DIVA TALK: Chatting with Tony Nominees Butler, LuPone, O'Hara, Prince and Russell

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Tony Nominees Butler, LuPone, O'Hara, Prince and Russell Congratulations to all of the 2008 Tony Award nominees. This week we chat with the enormously talented women who have been nominated for a Tony for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical.
Kerry Butler stars in Xanadu.
Kerry Butler stars in Xanadu. Photo by Paul Kolnik

KERRY BUTLER
Nominated for her performance as Clio/Kira in Xanadu at the Helen Hayes Theatre.

Kerry Butler had just finished promoting her debut solo recording — "Faith, Trust & Pixie Dust" (PS Classics) — May 13 on the "CW Morning News" when she received a call from her friend Craig.

Craig: Kerry, I wanted to be the first to congratulate you on your Tony nomination.
Kerry: But it didn't even come out yet. How do you know?
Craig: I don't know, but it's up on the [Tony] website already.
Kerry: What if it's not real? Don't tell me that. Don't call me until it's announced. [Laughs.]
Craig: They announced that it's up on the website, so I think it's not a mistake.

"So then after that," Butler says, "I turned on the TV right as they announced my name. Then I felt safe, like, 'Okay, I guess I really was nominated!' I was also really excited and relieved for our show that we got a nomination [as Best Musical]."

Xanadu is the feel-good musical of the season based on the notorious flop film of the same name. Throughout the course of the show, Butler has the chance to impress with several dialects — including a riotous Australian accent — as well as her knack for singing and acting on roller skates. "The skating has been very challenging," Butler says. "It's definitely the hardest part I've ever had to play because it takes so much concentration, with not being on your legs and being on skates, and keeping track of all the different voices and accents. And then having the audience onstage with you, that can be very distracting. Your focus has to be so strong in this show." Butler, who originated the role of Penny Pingleton in the Tony-winning musical Hairspray, says that her favorite audience-interaction story concerns her comedic co-star, Jackie Hoffman. "One night," Butler relates, "we had all of these cadets from West Point up onstage. Jackie, during her improv, went over to [one cadet] and she said, 'Thank you for serving our country,' and then she went and kissed him on the lips! As she walked away she said, 'Not bad for a thousand-year-old muse, is it?' That was my favorite, and they were all in uniform, so it was fun having them onstage with us."

It's definitely been a balancing act for Butler these days: juggling her eight-performance-a-week schedule in Xanadu with the release of her new CD and her offstage life as wife and mother. "It's been challenging," Butler says. "I'm getting a little bit better about balancing things. It's definitely a learning experience because it was my first year of working full time. My husband used to make fun of me because I always used to count the hours with my daughter in my head. Every week I'd think, 'Did I put in at least 40 hours this week with my mom job?' I'm always counting my hours. It's kind of become an addiction where I know I shouldn't be doing that anymore. I know I spend enough time with her, but I kind of can't stop doing it!"

Patti LuPone in Gypsy.
photo by Joan Marcus

PATTI LuPONE
Nominated for her performance as Rose in Gypsy at the St. James Theatre. Patti LuPone was riding high the morning of May 13. And, why shouldn't she be? The Olivier and Tony-winning performer had been named Outstanding Actress in a Musical one day earlier by the Outer Critics Circle, and she awoke that day to find she had received her fifth Tony nomination for her remarkable performance as that stage mother of all stage mothers, Rose, in the current, Arthur Laurents-directed revival of Gypsy.

"Well, it's always a relief," LuPone says with a big laugh, when asked her first reaction to the Tony news. "It's definitely recognition for one's work — positive recognition for one's work," she adds.

