DIVA TALK: Sunset Star Loni Ackerman Chats About Evita, Cats, Merman and the Boulevard

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Loni Ackerman
Loni Ackerman

LONI ACKERMAN
Like the fictional, former silent-screen star Norma Desmond, Loni Ackerman, who made her Broadway debut at the age of 19 in the musical George M!, is ready for her "comeback." The big difference is Ackerman has The Voice. In fact, the gifted singer, actress and dancer — her ballet school classmate was famed New York City Ballet dancer Gelsey Kirkland — is the only actress to have played the leading roles in the original Broadway runs of both Evita (Eva Peron) and Cats (Grizabella), and those high Ds, Es and Fs came easily for the artist, who is currently portraying the aforementioned Desmond in the Gateway Playhouse's production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard, which continues its limited run through Aug. 20. (Ackerman is joined on stage by Robert Townsend as struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis; Joel Robinson as Max von Mayerling, Desmond's butler and first husband; Philip Hoffman as iconic filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille; and Gail Bennett as Betty Schaffer.) For those diva lovers who haven't heard much about Ackerman in recent years, there is a more-than-reasonable explanation: The actress, whose Broadway resume also includes No, No, Nanette; The Magic Show; and So Long, 174th Street, took 15 years or so away from the business to raise her two sons with sound designer Steve Canyon Kennedy. It was a little over six years ago when the Broadway belter decided to step back into the limelight, and since that time she has worked with the Marvell Rep Company in Manhattan and also appeared in a production of Steel Magnolias in New Orleans. Last week, I had the pleasure of chatting with the intelligent, down-to-earth actress, who spoke candidly about her current role, her Broadway experiences and her late friend, fellow actress Laurie Beechman; that interview follows.

Question: Tell me, how did this role come about?
Loni Ackerman: Oh, it was a gift. Somebody backed out or couldn't do it at the last minute. I guess I had been submitted earlier on, and they just called Wayne, my manager, and said, "Would I be available?" So, he called me and he said, "Gateway wants to know if you're interested. Are you available? And, you don't have to audition." And, I said, "I'll do it!" [Laughs.] And, that's how it happened at the last minute. I think it was two weeks before, so I immediately called them and they sent me the music. There is no way that you can come into this without knowing the music because we had a week, well, maybe ten days. Everybody was so prepared. It's been a joy ride.

Loni Ackerman as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard

Question: Had you ever seen a production of Sunset?
Ackerman: Yeah, I saw opening night in New York in 1994.

Question: Was it a part that you had thought about doing when you originally saw it?
Ackerman: It's so funny, when I see somebody do a role, I always think, "Oh, I could never do that." When I saw Patti LuPone play Eva before they came to New York, I thought, "Oh my God. No wonder I didn't get an audition. She's just brilliant. I could never do this." And, then when they say, "We want you to do it," you think, "Okay, I can do it." And, this was the same. I thought, "Oh my God. It's Glenn Close. I could never do that." Then, when [Gateway] said, "No audition," I said, "I'll do it!" Yeah, it kind of fits right in, and I love it. I would love doing this role for like ten years. Question: Well, maybe you can because a lot of theatres are now doing the show.
Ackerman: I know. All of a sudden there's a resurgence of the show, but it would have to be with this cast because they are outstanding. You could sense it when you walk into the rehearsal room for the first time, and you just know it's going to work. It's the funniest thing. I've gone into rehearsal rooms where it's like, "Eeeh. This is not going to work." I walked in and I went, "Oh, boy! This is going to be great." Because Joel Robertson, who plays Max, and Robert Townsend, who plays Joe, and Gail Bennett, who plays Betty, I mean — to die for. We just lucked out. The chemistry and Larry [Raben] and David [Engel], the director and choreographer, it's just outstanding. It's crazy. I lucked out. That's all I can say. I lucked out.

Question: Did you go back to the film before rehearsals started?
Ackerman: Oh, sure. Yeah, I love the movie. I find it hard to believe that "All About Eve" beat it out. In 1950 they were both nominated, and it's just a classic film noir. It's a work of art. And, what I loved about Gloria Swanson was that she was so natural. The iconic stuff with the hands and the eyes… You don't want to get campy with it, you don't want to comment on it because if you watch her in the scenes with William Holden, she is so natural. She is just a person — a little crazy — but I wanted to be more natural. The craziness and the eccentricity, that comes with the part, but not to play on that as much as just trying to play on what she did in the movie as a woman. I just thought she was just so great, so yeah, I watched it. I've always just loved that movie.

