DIVA TALK: Chatting with Tony Nominees Foster, LaChanze, LuPone, O'Hara and Rivera

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Tony Nominees Foster, LaChanze, LuPone, O'Hara and Rivera
 
This week we chat with the multi-talented women who have been nominated for a Tony for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical.
from top: Sutton Foster, LaChanze, Patti LuPone, Kelli O'Hara and Chita Rivera in their 2006 Tony-nominated performances
from top: Sutton Foster, LaChanze, Patti LuPone, Kelli O'Hara and Chita Rivera in their 2006 Tony-nominated performances

SUTTON FOSTER

Nominated for her performance as Janet Van De Graaff in The Drowsy Chaperone at the Marquis Theatre.

Question: How did you find out about your nomination?
Sutton Foster: I watched it on NY1. I was up at 8:30 and crawled out to the living room and lay down on the couch and watched it.

Q: What was your feeling when they announced your name?
Foster: I never thought that I would be a Tony contender with this show, so I was just flabbergasted and just thrilled and really excited for our show. They kept saying Drowsy Chaperone, Drowsy Chaperone, and by the end I was up on the couch wide awake. [Laughs.] I tried to go back to sleep, but I couldn't - I was so excited. It was just a great day for our show. . . . It just felt really great. I love the show so much and believe in it, and I was just so thrilled that the Nominating Committee recognized it the way they did.

Q: What was it like backstage the first night after the nominations were announced?
Foster: We had a meeting with Kevin McCollum, our producer, and with [director/choreographer] Casey Nicholaw, and anytime anyone walked into the room, we would all be cheering and screaming. It was just wonderful. Q: What would you say has been the most enjoyable aspect of doing the show?
Foster: The people. It's a fantastic cast, and it's just a real joy to come to work. Onstage and off, it's just a great, great place to work. I feel like with the nominations, it really honored the show as a whole - every aspect of the show was recognized, and I feel like that's what makes the show so special because it's such a group effort. It's not just one person. It's a whole slew of people that have poured their heart and soul into it and made it what it is.

Q: Did you receive a lot of calls the day of the announcement?
Foster: I did! A lot of calls and flowers and e-mails and text messages. And they're still coming because they announced it in the papers yesterday, so it's trickling in [from people] all across the country.

Q: When we talked last week, you had mentioned that Patti LuPone was an actor you particularly admired. How does it feel to be nominated in a category with her?
Foster: It's kind of surreal. When you're a kid growing up, you don't ever think that you would ever even be listed in the same sentence as her, so that's just really surreal. I admire her so much, and she's so brilliant in Sweeney Todd. This is just a thrill to be nominated.

Q: Do you remember what that feeling was like when they announced you had won the Tony for Thoroughly Modern Millie?
Foster: It was sort of [an] out-of-body [experience] — it's this phantom thing and it's happening to you. I was sitting there and I didn't know [if I would win], and when they announced my name, I was amazingly calm, but I was terrified. It was this very strange mixture of emotions. I always thought that if I ever won a Tony, I would be hysterical, completely crying and weeping and dramatic, but I was oddly really, really sedate, which took me by surprise because I didn't expect that. I was just sort of in shock, and then the rest of the evening I was in shock. I'm still in shock - I have a Tony in my house! [Laughs.] It's still so weird - even last night onstage, I just feel very, very lucky. I try not to take anything for granted. It's just a true honor.

LaCHANZE
Nominated for her performance as Celie in The Color Purple at the Broadway Theatre.

Question: How did you find out you were nominated?
LaChanze: My press agent has been threatening to get me out shopping for a dress for about a month now for the awards, and I told her I'm not going to shop for a dress until I'm nominated. So then the phone rings at 8:30 yesterday, and she said, "Let's go shopping." So that's how I found out. [Laughs.]

Q: When's your shopping date?
LaChanze: It's actually starting today. We're on-line, we're looking, we're talking to people.

Q: What's been the most difficult part of The Color Purple?
LaChanze: The most difficult part has been balancing my home life and sustaining this character each night. It's a very challenging role, a very demanding role. I sing the entire night, I'm on my feet the entire night, I'm very emotional the entire night. And then I go home to two small children [ages four and six] that need to get up and have breakfast and go to school. The balancing of my life has been the most challenging and sustaining the character.

