DIVA TALK: Chatting with Xanadu's Elizabeth Stanley Plus Betty Buckley Sings By Request

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Xanadu's Elizabeth Stanley Plus Betty Buckley Sings By Request News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Elizabeth Stanley
Elizabeth Stanley

ELIZABETH STANLEY
Elizabeth Stanley, who created the role of April in the Tony-winning revival of Stephen Sondheim's Company, returned to Broadway last season to play good-girl Allison in Cry-Baby, the musical based on the John Waters film of the same name. Although the production was short-lived, it didn't take long for the singing actress to land on her feet/roller skates when she won the lead role in the national tour of Xanadu, another new musical based on a motion picture. The tour of the musical comedy, which boasts a Tony-nominated book by Little Dog Laughed playwright Douglas Carter Beane, played a West Coast engagement at the La Jolla Playhouse before officially kicking off Jan. 16 at Chicago's Drury Lane Theatre Water Tower Place, where the show will reside through March 28. About his leading lady, Beane told me earlier this week: "Ms. Stanley adds that quality that Xanadu has always lacked . . . soft-core porn. One has the feeling at any moment during her stage performance things might get a little racy — but if they do, the camera will discretely pull away. Kind of like a movie viewed in a hotel room when one is alone and on the road. She sings like a dream, plays comedy like an ugly person, and acts with such great heart and humanity it is hard not to fall for her. And she is about the nicest, silliest, sweetest person I have every worked with." I recently had the pleasure of chatting with the nice, silly and sweet Stanley; that brief interview follows.

Question: Since we've never spoken before, let's start at the beginning. Where were you born and raised?
Elizabeth Stanley: I was born in Iowa. I lived there for the first half of my childhood, and then when I was ten we moved to a very small town called Camp Point, Illinois. It's actually like four-and-a-half hours south of Chicago, but I'm really happy to be here because my family is like a train ride away but still not a hop, skip and a jump. [Laughs.]

Question: That's great that they're nearby.
Stanley: It's nice — [especially compared to] being in New York, where it's an event to go home. It's nice to be able to go, "I feel like going home, I'm gonna hop on a train."

Question: When did you start performing?
Stanley: I started doing a lot of stuff at the community theatre near us — it's about 30 miles away — when I was 12 or 13, sixth or seventh grade.

Question: When do you think you knew that it would be your career?
Stanley: People always ask me that, and I don't know exactly the answer. I think it would have been when I was in high school. I studied voice with this woman who had made her living as an artist, both as a teacher but also performing opera. I think because she was the first person I knew that had been a professional artist, that started making [me think], "Oh, this is something I could do for my life, for my living." Question: Did you study theatre in college?
Stanley: I did. Initially I went to Indiana University because of their school of music. I was a voice major, and I initially was planning on being an opera singer. Then, after I had been there awhile, a lot of the people I had befriended were in theatre. We were in this choir together . . . .There were a lot of music theatre people, so I started leaning more towards that and ended up tweaking my major so that I could take the acting electives.

Question: What was your first professional job after college?
Stanley: My first professional job — it's funny, I list one of the credits in my bio here as being one of my favorites, because it really was. I worked at Seaside Music Theatre, which I think may no longer be happening, but I was there for the whole summer. I did ensemble in a couple of shows. The thing that I was excited about being there for was that I was the lead in the opera The Telephone by Menotti.

Question: When did you get to New York?
Stanley: I moved to New York about a year after I graduated. . . . I've been in New York for a little over five years, I think. I moved home after that summer job so that I could save money so that I could afford to move to New York.

Elizabeth Stanley in Xanadu
photo by Carol Rosegg

Question: Your first Broadway show was Company. Everyone I've talked to always raves about working with director John Doyle. What was your experience like?
Stanley: I have to give you another rave. That experience will probably always be at the top because it was so many wonderful firsts. It was my first Broadway show, and it was with an amazing director, and it was a Sondheim piece, and I got to meet Stephen Sondheim… and on and on and on. And we won the Tony for the musical. Everything about it was about as good as it could get. John is such a lovely human being. He's very kind and . . . he's demanding, but he's patient. He's humble in that I remember the first day of rehearsal he said, "I'm just as nervous as you are, and I don't really know what this is going to turn out to be either. . . It took me 45 minutes to pick out which pastel shirt to put on as well." He allows it to be a collaborative experience, or at least allows it to feel that way, even though he's very much still the director. Question: What was it like playing an instrument and performing?
Stanley: It was a great challenge. A lot of the people in the show had done that before in some other capacity. Several people had done Cabaret, including myself. I had done the national tour of it right after I graduated and other various shows that require actor/musicians. They're kind of common, and once you've done one, then people pick you to do them again. But this was different. John's conception of it was so unique that, I think, all of us were completely challenged, but it was so rewarding.

