DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Tony Award-Winning Next to Normal Star Alice Ripley

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Tony Award-Winning Next to Normal Star Alice Ripley News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Alice Ripley with her Tony Award
Alice Ripley with her Tony Award Photo by Aubrey Reuben

ALICE RIPLEY
This weekend, gifted singing actress Alice Ripley ends her nearly one-and-a-half year and critically acclaimed run in the Broadway production of the Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next to Normal at the Booth Theatre.

"I'm feeling energized and relaxed, and happy that I feel that way, instead of beat up and worn out," Ripley told me earlier this week as she approached her final July 18 performance. "That's good, [although] I feel very sad about leaving the Booth. I've had this romance with that theatre: It's just such a beautiful space, so I'm really going to miss that."

Ripley's performance as a mom struggling with mental health issues earned her unanimous praise throughout the industry as well as the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. Looking back on Tony night, Ripley says, "I remember feeling part of me going, 'I've been working for this for a long time,' and then the bigger part of me was completely flabbergasted that it actually happened. I think I felt good about people's faith in my contribution. That's really what it was, but it's a real nerve-wracking experience to go through, the whole thing."

The former star of Side Show, The Rocky Horror Show and Sunset Boulevard, among other Broadway shows, says she keeps her Tony and her Helen Hayes Award — which she won for Normal's pre-Broadway Washington, DC, engagement — in her bathroom. "I have this cool bathroom cabinet that has mirrors on the inside as well as the outside, and it's kind of a generous area," Ripley explains. "There are three cabinets in this wall, so I thought I could just devote one [to the awards], and that's what I've done. It's kind of nice; it reminds me when I'm getting ready [to go to the theatre] what I might be getting ready for."

Playing the role of Diana Goodman has been both a personal and professional journey for Ripley, who says she has learned "so much [from playing the role], and Diana's taken me to the edge of what I thought I could do onstage, what I thought I could do offstage. She's taken me to no man's land — no woman's land, I guess you could say. And, that's a good place to be because you discover things you didn't know." When asked how she believes her performance has changed during her 16-month Broadway run, Ripley says, "Well, all I can say is I can tell you what people have told me about my performance or just tell you how it makes me feel. People have said that it has changed and then, I feel like I've changed, so if I've changed, the performance has changed. So, it probably has, and I'm hoping it's grown because you're always looking to fill in details."

Ripley in Next to Normal
photo by Joan Marcus

Because the demanding role requires Ripley to ride an emotional roller coaster, one wonders how long it takes the actress — who seemingly delves deep into her soul eight times a week — to unwind after a performance. "That's an interesting question because it changes day to day," Ripley says. "There is a pattern that emerges, and it has to do with the traffic and the energy backstage after the show, too. It's not a simple procedure to just get out of Diana and just get into Alice. It's a process, so I kind of have to still be 'on,' and when I get home, that's when I deal with it. I have to wind down, I have to warm down with my voice and do some hydrotherapy . . . in the shower. I like to be alone [and have] a lot of alone time to recover from Diana. So I try to be mute and still, because in this role, it's very taxing: what's required of me physically as far as the response goes, and the initiation of the response – bringing up the song, coming up with the energy that it takes to bring up this piece that we're delivering." The musical is not only an emotional experience for its actors but also for audience members. Many return time and time again to experience the Tom Kitt-Brian Yorkey production. In fact, Ripley says, "Every night at the stage door and every day [in the] mailbox, in my snail mail and email, and my inbox in Facebook, which I'm addicted to, I'll get messages from people saying how the show [affected them], and those stories include everything that you could imagine, as far as telling me their personal story about what happened to them or somebody they lost, or somebody that they miss, or some joy in their life. [The musical is] about looking at your emotions and dealing with them, I guess, so people find a lot of joy through the show, and they also find things in themselves that they've never seen before, and then they want to share that with me. I hear a lot of personal stories from people at the stage door, too. Our audience is wonderful. I love them — I go offstage after my last exit, and I spy on the audience."

During the past few weeks of her Broadway experience with Next to Normal, Ripley was reunited with Brian d'Arcy James, who created the role of Dan Goodman during the musical's Off-Broadway run at Second Stage Theatre but was unable to open the show on Broadway because he was busy playing the titular green ogre in Broadway's Shrek the Musical. Ripley says she is crazy about James, who is "a wonderful actor. He's very generous on stage, and for some reason, we have something that works together. It feels kind of silky, kind of easy to be around him and to work with him onstage. There's mutual respect, and also, on a personal note, when I was at Second Stage, I didn't feel like I could really deliver the show like I wanted to, because I had a vocal injury, and I was having problems integrating Diana with who I am. I guess the way that I approach acting [is] just by living it, living the role onstage and then offstage, finding a balance if you can. So back then, at Second Stage, I had a hard time integrating all of that, and when Brian and I were together, it felt like we never really did the show together, from my perspective. So, it's like a honeymoon right now because we're finally getting to do it together. I'm really happy that I get to spend a few weeks doing it with him. He's making my exit from the show easy."

