DIVA TALK: Chatting with Mamma Mia!'s Judy McLane Plus News of Rivera, Krakowski, Foy and Leavel

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Mamma Mia!'s Judy McLane Plus News of Rivera, Krakowski, Foy and Leavel News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Judy McLane stars as Tanya in the hit musical Mamma Mia!
Judy McLane stars as Tanya in the hit musical Mamma Mia! Photo by Joan Marcus

JUDY McLANE

Judy McLane has spent the last decade playing most every great female role in the musical theatre canon, including several triumphs at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse. Within the past year's time, the talented singer-actress nabbed a Drama Desk nomination for her work as Vienna in Off-Broadway's Johnny Guitar and a Helen Hayes nomination for her role as Phyllis in the Signature Theatre's acclaimed production of Stephen Sondheim's Follies. McLane, who made her Broadway bow in the original cast of Chess (her Broadway credits also include Kiss of the Spider Woman and Aspects of Love), is now back on The Great White Way in another ABBA-scored musical, Mamma Mia!. McLane is part of the long-running musical's new trio of leading ladies, which includes Parade's Carolee Carmello as Donna and Taboo's Liz McCartney as Rosie. And, the show may just be better than ever with this powerhouse trio belting out the string of ABBA hits. I recently had the chance to chat with McLane, who spoke about her return to Broadway as Tanya, her work in regional theatre, her transition from classical singer to Broadway belter and what it meant to be able sing the demanding title role in Evita. That interview follows.

Question: How's your run in Mamma Mia! going so far?
Judy McLane: It's a ball. I'm having such a great time!

Q: Are the three of you having as much fun onstage as it seems?
Judy:You know what, we are. You can't help it with Liz and Carolee. They're such great gals — we just look at each other and laugh. [Laughs.] Q: How does it feel to be back on Broadway?
Judy: I'm so thankful. It's great. It feels like home to be honest — it really does. It's been awhile, and I've worked tons regionally. This whole year has been just like a snowball. It's been a really wonderful year. It's so great because it feels right.

Q: How did casting coming about for the show?
Judy: Actually, I had gone in a long time ago for it. I've been through phases with [Mamma Mia!]. The very first time, when it was just coming out, I went in for [the role of] Tanya. Then, they started calling me in for Donna a couple times, and then I didn't go in for awhile. This time I went back actually for Donna, and during the course of the audition, they said, "Can you read Tanya?" It was at the callbacks, and I just read for it the one time, and they said, "Okay, that's it."

Q: Did you have a preference for which role?
Judy: You know, it's so funny, you always think, "Well, Donna's the bigger part, and it's great songs," but I love this part. I just love this part! I think there's a part of me that can relate on a lot of sides to Tanya — being in the business, we have certain personas and we're out doing things. I'm very much like Donna in a lot of ways — most of my friends say, "You're earthy and . . . ," but there's a part of me that just loves this dressing up, the nails have to be done and the hair is coifed. And, she's so much fun. I'm allowed to be myself as well, bring a lot of what I have [to the part], especially when the three of us are together. We can go back to those times when you're with people that you just can let go with, which is really fun.

Q: Were you an ABBA fan before this?
Judy: I don't know if I was an ABBA fan, but I grew up with a lot of this stuff. I enjoy their music, [but] I don't have any of their CDs. But, of course, I did Chess — that was my first Broadway show, so it's kind of nice to come around again . . . [Chess has such] a great score. I've done that show about five times, and it's kind of nice to do another one of their shows.

Q: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for your character?
Judy: There's a few of them, but I think the bedroom scene with the three girls is the most fun. It's [also] the most grueling. Last night we looked at each other, and at one point I could see it in Carolee's eyes — by the eighth show of the week, your lungs are burning, and you're thinking, "I cannot do another jump-split. I can't do it!" [Laughs.] But because of the camaraderie between the three of us, I think that's my favorite scene. And, also, I love the part with the boys. The guys that I get to dance with are so much fun. What could be better than these beautiful men dancing around you? [Laughs.] And they're gorgeous guys, and they're all young and have these hot little bodies, so I'm having a ball.

