DIVA TALK: Chatting with Mamma Mia!'s Brandi Burkhardt Plus News of Buckley and LuPone

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Mamma Mia!'s Brandi Burkhardt Plus News of Buckley and LuPone News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Brandi Burkhardt
Brandi Burkhardt

BRANDI BURKHARDT
A year ago, Brandi Burkhardt, the young singing actress with the beautiful, rounded soprano, had yet to make her Broadway debut. Fast-forward a few months, and the talented performer is currently starring in her second Broadway musical. Burkhardt began the season as Lucie Manette in the short-lived musical A Tale of Two Cities at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, and she recently joined the cast of the long-running, international hit musical Mamma Mia! at the Winter Garden. In the ABBA-scored production, Burkhardt plays bride-to-be Sophie Sheridan and gets the chance to show off another side of her vocal talents, her Broadway belt. Last week I had the pleasure of chatting with Burkhardt, whose theatrical credits also include the Reprise! staging of Li'l Abner (as Daisy Mae) and the international tour of Jekyll & Hyde: Resurrection (as Emma); my interview with the former Miss America contestant follows.

Question: How did the role in Mamma Mia! come about for you?
Brandi Burkhardt: After A Tale of Two Cities closed, I did a reading called Silas. The musical director was Wendy Bobbitt Cavett. I knew she was [musical director] for Mamma Mia!, and I asked her — and, actually, my Sky [in Mamma Mia!], Chris Peluso, was in that reading as well. I just asked her, "Hey, are you guys seeing Sophies?" And she said, "Yeah, we're actually seeing Sophies on Monday. But you're not really a Sophie, are you?" I was like, "Well, I think so." I think she said that because she had only heard me sing legit, high-soprano stuff and playing sad English ladies. So, essentially she called casting and said, "Hey, maybe you should see Brandi." I went in and… history!

Question: When did you start rehearsals?
Burkhardt: I started on the sixth of January, right after Black Sunday. It's been great. I've never been put into an existing show before, so I didn't really know what to expect in terms of how much time I would get and whether I'd get time onstage with Carolee [Carmello] and the other people in the show. I was really excited that they've given me a lot of time and I've gotten to work onstage because I've never been on a rake before.

Question: How is that different for you as an actor, performing on a raked stage?
Burkhardt: It's funny, you just tend to put it out of your mind. They say that there are exercises I should do to make sure my knees don't get damaged, or my back, etcetera, etcetera. But I haven't felt any of that yet.

Question: How much time have you gotten onstage with the rest of the cast?
Burkhardt: A good amount. I started onstage last week. Mostly we were in rehearsal rooms. It's been exciting, too, because they were willing to rework scenes and change blocking. We're not reinventing the wheel, but were willing to change [some things]. So it was fun to get to discover it. Question: How would you describe Sophie?
Burkhardt: She is very energetic and feisty, and she acts before she thinks a lot. She does a lot of backpedaling — she's a lot of fun. I wish I were more like her, actually! [Laughs.]

Question: In what way?
Burkhardt: I always think before I speak, and I always think before I act. I'm very deliberate in those ways, and she's not. She just goes right from the gut, right from the heart. She just goes with her instincts. I think there's something to be said for that.

Question: Were you an ABBA fan before this? Were you familiar with this music?
Burkhardt: I was familiar — I sang in a wedding band for a time. It was always my favorite when I got to do "Dancing Queen." Of course, I don't sing it in the show, but it's so much fun. The music is infectious, and you just want to get up and dance and bop. The tunes are so catchy. I was a fan of ABBA, but not to the extent that I am now. [Laughs.]

Question: Do you have a favorite moment yet for Sophie? A favorite song?
Burkhardt: I think it changes pretty frequently. I like so much of it. I think that's also the fun in playing the character. There are so many moments to have fun in. I really love the "Slipping Through My Fingers" scene with Carolee. . . . . Getting into the wedding dress... that's kind of profound for me as well. I was raised by a single mother, and I get that. As a little girl, you grow up asking yourself, "Who is going to walk me down the aisle?" For me, it rings very true.

Question: You mentioned legit singing versus the belting that you do in this. Is one more fun than the other?
Burkhardt: In theatre it has a lot to do with the character's voice for me and where the music takes the character. The fun thing about this is that it does stay so true to those pop records, which I love. That's a challenge in itself, to make that work theatrically and also to keep the integrity of the piece of music, which is where the show was derived from anyway. I love belting though. There's nothing like a big old note coming out of you, barreling down on it, opening up and singing to God, you know? [Laughs.]

Question: Why do you think the show has been so successful?
Burkhardt: I think it's a credit to the music. I had first seen the show in London back in 2000 or 2001. It was my first time in London, [and] I had expected — I knew it was ABBA — but I guess I just expected it to be like stuffy London theatre. And it wasn't that at all. It was so much fun! The dancing in the aisles. People get up on their seat and have just a great time at the end of the show. I think that's what is so infectious about it. And, again, it's those pop melodies that you just can't get out of your head.