Elizabeth Stanley in Cry-Baby
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Your next Broadway musical was Cry-Baby. What was that experience like?
Stanley: It was my first time being a part of something that was being developed. It was a tremendous learning experience in all of the blood, sweat and tears that goes into creating a new piece — how much it changes, how much it evolves, how important it is to have everyone's vision align on what the piece should say and how it should work. I learned so much. I'm really, really grateful for it. Even though the run was short, I was with the piece for well over a year. It felt like it ended abruptly, but it didn't feel like I barely did it. Question: Because you played out-of-town . . .
Stanley: Yeah, and we did a workshop in town. I made really, really wonderful friendships, so I have very fond memories of it.

Question: How did the Xanadu tour come about?
Stanley: I auditioned for it close to closing of Cry-Baby, but it was before the Tonys, so nothing had been announced about our closing. I remember my agent called and said, "You know, we have an appointment for you for Xanadu." And I called back and said, "Do you know something I don't know? I'm already doing a show." [Laughs.] And they were like, "No, we don't know anything, but we just thought we should be safe. They called and they asked to see you. If you don't want to go, then don't go." But I was like, "No, no, I would like to go, but I was just checking." [Laughs.] The audition process was really fun. I wasn't a skater beforehand, so in that aspect, I guess I wasn't nervous because I just felt like… I didn't lie, I didn't say I was a skater, so I didn't have something to prove. I was just like, "I'm not, so here's what it is!" I'm friends with Cheyenne [Jackson, who starred in the Broadway run of Xanadu]. We had worked together a couple years ago. So I called him and said, "Can you review some sides with me?" It's interesting because he had said when he was helping me, "You're so different than Kerry [Butler], but it's interesting."

Question: Would you say skating and singing is more difficult or playing an instrument and singing is more difficult?
Stanley: They're totally different! I also play piano, even though I did not play it in Company. That is more like [skating and singing]… because you can actually do the two things simultaneously. The instruments I played in Company, they were all wind instruments, so I was never singing and playing an instrument. I would have to say skating [is more difficult] because it's different. It requires more of your physical being, and it's like a fear for your life rather than just the fear of hitting a wrong note. [Laughs.]

Question: Have you ever toured before?
Stanley: I have toured. I did the non-union tour of Cabaret.

Question: How do you find touring? With Xanadu it seems like you're getting lengthier engagements rather than going from one city to the next in a week's time
Stanley: Yeah, so far it doesn't really feel like a tour. I think I'm going to like it. When I did Cabaret it was such a — as non-union tours often are — trying experience, and the schedule was like six months of one-nighters. But that was still really fun. I was really young when I did it, and it was really a fun experience. But now I'm really happy that we're sitting down longer. It's nice to be able to develop a sort of routine for yourself. I can go to a noon yoga class here, then I have plenty of time to do what I need to do in the afternoon, and then I can go to the show. It feels a bit more like [being] at home.

Elizabeth Stanley in Xanadu
photo by Carol Rosegg

Question: Has anything been changed for the tour? Did they change anything during rehearsals?
Stanley: They did, actually. It's kind of nice being part of the second round of something. . . . Max [von Essen] and I both said we're lucky because we're reaping the benefits of all of the tears from before. There were a few things that they changed because they just said, "We never liked how this ending was looking, but we just ran out of time. We didn't have time to fix it." A few numbers have been completely re-choreographed. I know "Fool" is one of them. I'm not sure about other ones. Also the scene between Kira and Danny — the dialogue has changed quite a bit also. Question: Which scene is that?
Stanley: Between Kira and Danny. Danny was played by Tony Roberts on Broadway, and in our production it's Larry Marshall. . . .So there's a small scene where, within the song "Whenever You're Away From Me," they changed quite a bit. The show is more like hep cat, like "tryin' to be cool." I think it works to the advantage for us as actors, because the dialogue stays in that sort of comedic — it's serious, but it has room for comedy. It stays in that feeling, whereas the dialogue before was a little more serious, a little more cut and dry. It didn't have that sort of wink underneath it. I think it helps to keep the audience in that same frame of mind.

Question: How do you find singing the score, which is more pop than most Broadway shows?
Stanley: I love it. It's really fun. It's sort of a guilty pleasure singing a lot of these songs. [Laughs.]

