DIVA TALK: Chats with NYMF's Donna Lynne Champlin, Jenn Colella, Andrea McArdle, Jenny Powers, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Kathy Voytko, Rachel York

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Chats with NYMF's Donna Lynne Champlin, Jenn Colella, Andrea McArdle, Jenny Powers, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Kathy Voytko, Rachel York
 
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

The 2011 New York Musical Theatre Festival, which runs Sept. 26-Oct. 16 at various theatres in Manhattan, features full productions of 26 new musicals as well as a host of concerts and readings. Among the casts of those productions are some of the most talented singing actresses around; in fact, this week, we chat with seven of the gifted performers who will give voice to these productions: Donna Lynne Champlin (in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice at Signature Theatre - The Peter Norton Space, Sept. 29-Oct. 11), Jenn Colella (in Kiki Baby at The Theater at St. Clements, Oct. 5-16), Andrea McArdle (in Greenwood at Signature Theatre - The Peter Norton Space, Oct. 6-16), Jenny Powers (in Gatsby at Signature Theatre - The Peter Norton Space, Sept. 30), Jennifer Laura Thompson (in Kiki Baby at The Theater at St. Clements, Oct. 5-16), Kathy Voytko (in The Brain That Wouldn't Die! In 3D at TBG Theater, Oct. 6-16) and Rachel York (in Ghostlight at Signature Theatre - The Peter Norton Space, Sept. 26-Oct. 9). I posed the same set of questions to each of these artists; their answers follow:

Donna Lynne Champlin

DONNA LYNNE CHAMPLIN
How did you get involved with this production?
Champlin: About four years ago, my mom sent me a newspaper article from our hometown in Rochester, NY, about these two local women (Lindsay Warren Baker and Amanda Jacobs) who had written a musical about "Pride and Prejudice." I went to their MySpace page, listened to some of their tunes and sent them a message saying, "I work in the Broadway theatre community, and I'm also from Rochester, so if there's anything I can do to help you out, let me know." As a result, I sang at some of their fundraisers and then in 2008, they called and asked me to play Jane, which I thought was weird as I couldn't be more wrong for Jane Bennett (the only Jane in the novel "Pride and Prejudice"). They then explained that they had written into the show Jane Austen herself, and would I play the role at the world-premiere concert at Rochester's prestigious Eastman Theatre with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. I jumped at the chance, not only because I wanted to support them and the piece, but I was also extremely intrigued at the concept of the author writing (or re-writing in this case) her novel before the audience. Not to mention as a native Rochestarian, to sing in The Eastman Theatre with the RPO had always been a dream of mine. So, it was a long and winding road that began because my mom sent me a clipping from the local paper. As this show moves onward and upward, I'll have to start sending her checks for ten percent probably, eh?

What other NYMF productions have you been a part of?
Champlin: Meet John Doe, Monica The Musical, Flight of the Lawnchair Man, Love Jerry and now Pride and Prejudice. I've also been a celebrity judge for NYMF's Broadway's Next Sensation contest for the past five years or so. It's something I look forward to every year; it's such a great, positive thing they do for up-and-coming talent. I love it.

Champlin performs at a Sept. 21 press event.
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

How would you describe the character you're playing?
Champlin: Well, during the show "our" Jane Austen is transforming her little-known, unpublished manuscript "First Impressions" into the successfully published "Pride and Prejudice." So at the top of the show she's haunted and embarrassed by mistakes she's made and a self-professed "un-romantic" still defending choices she made in her own life that were extremely contrary for her time. Turning "First Impressions" into "Pride and Prejudice" forces her to look objectively at how she's changed (for good and for bad) over the past ten years, and as her characters and the story blossoms, so does she. She becomes warmer, braver, more forgiving—even embracing the "romantic" inside her. She also transforms as a writer, from micro-managing her characters in Act One to letting them be whom they are in Act Two. Instead of her getting in the way of the story telling, the story begins to tell itself when she allows her characters to be free to make their own choices. "Pride and Prejudice" then sort of unfolds in front of her…when she lets go.

It's a great arc to play, since this aspect of Austen's life is frequently discussed but never historically proven to be one way or the other. Her refusal of two proposals, her choice to remain unmarried, her decision to revisit "First Impressions" as opposed to just tossing it, etc. We even get to imagine what "First Impressions" was like, as it was never published. It's a delicate balance between telling the story of "Pride and Prejudice" and telling the story of Jane Austen turning "Last Impressions" into "Pride and Prejudice," but I think we've found it, and it's tremendous fun. Why do you think audiences should attend this particular production?
Champlin: Well, let me put it this way…I just gave birth like two minutes ago—and I'm willing to pump my boobs in a stairwell four times a day, rehearse six days a week on absolutely no sleep, for basically no money, and perform in public before having lost a good 40 pounds of pregnancy weight—not to mention, be away from my beautiful little baby boy for hours at a time—because I believe that much in this show. So…there's that.

