Side Show Tony nominee Alice Ripley, one of the most exciting singing actresses of her generation, was a college student when she first heard Stephen Schwartz's soaring ballad "Meadowlark." "My friend Jeff Ward came up to me," Ripley told me by phone last week, "and handed me this cassette and said, 'Okay, you have to listen to this, and you have to learn 'Meadowlark' because it's going to be the song to sing!"
Credit Ward with a good ear, as the then little-known song would become a cabaret and concert staple, recorded by the likes of Betty Buckley, Sarah Brightman, Liz Callaway, Susan Egan and, of course, Patti LuPone, who starred as Genevieve during the show's ill-fated trip to Broadway and who later recorded the song on The Baker's Wife's original cast recording.
Ripley's connection with The Baker's Wife, which is currently playing New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse through May 15, spans nearly a decade. The multitalented performer, last on Broadway in The Rocky Horror Show, took part in two workshops of the piece, which has been performed in London's West End and, more recently, at Goodspeed. The second workshop, directed by Tony winner Joe Mantello, featured Matt Bogart as Dominique and Hal Linden as the Baker. "That was the first time I stood at the piano with Stephen Schwartz playing 'Meadowlark,'" explains Ripley, "and I thought I was going to pass out. I was so blissed out — I was in heaven. I could have died right [there]," she adds with a laugh, "and I could really [have said], 'I like the way I died. I was singing 'Meadowlark,' and Stephen Schwartz was playing the piano.'"
Schwartz, who is currently enjoying his biggest success with Broadway's Wicked, is also involved with the Paper Mill production. "He's not part of the everyday process," says Ripley, "but he definitely [has] an influence, and he should. I don't know if this is the right thing to say, but I told him, 'As long as you're satisfied, that's all that matters to me.' Because he created it. If he looks at me and tells me he's happy with something I'm doing, [then I'm happy]." In addition to the aforementioned "Meadowlark," Ripley is also a fan of the entire score, which includes the melodic "Gifts of Love" and the beautifully moving "Where Is the Warmth?" "I love that one!" exclaims Ripley. "It's like caramel. Because the key is kind of low, it gets to all these great parts of the voice that lots of music doesn't get to. . . What I'm finding with this score, when I do well with it, when I hit a mark, is it's because I'm not doing anything. It's because I'm really giving over to what's written and totally trusting that it's all there because it really is. I just adore [Stephen Schwartz]. I was always a big fan of Pippin and Godspell, even before I heard 'Meadowlark.' He writes from his heart."
The Paper Mill Baker's Wife company, under the direction of Gordon Greenberg, also features Lenny Wolpe as the Baker with Dance of the Vampires' Max von Essen as Dominique. "Oh my God, I love Max von Essen," Ripley says. "I didn't know what it was going to be like [working with him] because I never met him before; we just hadn't crossed paths. I think that he's really found his role with Dominique. I think he's totally delicious. Our whole cast is so wonderful. It feels like a real ensemble. It reminds me of the experience I had doing The Dead — every character is really important to the story."
It's been an especially busy time for Ripley, who was invited to take part in two of the recent birthday salutes to Stephen Sondheim: Wall to Wall Sondheim and Children and Art. About the former, Ripley says, "I was so honored to be asked to participate. Hanging out [at Symphony Space] was great because it was like a little reunion. I saw a bunch of people I hadn't seen in a long time, including my friend Emily Skinner and people like Jason Danieley and Melissa Errico — all those people that you don't really see that much, so that was kind of fun." And, about the latter, she says, "Monday night at the New Amsterdam was really exciting, too. And, I got a thank you note from Sondheim." Although the contents of the note are personal, she admits, "I still can't believe I got a thank you note from Stephen Sondheim!"
