Being Jewish, I don't have too much experience with Christmas Eve, but the two I've encountered on Broadway — that zesty, comedic belter Ann Harada and her understudy, Ann Sanders — have both been terrific. Sanders, who is currently playing the role of the Japanese therapist while Harada is on maternity leave (she recently gave birth to Elvis Harada Litman), is delightful in the part, bringing her strong, rangy alto and wonderful comic timing to the Tony-winning musical at the Golden Theatre. Avenue Q, it should be noted, remains what is perhaps the most enjoyable musical now running on Broadway. The cast, led by the multi-talented John Tartaglia and the incandescent Stephanie D'Abruzzo, is better than ever, and Sanders fits in beautifully. I recently had the chance to chat with the actress, who has also appeared on Broadway in Beauty and the Beast as well as in the German mountings of Beast (as Belle) and Miss Saigon (as Ellen). That interview follows:
Question: When and how did you become involved with Avenue Q?
Ann Sanders: Actually, tomorrow, January 6, will be one year that I've been with the show. It was in October of 2004 that I auditioned and was given a song and three scenes to work on. It was probably about three callbacks later that — in December — I received the offer to join the cast, and I was thrilled.
Q: Were the auditions with members of the cast or did you read with a casting director?
Sanders: It was actually just with a casting person — nothing with the existing cast.
Q: Had you seen the show at that point?
Sanders: I had seen the show. I think I saw one of the first previews and loved it and was just cackling. [Laughs.] Q: At that point, did you think of yourself as possibly playing Christmas Eve? Did you see that as a role you wanted to do or was that an idea that came later?
Sanders: It probably came later. My first initial response was just that I loved the show so much, and knew that it was just starting on Broadway. But when the audition announcement came out I thought, "Oh, absolutely!"
Q: Do you remember the first time you had the chance to go on as Christmas Eve?
Sanders: I do. It was actually February of last year when five members of the playing cast flew to Florida for a promotional event, so almost all of the understudies went on together. We had a great audience that evening. They were just rooting for us. It was a lot of fun.
Q: What's it like being an understudy? Is it nerve-wracking not knowing when you might go on?
Sanders: A little bit, but [there is] probably more excitement [about going onstage]. Honestly, for me, with the transition there hasn't been much difference [between understudying and filling in for Ann Harada]. The only thing is not actually knowing sometimes when you're going to be going on. Whereas taking over the role, you have a period of time where you know you'll be performing every night. But there's just more excitement than anything else.
Q: How does it feel now that you've been able to play the role for a period of time?
Sanders: It's been an incredible experience. Like you said, sometimes with understudying, when you don't know you're going on, it's a little bit like being shot out of a cannon. You get a call at 6:30, and you're like, "Oh, okay!" [Laughs.] Now, it's been an opportunity to settle into it and enjoy it and [there's] also the thrill of maintaining that and making sure you're still telling the story fresh.
Q: I was really impressed again last night that everyone is still giving 100 percent to their roles. You wouldn't know that the show's been running for over a year.
Sanders: I'm so happy to hear that. I'm glad that translates. We have a lot of fun backstage, and I hope that energy translates.
Q: Do you have a favorite moment as Christmas Eve?
Sanders: If I had to pick one moment, I think it would probably be the final therapy scene with Christmas Eve and Rod. It's the moment we can see Christmas Eve can be a good therapist. She is listening, and she's compassionate and nurturing, not only this smart, sassy, salty woman.
Q: Do you enjoy performing "The More You Ruv Someone"?
Sanders: [Laughs.] I love that song. It's so much fun. Now that the CD has been out for awhile, it's so interesting to hear little giggles and chuckles from people as they realize the song is going to start to come up. It just helps me with the song — I can just ride that out since everyone is enjoying it.
Q: What do you think it's going to be like going back to covering rather than playing the role every night?
Sanders: This is the third time I've actually replaced, so I don't think it's going to be strange at all. The atmosphere at the theatre is always one of fun and encouragement, so I think it's going to be good.
Q: Tell me a little bit about your history. Where did you grow up, and when did you know you wanted to be a performer?
