Dessa Rose, the new musical from Ragtime's Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music), is based on the 1986 novel by Sherley Anne Williams and explores the fictional meeting of two real women, the black Dessa Rose and the white Ruth Sutton. Dessa, a runaway slave played with fire, dignity and explosive voice by La Chanze, finds refuge in the Northern Alabama farm owned by Ruth, who is portrayed by the equally riveting Rachel York.
I've previously enjoyed York's work in the New York productions of City of Angels, Putting It Together and, most recently, Sly Fox, but I hadn't fully appreciated the scope of her talents until seeing her work in the often-compelling Dessa Rose. As Ruth, York creates a complex portrait of a woman who is abandoned by her husband on an isolated farm, which eventually becomes a refuge for runaway slaves.
York convincingly plays Ruth as both a young, recently married Southern belle and as an 84-year-old woman looking back on a life filled with surprising challenges, struggles and occasional moments of inspiration and joy. Chance meetings and intimate relationships with runaway slaves Dessa and Nathan (the beautiful-voiced Norm Lewis) open a new world for Ruth, and her hard-fought friendship with Dessa help both young mothers grow into strong, independent women. It is that friendship that is the core of Dessa Rose, a musical that, for me, is the most moving of the current season.
In addition to the touching compassion she displays, York also sings with a powerful intensity. She is at her most thrilling in her first-act solo "At the Glen," where she lets the full force of her rangy belt soar throughout the intimate Mitzi Newhouse Theater. I recently had the chance to chat with York about her latest role — that interview follows: Question: When did you become involved with Dessa Rose?
Rachel York: Well, I auditioned for it back in October.
Q: So, you weren't involved in any of the workshops. . .
York: No, I was not. Donna Murphy, I believe, was involved in all the workshops.
Q: So, you auditioned and then got the part. . .
York: I did it the old-fashioned way! [Laughs.]
Q: Tell me about the research you did for the show.
York: Well, I read the book, of course, which was the main research. And, then we had a dialectician, who was wonderful. I took a lot of my own experience [as well]. There are those roles that kind of fit you like a glove, and this one just did. I knew it the minute I heard the music and read the play, the original script, which I read before the book. It just spoke to me. . . About two years ago, after I did the "Lucy" [television movie], a lot of things changed for me. . . I had gotten in a place where I craved playing a salt-of the-earth character. And, actually, the next role that I ended up playing was [Sly Fox's] Miss Fancy, which was not a salt-of-the-earth character [laughs], but it finally did come. I really wanted to play a woman struggling to survive in an ordinary way under not ordinary circumstances. And that was [Ruth].
The other research that I used for [the role] is my grandmother and my mother. I used to listen to my grandmother tell me stories for hours and hours and hours. I just thought that she was the most interesting character. I've always been sort of a mimic, and I used to mimic her when I was a child. I just found her so fascinating, her characteristics — the way she stood, the way she talked, her eyes, everything. So, a lot of that is just in me anyway. When I play old Ruth, it's actually not a struggle to try and remember what she did. It's in me by this time. Not only have I inherited certain physical characteristics from her, but it's in me. I remember as a child absorbing all of that.
Ruth is not my grandmother at all though . . . my grandparents were very racist. I struggled [with their racism]. Still, you see the goodness in them, but you also see their weaknesses.
Q: I was really moved by the show and thought the reviews were surprisingly harsh. I was wondering whether the notices affected the morale of the cast.
York: I think the first day we were back after the critics, we all felt like we were punched in the stomach a little bit.
Q: Although the cast received good reviews. . .
York: Yes, that's true, and we were all grateful for that, but this is one of the most lovely experiences I've ever had. Not only is everyone so talented and has so much to bring to everything that they do in the show — so much creativity and depth — but they're just really nice people to work with. Everybody, from the producers on, everybody's really supportive and lovely and wonderful, and we all just really believe in this show.
I'm sure it's not for everybody, as most shows are not, but I think the people that it is for, I think they're really touched by it, really moved. I remember when I first saw the movie "Joy Luck Club" years ago, I thought to myself, "This is the kind of work that I want to do. I want to be a part of projects that take you on a journey, and after that journey your life has been changed on a certain level." You have been moved, you have not only been educated, but it's changed your life on some level. It's inspired you or caused you to look at things differently. It's thought-provoking. So I'm always seeking material like that. So when this came along, this is what I've been looking for, and I think all of us feel that way, and every time we do the show, we go through this wonderful, cathartic journey. And, I really believe from the sniffles and the tears and the laughter from the audience and then the accolades afterwards that they really do enjoy it.
After the reviews, I just had to remember that sometimes you just touch a couple people, and that's enough. Some people really get something out of it, and that's the intention — that people will be able to walk away and say, "That really did something for me. That reminded me of my childhood, my mother or my grandmother" — whatever it is, then it's worth it. I remember as I was exiting the other day off the stage after the bows, a woman reached her hand out to me, and she said, "It was so amazing. Thank you so much." That touched me. I really was moved by her saying that. She got something from this — it wasn't just another play.
