DIVA TALK: Chatting with Wicked's Rue McClanahan Plus News of Cook, Eder and Menzel

DIVA TALK: Chatting with Wicked's Rue McClanahan Plus News of Cook, Eder and Menzel News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Emmy Award winner Rue McClanahan
Emmy Award winner Rue McClanahan

RUE McCLANAHAN

I have to admit that most every night of the week I go to bed with four older women — Blanche Devereaux, Rose Nylund, Dorothy Zbornak and Sophia Petrillo, better known as Rue McClanahan, Betty White, Bea Arthur and Estelle Getty. Who could resist the classic sitcom "The Golden Girls," which was funny, moving and even included sporadic theatre references:

Rose: Well, I thought she was good in the Diary of Anne Frank.
Dorothy: Rose, please, during the entire second act the audience kept screaming: 'She is in the attic! She is in the attic!'

And, though her Emmy-winning role as charming, man-hungry Southern belle Blanche Devereaux may have ended in 1992, actress Rue McClanahan is as busy as ever. After delighting audiences as Countess de Lage in the 2001 revival of Clare Booth Luce's The Women at the American Airlines Theatre, Oklahoma native McClanahan is back on Broadway in one of the theatre's biggest hits, playing Madame Morrible in Stephen Schwartz's Wicked at the Gershwin Theatre. Though she made her name in television — she also starred as Vivian Cavender-Harmon in the groundbreaking seventies series "Maude" — McClanahan is no stranger to the stage or musical theatre. In fact, the award-winning actress has appeared in productions of Annie, Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum as well as two productions of Nunsense. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with the multi-talented performer; that interview follows:

Question: How did the Wicked role come about?
Rue McClanahan: I was called [by my agent] and said that they were considering me for this role, and then they talked to [director] Joe Mantello, and he said, "Yes, she's perfect!" And that cinched it.

Question: Had you seen the show?
McClanahan: I had seen it. I saw it very early on with Kristin [Chenoweth] and Idina [Menzel], but I didn't remember the role of Morrible, so I went back to see it, and then I saw that it was a pretty sizable part that I could do a lot with I thought. So, then, I went into rehearsal, and I went back to see it again! [Laughs.]

Question: What was the rehearsal process like?
McClanahan: Marvelous. They gave me four weeks, and I asked if the first week could be just music with the two main conductors. So, the conductors came over to my home, and we worked in the music room, and I learned my two little songs. They just came over twice, and the next week I went into real-honest-to-God rehearsal for three weeks, and everybody was extremely helpful. Oh Gosh, the wonderful stage managers, two of them, Kristen [Harris] and Erica [Schwartz], took me through my paces. And, [assistant] stage manager Jason [Trubitt] walked me through it the first four nights because there are a lot of different exits and entrances and costume changes and wig changes and the intricate make-up. I take the longest to get ready of anyone. I've been going in two hours before the show every performance. Now I'm getting it faster and faster. Instead of getting there at 6 for an 8 o'clock curtain, I'm going to plan now to start getting there at 6:30, so that'll make it easier.

Question: What's it like performing in the Gershwin, which is a huge theatre?
McClanahan: Well, this whole experience is just a little piece of heaven. I love everything except the raked stage. It's hard on your body, so I could do without the raked stage, but everything else is wonderful. The conductors are delightful. They come with very useful notes every two or three performances. Joe [Mantello] only saw it once with me, and he came with some notes. I think he came the first night I was in and gave me some useful notes, and then our assistant director — he comes every ten days or so — I think he's been in Chicago helping get that show up. So, he came for the first time just the other night in a long time, and he's got some notes for me tonight. But they're always good notes. They're always like, "Wait one or two more beats before you blah blah. Or come in just a little sooner on blah blah. Or just two or three more feet downstage." [Laughs.] It's nothing to do with interpretation; it's do with just staging. I've been allowed to develop my own character, which I'm still working on. I'll probably still be working on it seven-and-a-half months from now. She starts out so likable and apparently trustworthy and good, and then by the end she's an absolute daughter of Satan and gets dragged off to prison. She goes crazy. She has always been a little crazy, and she's been covering it up because she wants power. She's power mad. And she, you know, by the way, is the brains behind everything.

Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for your character?
McClanahan: I have 12 scenes, and I love them all. I couldn't pick a favorite.

Question: The response from the audience in Wicked is so enthusiastic. Does that give you energy?
McClanahan: You better believe it. Well, I mean knowing that we're sold out through March doesn't hurt. [Laughs.] . . . The matinee audiences are different because they're mostly kids, a great percentage kids. So they respond to everything differently, but I understand what they do respond to. The evening audiences are more mature. The Tuesday-night audiences, a 7 PM curtain, is designed for children to come to because they have school the next day, and it's a different audience. It's very fascinating.

