DIVA TALK: Chatting with Chicago's Melora Hardin, the Final Gypsy and News of Chenoweth, Kaye

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Chicago's Melora Hardin, the Final Gypsy and News of Chenoweth, Kaye News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Melora Hardin
Melora Hardin

MELORA HARDIN
The past 12 months have certainly been a musical period for triple threat Melora Hardin, who is best known for her work as Jan Levinson on NBC's award-winning "The Office." In January 2008 Hardin made her cabaret debut at the Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood, CA, performing a mix of her own original tunes and Broadway and jazz standards. This past summer saw Hardin pour a wealth of emotion into the role of the ill-fated Fantine in the acclaimed concert staging of Les Misérables at the Hollywood Bowl. And, at the end of last month, Hardin, who will soon be seen in the films "Seventeen Again" and "Hannah Montana: The Movie," made her Broadway debut as Roxie Hart in the Tony Award-winning revival of John Kander and Fred Ebb's Chicago at the Ambassador Theatre. Hardin, who is scheduled to play the merry murderess through Feb. 12, spoke with me last week about her musical year and her long-awaited Broadway debut. My interview with the intelligent actress, singer and songwriter follows:

Question: How did the role of Roxie Hart come about for you?
Melora Hardin: I had an audition about a year ago, and [Chicago producer] Barry Weissler leapt to his feet when I finished my first monologue and said, "Oh, my God! Where do you come from and how do you have all that training? Why haven't you been doing Broadway?" [Laughs.] He offered it to me right on the spot. I was very, very excited. It was kind of a fun day because the first cover of a magazine that I was ever on [came out that day]. Entertainment Weekly was doing covers of the couples from "The Office," and there was a picture of me and Steve Carell. . . . I was able to use [the magazine] during my audition. I held it up over my head when I said, "Roxie Rocks Chicago," and I tossed it into Barry's lap and I said, "Here, read this!" [Laughs.] That was really funny, and I guess he loved that. It was sort of a risk — he was either gonna hate this or he was gonna love this! [Laughs.]

Question: Was Broadway a goal of yours?
Hardin: Absolutely. I've wanted to do Broadway all my life. I've just been working so much in television and film that I haven't really had a chance to get here. That's part of what happened with auditioning a year ago. I couldn't fit it in until now. They wanted me to come right away, and I wasn't able to make that work. I've wanted to do this my whole life. I've been dancing all my life: I started dancing when I was five. I was a very serious ballerina and went to Joffrey on scholarship when I was 13. I've continued dancing just for my own soul and my body — I still take jazz classes two to three times a week back in Los Angeles. I've been singing all my life and acting professionally since I was six years old. I knew that there was going to come a time in my life when I was going to be able to really utilize all those skills, and it's so exciting. It makes me feel so alive to use them all at once.

Question: What was the rehearsal process like? I know a lot of times when you're replacing in a show, you don't get all that much time.
Hardin: Yeah, it was actually really fast. Sandahl Bergman taught me the two major dance numbers that I do, "Me and My Baby" and "Hot Honey Rag," in Los Angeles. So I learned those and worked on those for a couple weeks before I came, and I also learned my songs before I came. So when I arrived, I had two-and-a-half weeks to basically learn all the blocking, all my lines… and we changed some things in the dance numbers.

Question: What was that first night on Broadway like for you?
Hardin: It was very exciting and felt very good. I really feel like it's kind of a place that I belong in a lot of ways. It does feel like home in a way. I come from two theatre actors. Both my parents started in the theatre and met in the theatre . . . so it's kind of in my blood. I just did Les Miserables at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles in August. That was in front of 18,500 people a night for three nights. . . . Because we only had three performances, I had to work really hard to make sure that I didn't miss any minute of it. Sometimes, as a performer, you can be so nervous or worked up that you sort of fly through a show and [think], "Oh, my God! We did that? It's over?" I kind of made a mental note of that, and I really wanted to make sure I was present. I only have seven weeks [in Chicago], so I want to make sure that I'm present for every minute of it. I don't want to miss one minute of one show, and that included opening night. I did a little meditation, a little relaxation to make sure that I was really going to be there for my first night on Broadway. Question: How have you been finding the demands of doing eight shows a week?
Hardin: It's great. It's definitely a lot of work. There's no doubt about that. It definitely kind of consumes your whole life. Your sleeping schedule, your eating schedule all revolves around what's best for the show. I have not done one New York thing since I've been here. The only thing I did was when my daughters were here, I took them for a carriage ride in Central Park. That was my first time in Central Park, and I haven't been back. I haven't even done any shopping, and I love shopping in New York. I haven't done anything like that. I haven't had a minute to do anything! [Laughs.] It's pretty all-consuming, and that's okay. I knew it was going to be like that, so I was prepared for that. I do look forward to having a couple days where I can do [some New York things]. . . . Today when we get off the phone, I might just go to the little art store around the corner and get a couple of things. That's gonna be the big event of the day! … I guess if it were years and years and years of me doing this, it might be something different, but because I know it's a mere six-seven weeks, it feels very short, and I really want to give it everything I've got. It's okay, I can come back to New York anytime and do the New York thing. [Laughs.]

