In December I named Gay Marshall's work in the Off-Broadway revival of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris one of the "Best of 2006." I'm happy to report that a recent return to the Zipper Theatre has not changed my opinion. In fact, the Cleveland-born singing actress, who was also seen in the Paper Mill Playhouse's production of The Baker's Wife, may even be more emotionally connected to her material than she was originally. It is a triumphant performance in the revue that celebrates the work of the late Belgian composer, whose songs unflinchingly explore the joys and sorrows of life and love. Marshall, who possesses a steely-edged voice that rises to a powerful cry, sings with deeply felt emotion. She kicks off the Gordon Greenberg-directed production with "Le Diable (Ca Va)" and delivers heartfelt renditions of such power ballads as "My Childhood," "Sons Of" and "Marieke." Marshall is at her best on the two war-themed offerings, "Sons Of" and "Marieke," her throaty alto and her never-wavering sincerity penetrating the heart of the listener. I was also impressed by her co-stars: Robert Cuccioli, who opened the show with Marshall, as well as newcomers Jayne Patterson and former "American Idol" contestant Constantine Maroulis, who sings beautifully and fits into the ensemble cast with ease. In fact, it's the perfect time to catch this production, which champions the work of one of the great composers of the twentieth century.
Earlier this week I had the pleasure of chatting with Marshall about Brel, Piaf, Grizabella and The Baker's Wife.
Question: How did you originally get involved with the Jacques Brel revival?
Gay Marshall: I had done The Baker's Wife with [director] Gordon Greenberg and [composer] Stephen Schwartz, and that came about because of a show that I wrote that Gordon happened to see a tape of.
Q: What show was that?
Marshall: It was a comedy about being an American actress in Paris, If I Were Me. I took it to the Edinburgh Festival and filmed it, and Gordon happened to see a tape, and he said that he wanted to work with me. So, he brought me over to audition for Stephen, and that went great. We did The Baker's Wife, and then he started talking about Brel. You know how these things go when somebody says, "Yeah, we're going to do Brel Off-Broadway," and you think, "Mmm, I'll believe that when I see it." [Laughs.] And now it's been running for almost a year — it's just incredible!
Q: It was first done out of town, right?
Marshall: Yeah, we did it at Capital Rep two years ago. Q: How much did the show change from that production to Off-Broadway?
Marshall: I think it just got better. It kept the same shape. It really was the foundation for what we're doing now at the Zipper [Theatre]. . . . They decided to recast the other three parts, and it's slightly changed in the order of the songs, but only very slightly. But it really is basically the same [show], except we had Mark Dendy come in for choreography and we had a different lighting designer. We have Jeff Croiter as our lighting designer, and we didn't before.
Q: What's it like performing at the Zipper? I really love the space from an audience viewpoint.
Marshall: I gotta tell you, this place has a charmed atmosphere for me. Everyone who works there is from heaven! They're really down to earth, wonderful people. They make it such a pleasure to do this show because they are so behind it; they love it. That's an aspect that is really reassuring and important. You really feel home — I feel at home there thanks to the atmosphere. I love the space. I've heard people say, "Isn't that a tough space to play? You've got that little bunch of people up there, and then over on the other side it's an odd shape." I don't know, it doesn't bother me. I really love the shape of the place and the atmosphere and the whole crew who run it...down to every single person who is behind the bar and [in the] box office. They're great.
Q: You seem to have one of those voices that never tires. How do you go about protecting your voice to do eight shows a week?
Marshall: I think every singer's major fear is, "My throat!" You're feeling for every swollen gland, and I credit it to my extreme professionalism and drugs. [Laughs.] No, I'm kidding. What I actually accredit it to is a very uninteresting social life. Although I do love to see people after the show, during the day I'm rather a hermit. I have a marvelous voice teacher whose name is Aaron Hagen, and I really think that studying with him since I came back to New York has been the safety valve on my voice. He's brilliant — he's very knowledgeable, and he has a very nice combination of being encouraging and sort of giving you a little warning. So I accredit it to being utterly boring during the day and [to seeing] Aaron at least once a month.
Q: I saw Brel when it first opened, and then I went back about a week or two ago, and I thought you sounded just as good if not better than when I first saw the show.
