DIVA TALK: Chatting with a "Broadway Baby," Follies Star Jayne Houdyshell

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Jayne Houdyshell
Jayne Houdyshell Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

JAYNE HOUDYSHELL
When the Kennedy Center's critically acclaimed production of Follies, starring Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, Ron Raines, Danny Burstein and Elaine Paige, begins previews on Broadway Aug. 7 at the Marquis Theatre, it will feature three actors new to the cast: Don Correia as Theodore Whitman, Tony nominee Mary Beth Peil as Solange LaFitte and the great Tony-nominated character actress Jayne Houdyshell as Hattie Walker, the former Follies star who gets to belt out the Stephen Sondheim classic "Broadway Baby." Although Houdyshell (pronounced HOWDY-shell) has built her reputation for work in dramas and comedies — Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and Lucille Lortel nominations and Obie and Theatre World Awards for her work in Lisa Kron's Well, Lucille Lortel and Drama League nominations for Manhattan Theatre Club's The Receptionist, Outer Critics Circle and Drama League nominations for Lincoln Center Theater's The New Century, among many others — the actress has also appeared in a few musicals in Manhattan, including the international hit Wicked, the recent revival of Bye Bye Birdie and MCC's Coraline, for which she received Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel nominations. Yet, what readers may not know about this gifted artist are the numerous classic musicals she performed in as a young actress in the Midwest. Last week I had the pleasure of chatting with Houdyshell — who is as funny, warm and down to earth as one would expect from seeing her stage performances — who spoke about her newest Broadway role and her musical-theatre history; that interview follows.

Question: How did this role in Follies come about for you?
Jayne Houdyshell: Well, it was quite out of the blue and a wonderful kind of surprise. I was just coming up on the closing of The Importance of Being Earnest. I guess it was the last week I was in the show, and my agents got a call wondering if I would be interested in coming in to sing for Hattie in Follies… Basically, [music director] Jim Moore just needed me to come in and sing the song to make sure that the key was right for me because they're doing the trio — the medley — with those three songs in the show, and it wasn't possible to change keys, so it kind of came down to whether or not I could hit the note, I think. [Laughs.] And, I went in and had a very brief meeting with him and sang through the song a couple of times and got the job! So, it was really fast and unexpected and a wonderful, wonderful surprise.

Question: Did you know the song or did you have to learn it for that meeting?
Houdyshell: I had never done the song, no. I, of course, was familiar with it and heard various wonderful women do it over the years, but, no, I'd never done it myself, but I had four or five days to learn it.

Houdyshell in Wicked.
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: And, as you're working on it now, what is your approach to the song?
Houdyshell: Well, initially, I just wanted to learn it correctly so then I have the freedom to play around with it. I didn't — prior to rehearsals starting — make any decisions about interpreting or anything because I really felt that I needed to take my cues from Jim Moore and [director] Eric Schaeffer and [choreographer] Warren Carlyle about what they wanted that musical moment in the show to be, and I've only been in rehearsal for three days. [Laughs.] It's very early in the gestation process and evolution of the number, but I think it would be safe to say that this song, this moment for her singing this song, is a wonderful — and I think exciting and fun — opportunity to revisit a number that she did as a young woman in the Follies. I think it's moving to her, but not in a self-indulgent way. I think it's just a wonderful, surprised experience for her to be able to come back to this number. I am looking at the character as not having been in show business for a while — I think she's been in retirement for quite some time, and happily so. But this is a very special event that all these people come back together for one-night-only, so she thinks it's a great opportunity for her to drag out the number one more time. [Laughs.]