Austen fans will love it, and we already have gotten a lot of enthusiastic support from the numerous Jane Austen societies and fan clubs all over the world. And, technically speaking, Pride and Prejudice is old school in a Secret Garden kinda way…but not as dark. It's a big show, with a big cast and a big score, and it's no secret that that's a tough thing to pull off in general, not to mention in a NYMF kind of situation where there are shorter rehearsal, tech and dress schedules (not to mention the limited budgets, costumes and set storage room). So these grand "throw back" productions are rarely done, especially at NYMF, which makes it a bit of a jewel in the 2011 NYMF season.

Luckily, this production has already been workshopped a few times since 2008, which allows our rehearsals to be dedicated to just putting up the production—instead of hemorrhaging time working on massive changes. And, with so many NYMF vets on the team (Igor Goldin as our director, Jeffry Denman as our choreographer, not to mention all the NYMF alumni in the cast), everyone is prepared, everything is stream lined, and the surprises will be minimal when we move into The Signature Theatre on 42nd Street (knock wood, toi toi toi, and all that).

Champlin performs from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Why do you think NYMF is so important?
Champlin: NYMF is not only important, it is absolutely vital to the theatre because more than ever, producers are afraid financially to support new "untried" works. As a result, we are awash in revivals and "commercial" productions with no aim loftier than being commercial. While fiscally, one can understand the producer's predicament, this fear (or flat-out refusal) to invest in new works, new writers and new performers is the death knell to our entire art form. This trend has been on the rise long before the recent economic crisis, and as a result, organizations like NYMF who embrace everything that is new and fresh and original have become absolutely invaluable. Not just in enhancing the current climate of theatre itself but irreplaceable for whatever legacy this generation might ever hope to pass onto the next. I mean, in just six years of existence—NYMF has been the doorway to new works and writers receiving Off-Broadway and regional lives, Tonys, Drama Desks…even a Pulitzer Prize. To even think of how many of these marvelous NYMF shows that have touched and entertained so many people all over the world would have sat in a trunk, or languished in the black hole where "new musicals go to die in this town" is terrifying. In all honesty, I find NYMF's mission statement and existence to be quite noble, and I'm very proud to support it.

NYMF celebrates new musicals, but which role in a classic musical would you most like to perform?
Champlin: Well, I'd much rather create the next role that everyone wants to play…in the next classical musical everyone wants to revive. That's always the goal for me. That said, the list of iconic theatrical roles I'd love to sink my teeth into is ri-donk-ulously long. So I'll just say that if someone cast me as Mary in any of the upcoming productions of Merrily We Roll Along happening, I'd be thrilled to have a shot at it before I'm in a walker. Hal Prince used to always tell me I should play that role someday when we were doing 3hree and Hollywood Arms together…so, I'd especially love to do him proud on that sooner rather than later.

Do you have any other projects in the works?
Champlin: Actually, I've just been asked to write blog posts for the NY Times about our rehearsal process and the NYMF experience so…isn't that funny? I play a writer onstage, I get asked to be a writer. Last year I played a bunch of moms onstage and now I'm a mom. Crazy. I can't wait for the show where I'm cast as a billionaire sex kitten.

Of course in my mind, I'm writing a new one-woman show, two CDs, two plays and three books. But in reality, I have a newborn baby. Who the hell am I kidding? I'm lucky if I get to the grocery store without spit-up in my hair while mistakenly using a dirty nursing bra as a purse.

Only Pride and Prejudice could bring me out of my "maternity leave," and it's not just because I'll be wearing a period costume that will be hiding the taffy pull my body is right now. After this show, my husband and I will enjoy bringing the baby around to all the relatives this holiday season, I'll get my body back into shape and then in 2012 come out swingin' on whatever comes my way, God willing.

Jenn Colella
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

JENN COLELLA
How did you get involved with this production?
Colella: I have been involved with Kiki Baby for many years now. Lonny Price (author, director, genius) approached me about it shortly after Urban Cowboy, and I've been with the piece ever since.

What other NYMF productions have you been a part of?
Colella: I had the great honor of originating the role of Pippi, the kleptomaniac stripper, in The Great American Trailer Park Musical. I believe that was NYMF's first year, actually.

How would you describe the character you're playing?
Colella: Kiki is an incredibly precocious four-year-old who loves to sing. She is discovered by an impresario, and she quickly becomes quite famous. Her newfound fame puts her in the position of chief breadwinner and is the catalyst for all kinds of mayhem.