Question: How would you describe Kira?
Stanley: Oh, wow. I think she's really fun. [Laughs.] I guess that's the first word that comes to mind, because that's how the experience, for me, is, portraying her is, really fun. She's very committed to her cause of helping artists. She really believes in the importance of art and helping people to do it in the best way possible. She's sort of naturally a leader. I think she's very likable. She doesn't do things wrong. She's a muse and she has the ability to be good at things, but she doesn't break the rules. That's part of the conflict in the story is that she's not supposed to fall in love with a mortal or create art or tell him that she isn't mortal, and she does all three.

Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show? Is there anything you look forward to?
Stanley: I love singing the song "Suddenly." Max and I have become very good friends, so that's a fun moment for the two of us. And I just love singing that song.

Question: Tell me about working with Max.
Stanley: It's great. He is just wonderful. We've had sort of similar experiences in a lot of our professional endeavors and yet have had very different paths, so I think there's a level of understanding. We know a lot of the same people so, right away, before we even got together, people were like, "Oh, you guys are gonna love each other!" And we do. I'm really, really grateful for that because you can really only be as good as the people you're with. Question: Do you know where the show goes after Chicago?
Stanley: We're going to Tokyo for the month of May. I think there are tentative plans for us to come back here. It just depends on everything, the economy and how we sell. U.S. cities beyond Chicago have not been announced, so I think they're kind of waiting to see how long we're here.

Question: Do you have any other projects in the works, or are you just focusing on Xanadu at the moment?
Stanley: Yes and no. I had done the workshop of Leap of Faith this past spring. If that should move forward, I would love to continue with it. There are lots of things in the works right now that don't always move forward at the pace they were anticipated to. [Laughs.] I'm really thankful that I have this job for now. I love it so much.

[For more information visit www.xanaduonbroadway.com or www.BroadwayInChicago.com.]

Betty Buckley

BETTY BUCKLEY: Broadway By Request
On those very rare occasions when a concert/cabaret act is as moving, funny, thrilling and all-around entertaining as one hopes, I often feel like writing a two-word review: "Just go!" Then I realize that such a simple statement would be a disservice to both the performer's efforts and those who would like to learn more about the evening's program. So even though I'd really like to tell musical theatre fans to "just go!" and see Betty Buckley's superb Broadway By Request evening at Feinstein's at Loews Regency — directed by Richard Jay-Alexander — I'll offer a more complete review, but first a bit of back story.

For the past 15 years or so, whenever my friend Tod and I have traveled around the country (and the world) — by car, train, plane or bus — to catch our various divas in concert and/or in productions of Sunset Boulevard, Gypsy or Evita, there are several games we play in order to pass the traveling time: "If you could go back in time and catch any show, what would it be?" "If you could produce an album for any singer, who would you choose, and what songs would you pick?" There are several variations, but whatever the topic, Betty Buckley's name is always part of the answer.

So, it was a bit of a dream fulfilled for both Tod and me as we watched Buckley perform her By Request evening, singing songs we never thought we'd hear her perform from shows we would have loved to have seen her in on Broadway.

The evening at Feinstein's began with a bit of comedy — some Buckley-themed film clips (I won't spoil the surprise) — presented by actor, comic, musician and Playbill.com columnist Seth Rudetsky, who also deftly accompanied Buckley on piano. The Tony-winning actress, in good spirit and even greater voice, began her hour-long set with her second-act Sunset Boulevard aria, "As If We Never Said Goodbye," belting out with welcome emotion, "I've come home at last!"

Buckley then explained the structure of the evening and joked that accompanist Rudetsky "knows everything about my career — even things I don't remember!"

The first request of the evening — chosen from a champagne bucket atop the piano stuffed with forms filled out by the opening-night audience — was 1776's "He Plays the Violin," one of those aforementioned songs this Buckley admirer never thought he'd hear her sing live. It was surprisingly moving to watch Buckley as she joyously sang, "He plays the violin/ He tucks it right under his chin/ And he bows, oh he bows/ For he knows . . ."

The evening also featured Buckley's remarkable renditions of "Love Song" from Pippin (requested by Kate Shindle), "Meadowlark" from The Baker's Wife (requested by John McDaniel), "Whoever You Are, I Love You" from Promises, Promises (requested by Steven Suskin), "When There's No One" from Carrie (requested by my friend Tod) as well as Buckley's signature tune, "Memory," and two Sondheims: "No One Is Alone" and "Send in the Clowns," the latter both featuring the original arrangements.