Question: How would you describe Roxie?
Hardin: She's a wonderfully hungry character. She's sort of insatiably hungry for attention and publicity and has a primal desire and ambition for that. I think that really does drive her. She also has a kind of wonderful naïveté, a charm about her. She's a real quick learner. She learns on her feet. She just sort of soaks in everything and is really good at learning, keeping her eyes and ears open, and implementing it immediately and coming out on top. There's something wonderfully childlike about her — and kind of idealistic … a sort of rose-colored glasses kind of thing. She has a picture of what her life is, which isn't necessarily congruous with what her life actually is. She's a likable bad guy, I guess.

Melora Hardin in Chicago
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for her?
Hardin: The whole "Roxie" monologue and song is pretty spectacular. It's so beautifully written. The writing is so immaculate in this show. It's a really, really well-written show. The songs are obviously great, and the dance numbers are wonderful. It's really fun because I get to do all of those things in little capsules of time. I get this wonderful monologue, and then I go into this great song with this wonderful little dance. I would say that's probably my favorite part of the show. Question: Since Broadway was something you've always wanted to do, has there been anything about the experience that's different from what you thought it would be? Anything that's surprised you?
Hardin: I guess it surprised me how comfortable I feel, how good it feels and how right it feels and how it doesn't actually make me feel crazy nervous. It makes me feel really alive and turned on, like all of my cylinders are firing.

Question: You mentioned the Les Miz in concert. What was that experience like for you?
Hardin: That was wonderful. It was such a different experience. First of all, the songs are far more taxing and challenging than the music in Chicago. They're really big "singing" songs. That whole day when you're doing Les Miz is all about protecting your voice, making sure you eat the right things for your voice and warming up at the right times during the day. And, then you have to warm up again before you sing and make sure your notes are all there — that your voice is all stretched at the top and stretched at the bottom. . . . In Chicago you do a lot of body stretching. In Les Miz you do a lot of vocal stretching. So in that regard it's different, and it's certainly very different with that large audience. They're so expansive and they're so way out there [at the Hollywood Bowl]. Les Miz is all about Heaven and God, and there we were under the heavens and under the skies and the stars and the moon. Looking up there in that outdoor venue is just so amazing. Here you are doing this tragedy and looking up into the heavens and talking about God and singing about God and Heaven. It was really just quite extraordinary and very spiritual, I would say. . . .But it's pretty miraculous, 18,500 people leaping to their feet every night.

Question: Richard Jay-Alexander directed you in Les Miz, and he also directed your cabaret act. Tell me about working with him as a director.
Hardin: Richard is extremely smart, and he really understands the actor's process. He's got amazing ears — he's got perfect pitch, so he hears everything, but he also understands the actor's process. He's very good at not saying too much about what you're doing if it's working. His adjustments are always really spot-on and help you go to the next level. I think that any good director, really mostly what they do is set you free. They take a talented person, and they basically make room for them to fly. They give you things to hold onto and make you feel safe but then give you the encouragement and the support to let it rip. I think he's quite skilled at that, and he's very attuned and very sensitive to the arc of a show. Of course, with Les Miz he has so much history [with the show] and so much knowledge about the story and the content. That was another [advantage] in pulling it together in two weeks. I think if we hadn't had a leader like that who really understood it inside and out, [it would have been difficult]. And, then [we also had] Mark McVey, who's done over 3,000 performances as Jean Valjean and really just has a miraculous understanding of that character and the show. We really couldn't have done it without Richard's leadership there. And, as far as my [cabaret] act goes, he was a joy. We have such a wonderful collaborative relationship. I feel very fortunate that we found each other. We really clicked.