Q: You talked a little about how last year was such a great year for you. Tell me about your experience with Johnny Guitar.
Judy: You know, it was interesting, I had been working so much regionally, a lot of Paper Mill and a lot of great regional theatres all over the country and doing a lot of symphony work. I hadn't been in town in awhile. Most of my friends were more frustrated, I think, than I was. [Laughs.] But coming back and creating a part was just like a little dream. I just had a ball with this part. I didn't try to do Joan Crawford. I took a lot of Susan Hayward or Barbara Stanwyck and I soaked myself in those movies. I think to be rewarded with a Drama Desk nomination and a Drama League honor was just the icing on the cake. It was just a really special year to be acknowledged like that. It was lovely to be back in town after so long.

Q: And you also starred in Follies at the Signature. . .
Judy: That was an unbelievable experience, that little tiny house down there, but the cast was amazing. I was working with Flo Lacey [as Sally Durant] and Joe Dellger [as Ben Stone] and all these great D.C. actors. And, that show I could still be doing — the part is just ridiculous how wonderful it is. There's an essence of a tiny bit of Tanya in it, but Tanya is so much more fun-loving, but there's some tiny little similarity between them. . . I had done this great show and then got rewarded by getting a Helen Hayes nomination. It all came at once, and it was really, really lovely.

Q: What are some of the favorite productions you've done regionally? I remember seeing you as Evita at Paper Mill about ten years ago.
Judy: Paper Mill has been a really wonderful place for me. That's like my family out there. I've had the opportunity to work my chops by doing [Man of] La Mancha and doing Victor/Victoria — those kind of things have really been special. Doing my first production of Chess out there with Robbie Marshall directing — it was pretty amazing. I got to work with great people out at Paper Mill, but around the country I've done some really lovely and wonderful things. One of my favorite things has been Follies — the cast was amazing, and the material is just so rich. You can't beat it. And, I think one of my favorite things I've ever done is another Sondheim show, the national of Into the Woods as the Baker's Wife. I've had the opportunity to do some really great parts . . . It's so funny going to do Evita out at the MUNY, which is a 12,000-seat outdoor theatre. You think you're in Buenos Aires. You look out, you raise your arms, and you think, "This is another country!" [Laughs.] And, yet, because I've worked with so many people that have been on Broadway and are in the Broadway scene, I feel like I never really lost the connection, so that's been nice. But Mamma Mia!, I still can't get over how much of a blast it is to do. The other night I actually started chuckling to myself. When we came out of the trap, rise out of the floor, and the audience is screaming, I thought, "Oh my God, this is like a rock concert!" [Laughs.]

Q: I don't know too much about your background. Where were you raised?
Judy: I was raised in Pennsylvania, near Scranton, not too far from here. I went to school as a classical music major, a classical singer. I met an incredible man when I came here, Bill Schuman, who taught me to belt from scratch. I was here, and I was only classically trained. I knew during my junior and senior year of college that I wanted something else and started doing summer stock. I knew I had more to sing — I knew there was something else there and didn't really know how to facilitate that. I went to Bill Schuman, and I wouldn't have a career if it wasn't for Bill. He really taught me how to do it. And it's ironic that I now am known more as a belter. You have three women in the show — Liz, Carolee and myself — and you're known as the three belters. I still have my soprano chops that I keep up, but Bill taught me how to [belt].

Q: Are you involved in any other workshops or projects?
Judy: I'm putting together a cabaret called Endangered Species, which I did down at Signature last year.

Q: Where would you want to perform that?
Judy: Probably somewhere here in the city eventually. Michael Heitzman, who is a dear friend of mine — he wrote some songs for Swing! and has his own shows Vices and Bingo that are being produced — is helping me co-write it. I'm hoping to get that off the ground eventually.

Q: Will that feature original music . . .
Judy: Some original, some arrangements of things. And, I'm also working on doing some [other] cabaret [projects]. I'm doing a cabaret out at the Manor in March, which is a whole different kind of cabaret. I'm trying to keep things in the fire.

Q: Do you like to vary between theatre and cabaret?
Judy: The symphony work — I've been doing that the last nine years — it's a whole other animal. I had to really get used to it. Each song has to be its own character, instead of finding a through-line within a whole piece. It's a ball to get up and sing in front of a full orchestra . . . The cabaret thing — I did my first one down at Signature. Eric Schaffer called me and said, "We have this opening down here. Would you come and do a cabaret?" I said, "Well, Eric, I don't have a cabaret act." [Laughs.] So, I whipped this thing together and found that I just loved it. I could be myself, tell stories and banter back and forth with the audience, which was really fun, so it might be something I'll explore while I'm doing Mamma Mia!. It's funny, I feel like I've been given a gift, and that gift is to sing. And so the more I can facilitate and do that, the better.