Buckley, who is known for her tremendous emotional connection to a lyric, was in stellar form: I continue to be amazed by the dramatic intensity that imbues all her work. Each song is treated as if it were a play unto itself, and everything she touched this past Tuesday night was as powerful vocally as it was emotionally. Perhaps the best of the best were a riveting "Meadowlark," a deeply felt and emotionally raw "Whoever You Are, I Love You" and a soaring "Memory" that, once again, secures Buckley's place among the tiny pantheon of musical theatre greats.

And, yet, that was only half the fun: In addition to the songs, Buckley also drew laugh after laugh with her hilarious, touching and sometimes shockingly surprising anecdotes about her triumphs and tribulations in show business. Especially shocking: an early-career agent who told a casting director Buckley had left the business so one of his other clients would land the job; especially candid: Buckley's description of Stephen Sondheim's reaction to her and musical director Kenny Werner's jazz arrangements of his tunes; and especially poignant: Buckley's road to a show-stopping "Memory" via a homeless woman and revisiting the child inside.

Buckley has always been a terrific storyteller in song, but who knew she was equally compelling without the music? These are marvelous, theatrical stories — the best I've heard since the Tony and Emmy-winning Elaine Stritch At Liberty — and combined with the songs make for a superb evening of entertainment, one that really belongs in a theatre with a full orchestra.

But through March 7 audiences can enjoy Buckley at the intimate cabaret on Park Avenue. And, did I mention musical theatre fans and diva lovers should just go!?

[Buckley's Broadway By Request plays through March 7 at Feinstein's at Loews Regency. Show times are Tuesday-Thursday at 8:30 PM and Friday and Saturday at 8 and 10:30 PM. Feinstein's is located at 540 Park Avenue at 61st Street in New York City. For ticket reservations call (212) 339-4095 or visit feinsteinsatloewsregency.com and TicketWeb.com.]

Bernadette Peters in "Ugly Betty"
photo by Patrick Harbron/ © ABC

DIVA TIDBITS
Two-time Tony Award winner Bernadette Peters, who played editor Jodie Papadakis on the Jan. 8 episode of the ABC series "Ugly Betty," will reprise that role on two upcoming episodes of the award-winning ABC series. Peters will guest on both the Feb. 19 episode, which is titled "There's No Place Like Mode," and the Feb. 26 episode, which is titled "Things Fall Apart." "Ugly Betty" airs 8-9 PM ET on ABC-TV; check local listings. Eden Espinosa, whose Broadway credits include Rent, Brooklyn and Wicked, will go it solo at Joe's Pub in March. The singing actress' show, entitled Eden Espinosa — Me, will be presented March 22-24 at the intimate cabaret located within the Public Theater. Show time each night is 9:30 PM. Special guests will be announced at a later date. Broadway actor Billy Porter will direct the evenings with musical direction by James Sampliner. Espinosa debuted her show at the Upright Cabaret at Mark's Restaurant in California. Joe's Pub is located at 425 Lafayette Street. For more information visit www.joespub.com or call (212) 967-7555.

Tony Award winner Kristin Chenoweth, recently seen in the City Center Encores! production of Face the Music, will offer a solo concert to benefit the Reprise Theatre Company. An Evening with Kristin Chenoweth will be presented at UCLA's Freud Playhouse Feb. 23. Show time is 8 PM. Tickets, priced $100-$150, are available by visiting www.ticketmaster.com. A portion of the ticket purchase, which supports Reprise's productions and outreach programs, is tax-deductible. For more information visit www.reprise.org.

The Laurie Beechman Theatre's Voices from The Great White Way series — one-night-only concerts that spotlight a Broadway actor — will resume March 2 and continue through May 31. Scheduled to appear are Mamma Mia!'s Carey Anderson (March 2), Taboo's Liz McCartney (March 22 and 29), The Light in the Piazza's Aaron Lazar (April 6), Falsettos' Heather MacRae (April 13), A Class Act's Nancy Anderson (May 3), Sweeney Todd's Donna Lynn Champlin (May 11), Spamalot's Lauren Kennedy (May 29) and Hairspray's Mary Bond Davis (May 31). Show time for each performance is 7 PM. The Laurie Beechman Theatre is located at 407 West 42nd Street at Ninth Avenue. There is a $15-25 cover charge as well as a $15 food/beverage minimum for each show. For reservations call (212) 695-6909.

