DIVA TALK: Chatting with Phantom’s Anne Runolfsson Plus News of Clark, Murney and White

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Phantom’s Anne Runolfsson Plus News of Clark, Murney and White News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Anne Runolfsson in The Phantom of the Opera.
Anne Runolfsson in The Phantom of the Opera. Photo by Joan Marcus

ANNE RUNOLFSSON

There are few voices more glorious than the one Anne Runolfsson possesses, one that can be breathtakingly sweet or overwhelmingly powerful. I first became aware of this multitalented performer — whose Broadway credits also include Victor/Victoria, James Joyce’s The Dead, Cyrano, Les Misérables and Aspects of Love — during an evening of David Friedman tunes at the Russian Tea Room a little more than a decade ago, a wonderful program that boasted such other stellar vocalists as Alix Korey and the late Nancy LaMott. Since that concert I’ve enjoyed Runolfsson’s work in the Off-Broadway revue Listen to My Heart, in her own cabaret evening at the now-closed Eighty-Eight’s and on her wonderful solo debut recording “At Sea,” an eclectic mixture that includes theatre tunes, standards, pop hits and a few songs written with friends.

I had no idea, however, that Runolfsson’s soprano could soar to the stratosphere as it does in The Phantom of the Opera. I had always thought of the singing actress as an extremely high belter, so I was astounded by the equally exhilarating sounds she produces as opera diva Carlotta Giudicelli in what is now the longest-running show in Broadway history. I was fortunate to be able to attend the Jan. 9 record-breaking performance of Phantom, and Runolfsson’s performance was simply thrilling, both vocally and acting-wise. I had the pleasure of chatting with the charming performer (and mother of six-and-a-half-year-old Tess) just two days after the aforementioned performance. That brief interview follows.

Question: What was Monday night’s record-breaking performance of Phantom like for you?
Anne Runolfsson: Monday night was magical. It was truly exquisite, a night I will always remember. You just don’t get to have those kinds of evenings very often because shows don’t run for 18 years very often! It had all of the fanfare and wonderful qualities of an opening night but without all the pressure. Everyone was there in a joyous, celebratory, fantastic mood. No one was waiting around for reviews. It had a very different feel about it. It was completely lavish and over the top, which you also don’t see so much anymore. . . . Many of us were saying in [our] lifetimes [we] might see that again, but what are the odds of being involved in it?

Q: Is there one particular memory that will stay with you about the night?
Runolfsson: The thing I’ll remember most is being at a party like that where all the producers and creators were actually having a good time. [Laughs.] They were all just so relaxed. I’ve never been in that kind of situation where people have been so completely relaxed and ecstatic and effusive. It even seemed to me, and I might be wrong, that the core crowd stayed a lot longer than they normally do. People were really hanging out and enjoying themselves. That’s what I’ll remember. I wish I could have stayed for five more hours. I didn’t even talk to half the people I wanted to talk to. It was so big, and there were so many people, and there were so many levels, it was impossible to get to everyone. Q: I thought the post-Phantom show was so wonderful with the cat dancing towards Howard McGillin’s Phantom and passing the torch to the new longest-running show.
Runolfsson: Yes and having all these [former] company members come back onstage. Tim Jerome [who plays Monsieur Firmin] was asking me if I knew a lot of them. I do know a lot of them, but not in a Phantom context. I’ve just been here for a year. I know so many of those folks from different shows, from my 20 years in New York and being in the theatre. It was just a very, very special evening — my sisters were here. Two of my sisters came from California. My daughter, even though she was sick, actually made it to the show and then came up into my dressing room afterwards and threw up. [Laughs.]

Q: What were the week or weeks like leading up to the record-breaking performance?
Runolfsson: Madness! Absolute lunacy. Everyone was just crazy because they wanted it to be perfect and amazing. I think there were a lot of anxious people, not so much the company, but everyone who was responsible for getting the show onstage. As a result, there was a lot of rehearsing, a lot of notes and a lot of people coming to see the show.

Q: Were all the former company members brought in before to rehearse the “third act”?
Runolfsson: They came in the day of [the performance]. We were called at 11 AM on Monday and were there from 11-4, for five hours!