Q: What's been the most enjoyable aspect?
LaChanze: Performing this show. It's just an amazing, amazing show, and I'm so excited to be a part of it. The audience response is overwhelming - not like anything I've experienced yet on Broadway.

Q: In what way?
LaChanze: First of all, the audience is hugely diverse, which is something I never see in theatre in New York. It's hugely diverse, it's packed every night, and the people are responding to everything that happens. They're laughing out loud, they're crying out loud, they're talking back. They're really engaged in the piece as a whole - that's really moving for us. We love that onstage. That's one of the things we love about live theatre.

Q: Do you get letters or feedback in person from people who connect with what your character overcomes?
LaChanze: I get lots of comments, particularly on my website. People will write me to talk about how I have moved them, how I have helped them - how the character, not LaChanze, has helped them to . . . think about their lives.

Q: How has Oprah Winfrey been involved since the opening of the show?
LaChanze: She's just been hugely supportive in every way. She encourages us. She comes to events with us. She sends her support via messenger. She's constantly a presence for us, and we love that. And, she's so humble. I can talk to her about anything. She's just a wonderful, wonderful person to have involved in this project.

Q: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for your character?
LaChanze: Yes, it's when Celie learns to love herself. It's the moment when she understands the value of herself - that everything she needs is inside [and that happens] during a song that I sing called "I'm Here."

Q: How long do you think you'll stay with the show?
LaChanze: My contract is through the end of the year, and at that point we'll see!

Q: Do you have any other projects in the works?
LaChanze: Right now, I'm focusing on this. . . I do have one project on the back burner that I am very excited about. It's a writing project actually. . . . I've been approached to write a children's book. I'm very excited about that. It has nothing to do with theatre, but it's exciting.

PATTI LuPONE
Nominated for her performance as Mrs. Lovett in the revival of Sweeney Todd at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre.

Question: How did you find about your nomination?
Patti LuPone: [My press agent] Philip [Rinaldi] called. I was already up because I had taken my son [Josh] to school. I was doing stuff and then going back to bed, and then Philip called.

Q: What does being nominated mean to you?
LuPone: It's a relief! [Laughs.] It's almost like it's a validation of your performance. You don't want it to be that, but it feels like you're accepted. It feels like your performance has been stamped with approval.

Q: What would you say has been the most challenging aspect of this experience?
LuPone: None of it - it's really been a joy. If there was a challenge, it was the proper acting challenge. It's been nothing but joyful - it's been the best experience I have ever had in my career, and it continues to remain that way.

Q: Have you started learning the Gypsy score for the upcoming Ravinia Festival run?
LuPone: I have indeed. It's going well. It's a little scary. It's a big sing!

Q: Are you going to preview any of the Gypsy songs at Monday's Broadway Cares concert at Lincoln Center?
LuPone: No - I hope I remember all the lyrics to the songs I already know! [big laugh].

Q: That's what I was wondering - how do you remember the Sweeney score, the lyrics for Lady with the Torch and now Gypsy? Do you feel like each is in a different part of your mind?
LuPone: Yeah - and I think it's staving off Alzheimer's, too, because I'm using that brain muscle. I guess I have associations with different things. Gypsy isn't quite locked in yet - there's no association with it yet. But Torch, I think of [late musical director] Dicky [Gallagher]; I think of the Plush Room; I think of both Feinstein's L.A. and New York; I think of the Carnegie Hall concert; I think of Lenape, New Jersey; I think of the recording; I think of the band - there are emotional associations with it, but it doesn't mean I'm not gonna forget a lyric! It's just that it's locked in more so than Gypsy is [at this point].

Q: What would you say is the most enjoyable aspect of performing Sweeney every night?
LuPone: It's my [Broadway] Sondheim debut number one. I get to sing this unbelievably complicated music, lyrics. If there is a challenge, it's that - it's hitting all of Stephen's notes correctly. And the joy of being onstage with this group of actors and this ensemble. . . . This is the truest sense of ensemble. There's such a camaraderie and sense of "I've got your back" in this company. It's an egoless environment. It's just unbelievable. True theatre - the best that theatre is, being onstage with these actors. And being in a Sondheim [show] onstage with these actors.

