DIVA TALK: Chatting with Les Miz's Daphne Rubin-Vega PLUS News of LuPone, D'Abruzzo and Murphy

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Les Miz's Daphne Rubin-Vega PLUS News of LuPone, D'Abruzzo and Murphy
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Daphne Rubin-Vega
Daphne Rubin-Vega

Daphne Rubin-Vega, best known to Broadway audiences for creating the role of Mimi in Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Rent, is returning to Broadway this season in the eagerly awaited revival of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's Les Misérables. Directed by John Caird, the international hit musical begins previews Oct. 24 at the Broadhurst Theatre and casts Rubin-Vega as Fantine, the ill-fated mother who must sell her locket, her hair and eventually her body to care for her young daughter Cosette. The role, which was created on the London stage by Patti LuPone to Olivier Award-winning effect and on Broadway by Tony winner Randy Graff, offers Rubin-Vega the chance to sing what may be the show's most beautiful and haunting ballad, "I Dreamed a Dream."

It's an especially busy period for two-time Tony nominee Rubin-Vega, who is also the mother of Luca, who turns two in December: On Oct. 17 the multi-talented performer will release her latest solo recording on the Sh-K-Boom Records label. Entitled "Redemption Songs," the 12-track disc features original tunes penned by Rubin-Vega as well as covers of "Angel Now," "En Estos Dias," "The Rainbow Connection" and the title tune. The singing actress will also take a brief hiatus from Les Miz this spring to co-star with Academy Award winner Philip Seymour Hoffman in the LAByrinth Theater Company production of Bob Glaudini's Jack Goes Boating at the Public Theater.

I recently had the pleasure of chatting with the good-humored Rubin-Vega about her many projects during a rehearsal break from Les Misérables; that interview follows.

Question: How did the role of Fantine come about for you?
Daphne Rubin-Vega: John Caird came to see the Rent 10 [anniversary] benefit [concert]. I didn't know him at the time, but at the after party, the loud and raucous after party, one of the producers of Rent introduced me to John, and in the midst of it all, he said something like, "Wouldn't she make a great Fantine?" At the time I had no idea that they were considering doing a revival of Les Miz, but it sort of put this little bee in my bonnet, and . . . I [told] my agent, "You know what, I'm interested in going in for that."

Q: Where happened from there?
Rubin-Vega: I was asked to come in and sing the song, and I went in and sang the song and down the road a bit, I was told that I got the role. Q: Had you been a fan of the show? Had you seen Les Miz during its original run?
Rubin-Vega: I saw it once toward the end of its run. . . My husband [Tommy Costanzo], who's in real estate, Les Miz was actually the musical that changed his life. . . .[He's] not a musical theatre fan in the big sense, but Les Miz is the exception — he knows the words to the whole thing, so I was very impressed that he knew so much and he was so enthusiastic. Usually he's very supportive, but he was particularly enthusiastic [about this project].

Q: I think Fantine gets the best song ["I Dreamed a Dream"] in the show. . .
Rubin-Vega: I think I have one of the best songs in musical theatre, if I may be so bold. To me, it's one of the most beautiful songs in musical theatre history that I know. Maybe you could pull out a song that I don't know. But in modern musical theatre history, it's definitely among the most brilliant songs I've ever sung or heard.

Q: How are you approaching the song?
Rubin-Vega: What I try to do is just hit the notes and tell the truth. [Laughs.] That's really as simple as it can be. The song, it sings for itself . . . because it's so laden with drama. [With] the story of Fantine, usually less is more, although I'm not really trying to do less. I'm just in the beginning — it's my second week of rehearsal, and I find that less is more. As long as you can physically hit the notes artfully, then just letting the song be is the best trick. And, I think to my benefit I didn't know too much about it, so I didn't have any preconceived notions about how Fantine should be. I know that some of the greats have played her. . . It's a lot of fun and challenge to read the big-ass book and read the parts of Fantine that are missing [in the musical].

Q: I was going to ask you whether you had gone back to the Victor Hugo novel.
Rubin-Vega: I'm reading the novel now. It's dense as all get-out. I read "Anna Karenina" for Anna in the Tropics. I always get the big books to read. [Laughs.]

