DIVA TALK: Chatting with She Loves Me Tony Nominee and Good Ol' Girls Star Sally Mayes

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with She Loves Me Tony Nominee and Good Ol' Girls Star Sally Mayes
 
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Sally Mayes
Sally Mayes

SALLY MAYES
What a cast has been assembled for the new musical Good Ol' Girls, which begins a limited engagement Feb. 8 in The Black Box Theatre at Manhattan's Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre! Penned by Lee Smith and Jill McCorkle and adapted by Paul Ferguson, the production features songs by Nashville hit-makers Matraca Berg (Reba McEntire, Dixie Chicks, Faith Hill) and Marshall Chapman (Jimmy Buffett, Wynonna, Olivia Newton-John) and is described as "a musical about love, loss and laughter . . . [which] celebrates childhood through old age with big hair and bigger hearts." Directed by Randal Myler, the all-female cast boasts original Company star Teri Ralston, Spamalot, Side Show and recent Vanities actress Lauren Kennedy (Spamalot), Liza Vann (Machiavelli), Gina Stewart ("Dawson's Creek") and She Loves Me Tony Award nominee Sally Mayes. The latter, of course, has also been seen on Broadway in the revival of Steel Magnolias, the film-to-stage musical Urban Cowboy and Cy Coleman's Welcome to the Club (Theatre World Award, Outer Critics Circle nomination) [AUDIO-LEFT] as well as Off-Broadway in Closer Than Ever (Outer Critics nomination), Das Barbecü, Pete 'n' Keely (Drama Desk nomination) and Dirty Blonde (first national tour). Mayes, who boasts a thrilling voice that easily switches from Broadway belter to jazz baby (just listen to her thrilling renditions of "I've Been Here Before" and "Miss Byrd" on the original cast recording of Closer Than Ever ), has also released several critically acclaimed solo discs, including "Valentine," "The Dorothy Fields Songbook," "Our Private World: The Comden and Green Songbook," "The Story Hour" and "Boys and Girls Like You and Me." I recently had the chance to chat with the gifted artist, who spoke about her latest role as well as her many other stage outings; that interview follows:

Sally Mayes and George Dvorsky in Pete 'n' Keely

Question: How did you get involved in Good Ol' Girls?
Sally Mayes: My agent called and said, "Do you wanna go in for this?" I said, "What is it?" She told me about it and I said, "Well, I'm always on a quest to find well-written Southern women, and that's rare." So I went in and I sang for them, and they were lovely. They asked me to read a couple of things, and I did, and that was lovely. The script was nice. When they offered it to me, I said, "Sure." I had been staying home with my son and letting my husband work. [He was in] Ragtime, Pete 'n' Keely, Producers, Curtains, Young Frankenstein. He's had a show for like 12 years. So I work when the money's really good or when it's something that I'm really passionate about doing, but most of the time I turn stuff down. I'm very picky. I'm not lazy, but I'm very, very picky. I've been turning stuff down for years! [Laughs.] My agents are going, "Yay, she wants to work!" So I took it. My husband's home right now, and he said, "Why don't you go do this?" So I'm doing it. I'm trying to say yes to everything this year. That's my New Year's resolution — within reason.

Question: How old is your son now?
Mayes: He's 13, so it's okay if I want to go to work. He enjoys the theatrical environment, too. He likes to come with me to the theatre, and he likes to go with me when I go out of town in the summer. He likes theatrical people. He's very creative and groovy himself, so he likes to be around those folk. It's a good life. [Laughs.]

Question: You mentioned before that you're always looking for good Southern women to play. Why do you think that it's rare that you find them?
Mayes: Gosh, it's so hard to write about people… I think that a lot of the time when people don't understand the Southern woman, they comment on it. It's commenting on what they think it is instead of it actually being what it is. Don't get me wrong, I've had some wonderful Southern woman parts through the years, and I've had a great time and I've loved all of my shows for different reasons. But it is rare to find a really well written [role] — there's a cadence and there's the lingo, there's the slang, there's a way of putting things. Good Ol' Girls is about women of a certain age, partly about women of a certain age. It's so beautifully written. There are monologues… it's kind of like a revue, except it's monologues and little scene-lettes, and then these absolutely gorgeous songs. These writers are the real deal. Question: Are you playing several different characters?
Mayes: I'm playing a lot of different characters, yes. That's more fun, you know! [Laughs.] And it's crazy because we've got so much to learn right now. We're all like, "Oh, my God, I've gotta memorize a two-page monologue!" I can't say enough about Randy Myler, the director. He's one of those directors that listens to actors, and I think the world of him. And the cast… this is a world-class cast we have here.