Sanders: I grew up in Streamwood, IL. It's about 30 minutes west of Chicago. I was a senior in high school when I auditioned for a performing arts high school in the city, and I was thrilled when I was accepted and got to take the train into the city every day. My parents have always been quite supportive of me, and my musical theatre class became my favorite, and I knew I wanted to pursue theatre as my profession. So, from the academy I went to Texas Tech University where I stayed every summer to perform in their summer musicals program, and after graduation I went back home to Chicago and was able to do some regional work. Eventually I made my way to New York. One of my first auditions was for a company called Stella Musicals. They were auditioning for their production of Miss Saigon in Stuttgart, Germany. I had an incredible time there with the show. I was able to continue with my training and travel all through Europe. And, Stella also opened up Beauty and the Beast there the next year, and I was able to play Belle, which was a dream come true.
Q: Were those productions in English?
Sanders: No, they were actually all in German.
Q: Did you speak German before?
Sanders: No! [Laughs.] So you can imagine! The rehearsal period was about six weeks, so substantially longer than they are here in the States, and they provided phonetic teachers to help us with the language. Saigon was a little easier because it's through-composed, so the rhythm of the melody dictated much of the inflections, whereas Beauty has a book. They would ask us how we would say a particular line in English, and then they would help us place the inflection in the correct place to maintain the same intention. But sometimes it went against your natural instincts because the language is structured where the verb falls at the end of the sentence. It was amazing to be a part of the production in that way. Fortunately, when I came back over to the States, I didn't say any lines in German. [Laughs.]
Q: You did Beauty and the Beast here as well, right?
Sanders: I did. I think it was the summer of 2000 I joined the company, and then in 2001 I was bumped up to play Belle. It was an incredible experience to come full circle — to go to this audition where they were casting in Germany and then have that be the opportunity that brought me back to the States.
Q: Do you find it at all difficult being Asian-American to find roles or has that not really affected you?
Sanders: You know, I've been so fortunate. I remember thinking while I was over in Germany, "[I'm] an Asian-American actress speaking and singing in German, playing Belle in a French provincial town." It was mind boggling. I loved that there was never any mention of it. Disney never said anything about it. Nothing was ever brought to light about it, and I really appreciated that. That was some non-traditional casting! [Laughs.] . . . There have definitely been strides [in casting]. Someone pointed out that besides playing Tuptim, Christmas Eve is actually the only other Asian-American role I've played. It's so refreshing and nice for me because when I first read the script, I immediately related to the character. Part of that is because I grew up with Christmas Eves all around me. My mom is Korean, and like my mom and her friends, Christmas Eve is so refreshing because she's smart, sassy, but she's also caring and loving and honest, and that is what makes playing her so gratifying to me.
Q: Speaking of playing the role, should Ann Harada not want to play Vegas, is that something you would like to do?
Sanders: I haven't really thought about it. I'm having such a great time right now, and it seems a way off — I think [it opens in Las Vegas in] September. But, sure, I'm always open.
Q: Do you have any dream roles, any musicals you'd love to do?
Sanders: I was thinking about that recently. I would love to originate a role. I've been so fortunate to come into successful shows with great stories and characters once they've been up and running, so I think I'd like to originate something.
Q: Do you have any other projects in the works?
Sanders: I do. I have a concert coming up for my alma mater. I'm doing a concert at the Meyerson Center in Dallas, so I just started programming that. It's going to be fun — it's with the jazz band there, and we're raising scholarship monies for the College of Visual and Performing Arts . . . A couple of the songs they suggested are "Can't Help Lovin 'Dat Man," "Orange-Colored Sky," "Buenos Aires" and "Gimme Gimme" from Millie.
[Sanders will offer her final performance as Christmas Eve Jan. 23, and the role's superb originator, Ann Harada, returns Jan. 25. Whether you visit Avenue Q before or after the 23rd, however, you'll be treated to an evening of wonderful gifts.]