And, it's not just Sondheim who is a fan: Ripley has also made a name for herself with D.C. audiences, having appeared in the Kennedy Center's productions of Sondheim's Company — she drew raves from critics for her performance as the confused-bride-to-be Amy and her powerful rendition of the tongue-twisting "Getting Married Today" — and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Tell Me On a Sunday as well as the Arena Stage mounting of Ken Ludwig's Shakespeare in Hollywood. "I love D.C.," says Ripley. "I love working there. I worked at the Arena, which was a really great experience. And both times I worked at the Kennedy Center I loved it." About performing in the one-woman song cycle Tell Me On a Sunday, Ripley says, "I think that's my favorite Andrew Lloyd Webber piece. The score is just beautiful. Just being the only one out there the whole time was an incredible experience. I learned a lot about myself as an actor. I'd get out there and I'd hear the music and I'd start singing, and I'd think to myself, 'All these people are sitting in the audience staring at me . . . Oh my God, I'm the only one out here! I'm responsible for creating this whole thing.' I just wanted to run offstage and say, 'I can't do this! What am I doing?' Then I would say to myself, 'Pretend you're Emma — you just got off the plane,' and I'd talk myself into it. Then you go into this trance, and then 70 minutes later you come offstage and it's over. I really loved doing that one-woman show."
There's also another Lloyd Webber show that Ripley would be perfectly suited for should the on-again-off-again revival ever happen, Evita: The musical requires a terrific singer (capable of belting high Es and even a few Fs), an actress who can span the range of emotions and one who can dance her way to Buenos Aires. Ripley, too, hopes she'll get the chance to someday play the part that made theatre stars out of Elaine Paige (in London) and Patti LuPone (in New York). "You know, I always used to say that by the time they're ready to revive this, it's going to be perfect for me. I'm going to be the perfect age, but you can only do so much, and then somebody else has [to hire] you. I've been singing it forever. I sing it in my dreams. Tim Rice is my favorite lyric writer that Andrew Lloyd Webber has worked with. He's so smart and charming, and it comes through in his writing." Ripley also reveals, "In my iPod, I recently edited out a whole bunch of stuff, and one of the things I kept on there was Evita. The music is, without question, spectacular."
As for more definite plans, the summer will find the actress starring as Mrs. Walker in the Pittsburgh CLO mounting of The Who's Tommy. The pop musical, which marked Ripley's Broadway debut, will be directed by Tony Stevens and will run July 12-24. The versatile performer is also in negotiations to return to the Arena Stage, playing Lola opposite Matt Bogart's Joe Hardy in the theatre's winter production of Damn Yankees. "I haven't signed anything yet," says Ripley, "but they've asked us to do Damn Yankees, and it would be so fun to see Matt Bogart stripped to the waist every day! I would play Lola. It's the kind of role that I wouldn't normally get, [so] I'm very excited about that."
The former Side Show star is also excited about her self-titled rock band RIPLEY, which features her husband, Shannon Ford, on drums with Skip Ward on bass and Christopher Schelling on keyboards. The foursome is currently at work on their first full-length recording, which will include music and lyrics all composed by Ripley. "Writing is the place where I can do it all and get away with it," laughs Ripley. "You can't do that in the theatre. You really have to learn how to collaborate and how to find the language to communicate. [When I'm writing], I don't have to go through that part of the process. I can do it on my own, and luckily I have these amazing people in the band, and they're dedicated to it. Now we're just so enjoying making the record. Those are the hours that fly by when I'm writing or when I'm in the studio. It's such a feeling of freedom. . . This [record] sounds so different from the first one that I did on Sh-K-Boom ['Everything's Fine'] and even the one that we made last year, which was our band's EP. It sounds more finished, more mature, more ripe."
But, for now, Ripley is more than content playing Genevieve in The Baker's Wife, which opens for the critics this weekend. "I think it's one of the most challenging roles I've ever played," concludes Ripley. "The show and the character have little twists and hidden staircases, but at the same time it's very straightforward and simple. The relationships make up the show — it's simple on the surface, but underneath all of it there are all these little cracks and crevices and hidden closets that are never opened. I think that's why at the end of the show it's so moving because you see two people come together."
