DIVA TALK: Chatting with Gypsy's Alison Fraser, "American Idol" Thoughts Plus Butler and Les Miz

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Gypsy's Alison Fraser, "American Idol" Thoughts Plus Butler and Les Miz
 
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Alison Fraser
Alison Fraser

ALISON FRASER
I'll admit that I've always had a soft spot in my heart for the enormously talented Broadway actress Alison Fraser, who was the first Tony-nominated performer I ever interviewed. Fraser graciously consented to chat with me when I was hosting my college radio program during her run in Romance/Romance, treating a then 19-year-old theatre enthusiast with the utmost respect. It was at that time when she handed me a copy of her definitive rendition of "New York Romance," which was penned by her late husband, musician and composer Rusty Magee. Over the past 20 years, I've had the great pleasure of seeing Fraser's work on stage (a beautiful performance in Romance/Romance, which allowed her the chance to play characters in two different centuries; her wonderful, heartfelt role as Martha in The Secret Garden that culminated with a thrillingly belted "Hold On"; a reprise of the role she created, Trina, in the anniversary production of Falsettos at Playwrights Horizons) and in concert (a rare concert of William Finn's "In Trousers" at the Public Theater and her own, spectacular solo show at the 92nd Street Y). And, now, I'm happy to report Fraser is returning to the Broadway stage after more than a decade in the eagerly awaited revival of Gypsy that stars Tony and Olivier winner Patti LuPone as that stage mother of all stage mothers, Rose. Fraser, who also joined LuPone for the City Center staging of Gypsy last summer, is cast as the lovable stripper Tessie Tura, and she brings great warmth and heart as well as dead-on comic timing and her mellifluous voice to the role and the show-stopping "You Gotta Get a Gimmick." I recently had the chance to chat with the lovely Fraser, who was in the midst of studying for exams (she's currently finishing her degree at Fordham); that interview follows:

Question: Congratulations about Gypsy transferring to Broadway!
Alison Fraser: It's been a joy. It's just a joy to watch [everyone] at work: Arthur [Laurents] and Boyd [Gaines] and Laura [Benanti] and Patti [LuPone]! Patti is just the bomb. She's fantastic. It's really the most lovely group of people, and having Lenora [Nemetz] is such a nice addition. Nancy [Opel] was on tour with Drowsy Chaperone, so Lenora Nemetz came in as the new Mazeppa. It's just so much fun to reconnect with her. I had known her years ago, and I was a big fan of hers. She's just a great, great, great performer. It's thrilling to see. I'm sharing a dressing room with her.

Question: Let's go back to the summer. How did the role of Tessie come about for you?
Fraser: You know what? It was basically through the George Street Playhouse. I have a long association with them. I had done three shows in a row for David Saint, who is just one of my favorite directors in the world. He is, of course, a great, great pal of Arthur Laurents. Arthur came to see a show that I did a couple of years ago [Gunmetal Blues] . . . and shortly after that we went out for dinner, and he said, "I really would like you to be my Tessie Tura." It was months before the City Center show came about. Whenever you hear something like that, it's like, "Yeah, that'll be great if it happens," and it happened! And, then, it not only happened, but it escalated to me being back at the St. James again for the first time in 15 years.

I've been there, obviously, to see other shows, but the first time you set foot on that stage after you've been off of it for a while, it's like a time machine. It's like a flood of experiences that come back to you. The experiences that I had there [during The Secret Garden] were so tumultuous. My brother-in-law was killed in a car crash, poor Daisy [Eagan]'s mom was diagnosed with cancer. My son was two-and-a-half at the time, and he's going off to college now. He's 17. He'll be 18 in a month, and he's going off to college. . . . I walked on the stage a little bit later than everybody else. My mom passed away last Wednesday, so I had a couple of days off to deal with family matters. I think that this points up how theatre is like a time machine. I remember one of the last shows of Secret Garden. My son [Nat] was two-and-a-half years old… John Babcock, who played the original Colin, had left the show by that time because his voice had changed dramatically. He has a lovely low voice now. He offered to sit with Nat during the show. So you hear the opening, and then you hear the silence after the opening. If you remember the beautiful beginning of Secret Garden, it was Rebecca Luker looking gorgeous, being lowered to the stage in the huge, antique, oval Victorian frame. After the opening and musical interlude, you hear this little, tiny voice pipe out in the silence, "Becca singing in egg!" It was hilarious. [Laughs.] That's what [I hear] when I walk on the stage . . . in addition to thinking, "Oh, my God! This is where Oklahoma! was! Gene Kelly did Pal Joey here. Yul Brynner was here with Gertrude Lawrence." In addition to the ghosts of the theatre, we have these incredible personal ghosts.