LuPone, who dazzled audiences with her performance as Rose first at the Ravinia Festival, then at City Center — the premiere production of the Encores! Summer Stars series — and now on Broadway, says that the challenge of the part, arguably the most demanding female role in the musical theatre canon, is to "harness and distribute and be democratic about my physical energy. At my age, now it's all about breath and energy [and] to make it look as it's supposed to look: effortless. I don't think one should ever see an actor struggling onstage in any capacity, and I don't think one should ever see an actor, quote, 'working.' It should look effortless. In order for it to look effortless, in my particular case, it's about distribution of energy and where to breathe — especially in the music, where to breathe — especially in 'Rose's Turn.' If I went to my singing teacher and sang it for her and showed her where I was breathing, she might just be horrified, or she might just say, 'That's the way you need to do it, if that's what you need to do to get through it.' It's so simplistic and so essential but, for me, it all comes down to breath — not even just the singing, but in the speaking."

LuPone may have found her breath, but she has been leaving audiences at the St. James breathless with her performance, which is as thrillingly sung as it is emotionally powerful and nuanced. Especially riveting are her performances of the showstoppers that close each act: the shocking "Everything's Coming Up Roses" at the end of the first, and the aforementioned, breakdown-in-song "Rose's Turn" that concludes the second. When asked whether Rose's emotional baggage follows her after the performance, LuPone says, "I learned a long time ago . . . [to] leave it all on the stage. I'm not shallow about it, but if I've done the work correctly, I've gotten that character's emotional catharsis out, and [I don't have to] carry it out to the dressing room and start weeping and wailing."

LuPone doesn't have a favorite moment for Rose — she relishes the entire journey. "It's just one of the greatest parts," the former Evita and Anything Goes star says. "There's two of them: Mrs. Lovett and Rose, and I just love to play both of them. But no, there's no favorite moment: I don't really have a favorite anything because then you're gearing up for that one moment. That's not fair to the rest of the moments," she laughs.

LuPone was able to investigate a few new moments in the recent cast recording session of Gypsy (the Time Life Records CD is due in August): "The surprise of that is that we recorded five numbers that were cut from the original production." LuPone will be heard on two of those additional tracks: "Smile, Girls, Smile" and "Who Needs Him?"

And, how has her Rose changed from City Center to Broadway? "I don't know if it's essentially changed," LuPone answers. "I think what it's done is it's deepened. I think having more rehearsal always helps. We went back to the table-reads and the rehearsal process, so I think it's deepened and it's become clearer. It's still a work in process. I talk to my stage manager every night, and we discuss my performance. I say it's a work in process. Things are evolving. That's the blessing of a long run. Your work starts when the audience shows up. And then it's the refining and editing process until I'm absolutely still and totally clear on my intentions. I love the discipline of a long run."

Kelli O'Hara in South Pacific.
photo by Joan Marcus

KELLI O'HARA
Nominated for her performance as Ensign Nellie Forbush in Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. Kelli O'Hara, who was previously nominated for Tonys for her performances in Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas' The Light in the Piazza and the Tony-winning revival of The Pajama Game, awoke Tuesday morning and found she had five missed calls on her answering machine. "I had a feeling [I'd been nominated this year]," she laughs. "My husband [Greg Naughton] and I . . . were like, 'Yay yay yay!' You're never not excited about it. But Greg said to me, 'I would have been upset for you had you not gotten [nominated] because it means so much to you, but [the nomination] is all that matters.' . . . You're just glad you can do your work and you're recognized, but you just have to go on from there. . . I'm very, very excited, but I am excited with [the nomination] alone."

O'Hara says that her latest role — the cockeyed optimist known as Nellie Forbush in South Pacific — has been "so fulfilling to me. I think it's such a historical and important role. In a lot of ways, it's been fluffed up [over the years], and I'm so glad to try and give it a new spin. I've been very proud of that. It's such a production to be a part of — just a beautiful production with 40 actors and 30 musicians. I just feel lucky and proud to be a part of it."