Whether she's writing her own tunes, singing on Broadway or playing the Baker's Wife at the Paper Mill, Ripley has a singular goal: "I want it to be a real part of me. In an ideal world, the creative process becomes a mirror — and shows me a side of myself I might not otherwise see. Then, by seeing myself more clearly, I can change if I wish to. I live for the moments when what I create teaches me about myself."
[Stephen Schwartz and Joseph Stein's The Baker's Wife plays New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse through May 15. Tickets, priced $31-$68, are available by calling (973) 376-4343. Visit www.papermill.org for more information.]
I admit I'm generally not a big fan of one-composer cabaret shows, so why was Monday's night One Enchanted Evening concert — an evening of Richard Rodgers tunes, both his work with Lorenz Hart and later with Oscar Hammerstein — so wonderful? The answer: Maureen McGovern. McGovern, on her night off from Little Women, performed a nearly flawless 80-minute set at Birdland as a fundraiser for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. One can't help commenting on McGovern's kindness and open heart, which comes through in her work and adds immensely to her appeal as a performer. And, in addition to her wonderful voice, which can belt, swing, scat and soar, she's also a consummate professional, who knows how to create a truly enjoyable evening, combining humorous offerings with more moving fare. In the former category were a wonderful reading of Rodgers and Hart's "To Keep My Love Alive" — performed with a haughty British accent — as well as a Peter Matz arrangement of snippets of dozens of Rodgers tunes that left both the singer and the audience breathless. Other highlights included an a capella version of "My Funny Valentine," heartfelt renditions of "It Never Entered My Mind" and "This Nearly Was My Mine," a stirring pairing of Sondheim's "Children Will Listen" with South Pacific's "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" as well as uptempo, belty takes on "Falling in Love with Love" and "My Favorite Things." McGovern also included Rodgers trivia, personal anecdotes about her work in Rodgers shows and a wonderful story about performing "I Enjoy Being a Girl" in the hit film "Airplane" that was, unfortunately, left on the cutting-room floor. McGovern concluded her Rodgers set with a thoroughly moving rendition of "You'll Never Walk Alone" that built from a gentle, whispery tone to a thrilling, belty climax. The sold-out audience, quickly on its feet, demanded two encores: her signature tune, "The Morning After" (close your eyes, and McGovern's voice remains remarkably unchanged) and the Gershwins' "Our Love Is Here to Stay." The audience joined McGovern on the latter, and the warmth that the singer had exuded all evening, seemed to envelop the entire room and was directed back at the singing actress. Musical director Jeff Harris' work as arranger and pianist should also be noted; he was an integral component of this remarkable Enchanted Evening.
Tony Award winner Kristin Chenoweth, most recently on Broadway in the hit musical Wicked, will take part in the "Broadway Divas as Gay Icons" series at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center. Hosted by New York Times critic Stephen Holden, the April 26 evening will begin at 7 PM. A Conversation with Kristin Chenoweth is the latest in the series with Broadway performers "whose work has a special resonance in the gay and lesbian community." Participants in the series have previously included Barbara Cook, Bernadette Peters and Eartha Kitt. The LGBT Community Center is located in Manhattan on West 13th Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. To reserve a seat, visit www.gaycenter.org. There is a suggested donation of $10.
Tony Award winner Debbie Gravitte will star in Big Band Broadway next month at the newly restored Hudson Theatre at the Millennium Broadway Hotel. Gravitte will be accompanied by the RK big band, which is conducted by Russ Kassoff. Jerry Mitchell, represented on Broadway this season with La Cage aux Folles and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, directs the new performance series. Big Band Broadway will be presented May 9, 16 and 23. Show times are 8 PM on May 9 and 7 PM May 16 and 23. Each performance will feature several guest performers. Tickets, priced $35 (general seating), $45 (balcony seating) and $55 (cabaret seating with cocktail service), are available by calling (866) 468-7519 or by visiting www.ticketweb.com. The Hudson Theatre is located at 145 West 44th Street.
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.