Question: It is amazing to think of all the different people who have been on one stage.
Fraser: It's just wild. I'm not sure, but I think I'm in the same dressing room from years ago. It's really wild. Question: What was the rehearsal process like for the City Center run of Gypsy?
Fraser: I think we had a full four weeks, as I recall. Arthur is spectacular in his generosity to actors. He lets you sit around the table longer than anybody I've ever encountered. We would have table reads sometimes three days in a row, four days in a row, and it became invaluable to really dissecting the piece and exploring it and realizing that this is not your ordinary musical. This is a fine, fine dramatic piece with music that is just as dramatic and valuable as the book. This is the mother ship of musicals. It's so deep, and every day Arthur and Laura and Boyd and Patti would find new nuances, new depths. For anybody who saw the City Center production, wait until you see this! That one was really great, but this one, I think, goes even deeper emotionally. It's more truthful. It's not razzmatazz musical comedy, which isn't to say that there isn't some really, really fabulous stuff in it — like the fabulous Minsky girls, and the adorable kids in the first act, the great voices, the great dancing of Tony Yazbeck and his singing, and Leigh Ann [Larkin], and Marilyn Caskey is hilarious. It's got all the components of great, entertaining musical theatre, but it has more. It's also got the emotional depth of a Tennessee Williams drama, of a Eugene O'Neill, of a Medea, really. This is Greek tragedy. This is a deep, deep seminal emotional experience I think.

Question: How specific was Laurents in his direction since he knows the piece so well?
Fraser: Arthur is my very, very favorite type of director because he knows exactly what he wants. He is the ultimate authority, and he has the security to let the fine actors that he has hired — and that's his first genius . . . his ability in casting — do what they do best, which is explore, which is bring life to these marvelously-wrought lyric characters. That's our job . . . to bring life to these characters on the page. Arthur, because of his experience and because of his deep, deep intelligence, has the security to trust his actors. That allows us to explore. It allows us to make mistakes. I'm the type of actor who gets it wrong ten times before I get it right once. To be able to have a director who doesn't freak out about that is really terrific. When you're exploring, you might happen upon something great. You might bomb, and nine times out of ten, you are going to crash and burn. But to have a director that allows you the freedom to really, really explore is a huge, huge privilege.

Question: What was it like hearing that burst of applause after "Gimmick" each night?
Fraser: It's absolutely thrilling. Again, it's so wonderfully constructed. The music is so glorious, and the lyrics… Every time I hear "Some hum-drum people," I go, "Jesus, that man's a genius!" Every night I'm like, "God, he's brilliant!" Then, Mr. Sondheim's sitting there in the room. What a dream is that! . . . I'm not the type of performer that goes, "Give me the applause." I kind of shy away from curtain calls. I'm always encouraging directors, "Oh, just do an ensemble call." I'm always afraid I'm not gonna get the most applause. [Laughs.] But in this one, it's so beautifully constructed, and we have been guided by the master towards performing it in a way that the audience will be pleased that we have security as actors. What you have in the St. James Theatre right now is a bunch of really happy, secure people — at least as far as I can tell. I'm the least happy and most insecure actress I know [laughs], and yet here I am bubbling over to you how happy and secure I am. It's an unheard of state of being for an actor to feel this way. I feel nurtured, I feel cherished, I feel lucky, and, most important, secure.