For those who have not yet had the chance to catch the beautiful staging at the Beaumont, the musical begins with a uniquely presented version of the gorgeous South Pacific overture. O'Hara says, "I told [director] Bart [Sher], 'I think you've done us all a great service by having that happen . . . because the audience gets in such a good mood, that we almost don't even have to do our jobs. They're already in love with the situation.' It sets a tone, which is to say, 'We're going to respect this piece and this kind of theatre, and we're going to do it right.' And I hope that we continue to do it as best as [we can], but it certainly does start off that way."

O'Hara also explains that she, herself, is affected by hearing the Richard Rodgers overture each night. "Even hearing [the orchestra] tune up from my dressing room is something that has always been, for me, [very important]… If I did a play, I think that would be something I would really miss. It's been something that always gears me and takes me into what I'm doing and gets me ready. It's so magical. Those orchestrations and the way they're playing it, and to have Ted [Sperling] conducting it is very special."

When asked her favorite moment in the show, O'Hara — whose Broadway credits also include Jekyll & Hyde, Follies, Sweet Swell of Success and Dracula, the Musical — says that she first thought it would be performing the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic "A Wonderful Guy." "Then," she explains, "I was really enjoying the meat of the racist scene, meaning if we were making an impact . . . I was really proud of that. Then, I was having so many laughs with [2008 Tony nominee] Danny Burstein that I thought I would die! So, it became 'Honey Bun' for a while. I think the great thing about the show is that it changes for me all the time. I find something new all the time, and hopefully that's gonna continue, because I think we're not going anywhere for awhile!"

And, what is it like taking a shower onstage? "I'll be honest," O'Hara says with a laugh, "it's cold! You're cold right at first, and so it gives you a shock, but once you get into it, your adrenaline takes over and you're into it. Being wet onstage is a very vulnerable feeling that also helps with the next scene, so it's all useful in its own way."

It's an especially busy time for O'Hara, whose debut solo recording, "Wonder in the World," arrived in stores May 6 on the Ghostlight Records label. About the release of the recording, O'Hara says, "[It's] such a relief [to have it in stores]. It's been two years almost since I made it. These things sometimes take a while, but it wasn't due to the fact that we weren't finished with it. We've been finished with it for two years, but it just has to get in the right hands and do the right thing. I feel like it's done exactly that, and we're making a good show. I'm really proud of it. I've been getting a lot of great response, which is surprising because I didn't know what to expect. I'm excited about that. . . I knew it was eclectic, but I kind of like that. If I wasn't going to do a theatre album, which I do hope to do, I just wanted it to be colors of so many other things."

O'Hara is also exploring the many colors of Nellie Forbush, whom she admires because "she's intelligent enough to change. I think that's the core of how I'm trying to play her. If she wasn't intelligent at all, then you don't believe that she's going to change for a minute. But you have to believe that she's actually going to stay there and take care of those children and change."

Faith Prince in A Catered Affair.
photo by Jim Cox

FAITH PRINCE
Nominated for her performance as Aggie in A Catered Affair at the Walter Kerr Theatre. "[Every night] I wake up in the middle of the night, and I'm usually up for an hour, hour-and-a-half," Tony winner Faith Prince explained Tuesday morning, "then I go back to sleep, and I go into this really deep sleep. I have to do that or I can't do eight shows of this show a week. So I fell into that deep sleep, and then I got up and I was like, 'Oh, my God, it's 10:30.' I went to check my phone and I thought, '14 messages?!' I was scared at first it was [about] my husband and son. And then I'm thinking, 'Oh, my God, no, this is about the Tonys!'"

Prince was nominated for her powerfully moving performance as a severely unhappy 1950s Bronx housewife, who pins her hopes on a lavish wedding ceremony for her daughter. As excited as she was by her own nomination, Prince was disappointed that A Catered Affair failed to receive a Best Musical nod. "I'm shocked that my show didn't get nominated," Prince says. "How can you go from 12 nominations [from] Drama Desk to our show not even getting nominated [for Tonys]? This is the wackiest town," she laughs. "Xanadu and Cry-Baby, they're great, but could we have a little MOMA in there? A little Henri Matisse?"