Question: How would you describe Norma?
Ackerman: In my world, it's faded ballerina. That's how I played Grizabella, as a faded ballerina. In fact, I have one little homage to Gelsey Kirkland. When I was pregnant with my first son, with Jack, my only symptom in the first trimester [was] I was dizzy. And, I actually took one night off from Evita because [of that]. So, I went to see Giselle — I grew up with Gelsey, we went to school together. I'm three years older. I used to do her homework and she would be warming up. We were all at...New York City Ballet, and I realized, "Alright, I'm going into musical comedy because I'm doing her homework and she's en pointe!" So, the performance I saw was when she was dancing with Baryshnikov, and at the end of the performance — you know how you take the rose and kiss it and give it to the partner — he came over and he was slightly pompous, and she curtsied and kissed the rose, and as he went to take it, she dropped it. Oh, it's a famous diss. It's in her book, too, so I do that when [Joe Gillis and I] are dancing and I say, "Don't lean back like that" and he says, "That thing is tickling me." I take the feather and I go to give it to Max and just drop it, and Joel [Robinson], who was also a ballet dancer, that's our little in-thing that's kind of fun.

What was the question? [Laughs.] How do I see Norma, right? Kind of child-like… Maybe Max discovered her, not in Schwab's, but somewhere, and she had the "it" quality, but they always pampered her and kept her kind of sequestered from real life. All of a sudden, it's gone and the Talkies come in, but she's also very smart because she's acquired tons of real estate. She built the studio, so  she was, in a way, a really good businesswoman, but emotionally I think, it's kind of double-edged —she was a child and yet she was a woman-child. She was a seductress and later on, as she got older, that's probably how she thought she could get guys, by being a seductress, but emotionally, she was really still a 16-year-old, and if she didn't get what she wanted, she was like a bad kid. We have to remember it's still a musical, we're not curing cancer, but all of those things come into play. You think about them and you make a little list, and then you try to inhale everything and digest it and just let it go, and go for the music and have a great time. When you're in the show, you're in it, but it's not like I'm going to sleep in the negligee that Norma slept in! [Laughs.] I guess I'm a little more down to earth. I love it so much. This is so much fun.

Question: I know you've only done a few performances, but do you have a favorite moment yet?
Ackerman: There are a lot, and every night is different. Of course, we've only had three, four performances. Robert [Townsend] experiments and it's not the same every night, so we work off each other, so one night this moment will be fun, the next night another moment. There are lots of favorite moments. It changes every night, which probably means that I love almost every moment. I love the smaller moments. It is fun to sing "As If We Never Said Goodbye," but, to me, the smaller moments I love… I just love those. Those make it come alive for me. Just like clinking a champagne glass at the right time, or a look, or sticking my hand down his shirt. [Laughs.]

Question: What would you say is the biggest challenge of the role?
Ackerman: The costume changes. [Laughs.] Keeping it real. Not going over the top because I hate when I see that. Trying not to comment on what would be easy to comment on, the style, the movie, just to stay in the moment, and that keeps it full and real. Just to stay real… and to let the audience experience it, don't experience it for the audience. So, that's the challenge, and getting the costumes on, but that's getting easier.

It's so amazing… because every production, there are steps that never change. The first day of rehearsal, everybody is [checking] everyone else out, and everyone is polite, and not strained, but it's not loose yet. And then, by the third day, it starts getting looser and then you get close and people start having a good time, and then you get on stage the first time and you can't remember a thing, and you're still in your clothes, your own clothes. Then you add another layer, you add some costumes, with a piano, and then you add the rest of the band—the orchestra—and it gets a little shaky, and you forget what you did in the rehearsal hall! Then the next step is both things together, and then the next step is the tech, and things crash into each other and you think, "Okay, this is never going to happen," but you know it's going to happen, and then the final tech… There's this huge portrait of me—they asked me before I came up if [I had any pictures] from 17-27, and there was a picture from No, No, Nanette [that] was perfect, so they super-imposed that onto Gloria Swanson's face, and it's huge, and it hangs on a Deco two panel, and, of course, it fell down [during tech] and you think, "Oh my God." But then, three hours later, you're doing the show for the first time and everything works, and it never fails. It's just the theatre gods. It's just the magic of, I still call it musical comedy, musical theatre. It's amazing, and you can clock it. It's just the greatest process. I love it to death, and it's my favorite. I've been doing it since I was 18.

Loni Ackerman as Eva Peron in Evita
photo by Martha Swope

Question: You have a long-time association with the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Ackerman: I know. This is my third.

Question: When did you first play Evita?
Ackerman: In 1980. In LA. We were there for over two years. We were supposed to be there two months. We were a national tour, and we stayed for two years, and then I came to New York.