Q: How did the role of Carlotta come about originally for you?
Runolfsson: Believe it or not, I auditioned for the L.A. company 18 years ago! I was in Los Angeles at the time doing Les Misérables, and [casting director] Andy Zerman felt like I was right for Carlotta, but I was 20 years old. [Laughs.] So, he brought me in, and [musical supervisor] David Caddick said, “Oh no, she’s a Christine. We’d love to hear her sing for Christine.” I ended up singing for Christine at that go-around, and I wasn’t the one they wanted, and many, many years went by, and it came up again in the Carlotta context. I went in probably about five years ago and came very close at that point to getting it but didn’t. But then they said, “We’re very interested for the future.” And, sure enough, summer of 2004, toward the end of the summer, they called and said, “We’re looking for a Carlotta, and you’re at the top of our list. Are you interested?” I said, “Yes, definitely.” I have this saga [with Phantom], as I’m sure many people do with these long-running shows. . . . As it happens, the timing couldn’t have been better. I got to participate in this record-breaking performance. And, personally, it couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I’d been doing a lot of concerts, and I was looking to plant myself more in New York since my daughter was starting school. It all just worked out brilliantly!

Q: Is it fun to get to play the diva every night?
Runolfsson: I’m having the time of my life. It’s a hard part vocally and physically because of the costumes. But it’s a really, really fun part to play, and the company, the people I get to work with — George Lee Andrews, Tim Jerome and Marilyn Caskey and Larry Wayne Morbitt — they’re amazing and they’re just great, giving wonderful actors and people, so it’s a thrill and an honor every night to work with them. And, it’s just fun.

Q: Do you have a favorite moment or scene in the show for Carlotta?
Runolfsson: I’m particularly fond of “Prima Donna.” I love the way the whole scene is crafted. I actually think that particular scene is one of the best crafted scenes I’ve ever seen in a musical. It tells the story so well. The way Hal [Prince] staged it is just perfect. That scene, to me, is really the most satisfying thing that I do in the show.

Q: How demanding is the score? How do you go about protecting your voice to do eight shows a week?
Runolfsson: I try to get as much as sleep as I can, but I have a kid, so that’s really not a reliable thing. I just try to take the best care I can of myself and also, thankfully, have really great technique that I was taught by my first voice teacher and then subsequent voice teachers. I feel like my technique has been the thing that has allowed me to do this night after night and not suffer any injuries and just be able to go about it in a healthy way and a sane way. [Laughs.]

Q: I didn’t even know you had that operatic part of your voice. I know you more from having this incredibly rangy belt.
Runolfsson: A lot of people actually say that. Not that I didn’t know that I had this part of my voice — I knew that it was there — I just didn’t know if it was something that I really could do eight shows a week. I knew I could pop those notes out, I knew that I had them. One of the questions they asked me — how you viewed me is how they viewed me, too — “Do you really think you can do this?” I said, “Honestly, I don’t know, so let’s do three months, and see how it works out.” So that’s how we started. And it worked out great.

Q: How long do you see yourself staying with the show?
Runolfsson: I’m signed until May at this point. Definitely until May and then, depending on a number of factors, possibly until November. I’ll probably stay as long as I can. I’m starting to notice a little bit of wear, actually more so on my body than on my voice, which is kind of ironic. One six-month chunk at a time! [Laughs.]

Q: I loved the song you wrote with David Friedman, “At Sea.” Are you still writing lyrics?
Runolfsson: Not writing so much anymore; every once in awhile something will pop into my head. I’m actually going to do a cabaret show in February [the 27th] at the Duplex. I’m still doing a lot of concert work, just sort of experimenting in a lot of creative ways outside of this. Although I have to say between this full-time job and the full-time job of being a single parent, it doesn’t leave a lot of time and then just trying to have some kind of a social life on top of it.

Q: What type of material will you do at the Duplex?
Runolfsson: I think a lot of stuff I’ve never done before. There’s a Craig Carnelia song I want to do, a Kelly Clarkson song I want to do, and an Adam Guettel song I want to do. My daughter’s father, [producer Tony Adams], passed away last October, and I’m thinking part of the show will be a bit of a farewell. . . . I’m still in a state of mourning . . . so I’m sure that will influence [the show] at some level, but at the same time it will have a sense of moving on, moving on to the next chapter of my life.”

Q: The past few months must have been quite difficult.
Runolfsson: It’s been very, very difficult. I had taken the holidays off. They were nice enough here to give me the holidays off, and my daughter and I did a little bit of traveling. We’re healing. I just read Joan Didion’s book, [“The Year of Magical Thinking”]; it’s amazing. You just realize that grief and mourning is a process, and it affects you in different ways at different times. But I am looking forward to getting out and singing some different material. I’m also singing with the Dallas Symphony in February and with the Cincinnati Pops this summer, so it’s just nice to get out and do different things. The one thing that’s been great about this job and this show is that my voice is actually in the best shape it’s ever been. Singing this stuff every day has kept me in great vocal shape.

