Grandma never looked so good! The ever-youthful Lucie Arnaz, whose show-business career spans a remarkable 45 years, is currently starring as Berthe, Pippin's no-nonsense, wise and surprisingly nimble grandmother in the hit, Tony-winning, Diane Paulus-directed revival of the Stephen Schwartz musical Pippin at the Music Box Theatre. The singing actress, who is also an Emmy-winning producer (for "Lucy and Desi: A Home Movie"), is playing a limited engagement in the acclaimed revival through Nov. 9, before rejoining the musical's national tour. Arnaz, whose theatrical credits include Broadway's They’re Playing Our Song (Theatre World, LA Drama Critics and Outer Critics Circle Awards), Lost in Yonkers and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels as well as the London premiere of The Witches of Eastwick and the national tours of Seesaw, Whose Life Is It Anyway?, Social Security and My One And Only (Sarah Siddons Award), also just directed an industry reading of the new musical Hazel, based on the 60s situation comedy of the same name. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with this multitalented artist, who spoke about her return to the Broadway and national touring stages, her foray into musical theatre directing and her proudest show-biz achievement; that interview follows.
Question: Welcome back to Broadway! How was your first night?
Lucie Arnaz: It was pretty flawless. It was magical. The gods were with us. The routine on the trapeze worked really well. The audience was right with everything I did, and it's a wonderful company, very welcoming, so I felt great at the end of the night.
Question: How did this role originally come about? You started the tour and now you've moved to Broadway…
Lucie Arnaz: I'm still in the tour. This is just a separate little jaunt. Andrea [Martin is] popping into the tour while I pop into Broadway. She wanted to play Los Angeles, and I had a play to direct. I had agreed to direct a 29-hour Equity reading of the new musical Hazel, and that was going to be during these two weeks. And so I thought, "Well, that’s interesting." [Producer] Barry [Weissler] said, “How would you like to go into the Broadway company during that time while Andrea is in Los Angeles?” … He originally had asked me to play Broadway, and I didn’t want to do the Broadway company, mostly because I had just moved. [Husband] Larry [Luckinbill] and I had just moved to Palm Springs. After 37 years on the East Coast, we made a big huge move cross-country. We were just getting settled, and the kids were out of the house, and it was kind of like a second honeymoon for us. We were really enjoying that time together. So it was kind of like, "Oh no, gosh, why is this great part coming now?” But isn’t that always the way? So he said, “Maybe you’d rather do the tour for a while because the tour plays a lot of West Coast cities and maybe that will be easier for you and Larry.” So I thought about it and said, “You know what, it’s not so much that it’s the West Coast and it’s easier, but if I’m going to go back into a show – I haven’t gone into a show from the beginning in a long time, not since I did Witches of Eastwick - and that’s exciting.” I went into Lost in Yonkers and My One and Only and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and you’re always as a put-in. You’re rehearsing in a room somewhere with the choreographer and with the stage manager, but you don’t really get the sense of the company until the day that you’re “put-in” to the show. And, I would say it’s like being in a Cuisinart on whisk. [Laughs.] Everything’s flying around you, and it’s terrifying. So I thought it would be fun to start from scratch with the company, and everybody not knowing what they’re doing. And that was fun. I loved doing that. Loved being that family again. And, we’ve really just gotten started. We only just opened in Denver, a couple of weeks ago, then we went to San Francisco. We had two weeks in San Francisco. Then Andrea Martin came in to the last two weeks in San Francisco while I came here. She’s going to play LA, and I’m going to play Broadway, and then I’m going to rejoin the tour – happily – in Orange County, and then go on to parts after that.
Question: When you were approached about the role, were you at all worried about the trapeze aspect?