Brandi Burkhardt in A Tale of Two Cities
photo by Carol Rosegg

Question: You mentioned before Tale of Two Cities. What was that experience like for you?
Burkhardt: I feel like I went through such a big growth spurt in that experience. It was based on a novel, and the story is so big, so you have to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time. It was such a joy. I got to work with Gregg Edelman, who played my father. I think it's just ironic that Carolee, his wife, is now playing my mother. [Laughs.] I said I should compare notes with Zoe, their daughter. Question: Since it was your Broadway debut, did it live up to what you thought your Broadway debut would be?
Burkhardt: It was so much greater than I could have imagined, working on beautiful material and such a classic story with people that really became family. I just felt very lucky and blessed to be in the company of so much talent. And, [director] Warren [Carlyle], it being his first show [as a Broadway director], and taking a chance on me. I was just very grateful.

Question: Did the show get recorded?
Burkhardt: I think that's still in the process of being talked about. It's still a possibility.

Question: Since we haven't spoken before, I want to go back a bit. Where were you born and raised?
Burkhardt: Maryland, right outside of Annapolis — it's called Pasadena.

Question: When did you start performing?
Burkhardt: I came to it rather late. I was in pageants. I really only did pageants. I don't really know what possessed me because I was quite shy. I would play piano for my talent, and I would always come in second to a singer. And I said, "You know what? I'm gonna sing!" And I think that's where I discovered that I could sing and where I learned to come out of my shell.

Question: How old were you at the time?
Burkhardt: I guess I was in eighth grade.

Question: Were there any singers or actors that influenced you or that you admired?
Burkhardt: Yes, yes, yes. Most people were growing up listening to the pop music of the day, but I was listening to Julie Andrews. She is just someone I've always admired and looked up to. It was quite wonderful — Tony Walton was our set designer for Tale, and he brought Julie to come and see our show. It was so surreal for me. I can remember going to see Victor/Victoria, and it was the first time we were ever in the same room together! And she just came out onstage, and I just started crying. It was so moving for me to then be on the stage and seeing her in the audience standing up and clapping. It's surreal to see someone you've idolized clapping for you. It's strange. [Laughs.]

Question: Did you get to meet her afterwards?
Burkhardt: I didn't! No, she jetted out of there pretty quickly.

Question: Well, maybe she'll come to Mamma Mia.
Burkhardt: I hope so! Question: So, were doing pageants and singing. When did you know that performing would be your career? When did it change from being a hobby?
Burkhardt: Maybe people know they can sing or they are performers by nature, but I didn't know until people told me — until I got a reaction from other people. I never was one to seek out attention in that way, but now it's somewhere that I can find such freedom to be myself and to discover more about myself. I've never been one of those performers to perform for the audience like, "Hey, look at me!" I think as I did it and I became more comfortable and people responded to me — it kind of was a gradual process. But in high school, I had already decided that that's probably the road I was going to take.

Question: Did you go to college or did you start performing right away?
Burkhardt: I did. I started as a voice opera major at the University of Maryland, and I left because it wasn't my scene. So I went to NYU, to Tisch, and I studied acting. I didn't study singing at all. I just was an acting student, and I studied singing in the city.

Question: What was your first professional job?
Burkhardt: Wow, that's a good question. . . . I guess it would be Jekyll & Hyde in concert, which wasn't that long ago. I'm trying to think about it, but I guess that was it. I feel like I was still doing things all up until then, but I took a little bit of a detour into pop music for a couple years.

Question: You recorded an album, right?
Burkhardt: I started to, yes.

Question: What was that world like?
Burkhardt: It was such a different animal altogether. I guess I got out of the theatre world for a few years there. When I got to New York after school and all, I did some readings, but my first real job where I was doing the tour of Jekyll & Hyde, and that was after my whole pop music thing.

Question: Would you like to do pop still or do you think you'll concentrate mostly on theatre?
Burkhardt: I think I'll let the inspiration take me where it will. I would love to record a record and tour and do concerts and stuff like that on my own. I think that's definitely in the cards, but I'm so happy to be in the theatre. I love acting, and I don't know that I could live without my right or left hand, you know?

[Mamma Mia! plays the Winter Garden Theatre, located at 1634 Broadway in Manhattan; for tickets call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.]

