DIVA TALK: Catching up with Sunset Boulevard Star Florence Lacey

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Catching up with Sunset Boulevard Star Florence Lacey
 
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Florence Lacey as Norma Desmond
Florence Lacey as Norma Desmond Photo by Chris Mueller

Florence Lacey, the great singing actress who left an indelible mark on the role of Eva Peron — she was the final artist to play the part in the original Broadway production of Evita and toured the musical around the country and the world to much acclaim — also has a long history with another Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, Sunset Boulevard.

"I've never played the part," Lacey told me during a break from rehearsals of the Signature Theatre production of the musical based on the Billy Wilder film of the same name, "but I auditioned for it when it was originally going to be done in New York and Patti LuPone was still doing it in London. A long time ago," she adds with a laugh. "They did give us the two big songs to learn, so I did learn those songs many, many years ago. It was really kind of coming home again to relearn them for this [production]. I was kind of amazed how much of it stayed [with me] after all those years. When it's a good song, I guess that happens!"

The company of the Tony-winning musical about a screenwriter pulled into the delusions of a faded silent film star, which will play the Signature Dec. 7, 2010-Feb. 13, 2011, will also include D.B. Bonds as scribe Joe Gillis, Susan Derry as love interest and fellow screenwriter Betty Schaefer and Ed Dixon as Norma's "butler" Max von Mayerling. The new production in Signature's 276-seat MAX Theater in Arlington, VA, will be directed by artistic director Eric Schaeffer (Million Dollar Quartet).

It's a reunion for Lacey, whose magnificently rangy alto can be amazingly powerful and strikingly beautiful, and director Schaeffer, who have worked together on numerous occasions over the years, including productions of Ace, Saving Aimee, Nevermore, The Gospel According to Fishman and One Red Flower. "Eric asked me to do this about ten years ago," Lacey says with the warm, infectious, good-natured laugh that infuses most of her conversation. "'I want to do Sunset. I just have to get the rights. I want to do Sunset! I want you to do Sunset!'"

Her association with director Schaeffer, she says, "began with a piece called The Rhythm Club that was supposed to come to New York. That's the only time I ever auditioned for Eric Schaeffer. And my agent said to me, because I don't like to audition, 'You must audition for this young director because he's the next Hal Prince. He's a fabulous director, and you're gonna love him and he's gonna love you!' So I remember coming to one of those studios in New York and singing 'I Belong Here' from The Grand Tour. And I knew instantly that I had the part. We just connected instantly. I just knew that part was supposed to be mine, and ever since then, Eric has asked me, 'Oh, please come do this for me. Please come do that for me.' And I can't say no because I just so love working with him. He's just a dream. "He makes it fun," she continues. "Even when it's extremely serious, he finds a way to make it fun. We get to the serious place and work on the emotions, but it never feels angst-ridden. He always makes me feel confident."

Schaeffer is equally effusive about his star. "Flo just is amazing in the role, as you can imagine," Schaeffer, who caught Glenn Close's Broadway Norma Desmond, says. "I mean, she just is absolutely breathtaking, so it's really, really exciting to have her do it because this is the first time you actually can hear the entire score sung the way it was written, because she can hit every single note that he ever wrote, which is really, really exciting…. I mean, we were lighting yesterday 'As If We Never Said Goodbye' with Howell Binkley, and then afterwards he looked over at me and he was like, 'Holy s*it, Eric! That's amazing!' I was like, 'Yeah, it [really] is!'"

Florence Lacey at the 1998 opening of An Evening with Jerry Herman.

Lacey, who saw Tony winner Betty Buckley play the role of Norma Desmond on Broadway and Petula Clark on the road, said she remembers thinking at the time, "Oh! That's just a role I know I could chew up the scenery with and have such a good time playing.

"I knew it would be fun, but it's also very difficult. Also, on a serious note," she adds, "it really is a very challenging, emotional place to play. Vocally, it still really suits me, even though I am of a certain age. [Laughs.] It still does really suit my voice, so it's not that terribly difficult to sing, but the emotions of it are very challenging."

One of the juicier roles in the musical theatre, the part requires not only a terrific singer, but an actress who can walk that fine line between comedy and tragedy. "[I have been] trying to find the realistic motivations and what emotional place this woman is actually in, and how much delusion she's really in, because she has such wild emotional swings," Lacey explains. "I talked with a friend of mine who's a psychologist, and she sort of defines Norma as having hysterical personality disorder, and once she described that to me, it really made sense — that that's why she's on this roller coaster where one minute she's euphoric and the next minute she's dissolving in despair."

The Washington, DC, production will boast an environmental set and newly designed costumes. "The set is beautiful," says Lacey. "Of course, it's not as big as the Broadway set. But in a way, I think that's going to help focus the story, and we're working on a thrust stage, so the audience is going to be very, very close to all these high emotions and high notes! So it's going to be thrilling, I think, for an audience member to be that wrapped into the story… They're also building all my costumes. Everything is from scratch, and they're beautiful. The fabrics are gorgeous, and I've had two fittings so far. They're just beautiful, gorgeous, lush."

Director Schaeffer adds, "I've never done an Andrew Lloyd Webber piece before, but I've always loved Sunset Boulevard, and I just thought that an environmental production of it would be really, really fascinating and really, really cool. It's something that I've always wanted to do. It's a whole different physical production completely. We've actually turned the whole theatre into the back lot of Paramount Studios, so you feel like you're sitting in the back lot and there's sandbags and catwalks overhead, and then that actually transforms into the mansion. We've done a lot of stuff that's different from the original with the usage of film….We have all these different film sequences – there's a whole film sequence that goes on during … the opening of Act Two. I just think the intimacy of the space, of seeing this huge musical being done so intimately [is another difference], and I think the music is so important. It's such a character of the show, and so that's why we're doing it with a 20-piece orchestra."

