow, and we open Thursday night. I can hardly wait! Richard Jay told me what I could expect, but you really don't know until you experience it yourself. I am so happy and grateful and I could not have done it without his guidance. Maybe the only thing missing is that idle dream of meeting a handsome rancher from the Outback and being swept off my feet like Anne Baxter as told in her book 'Intermission.' But not to worry, I'll be back. Maybe next year."
McKechnie has also been scoring raves from the critics; in fact, the The Independent Weekly stated, "Revelling in the anecdote, the song and the movement, she brings a little bit of New York to Adelaide and a whole host of stars onto the stage with her. The best dancer to ever grace the Broadway stage still has the moves and she ain't afraid to use 'em." Let's hope McKechnie brings her revised Life back to Manhattan!
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.