Prince was also dismayed that neither co-star Leslie Kritzer nor director John Doyle was Tony-nominated. "I love being onstage with [Leslie]," Prince says. "She is one of the finest people I have ever been on stage with. I was really sad she didn't get nominated. . . [And], John Doyle has done for musical theatre what Steppenwolf did for theatre. I don't think I'll ever be the same because of John Doyle. He goes at it in such a way. It's almost hard for me to watch certain things now because I know how much can be in a lyric or a song or an action. It can be closer to the ground, even in a broad comedy, than one would ever imagine. I've been really affected by that."

It's been over five years since Prince appeared on Broadway — when she stepped into the role of Belinda Blair in the revival of Noises Off — and she says she's enjoying every single moment of her New York return. "I feel like I'm totally in my body, if that makes any sense," Prince says. "When I was younger, years ago, I always felt slightly above my body. . . . [Aggie] is very close to the ground. I think it's been my favorite experience so far. You would think that something like Guys and Dolls or The King and I or Little Me would be more glamorous and fun, but I think I had something more inside me to give. It's such a rich role and a deep role, and I feel like this is going to be the beginning of an interesting direction for me."

Although she loves performing in the Harvey Fierstein-John Bucchino musical, Prince does admit that the emotional roller coaster she rides each night is a challenge. "It's a huge journey, but it's fabulous. I welcome it, I love doing it, I'm up to the challenge. I've probably waited my whole life to do something like that. I think probably the biggest challenge would be putting out that kind of emotion eight times a week. One's body doesn't really know you're acting. I've had to really compensate on the fun part of my life, like getting out and realizing that that's not my world that I live in — on my day off, doing fun things, being good to myself. . . . But, as an actress, you can't wait to sort of gnaw into that meat eight times a week. Your body, however, goes the other way!" One of the most affecting moments in the show features Prince, alone on stage, letting out a life's worth of frustrations in a lengthy sob. "It's not as hard one would think," she laughs. "But I definitely have to come at it from different ways, and it can never be the same way twice. It's sort of like playing jazz. You know where you have to get to, but every time you get there it's gotta [be different]. You can't be playing the same solo over and over again."

Prince is also proud of her work opposite fellow 2008 Tony nominee Tom Wopat, who has shared the stage with the Guys and Dolls Tony winner in several productions. "This is our fifth show together, [and] we have something so deep. It's a joy to connect that way with a human being and sort of be vessels for people to [explore their own emotions]," Prince says. "A lot of people have said to me, 'God, what you're doing is so raw, I'm almost scared for the character.' Inside a musical, that's pretty unique. So I have to say that dance that [Tom] and I do every night is connected and different and is just everything I've wanted as an artist. I feel like a racehorse at the gate, ready for that race. It's like I've spent my whole life [preparing for this role]. That's why I want people to support the show because I really think it's unique and it really has a lot to say, and I think people come out a different person by seeing it."

And, what does a Tony nomination mean to Prince at this point in her career? "Well, it's always been about the work for me, and I mean that sincerely. I always thought if I wrote a book it would be [titled] 'I'm Just Famous Enough.' When I set out in the beginning, I really wanted to make my life as a working actress. Certainly awards do something different. It puts another something into it. I'm very proud and honored to be nominated, but all I can think of is, 'What's next?' I think that's how I've always done it. Even the Tony I got for Guys and Dolls, I thought, 'Well this is nice. What's next?' An artist is like a runner. That was your last race. What's coming up? You just are a creative being, and that's what you are and that's what you do. But it is important to acknowledge the moment and revel in the moment. I just wish my show was with me. I like it when the whole team is on top!"