Lucie Arnaz No. You know what’s really funny? When I went to see the show in 2013, I was a Tony voter at the time. I remember it was Larry and my anniversary that night, and we went to see Pippin because I’ve always loved that show. It’s just one of my favorite shows ever, and I was blown away by the whole show. But I remember thinking, when I saw the Berthe character, what it had become, from the original. I thought, “That’s the best part on Broadway right now!” I said, “They’ll never ask me because I’m probably too tall.” That was my defense. I thought they were hiring shorter actresses so that they could pretend they were grandmas…So when Barry called me, those were the first words out of my mouth. He said, “Have you seen our show?” And I said, “I love your show, I loved it.” Then he said, “We’d like you to come into Broadway and play Berthe," and I said, “Aren’t I too tall?” [Laughs.] He said, “No, you’re not too tall. Don’t think you’re too tall!” So my instinct was to talk him out of casting me, which is something crazy that I do sometimes, as the producer cap on me starts to tell the other producers that they shouldn’t hire me. But some wise part of me slapped some duct tape over my mouth that day and I said, “Okay.” I thought let’s take a shot at this because it’s such a challenging thing to learn how to do that I couldn’t say no. How, when, where else in your life, at this juncture, are you going to get an opportunity to do something so challenging and to stretch you physically as well as emotionally? And I called a couple of the girls who had played it and said, “So, how is this role? How is this company?” And, Tovah Feldshuh said, “Lu," she said, "it’s a fabulous role. Best fun I ever had in my whole career. It’s like they’re paying you to get in the best shape you’ll ever be in your life!” And, it’s totally true, and so I just showed up, went to work and did what they told me to do, followed the process. They’re basically turning you into an acrobat, and I didn’t even know how to do a cartwheel. I can’t do anything, I’m not that person. But I followed the training: the strength training and the trapeze training, and here we are.
Question: How did you approach the song “No Time At All,” which is one of the highlights of the show?
Lucie Arnaz: I agree, I love that song. It’s such a great lyric. All you have to do is tell the truth. … Because Stephen Schwartz was 20 when he wrote it, there are two lines that, to me, don’t jive today. It says, “When you are as old as I my dear and I hope that you never are," which is a funny thing to say when you’re in your 90s and you’re talking to somebody else. But then at the end of the trapeze she sings, “How I’ve known the fears of 66 years. And all I want is 67 more.” So I go, "Wait a minute." So - “When you are as old as I my dear – 66.” And I’m three years away from that now, and I don’t feel like I’m as old as you can possibly get! [Laughs.] Remember when the Beatles wrote, “When I’m 64,” and it was supposed to be, “When I’m stupid old, will you still feed me? Will you still need me?" Sixty-four! He was forever young when he wrote it, and that seemed old. But the song itself has so many gems of wisdom in it, and I believe I try to live that song in that scene every day. Just live in the moment, stop thinking so much. Look at this day. And he does that, Pippin takes her advice. At the end of the show, he kind of comes back around to where he was in that one simple moment with Grandma. It never was there, it always was here — meaning, inside. Where is happiness? He was looking for happiness in power and in sex and all the other insanities… The simple life, falling in love, having a kid, living on a farm – that can’t be all life is about. It’s got to be bigger, got to be better. And he comes to say, “Well, maybe it’s not, maybe it’s not anything more.”
The Berthe character is not just Grandma in that one scene like Irene Ryan was [in the original Broadway production]. She comes out and sings the song, and you never see her again. In this incarnation, we’re a troop of circus players, and so my character is seen as a troop player in the opening. She’s in the entr’acte. She’s in the finale. So, when they’re trying to get Pippin to do this horrible, dangerous fire thing at the end, what does my character think? We’re allowed to play any character we want. We create our own characters. Pretty much, it’s been directed that everybody wants him to jump into the fire, and everyone’s really disappointed when he doesn’t. But for some reason because I sing that song to him as Granny and have an affinity towards this new Pippin, I can’t go there. I always get very protective at the end. And, I realize that we are a certain group of players, we’ve been together a long time. I’m a woman of a certain age, where am I going? I have no family. I’m sort of an addict to the magic and the theatre, the craziness that we do up there every night. But he doesn’t have to be. He doesn’t have to make the choice I made 40 years ago, so I’m hoping that he won’t. I think there’s so much depth in this show, and it’s such a wonderful lesson. It’s very entertaining, and maybe 60 percent of the audience will leave getting no message at all except, “Oh my God, that was so much fun, and two hours of fun helped me today.” And that’s good enough. That’s good enough. But there’s more and always has been under Pippin, to grab at and learn from.