Question: All women, right?
Mayes: All women, and every single one of them is just really strong. It's just so much fun to go to work every day.

Question: Do any of the characters yet stand out to you as a favorite?
Mayes: We are doing a scene in a nursing home. If you've ever had a parent who is getting older and they start to come in and out of dementia or Alzheimer's or just senility… they'll be perfectly normal and then it will turn on a dime. I'm kind of really enjoying that scene, but all of my stuff is really well written. I haven't been working on it long enough to pick a favorite yet. But I like them all. I get to sing a blues song, I like that. They're just all saucy and funny and salty and down-to-earth and ladylike. It's gonna be a really interesting evening. It's really Southern. I don't know how it will be looked at in New York, but I think it'll be fine. I think they're gonna really relate.

Question: Tell me a little bit more about the score.
Mayes: It's very, very traditional country, but it's got a little bit of zydeco and a little bit of blues and bluegrass. It's got a lot of different elements to it. The lyrics are just stunningly beautiful, and the music is haunting, some of it. It's a really nice score. I'm totally enjoying singing with these ladies, and we're just having a high old time over there.

Question: Is there any talk of a cast recording?
Mayes: I'm hopeful we'll do it. I hope it's a big old fat hit and they'll move it somewhere and keep it going for a long time. This is something that a lot of different women could be in, something that could go on for a long time. There are a lot of different women that I know personally who could be in it. [Laughs.] I hope we do a cast album. That would be fun.

Question: The last time you were on Broadway was also with an all-woman cast, in Steel Magnolias. What's your recollection of that experience?
Mayes: Oh my goodness, it was an amazing experience. To get to stand on the stage with Frances Sternhagen, first of all… just that alone is enough to make your event. But I also got to be onstage with Marsha Mason and Chris Ebersole and Delta Burke and Rebecca Gayheart and Lily Rabe, who is genius-ly talented. It was a great experience. The only thing that was hard about it was when I stood by for Delta, she didn't always give me a lot of notice. [Laughs.] At seven o'clock, "You're on!" So that was kinda crazy, but I gotta tell you it was a great experience. [Director] Jason Moore is such a wonderful guy. It was just a very warm environment to work in. I loved it. I loved every minute of it.

Sally Mayes

Question: You also do concert work. How does that compare to you with performing a role in a show?
Mayes: Well, when I do concert work or cabaret work or symphony work, they're all different for different reasons. Symphony is pretty set. You get in and you sing what they tell you to sing. Concert and cabaret work is more you doing what you want to do. You create your show. I like that for a different reason. It's all just you. You're driving the bus, and you're carrying it at the same time. It's exciting in a different way than working with an ensemble. When you're working with an ensemble there's "push me, pull you" and "I'll take it for awhile and I'll hand it back over to you" and you keep the balloon in the air. When you're doing it by yourself it's a little bit harder, but also great. I have no complaints at this point. I just feel lucky. I've been the luckiest person in the world. I've done some great projects and worked with some really, really talented people, and I'm happy. Question: Any chance of another CD?
Mayes: Well, we've been talking about it a little bit. I have to find a label that wants to do it, because all of my labels seem to be kaput. I want to do a Christmas album before I hang up my vocal chords. [Laughs.] I think that would be really, really fun. Patrick Brady is my genius arranger and partner in all of the stuff we've done all of these years. We have so much fun. We're always coming up with ideas for Christmas stuff and going, "When we do the Christmas album…" [Laughs.]

Question: What are some of your favorites?
Mayes: I have an arrangement of "Santa Baby" that we did years ago that we've never recorded that I want to get on that album. I love Christmas music, I love all of it.

