In terms of sheer physical exertion, Tony Yazbeck, Jay Armstrong Johnson and Clyde Alves, who dazzlingly portray the three sailors on 24-hour shore leave in the joyous Broadway revival of On the Town, have the musical's most demanding roles, but it may be Elizabeth Stanley, who plays Claire De Loone, who was faced with the most challenging. Stanley, whose Broadway credits include the Tony-winning revival of Company, the screen-to-stage musical Cry-Baby and the Memphis-set Million Dollar Quartet, somehow manages to make comic material penned over 65 years ago seem original and funny and even brings new life and hilarity to "Carried Away," all the while displaying her little-heard rangy and rich soprano. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with the gifted singing actress, whose voice and manner effuse kindness. Stanley, who also starred in the national tour of Xanadu, spoke about her work in On the Town, the iconic musical created by Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Jerome Robbins that just opened to enthusiastic reviews at the Lyric Theatre; that interview follows.
Question: When did you become involved with On the Town? You were part of the Barrington Stage Company as well, right?
Elizabeth Stanley Yes, I was. That was kind of my start with the show. My agents called and said, "We have an appointment for you for this production," and I was like, "Oh, great." I love summer stock, I love getting out of town and not being under the scrutiny and the eye of everybody and going away and playing and doing theatre and making new friends, dancing in the woods. [Laughs.] I thought, "Oh, this sounds great." So then I was really excited when I got the job, and the fact that we are where we are now is just this amazing fairy-tale story.
Question: Did you have any perception when you were performing at Barrington that the production was special or that it would have a longer life …or was it all a surprise?
Elizabeth Stanley: I was totally surprised to be honest, and I say that with no offense to anyone involved because it was special, but I've done a lot of regional theatre, and I often think it's really special. And so even when there was lots of buzz about it, I thought, "That would be amazing, but...it's so hard for that to happen, to make that journey, to bring shows in [to Broadway]." I wouldn't let myself get too excited about that possibility, but I'm so glad that it has happened.
Question: Did you have to re-audition for Broadway?
Elizabeth Stanley: I didn't. I think those of us who are doing it again were just grandfathered in, so to speak. I did have a session with the Bernstein family though, where I met with them and sang through some of the material, specifically "Some Other Time," [which] is a really tender piece to them. What I learned in the process is that it's a favorite song of all of his children, so there were certain things that they really wanted a certain way. So they did want me to come in and sing that just to make sure I could do it how they wanted it, and luckily I did.
Question: Do you remember any of the notes or ideas that they had that they wanted with that song?
Elizabeth Stanley: It was in the context of the show. It was in a session with [director] John [Rando] too, because it really affected the direction of it also. It needs to have that punch, that these sailors are going away to a war zone, and they might not come back, and we need to feel that in this moment. That was really it. It was easy for me because my brother had just returned from Afghanistan two days before, so I very much understand that. I think that regardless of if your life is specific to having someone in the armed forces or not, that song is meaningful. I think all of us can relate to losing someone or having someone be precious, to recognize you're holding that person. Specifically for me in that moment I thought, "I know just what you mean."
Question: How did you go about approaching the role of Claire, finding that zany part?
Elizabeth Stanley: She is many parts of me, though I am not quite that kooky in real life. [Laughs.] You start from the truth of it - and our production is a little bit heightened obviously - but the truth is that I think she is someone who has a lot of zest for life and a lot of energy, and she's also trying to really fit into a world where maybe she doesn't quite fit in in a way that her family would like her to. I guess I kind of started from that spot and what it's like to be a person who is sort of buttoned-up and keeping their true self under wraps; that's what is definitely going on in the museum scene. And then it's so fun for her to unravel.
Question: What was it like approaching "Carried Away?" I really didn't think anyone could ever make that song funny again, and you both really do that.