Alison Fraser in Gypsy
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: How would you describe Tessie?
Fraser: I love Tessie. Tessie was a real woman. She's in the book [that Gypsy Rose Lee penned]. Gypsy actually regarded Tessie . . . as more of a sister than June Havoc, so I took my cue from that. Even though this is a woman during the Depression who had no other choice… She obviously has no education. You can tell that by the way she talks. Maybe she did take a few ballet lessons when she was a kid. … She might have had some ballet in her background, but I don't think that she was necessarily a "ballerina." In her head she's a ballerina or she wanted to be a ballerina, but there was no real choice for her. First of all, if you're built like a stripper, you ain't gonna be a ballerina! Not with those large breasts! You'd tip over in the pirouettes. [Laughs.] I think Tessie is a very warm person. First of all, she's the one — and I just figured this out — who gives Gypsy her name. Everybody's always saying, "Why is this show called Gypsy?" And, we know the real reason. The real reason is that Gypsy Rose Lee said to Arthur, "Do anything you want with the show, but it has to be called Gypsy." Tessie is the person that first calls her Gypsy when she goes, "Gypsy, meet Miss Mazeppa." I realized this is the first time this girl has been called Gypsy. And, again, if we weren't sitting around a table, we wouldn't necessarily have the time to think about stuff like that. We'd be going, "I gotta be stage left. Where's my hat?" It's marvelous — little nuggets like that that Arthur has allowed us to find. Probably everybody else has thought of that, and I'm just too thick to have thought of it before! [Laughs.] I'm very happy with the moment where I say, "Gypsy, meet Miss Mazeppa." It's kind of handing her her identity. Tessie's dress is the one that is used for [Gypsy's] first strip. The gloves that Tessie has given to Rose are used in the act. The shoes that Rose has taken from Tessie are used in the act. The boa — I come out and I say, "Oh, honey, this is for luck." I hand her my boa. Tessie is very nurturing and mothering towards this clearly lovely, but undeveloped girl. I think she loves Gypsy, and I think there's a wistfulness about Tessie. Tessie never had a mom like Rose. Tessie never had anybody to push her, however heinous that can be in certain situations. Tessie didn't have the same kind of driving force behind her. I think there's a wistfulness and a sadness about Tessie. I don't think she's just a good old girl. I think she's very deep. I think she's very hurt by the fact that she's not a headliner anymore. I think she also realizes that very soon her days as a stripper are going to be over, and what the hell happens to her then? I believe she went on to either sew costumes or have something to do with wardrobe later on in life. This is a girl at the end of her day in the spotlight, I think, and she's kind of passing the gauntlet on to Gypsy, [who] so far exceeds anything that poor Tessie or Mazeppa or Electra ever dreamed of. It's like, "Wow!" I can see Tessie being very, very proud of the great success that Gypsy had. . . .

I think there is also a sadness about her. Sure, they're fun and they're hilarious characters, but I think there's a great sadness about Tessie. When she says to Cigar, "Well, 'ya bring in a new star for every show, don't ya?" or when she says, "Geez, the girl who does my gowns must be using a fishhook!" It's like this girl always got what Marilyn Monroe called "the fuzzy end of the lollipop." She never, ever is going to be top drawer, but she had a tiny piece of what did become the most top-drawer, which was Gypsy. She sort of lent her part of her persona. Tessie is "so much more demurer," but Gypsy is so much more "demurer-er"! [Laughs.] Gypsy took that bent and totally elevated it. She really, really jumped off from a certain place, at the behest of her mother, and really made it work for her. I love Tessie so much. And I love looking at Boyd Gaines and thinking, "Aww, Herbie. Herbie, Tessie could make you so happy." [Laughs.] And knowing that Tessie would never be suitable for a man like that.

Question: Visually, how will the Broadway production differ from City Center?
Fraser: I think it's very similar. They are, of course, augmenting it. The Minsky costumes are going to be fabulous and lusher than they were. I think Mazeppa's concept has changed. But the design was so beautifully simple at City Center, I really can't see the need for much change at all. Arthur and the wonderful designers put together this real framework for the ultimate theatre fable. It's a fable, it's a myth! One of my courses [I'm taking at Fordham] is in Greek myths, and that is really what it's reminding me of — the child overtaking the overbearing parent. It's like Zeus overthrowing Cronus. It happens all the time, like Oedipus killing Laius. In order for the world to go on, the child must grow up and overcome the parent. That's what's it's all about. It goes all the way back to Sophocles and probably before.