Q: When are you contracted through?
LuPone: Through July - we're in the middle of negotiations right now.

Q: So, you would like to extend?
LuPone: I would - absolutely like to extend. It's too good of an experience to let go!

[Reminder: Patti LuPone will perform The Lady with the Torch May 22 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS; call (212) 840-0770 for tickets.]

KELLI O'HARA
Nominated for her performance as Babe in the revival of The Pajama Game at the American Airlines Theatre.

Question: How did you find out about your Tony nomination?
Kelli O'Hara: My sister called me on the phone yesterday morning. I had been at an event the night before, and, on accident, I left my phone on silent, so I slept through. [Laughs.] I haven't been feeling well, so I was asleep, and my sister finally called my fiancé's phone and woke us up. She was so excited - more excited that she got to tell me first than anything. It was wonderful, and then I ran to my phone and I had 17 messages.

Q: Who were among those 17 calls?
O'Hara: Well, of course, [co-star] Harry [Connick, Jr.] and [director/choreographer] Kathleen [Marshall] called me, and many members of my family. Mostly people involved with the show and my family.

Q: I love your singing in Pajama Game - did you study anyone in particular because your sound is so period perfect?
O'Hara: Thank you. I grew up on the old movie musicals. I grew up on Doris Day movies, and so when I first auditioned for the part - because I was so into Piazza at the time - I was still doing [the show] - I had no other choice but to kind of do an imitation, which I did, and I got the job. I think over time it's really become my voice, but the inflections and the things that are fifties are actually what I feel the part is. Even when I speak, I feel we're in a different era . . . . I don't speak that way in real life, so it's the same thing in singing, it matches the speech. It's not affected, but it's just a style.

Q: How would you compare the vocal demands of Pajama Game to Light in the Piazza?
O'Hara: Most people wouldn't believe this because this is all so low, but Piazza was ten times easier for me because I feel I kind of live in that soprano world, and so doing the belting was rather new for me. It's been a little challenging, but it's also been quite liberating to learn that I have that chest [voice] and bring it up and use it. It's so ballsy, and I love it.

Q: What would you say has been the most enjoyable aspect of doing the show?
O'Hara: Playing a strong female lead. Not having to show - and I do at some points - but not having to always play the vulnerable, the victim. I wanted to play someone who planted their feet to overcome something. I feel very fulfilled in this [role]. Q: Will you be involved when the show returns in the fall?
O'Hara: That's up in the air. I don't know. We haven't talked about casting. I know Harry's not coming back, so that's going to make a difference for me, so I think I'm just going to wait and see what's happening.

Q: Do you have any other projects in the works?
O'Hara: I do - I have some that I probably shouldn't mention, but I want to take a little time off, which I will this summer. I haven't really had a vacation in about six years. [Laughs.] And maybe try to broaden my horizon a little bit as far as work goes.

Q: TV and film?
O'Hara: Trying to do a little bit just to learn some new things, but theatre is my home.

CHITA RIVERA
Nominated for her performance in the recent musical Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life.

Question: How did you find out about the nomination?
Chita Rivera: Well, I was home. I was in bed asleep when Joe McGinnis, one of my producers, called to congratulate me, and then it was really sweet when the kids started to call.

Q: What's happening with The Dancer's Life? I know there was talk of touring - is that still happening?
Rivera: Yes, absolutely. We have a whole schedule. We're starting January 2 in Miami and go on from there.

Q: What would you say was the biggest challenge of putting together The Dancer's Life?
Rivera: Having Terrence McNally writing it was amazing - he knows how I speak and very much how I feel and think. So, it was pretty easy because Terrence did write it like I was speaking. That's what I thought was going to be the hardest thing — to make it sound like I'm talking to you one on one. . . . There was some special material there. I'm used to singing and dancing at the same time, but the big number was almost 13 minutes. It was all the hard songs, the show-stoppers that you have in the second act. [You usually] have one, except I had like five in one song. [Laughs.] You usually are able to have some water or some dialogue. It was singing all those songs without having any water - no break, no dialogue. That really was the hardest challenge. We might even try to do something about that when we take it out [on the road].