The Jewish Alliance for Change will present Broadway for a New America: Standing Up for Marriage Equality and a Progressive Agenda for Change March 2 at the Peter Norton Symphony Space in Manhattan. Among those scheduled to appear in the benefit concert are Stockard Channing, Richard Belzer, Tovah Feldshuh, Mario Frangoulis, Ann Hampton Callaway, Eve Best, Marni Nixon, Scott Blakeman, Jonathan Freeman and Seth Rudetsky. Jim Dale will emcee the 7 PM evening, which will feature direction by Sara Louise Lazarus, musical direction by Lawrence Yurman and lighting by Guy Smith. Kati Meister and Scott Denny are the producers. In addition to the performers, speakers will include Steven Goldstein, chair of Garden State Equality; Rabbis J. Rolando Matalon and Marcelo Bronstein of Congregation B'nai Jeshurun, New York City; and Evan Wolfson, founder and executive director of Freedom to Marry. Peter Norton Symphony Space is located in Manhattan at 2537 Broadway (at 95th Street). Tickets, priced $80-$125, may be obtained visiting www.Jews4Change.com or www.symphonyspace.org or by calling (212) 864-5400.

Oscar, Emmy, Tony and Grammy winner Rita Moreno will make a rare Los Angeles stage appearance Feb. 19 when she performs at the Conga Room at L.A. Live. Moreno will present her cabaret act Little Tributes at 8 PM. Cabaretgoers can expect to hear Moreno's renditions of Chicago's "Class," Sunset Boulevard's "With One Look" and the Peggy Lee standard "Fever." Tickets are available by visiting www.ticketmaster.com/Rita-Moreno-tickets/artist/756913. The Conga Room is located at 800 West Olympic Boulevard in Los Angeles, CA. For more information call (213) 745-0162 or (866) 95-CONGA or visit www.congaroom.com.

The Songbook series — produced, hosted and directed by John F. Znidarsic — will continue Feb. 23 with an evening dedicated to the songs of composer David Evans. The free concert will feature the vocal talents of Jill Abramovitz, Gerard Canonico, Catherine Cox, Jenn Colella, John Cunningham, Todd Graff, Liz Larsen, Jose Llana, Crista Moore, Andrew Hill Newman, Mary Beth Peil, J.K. Simmons and Barbara Walsh. Show time is 6 PM. Concertgoers can expect to hear songs from Evans' Birds of Paradise, Children's Letters to God and Love Comics, among others. Composer Evans will be featured on the piano with Helen Campo on flute and Danny Miller on cello. Now in its 18th season, the Songbook series is held at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts' Bruno Walter Auditorium, which is located at 111 Amsterdam Avenue, south of 65th Street.

Orfeh, the singing actress who was Tony-nominated for her performance in Legally Blonde the Musical, will host the Feb. 23 Monday Nights, New Voices concert at the Duplex Cabaret Theatre. The evening, which begins at 7 PM, will celebrate the work of composer Deborah Abramson. Vocalists will include Ashley Mortensen, Andy Planck, Tess Primack, Tony Ramos and Jessica Vosk. Composer Abramson will also be on hand to accompany the performers and tell stories associated with each of the presented songs. Barbara Anselmi will be the evening's musical director. The Duplex Cabaret Theatre is located in Manhattan at 61 Christopher Street. There is a $12 music charge and a two-drink minimum; for reservations call (212) 255-5438 or visit theduplex.com.

Casting has been announced for the second North American tour of the hit musical Wicked, which launches at the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall in Fort Myers, FL, March 7 for a run through March 29. Heading the cast will be Marcie Dodd (Broadway's Wicked, tours of Hairspray, We Will Rock You) as the green-faced Elphaba and Heléne Yorke (Grease on Broadway, What's That Smell Off-Broadway) as the curly locked Glinda. They will be joined onstage by Marilyn Caskey (Gypsy) as Madame Morrible and Tom McGowan (La Bete) as The Wizard with David de Vries (Doctor Dillamond), Colin Donnell (Fiyero), Ted Ely (Boq), Kristine Reese (Nessarose) and Carrie Manolakos (standby for Elphaba). For more information visit www.wickedthemusical.com.

LaChanze

And, finally, there are still some seats available for Tony Award winner LaChanze's Valentine's Day concert at the Highline Ballroom. The Color Purple Tony winner, who will return to the stage in March in the Playwrights Horizons world premiere of Christina Anderson's Inked Baby, will play the Manhattan venue at 8 PM Feb. 14; doors open at 6 PM. LaChanze's concert will include "Something for Me," which was cut from The Color Purple, as well as tunes made famous by Aretha Franklin, Chaka Kahn and Peter Gabriel. The actress' new CD, "Love LaChanze," will also be released Feb. 14 on iTunes and Amazon.com. The Highline Ballroom is located at 431 West 16th Street. For tickets, priced $35, go to ticketweb.com or call (866) 468-7619. For more information visit www.highlineballroom.com. Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

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