Lacey in Evita
photo by Martha Swope

At the time of my interview with the former Evita, the cast had rehearsed through the end of the musical's first act, and Lacey spoke about three particular scenes: her initial entrance as Norma through the conclusion of "With One Look," the first time Norma has a breakdown in front of Joe, and "The Lady's Paying" shopping sequence. Her first scene, Lacey says, "just sort of played itself — everything's on the page. That was very quickly put together. In fact, D.B. Bonds, who's playing Joe, said to me today, 'Gee, maybe we need to go back and do that very first scene again. I don't even remember where I go!' I said, 'I've been practicing it in my apartment!'"

More difficult, she says, is Norma's "first panic … because it feels like it comes from nowhere, and it's the first time the audience is going to see that. It's the first time Joe sees it, too, that she just suddenly is in a complete despair. … Two lines before, she's in euphoria, and then suddenly, he's going to leave, because she's sending the script off to Paramount, her wonderful movie script. And she instantly sinks, and that's really difficult to play. It really is hard, and especially with the audience that close, trying to make it feel as intimate as it needs to feel because it's just me and Joe with Max lurking."

The actress, however, is enjoying "The Lady's Paying," which she says is "absolutely fun. The hard part is that it comes so quickly out of that moment I was just describing, where she completely dissolves, and he says he'll stay. And she is totally embarrassed that she has shown him this side of herself, this weakness in herself. And so I scamper up the stairs and the next thing that happens is, I have this birthday surprise set up for him. 'The Lady's Paying' begins, and it's a real fun number to do. It's very musical theatre. It's really fun, but again, we have to kind of find the dramatic line in it, because it has to have an undercurrent of serious manipulation and control and all of that that Norma is trying to exercise by buying him clothes and turning him into her fantasy man."

When asked to describe Norma, Lacey pauses and says, "She's very complex, she's very delusional. She's very reclusive. In the musical, she's even more reclusive than she is in the movie, because [in the movie] she has friends come in to play cards. She's an hysterical personality, someone who lives in a fantasy world, in a world that's totally within her head."

Lacey, however, says she "absolutely loves" the character. "She's made me examine real parts of myself because I can tend to be reclusive. I can kind of do that, and I catch myself making up scenarios in my head like she does. I don't think I'm quite as violent as she is, but it's kind of nice to be able to express some of those things through playing Norma," she laughs. She also says she can identify with the highs and lows of Norma's career: "We all go through those lull periods where we don't work and where we think our careers are over. Norma is so determined to again be what she was when she was 20. She is determined to be that again, and of course that is her greatest delusion, but there is a whole lot of her that is living in a fantasy and existing quite well in it because Max helps her stay in it. That's Max's job, to keep her believing that her career's not over and everything will be back the way it was."

Lacey as Fantine in Les Misérables

Lacey, whose Broadway credits also boast Les Misérables, The Grand Tour as well as both the 1978 and 1995 productions of Hello, Dolly!, will also be part of the high-profile production of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's Follies, which will play the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater May 7-June 19, 2011. That production will also be directed by Schaeffer.

"Who ever would have thought that at this age I'm still getting these crazy jobs?," Lacey laughs. "It's all because of my dear Eric. It's gonna be thrilling just to be around all that star power." Lacey, who will play the role of Sandra Crane, actually played the role of former Follies star Sally Durant Plummer in the Signature's 2002-03 production of the musical — two-time Tony winner Bernadette Peters will play that role at the Kennedy Center. "That's why Eric called me," Lacey explains, "and said he hated to do this to me but would I mind standing by for Bernadette? I said, 'Oh, my God! I'll be so honored. I'll get to brag about it. Are you kidding?' As long as she never gets sick!"

Lacey recalls that the Signature production of Follies "was back in the old garage, before the beautiful new theatre was built. So that was a real challenge, too, putting that huge show in the little garage space. I remember it being very dark and menacing and beautiful and lush and playing this very depressed character. I mean, I found Sally so depressing. Oh, God!" she laughs. "I would go home every night in my little apartment and cry because she was just such a sad character."

Hopefully playing eventual murderess Norma Desmond won't have any effects on her psyche. "Yes, hopefully I won't get anywhere near a real gun!" Lacey laughs. "I have a friend who was a former New York City cop, and he has a gun and he let me practice with his gun because I was so afraid of shooting it. And I couldn't pull the trigger because the resistance is very strong. Until I sang the line, 'No one ever leaves a star,' and then I could pull the trigger with no problem. The adrenaline kicked in!"

"I'm gonna tell you the truth," Lacey admits. "I studied the movie over and over again, trying to steal as much as I can from Gloria Swanson, because I thought her performance was so brilliant. But, of course, I'm not telling it in black and white and I'm not telling it without music, so it has its own story to tell." Director Schaeffer adds, "I think the thing is that it's a really unique theatrical experience when you come here, because you end up getting huge Broadway-quality musicals in this really intimate setting. You look at the numbers and go, 'It's an 18-member cast, it's a 20-piece orchestra, there's 276 seats. Oh, my God, where am I going to have that experience?' And that's what's really exciting about it, because you will have an experience here that you won't have really anywhere else in the country."

[Tickets range in price from $59-$85 and are available by calling Ticketmaster at (703) 573-SEAT (7328) or visiting www.signature-theatre.org.]

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

A set model for Signature's <i>Sunset Boulevard</i>
A set model for Signature's Sunset Boulevard
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