Marshall: Oh, that's great news, because they say that if you do a show for this long, especially with this kind of hard singing, then you are doomed to injure your voice. And I'm a little bit superstitious. Not in what I would call a normal way — I don't have a lucky number or something like that. But I feel like sometimes when people say things to me, that they're just going to come true because I heard it! [Laughs.] It's just irrational. Somebody said that [about injuring my voice], and I said, "Shhhh! Stop that!" I think that if you use your voice intelligently, and you don't go out every single night after the show and shout over a music level — because I think talking is a little harder on your voice than singing — I think you can actually improve your voice. . . . And you have to sing other things than the show. I do understand the theory that certain songs will dig a groove in your voice. I've always been into so many other kinds of music — I love blues and jazz, and I love other French music, and so I try to sing other things during the day. Last night I sang at Birdland with Billy Stritch — boy, that was painful! [Laughs.] Oh, he's so gorgeous! And his wonderful bass player — they were fantastic.
Q: What did you sing?
Marshall: I sang "La Vie En Rose." And then before that, I was at a beautiful memorial service at a jazz church standing in for my friend who organized it who wasn't well enough to be there. I stood in for her and sang some jazz with these amazing players. So I think you have to sing other things. As long as you keep your love and joy of singing alive, I think you're in pretty good shape.
Q: Were you born and raised here?
Marshall: Cleveland, Ohio. I love Cleveland!
Q: How did working in Paris start?
Marshall: I was enamored of all of the Piaf songs that I was singing, and I had written a show about her. I met the high-wire walker Philippe Petit, the guy who walked between the World Trade Centers, only I didn’t know who he was because I was not around then. I was in this world, but I had no idea — this was like ten years after he had done that. It was in the early eighties. When I met him, I said, "I'm just dying to learn to speak French, instead of just singing in it." And he said, "Well, if you want to go to Paris, you can stay in my broom closet that I have changed into an apartment." [Laughs.] Very New York now! I didn't take him up on the offer right away, but eventually I did. We've been friends for a very long time now. It turned out that I had to get the keys to his place from the man who is now my husband. So what do you know? That turned into a very strong connection, and that's how I ended up going to France.
Q: How did you start working there?
Marshall: Actually, I was in a dance class, and a director had come to see someone else in the dance class and ended up asking me if I wanted to do a dance thing behind a famous singer. And I said, "Well, how about you listen to me sing and then put some people who dance behind me?" [Laughs.] It was all very friendly. It wasn't all as harsh as that sounds — we were joking. He was doing a musical that was just gorgeous, and I got two roles in it, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. And things sort of snowballed after that. Because, you know, it's like anywhere — you do a show and you meet a lot of people; you meet the musicians, you meet the other actors, other people come to see you. I did this beautiful, beautiful children's show. . . .To end up [performing] in a lot of these landmark theatres was a thrill. I sang at the Teatre de Champs Elysées. I sang at the Folies Bergère, I was in a musical there for four months. That was pretty exciting, but I missed the States dreadfully. When you come from doing a Broadway show with the approach that Americans have to the work — which is really quite serious — and you go somewhere where it's absolutely not [and] it's just a different tradition. It's much more farcical, and everything is played sort of big over there. My dream sort of came true. I though, "Gosh, I'd give anything to go back and work in New York." And it happened! [Laughs.]
Q: What years were you primarily working in France?
Marshall: In the nineties. I came back for a while. I did my Piaf show in the mid-nineties at Missouri Rep, and I studied with Uta Hagen that year.
Q: What was that like?
Marshall: I had studied with her before I had moved to Paris in the very late eighties, and I loved her class so much. I got so much out of it, and going back to her was another sort of a dream come true, and I was very fortunate because she's no longer with us. I think I caught her at two very good moments in her teaching. One little side story is that when I finished studying with her that year, I was going back to Paris and I gave her my card. In the middle of August, the phone rings, "Gay Marshall, please!" I said, "Yes, who's calling?" "It's Uta!" And I almost said, "Uta who?" because she just wasn't in my head, and she asked me to come and have her birthday lunch with her at a magnificent restaurant. It was pretty thrilling.
Q: Going back to Brel for a bit. Why do you think his songs have remained so relevant or accessible, or why do you think they're touching people again now?
Marshall: I think because they are really about the human condition. Because he didn't write to try to make a hit, [and] he didn't have a commercial goal. He wrote because he had to write, because he was a poet and because these things sprang from him. I think that's why. He wrote about basic feelings and values that matter to everyone. Everyone loses a loved one. Everyone finds love, hopefully. Everybody goes through loss, and I assume — I know it's happened to me and I know it's happened to most other people around me — where you question why you do what you do [or] why you question people who don't question why they do what they do! [Laughs.] You know, like "The Middle Classes," that song where these guys who use to disdain these rich barristers now have become them. I think that he had such an amazing amount of humor also. A lot of people say he's dark. I disagree. I just think he's for real, and he doesn't cut reality any slack. He just doesn't gift wrap it, and a lot of people are more used to a more sentimental take on things. He is not sentimental, I don't think. And I love him for that because he makes me learn something all the time when I listen to his records — not just the songs that are in the show, other ones as well.