Q: That was actually my next question - do you think you'll make some changes when you tour?
Rivera: Yeah. Singers were hysterical - they'd come backstage and say, "Girl, that's insane. What are you doing?!" We'll probably fix that.

Q: Looking back, what would you say was the most enjoyable aspect of the Broadway run?
Rivera: I've had a lot of gypsy run-throughs in my life, but my God, this was just astounding. It was just really wonderful. I think one of the reasons was that it's a show that I intended to be a dancer's [journey], and dancers really understood it, and they really loved it. They really knew how much they mean to me, and I just wanted to represent them as best I could since I've been a gypsy for so long, and I really know what it's all about. It was really my homage to dancers and to people in the theatre or to actually anybody who wants to do whatever they love for as long as they can and at the highest level they can, and it can be done.

Q: Do you think most of the people who were in the show with you will go on the tour?
Rivera: Oh, they have a job if they want it. Absolutely, I just loved 'em because each one of those kids - and they're not kid kids - they all have stories of their own, and they've all had amazing experiences of their own, and they have lives of their own, too, so they're full human beings. None of them are just starting out.

Q: Did you learn anything about yourself in either doing the show or putting it together that you didn't know?
Rivera: I learned that I really did love to sit and talk to [the audience]. I really did love it to hear people say, "I really felt like you were talking just to me." And it really felt like I was doing that, and it wasn't just people in the business. It was people from all walks that really felt like it was a large living room. [Laughs.]

Q: What does receiving the Tony nomination mean to you?
Rivera: It means, of course, the honor of being recognized by your peers and being in this community and still, after so many years, loving it. I think mainly, too, it's an acknowledgment of the show itself. And, again, I represent the show. I represent [director/choreographer] Graciela [Daniele]'s brilliant, wonderful work and Terrence [McNally]'s wonderful work, and [lighting designer] Jules Fisher's work. I just represent all of us. We all come in one package together; nobody stands alone.

Q: Do you have any other projects in the works? I know at one point you were working on The Visit.
Rivera: Well, The Visit is popping its head up, which makes us very happy, and there is something else, but I shouldn't be the first one to talk about it!

DIVA TIDBITS
NEO2, a benefit concert for the York Theatre Company that celebrates emerging writers in musical theatre, will be held June 12 at the York's home in Saint Peter's Theatre. Tony Award-winning composers Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty - of Ragtime and Once on This Island fame - will host the concert, which is scheduled to boast performances by Stephanie J. Block, Eden Espinosa, Barrett Foa, Cheyenne Jackson, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Janine LaManna, Christiane Noll, Phylicia Rashad, Michael Rupert, Jim Stanek and John Tartaglia. The gala evening is scheduled to begin at 7:30 PM with a "Dinner by the Bite" reception and silent auction. The 9 PM concert will be recorded live by JAY Records and will be followed at 10:30 PM by a champagne/dessert reception. Tickets for NEO2 are priced $125-$500 and are available by calling (212) 935-5820 or by e-mailing boxoffice@yorktheatre.org (write NEO tickets in the subject line). A limited number of $25 tickets are also available at the York Theatre box office, at 54th Street just off Lexington Avenue.

Reservations are currently being taken for Betty Buckley's upcoming debut at New York's Blue Note Jazz Club. The Tony Award-winning actress will be backed by her band, Quintessence, during her May 30-June 4 engagement at the famed jazz club. Featuring musical director Kenny Werner on piano, Quintessence also includes Billy Drewes on reeds, Tony Marino on bass, Todd Reynolds on violin and Dan Weiss on drums/percussion. At the Blue Note, Buckley will celebrate her 16-year partnership with musical director Werner. Attendees can expect to hear tunes drawn from Buckley's eclectic repertoire, which includes songs from the worlds of pop, rock, country and musical theatre. A few new collaborations will be presented as well. Buckley and Quintessence will offer 8 and 10:30 PM shows all nights. There is a $40 cover charge and a $10 minimum at the tables and a $30 music charge but no cover at the bar. The Blue Note is located in Manhattan at 131 West 3rd Street. Call (212) 475-8592 for reservations or visit www.bluenote.net.

Next week: Chats with the actresses nominated for a Tony for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical.

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

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