Melora Hardin in Chicago
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Since we've never spoken before, I just want to go back a bit. Where were you born and raised?
Hardin: I was born in Texas, and I was raised in Los Angeles. I went to college at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. Question: When did you start performing?
Hardin: I started acting professionally when I was six, and I really have worked all my life in film and television. I've done theatre in Los Angeles as well and San Diego at the Old Globe.

Question: Have you done much musical theatre before?
Hardin: No, I really haven't. It just hasn't really come up in my life. There hasn't been time for it, but I'm specifically making time for it. It just feeds me so much and makes me so happy. I really love it, and I want to use everything I've got while I got it. [Laughs.]

Question: As you said, most of your work has been on screen. How does that compare for you with working onstage?
Hardin: They both have their challenges, and they both have their rewards. They're different. I would say it's challenging to sit around a set — it's the "hurry up and wait" syndrome. . . . Even just as simple as having a 4 AM call in film and television and having a 7:30 PM half-hour call for theatre and then being done at 2 AM after you wind down. With television, the challenge is getting up at 3:30 in the morning and going to bed at 7 at night. Even just simple things like that sort of correlate, but they're exact, diametric opposites. And then just the immediate gratification of getting the audience's reaction [in theatre]. You know what they're thinking, how they're feeling, if they're with you, if they're not, whether they like it or don't, right in the moment. When you do film and television, you don't get to see it until later. Sometimes you like what the director and editor did, and sometimes you don't. You don't have much to do with that. You're kind of out of the driver's seat in a certain way, once you've done your thing. In theatre, you're kind of in the driver's seat from curtain to curtain. That's kind of exciting.

Question: I know you also recently directed your first film. What was it like working on the other side of the camera?
Hardin: That was amazing. Similar to what I'm talking about in terms of theatre. I feel like doing Roxie — especially when you're dancing, singing and acting, you feel, at the end, all used up in a really wonderful way. "I've given you everything I've got, and there it is!" It's sort of like being a marathon runner. You run the marathon, and you're just spent. It's such a great feeling. The way that we made our film — my husband and I produced it together. He wrote it, I directed it, and we both starred in it. We made it very low budget, and it was really fast. We shot it in 18 days. Because I was acting in it and I was also co-producing it and I was directing it, I felt — similarly, at the end of each day — spent. . . . Every gift that I have was required of me, demanded of me in every moment of every day. That's a great feeling. . . . Making that film, everything I had to give was asked of me all the time. So I guess in that way I'm kind of an athlete, and I desire that feeling of running the race and getting to the end knowing that I gave it everything that I had to give. That's a good feeling.

Question: When does the film come out?
Hardin: We're releasing it on the internet at the end of March. People can find out about that by going to my website, which is melora.com. There will be a website for the film as well, but they can go to my website, and through my website they'll be able to find it on iTunes and Amazon and so forth. They'll be able to watch it, purchase it, download it, buy it, whatever they like! Question: How long will you stay with Chicago?
Hardin: I'm here until February 12.

Question: Do you think you'd like to do more Broadway?
Hardin: My gosh, I absolutely would love to. I'd like to come back and originate a role. I'd like to find something that really excites me and stretches me and is meaty and wonderful. I think the next thing in life for me would be to originate a role. I would really, really enjoy that. That would be exciting!

[Chicago plays the Ambassador Theatre, located at 215 West 49th Street. Visit www.chicagothemusical.com for additional information.]

Patti LuPone in Gypsy
photo by Paul Kolnik

GYPSY
Two of the creators of GypsyArthur Laurents, who penned the show's libretto and directed the current revival, and Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics to the late Jule Styne's melodies — were on hand for the final performance of the latest revival of their classic musical Jan. 11. Following an emotional performance at the St. James Theatre that featured lengthy entrance applause for most every scene and principal performer — both co-stars Patti LuPone and Laura Benanti were visibly moved by the audience's volcanic reactions to their entrances — Laurents and Sondheim joined the cast onstage.