Q: You also had a chance to work with one of my other favorite singers, Nancy LaMott. What was it like working with Nancy?
Runolfsson: She was and, I have to say, continues to be a huge inspiration for me. I remember the first time I met her, and she walked into the room, and she just had this incredible energy, and she was very magnetic. You found yourself being drawn to her when she was in a room, just socially. And then she’d get onstage, and she would seemingly do nothing and yet do everything at the same time. You’d look at her and be like, “She’s not doing anything,” but then you’d be so moved and you wouldn’t even know what to do about it. I wish she were still around, so I could watch her just because I felt like I learned so much from her about singing and about what to do onstage, particularly in a small cabaret setting. I recently gave my mom a bunch of her CDs. My mom hadn’t heard her. She knew that we were friendly. My mom said she’s had them on in her car and hasn’t taken them out. When I was visiting my mom over the holidays, I got in her car and, sure enough, she had Nancy’s CDs. I listen to her, I weep and I smile, and her voice is so true. It was all about truth, and it was just a great, great loss for all of us.

Q: Do you think you’ll make another solo recording?
Runolfsson: I really hope to. I haven’t not done it for any reason other than I guess having a child and just a lot that’s been going on in my life. It’s something that I would love to do, and hopefully things will calm down to a point where it makes sense. I don’t want to do it for complete vanity reasons, although I’m not opposed to doing it for some vain reason [laughs], [but I want to do it when it] makes sense to and I also can put the time into promoting it.

[The Phantom of the Opera plays the Majestic Theatre, 247 West 44th Street; call (212) 239-6200 for tickets. Runolfsson’s solo recording, “At Sea,” is available at www.annerunolfsson.com. To purchase $20 tickets for her solo evening Feb. 27 at the Duplex, visit www.smarttix.com.] DIVA TIDBITS
The Light in the Piazza’s Bartlett Sher will direct and Ted Sperling will musical direct Victoria Clark’s upcoming solo concert debut Feb. 10 in the Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Clark, who won a Tony Award for her beautiful work in Piazza, recently said, “I am featuring the songs of Jeff Blumenkrantz and Jane Kelly Williams in the ‘American Songbook’ concert, but there will also be some standards and some surprises. All the songs speak about love in various forms, seeing as how we are very close to St. Valentine's Day — love for a child, love for friends, love for lovers, love for ex-lovers, love for God, love for friends, looking for love, etc. Ted Sperling . . . is assembling a fantastic band, including my brother Rod Clark, who is flying in from San Francisco to play with us.” Clark will offer shows at 8:30 and 10:30 PM. Her evening is titled How Can I Keep From Singing? The Allen Room is located within Jazz at Lincoln Center at Broadway and 60th Street. Tickets for the American Songbook performances can be purchased by calling (212) 721-6500. Visit www.lincolncenter.org for more information.

Tony Award winner Lillias White will become Chicago’s new Matron “Mama” Morton beginning Jan. 30. White will play a limited engagement in the Tony Award-winning Kander and Ebb revival through April 23.

Julia Murney, who recently made her Broadway bow in Lennon, will join composer Jason Robert Brown for a one-night-only presentation of his song cycle The Last Five Years at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse. The Jan. 30 event is part of the Marvelous Musical Mondays series presented by Reprise! Broadway's Best. The UCLA Freud Playhouse is located in Macgowan Hall. Call (310) 825-2101 for tickets; visit www.reprise.org for more information. . . . Murney will also release her solo debut CD, “I’m Not Waiting,” this spring on the Sh-K-Boom Records label.

Ute Lemper, the international chanteuse and star of the London and Broadway productions of Chicago, will return to the Café Carlyle Feb. 7 with a brand-new program. Entitled Blue Angels and Demons, Lemper will play the posh nightspot through Feb. 25. The concerts will take audiences on a “musical journey through Berlin cabaret songs, Yiddish tunes, a walk on the Weill side, with a wink to George Gershwin.” Lemper will be accompanied by Vana Gierig on piano, Mark Lambert on acoustic guitar, Dan Falzone on bass and Todd Turkisher on drums. 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.

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

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