Q: You have some of the most powerful ballads in the show. Do you find it draining doing such emotional songs or do you find it invigorating or both?
Marshall: I find it very hard. Maybe I shouldn't tell the truth. [Laughs.] I find it very hard. The challenge with anything in the theatre, in this country especially, which is why I love theatre in this country, is you have to make it for the first time every night otherwise there's really no point. So going to the graveyard every night and begging someone not to leave me every night for real, I find very difficult. I also love the challenge. Sometimes I fail, and hopefully most nights I don't. I go for the reality of it.
Q: Do you have a favorite song in the show or one that you look forward to doing?
Marshall: I absolutely love the opening of the show. I love doing that. I love the idea that I am incarnating the devil, who is holding a little convention, looking at the audience like we're all in this together. They're all behind me 100% [and] they're getting as much glee out of the wreck that I have found the world to be as I am. That is really a lot of fun. I really do love all the songs in the show, and I know all of them in the original French, so I have a different dimension that I hear them in. There really is not a song in the show that I think, "Ahh, here we go again."
Q: Recently you had two new cast members join the show, and I wondered what that change has been like for you.
Marshall: We've had three different people in the role of the Young Man. We had Rodney Hicks, and Rodney left us to do another project, which he had negotiated before he even started rehearsals. So he went to that project at Goodspeed. And then we had Drew Sarich come in, and he had already gotten a role in Les Miz. Nobody left us because they didn't like it or were asked to leave. [Laughs.] It was all friendly. Everything was very friendly. And then we had Jim Stanek come in, who's done a host of shows in New York, and he and Natascia [Diaz] both left to do [Carnival] in D.C. at the Kennedy Center. I have to say that is very invigorating. They're such good people — we've always had such amazing people come to join us. Jayne Patterson, I was particularly happy about, because she understudied both women's parts when we first started rehearsing a year ago, and she's just a total delight and an astounding singer. That's a thrill. And Constantine [Maroulis just joined the cast.] Because I had lived in France and I don't actually have a TV here, I have never seen "American Idol." I've heard a lot about it. I have an idea of what it's about. I really think that Constantine has a beautiful voice, [and] he's very easy to work with.
Q: You made your Broadway debut in A Chorus Line. Is it strange that there is a revival now?
Marshall: Yes, isn't it? Because of the press on the show when we opened, a lot of people got in touch with me who didn't know that I was in town. That was very exciting, a lot of old friends from Chorus Line. I haven't seen it because of [my] schedule, but I love it that it's on. It's such a part of my life. I absolutely love that show. I think it is a brilliant show. I think it's very universal. "What are you going to do when you can't dance anymore?" Everybody's got to face that no matter what you do. I would like to see it, but I love it that it's playing.
Q: You also got to play Grizabella in the original French production of Cats. What was that experience like?
Marshall: It was wild! Coming from a Broadway show and then going into one [in another country], you really feel the difference of the way the rules are respected here and the way that the person is respected here. Over there, they didn't even want to put our pictures in the program! . . . It was a great experience to play that role. It's a tough song to make fresh. When you have a long run, you have to keep it fresh, and that's my whole challenge as an actress. I went to English drama school and [consider myself] an actress first. That's how I approach whatever I have to do. I really did enjoy the process of doing Grizabella because it was very hard. No time was given to Grizabella. They didn't even translate that song until three days before we opened! . . . Once the show got running it was thrilling. You do all the fabulous TV shows, you meet people that you've admired. That's such a wonderful thing about this business. You're always running into somebody that you've seen and admired. Doing the award shows here — the Drama League luncheon was a total thrill, the Drama Desk Awards. The speeches that these people give — they're so incredibly inspiring, and they make you realize all over again why you want to be in this world. Listening to Christine Ebersole talk about her career, Beth Leavel — they're fabulous, funny, wonderful speeches.
Q: Who would you say were the major influences on your career/work?
Marshall: I feel like Edith Piaf . . . I think that the people I listened to are my greatest voice teachers. I remember somebody gave me a cassette tape around 1975 of Julie Covington singing Evita. I did not know who she was, and I listened to that rather obsessively. I loved her voice because she marries the acting intention with the emotional intensity, and it was thrilling to me. Q: Was that a part you wanted to do?