Elizabeth Stanley: [Laughs.] Thank you. I think a lot of it has to do with having a great scene partner. And John and [choreographer] Josh [Bergasse] are just so awesome. They make everyone feel so at ease and so comfortable that you feel the freedom to just try anything. So you try lots of things that are terrible, but you end up coming up with something in the end that's good, too, so it's definitely a collaborative process. I think partly because it began in a production that was fairly humble in terms of the technical and financial abilities that we had, we just had to use us. Here it turns into this whole [scene with a mammoth] dinosaur, but it starts out with just these two people enacting things that make them crazy. It's pretty simple. I guess we started playing with, "Well, what are they actually saying? Also, what is the metaphor for getting 'carried away?'" In our production, sex is very much the underlying, driving force for the characters in many of the scenes, and I think that if you put that spin on that number, it gives it a charge that is what makes it hilarious, I think. This happens and then this happens and then, "Oh my gosh that really gets me going!" [Laughs.] That's what's so funny about these people is that the nerdiest thing turns them on.
Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for Claire? Is there something that you look forward to each night?
Elizabeth Stanley: I do. I love that first museum scene into "Carried Away." It's so much fun. Clyde [Alves] and I come off stage huffing and puffing every night. [Laughs.] We're so out of breath and I'm not even dancing, but we're just running around and acting like fools. It's really fun.
Question: What's it like playing the Lyric? It's such a big house, though I have to say, this was one of the few productions I've seen there where I didn't feel miles away from the stage. It felt much more intimate than it's ever felt. I don't know if that's how the show is directed or if they've done something to the theatre.
Elizabeth Stanley: I'd never played that house before either, and I actually haven't seen a ton of things there, so I don't know in terms of architecturally. But I was shocked, too, because when I heard that we were going to that theatre, I thought, "Oh my gosh, that's so big." … But I was sort of shocked because it doesn't really feel that different [than at Barrington], and I agree, it also feels quite intimate performing there. I think because the house is wide as opposed to deep, so the audience still feels close to you. And I think John was also very aware of that being a challenge of that house, so he really pushed a lot of the action to the edge of the stage and having the orchestra exposed and be a part of the production rather than this covered-up space between the audience and the stage that sometimes feel like a dead zone - ironically. Then there are several moments when the actors are actually in the audience, too, which I think was an effort to make it as intimate as possible.
Question: What is that like for an actor to come into the audience? Is that a little scary at first?
Elizabeth Stanley: As an audience member, I hate the fear of, "Oh my God, is this actor going to come up and talk to me? I don't want to be a part of the show." [Laughs.] I guess I'm always aware of that, but in the two moments that I do it … in "Carried Away" it's so a part of the action because I go out there to interact with the conductor, so it doesn't feel like I'm breaking the action of the play by being a part of the audience. It feels like the character is just going within this room to get to what she needs. And then the second time that it happens is Coney Island, which is a crazy place anyway, so I guess it kind of works that all of a sudden, "Oh my world is really different now. I'm in this place I've never been and there are all these strangers here." So, again, it kind of works.
Question: Tell me a little bit more about working with John Rando. What is he like as a director? I know he's been very passionate about this show.
Elizabeth Stanley: I cannot say enough nice things about that man. I just admire him so much, and he has this ability to make everyone feel...it feels like he's everybody's best friend and everybody's dad all at the same time. He has fabulous ideas. He really knows comedy, and that's very clear, without him imposing it upon you. He allows you to try things, he feels the freedom to do that, but then there's also a great trust in he's not going to let you do something that doesn't work. If he sees it doesn't work, then he will find it and fix it. On top of being really hilarious, or being able to bring out the hilarity in things, he has so much heart. I saw him tear up a number of times in our rehearsal process when he'd be speaking to us as a cast. What is really at the core of this piece is people falling in love and the hope of having something to return to, and I think that the fact that he's able to do both is what, as an actor, makes him so fabulous to work with. And all the while, always in a fabulous mood, never raises his voice, never loses his cool. He's always in control in a really comforting way. Then it was exciting to come to Broadway, where there was the ability to expand upon things technically, and I was so impressed with his specificity in the way that he would speak with our wonderful designers. He'd say, "I want this moment - I need it to be this or that." He just knew exactly what he felt like the piece should look like and feel like.
Question: What's it like for you singing as a soprano? I mostly think of you as being a belter. I didn't even know that you had that huge top range.