The sold-out afternoon performance — including dozens who stood in the back of the theatre to watch LuPone's last performance as Rose — was a give-and-take love affair between audience and cast. There were several times the audience erupted into thunderous applause, most notably after LuPone's dazzling "Rose's Turn." The applause lasted so long — with some in the crowd yelling, "We love you Patti" and "You're a national treasure" — that the Tony-winning actress finally gestured for the crowd to let her and Benanti finish the scene.

When LuPone took her final bow, dozens of single roses were tossed to the stage, and she proceeded to pick up the flowers and distribute a single rose to each and every member of the cast. After she brought out Laurents and Sondheim to much applause, LuPone said, "Two of the creative staff are no longer with us, and we must acknowledge them — Jule Styne and [choreographer] Jerome Robbins."

More applause followed, and LuPone offered a simple, brief speech, stating, "This experience in this theatre has been blessed by the theatre gods. . . . The crew, the front of house, and our wardrobe and everybody in this show . . . it's a rare experience that was led by Arthur with love, for which we are eternally grateful. I think I've never worked with a more dedicated, more committed, more lovely group of people who call themselves theatricals . . . and I am incredibly grateful … This is not goodbye, this is simply fare thee well."

Although there had been talk of recording the final performance, there were no cameras present. That said, anyone lucky enough to have attended the last performance will not soon forget the experience.

DIVA TIDBITS


Brandi Burkhardt

Brandi Burkhardt, who made her Broadway debut earlier this season as Lucie Manette in the short-lived A Tale of Two Cities, will join the New York cast of the international hit musical Mamma Mia! Jan. 27. Burkhardt will succeed Allison Case in the role of bride-to-be Sophie Sheridan. Case will play her final performance in the ABBA-scored musical Jan. 25. The Winter Garden Theatre is located in Manhattan at 1634 Broadway. For more information visit www.mamma-mia.com. Tony Award winner Judy Kaye, who played vocally challenged soprano Florence Foster Jenkins Off-Broadway and subsequently on, will reprise her performance for San Francisco audiences next month. American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) in San Francisco will present Tony winner Kaye in Stephen Temperley's play with music, Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins. The production will play the California venue Feb. 13-March 15 with an official opening Feb. 18. Tickets for Souvenir can be purchased by visiting A.C.T. Ticket Services, located at 405 Geary Street, by calling (415) 749-2228 or by visiting www.act-sf.org. Day One: An Evening of Celebration, presented by Lance Horne and Mary-Mitchell Campbell, will be held Jan. 20 at Joe's Pub. The 9:30 PM concert will feature songs of hope and change to help celebrate the inauguration of America's 44th President, Barack Obama. Proceeds will benefit Artists Striving To End Poverty (ASTEP), the organization whose mission is to "to create positive change for young people in need across the globe." The performance will boast the talents of composer Horne and music director Campbell as well as Seth Rudetsky, Jeff Blumenkrantz, Debra Barsha, Nathan Lee Graham, Lauren Kennedy, Jenn Colella, Jenn Foote, Scott Sowinski, Lea DeLaria and Lauren Flanigan. Joe's Pub is located within the Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Street. There is a $20 cover charge; for reservations call (212) 967-7555 or visit www.joespub.com.

Who's Worse Than People? And Other Songs of the Season The Heartwarming Lyrics of Amanda Green is the lengthy title of a Feb. 2 evening at Birdland featuring the work of High Fidelity lyricist Green. Green will be joined onstage at the famed jazz club by actors Norm Lewis (The Little Mermaid), Jenn Colella (High Fidelity, Urban Cowboy), David Pittu (What's That Smell?, Is He Dead?, Lovemusik) and Jennifer Foote (A Chorus Line, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) and composers Larry Grossman (Minnie's Boys, Grind, Goodtime Charley) and Tom Kitt (High Fidelity, Next to Normal). Show time is 7 PM. Matt Gallagher will be the evening's musical director. Birdland is located in Manhattan at 315 West 44th Street, between 8th and 9th Avenues. There is a $30 (general admission) or $50 (orchestra) cover charge and a $10 food-drink minimum. For reservations call (212) 581-3080 or visit www.birdlandjazz.com.