Brian d'Arcy James,
photo by Joan Marcus

Although her last performance on Broadway is upon her, Ripley will not be leaving the demanding role for too long; in fact, the Tony winner will head the cast of the musical's national tour, which launches Nov. 23 in Los Angeles. Ripley says she has only toured one other time when she played the ill-fated Fantine in the epic Les Miserables. "I was understudying Marcia Mitzman in Tommy on Broadway, and she was out a lot and I was going on for her, and I [knew I would not be asked to take over the role because] I was too young. So when I was offered the role of Fantine on the road in Les Miz, I took it, and I left the Tommy company early, which is crazy. That's what I'm doing now, and that's kind of how it ties in. What I'm doing now is leaving a Broadway company that's running, which is insane! I mean, that's crazy," Ripley laughs. "It's a successful show, and you're an actor that's always wanting to be in a successful show, and you're leaving it voluntarily. That's what I did with Tommy to go do Fantine in Les Miz on the road, because I wanted to play Fantine so badly. I wanted to play a role because I was understudying at the time. It was only like half a year — it wasn't that long. We hit some major cities, but it was mostly one-weekers. Our tour for Next to Normal, we have some cities that we stay in a little bit longer, so that's good." Ripley says the idea of touring with Normal was actually not her idea. "In all honesty," she explains, "it was suggested to me that I stay until this weekend and take a break and then go out and do the tour. And I thought it was a great suggestion. I was like, 'Hmm. Sounds good!'

"There's a limited amount of time that I can play Diana," she adds. "It might not be as limited as some other roles, and maybe it's not limited at all, but from where I see it, at least from a physical stamina point, I have to take breaks. So it's good that there will be other people playing her, and then when the tour was offered to me, I thought it made sense because I want to continue to play Diana, and I'm honored to be the one that takes her out to the United States . . . because I've had my personal perspective of the show for so long. It's been marinating so long, and I hope it's going to be interesting to people. . . . I don't think being on the road is going to be easy, but I think it will be worth the work, because every night, the audience shows me appreciation for the work that we've done, and I can't imagine that it would be different. The show appeals to the heart of the audience member, and everybody has one."

Ripley will be accompanied on the tour by her husband, musician Shannon Ford, who is the musical's drummer. "When we're at work, we try to keep things separate," Ripley says. "It's a challenge. I mean, even when it comes down to talking about him in an interview, I wouldn't bring him up if you didn't. Again, with this role, that is so all over the place emotionally, I feel like I have to be really business-like with my business so that I know there's at least a line there," she laughs, "because the rest of it is all, anything goes!"

Prior to the show's national tour, Ripley has a few other engagements on her calendar. She will perform two concerts at BACKSTAGE dopo teatro in Manhattan (July 31 and Aug. 28 at 9:30 PM), and she will be among the guest teaching artists when the Broadway Dreams Foundation offers its Summer Performing Arts Intensive Aug. 2-8 at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia.

About the former Ripley says, "I'm so excited about these concerts. It's only an hour, and I'm calling it My Daily Practice . . . . and it's literally what I do every day as far as the practice that I do as a musician, but also I think I might be reading a little bit or I'm thinking about doing a monologue from a show that strikes me. This is what I do every day when I wake up. I have this time where I practice. I'm either playing an instrument or I'm singing or I'm reading a play out loud, if not a monologue, or doing some kind of physical work. With [playing] Diana the night before, I do a little physical work the next morning to get back to a level playing field. You know, stretching and breathing and steaming with a hot towel and hot showers and icing the face and whatever I can do to feel normal again. I won't be doing that in the gig, though," she laughs. "I'll be playing instruments and I might do a monologue. I might talk to the audience and ask them what they might want me to do. It's like a play time for me, so it's me saying, 'Here I am in my daily practice. Do you want to come and watch?' . . . . And I want the audience to give me feedback, so I'm going to hand out surveys to the audience members and ask them to tell me what they liked and what they didn't like and what I should practice." Ripley says her teaching opportunities have arisen "because the people that I went to school with are now heads of departments at colleges and universities. So they bring me in for a weekend and they're like, 'Why don't you do this?' I started out not really knowing what I was doing, of course, but . . . . I've been doing it for a while. I have developed a set of guidelines, I guess, that apply to living life as an artist and doing it with joy. I'll talk about that, basically, and then sometimes the students will get up and sing for me, either with or without a piano. I guess what I'm doing is coaching them on whatever it looks like they might want to be coached on. I always get a lot out of it. I really enjoy being around a student of any age that's interested in musical theatre [because he or she] is most likely to be very excited about that. And, that's intoxicating to be around. I like being around that. It's nice to remember that that's in me, too. . . . So that's probably why I keep going back and saying yes to this teaching opportunity because I love being around that energy."

[For more information about Ripley's concerts, click here. For more information about The Broadway Dreams Foundation, click here. Next to Normal currently plays the Booth Theatre. Visit NexttoNormal.]

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

Ripley and the cast of <i>Next to Normal</i>
Ripley and the cast of Next to Normal Photo by Joan Marcus
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