Q: Does the novel give much more information about Fantine?
Rubin-Vega: Oh my God. In the novel the degeneration of her character, let's say, going from the seamstress who sells the locket of her loved one to pay for her child and then she sells her hair and then she sells her body. Between the hair and the body came the teeth. She sells her teeth. . . . I fell back on my chair [when I read that]. Just the tragedy of her physical state. She's poor, always been poor — she came from unknown origins. No one knew who her parents were, but she had this integrity and this beauty. It says she was rich, except that the gold was in her hair, and the pearls were in her teeth. And so to see the visual, to digest that she sells her hair and her teeth and there's still a modicum of beauty in her, but that gets killed. It all gets killed.

Q: Do you feel that the role is more accessible for you now since you're also a mother?
Rubin-Vega: Yes. . . . You can understand it in your head what it would be like to give everything up for your child, but when you have a child, it's just so visceral. I knew that I would begrudgingly take a bullet for my loved ones, but to actually know that you would fly in front of a bullet if it were coming towards your child and the things you would do. The decision is clear. . . . It's [also] amazing to get into this political world of [these] people [who] these days you could call them — there's a quality of terrorism in them because they had nothing to lose and how understandable that is from this point of view, from where I am standing in this context of the play. It's not hard to be victimized when you adhere so strongly to these romantic notions that maybe at first keep you strong because they keep you safe. Safe is good, but [things] can rapidly degenerate when you're constantly pooped upon by society.

Q: How are you finding the demands of the score?
Rubin-Vega: You'll see. [Laughs.] It's work for me because this is stuff that I haven't done before. At first it was very intimidating being in a room full of beautiful, young kids trained to the tee. And, so it's impressive, but it's wonderful because the bar is set pretty high, and I hope that I contribute to some of that, too.

Q: Sometimes the actress playing Fantine also appears in other scenes as a different character. Will you be doing that?
Rubin-Vega: I was doing some street urchin work today. I will be a street urchin. All that I can tell you right now is that I have chosen to be a boy.

Q: You also have a new CD coming out this month. Tell me about the title "Redemption Songs."
Rubin-Vega: "Redemption Songs" is the name of a Bob Marley song that I cover that — at least at the time when I recorded the album — was one of my favorite songs. It's a song that I wish I had written. I think it's a beautiful, prophetic song. Playing with my band for years now — it's been like six years — I really wanted to record an album that had new stuff that I had written within those years, and this was an opportunity to do it. It was really turning in my mind while I was pregnant, and so a lot of writing happened while I was pregnant. I actually started recording when my son was six weeks old . . . It was just something that I really wanted to do for no other reason than to just do it. It wasn't like I had a record deal obligation. And having had a record deal just after Rent hit big and then having that fall through was one of the greatest heartbreaking moments in my life. . . . At the protest of many people who cared about me — it was the advent of Napster — I was like, "If I can't release this album, and no one's going to hear it after it's taken 18 months of my life to make [with] all of my heart and love, I [want to make] it available for people on the web" and sort of promised myself to make sure people got it without turning a profit, so to speak. That was also the genesis of my band, having an environment where I could play the songs [from that recording].

Q: What happened with the record? Why was it not released?
Rubin-Vega: It was '98 and it was a deal with Mercury, which was part of Polygram, and Polygram got bought up by Universal/Def Jam, and all of the artists — with the exception of maybe Bon Jovi [and a few others] — hundreds of artists, myself included, were summarily dropped. The president of Mercury had signed me, the head A&R guy was my A&R guy, and when they get fired . . . [the new executives said], "We have no alliances to your record. We didn't help you make it. We need [new] blood. . ." So it was just . . . the kind of stuff that happens constantly in this business, but it was new and devastating to me.

Q: In the press notes for this CD, it says you wrote a lot of songs while you were pregnant and while the film of "Rent" was being made. Did that influence your writing? Was it difficult not being part of the movie?
Rubin-Vega: I had my own romantic notions of how the Rent film would be and who would direct it. [When] Spike Lee was going to direct it about five years ago, I [thought], "I have to make this film!" . . . After that one fell through, I thought, "Okay, as time [goes] on, it's a role that I love and will always be like another baby of mine, but it's time to move on and step into characters that have had more experience. I'm not 19 anymore. It was great when I was." I had let it go . . . [and] being pregnant [during the filming], it was like, "I'm not even in my body to do this," so it was clearly a decision that was made for me. I guess what really hurt, of course, was all my buds were doing it, people who had done [the original Broadway production] with me. I think I felt very left out, sort of dismissed. . . . The confluence of pregnancy and Rent being made into a film and being conspicuously absent was tough, so I turned where it was warm. I put it into writing. I just decided to go and do what I could do, what I wanted to do, what was organic.