Dreamlight Theatre Company's "Bright Lights" concert series will continue Jan. 26 with an evening entitled A Night with The Ladies. The 8 PM concert at Dillon's Lounge in Manhattan will feature the work of five women songwriters: Deborah Abramson and Amanda Yesnowitz, Katie Thompson, and Lindsay Baker and Amanda Jacobs. Billy Bustamante will host. Those currently scheduled to perform the songs of the aforementioned composers include Marc Kudisch (9 to 5, Assassins, Thoroughly Modern Millie), Chip Zien (Into the Woods, Falsettos), Laura Osnes (Grease), Liz Larsen (Hairspray, Damn Yankees), Megan McGinnis (Little Women, Les Miserables, Parade) and Charlie Brady (South Pacific). Dillon's Lounge is located in Manhatttan at 245 West 54th Street. There is a $15 cover charge and a two-drink minimum. To purchase tickets visit www.DreamlightTheatre.org.

Congregation Beth Simchat Torah will present the New York premiere of William Finn's Songs of Innocence and Experience Jan. 26 at the Merkin Concert Hall. The 8 PM concert will feature the talents of Broadway actors Malcolm Gets, Sally Wilfert, Ann Harada, Megan Lawrence and Sebastian Arcelus. Philip Himberg will direct with musical direction by Vadim Feichtner. Composed at Williams College, the new work contains lyrics and music by Finn in collaboration with his students. Songs of Innocence and Experience, according to press notes, "tells the stories of teachers and students, exploring the process of how learning is passed on." Composer Finn will narrate the evening. The Merkin Concert Hall is located in Manhattan at 129 West 67th Street. For tickets, priced $35, visit http://kaufman-center.org/merkin-concert-hall or call (212) 501-3330.

A concert performance of Zanna, Don't!, featuring several members of the original Off-Broadway cast, will be presented Feb. 3 at the Theatre at St. Peters Church. A benefit for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, the 7:30 PM concert will be co-directed by Jen Waldman and Steve Pacek with music direction by Rich Silverstein. Casting is now complete for the evening, which will feature recent Xanadu star Marty Thomas in the title role with several original Zanna Off-Broadway actors reprising their roles: Amanda Ryan Paige (Great American Trailer Park Musical) as Candy, Enrico Rodriguez (Rent, Big) as Mike, Robb Sapp (Wicked, Enter Laughing) as Tank and Shelley Thomas (Brooklyn) as Kate. The company will also include Michael Kadin Craig (Altar Boyz) as Steve, Katrina Rose Dideriksen (Jerry Springer the Opera) as Roberta and Troy Valjean Rucker (Jesus Christ Superstar) as Arvin. The Theatre at St. Peters Church is located in Manhattan at 619 Lexington Ave at 54th Street. Tickets, priced $50, are available by visiting www.glsenstore.orgl or by calling Solonje Burnett at (646) 388-6589.

Kristin Chenoweth

Tony Award winner Kristin Chenoweth has replaced the previously announced Marin Mazzie in the City Center Encores! upcoming production of Music in the Air, which will play the famed Manhattan venue Feb. 5-8. Mazzie has withdrawn from the production due to the recent death of her father. The cast will also feature "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" star Sally Ann Howes as Frau Direktor Kirschner, The Little Mermaid's Sierra Boggess as Sieglinde Lessing, Tony winner Dick Latessa as Herr Direktor Kirschner, theatre veteran Walter Charles as Cornelius, Anne L. Nathan as Marthe, Tom Alan Robbins as Dr. Walther Lessing, Tony nominee Douglas Sills as Bruno Mahler, Ryan Silverman as Karl Reder, David Schramm as Ernst Weber and Robert Sella as Uppman. Gary Griffin will direct with choreography by Michael Lichtefeld. Tickets for the 2008-2009 Encores! season are available by visiting the City Center box office (West 55th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues), by calling (212) 581-1212 or by visiting www.nycitycenter.org. And, finally, Victor/Victoria's Rachel York is currently in the midst of a symphony concert tour. The former star of City of Angels's schedule includes performances with the Minnesota Orchestra (Jan. 17), the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra (Feb. 7 and 8), the Long Bay Symphony (Feb. 28) and the Gulf Coast Symphony (April 5). For more details visit www.rachelyork.net.

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