Jenna Russell and Daniel Evans in Sunday.
photo by Joan Marcus

JENNA RUSSELL
Nominated for her performance as Dot/Marie in Sunday in the Park With George at Studio 54. "To be in the same category as Patti LuPone, I can't get over it!" Jenna Russell said Tuesday morning following the announcement of the Tony nominations. "My goodness! I haven't seen Kelli [O'Hara] do South Pacific because we're on the same schedule, but she's another one. I've listened to her singing on albums the last few years and have thought, 'My God, what talent!' So really, I can't believe it. Faith Prince, Kerry Butler! It's extraordinary. I honestly am beside myself."

It was Roundabout Theatre Company artistic director Todd Haimes who called Russell to inform the singing actress of her Tony nomination for her touching portrayal in the Roundabout's revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Sunday in the Park With George. "I think I went, 'Ahhhhhhh!,'" Russell laughs. "[There was] various wailing. I wasn't very grown up about it at all."

Russell also played the roles of Seurat's model Dot and Dot's daughter Marie in the recent London staging of Sunday, but is thankful for the New York experience "because I had such a short rehearsal period in London. I didn't do it at the [Menier] Chocolate Factory. The girl who did it at the Chocolate Factory fell pregnant, so the part became available. They asked me to do it, which was fantastic because I was just in Guys and Dolls. I had eight days rehearsal. It was a mad kind of throw-in situation. . . . To come over to New York, it was really nice to get a chance to have four weeks rehearsal with the whole company, to have the opportunity to bond, which has been more than lovely, [and] to make incredible friends, friends I know I'll have the rest of my life. It's been lovely. I've got an excuse to come back to New York because I've got friends here now."

Russell is making her Broadway debut with this production of Sunday, and the delightful actress says she has been awed by "the kind of Broadway community that everyone talks about. You have no idea how special it is to come here. It's something else. Broadway Cares, that part of it, all that kind of thing has blown me away. . . . It just shows how much people regard theatre here. The fact that the nominations were announced on TV… At home, it might get a mention in a paper, but that's it."

Both Sondheim and Lapine have been involved with the revival of their Pulitzer Prize-winning work, and Russell says she was most thankful for a comment Sondheim made following the musical's first run-through. "I thought it was extraordinary [when] he said, 'You're honoring my work too much. Throw it away. Don't worry about it.' I loved that! Because, of course, when you're learning Sondheim, you want to make sure you've got everything in place, not missing a beat. . . but he wanted us to have more fun with it."

Russell says she is especially fond of her duet with co-star and 2008 Tony nominee Daniel Evans in the show's second act, "Move On": "By the time the characters reach that point," Russell says, "there's so much angst, so much repressed feeling, it's wonderful to get the opportunity to acknowledge the love that they have for each other. It's always a lovely thing, it really is, to have that moment of redemption, of healing. . .It lightens your spirit so you can go home [on a good note]."

Russell and Evans, of course, are starring in the roles that were originated in 1984 by Tony Award winners Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin. "I had no idea really how much the past production was held so high in everyone's memory," Russell explains. "Obviously, I grew up listening to the album. So I always have adored the album, but when Daniel and I started doing press, I realized every other question was, 'How do you feel about stepping into those shoes?' I hadn't kind of taken on board what a big deal that was. It's actually been amazing. We're very lucky in that Bernadette and Mandy have been wonderful. For them they've never seen the show, and now they get to watch it. Again, it kind of amazes me. We're all aware that it's the writing: my reaction to the writing, Daniel's reaction, Bernadette and Mandy's. But then, of course, to me, they are icons."

"For many people who do musical theatre in London," Russell adds, "to come to Broadway with a musical is a lifetime ambition. To have been lucky enough to do that, I'll always be grateful for. Today is kind of the icing on the cake. Who would have thought that from a tiny little production in a 150-seat theatre in London, [I would get to play Broadway]? . . . It's a real testament, I think, to the strength of the writing that it can go from there to the West End to Broadway. I'm thrilled to be part of that journey."

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

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