Question: You mentioned earlier about the Hazel reading. Can you talk a little bit about that project?
Lucie Arnaz: Sure, it’s a new musical. I love what it’s called: Hazel, a Musical Maid in America. And my long-time friend and musical director, Ron Abel, is the composer. His partner, Chuck Steffan, is the lyricist, and the book is by Lissa Levin. They have been working together, Ron and Chuck, on various musicals headed to Broadway for years. They both write incredible music. Chuck’s lyrics are up there with [David] Zippel and [Ira] Gershwin. He’s one of the smartest lyricists around. And somehow their plays have never gotten to where they needed to go, and I’ve always told them, "It’s because of the book. You never get a book that’s strong." There are always tons of problems with the book. And because they’re not that well known, they don’t get asked to work on the ones that the big book writers write. This time, they have Lissa. They got the rights to “Hazel,” and she took the story of Hazel and invented it herself. It’s not like any of the TV shows. It starts before Hazel has the job as the maid; she’s trying to get the job as the maid, and then she goes to work for the Baxters. If you don’t know, “Hazel” was a TV show in the sixties based on a cartoon strip of a maid who went to work for the Baxter family, and she basically ran their lives. It was very popular in the sixties. There’s a lot of it on Youtube. Shirley Booth was Hazel and Don DeFore [played George Baxter].
This is a good book, and they have written some spectacular music. I’ve sort of been their muse as they’ve been putting it together and reading things and maybe commenting here and there, going, “Look, maybe it’s better if you go this way.” And they were talking to another actress, who I won’t say who it is, they probably don’t want me to, who was very interested [in playing the lead role] and then decided, “I don’t think I have the energy to do another show from scratch. I don’t think I want to do this.” And I suggested they go to Klea Blackhurst. Klea — I don’t know why more people don’t know who she is, but she has a voice to die for. She is so perfect for this role. I said, “Just get her to do the demo. You need a demo of your songs you’re going to take to producers. At least let her voice be the Hazel voice because she will sell it for you.” So they did, they hired Klea, and then they started talking to producers who said, “Who do you have for Hazel?” And they said it’s not a big name star… but they couldn’t find anybody nearly as good as her, so they said, “Lucie, we’re going to stick with what you said. We’re going to throw caution to the wind, and we’re going with Klea. She’s going to be the one to play it.” And I went, “Yes! I’m so proud of you guys. That’s great! That’s fantastic! This is going to work.” And then, while we were working together, Ron turned to me one day and he said, “We’d like to ask you to direct a 29-hour Equity reading, the first reading of Hazel.” And I said, “What? Are you serious? I’ve only directed a couple of little things.” And he said, “No, no, we love the sensibility that you have about the project, and we think you’d do a great job." It's only a reading. I can’t even stage it really. You’re not allowed to use props or choreography. You sing the songs, act your part honestly and put the script over. You know, it’s funny, the day that they asked me to do that was the same day that Barry Weissler called me to go on to Pippin.
Question: So, it was a good day?
Lucie Arnaz: Well, yeah, in a way, but I thought, “Now, how am I going to do the reading?” But it all turned out fine, all the calendar dates danced together, and suddenly we were all doing everything. So I’m doing this, promoting Pippin, working like a lunatic. I’m going to take a little nap after doing the "Good Day New York" show. Two minutes after I talk to you, I’m going to lie down a little bit, take a little a nap. Then I’m going to work with team Hazel before I go down to the theatre and do Pippin. [Laughs.] And, after this next week, that’s when we start with the actors, I’ll work during the day whenever I don’t have a matinee. We’ll do our reading on Thursday and Friday. [Readings were held Oct. 24-25 at the June Havoc Theatre.]