Why do you think audiences should attend this particular production?
Colella: This show is a delicious romp of absurdity and comedy with a dash of ethicality tossed in. Moreover, it has heart, a tremendous cast, and a grown-ass woman playing a four-year-old. I could go on...

Why do you think NYMF is so important?
Colella: NYMF is important because it represents what New York theatre is all about... it's fertile ground for new works to grow and thrive and be seen by people whom we trust and whose opinions we value. NYMF celebrates new musicals, but which role in a classic musical would you most like to perform?
Colella: Well, my stock answer is usually Sally Bowles in Cabaret, though I fear I may be gettin' a little long in the tooth for that role. Never mind. I've got it: Guido in Nine.

Do you have any other projects in the works?
Colella: I'm currently involved in the workshop of a new Tom Kitt/Brian Yorkey musical—which is so exciting. Man, I dig those guys.

Andrea McArdle
photo by Robert Mannis

ANDREA McARDLE
How did you get involved with this production?
McArdle: Paul Stancato, the director, called me up and told me about the project. Paul is a fantastic director, and we were looking to work on a piece together. He thought Sheila would be a really good role for me to play, and when I read the script, I connected with her drive and passion.

What other NYMF productions have you been a part of?
McArdle: Behind the Limelight, the Charlie Chaplin story.

How would you describe the character you're playing?
McArdle: Sheila is the quintessential desperate housewife. She is someone who was a dreamer when she was younger and then married into status and money, had kids and was forced to give up her own dreams and goals. She now needs to claim her life back.

Why do you think audiences should attend this particular production?
McArdle: There is a universal message to Greenwood. It explores the human condition by which we have a tendency to measure ourselves by our goals and achievements. When you're young, you have your dreams and then as life happens, you find that sacrifices need to be made, but at what point do you examine those sacrifices and realize that you also need to be happy. It's about real people who shared an experience and formed a bond that would last their whole lives. The music is also fantastic, which helps when you're doing a musical.

Why do you think NYMF is so important?
McArdle: It is essential for our community to grow in order to survive, and NYMF allows new voices and artists to be given an opportunity to be showcased in realized productions. It also allows actors a place to grow and be seen in roles that the industry might not normally see. There should be 50 more NYMFs!

NYMF celebrates new musicals, but which role in a classic musical would you most like to perform?
McArdle: At this point I'm thinking a future Mrs. Lovett. (I would ask Paul to direct.)

Do you have any other projects in the works?
McArdle: I'm working on some new concepts for my one-woman show that I will be touring around the country with. It's very exciting!

Jenny Powers

JENNY POWERS
How did you get involved with this production?
Powers: Ben West of Unsung Musicals Co. reached out to me this past summer... hoping I would be his Daisy.

What other NYMF productions have you been a part of?
Powers: Funny enough, the only other NYMF show that I have done was also a role opposite Max von Essen. Back in 2006, we starred in Desperate Measures, a Western musical comedy loosely based on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. We had an absolute blast in that show! Something tells me our relationship in Gatsby will be a bit darker and deeper...

How would you describe the character you're playing?
Powers: In the novel, there is a line about Daisy's voice sounding like money. You might say, first and foremost, she is a member of the upper class, always was and always will be. Her upbringing, combined with her looks and charm, made her adult life a foregone conclusion: She was bound to marry someone like Tom Buchanan (Yale, social elite, physically and financially powerful — the total "alpha male"), as she was bound to live a life of leisure, with all the material comforts she needed, and all the appearances of "success." Her life was chosen for her... it was never something she actively chose for herself. Now, as an adult, she longs for something else (call it happiness, peace of mind, purpose, her younger free spirited self, etc.) yet hasn't the slightest clue of how to attain it. Daisy is strong, glamorous and vulnerable... my kind of role!

Why do you think audiences should attend this particular production?
Powers: This is a major musical event and a launching pad for a future life!!!! Who doesn't love "Gatsby"?!! The unproduced musical adaptation of Gatsby was written by Tony Award winner Hugh Wheeler, Grammy Award nominee Lee Pockriss and Tony Award nominee Carolyn Leigh. Our NYMF concert is the public premiere of this fabulous jazz-infused score!

Why do you think NYMF is so important?
Powers: It provides not only a safe haven for artists to create and develop new musicals, but it also provides a launching pad for a future production. Above all, it's a Festival! Our community celebrates each other's artistic endeavors. NYMF celebrates new musicals, but which role in a classic musical would you most like to perform?
Powers: Oooooh, that's tough. I might have to say Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady or Dot in Sunday in the Park With George. For me, it's always about the character first and foremost... not the singing.