Question: You were also in the world premiere of the stage version of High School Musical.
Fraser: You know what, I'm about to have lunch with a couple of my boys from High School Musical. I gotta tell you, I had the best time — well, until Gypsy. I had such a wonderful time in High School Musical, and it really killed me that I couldn't do it [on tour] because my son is home for his last year in high school before going off to college. But, of course, something as wonderful, or more wonderful, came into my life in the form of Gypsy. I think [director] Jeff Calhoun took what many would consider material that wasn't necessarily going to make history as far as innovative musical theatre is concerned and transformed it into something absolutely magical. Every night when you got to the end of that show, your emotions welled up. I watched those kids do that Mega-Mix every night — you're watching 30 kick-ass dancers working so hard and experiencing such joy in theatre. I have to tell you, I've been disillusioned with theatre for so long, and the past two experiences that I've had — with Gypsy and High School Musical — have really revivified a sense of joy, a sense of purpose. I realized, being with these two companies, this is why you do it. . . . It's for these wonderful experiences where all creative forces coalesce to make magic. It sounds like such a cliché, but magic was made in High School Musical. Whenever anybody puts it down, and people do, I just get so annoyed. I say, "First of all, did you see the stage version? It's spectacular! It's hilarious." I've never seen such energetic dancing onstage, ever. Ever! It's all hip hop, and [choreographer] Lisa Stevens allowed the kids to put their own individuality into it. Aside from the fact that the kids were all very, very accomplished musical theatre singer-dancers, they were also 20 years old and kick-ass skateboarders and acrobats and soul singers. They bring an entire pop-cultural influence into it. . . The use of musical theatre is really having a heyday in High School Musical, and I say hats off to [Disney producer] Thomas Schumacher for that wonderful, wonderful production, and to the brilliant Jeff Calhoun.

Question: Was there any talk of High School Musical coming to Broadway?
Fraser: I don't know. I can't imagine that it wouldn't. I would think people would go crazy for it. I remember going out and performing at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta for 5,000 people. I didn't even get to sing in the show, but I felt like a rock star! Again, you said, "What does it feel like when you get the applause for 'Gimmick' or the curtain call?" When I came out for the curtain call in High School Musical, I felt like I was Janis Joplin or Mick Jagger. I was a rock star. We all were! [Laughs.] The palpable joy and excitement was really intoxicating. I have to say that I got a lot of that out of Gypsy, too. The waves of emotion after Patti sings "Rose's Turn" — hello! I'll tell you something else. Every night at City Center, every single cast member was backstage watching Patti. We would jockey for position. We'd get down earlier and earlier every night to get a good spot. I mean, who does that? We are in the presence of genius, and I am just so thrilled to be a part of it. That genius is Patti, it's Arthur, it's Stephen Sondheim — it's a package.

Question: What other projects do you have in the works?
Fraser: I'm doing another album with Chris McGovern. I think it's going to be more pop-oriented, but we'll be talking about that really soon. That'll be fun. The other thing that's happening is I'm getting together all of Rusty [Magee's] material because Brown University asked for his musical archives. So I've hired this incredible girl to transpose all of the material either off of tapes, or take the handwritten charts or whatever is on the computer, and his entire musical catalog is now completely transcribed. . . . So those are my days. I'm going to school, I'm doing the Rusty archives, I'm trying to get my kid into college. Have all the Playbill.com readers hold their collective breath to get him into his first choice! . . . I've also toyed with the idea of producing some stuff. I've been dating a wonderful writer who writes for the Times, Randy Cohen, and he's written a really marvelous piece called The Punishing Blow that I've been sort of sewing the seeds of. I think Vivian Matalon is now attached to it as a director, which is great. I've always enjoyed putting projects together with people. That might be something that I'll be doing more of once the little bird is out of his nest and, again, trying to get some of the Rusty material out into the world again. The wonderful Ubu Rock that was done up at A.R.T. was just so splendid. So, we'll see.