Question: When you think about your theatrical experiences, do have a favorite? Is there one that sticks out in your mind?
Lucie Arnaz: Right now, I swear to you, it’s not just because I’m being interviewed and you’re asking me about that…I used to say it was learning the tap dances in My One and Only because it was such a challenge, and I felt like I’d really accomplished something amazing. I never thought I’d be able to dance with Tommy Tune to that extent and those ten minutes tap numbers and pull it off. I was so proud of myself. And, now I’d have to say Pippin! [Laughs.] I’m thrilled to be doing this part. It’s a very special part, a very special moment in that show, and it’s something that I’d never thought I’d get the chance to learn how to do in my life. I’m in a very good place right now with all of this. There have been so many good shows that it’s hard to say. Lost in Yonkers was such a thrilling, wonderfully funny, emotional dark piece. They’re Playing Our Song was my first time on Broadway, which had its own special stuff, and Neil Simon, how could it get better than that? Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was pure fun. One scene on the balcony with Greg Jbara was better than sex! Every Broadway show that I’ve done has had something magnificent about it that you remember. You’re in love with the baby that you’re having at the moment.
Question: A couple of weeks ago, I was flicking the channels, and I think it was on MeTV that they were running repeats of “Here’s Lucy.” What’s it like for you if you happen upon an old episode and you see yourself at that age and with your family?
Lucie Arnaz : I love watching it. I love watching it. It was so long ago, and I was so young; some of those things, I barely remember doing. I totally forgot I did that! It spurs all these other memories that come up and remind me of what I was doing then and what my life was like then. I’m thinking about writing and doing some significant amount of writing. It’s hard to get the time — that's how I’m researching my own life. … It helps to go back and see those. It’s a sense memory. Plus, I’m very proud, again, of the fact that we did so many musicals. We did six seasons, and every season we did something like five to seven full-fledged musicals as part of the show. That just didn’t happen in those days. We were way ahead of the curb. We were the “Glee” of our time. [Laughs.] I think it’s great. You kind of laugh at the wardrobe because it was the seventies. It was a great time in my life, great training, and then all of the guest stars that we worked with. Fun to look at it now, and we own that show. It’s the only one that we do own – my brother and I still own the rights to “Here’s Lucy.” So I’m glad it’s being re-run! [Laughs.]
Question: You’ve done so much in so many different mediums. When you look back at your career to this point, is there something that you’re proudest of?
Lucie Arnaz: I guess I’m thrilled that I took the time out of my life and stopped what I was doing long enough to do the interviews and put the story together to do the documentary that I did on my mom and dad, “Lucy and Desi: A Home Movie.” I had no previous experience in doing documentaries, but there was a calling, there was something in my soul saying, “You’ve got to do this. You have to figure out how to do this, and you’ve go to do it now while these people are still alive.” And I spent over three years of my life gathering information and interviewing people on film, and I had no clue what I was going to do with all of that. But then when it sort of formulated itself — and at the time I was doing Lost in Yonkers on Broadway — I was editing the transcripts of interviews, and then we took it to NBC and then we started editing on tape. It was a fascinating experience, but more than making a film that turned out well… it was such a cathartic growing up, for me, emotionally. You walk a mile in your folks’ shoes, from the time they’re born to every decision they had to make in their life. You talk to people who knew them, lived with them, grew up with them. It really does help you as your own person. It allows you to dust off any of the little things you carried on your shoulder about, “I wish I’d done” or “I wish I’d had more” or…You go, “You know what? If I was in their positions, knowing only just what they knew then and having those choices between this choice or this choice, I would have done the same thing.” It’s a very forgiving, cathartic, "wake-up call," and I think everybody should do it about their family, whether they’re known or not. It was imperative that I do it. It was something that I couldn’t not do. I’m not sure where it came from, but it was a great thing to have done.
* Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Diva Talk runs every other week on Playbill.com. Senior editor Andrew Gans also pens the weekly columns Their Favorite Things and Stage Views.