Q: What's it like performing in that space, where the audience really is right on top of the actors?
York: It's different. [Laughs.] I love it because it's so intimate. It's almost cinematic in the respect that it's almost film acting. They're right there. There's no indication in any way. You can actually stand there and be in the moment and do nothing, and everybody gets it. I think in some ways that's even more powerful. I love the intimacy of the theatre.
Q: You talked a little bit about playing Ruth as an older woman. Is it difficult making that switch — sometimes it's within the same scene. . .
York: You know I think maybe in the beginning, before we even started rehearsal, I thought, "Wow, is that going to be difficult? Are they going to buy [that device]?" Interestingly enough, that's something that the critics talked about. I think it's an incredibly bold choice, and I like bold choices myself. I like taking risks, and I like playwrights taking risks as well. I appreciate that. In the beginning I was concerned [whether] people would be able to follow that. But most of the people who come to see the show tell me that that was their favorite part of it. That's what they found so interesting — that with just a simple gesture, just a simple change of the body language you bought it, you believed that this was this person [at a different age].
For me, as the actress, I had to gradually find it, but I was patient with myself, and I think it just sort of happened. It just unfolded. It just seemed natural. So when I transform, it's a little strange for me because I really feel like an 85-year-old woman! When I'm in that posture, and when I'm coming offstage, it almost feels natural, and I have to straighten my back up. I get in a comfort zone [laughs]. . . With any character that I play, when you find body language, when you find these mannerisms or these gestures or these little ticks, you automatically go to that perspective. You become that perspective of that character, so when I'm bent over, it's not as if I'm pretending to be an old woman, it's a whole world that's going on in there. [Laughs.] It's all the years that have passed, it's everything that I've learned up to now as the old woman. It's "How do I see now? What does the world look like to me now?"
Q: You also have some very demanding vocal work. How do you protect your voice for doing eight shows a week?
York: For me, it's not so much about protecting my voice from the show as it is protecting myself from any ailments, germs. I had a sinus infection before the first preview, and boy that was just so hard. I can deal with the vocal demands of the role — that's not the problem. It's once you get sick, it takes so much energy to work around that.
Q: Any word on whether the show will get recorded?
York: I haven't heard anything definite, but the word is that there will be a recording.
Q: Since it was recently Stephen Sondheim's 75th birthday, I was hoping you could talk a little bit about working with him and Julie Andrews on Putting It Together.
York: I have very fond memories of Sondheim. I would love to work with him again. When I was doing Putting It Together, I had a really hard time with the director. [Laughs.] It was a revue, there was no script, there really wasn't a character. This was one of the first major projects that [Julia McKenzie had directed], and she was just having a really hard time conveying to me what she wanted. No matter what I did, it just didn't work, it wasn't right. [Laughs.] . . . I thought I was just awful in it. I was just praying to be mediocre. [Laughs.] When we would work together, we would do my number. I would get up there, and I'd sing halfway through it, and Julia McKenzie would go, "No, no, no! What are you doing? Let's go on to Julie's number." I felt like I never got any practice. [Laughs.] I never knew what I was doing. And every time I'd go onstage — after you hear that over and over "no, no, no" — I finally thought, "What am I doing? I'm going to be fired soon."
Some people, maybe they just don't communicate the way you want. But I did get a work session with Stephen, and he was the biggest bright light. We worked together doing "Miller's Son," and he gave me some great direction and encouragement. I just remember him being my savior at that moment.
But then what happened was I got some direction from the director: "She's dumb, but she's not dumb." What does that mean? I went home and I happened to be watching a Goldie Hawn movie. And I was like, "That's it!" Goldie Hawn — she's considered dumb, but she's not dumb. She has an innate intelligence that comes through. So the next day . . . I decided I'm going to go up there and have this kind of Goldie Hawn essence, a playful Goldie Hawn kind of approach. So I went up there and did that, and Stephen sent me a little note that day, and he said, "Think Goldie Hawn." [Laughs.] So, you see, Stephen and I were connected. After that, then I knew where to go with it. He's a great communicator. I could understand him. I appreciate him, and I'm so thankful for him in that whole situation because it was one of the most difficult rehearsal experiences I ever had . . . I think a lot of the cast was having some difficult with some of the direction, but he was a bright light as far as I'm concerned. I'm so grateful for him. He was so communicative, so helpful.
Q: And what was it like working with Julie Andrews?
York: Julie Andrews is just wonderful. Before we were starting Putting It Together, I was in L.A., and she wanted to meet me and maybe go over a few of the songs before we started rehearsal. I went over to her office in Brentwood and actually took my mom with me. The first time I met her, first her assistant came out and said, "Julie will be with you in just a moment." And, a few seconds later, Julie comes out and says, "Hello, so good to meet you. Give me a big hug." And she hugged me and said, "Can I make you some tea?" I thought for sure she was going to have her assistant make the tea, but Julie Andrews went and she made tea! So that was really special. . .