Q: Do you have any vocal regimens — how do you protect your voice?
Judy: A lot of water [laughs]. . . but Bill really taught me an incredible technique, and I actually teach as well. I've been teaching for nine years, so I feel like I'm grounded in a really good solid technique. There's rarely a time where I feel like I'm fatigued from bad singing. [If anything], it's just fatigue itself. I think technique is so important. I stress that with my students, and Bill has always stressed that. I don't go to him all the time now, but if I have a project I'll go, and he works it with me. But I think that's the thing that's helped me get through the Evitas and the La Manchas, there's a technique to rely on. Q: With Evita, you definitely need that . . .
Judy: You certainly do! [Laughs.] I remember when I was learning that score years ago and listening to Patti [LuPone], who's phenomenal, and I remember thinking after I sang it, after I think my second production, I thought, "Now I can sing anything!"

THANKSGIVING THOUGHTS

Two Broadway favorites, 42nd Street's Beth Leavel and Mamma Mia!'s Harriett D. Foy, are currently part of the cast of the new musical Lone Star Love, playing Off-Broadway's John Houseman Theatre through Jan. 9, 2005. Since Thanksgiving is less than a week away, I thought it would be a good time to see what these two talented gals have planned for the holiday and what they are thankful for this year.

Leavel, who plays Aggie Ford in the musical inspired by The Merry Wives of Windsor, said, "I am thankful this year, and always, for my wonderful husband and two sons. They fill my heart with joy and love. I am always thankful for my dear friends who give of themselves unconditionally and for my parents who turned 87 this year! God bless them. Since we are in the middle of previews for Lone Star Love, and we only have Thanksgiving off, my boys and I will set our best table and share our holiday together — and start playing our Christmas music!"

Foy, who portrays Miss Quickly, said, "I am thankful for my loving family — they never miss an opening night — and the fact that I still have my grandparents, who are both 84 this year, and married 62 years this year. I am thankful for the most supportive and wonderful friends in the universe. I am most thankful to God that I get to do what I love every night when I go on stage and that maybe I'm helping someone forget their troubles for a couple of hours. I am truly thankful for a good life and fun career. Who could ask for anything more?" As for this Thanksgiving, Foy said, "I will definitely be in town because Lone Star Love is in previews. I may cook a little something, something for my Mom and a few of my friends, and then take a big fat nap!"

DIVA TIDBITS

Theatre and television stars Jane Krakowski and Megan Mullally have joined the star-studded line-up for Lincoln Center's American Songbook season. Krakowski, a Tony Award winner for her performance in the revival of Maury Yeston's Nine, will make her solo concert debut Feb. 1, 2005, at the Allen Room in Frederick P. Rose Hall at the Time Warner Center. Mullally, of TV's "Will & Grace," will also perform at the Allen Room on Feb. 11. The singer-actress will be accompanied by her band, the Supreme Music Program. Also new to the Songbook line-up is singer/songwriter Lisa Loeb, who will play the Allen Room Feb. 3. Tickets for the concerts are available at the Alice Tully Hall box office (Broadway and 65th Street), by calling (212) 721-6500 or by visiting www.lincolncenter.org.

A Dancer's Life is the title of the eagerly awaited one-woman show from Broadway veteran Chita Rivera. Rivera's agent told me earlier this week that Graciela Daniele — of Once on This Island and Ragtime fame — will direct and choreograph the production, which boasts a book by Tony Award winner Terrence McNally. A Dancer's Life will feature back-up dancers and a full orchestra and will likely bow at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles this summer. Stops are also expected in Boston, Chicago, Washington and, ultimately, New York. And, as previously announced, Rivera is scheduled to play Feinstein's at the Regency Feb. 22-March 12, 2005.

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

(Look for a condensed version of "Diva Talk" in the theatre edition of Playbill Magazine.)

<i>Lone Star Love</i>'s Beth Leavel (left) and Harriett D. Foy (right)
Lone Star Love's Beth Leavel (left) and Harriett D. Foy (right)