Question: Me too. I'm Jewish and I love Christmas music!
Mayes: See, it's a great thing! [Laughs.] I drive my family crazy because I always have the radio station on in the car that is Christmas music, and I always have Christmas music on here at the house. Every time there is a new CD that I think is gonna be good, I'll go and grab it! My favorites right now — I listened to the Chicago Christmas album. It's amazing because it sounds like all of the Chicago arrangements, but it's Christmas songs. It's really cool. I like Brian Setzer and his orchestra; I think that's really fun. I just want to do something like that. I have ideas that I get up in the night and write down on little pads of paper and try to read them the next day. There's always something I want to do. I love music, and I love being in the recording studio. I'd rather do that than anything. So I always have ideas for albums, to infinity and beyond, as Buzz Lightyear puts it. [Laughs.] If somebody wanted to take me on and let me just go, boy I have a lot of ideas!

Question: So you like that process?
Mayes: I love that process. It's my favorite thing to do because you have it forever! The only thing I would ask for is a little more time. Usually these record companies that bring me in to do albums want me to do them in like a week. You do two takes of something and they're like, "It's great, it's great!" I'm real fast because I used to do jingles for a living, but I sometimes would like to take a little bit more time. I've pretty much decided that the next one that's not a Christmas album, that's just me, I'm gonna do it myself and then hang it on somebody to push for me.

Sally Mayes and Richard Muenz in Closer Than Ever

Question: Someone told me recently that there might be another production of Closer Than Ever. What's happening with that?
Mayes: Well, we're gonna do it at Queens Theatre in the Park. I don't really know if everybody is onboard. I don't believe that Richard Muenz is performing anymore. I'm not sure about Brent [Barrett], but I'm hopeful he's gonna do it. I know Lynne [Wintersteller] and I have both told each other, "I'm not doing it if you're not doing it!" So we're just trying to figure out all the kinks on it. We're gonna go and do it out there for a couple of weeks just to get it up on its feet again and see what we have. The plan is to take it around to performing arts centers around the country and do concert versions of it and then hopefully to bring it into New York — to Broadway this time, as a limited run. That would be very cool. What's really interesting about it is that all of us are the right age to sing this stuff now. We were kind of a little "under it." What's funny is that Lynne and I can still hit those notes. [Laughs.] I told Patrick, "You might have to lower a couple of things." She's one of the great wonders of musical theatre. She's got this amazing voice. I just am kind of a hack. I just kind of sing whatever is there. [Laughs.] I had a 50th birthday party at Birdland this summer. I did a concert and I invited all of my people. I had George Dvorsky come, and we sang something from Pete 'n' Keely. I had Billy Stritch and Sharon Montgomery come… we used to have a group years ago when I lived in Houston, TX, called Montgomery, Mayes and Stritch. We did stuff. And then I had Lynne come, and we sang the duet from Closer Than Ever. We looked at each other and went, "Damn girl, you sound good!" I think that we were like, "Oh, I think we could maybe do this." I felt like [the show] didn't get its due. It's a beautiful show, and it didn't run long enough and not enough people got to do those parts. You want something to have longevity so that you get to see a lot of different people try this stuff on. It's done everywhere, but I don't know if there's ever been the ultimate New York performance because it closed after nine months, which is a pretty decent run for Off-Broadway.

Question: Would you consider that your New York breakthrough?
Mayes: It was two things. It was that, and I went to audition for Cy Coleman for an understudy job; actually it was a swing job. I went in and I auditioned for him, and he cast me. And then during previews they fired one of the girls that I was swinging, so I got to be on Broadway three months after moving to New York.

Question: Do you remember your first night on Broadway?
Mayes: Oh, my God, I was terrified. I got thrown on. I had somebody running lines with me all day, and I was doing the put-in, and everybody was upset because the girl had been fired. So I was like, "I don't ask that you like it, I just ask that you support me." I will never forget. I walked on… it was Welcome to the Club and I played a country-western singer who had been thrown into an alimony jail with a bunch of guys. Don't ask! [Laughs.] But it was really fun, it was kind of like "Billy Dawn Goes to Nashville." My first line was, "Jailer, lock me in leg irons and throw away the key!" I said that and was prepared to go on, and it got this huge laugh. It rolled from the back of the house forward, and I thought, "I'm home!" It was the best feeling in the world. That show was not a hit either, but it was a great experience and I was always one of Cy's girls after that. He always would call me for stuff. He was a great friend, and I miss him a lot. So that was the first one. I got an Outer Critics Circle nomination. The night after that show closed, I auditioned for Closer Than Ever… really hung over! [Laughs.] And I got the job. So those two were really the ones. I can't give enough credit to those two guys. They were great.