Question: How long did you do it on Broadway?
Ackerman: Let's see. Over a year. From April of '82 to May of '83. We decided—[husband] Steve [Canyon Kennedy] and I—to have a baby, and I said, "Okay, I'll be fine. I'll stay until I can't get into the white dress anymore." As I said, my one symptom was I was dizzy. I never got sick. Both times—with George and with Jack—first trimester, just dizzy… I tried everything, I tried eating a little protein all day, and I would still get up on the balcony and pray that I wouldn't fall off. Of course, I wouldn't—but one night I did the first act and I was almost to the second trimester, and I thought, "If I go up there tonight, I'm going to lose this baby." And, I probably wouldn't have, but I just made the decision. That was it. I'm done, and Nancy Opel finished the show. I never finished the show.

Question: So that was your last performance?
Ackerman: That was my last performance… and then I did a couple companies after that.

Question: What stands out in your mind about playing that role?
Ackerman: Just everything. It's just a great part, and I'm in there for the fun. I'm lucky, I get to go and play on stage for two-three hours, get paid for it, and I don't have to sit at a desk from 9-5. You get to sing and dance and act, and it's just what I've wanted to do since I was like three-years-old. Question: What were the vocal demands of Eva, compared to Norma?
Ackerman: Well, Eva really sat in my voice. It was not hard to sing, and I'm not being a showoff. This is more difficult because it's lower. The two big songs, especially "As If We Never Said Goodbye" is in a strange key. It's not my favorite key… I know that other women who have done the show have had the keys changed, either raised or lowered, but I figured, "Alright, it's a challenge. Let me see what I can do with it." It's a learning thing. You stretch your voice, and the music director, the conductor, Jeff Buchsbaum, is a genius. He gave me one vowel adjustment and I went, "Oh my God!" It was amazing, so I like challenges. I don't like things to be easy because if it's easy, then what's the point. And, Eva was not hard. What really made me mad is that I wasn't allowed to do eight shows. They had this thing about doing six shows, and I was like, "Come on, I'm a dancer!" Of course, I was 30 years younger, too, at least… It was fun, and again, great cast. That's what makes it easy. I've worked with other Ches, and Scott Holmes was my favorite Che, and there was never a night where he wasn't killing me with laughter. And, that's what kept it going for two years, and the audience never saw it, but it was just the chemistry, and we all had great chemistry, and you get lucky. You don't get lucky all the time, but this is the same feeling. Everybody is in it together, and it couldn't be sweeter, and that makes it easier to sing… I did another role that just sat [well in my voice], Rose [in Gypsy]—I did that somewhere in upstate New York years ago. I saw [Ethel] Merman when I was nine or ten, and when she came down the aisle and said, "Sing out Louise," my hair stood up, and I thought I'm the only one in the theatre who saw that because I'm going to do that [as my career]. Actually, the first show I ever saw was Mr. Wonderful with Sammy Davis and Chita [Rivera], and I always told Chita—there was a scene with him and Chita and Jack Carter, and I remember it was in a living room. I was with my grandmother and my aunt in the Broadway Theatre, and they cracked up on stage. I'm sure they did that a lot, and I thought, "Oh, that's for me." I'll never forget it, and I thought I was the only one in the theatre who caught it. Of course, the whole audience was laughing, but I didn't hear that, so that's kind of like Norma. I was in my own world, so I probably disappeared at six and went to my own world from then on, so I knew that's what I wanted to do. My great-grandfather was a cantor in Russia, so it kind of passed down.

Question: I'm curious, do you have more memory of what Merman was like in Gypsy?
Ackerman: Oh, absolutely. I remember her just planting her feet and singing "Rose's Turn," and her guts were on the stage. People said she couldn't act. Who cares? She was acting. It was a style, but she just stood there, and there were no histrionics. She just let her guts fall on the stage and your hair stood up, and basically Gypsy is only one octave. It goes from a C to like a C. Maybe there's a lower B, but there's basically one octave, and that is so much fun to sing. It's funny—I stayed home for like 15 years with my kids and kind of left [the business] when I was doing really well, but I thought, you only see your kids grow up once, so a lot of roles went by, but it's okay. Here's Norma again, coming around again. You never know. Maybe at that time if I had auditioned for it, I wouldn't have had the stuff, the emotional stuff, to bring to it because I'm just sort of normal. [Laughs.] I'm a nice Jewish mother who is always trying to set her kids up. [Laughs.] There's a line in "As If We Never Said Goodbye" – "I've spent so many mornings just trying to resist you," and I know that feeling of, "Oh, I just miss it so much," but I mean, I have a life. Norma really didn't have a life, but I did miss it. But what I did with [my family] was more important. George is going to be an actor, and Jack is a soundman like [my husband] Steve. It's cool.

