After a much-extended run Off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company, the new musical Spring Awakening opened on Broadway in December 2006, winning some of the best reviews of the season to date. When the show arrived at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, the adults roles had been recast with Tony Award winner Stephen Spinella and Drama Desk Award winner Christine Estabrook, whose focused work has only strengthened the already moving work about adolescents lost in a repressive society where the silence of their parents and the other adults in their lives leads to disastrous results. Estabrook, who may best be known for her work on ABC-TV's "Desperate Housewives," is making her Broadway musical debut in the Duncan Sheik-Steve Sater musical, playing an array of adult female characters. Among the roles Estabrook brings a wonderful mix of humor and pathos to are the seemingly well-meaning but misguided mother of Wendla, Frau Bergman; Melchior's slightly more open and caring mother, Frau Gabor; Fraulein Grossenbustenhalter, the piano teacher who inspires Georg's exotic desires; the sinister, plotting schoolteacher, Fraulein Knuppeldick; and Frau Bessell, mother to the ill-fated Moritz. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with the good-natured Estabrook, who sprinkles her conversation with much laughter.
Question: How did the roles in Spring Awakening come about?
Christine Estabrook: I've been in L.A. for the last 15 years, and I've done plays there, but low-budget plays. I don't think you'd call it Off-Broadway — Off-Beverly Hills — with a good theatre company called the Echo Theatre Company, but with a 99-seat house or a 50-seat house! [Laughs.] Last year I went to Chicago in the spring to do The Clean House. I've always said I wanted to do another show in New York, and [Spring Awakening producer] Tom Hulce called me in Los Angeles, and he said, "I know this is a crazy idea, but is there any way you'd want to do a rock musical?" And I said, "Oh, that's really up my alley, since I've never done a musical!" [Laughs.] "Well, do I have to sing?" [He said], "Oh, no no, no." He told me it wasn't really a rock musical. He played music for me over the phone, and I really liked the music, and he told me that I'd get to play five different women. That was really a selling point as far as wanting some diversity in your work because in Los Angeles I get the same type of roles over and over. I'm either a lawyer — although I have become a prosecuting lawyer lately because I guess I've become so jaded [laughs] — or the mom or the passive-aggressive neighbor. So this was nice to get to play five different kinds of women.
Q: What was the rehearsal process like for you, joining a cast that had worked together Off-Broadway?
Estabrook: It was kind of intimidating, but I guess because they're all 19 years old, it made me feel a little bit better! [Laughs.] I figured I had age on 'em. [Director] Michael Mayer took Stephen [Spinella] and I aside. . . . He took us to lunch at Orso, and he explained to us that he was going to go in the order of the play, and that the first week we were going to block the whole thing, which is not usually what you do in a play. We were going to block the whole thing and do it technically, so we knew basically what the whole pattern of the movement was because it's kind of complicated. It's very precisional.
So we did that, and he said he wanted to explore the parts, and he wanted us to explore them, but he had to work in this way because he had to get it up on its feet to see what the limitations of the audience being onstage were going to be at the Eugene O'Neill — how many chairs they could fit, which chairs they could have for audience [members]. He said it's like solving the Rubik's Cube, so we had to work in this way. It was a different way to work because usually you sit around a table and read the play to each other and the scenes to each other back and forth for about the first week. But we got right up on our feet and started working the play. The weird thing was that we went in order, so we never played the same character twice in a row — we kept having to devise the new character. First I had to be Frau Bergman, who is Wendla's mother, and then I had to be Fraulein [Knuppeldick], and then I had to be Fraulein Grossenbustenhalter, the piano teacher. So I never got a running start of any more than a scene with any one of the characters. It was kind of kamikaze creating-a-role.
Q: Was it difficult trying to make each of the characters different? How did you approach that?
Estabrook: Well, I knew in my head that I wanted to at least try to have them have a different physicality. . . . I tried to work internally and externally at the same time, but I tried to make it real. The women — both of the mothers in this — go through a very emotional experience with their kids, but they have two different reactions, but I tried to base them both in truth. They started out kind of similar, and as I learned the different characters, they got further and further away from each other — their emotional reaction to what was happening. They grew emotionally in a different way. . . . The two mothers I did that way, but the schoolteacher, Knuppeldick, and Grossenbustenhalter [the piano teacher], I mostly did physically from the outside in, and the mothers I did from the inside out. Q: Of the characters you're playing, is there one you most enjoy playing or one you like the most?
Estabrook: You know what? I love doing comedy, and I love doing drama, and to do them both together is the best of all worlds. This is a play where I can do both, where I can make the audience go with me because I'm funny, and they can relate to me in the sense that they enjoy it. And, then these women all have a turn, so that you then go, "In their own ways, these are terrible mothers!" [Laughs.] You start with Frau Bergman, and you go, "Oh, she's funny. She's trying to explain sex to her daughter, and she's doing a terrible job of it" because she doesn't want to have to use any of those terms or take her daughter out of the bliss of ignorance about sex. Then you realize later that her daughter gets pregnant, and her mother takes her to have an abortion in 1891 because she can't stand the social stigma of having her daughter be pregnant. You realize the mother just handles everything so badly, even though you like her in the beginning, and then you realize how the things that she was doing that were so funny and quaint actually turned out being very destructive. . . . I think if you can get the audience to relate to somebody, then the message hits home much more so. You realize how vulnerable we all are to being stuck in bad choices.