Question: It must keep things interesting to have different types of audiences.
McClanahan: It does — that's why I love live theatre. I'm at home here. I've come back home. It's wonderful.

Question: Are you enjoying working with Ben Vereen and Shoshana Bean?
McClanahan: Yes, and that funny, funny Megan [Hilty]. Those glorious voices those girls have. Ben is an absolute darling, just a darling to get along with, and his performance is superb. So I just feel like this is an awfully good job.

Question: I know you were in Nunsense and Nunsense II. Do you enjoy acting in musicals?
McClanahan: The reason I took Nunsense was because there was one scene in it where the Mother Superior is given some glue the girls have been sniffing in the basement. She doesn't know what it is, and she starts sniffing it to see what it smells like, and she gets high as a kite and very, very goofy. It's a solo monologue that goes on with a lot of physical humor and falling down and acting silly. So, that's the reason I took the part. I wanted to see if I could choreograph that and [make it seem] spontaneous and yet have it meticulously worked out — and I succeeded! I took Nunsense II because I love [Nunsense creator] Danny Goggin, but that's not the kind of musical that I would choose anymore. I've done Annie and The Sound of Music and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Oklahoma!, [but] this is the most fun role I've ever played in a musical. What I really want to do is the lead in a comedy on Broadway that's a non-musical. That's my goal.

Question: Any show in mind or would you like to do a new show?
McClanahan: That brand-new play that we don't know the name of yet.

Question: How do you find the demands of doing a show eight times a week?
McClanahan: Well, it's not that that's so tiring and so demanding. I'm writing my autobiography called "My First Five Husbands," so I'm writing it after I get home at night from the show or between shows on matinee days. I work in long hand on a tablet in my dressing room. So far I've completed ten chapters, and I'm well into chapter eleven.

Question: Do you have a publisher at this point?
McClanahan: I have an extremely dedicated and excited agent and one publisher that's interested that the agent will go to first because of friendship ties. Then we move from there.

Question: I found it interesting in your bio that you studied with Uta Hagen. What was she like?
McClanahan: Formidable. I enrolled for eight weeks along with two of my buddies from college. After eights weeks they quit, and I enrolled for another eight weeks. As far as I'm concerned, she taught me so much that I had not been exposed to in college or by any summer-stock director. For instance, after I did my first scene for her, which was from The Importance of Being Earnest. I was the one who enters across the lawn holding a parasol. She asked me, "What kind of ground was under your feet? Was it pebbles? Was it dirt? Was it wood chips? Was it grass? Was it damp? Was it dry? How hot was the sun? Where was the sun coming from?" Stuff like that. I said, "Son of a gun! I thought I knew acting. I don't know acting. This woman is going to teach me how to act."

Question: You've also written two musicals.
McClanahan: Yes, I'm working on the second one. It's written, but the composer [D. J. Bradley] is still working on the music.

Question: Can you tell me a little about the show?
McClanahan: Well, it's called Cobra Island. It's a spoof, a farce set in Nebraska in 1931 where it opens in a newspaper office. A hot young reporter has just been hired. He's from New York, and Barry is his name. He blows in there and just captivates the leading lady, whose name is Cupcake. She's plump, and her two sidekicks are tall, beautiful girls. I've turned it around. She falls in love with him, and he pretty much falls in love with her. He says that he's after a hot story about three lost triplets — one of them is supposedly the Voodoo princess of a Volcanic Pacific isle called Cobra Island, and every time he mentions it, it thunders and the typewriters jump up off the desk. And the more he mentions it, papers start flying around the room. So the girls say, "Go find it. Get out of here. We don't want you here." Then Cupcake joins him, and the rest of it takes place on Cobra Island with the Cobra Island Queen and her eight virgins [laughs] and her old crone Tuskaka. She speaks with a strong accent. . . . The movie that gave me the idea, which I saw in 1944, was called "Cobra Woman," in which there were just twins — in mine there are triplets.

Question: Do you have a timeline for when you'd like to finish it?
McClanahan: We were moving quite a pace until I got Wicked. We haven't touched it since I started learning lines, maybe three months.

Question: I'm a big fan of "The Golden Girls." Why do you think the show is still so popular?
McClanahan: I should ask you the question! [Laughs.] It's popular because it's warm, friendly and it's about friendship, and it's very funny and it hasn't gotten stale.

Question: Have any of the "Golden Girls" gotten to see you in Wicked?
McClanahan: No, but we have to sign the third-year DVD, which is coming out in November, and since I can't get away, they're flying Bea [Arthur] and Betty [White] to New York to do it here, so I assume at least one of 'em will come see it. [Laughs.]