We were in rehearsals for Putting It Together, and I remember I had a really bad day. It was the end of the day, and I was just going to mosey on out with my backpack, and she caught me and said, "Oh, Rachel aren't you going to stay?" We were celebrating because we got through the first act. I said no, and I just started crying. She said, "You're doing so well, you're doing so well." She said, "Let me give you a hug." She was so very Mary Poppins. [Laughs.] She said, "Oh, I think you're wonderful. I love the choices you're making. They're choices I never would have thought of. They're so original and creative." She was so lovely . . . she's just incredibly gracious and lovely. When her schedule isn't incredibly busy, occasionally we get to talk on the phone, or I get to see her in L.A. with her husband Blake, and it's delightful. She's always very lovely and generous of spirit and just the way you would want her to be.
Q: Do you have any projects lined up for after Dessa Rose?
York: Right now I have a couple projects, but [I] don't want to say anything until [I] actually have the contract in hand. [Laughs]. They're theatre-related [projects]. We'll see how they go — if not, I'll probably be going back to L.A., doing more film and TV. . . Now I'm looking for a fun project. I think every time it changes. Before I was looking for the salt-of the-earth character. Now I just want to do something that's fun and celebrates life. That's what I'm looking forward to doing. [Dessa Rose, directed and choreographed by Graciela Daniele, plays the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 West 65th Street. Call (212) 239-6200 for tickets.]
I'm looking forward to Maureen McGovern's concert this Monday (April 11) to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. The singer-actress, who is currently on Broadway in the new musical Little Women, will perform One Enchanted Evening at Birdland, backed by musical director Jeff Harris on piano. Show time is 9 PM, and concertgoers can expect the talented chanteuse to wrap her beautiful, rangy alto around such tunes as "This Nearly Was Mine," "It Never Entered My Mind" and her signature tune "The Morning After." Tickets are priced $25 (general admission seating at the bar), $60 (reserved table seating) and $500 (two VIP seats, two house seats for Little Women, an autographed Little Women CD and a private meet-and greet with McGovern following a Little Women performance). Birdland is located at 315 West 44th Street in New York City; for tickets call (212) 840-0770 or visit www.bcefa.org. . . By the way, McGovern, who serves as a National Board member of the Muscular Dystrophy Association, will be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award for her decades-long work as an advocate for people with disabilities. Dr. Matthew Goldstein, Chancellor of the City University of New York, will present McGovern with her award April 8. McGovern also recently founded the Maureen McGovern Works of Heart Foundation for Music and Healing.
Sheryl Lee Ralph, who starred as Deena Jones in the original Broadway cast of Dreamgirls, will play Margo Channing in the upcoming Reprise! mounting of Applause. Ralph will star in the role created onstage by Lauren Bacall in the series of staged concerts at UCLA's Freud Playhouse May 10-22. Jean Louise Kelly will play opposite Ralph as Eve Harrington with Kevin Earley as Bill and Caroline, or Change's Veanne Cox as Karen Richards. David Lee will direct and Mark Esposito will choreograph the musical, which is based on the film "All About Eve" and concerns an aging Broadway star (Channing) and the young woman (Harrington) she takes under her wing. Tickets for Applause, priced $55-$65, are available by calling the UCLA central ticket office at (310) 825-2101. Go to www.reprise.org for more information.
A host of theatre favorites will take part in a benefit concert of Jason Robert Brown's Songs for a New World next month. The all-star concert will be held May 1 at 4 PM at Symphony Space's Peter Jay Sharp Theatre. The benefit for, and performed by, the Bergen Youth Orchestras' Symphony will feature a 90-piece orchestra as well as the talents of composer Brown and Michael Arden, Brooks Ashmanskas, Andrea Burns, Darius de Haas, Krissy Fraelich, Keith Byron Kirk, Anthony Manough, Jessica Molaskey, Michele Pawk, Emily Skinner and John Tartaglia. Tickets are priced $55, $50 (members) and $35 (students/seniors/children) and are available by calling (212) 864-5400. Visit www.symphonyspace.org for more information.
Rebecca Luker, recently seen in the Children and Art Sondheim celebration, will be part of the York Theatre Company's upcoming presentation of Jule Styne and E.Y. Harburg's Darling of the Day. Part of the Off-Broadway theatre's acclaimed "Musicals in Mufti" spring season, Darling of the Day will be mounted April 15 at 8 PM, April 16 at 2:30 and 8 PM and April 17 at 2:30 and 7:30 PM. Directed by Michael Montel with musical direction by Andrew Gerle, the cast will also include Simon Jones, Charlotte Moore and Stephen Mo Hanan. Tickets, priced at $35, are available by calling (212) 868-4444 or by visiting www.smarttix.com. For more information go to www.yorktheatre.org.
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to email@example.com.