Q: How do you find acting onstage with audience members on both sides of you?
Estabrook: You know, one of the reasons you like it onstage is [that] there's a lot of room around you. You're not vying for [space for] crossing your legs [like you are] in the audience. It's so funny because some people [onstage] . . . must know I'm in the play [because] I'm wearing a Victorian dress. But it's like I'm on the subway, and they're trying to get their shoulder room, and I feel like turning to them and saying, "You don't understand, I have to be here!" [Laughs.] . . . . So it's kind of funny, [and] once they've realized that there's going to be a lot of getting up and sitting down, [they know] that they have to really be aware of the actors and where they're trying to get to.
Q: Has anyone done anything particularly memorable during the show? Have they tried to talk to you?
Estabrook: No. I think they talk to them beforehand. The only thing that's rough is when they wear a lot of perfume because I'm allergic to perfume. Usually onstage I don't have to worry, but when [someone is] sitting right next to you — and you can't leave the stage — there's no way to get away from someone who's wearing a lot of perfume. You can see me, I turn upstage, and the audience sees my back because I'm trying to get some air between myself and the perfume because I start choking. I don't sound like a very nice actor, do I? [Laughs.] Stephen [Spinella]'s on the other side of the show, and he doesn't have any audience members sitting next to him. He gets an empty chair, so I'm always ribbing him about that.
Q: What's it like now being in what's turning out to be the hit of the season?
Estabrook: You know, from your mouth . . . you know what I mean? Let me just give you a little anecdote. I happened to be in the pilot of "Desperate Housewives" as the neighbor, and I was killed in the first season, which I didn't know was coming. So after that, you're [always] waiting for the other shoe to drop. But at this point in my career, I wouldn't take a job if I didn't cherish the experience or want that experience. And that's the great part — you have different priorities as far as desiring why you want to play something at a certain time. I really wanted to get back onstage with a big audience and with a director and with a writer and with other people in the play who were so committed to theatre — theatre actors— so I really cherish every day of this. Not to sound too hokey . . . but I do, it's wonderful.
Q: Do you think the show has a message, or what does it say to you?
Estabrook: It's like mistakes are made generationally, and each succeeding generation lives with the preceding generation's hang-ups, and that there's always a spring. There's always a new rebirth that can be comforting because I think we constantly get better as people, and we constantly learn lessons. I remember my mother telling me that the stork brought babies. That didn't seem so far-fetched to me, let me tell ya! [Laughs.]
Q: When did you realize that wasn't the case?
Estabrook: Oh gosh, well my mother had five kids, and I think I found out walking home from school with my girlfriends — but this was before women's lib; these are the old days. This was before the book "Women and Their Bodies." I found out from my friends how it happened, and I said, "No, no, no — not my parents!" And I really believed when I was seven and eight years old that if you were married, you got pregnant, and if you weren't married, you couldn't get pregnant.
Q: Do you have a favorite moment in the show, either for your character or one that you look forward to?
Estabrook: I think my favorite moment is when Stephen and I dance together because it's us just messing around. It's us just having fun. It's the only point in the play where I really am just laughing out loud because we look so ridiculous. [Laughs.]
Q: What's it like working with such a young cast?
Estabrook: The most amazing thing is their energy level. They have way lot of energy, and they never rest. [Laughs.] Every spare moment of rehearsal we worked — they would work us to the last 30 seconds. . . . What's great with these young kids is that they inspire you to what you used to feel about theatre. I've always felt that it was a magical experience, but they're really close to it, as opposed to knowing the whole bureaucracy of the business. I think that's what's really refreshing is new blood, the same thing the play's about.
Q: It must be exciting, I would think, to hear that score every night. I think some of the music is so beautiful.
Estabrook: I know. I do, too, and I've heard it since October 9th. I've heard it almost every day, and I still love hearing it.
Q: Do you like getting to be part of the final number?
Estabrook: Yeah I do, I really do — I get such a thrill out of it. Every night I [think], "I cannot believe I'm standing here singing on a Broadway stage!" I mean, I have a nice voice, but I don't want to be singing by myself.
Q: Had you ever done a musical? I know you haven't done any on Broadway, but in grade school or . . .
Estabrook: In grade school I did a couple of musicals, but my head shook so hard, I was so scared, that singing never became something that was a natural expression of my creativity. . . And, also, I'm so affected emotionally — as far as when I go through emotional things in the scenes — and you can't sing if you're being really emotional because it just tightens up your chords. I could never do it. I never could be relaxed with it, so when I first started in New York, I think I did two singing auditions, and at the second one I said to myself, "This isn't cut out for me. I can't do it." I just can't relax doing it. I never thought it was in my future to go from being in L.A. and doing "Desperate Housewives" and then getting killed off "Desperate Housewives," to going back into New York and being in a show — the first show back that is so incredibly popular. It's funny, though, when Tommy Hulce called me about doing a show in New York, I thought he was in Portland, Oregon. I had heard that he had a theatre company in Oregon, and so I thought he was calling me to do a role in Oregon, and I thought, "Well, I wouldn't mind working there. I hear that's a pretty city." And then, I have an apartment in L.A, but I don't have anything here [in New York]. I called [the woman] who was my roommate when we got out of Yale together — she's an administrator — and I said, "Do you know anybody who needs somebody to stay in their apartment?" And she said, "I do! Come stay with me." So, I went into the apartment that I'd been in when I first got out of Yale many years ago. It all kind of worked out, so I thought, "It's written in the stars. I have to do this."