Question: And, how old are they?
Ackerman: Jack is 27, and George is 23.

Loni Ackerman as Grizabella in CATS
photo by Martha Swope

Question: After Evita, a few years later you went into Cats. What was that like singing 15 songs in Evita to having that one song?
Ackerman: The Bar Mitzvah song? [Laughs.] It was very strange because I had been away… And, when I came back, when I got the role, I think I was in a very vulnerable state because I was a mommy, and you put yourself away because you're a mommy because it's about the kids and about encouraging their strengths and being disciplined, and you forget that people used to call you a diva—not that I am—and I was almost too vulnerable. I lost an edge, and [someone in the show said to me], "What happened to that edge? You're not hungry." And, I went, "Oh my God!" I didn't mind doing one song, it was fine. I'd bring the kids to the theatre. For me, I thought this was a great time to come back. It was the sixth year and you could wet your feet again or find your groove… I thought this was a good place to get it going again. It took a while. It was hard to find. As they said, I lost my groove, and I had to get really angry to find it again. You try not to get angry as a mother, you try to be understanding. It was very frustrating. That one show was very hard. It was not a pleasant experience, but I stuck it out for three years, and then decided, it was time to stay home. Question: I know, also, you were friends with Laurie Beechman.
Ackerman: Yeah, she was my best friend.

Question: I'm wondering if you could share a little bit about her.
Ackerman: She was the best. We were mall rats. The reason I left [Cats] was because she wanted to come back, and that was Laurie's, that was her temple, so the third year they said, "Go be with your kids." I wasn't renewed and that was fine because she needed to go back, and anything that she needed was absolutely fine because she was a hero. To go through what she went through and survive for ten years, she was such a fighter. I remember we were doing an act together, and we were in Williamstown, and she was going through the chemo. She and I were sharing a house, and I've never seen anybody so tired. I didn't know how she would get through the show. About six o'clock she would slap on a wig and put her face on, and it was miraculous… You learned about strength from Laurie. And, she was very brilliant, intellectually—so brilliant. I absolutely loved her. And, I used to sit in bed with her. When she was towards the end, I remember one time she went into the hospital, and I went to see her and she was very nervous, so they gave her something to calm down and she said, "Sing to me" and I said, "What do you want? You want a Gershwin?" She said, "Okay." She wasn't out of it, but she had cancer, she had a tube going down to clean her stomach. It was just everything that would be distracting. So I start to sing, "They're writing songs of love, but not for me," and I missed a lyric. She stopped me and said, "That's not the right lyric." She has tubes coming out of everywhere, she's on ten million drugs, and she has it in her head to correct my lyric, and that was Laurie. She just never gave up. It's a big hole, it was like, "Oh my God, I can't call you." I can't pick up the phone. That was like 12 years ago, 13 years ago... She was a perfectionist. I think it was because she was so brilliant. She was a very kind, very generous person and very creative. Her artwork—we did lots of crafts and stuff—her decoupaging and her incredible creativity. And, she was just very generous, but very honest. If she didn't like something, she'd tell you. "Don't wear those pearls, you'll look like a Bubba." [Laughs.] ... That was a loss. That was a major loss.

Question: And, getting back to Sunset… does doing this show make you want to do more?
Ackerman: Well, of course! Oh no, I'm back! I've been back. I've been trying to be back for like six years. When George went to college after high school, I said, "Okay, now it's my turn." And, of course, the first couple of auditions were like, "Oh, you're not dead." [Laughs.] It's like, wait a minute, I was raising kids, I didn't dive into a box of chocolate… I've been doing a lot of straight plays. Last year, there's a theatre in New Orleans called Le Petit, absolutely adorable. I got to play M'Lynn in Steel Magnolias, so I thought, "People are hiring me to speak? That's so strange." And, I love it. I'm back full steam because I don't have to worry about who's going to get to baseball practice, is the principal going to call? I can now focus and just feel free about it, and my boys and Steve are really happy and supportive, and I think they just want to get rid of me. [Laughs.] So, it's all worked out.

Question: Well, welcome back and hopefully we'll get you back to Broadway.
Ackerman: From your mouth to somebody's ears! I'm ready, willing and able, and I can still go en pointe. [Laughs.]

[For ticket information call (631) 286-1133 or 1-888-4TIXNOW, or visit www.gatewayplayhouse.org.]

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

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