Hopefully I'll be real busy doing Gypsy for the better part of next year and enjoying the fantastic reception that I hope that we get. I don't know, it's just a dream. Things come in waves. I had the enormous sadness of my mom's death last week, but then the enormous joy of walking onto the St. James Theatre as a working actress in a really, really exciting and honored project. It's a really incredible rollercoaster.

[Gypsy begins previews at the St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street, March 3 with an official opening March 27. Tickets, priced $42-$117, are available by calling (212) 239-6200 or by visiting www.telecharge.com.]

David Archuleta
©FOX

"AMERICAN IDOL" THOUGHTS
I've been watching "American Idol" for the past six years (I missed the first season), and during that time there have been only a handful of performers who I thought truly stood out: Clay Aiken (whose pure, clear, rangy tenor was the highlight of the second season), Fantasia (one of the few "Idol" contestants able to imbue her singing with raw emotion and dramatic honesty), Jennifer Hudson (whose big voice was eventually put to wonderful use in her Oscar-winning turn in the "Dreamgirls" film), and last season's always-dependable Melinda Doolittle (who, with her lush alto, managed to breathe new life into "My Funny Valentine," offering one of the finest versions of the Rodgers and Hart standard I've yet to hear). I have to admit, however, that this is the first season to feature a performer — the 17-year-old David Archuleta — whose performances have moved me to tears. After his wonderful rendition of "Shop Around" on the Feb. 19 broadcast of "Idol," I spent some time watching the various youtube video clips of the young singer (a former "Junior Star Search" winner) and was completely bowled over by his gloriously beautiful, rich tones on the Christmas song "Mary, Did You Know" (search youtube and see what you think). This past week, Archuleta's version of John Lennon's "Imagine" — a song he's performed previously on local television — was simple, heartfelt and utterly moving. And, when you combine his beautiful vocals with his innocent, sweet, good-natured personality and his infectious smile — he seems genuinely surprised and appreciative of the reactions of the audience and the judges — Archuleta seems the clear front-runner in the competition. Do I think he's reached the pinnacle of lyric interpretation? Not yet — unfortunately, I think one needs to get kicked around by life and have his or her heart broken before a certain lyrical interpretative genius kicks in, but it may actually be Archuleta's lack of "drama" that makes him so surprisingly appealing. In fact, for me, no one comes close, although I am looking forward to hearing more from the easy-going, guitar-strumming Jason Castro (whose Week One rendition of "Daydream" was terrific) and the high-belting Carly Smithson. But Archuleta's star quality is undeniable.

Lea Michele
photo by Aubrey Reuben

DIVA TIDBITS
What an exciting cast director Richard Jay-Alexander has assembled for Les Misérables in Concert, which will be presented at the Hollywood Bowl Aug. 8-10. Featuring direction by Jay-Alexander with musical direction by Kevin Stites, the starry mix of stage and screen actors includes J. Mark McVey as Valjean, a role the actor has played both on Broadway and in London's West End; Tony Award winner Brian Stokes Mitchell, the star of Broadway's Ragtime, Man of La Mancha and Kiss Me, Kate, as Javert; Melora Hardin, the singer-actress who plays Jan Levinson on TV's "The Office," as Fantine; Spring Awakening's Lea Michele, who played the young Cosette in the original Broadway production of Les Miz, as Eponine; Emmy Award winner and former Grease, Seussical and Fiddler on the Roof star Rosie O'Donnell as Madame Thénardier; and Aaron Lazar as Enjolras, a role the actor played to much acclaim in the Les Miz revival. Additional casting is expected shortly. Show times at the Bowl are Aug. 8 and 9 at 8:30 PM and Aug. 10 at 7:30 PM. The Hollywood Bowl is located at 2301 North Highland Avenue in Hollywood, CA. For tickets, call (323) 850-2000. Visit www.hollywoodbowl.com for more information. Kerry Butler, who plays Kira/Clio in Broadway's Xanadu and Reese on NBC's "Lipstick Jungle," will release her debut solo recording on the PS Classics label. Entitled "Faith, Trust & Pixie Dust," the new recording will feature songs from the Disney canon and is scheduled to arrive in stores May 13. Butler headed into the recording earlier this week under the supervision of music director Michael Kosarin, who is also producing the CD. The recording will feature orchestrations by Tony winner Michael Starobin and Spamalot's Larry Hochman. Among the songs that will be heard on "Faith, Trust & Pixie Dust" are "Baby Mine," "I'll Try" (from "Return to Neverland"), "This Only Happens in the Movies" (a song from a proposed sequel to "Roger Rabbit") and "God Help the Outcasts" (from "Hunchback of Notre Dame). The latter was suggested by several fans after Butler invited her admirers to help pick one song for the CD. In a statement Butler said, "I've wanted to do an album for a long time, and with the success of Xanadu, the timing seemed right. Recording the Xanadu recording for PS Classics was such a joyous experience, we decided to continue our relationship on my solo album. I knew I wanted to keep the album personal and intimate, and in thinking of songs that made me smile, or had a theme of hope or optimism that I felt was so important, I kept coming back to songs that were Disney-related. I love so many of the Disney themes – when I'm sad or stressed, I know I need a dose of Disney! The challenge for me was to see if I could rediscover the Disney catalog in a very personal way, because for me, Disney World isn't about the rides, it's about the message." For more information visit www.psclassics.com.

