DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Little Mermaid's Faith Prince Plus More Kander/Ebb Memories

News   DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Little Mermaid's Faith Prince Plus More Kander/Ebb Memories
 
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Faith Prince
Faith Prince

FAITH PRINCE
Last season, Guys and Dolls Tony Award winner Faith Prince offered what might have been her most powerful stage performance to date. Cast as a severely unhappy 1950s Bronx housewife who pins her hopes on a lavish wedding ceremony for her daughter, Prince was sarcastic, comedic and supremely moving in Harvey Fierstein and John Bucchino's short-lived A Catered Affair. One of the most affecting moments in that show featured Prince, alone on stage, letting out a life's worth of frustrations in a lengthy sob. It pierced the heart and reminded audiences how gifted a performer the singing actress is. Now, one of our Broadway treasures is back onstage in a wholly different role, playing the evil sea witch Ursula in the newest Disney offering, The Little Mermaid. Prince gets the chance to belt out such Alan Menken tunes as "I Want the Good Times Back" and the show-stopping "Poor Unfortunate Souls" in the musical at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, and she recently spoke with me about her latest Broadway outing; that interview follows.

Question: Is your family here in New York with you?
Faith Prince: We're going back and forth for awhile. We'll always have a place out [on the West Coast], but my son's going go to school here next year.

Question: How old is he now?
Prince: He's almost 14. The time has just flown by.

Question: What's it like being mom to a teenager?
Prince: Oh, lovely. Somebody said, "Isn't it a horror?" and I went, "No, I'm sorry. It's not." [Laughs.] He's my favorite person besides my husband to hang out with. He's a love, I have to say. I really got a good one.

Question: Does he perform at all?
Prince: He's a great musician. I always told him when he was little and I tell him this now, he's Harry Potter. He's a wizard and doesn't know it yet. He's got all the comic timing and dry sense of humor, but a lot of performers' children don't act because the parent does. I wouldn't be surprised if, in his late-20s, he went into it. He's a very good student, so I told him, "Keep all your options open!" [Laughs.] Question: Now getting to Mermaid, how did this role come about?
Prince: You know what? Honestly, my agent . . . he is the one who, when he saw it, he thought, "You know what? Faith would be an interesting Ursula." [Laughs.] He's the one who put the bug in my ear and went, "Hey, what would you think?"

Question: What was your first thought when he said that?
Prince: Luscious. I had never played a villain like that before. I had played a couple of murderers on television shows. The first one, and I'm dating myself, was "Remington Steele," and then I played this woman on "Monk." When my mother watched it, she said, "Oh, my God, I wouldn't have known you were my child," and I said, "Well, mother, that's the point." I killed my husband in a bathtub. I threw a radio in the bathtub. So I had played murderers before, but it's so much fun being a villain, I have to say. It's really a blast.

Question: What was the rehearsal process like? I know that sometimes, when you step into a role, you don't get as much time as one might like.
Prince: Well, it is different. There's no way around that. I've done it a couple of times. I stepped into King and I for Donna Murphy. I went into The Dead after Blair Brown, and I went into Little Shop after Ellen Greene. I've done this a few times. I don't know if it's because I'm sort of an analytical person in a way, which most people wouldn't think about me, but I just look [at it like], "This is the game. This is the chess game." This is what you have to accomplish. In this case, I've never experienced anything more technical. You always want to contribute something, otherwise why would you take on a role? And, you also don't want to reinvent the wheel. When you do a new production of something, whoever that person is [who is] starting it, they've really sort of excavated the ground, I like to say. You can put your curtains in and your carpeting, but the structure is really there at the beginning. You can't go beyond that, but you can try to contribute within that. If I could write about that process, it might help other people just understand it and see if it's something they'd ever want to do. I find it thrilling, but I'll tell you that first night was like, "Whew!" Those tentacles and the weight of them and maneuvering them along with singing is really quite something.