Question: I know in DC they didn't do the song's traditional placement as part of a medley of three songs…
Houdyshell: Yes, it's being restored to its original form, and it's really fun to work on it. Everyone involved in the number is sensational and fun to work with, and Warren, our choreographer, had great ideas about how it should be staged and how that all comes out, so yes, that's what's happening with that number now. Question: What's it been like for you, one of just a few new cast members joining this company? How have the first few days of rehearsals been?
Houdyshell: Fantastic. The first day was just really the new people. There are three of us who are coming in: Mary Beth Peil, Don Correia and myself, who are new to the company. They gave us one day before assembling everyone for us to just work through the number musically and for them to set us on our feet, so that was a very, in a way, nice small introduction. The following day everyone assembled [laughs], and all of a sudden there was a rehearsal room full of more bodies than I've ever seen on the first day of rehearsals. There are 41 people in this company, and then, of course, there were all the people there from management — all of the different departments, etc., and it was quite, quite overwhelming. And, I don't know how long it will take me to learn everybody's name, but I have to say, being a new person in this company, I never felt more graciously welcomed by everyone to a person, and it speaks really to me of what a terrific time everyone had in Washington. The good will and generous spirit of the people and the company, I think, is reflective of the experience they've had to date with the show, and they were all very excited to come back together, and very, very kind in welcoming Don and Mary Beth and I.

Director Eric Schaeffer
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Question: I know you've done a few musicals, but your work has primarily been in non-musicals. What's it like for you to do a musical? Is it a different experience than doing a drama? How is that for you as an actor?
Houdyshell: [Laughs.] It's just terrific. It's very exciting to be inside these musicals. When I was a young woman, before I moved to New York, working in small, non-Equity theatres in the Midwest, I did a lot of musicals in my early to mid-20s. And, when I moved to New York, I was 27, and I thought I was moving here to kind of enter into the musical-theatre world, but I, in very short order, after going to numerous musical auditions, kind of got it, that the talent pool in the musical-theatre world in New York was so rich and deep, and there were so many people who were triple threats. This was in 1980 — this was a time when the pop-rock musical was hitting it big, and I never had that kind of voice or sound — that really wasn't my thing. It just became clear very early on, and it was smart of me, I have to say (and there was no cross-over at that time between musical theatre and people who did straight plays), that if I wanted to work steadily as an actor, or have the hope of that, that it would be doing straight plays rather than musicals. So, I took all of the musicals off of my resume and just devoted my career to doing straight plays, which I was very happy doing. That's what my training basically was in, so for over two decades, I virtually did no musicals. I did a handful, scattered, but virtually all straight plays, so it's only been in these last five years that I kind of started returning to musicals. It's really fun [laughs] to come back in and do them because, I'll tell you, I'm at a point now in my life and career where the parts that are open for someone my age and type are these real sweetheart parts — these great character roles that are usually kind of juicy and have a lot of payoff, and at the same time, you're not killing yourself out there because they are kind of medium-sized to smaller roles. So, it's been a really delightful experience. Really delightful. Yeah, I am happy to have opportunities to do musicals again at this later stage in my life.

Question: I'm curious. What were some of the earlier musical roles that you played?
Houdyshell: Oh, gosh, well I did Lola in Damn Yankees, I did Adelaide in Guys in Dolls, I did Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly!

Question: I bet you were a great Dolly.
Houdyshell: Well, I did the best I could for being 26, you know what I mean? [Laughs.] When I was doing these fantastic parts in these shows, I was definitely a big fish in a very small pond, and I thought I was sensational, my mother thought I was very good, but who knows! I think back on those shows, and I think, "Wow. Did I really know what I was doing?" I think that I was just cocky. [Laughs.]

Houdyshell in Well.
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Well was the first show that I think I saw you in that brought you to sort of a bigger audience.
Houdyshell: Certainly in New York, yeah. It was that play.