Sally Mayes with Jerry McGarrity and Carolee Carmello in Das Barbecü

Question: Take me through some of your other favorite theatrical experiences.
Mayes: I would have to say that She Loves Me — that ensemble, there was just nothing better. There was nothing better ever. It was just the greatest experience. It was a beautiful show. I couldn't wait to go to work every night. Sometimes in shows you don't wanna go to work and you just wanna stay home and put your feet up. I could not wait to get to the theatre every night. It was so much fun to play with those people. It was just beautifully done. I loved it. I loved my part, I loved my costumes, I loved my co-stars. It was great. I loved everything for different reasons. Das Barbecü was kind of like being thrown into a blender. It was more fun offstage than on, because we were at the Minetta Lane with a set that had been built for Baltimore Center Stage. It was huge! So we were climbing over set pieces. Every time you went offstage, you came on as somebody else, so you had to change wigs and costumes. It was crazy, crazy, crazy, but so much fun. And I'm with J.K. Simmons onstage. This is before he hit with television and movies, and a lot of people don't even know that he's got this astounding baritone voice. And my friend Julie Johnson from Texas, and Carolee Carmello — it was a great experience. I got to work with Leo Burmester in Urban Cowboy. I got to work with George Dvorsky and have Bob Mackie dress me in Pete 'n' Keely. Pete 'n' Keely was written on us. It was written for what we had to bring to the party. How rare is that, and how great is that? I loved every minute of it. When I did the national tour of Dirty Blonde, it was like this gift that James Lapine handed me. It was amazing. I did it with the Broadway cast. We were out on the road for six months, and I had two weeks off between cities. My son would either come to me or I would go to him, so I wasn't a bad mommy. Question: Had you been a Mae West fan? Did you know her work?
Mayes: I kind of was aware of her. I had done a little bitty reading of a piece and I kept saying, "She sounds like a black blues singer. She sounds a little bit Southern." The director of that reading was like, "No, you're totally off base. That's wrong." And then when I started rehearsing with Bob Stillman, he was like, "That's exactly right!" It was a challenge because that character was really all about sex. She was all about sex, and it was so much fun to find your way in there. She was a sexual being. She was much more like a man than a woman of that period — the way she discarded lovers and took lovers. It was such an interesting piece to me, because it started out with Mae always changing and evolving and becoming whatever she needed to be to become this big star, and then she froze herself at some point, which is when it stopped being great. And then the other character, Jo, starts out totally frozen and unable to do anything, and she ends up blossoming. It was really fun because it was like an X. They were going across each other. It was so much fun to play with Tom Riis Farrell and Bob Stillman. I can't complain about anything really. I've been so lucky. Maybe, if anything, that I had a few more shows. But Hal Prince told me years and years ago, "You're quirky and you're unique, and you're gonna have long periods where you don't work. And then you're gonna hit big with something, and then you're gonna work a lot." He's been right so far. I turn down things if I feel like I've already done that, or if it's not great money. The thing that I'm trying to be careful about now is Southern roles, which is why I really considered this carefully. I don't wanna be the battleaxe. That's not where I want to go. [Laughs.] I want people to remember that I did do She Loves Me and I didn't play a Southern character in that. I did do Dirty Blonde where I didn't play a Southern character. I don't want to be typed, so I always try to find really diversely different things to work on. I'm trying to move more into doing plays because I don't wanna be 70 years old and belting D's. That's what I trained to do. It's changed a lot. There have been people who have been able to go back and forth, like Chris Ebersole and Boyd Gaines, but for the most part they think if you do musicals, you can't do plays. It's nice to be able to go back and forth. That's what I'm trying for. It also opens up more opportunities. It's a good life. What can I tell ya?

[For tickets to Good Ol' Girls, priced $70, call (212) 352-3101 or (866) 811-4111. The Black Box Theatre at The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre is located at 111 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. For more information visit www.goodolgirls.com.]

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

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