Faith Prince in The Little Mermaid
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: How long does it take you to get in and out of that costume and makeup?
Prince: From beginning to when I actually enter the stage, it's about an hour and 22 minutes. Question: Do you find that as you're putting on your make-up that it gets you into character?
Prince: I have my make-up done, which I've had before. When I started out at Cincinnati Conservatory a few years ago, make-up was a part of your craft. But there are times where you really need a make-up artist for consistency and just for relaxation, because it is a lot of make-up. I think certain productions provide that. I actually had it in King and I, I had it in Bells Are Ringing, I had it in Little Me, so I've had it in a few productions. But [in Mermaid] it's quite the art. Tiffany, who does the make-up over there, is just magnificent, and Angelina Avallone, who designed it — that, with the hair, is quite extraordinary. So I just use it as my Zen-out time to breathe. It's a beautiful thing. Hey look, I'm a lucky girl. But sometimes I get strapped into that pod and I go, "Well, it's a living!" [Laughs.]

Question: What did you think the first time you had the make-up and the costume on and you looked in the mirror?
Prince: Honestly, I really thought my face was suited to that kind of thing. [Laughs.] I have a very "theatre" face. I have what they call a wide mask. I probably would have been a big film star in the '20s with the silent films where they used a lot of key lighting, and make-up carved out your face. That's why I've always loved the theatre, because you're not hard-pressed to see what I'm thinking in the back row. I just have that kind of face. This is really a unique kind of feeling. It has a bit of opera in it. Sometimes out there with that cape, I feel sort of what Renée Fleming must feel like. It has that flair to it. I feel like a diva in the opera. Not that I've ever experienced it, but I've certainly seen it. It's really exciting. It's another chapter.

Question: How would you describe Ursula?
Prince: Oh, let's see. I had a few suggestions for her: girl gone bad, misunderstood, bipolar, off-medication. Evil is an interesting thing. It's never just evil — it's always complex. And, usually they're the people you want to be in the room with, quite charismatic. What I love about her is [that] she changes nightly. Something that she would have screamed at somebody about, she finds hysterical and the opposite happens. That's what's luscious about the character.

Question: Do you have a favorite moment for her yet?
Prince: Actually, honestly, I love the demise scene when she dies. I think she's hit her sort of maniacal state. I have to say, that's not something — I don't think people, when Faith Prince comes to mind — I'm not sure that would come to mind. It's really fun to go there. You know what I'm saying? [Laughs maniacally.] You're out of your mind in front of people, and then you die.

Question: How vocally demanding is the part? There's quite a bit of singing.
Prince: It is. In fact, we've been tweaking. What I've tried to do is get the speaking and singing in the same range. She's quite a bit lower than I am, and I wanted that because I want to be able to scream something. I find, for my voice, if I have to place it somewhere for singing, the voice doesn't like that huge flip. I've kept it in the lower range just so I can really go all over the place as far as dynamics.

Faith Prince in A Catered Affair
photo by Jim Cox

Question: This role is so different from your last Broadway outing in A Catered Affair.
Prince: [Laughs.] I don't think you'd find any of the same woman, which I love. That's why I got into this. Question: That's what I was wondering. Do you like that kind of change?
Prince: Of course. And that's why you can't compare it to anything else. Catered Affair was its own entity, and I've always been like that. I'm a person that really loves diversity. Probably one of the reasons I chose it is because it was so different from Catered Affair. I love it when people think, "Oh, is that who she is now?" No, honey. It's like when I did Adelaide, they'd go, "Do that Adelaide thing," and I'd go, "Well, that Adelaide thing is Adelaide. That person's gone." [Laughs.]

Question: Speaking of Adelaide, is it strange to you that Guys and Dolls is back on Broadway already?
Prince: You know, it isn't. I don't know why, for some people, that's been hard for them to accept. Gypsy's been done, I think, three times since Guys and Dolls. I say to people, "Look, La Boheme is done all the time, all over the place." You kind of have to think of musical theatre — that's our contribution to the world, like opera was from Europe. It's funny, [director] Francesca [Zambello] and I had this discussion the other night. She said, "I don't want to do any revivals right now. I only want to do new works." I said, "You know what, that's great because we need that. But we also need our classics done well." I haven't been able to get over there to see it, but I think it's grand. I remember when Little Shop came out again and everybody said, "Hey, are you gonna be Audrey again?" and I said, "Honey, I don't think you revive the revivals you've already revived!" [Laughs.] You move on and do something different, and I think the planet is big enough for all of us.

Question: Do you have any other projects in the works?
Prince: What this has allowed me to do is to really set up some new things. I just did a new act in Palm Beach. I sing every year at the Royal Room for two weeks. I usually try out some new material down there, because they know me and they have me back every year. I did that right before I came, and then right after that I went to Orlando and sang with the Orlando Philharmonic. We did a concert version of Sweeney Todd. It was me and Davis Gaines.