Question: I wonder how life has changed for you since then, in terms of the roles you're offered and working as an actor.
Houdyshell: Well, one thing that has changed is that I am now offered them [laughs], which is really nice. It's not to say that I don't still audition for things, too. The significant shift for me was, you know, after 25 years working in LORT theatres and stock theatres and regional theatres around the country, I shifted and started working almost exclusively in New York, so the big change was being able to work at home. I got to put my suitcases in the back of the closet and not keep pulling them out, and that's been fantastic. I love the stability of being able to work in the place where I live, and I have to say that since I did Well, I've had a lot of wonderful plays come my way. I mean, the work itself, the quality of the work, has just been beautiful. And, working on Well was a phenomenal experience in-and-of itself. I was in development with that play for four-and-a-half years. It was a very big and deep part of my life, and that whole collaborative experience remains one of the most joyous and creative times I've ever had as an actor, but what that opened up for me was the kind of continuing thing of being able to work on new plays. Writers who were developing things started approaching me about doing their work, and that was very exciting and a big shift from all those years in regional theatre where I only did plays that had been done many times before. That was a big change for me to go from doing classic plays, to doing new plays and developing new work — very thrilling. Also, like we were saying earlier, this return to musicals has been a result, oddly, kind of indirectly, as a result of Well, and my kind of higher profile in New York. That has been a very happy thing, too. Question: Just getting back to Follies a little bit. Has Sondheim been at the rehearsals yet?
Houdyshell: No, he hasn't. I'm sure he will be soon. I don't know when he'll be coming in.

Stephen Sondheim
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Question: Have you ever met him or sung for him?
Houdyshell: Only once, very briefly. I did a play — this was right before I did Well at the Public Theater. I did a play at the  [Peter Jay Sharp Theater] at Playwrights Horizons called Fighting Words, and he came to a performance and stayed after and I met him very briefly just to say hello, and that was the only time I ever have actually spoken to him. I, of course, have loved and revered his music all of my career. I just love everything he's ever written, and I can't quite believe that I am [laughs] going to be in this production, and he'll actually be around. Going back to those earlier days when I was doing musicals in the Midwest, I did several Sondheim shows. I played Amy in Company, and I did Domina in …Forum, not very well — that song's really rangy, I didn't have the chops for it, but I did my best. And, this is another one — I was really, really young for it [laughs], I think I was 26 or 25 — I did Desiree in Night Music. [Laughs.] And, I loved it! I just thought it was great! [Laughs.] Oh, my God. I hate to think about it actually. Anyway, I've loved his music for as long as I've been working, and every time I see one of his shows, whether the production is entirely successful or not, the score is always transporting. I always feel like I have some sort of transcendent experience when I listen to his scores.

Question: Have you ever seen a production of Follies?
Houdyshell: You know, not really. The only experience with Follies that I've had directly is the Lincoln Center concert in the early '80s with Lee Remick and Barbara Cook and Carol Burnett. I did see that, but that was largely concert-ized in a way. I didn't feel like I saw the show, but I certainly heard the show in terms of the score, and that was a thrilling, thrilling night in the theatre that I shall never forget.

Question: I wonder if you can talk a little bit more about Hattie — who you think she is or maybe it's too early for you… or what you have thought about her so far.
Houdyshell: I don't know what I want to say because it's so early for me. I don't want to misrepresent her… I guess the clues that I'm taking about who she is are the little brief things that are given in the libretto and the text — she's lived a full life and had numerous marriages and, I think, at least a handful of children and has grandchildren, and is a very proud grandmother. I think she is one of those gals that was a headliner, and she loved the business when she was in it, but when she moved into the time in her life when it was about home and family, I think she retired gracefully and really has enjoyed her later years. I don't think her identity is tied up in show business certainly in the way it was when she was a younger woman, but I think the event of this reunion with the people that she knew in her younger days — it has the same impact on her that it does on everyone else who comes back for this reunion. It's a moment in time when one is able to relive a golden time in one's younger days, and not many people have the opportunity to do that. That's one of the extraordinary events of the play, and I think, at least for Hattie anyway, for the character of Hattie, this is a golden moment for her — to return and see all these people and be able to pull out the number one more time. [Laughs.]

[For tickets to Follies, phone (877) 250-2929 or visit Ticketmaster.com. ]

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

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