DIVA TALK: Chatting with Hats! Star Melissa Manchester Plus News of Peters, Lemper and Noll

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Hats! Star Melissa Manchester Plus News of Peters, Lemper and Noll News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Melissa Manchester in Hats!
Melissa Manchester in Hats!

MELISSA MANCHESTER
Singer-actress-composer-wife-mother Melissa Manchester is back on the theatrical stage. And, how appropriate that this Grammy-winning wearer-of-many-hats is starring in the Chicago production of the new musical Hats! at the Royal George Theatre.

Manchester first came to the Hats! project — a musical inspired by The Red Hat Society that ended its world-premiere engagement at the New Denver Civic Center in December 2006 — as a composer, joining a starry list of contributors that also includes Doug Besterman, Susan Birkenhead, Michele Brourman, Pat Bunch, Gretchen Cryer, Anthony Dodge, Marcia Milgrom Dodge, Beth Falcone, David Friedman, Kathie Lee Gifford, Carol Hall, Henry Krieger, Stephen Lawrence, Amanda McBroom and Pam Tillis.

"Doug Besterman approached me [originally]," Manchester recently told me during rehearsals for her latest acting gig. "He did the orchestrations for the show, and we had worked together. He asked me if I had ever heard of the Red Hat Society and that they were interested in hiring me [to write a few tunes]. So I brought on my theatre-writing partner Sharon Vaughn, and we wrote an assignment for one of the scenes. They liked what we did, so they asked us to do another one." In fact, the musical features two Manchester-Vaughn compositions, "Invisible" and "Cinco Pasos de la Vida." The former, Manchester says, is "sort of anthemic. It's about what we all feel at some point in our lives — that we're invisible to society, but within the context of this [show], it's about older women and how they appear to be disposable, or worse, invisible to society." The latter song, she explains, is "literally, the five different stages according to the Red Hat Society — growing up, filling out, holding it in, freaking out and the hell with it!"

Hats!, which features direction and choreography by Lynne Taylor-Corbett, concerns a woman named MaryAnne, who is about to reluctantly celebrate her 50th birthday. She warms up to the idea, however, when she meets several women who show her the possibilities of life post the half-century mark.

Manchester plays MaryAnne, her latest role in a theatrical career that began in the late eighties in the national tour of Song & Dance. In that Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, the singing actress portrayed English hat designer Emma, the role that had been created on Broadway to Tony-winning effect by Bernadette Peters. "That was really baptism from the deep end of the pool," Manchester laughs. "I mean, I was Act One. So doing that eight shows a week . . . was such hard work that it really forced me to plug into reservoirs of strength and faith and spiritual mechanisms to keep me going that I had no idea that I had within me. "At the time, my son was nine months old — and my husband was with me, and my parents were with me. I did all of the press, and then I was pregnant at the end of it! But it was a thrilling, hard piece to do. And then I had done Andrew Lloyd Webber's Music of the Night for three months, which was a very happy experience. It was a wonderful company."

Manchester — whose hit songs include "Don't Cry Out Loud," "The Promise," "Midnight Blue" and "You Should Hear How She Talks About You" — also played the Beggar Woman during the 25th anniversary celebration of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd at the Ahmanson Theatre. "That was really thrilling," she says. "To me, that's the masterpiece. I was honored to be able to sing some songs that had been cut from the original performance. So that was really thrilling, and the audience, of course, went crazy. Mr. Sondheim came out to see the show, too."

The offer to play her latest role in Hats! came as a surprise to Manchester, who was on the road touring her acclaimed concert act when her manager called her with the news. "I had sort of put theatre off the discussion table since I'd been raising my kids," she says. "But my kids are in college now, so this opportunity came up, and I said yes."

Of her new character, Manchester explains, "She is the one who is taking the long journey during the course of the evening. She is surrounded by women who just start off as friends of her mother's that she's not terribly invested in. And this fantasy character, this spiritual character named Ruby Redhead, takes her on this journey to face where she is and to rethink what she thinks about turning 50 and the rest of her life. It's a lovely, very quick 90 minutes."

When asked whether her own 50th birthday was a difficult milestone, Manchester explains, "I'm very big on rituals — I'm very big on making up my own traditions, and in order to celebrate my 50th birthday, I decided to have a party with my closest friends, and I asked each of them to bring me a dinner plate of their choice. When I set the table, it's now this eclectic table of joy and love and sisterhood that has endured for a very long time."

Manchester, it should be noted, is also an accomplished theatre composer, whose first musical I Sent a Letter to My Love has been produced Off-Broadway at Primary Stages and at the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverley, MA. The musical, which she co-wrote with Jeffrey Sweet, will also be seen in May at the Act II Playhouse in Pennsylvania. "As a writer, I love writing for theatre because you're in a world of purpose. Your songs fill such a specific need at every moment for that performance. You're moving a story forward through the songs, which is very different than writing pop songs. So it's different and it's thrilling, and it's a new adventure, and I really want to write more and more for theatre."

Manchester is about to begin work on a new theatre piece with both her Hats! collaborator Sharon Vaughn and Tony Award winner Rupert Holmes, currently represented on Broadway with the new musical Curtains. The new work is based on "The Sweet Potato Queen" books by Jill Conner Browne, who, Manchester says, "has the most theatrical literary voice I am aware of since 'Auntie Mame' [writer Patrick Dennis]. When I read an article about her life and her books — thank God I turned to that page in the newspaper on that Sunday in my pajamas — I said, 'Well, this is just wild! This has to be a musical!' The music was just jumping off the page, and her books are so hysterical. But beneath the humor, which is absolutely, convulsively funny, there is serious intellect and serious wisdom and serious life affirmation, and it's just brilliant. I am thrilled that Rupert and Sharon are taking this journey with me."