Q: Did you ever see the movie or did you decide that would be too difficult?
Rubin-Vega: The other night, actually, it was on television, and we watched it. It wasn't from the beginning, so I haven't watched it from beginning to end yet, but I'm sure that time will come. At this point, I know everything is for a reason. . . . and if anyone one was going to do [the part], Rosario [Dawson] was a beautiful person to do it. If I had to cast it and not [choose] me, having her play Mimi was a great thing.

Q: You seem to go back and forth between doing musicals and non-musicals pretty easily. Do you have a preference or do you like the diversity?
Rubin-Vega: I like the diversity. I love to sing. I always thought musical theatre was some bastard offshoot of legitimate theatre. I don't know where I got that idea from. I remember Rent, to me, was an exception to the rule, and that's why it was interesting to me. It was edgy, and God knows, I had to be edgy at the time. [Laughs.] But I think [musical theatre] has the capacity for being a wonderful way to tell a story.

I love telling stories — I love what I do. I'm really lucky to do what I do, and I've always loved acting, and I've always loved singing. . . . The play that I just did — Everythings Turning Into Beautiful — was a straight play with music. We played hitless musical wonders, a songwriting team that hadn't had a hit in a while, and there was some singing, but there was a lot of talking and emotional rollercoastering, and I find that that can be way more challenging than singing . . . because the work to technically speak out . . . while your heart is breaking, while you're emotionally going through all this stuff . . . [is] really challenging.

Q: How are you finding the demands of combining working and motherhood?
Rubin-Vega: At this point I'm exhausted. There's nothing I love to do more in my spare time than sleep! I think sleep and drinking water are the most important things. . . . You have to kind of divide your focus, which is challenging to me. That's why they make babies really cute. They build babies really cute and innocent and lovable, so you don't forget them and do everything that you think is important. Nothing was more important than my work or my career . . . It's all [still] very important, but there's a human being that is more important than all of it, and happily so, but not without negotiating how I split my time. I haven't been to a movie in forever, and, frankly, I'd rather just sleep.

Q: You're also doing a new play.
Rubin-Vega: When they asked me to do Fantine, I [asked], "Will you please let me out to do Jack Goes Boating at the Public in January?" It's a four-hander produced by the LAByrinth Theatre Company, of which I've been a member 12 years, so it's coming around full circle from the early days when nothing was going on, and I was a member of this fantastic, galvanized lab. It's the first time that I'm actually going to do one of the Lab's shows, and Phil Hoffman is in it, and John Ortiz, who was in Anna in the Tropics with me, is in it, as is Beth Cole, who's a member of the Lab. And it's written by a Lab member, and it's a fantastic play. We had been working on developing this piece for a couple years now, so when Les Miz came about, I was already committed to doing this in January. . . . Going back to that whole feeling that as an actor you're like, "I'm never going to work after this. What am I going to do?" The work of getting another job is harder than the actual work itself, so it feels very satisfying to know that they really wanted me badly enough [as Fantine] to let me go and come back.

Q: How long will you be away from Les Miz?
Rubin-Vega: Tentatively, rehearsals will begin at the end of January, and we might go up in mid-March to May, perhaps with a bit of an extension. Let's say 7 to 12 weeks at the most, after which I will come back [to Les Misérables].

[Beginning Oct. 24, with an official opening Nov. 9, Les Misérables will play the Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street. For tickets, call (212) 239-6200.] DIVA TIDBITS
Congratulations to Tony Award winner Patti LuPone, who will be one of eight theatre artists inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame Jan. 29, 2007, at the Gershwin Theatre. The other inductees include actors George Hearn and Elizabeth Wilson; playwright Brian Friel; and designers Willa Kim and Eugene Lee. Playwrights Wendy Wasserstein and August Wilson will be inducted posthumously.