I was more than thrilled earlier this week to receive a copy of the forthcoming CD, "Nancy LaMott—Live at Tavern on the Green." After an eight-year wait, this "new" LaMott recording — taped live at Tavern on the Green just weeks before her untimely death — will arrive in stores Feb. 1 on the Midder Music label (with distribution by LML Music). That same day will also mark the re-release of five of LaMott's previous magnificent recordings: "Beautiful Baby," "Come Rain or Come Shine: The Songs of Johnny Mercer," "My Foolish Heart," "Listen to My Heart" and "What's Good About Goodbye?" (All discs are being released on the Midder Music label with distribution by LML Music.) The Tavern on the Green CD — which I will review next week — was taped at the famed Manhattan landmark during LaMott's final cabaret engagement, which began Oct. 27, 1995. LaMott's producer, David Friedman — who also penned such LaMott signature tunes as "Listen to My Heart," "We Can Be Kind" and "Help Is on the Way" — created the new recording from various performances during that final run, and the single disc also includes LaMott's engaging and often humorous patter. The complete song list for the recording, which features musical director Christopher Marlowe on piano, Steve LaSpina on bass and John Redsecker on drums, follows: "Listen to My Heart" (David Friedman), "The People That You Never Get to Love" (Rupert Holmes), "Sailin' On" (Alan Menken-Dean Pitchford), "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" (Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart), "Jeepers Creepers" (Harry Warren-Johnny Mercer), "How Deep Is the Ocean" (Irving Berlin), "Waters of March" (Antonio Carlos Jobim), "I Got the Sun in the Morning" (Irving Berlin), "The Promise" (Alan and Marilyn Bergman-David Shire), "Help Is On the Way" (David Friedman) and "The Secret O' Life " (James Taylor) Visit www.nancylamott.com for more information.
It was announced earlier this week that Patti LuPone will guest star in an upcoming episode of the hit NBC situation comedy "Will & Grace." LuPone will play herself in the Emmy-winning series, which often features celebrity guests. Others who have made appearances as their celebrity selves include Cher, Jennifer Lopez, Janet Jackson and Tony Award winner Bebe Neuwirth. It's an especially busy time for the Tony and Olivier Award-winning LuPone, who is touring her acclaimed Matters of the Heart concert throughout the country. As previously announced, La LuPone will star in concert stagings of Regina at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts March 10-12. Following that D.C. appearance, she will return to New York for her third solo Carnegie Hall concert. The March 14 evening is titled "The Lady with the Torch" and will feature songs culled from her recent appearances at Feinstein's at the Regency. She'll end the month of March playing Fosca in the American Songbook presentation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Passion. That March 30-April 1 staging also features Tony Award winners Audra McDonald and Michael Cerveris.
Tony Award winner Jane Krakowski, currently in negotiations to star in the Donmar Warehouse's production of Guys and Dolls, has titled her upcoming Lincoln Center concert Better When It's Banned: Selections From a Sinful Songbook of Prohibition and Hayes Code Era Gems. The Feb. 1 evening at the Time Warner Center's Allen Room, will mark Krakowski's solo concert debut and will feature musical direction and piano accompaniment by Michael Kozarin. The original one-woman show will boast such classics as "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" and "Mad About the Boy" as well as rarities like "When I'm Low I Get High," "But in the Morning No," "A Guy What Takes His Time," "Wacky Dust" and "Gloomy Sunday." Krakowski, according to a press statement, has "long been fascinated by this controversial period in history. She has been especially moved by stories of artists directly affected by these moral codes and the great music that was lost because of them, as well as what these codes, though no longer in effect, tell us now about current battles with censorship." Tickets for the 7:30 and 9:30 PM concerts — priced at $40, $55 and $70 — are available at the Alice Tully Hall box office (Broadway and 65th Street), by calling (212) 721-6500 or by visiting www.lincolncenter.org. Wicked's Idina Menzel ends her Tony Award-winning run as Elphaba this Sunday (Jan. 9) at the Gershwin Theatre. On her newly updated website, the actress-singer says, "In 2003 I was cast as Elphaba, the wicked witch of the west in Wicked. Words can't express the overwhelmingly profound experience it has been both personally and professionally." Menzel, who will soon begin filming the role that launched her stage career — Maureen in Jonathan Larson's Rent — will be succeeded in Wicked by Shoshana Bean, who begins performances in the Stephen Schwartz musical Jan. 11.
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.