Q: I wanted to go back a little bit in your career. You worked on Broadway in two Wendy Wasserstein plays, and I was wondering what it was like working with her.
Estabrook: Wendy was one of the most empathetic writers I'd ever known. She was a classmate of mine at Yale. She was always very quiet and very giggly, and she was really instrumental in putting me in Broadway shows. She was always very humble and very kind and very supportive.
I remember she had on pearls when we were doing Sisters Rosensweig. We came into the theatre, and we were teching it. I came and sat with her in the audience because I wasn't in a scene, and she had on these pearls. They were blue — they weren't real pearls —but they were pretty with what she was wearing. And I said, "Oh Wendy, I like your pearls." She said, "Take them, darling! Take them. They're yours!" She said, "Everyone in a Broadway show should have a set of pearls." And I still have them.
Q: You touched on "Desperate Housewives." I was wondering what that experience was like even though it wasn't that long-lived.
Estabrook: Well, it was wonderful because the character that I played in it, I had played a similar kind of character for the same writer, Mark Cherry, 10 years earlier. It was kind of a continuation [but] she was just ten years older. And he wrote that character, and he's a master at the passive-aggressive neighbor or boss. It was always fun to do his lines because you always knew there was going to be a twist and turn in the line. So that she says — this is perfect for her — she'd go, "Oh, there's Susan. You know she's screwing the guy next door." You'd think she was going to say something nice, and then she'd turn around and say something awful, and I loved that about it.
Q: Do you have any other projects in the works or are you just concentrating on this at the moment?
Estabrook: Just concentrating on this and still trying to figure out the characters — and I do it every night. I try to approach it in some new way.
Q: Does that make it more interesting for you?
Estabrook: It does. I always try to get more and more into their mindset and what I want in the scene — what this woman wants and what's important to her, and it changes a little every night, so that it makes it interesting.
Q: What's it like getting that huge ovation at the end of the show? The night I went the audience went crazy.
Estabrook: It always makes me laugh! [Laughs.] It's kind of overwhelming. You just go, "Oh my!" It's wonderful!
[Spring Awakening plays the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, 230 West 49th Street. Tickets are available by calling (212) 239-6200. For more information visit www.springawakening.com.]
One of the cabaret scene's biggest hits, Leslie Kritzer Is Patti LuPone at Les Mouches, is being recorded. A spokesperson for Ghostlight Records, a division of Sh-K-Boom Records, told me earlier this week that the acclaimed cabaret act — which features Leslie Kritzer re-creating Patti LuPone's now-legendary performances at the defunct New York nightspot Les Mouches — was recorded Jan. 3 and will be recorded again Jan. 6. No release date has been announced. Kritzer's act, which re-creates word for word and note for note LuPone's performances at Les Mouches, was one of the surprise hits of the cabaret season. Several additional dates were added to her Joe's Pub engagement, and Kritzer will play her final performance at the intimate venue Jan. 6 at 11:30 PM before heading to San Francisco to begin rehearsals for the Broadway-bound musical Legally Blonde. Joe's Pub is located within the Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Street. Tickets, priced at $25, are available by calling (212) 239-6200. For more information visit www.joespub.com.
Tony Award winner Faith Prince will have the chance to belt out "I Want it All" when she stars in the Reprise! Marvelous Musical Mondays staging of Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire's 1984 musical Baby. Prince will play Arlene McNally in the Feb. 5 presentation of the musical, which concerns three couples whose lives are affected in various ways by the prospect of having (or not having) a baby. Kevin Chamberlin directs. Baby will be presented at UCLA's Freud Playhouse. Call (310) 825-2101 for reservations. Visit www.reprise.org for more information.
Broadway favorite Liz Callaway, who received a Tony nomination for her performance in Baby, has scheduled several concerts throughout the country in the next few months. Callaway will join sister Ann Hampton Callaway for their acclaimed "Relative Harmony" act Feb. 10-11 at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael, CA. The two Callaways will also blend their voices on their first duets act, "Sibling Revelry," Feb. 25 at the Tennessee Williams Theatre in Key West, FL. "Two of a Kind," a cabaret evening that features Liz and Jason Graae, will be presented Feb. 17 at the Ocean Reef in Key Largo, FL, and Callaway will go it solo March 22-25 at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts in Naples, Fl. And, on April 22 the singing actress will present her sixties-themed show, "And the Beat Goes On," at the Van Wezel Arts Hall in Sarasota, FL. For more information visit www.lizcallaway.com.
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.