Question: I know you're also an advocate for animals. Do you have pets in the city?
McClanahan: We have one cat. I had eight cats and six dogs in Los Angeles. . . . [I came to New York] to rehearse a play, [and] I met my present husband, found out two weeks later while rehearsing that I had breast cancer. He and I moved in together, and then we got married. So, I wasn't able to bring my menagerie. We went out to sell the house, and this white cat, whose name at that time was Blanca — she was seven — became very affectionate to [my husband] Morrow. He said, "We need to take her with us." I was thrilled. So, halfway across the country I said, "We ought to rename her. She's going to an entirely different life. She's moving from five acres to a New York apartment. She'll be the only animal. How about a name that sounds like Blanca, so she won't get confused?" And, he said, "But it has to be from Shakespeare," because all my cats are named after Shakespearean characters, and we realized that Bianca was perfect. Bianca means white, as does Blanca, it sounds like Blanca, and she's in two Shakespeare plays. So, she is now Bianca, she's 15, you'd think she was still seven. I have plans — because I have a backyard that's about 45 feet by 30 — a little dog would be just perfect, a little tiny dog that wouldn't terrorize Bianca. She's the queen bee here, but I've got several breeds in mind. Question: How long will you be staying with Wicked?
McClanahan: The first contract I signed is up January 9. . . But I have the option to renew, so unless that Broadway [comedy] starring me comes along, I'll renew. [Laughs.] So [my] musical is going to stay on the back burner, I'm afraid, for awhile.

Question: Last question: When people hear the name Rue McClanahan, what would you like them to think?
McClanahan: "Oh, I love her!"

[Wicked plays the Gershwin Theatre, 222 West 51st Street; call 212 307-4100 for tickets.]

DIVA TIDBITS
In addition to her upcoming concerts in Provincetown, Tony Award winner Idina Menzel will now also offer concerts in Boston and Martha's Vineyard. As previously announced, the rock-flavored songstress will play the Provincetown Theater Aug. 18-20 at 9 PM and Aug. 21 at 8 PM. She will then sing at the Regatta Bar at Boston's Charles Hotel Aug. 26 and 27 at 7:30 and 10 PM. Menzel has also booked an evening at Martha's Vineyard's Hot Tin Roof Sept. 4 at 9 PM. Provincetown tickets are available by calling (508) 487-9793 or by visiting www.ptowntix.com. Reservations for Boston's Regatta Bar can be made by calling (617) 395-7757 or by logging on to www.regattabarjazz.com. For tickets to Menzel at the Hot Tin Roof, call (508) 693-1137, ext. 11 or visit www.ticketweb.com.

Linda Eder, best known to Broadway audiences for her performance in the original cast of Jekyll & Hyde, has recorded a new CD filled with songs made famous by the late Judy Garland. Entitled "By Myself: The Songs of Judy Garland," the 11-track disc is set to hit stores on the Angel Records label Oct. 4. The single CD was produced by composer/conductor Ettore Stratta, executive-produced by Ian Ralfini and features one new song, "The Rainbow's End," penned by Jack Murphy. Eder is backed by the London Symphony Orchestra on most of the tracks. About her upcoming recording, singer-actress Eder said in a statement, "Judy [Garland] was my first big musical influence. I always felt a connection to her. She was all about the goose bump factor. . . I've been through a lot in the last few years, which has added new layers to my life. No one escapes the lows, and Judy's were extreme, but you felt you knew her." The complete track listing for "By Myself: The Songs of Judy Garland" includes "By Myself," "Almost Like Being in Love"/"This Can't Be Love," "Me and My Shadow," "I'd Like to Hate Myself in the Morning," "It Never Was You," "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart"/"The Trolley Song," "The Rainbow's End," "The Boy Next Door"/"You Made Me Love You," "Do It Again," "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody" and "Over the Rainbow."

Tony Award winner Barbara Cook has also recorded a new CD, which will hit stores in the fall. Titled "Tribute," the single CD is set for a September 2005 release. The recording will feature the songs Cook performed during her recent Café Carlyle engagement, which was a tribute to her late musical director Wally Harper as well as to Bobby Short, Harold Arlen and Arthur Schwartz. The new DRG release, produced by Hugh Fordin, will boast Cook backed by a 20-piece orchestra. The arrangements were written by Michael Kosarin with orchestrations by Danny Troob. Song titles are expected to include "I Got the World on a String," "Hurry, It's Lovely Up Here," "Out of This World," "Last Night When We Were Young," "The World Must Be Bigger Than an Avenue," "I Never Knew That Men Cried," "Another Mr. Right Left," "Nashville Nightingale," "Bojangles of Harlem," "I'm Like a New Broom," "I'll Buy You a Star," "Make the Man Love Me," "'Sing' Medley" and "Smile."

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

Rue McClanahan as Madame Morrible in <i>Wicked</i>
Rue McClanahan as Madame Morrible in Wicked Photo by Joan Marcus