Question: How was playing that role?
Prince: Oh, my God! What a great role. I just had a field day. I feel like — just this year, 2009 — I've been given the most outrageously delicious things to do. Catered Affair was 360 [degrees] delicious in another way. I've never experienced anything like it. It was like doing Death of a Salesman, just completely different.

Question: I really thought you were so powerful.
Prince: Thank you. It was wonderful to do, and I love things like that. My thing is, I have so many things I love to do.… I did a reading of a brand-new play the other day that this young playwright Aaron Mark wrote. He's 22, and it was brilliant. It was amazing how depthful — it's about suicide, but [it's amazing] how much he knew. The roles — three of us played three different roles throughout the evening. It was three vignettes. Just diving into something like that. Sometimes going to a space like Ursula that's an outrageous, bigger-than-life character allows you the space to go in and do something dramatic and funny-in-a-bizarre-way and dark. As I say in my act, most actresses just want to be young, young. It's all about youth. All I kept thinking was that I can't wait to be the age I am now, to play such different women. Question: To really get to meatier stuff.
Prince: You got it. I feel like I'm just getting started.

Question: So tell me a little bit about the new act. What songs are you doing?
Prince: Down there, because they've known me awhile, I actually did a lot about my trip to London. I sang with the English National Opera. We did Kismet, and it was very funny. It was during the Iraq War, and one of my lines, I kept saying, "For those of you who don't know Kismet, think of 'Arabian Nights' seen through the eyes of Henny Youngman." ...For some reason they had put the women in burkhas. Usually it's done like this cheesy 1940s musical. I was playing Lalume. We were on this Germanic set that was sort of something out of Das Rheingold. I was thinking billowing curtains and cushions to lie down on. It's all about sex, you know? [Laughs.] It just was gone awry. All I could think of was here I am, the only American, during the Iraq war, in the middle of London, singing, "Baghdad! Don't underestimate Baghdad!" It was quite hysterical. That was probably a fourth of my act. I did a couple of numbers from Kismet and told these stories about arriving in London. It was very funny, and then I did a couple of numbers as Ursula and Mrs. Lovett. We just did so many different things. That's why I love an act, because you can go all over the place. I told my Liza [Minnelli] stories, meeting Liza and her being my first role model growing up and getting to meet her and being with her at the Helen Hayes. I kind of did a whole Liza section, which most people don't know about.

Question: Would you ever think of developing the show to do it here?
Prince: Definitely. I started out doing my first one, Leap of Faith, at Joe's Pub. That's the one I recorded. We're due to do it again. I've done three [shows] since then. I've taken them to Australia and all over the place.

Question: How long will you stay with Mermaid?
Prince: I'm contracted for a year. That will allow me to do a lot of other things: develop projects, read a play… Terrence [McNally], I did his project [Unusual Acts of Devotion ] in Philly, and I loved that play. They're going to do it again out in La Jolla.

Question: How is the play?
Prince: I loved it. It's beautiful. I think it's one of his best works. It's quite something. I was sad to let that go. They took it out to La Jolla. I didn't know when they were going do it again because they had talked about doing it next spring.

Question: It's probably hard with scheduling when you have to give up something.
Prince: You just can't do everything. I'm such a big fan of Terrence. When I was in Carousel down at the Kennedy Center, this was in 1986, he's the one that came up to me and said, "You know what? You can really act." And I was like, "Really?" He was the one that put me in Manhattan Theatre Club, and I did his Bad Habits, and then he wrote Man of No Importance.

Question: I was sorry that show it didn't transfer.
Prince: Me, too. It was a beautiful piece, and I did Andre's Mother for him. When he wrote Unusual Acts, I went to Philly. Richard Thomas and I did that and, I am telling you, I love Richard Thomas so much. He and I have so much chemistry. That was a loss for me to not be able to do it in La Jolla, but you never know. . . . [When] somebody's offering you this delightful part for you to scare children every night, how can you turn that down? [Laughs.]

[The Little Mermaid plays the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, Broadway at 46th Street; visit DisneyOnBroadway.com for ticket information.]