And, would Manchester like to play Broadway at some point? "I would love to do that," she says. "I would love to experience what that's like. . . . I'm actually getting a feeling for that in Chicago [with Hats!] because I'm staying in an apartment and I'm not schlepping [from city to city]. I'm just going to the theatre to rehearse. So I'm getting a sense that if you're in one place, then your experience in the theatre is part of your day. It's not living out of a suitcase — you actually put your clothes away and you go to the cleaners and you have your drug store and you go to your grocery store. It's just part of your life — it's not this endless mountain you have to climb every week in a new city. Although that's wonderful, it's really different when you can sort of set up in an apartment and have your work be part of your day."

And, the award-winning performer may be settling in for a lengthier run in Hats! than previously expected. "I'm signed on for five weeks with an extension of two weeks, so it might be a possible seven weeks. But if they really like what I do and I don't embarrass anybody," Manchester laughs, "they might ask me to stay on!"

[The Royal George Theatre is located at 1641 North Halsted in Chicago, IL. Tickets, priced at $49.50, are available at (312) 902-1500 or by visiting www.ticketmaster.com. For more information visit www.hatsthemusical.com.]

DIVA TIDBITS
Two-time Tony Award winner Bernadette Peters, who can be heard on the new Masterworks Broadway recording "Legends of Broadway — Bernadette Peters," will guest star on an upcoming episode of "Boston Legal." Peters will play Judge Marianna Folger on the May 8 broadcast of the hit ABC series. The episode, entitled "Guantanamo by the Bay," was penned by David E. Kelley and Andrew Kreisberg and directed by Jim Bagdonas. The upcoming episode is described as such: "Alan Shore sues the United States on behalf of a client who was tortured for two years at a detention camp. Meanwhile, Jerry Espenson begs Shirley Schmidt to let him have his job back at the firm — despite the fact that he'd once tried to kill her — and Claire defends a lawyer who committed a sexual assault after hearing a prank radio program proclaiming the world was coming to an end." "Boston Legal" airs in the metropolitan area on WABC-TV Channel 7 from 10-11 PM ET; check local listings.

Ute Lemper, the international chanteuse and star of the London and Broadway productions of Chicago, will return to Joe's Pub this fall with a show entitled Angels Over Berlin and Paris. Lemper will play the intimate cabaret located within the Public Theater Nov. 19 at 9:30 PM, Nov. 23 and 24 at 7:30 and 9:30 PM, Nov. 25 at 7:30 PM and Dec. 1 at 7:30 PM. Her new show, according to press notes, will take audiences "through the French song world from Ferre, Piaf to Prevert and Brel and continue to the backstreets of Berlin, where ancient ghosts with new faces write poetry and songs between yesterday and tomorrow." Audiences can expect to hear songs by Hollaender, Weill, Brecht, Waits and Mitchell as well as Lemper's original compositions. Joe's Pub is located within the Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Street. Tickets, priced at $30, are available by calling (212) 967-7555 or by visiting the Joe's Pub box office.

Christiane Noll and Michael Minarik, who co-starred in the national tour of Urinetown, will reunite for a May 6 by-invitation-only reading of the new musical Ethan Frome: An American Romance, which will also feature the talents of Leah Horowitz (The Woman in White, La Cage aux Folles) and Nick Dalton (Las Vegas Hairspray). Daniel T. Lavender directs. Ethan Frome — based on Edith Wharton's classic 1911 novella — has music and lyrics by Adam Gwon and a book by Michael Ruby and concerns "Ethan Frome, a poor farmer, [who] is unhappily married to Zeena, a demanding and overbearing hypochondriac. When Zeena's younger cousin Mattie comes to live with them, Ethan is driven by his star-crossed love for Mattie, which makes the pair suffer devastating consequences." Gwen Stewart, who was the lead vocalist in "Seasons of Love" when Rent debuted on Broadway, will return to that Pulitzer Prize-winning musical April 29. Stewart's return also marks the 11th anniversary of the hit musical at the Nederlander Theatre; she will remain with the show through May 27.

Kathy Brier — the Emmy-nominated star of ABC's "One Life to Live," who made her Broadway debut as Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray — will be part of a benefit for MusiKids CT, a non-profit arts-in-education organization founded to support the nurturing of musically talented children in grades four to twelve. Entitled Kathy Brier & Friends, the May 6 concert will be presented at Wagner College's Main Stage Theatre on Staten Island. In addition to Brier, the 7 PM performance will also feature the talents of Kate Pazakis, Anne Steele, the Wagner College Student Ensemble and Colin Sheehan; the latter founded MusiKids CT. The two-act concert will include Broadway tunes as well as songs from Brier's solo debut album, "Heartbreaker." Brian J. Nash will be the evening's musical director, and audiences will also be treated to a pre-show performance by comic Poppi Kramer. Tickets, priced $25 (adults) and $15 (students), are available by calling (718) 420-4136. For more information visit www.musikidsct.org.

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

James Spader and Bernadette Peters in "Boston Legal."
James Spader and Bernadette Peters in "Boston Legal." Photo by Copyright
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