Speaking of LuPone, I had a wonderful time last week at Joe's Pub watching Leslie Kritzer — of Funny Girl and Trailer Park fame — re-create the former Evita star's 1979 concerts at the now-defunct Manhattan nightclub Les Mouches. It's a testament to the talent of both actresses that each is able to perform such a wide variety of material so thrillingly. I had worried a bit that the evening — entitled Leslie Kritzer Is Patti LuPone at Les Mouches — would poke fun at one of the women I admire so greatly, but it turned out to be a true testament to LuPone's megatalent and her off-the-wall humor. Kritzer was especially funny re-creating LuPone's patter — remember LuPone had just hit it big in Evita and was flying high with a record-breaking engagement of midnight Saturday shows at this intimate club. Highlights of Kritzer's performance included a powerful version of "Tambourine Man" and the campy "Heaven Is a Disco," and she captured LuPone most in an exhilarating version of "Rainbow High." Directed by Ben Rimalower, encore presentations of Leslie Kritzer Is. . . — featuring LuPone's original musical director David Lewis on piano — are scheduled for Dec. 8 and 9 at 11:30 PM at Joe's Pub; call (212) 239-6200 for reservations or visit www.telecharge.com.

Stephanie D'Abruzzo, who received a Tony nomination for her work in Avenue Q, will star in an upcoming musical episode of the NBC series "Scrubs," which is currently being filmed. Debra Fordham, a supervising producer for the television series, told me earlier this week, "I specifically wrote this part for [D'Abruzzo] after seeing her in I Love You Because this spring, so to actually have her here in person playing it is just amazing to me. She's been here for a week-and–a-half now and she's just fabulous — personally and professionally. I couldn't be more thrilled." Fordham previously revealed that Avenue Q's Tony-winning composers, Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, penned several songs for the musical episode. "The general plot," said Fordham, "is that a woman comes into Sacred Heart, our hospital, complaining that she constantly hears music, yet all her tests come back normal. Is she just crazy? Or is something else going on?"

Tony Award winner Elaine Stritch, who returned to the Café Carlyle Sept. 12 with At Home at the Carlyle . . . Again, has extended her stay at the intimate nightspot. Originally scheduled to play the posh venue through Nov. 4, Stritch will now perform an additional week, ending her run Nov. 11. Stritch's new act — featuring such tunes as "The Life of the Party," "To Keep My Love Alive," "You Took Advantage of Me," "Comes Once in a Lifetime," "The Italian Lesson" and "Song on the Sand" — was compiled with her longtime musical director Rob Bowman. She is offering performances Tuesday-Saturday evenings at 8:45 PM; there is a $125 music charge and dinner required for all shows. The Café Carlyle is located within the Carlyle Hotel at Madison Avenue and 76th Street. For reservations call (212) 744-1600; visit www.thecarlyle.com for more information.

Composer Mary Rodgers will be honored during Music-Theatre Group's annual gala Oct. 23 at the Manhattan Penthouse. The evening will feature songs from the revue Hey Love: The Songs of Mary Rodgers. Those scheduled to perform include Tony Award winners Donna Murphy and Faith Prince as well as Jim Walton and Mark Waldrop. Musical director Patrick Brady will be featured at the piano. The Manhattan Penthouse is located at 80 Fifth Avenue. For ticket information call Mark Runion at (212) 366-5260, ext. 22 or e-mail mark@musictheatregroup.org.

And, finally, tickets are still available for the Actors' Fund of America's benefit concert of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas Oct. 16 at the August Wilson Theatre. Whorehouse follows the Actors' Fund's acclaimed concert mountings of Dreamgirls, Chess, Funny Girl and Hair and will feature a cast led by Tony nominees Emily Skinner as Mona Stangley and Terrence Mann as Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd. The star-studded company — under the direction of Mark S. Hoebee — will also boast Harry Groener as the Governor, Andrea McArdle as Doatsy Mae, Felicia Finley as Angel, Mary Faber as Shy, Richard Kind as Senator Wingwoah, Jennifer Hudson as Jewel, "American Idol" finalist Constantine Maroulis as an Aggie soloist, Bob Martin as Melvin P. Thorpe and the cast of [title of show] as The Melvin P. Thorpe Singers as well as Daniel Richard, Peter Gregus, Matt Scott and Tony Award winner Christian Hoff. Show time is 7:30 PM. For ticket information call (212) 221-7300, ext. 133 or visit www.actorsfund.org.

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

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