Marshall: I was dying to do Evita, but then I just ended up doing other things. I just love the music, and it's a great way to warm up. . . I'd say great singers [inspired me]. I had a Dixieland blues and jazz band in Cleveland. These old singers — like Dinah Washington, Ethel Waters — a lot of blues and black jazz singers had an influence on me and also on the phrasing. You notice the way people put something across — based more on the sense of the phrase instead of the pitch of the notes. I notice a lot of singers [have] money notes, but they destroy the sense of the phrase. I prefer to sing the song than to do a vocal demonstration.
Q: Tell me about working on The Baker's Wife.
Marshall: I have to say both casts that I worked with were divine. Goodspeed, the first time we did it, is such a cocoon. It's great. You're stuck there out in the woods. We were working with Stephen Schwartz, and that's a thrill, and there's [librettist] Joe Stein, and he's amazing. And Christiane Noll played the Baker's Wife the first time that I did it, and she's such an astounding singer. It was really interesting to work with her, and Lenny Wolpe, who's in The Drowsy Chaperone, he was our Baker both times. I really enjoyed working with Stephen Schwartz and Gordon on that. We had great musical directors, great ensemble. It was the best case scenario. When I was sitting in Paris wishing to come back to the States to work, I was dreaming of that kind of atmosphere. . . . [The Paper Mill experience] was also great. Alice Ripley is a peach. She's another phenomenal singer, and I loved working with her [and] Max von Essen, and Lenny played the Baker again.
Q: Have you thought about doing a cabaret show here at some point?
Marshall: I want to do my Piaf show here, and I've already got some pretty interesting feelers out there. [Laughs.] I really want to stay in New York. I'd also love to do the comedy I wrote about being an American actress in Paris because I think people would get a kick out of that.
[Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris plays the Zipper Theatre, 336 West 37th Street. For tickets call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com or www.jacquesbrelreturns.com.]
What a thrilling cast has been assembled for the Reprise! Marvelous Musical Mondays staging of Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire's 1984 musical Baby! Joining the previously announced Faith Prince as Arlene in the Feb. 5 presentation of the musical at UCLA's Freud Playhouse will be Alice Ripley as Pam, Graham Rowat as Nick, Christopher McDonald as Alan, Daniel Tatar as Danny and Kerry Butler as Lizzie. The ensemble will feature Sue Goodman, Alix Korey, Michael Kostroff, Amy Ryder and John Sloman. Show time is 8 PM. Kevin Chamberlin will direct the one-night-only performance of the musical, which concerns three couples whose lives are affected in various ways by the prospect of having (or not having) a baby. Georgia Stitt is the musical director. Call (310) 825-2101 for reservations. Visit www.reprise.org for more information.
A host of theatre favorites will be part of Broadway Backwards 2, a benefit concert for the New York Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center. Hosted by Seth Rudetsky, the Feb. 26 concert will be held at 37 Arts and will feature direction by Robert Bartley with musical direction by Mark Janas. Among those scheduled to be part of the evening — where men will sing tunes originally performed by women, and vice versa — are Tony Award winners Betty Buckley and Len Cariou, "View" co-host Rosie O'Donnell, Jacques Brel's Constantine Maroulis, Wicked's Kate Reinders, playwright-actor Charles Busch, recent Producers star Richard Kind, Tony winner Gary Beach and Miss Saigon's Liz Callaway. Show time is 8 PM. 37 Arts is located in Manhattan at 450 West 37th Street. Tickets, priced $35-$5,000, are available by visiting Ticketmaster.com or by calling (212) 307-4100. For more information visit www.gaycenter.org.
Taboo's Liz McCartney will play the vocally challenged Florence Foster Jenkins in the George Street Playhouse's upcoming production of Stephen Temperley's Souvenir. McCartney will be joined by Broadway veteran Jim Walton as Jenkins' accompanist, Cosme McMoon, in the New Jersey production, which will begin previews Feb. 27 with an official opening March 2. Directed by Anders Cato, Souvenir will run through March 25. The George Street Playhouse is located in New Brunswick, NJ, at 9 Livingston Avenue. Tickets are available by calling (732) 246-7717 or by visiting www.gsponline.org.
Tony Award winner Lea Salonga, who will return to Broadway March 6 as Fantine in the current revival of Les Misérables, will release her latest solo recording later this month. Salonga's new studio recording is entitled "Inspired" and will be available on the SonyBMG Music Entertainment label. Among the songs featured on the new CD are Beverly Craven's "Promise Me," Jim Brickman's "To Hear You Say," Lani Macaraeg's "Do You Hear It" and Louie Ocampo's "Two Words" as well as "When October Goes," "My Foolish Heart," "Brian's Song," "Sing" and "Waiting for Love."
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to email@example.com.