Theatre couple John Dossett and Michele Pawk have been making music together for nearly two decades. The couple first met at Lincoln Center Theater in the 1993 production of Michael John LaChiusa's Hello Again and are reunited on stage this season in the composer-lyricist's latest musical Giant, which opened Off-Broadway at the Public Theater Nov. 15, for a run to Dec. 16.
Playbill.com caught up with Dossett and Pawk prior to a recent evening performance of the sweeping, Texas-set musical that has music and lyrics by LaChiusa and a book by Sybille Pearson. It's based on Edna Ferber's 1952 novel about the changing social and physical landscape of Texas in the first 50 years of the 20th century. Dossett appears as rancher Bick Benedict's Uncle Bawley, with Pawk as Bick's rough-hewn sister Luz in Giant — but they first encountered each other on a bed, as the Senator and the Actress in Hello Again.
The two of you really met during Hello Again?
Michele Pawk: Yes, and here we are doing another Michael John LaChiusa piece in the basement of another theatre. We tend to gravitate toward the basement! [Laughs].
John Dossett: Yes we did. It's funny, when we met the first day of rehearsal, she just looked like someone I grew up with, someone from my high school; someone I knew and felt very comfortable with. I had worked with Graciela Daniele, who directed it, prior to this on another show. They were casting and she called me out of the blue — the first and only time she's ever called me in her entire life — and said, "John I found the woman to play the Actress, you're going to love her." We call her our fairy godmother.
MP: We do. We have a boy who's almost 13, so we sort of credit Graciela and Michael John for putting us together in the first place.
|Photo by Joan Marcus|
Did you both know there was a spark early on? You share a pretty steamy scene together in Hello Again.
MP: Our lives were very complicated at that time, there was a lot of other stuff going on. I don't know that I knew when you knew.
JD: I knew! I couldn't sit next to her. In the big rehearsal room in the basement of Lincoln Center there were big bleachers we would sit on, and I was never in the same row with her. I couldn't do it.
The cast album of Hello Again was the first time I encountered the two of you. It also introduced me to a lot of big talent, like Donna Murphy, John Cameron Mitchell, Carolee Carmello and Malcolm Gets. That's a really impressive group.
MP: I knew of everyone kind of peripherally at the time. I hadn't been in New York all that long. I had only done Crazy for You, really. And I remember when I jumped through the various hoops and then getting cast, thinking, "I'm in the room that I really want to be in!" I was so honored to be in that cast with those actors. And then Michael John, who is just a genius, I think. The idea to take La Ronde, and to not only tell that story with 10 people, [but] to jump time periods, and to do so musically —
JD: It was really exciting.
MP: Like we feel now. That's how Giant feels. We all feel like we are part of something incredibly special.
|photo by Joan Marcus|
Giant has undergone lots of revisions and streamlining since its premiered in Virginia at the Signature Theatre. Was Hello Again revised extensively during rehearsals and previews?
JD: Her scene! …Scene 8! There was a different version almost every other day. When it was all said and done, Michael John gave us as an opening night gift, what he called "The Scene 8 Songbook," which was every version of that particular scene.
What has the Giant process been like? Michele, you're new to the Public production, but John, you've been with it since Virginia, correct?
JD: No, actually we were both in the first reading. I had to drop out because I was doing another show. That was four and a half years ago.
MP: It was almost five hours long, and it was riveting every second of the way. I knew they were going to continue to work on it. I kept thinking, "What are they going to cut? What could you possibly cut?" It was epic in its scope.
JD: We got it down to four hours for the Signature [Arlington, VA] debut. I've always loved this piece; I had much more to do in other productions, but I don't think it ever would have been able to come to New York if they didn't get it into a three-hour version.
MP: And a two-act structure. That was part of it. It is also my hope that Michael John and Sybille are holding onto that longer version in the hope that an opera company, or another theatre might do the full three-act version in the future.
Can you tell me a bit about being in the middle of the revision process on such an ambitious work? MP: Obviously, with the help of our director Michael Greif, and I think with [Public artistic director] Oskar Eustis' help, too, they made such smart choices about streamlining it. If you were going to take it from a three-act structure and bring it down to two, you have to ask, "What can you lose and still keep the meat and the juice — and still have people care about the love story? And keep that epicness of it, of what that novel is?" I think they did an amazing job. That's hard to do.
JD: I loved all the material, but I don't miss it. Well, actually I do, but it doesn't exist anymore! I had this whole "Coyote" song. I had a song that every actor would live to have. It was the end of the first act. It was like a nine-minute song and I exited the stage to musical fanfare, like something out of Copland. But it's gone for the best.
MP: I've been really encouraged and humbled by the cuts that they've made. Some of them did seem drastic and I know it wasn't without losing a little bit of [the authors'] heart. I know how difficult those things must have been for them.
|Photo by Joan Marcus|
What's it like working with LaChiusa again? Do you have an ongoing relationship with him?
JD: It's just so comfortable. It just fits. He just speaks to us. His work is like Sondheim the way it hits you emotionally. We saw First Lady Suite here at the Public in 1993.
MP: I've worked with him three times. He's so actor-driven. Some people say it and don't really mean it, but he really does. He'll say, "Forget about the note, forget about that, do it that way, I want to hear that," and then he makes adjustments accordingly. I think largely one of the things I really love about the Giant cast is that every single person on that stage is great actor. A great actor. They all happen to have these amazing vocal instruments, but they're really great actors. And that doesn't always happen in a musical. So, you're honored to be up there.
JD: I've been lucky to do a lot of good shows over the years, but I really believe this is the best thing I've ever been a part of. I just feel like there's greatness in this. To me it's a new American classic.
It's not too often you get to share a stage together. Does it feel pressurized for you, or is it a treat?
JD: It's great.
MP: We come to work to see each other, really! [Laughs]. This has been nice. What's gonna happen when you go back to Newsies? We'll never see each other again. We had to do a show to see each other!
|photo by Joan Marcus|
Giant is a really powerful piece. It makes theatregoers flex their muscles, too. Unfortunately, producers don't always see shows like this as commercially viable. Non-profit theatres are really the perfect homes for new works like this. For LaChiusa, Lincoln Center Theater and the Public have really been integral in his development. It allows audiences and writers to grow together. Is this an environment that drives you as an actor, too? MP: I only want to be in those rooms. I want to be in the room with collaborative, creative people who inspire me to be better. That's really all I want to do. I might have said something different when I was younger. But to nurture new work, it's all there is for me. We are so grateful to the Public for not only nurturing the piece, but for doing it right. Going the extra mile and producing it in such a class-A production: All of those glorious musicians — and our conductor Chris Fenwick, who is like Giant personified! Where would the musical theatre be without the Public, LCT, and Ted and Mary Jo Shen [of The Ted and Mary Jo Shen Charitable Fund]? They are people who take the risk and believe in it.
I didn't realize how politically relevant Giant is, especially in light of recent politics and the election. I was unaware of the Mexican-American racism that was so prevalent in Texas culture.
MP: That's what, to me, is revelatory about the novel. I just read it for the first time this summer. I kept calling John and saying, "This could have been written today." It's about greed, about love of the land and sacrifice, about politics, about race, about immigration. Here we are in Arizona having the same discussion. It's profound. That's what is so interesting: this novel that was written in 1951 is still so relevant. Here we are looking at ourselves again.
The opening sequence made me fall in love with Texas, a state I don't always consider beautiful. You've both been to Texas; John did Giant at Dallas Theater Center.
MP: We've seen skies in that state that rival anything I've ever seen.
JD: and this sunset, the sky is so open that it took up the horizon. It was just magnificent.