Elizabeth Stanley: [Laughs.] Everyone says that. It's so funny. I definitely thought that's what I was going to do with my life. As a young person, I only studied classical music, and that's what I went to school for. Initially, I went to Indiana University because they have this fabulous opera school, and then when I got there, I became friends with a lot of the theatre people, and they were like, "Come over to the dark side." [Laughs.] I ended up really falling in love with theatre and learning so much about the music theatre songbook and all of that. I don't regret the choice that I made. I think I'm in the place that I should be in terms of artistic careers, but this role is such a treat for me because it is definitely a huge part of what I do and what I've spent a long time doing. … When I first moved to this city... when you're in your early twenties, if you're playing a soprano ingenue, they usually need you to be 100 pounds and 5'2" just on the landscape, which has never been me. Now I'm hoping that I'm growing into these more leading lady roles that do things classically as well. I fit that physically a bit better.
Question: Is using your soprano or singing in a more belty style less or more taxing on your voice than the other? Or are eight shows a week hard no matter what?
Elizabeth Stanley: It is hard no matter what I have to say. [Laughs.] But...it just depends. This is a little bit of a challenge in that it's both. But I love them equally as much. When I'm not doing one, I always wish I was doing the other. Truth be told, I find it most taxing to do a lot of text. This summer I went back to Barrington and I did Kiss Me, Kate, which is one of my favorite parts I've ever done, but on top of being a big singing role, there was also a lot of really aggressive text, and I found that to be a lot more vocally taxing.
Question: When you look back on all the different shows you've done so far, do you have a favorite theatrical experience? Does anything stand out in your mind?
Elizabeth Stanley: This is definitely right up there. It's been pretty charmed, everything about it. Nothing will top my Broadway debut with Company, because that was the first of my dreams coming true and getting to work with Sondheim himself and George Furth and John Doyle. It was a pretty magical time, but this is feeling similar in many many, ways. It's something that you just think, "I can't believe this is happening!"
Question: How has the audience reaction been?
Elizabeth Stanley: Completely thrilling. I was saying to someone the other day, "You know, I keep reminding myself, 'Don't get used to this,'" because every day I get an email or a Facebook message from a friend who's seen the show and sends a nice word, and that's just so lovely, and those moments are so fleeting that you're in something that everyone is really happy to see and seems to enjoy. So it's been so thrilling because as an artist, you have to throw yourself into it and love whatever you are working on — you have to believe in it. And so I think it's always kind of heartbreaking when for whatever reasons it doesn't quite come together in a way that pops or people like or, you know, have nice things to say about. But it's really nice when it is received well.
Question: Do you have any other projects in the works or are you just focusing on this?
Elizabeth Stanley: Right now I'm just focusing on this, which is nice. I did a one-woman show at 54 Below a couple of years ago, and I'm sort of itching to maybe put something together like that this spring with a more traditional songbook perhaps. Last time, it was all over the map with a lot of contemporary stuff. Working on this material, especially, has reignited my fire for the classic songbook. So that's in the works in that it's in my mind, but that's as far as I've gotten.
Question: What was that experience like for you performing as yourself rather than as a character?
Elizabeth Stanley: I loved it. It was daunting when I first started doing it. I would lock myself in my room and force myself to write out ideas or come up with what I wanted to say. That felt hard because I hadn't been creative in that particular capacity in a while. But then once I got into it, it was really fun. It was also freeing in a way to have friends come and enjoy it, and then realize that you don't have to do something that's for everyone sometimes. My show wasn't sold out for weeks and weeks. I did it a couple of times, and I think mostly friends came, but that was still meaningful. It was fun for me artistically because it was mostly singing. I had a lot of control over what kind of arrangements I wanted to do and what kind of take on it I wanted to do. And that was great because when you're getting cast in something, then you do the song in the way that they're done, and you don't have as much creative freedom. You're just more strictly an interpretive artist when you're in the context of a show. I loved getting to work so much on the music again because that's what I'd studied in school. [Tickets to On the Town are available at Ticketmaster.com.]
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to email@example.com.
Diva Talk runs every other week on Playbill.com. Senior editor Andrew Gans also pens the weekly columns Their Favorite Things and Stage Views.