Do you have any other projects in the works?
Powers: Yes, but I would rather surprise you with them.

Jennifer Laura Thompson

JENNIFER LAURA THOMPSON
How did you get involved with this production?
Thompson: So that I would be included in Diva Talk. Also, I received a message from Lonny Price asking that I participate, and having just worked with him on Company, I was thrilled at the chance to work with him again.

What other NYMF productions have you been a part of?
Thompson: Two seasons ago I played Mary in Judas by Matt Sklar and Chad Beguelin.

How would you describe the character you're playing?
Thompson: An opera diva who has perhaps not earned her title. It's a character in development, so we'll see what she becomes as the rehearsals progress.

Why do you think audiences should attend this particular production?
Thompson: Great cast!!! Not referring to myself, but I thought spending the next month with these folks would be great fun and lots of laughs!

Why do you think NYMF is so important?
Thompson: Musicals in development need this type of venue to get a good gauge on where to go next. They need real audiences to help figure that out as well as actors and creative teams who are willing to help each piece come to life.

NYMF celebrates new musicals, but which role in a classic musical would you most like to perform?
Thompson: I think the role I dream of playing hasn't been written yet.

Do you have any other projects in the works?
Thompson: I can't wait to see what's next. I've been working on so many projects with the hopes of each of them having future productions. Ask me tomorrow, I'll give you my answer.

Kathy Voytko

KATHY VOYTKO
How did you get involved with this production?
Voytko: I received a text message from my good friend, Stephen Buntrock, saying "Let's do this NYMF show together, we'll have a great time." I did not have a clue as to what he was talking about because Tom Sivak [composer] had gotten in touch with him before he had gotten in touch with me, and I promptly texted Stephen back something eloquent like, "Huh?" Anyway, Tom did write to me and asked me to audition for the director, and now here we are!

What other NYMF productions have you been a part of?
Voytko: I've never been involved in a NYMF show—this is my debut! (However, I did do Next to Normal on Broadway which started at NYMF.)

How would you describe the character you're playing?
Voytko: Well, it's going to be interesting as for most of the story she is a head in a platter, being kept alive until another body can be found to replace hers, and she's not terribly happy about it.

Why do you think audiences should attend this particular production?
Voytko: Fun! Come for some fun-particularly if you are a B-movie fan.

Why do you think NYMF is so important?
Voytko: You can never fully understand how a show works until you see how it plays before an audience. NYMF is vital because it gives new shows a wonderful forum for the works in progress.

NYMF celebrates new musicals, but which role in a classic musical would you most like to perform?
Voytko: My favorite musical is She Loves Me. I would absolutely love to play either of the leading ladies in that show.

Do you have any other projects in the works?
Voytko: I took a little time off from working to have a baby. My husband, John Cudia, and I have two amazing girls—two-years-old and four-months-old—so they have been my "projects in the works." I just started to audition again so stay tuned…

Rachel York

RACHEL YORK
How did you get involved with this production?
York: The creative team contacted my representatives and asked if I would play Billie Burke in their new musical, Ghostlight. I really liked the role, but wasn't sure I would be able to accept their offer. I have a seven-month-old daughter who needs me, but luckily they were able to work around my schedule with her.

What other NYMF productions have you been a part of?
York: I haven't had the pleasure up until now.

How would you describe the character you're playing?
York: I play Billie Burke in the show. Most people may remember her as Glinda The Good Witch of the North in the film "The Wizard Of Oz." In her "day" she was actually known for being a musical comedy Broadway star. She was also nominated for an Academy Award. She was married to Florenz Ziegfeld while he had a reputation for getting involved with his showgirls. She remained a devoted wife to him until he died.

Why do you think audiences should attend this particular production?
York: In many ways it reminds me of the classic 1920s and 30s musicals complete with fun tap dancing, pretty showgirls and a variety of catchy tunes. Also, I think it's interesting to learn about the legendary Florenz Ziegfeld on a personal level.

Why do you think NYMF is so important?
York: NYMF gives talented, unknown musical writers and composers an opportunity to showcase their work. It gives a voice to original musicals, which is so very important for the vitality of musical theatre.

NYMF celebrates new musicals, but which role in a classic musical would you most like to perform?
York: I have yet to play Anna in The King And I. It's one of my favorite musicals, and it's a beautiful role I have been longing to play.

Do you have any other projects in the works?
York: Well, I got my wish to play the role of Anna in The King and I at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia this holiday season. I am very excited. I'm also doing a concert in San Diego the beginning of October.

For details and tickets, visit NYMF.

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

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