Eden Espinosa — whose Broadway credits include the title role in Brooklyn and Elphaba in Wicked — will star in the Reprise! Broadway's Best upcoming staging of John Kander and Fred Ebb's Flora, the Red Menace. Directed by Philip Himberg with choreography by Christopher Pilafian, Espinosa will portray Flora with Sweeney Todd Tony nominee Manoel Felciano as Harry. The limited engagement will run May 6-18 at UCLA's Freud Playhouse; opening night is May 7. The UCLA Freud Playhouse is located in Macgowan Hall. Tickets for Reprise! productions are available by calling (310) 825-2101. For more information visit www.reprise.org.

Actress Maxine Linehan will star in Andrew Lloyd Webber, Don Black and Richard Maltby Jr.'s song cycle, Tell Me On a Sunday, at the Laurie Beechman Theatre. Presented by The Alloy Theatre Company, the musical about the adventures of a British hat designer in America will play the intimate theatre March 30 and April 6, 13, 20 and 27. Show time each night is 7 PM. Jeff Talbott will direct; Chris Tilley will be the musical director. Irish actress Linehan, a MAC nominee who studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, previously presented her cabaret act, So Far, at Helen's in Manhattan. Her regional and international stage credits include Fates and Furies, Nunsense, The Sound of Music, Oliver!, Crazy for You, Nunsense II, A Kind of Loving, Lovers, The Children of Lir and The Man of La Mancha. The Laurie Beechman Theatre is located within the West Bank Café at 407 West 42nd Street. For reservations call (212) 695-6909.

The UTEP Dinner Theatre's 25th anniversary concert will honor Tony and Academy Award-winning lyricist Sir Tim Rice. The April 12 concert at the Don Haskins Center in El Paso, TX, will feature the UTEP Dinner Theatre Band, the UTEP Symphony Orchestra, a 150-voice choir and several Broadway favorites. Among those scheduled to interpret the lyrics of Rice — who will be in attendance — are Ron Bohmer, Nikki Renee Daniels, Deborah Gibson, Annie Golden, Andrea McArdle and Hugh Panaro. Show time is 8 PM. For tickets call (915) 747-5234 or (915) 544-4444 or visit www.ticketmaster.com. For more information click here.

And, finally, Bob and Jim Walton, the veteran Broadway actors, have penned a new musical entitled Mid-Life! The Crisis Musical. Originally presented during the 2004 New York Musical Theatre Festival, the musical is currently licensed by R&H Theatricals, and has been performed throughout the U.S. and Canada. A new recording of the two-act musical, featuring a host of New York theatre actors, is now available for purchase on-line. The studio cast boasts David Hibbard, Mylinda Hull, Karen Mason, Marcus Neville, Kevin Pariseau and Laurie Walton. The actors are backed by musical director Mat Eisenstein on piano, Mike Levy on keyboards, David Young on flute, clarinet and alto sax, Mark Vanderpoel on bass and Eric Halvorson on drums. For more information or to purchase the CD, visit www.midlifethecrisismusical.com or cdbaby.com.

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

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