DIVA TIDBITS


Patti LuPone
photo by Ethan Hill

Stand back, Las Vegas! Olivier and two-time Tony Award winner Patti LuPone is headed your way. The recent star of Gypsy is scheduled to play the Orleans Casino & Hotel in Las Vegas, NV, June 20 at 7:30 PM and June 21 at 8 PM. Tickets are currently available by calling (702) 365-7111. LuPone will also be part of two performances of Kurt Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins: May 22 at the Music Hall in Cincinnati, OH (with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra under the direction of James Conlon); and Aug. 8 at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, IL. For more information visit www.pattilupone.net. Complete casting has been announced for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts' upcoming production of the award-winning Stephen Flaherty-Lynn Ahrens-Terrence McNally musical Ragtime. Directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, the production will play the DC venue April 18-May 10. Opening night is scheduled for April 25 in the Eisenhower Theater. The cast of the production, part of the Kennedy Center's Broadway: The Third Generation series, will be headed by Ron Bohmer as Father, Quentin Earl Darrington as Coalhouse Walker, Manoel Felciano as Tateh, Christiane Noll as Mother, Jennlee Shallow as Sarah and Bobby Steggert as Younger Brother. The ensemble will comprise Mark Aldrich, Sumayya Ali, Melvin Bell, Kevin Boseman, Corey Bradley, Shelby Braxton-Brooks, Christopher Cox, Susan Derry, Elizabeth Loren Earley, Gavin Esham, Aaron Galligan-Stierle, David Garry, Jamie Goodson, Jonathan Hammond, Leigh Ann Larkin, Gregory Maheu, Dan Manning, Donna Migliaccio, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Bryonha Parham, Sarah Rosenthal, Elisa Van Duyne, Josh Walden, Nellesa Walthour, Jim Weaver and Eric Jordan Young. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.kennedy-center.org.

Theatre Jacksonville will present a concert version of Jerry Herman's Tony Award-winning Hello, Dolly! Feb. 14 at the Harold K. Smith Playhouse. Directed by Jean Tait, the concert will co-star Pamela Myers (Company) as Dolly Levi and Harvey Evans (Follies, Sunset Boulevard) as Horace Vandergelder with Sarah Boone, Michael Lipp and Juan Unzueta. Eugene Gwozdz will be the evening's musical director; Rachel Clifton is the choral director. Theatre Jacksonville's Harold K. Smith Playhouse is located at 2032 San Marco Boulevard in Jacksonville, FL. For tickets, priced $60-$100, call (904) 396-4425.

Kelli O'Hara, who is currently starring in the Tony Award-winning revival of South Pacific at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater, will make her Cafe Carlyle debut in March. The three-time Tony nominee will play the posh venue March 31-April 11. Tony winner Christine Ebersole, who is currently playing the Carlyle, has extended her stay at the Manhattan venue. Originally scheduled to play the Carlyle through Jan. 31, the upcoming star of Blithe Spirit will sing for her supper through Feb. 11. The Carlyle season will also include Barb Jungr (March 11-28), Ute Lemper (Feb. 17-March 7 plus a Valentine's Day show on Feb. 14) and Judy Collins (April 11-May 30). The Café Carlyle is located in The Carlyle Hotel at 35 East 76th Street at Madison Avenue. For reservations call (212) 744-1600 or visit www.thecarlyle.com.

New York Moments, a concert featuring iconic musical moments from Broadway and film, will be presented April 20 at Avery Fisher Hall. The talent for the 7:30 PM concert, presented by the New York Philharmonic, will comprise Mary Poppins' Ashley Brown, Olivier Award winner Maria Friedman, Oscar and Tony winner Joel Grey, Tony-winning Dreamgirls star Jennifer Holliday, Tony and Oscar winner Liza Minnelli, South Pacific's Kelli O'Hara and Paulo Szot and up-and-coming singer Nikki Yanofsky. Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner Marvin Hamlisch will conduct the famed orchestra. Concert-only tickets, priced $55-$225, are currently on sale to New York Philharmonic subscribers and donors; tickets will go on sale to the general public Feb. 7 by calling (212) 875-5656. Tickets may also be purchased at the Avery Fisher Hall Box Office, Lincoln Center, Broadway at 65th Street.

Jerry Herman's Broadway, featuring the National Symphony Orchestra, will be presented March 12-14 in the Concert Hall of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The three concerts will feature the vocal talents of Tony Award winner Debbie Gravitte, Melissa Errico, Hugh Panaro and Ron Raines. Show times are March 12 at 7 PM and March 13-14 at 8 PM. Donald Pippin will conduct the orchestra. Concertgoers can expect to hear tunes from Herman's Hello, Dolly!; La Cage aux Folles; Mame; Mack and Mabel; and Milk and Honey, among others. For tickets, priced $20-$85, visit www.kennedy-center.org.

Tony Award winner Betty Buckley will return to Feinstein's at Loews Regency Feb. 10 with her acclaimed Broadway By Request program. Directed by Richard-Jay Alexander, the engagement will also feature the comedic and musical talents of Playbill.com columnist Seth Rudetsky. Performances will continue through March 7. Buckley, according to press notes, "will perform selections picked by the audience from her illustrious Broadway career in landmark musicals such as Cats, Sunset Boulevard, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Song and Dance and more. This unique evening of music, which will be different every night, will offer rare video footage and occasional special guests." In a statement director Jay-Alexander said, "The idea of Broadway By Request was born at Feinstein's almost a year ago, during Buckley's last engagement. During the run, the idea of doing something special for the late shows came up, and how the audiences had been expressing their desire for an all-Broadway program. So, we tried it and people came." Feinstein's at Loews Regency is located at 540 Park Avenue at 61st Street in New York City. For ticket reservations call (212) 339-4095 or visit feinsteinsatloewsregency.com and TicketWeb.com.

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

Seth with Betty Buckley and Richard Jay-Alexander
Seth with Betty Buckley and Richard Jay-Alexander Photo by Jim Caruso
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