Karen Ziemba

KANDER AND EBB REMEMBERED, PART II
Last week Debra Monk, Terrence McNally and Chita Rivera offered their memories about the famed songwriting team John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, who will be saluted in the Come to the Cabaret: A Celebration of Kander and Ebb, a one-night Broadway concert to benefit The Acting Company. Directed by Tony Award winner John Doyle (Company, Sweeney Todd), with Mary-Mitchell Campbell (Company, The Addams Family) as music director, the May 4 evening will be held at Broadway's Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. The one-night-only event will boast the talents of Monk, McNally and Rivera as well as Raúl Esparza, David Hyde Pierce, Tom Wopat, Karen Ziemba and Liza Minnelli — artists who have been attached to musicals by the creators of Cabaret, The Rink, Kiss of the Spider Woman and Chicago, among others.

This week we feature two more Kander/Ebb memories. . .

Karen Ziemba
"Both John and Fred were instrumental in starting my career. It happened 20 years ago — can you believe it? — with the original And the World Goes 'Round in Montclair, NJ, at Olympia Dukakis' Whole Theatre. The production, with some cast changes, moved on to The Westside Theatre in NYC, and I received my first Drama Desk Award for that performance. However, when you're performing anything Kander and Ebb wrote, you have an 'edge' — their songwriting is that good. I continued to collaborate with them along with colleagues such as Scott Ellis, Susan Stroman, David (Tommy) Thompson, Joe Stein, Walter Bobbie and Annie Reinking on Steel Pier, Curtains, The Skin of Our Teeth and Chicago. I've sung in many tributes over the years for the pair, and try never to miss the opportunity. My first impression of them is the most vivid in my mind. It was my first audition for John and Fred and the creative team of And the World Goes 'Round. I knew them both by name and fame, but not from ever meeting them personally. Well, I never remember being treated with such respect in an audition before. I was treated as an equal, like they actually were glad I showed up. John stood and came from around the table, shook my hand, introduced himself, told me I sang beautifully and proceeded to ask me to sing the song in a higher key. (He was checking for those soprano notes.) Nonetheless, he was a gentleman and took the time to get results by making me feel comfortable and appreciated. Go figure?! Anyway, I still hold them in high regard, not only for their kindness and generosity to those in our profession and those wanting to enter it, but for their amazing work as songwriters. Fred was a gentle poet crossed with a stand-up comedian, and John is still working on one of his and Fred's last collaborations, The Scottsboro Boys. John can still play the piano better than ever...and those melodies...he's awesome!"

David Hyde Pierce
photo by Joan Marcus

David Hyde Pierce
"In Curtains I got to sing the first song Kander wrote both music and lyrics to — 'Coffee Shop Nights.' (The first time I'd heard the song, it was a demo recording of John singing and playing it, and no one will ever do it better.) The first time I sang it, in rehearsal for the workshop, Kander was trying to convey to our music director David Loud what the accompaniment should feel like, and decided to play it himself to demonstrate. So suddenly, there I was, singing Kander's beautiful song, with John himself at the piano, and I thought, 'Somebody kill me now, because life doesn't get better than this.'" [Tickets for Come to the Cabaret are priced $100, $125 and $250 and are available through Telecharge.com or (212) 239-6200. Premium tickets at $500 (performance only) and $1,000 and up (performance plus Patrons Dinner with the cast), are available through The Acting Company at (212) 258-3111.]

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

*

Bea Arthur

This week's column is dedicated to the one and only Bea Arthur, who lost her battle with cancer April 25 at the age of 86. Was there anyone who delivered a one-liner funnier than the singing actress, who won her Tony Award for her performance as the boozy Vera Charles opposite the Mame of Angela Lansbury? Most times a talent like Arthur — also the original Yente (the matchmaker) in the 1964 staging of Fiddler on the Roof — leaves the Broadway stage to pursue a career in television, that loss is lamented. Yet, Bea Arthur went on to portray such memorable characters on screen that we can only be grateful that she was able to share her talent with the world. In fact, Ms. Arthur created two of the more memorable female characters in television history: the women's liberation champion Maude in "Maude" — a character she first played on "All in the Family" — and the divorced substitute teacher Dorothy Zbornak on "The Golden Girls." Whether she was deadpanning "God'll get you for that Walter" or gleefully warning, "Shady Pines, Ma?" Arthur was a force to be reckoned with, one who will be missed greatly.

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