How Two-Time Tony Nominee Alison Fraser Made a Career of Playing the Villain

Interview   How Two-Time Tony Nominee Alison Fraser Made a Career of Playing the Villain
 
Now starring in Squeamish, the actor shares memories from the decisive roles of her storied 40-year career.
Alison Fraser
Alison Fraser Maria Baranova

“Pretty much every role that I have done in New York in my 40 years has led up to this point,” says actor Alison Fraser. The two-time Tony Award nominee recently opened in Squeamish, what she calls “an Edgar Allen Poe-esque tale.” Written by Aaron Mark specifically for Fraser, the solo show—now playing through November 11—centers around an “Upper West Side psychoanalyst, a long-time recovering alcoholic whose bloody quest for personal balance begins when she finds herself in the South Plains of Texas, off her meds, after her nephew's suicide.” Fraser lavishes the opportunity to gather her audience around a campfire and captivate them with a terrifying, psychologically twisted tale. “Once I step on that stage, I cannot get off and what I say to everybody right before the show is, ‘See you on the other side,’ because I’m in the zone,” says Fraser. “To allow myself to go almost into this weird trance stat with Aaron’s impeccable, twisted script is with the most intense obsessive prep that I think I’ve ever gone through.” And that’s for a role written for her.

For tickets to see Fraser in Squeamish, click here.

But Fraser has made a career of originating roles and inspiring writers. “I’m not being glib about this, but Aaron does call me a muse and I think Billy Finn said that in print, once,” she says of her In Trousers/March of the Falsettos writer. “To be the person who inspires such incredibly talented people to produce absolutely original material—that’s an incredible honor, but it’s also an incredible responsibility.” Here, Fraser takes us through some of the most pivotal roles in her storied career, sharing kismet audition stories, pivotal moments, and more:

In Trousers/March of the Falsettos, Trina
1979/1981

Alison Fraser, Joanna Green, Mary Testa, and Chip Zien
Alison Fraser, Joanna Green, Mary Testa, and Chip Zien Susan Cook

“My Trina in Trousers, especially, initially a darker lady than she has evolved into,” says Fraser of the role she created before the small two-part musical fused to become the beloved Falsettos. “When I did Falsettos [Trina’s song] ‘Breaking Down’ wasn’t in yet. That was added later so it’s not like I had that opportunity to do that tour de force song in that show. I regret it.” Still, Fraser is proud to have been part of the original—when Trina had two toddlers, not one 13-year-old, and when she suffered and ended in suicide. Despite the departure from that original persona, Fraser remembers the organic process most: “Mary Testa and I we’d go over to Billy Finn’s house and we’d work on this music and then clean his apartment, buy wine and grapes and have people come over and listen to it and that’s when Ira Weitzman said, ‘We’re gonna give this show a shot at Playwrights Horizons.‘’

The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Helena Landless/Miss Janet Conover
1985
Though Fraser spent the better part of the last four decades originating roles, in her Broadway debut she replaced for the dual role of Helena Landless and Miss Janet Conover. “I had just come off a show that I did called Beehive, which was a huge hit and it defined happy; it was a ’60s revue,” says Fraser. “Jasmine Guy was in Beehive and helped me with some Indian dance moves [for the Helena character] and I could see [choreographer] Graciela Danielle’s eyes at the audition that she was charmed by that.” Drood also marked Fraser’s first collaboration with Howard McGillin, who she says is “one of the most underappreciated actors on Broadway. I would shake when I was even near him!”

Romance/Romance, Josefine Weninger/Monica
1988

Scott Bakula and Alison Fraser in <i>Romance/Romance</i>
Scott Bakula and Alison Fraser in Romance/Romance Martha Swope

Split into two stories—one per act—Romance/Romance first told the story of socialite Josefine and wealthy playboy Alfred who both disguise themselves in 19th-century Vienna and meet while enjoying their new personas. In the second act, two married couples go to the Hamptons when Monica and Sam (who are not married to each other) find themselves slipping into a dangerous flirtation. “Josefine was a cheeky little minx,” says Fraser with a smirk. The double billing marked one of the first times a role was molded for Fraser, who earned her first Tony nomination for her performance opposite Scott Bakula. “Josefine was supposed to sing a high B and they said ‘That’s alright, we’ll change it.’ So the whole score was kind of changed for me. Barry [Harman] saw something in me that was unusual and he went with it.”

Up Against It, Ms. Drumgoole
1989
Though “a huge flop,” Fraser calls this musical at the Public “one of my favorite shows ever.” Still, it gave her huge confidence early in her career. “[Joseph Papp] would say, ‘Everybody should listen to Alison. Her English accent—she’s the only one that sounds English up there!’ It was hilarious.”

The Secret Garden, Martha
1991

Daisy Eagan and Alison Fraser in <i>The Secret Garden</i>
Daisy Eagan and Alison Fraser in The Secret Garden

Fraser was eight months pregnant and doing voiceover work when she bumped into her friend, conductor and pianist David Loud, at Three of Us studios. He begged her to come and sing. “He said, ‘Your voice is perfect for this. It’s Lucy Simon—she loves a folk rock sound and you have that.’” She booked the gig and earned her second Tony nomination for the role of Martha. “She sort of defines warmth and support, which is very very antithetical to all of the other characters that I’ve played,” says Fraser. “I think that it had a lot to do with the fact that Martha came into my life just when I had my baby.”

Lizzie Borden, Lizzie Borden
1998
Fraser originated the role of the infamous murderer in Christopher McGovern’s musical adaptation for American Stage Company. “The key to doing villains—and I’ve done a lot of them,” says Fraser, “these people think of themselves as heroes of their own play. They think they’re doing the right thing.” Fraser’s ability to put herself in the mindset of Borden (“What were her reasons?” she thought) further demonstrates how fitting Squeamish is for her.

Gypsy, Tessie Tura
2008

Lenora Nemetz, Alison Fraser and Marilyn Caskey in <i>Gypsy</i>, 2008
Lenora Nemetz, Alison Fraser, and Marilyn Caskey in Gypsy Joan Marcus

In searching for darkness in roles, Fraser found a wealth in Tessie. “I very much thought Tessie was a woman in a really bad position in life: She’s uneducated, it’s during the Depression, she’s aging fast out of the only thing that she can possibly do with her life to make money,” says Fraser. All of this factored into her nuanced performance.

First Daughter Suite, Nancy Reagan/Betty Ford
2015

Carly Tamer and Alison Fraser
Carly Tamer and Alison Fraser in First Daughter Suite Joan Marcus

Having been changed by Michael John LaChiusa’s The Wild Party, Fraser jumped at the chance to originate another dual role for his First Daughter Suite at Off-Broadway’s Public Theatre. Fraser relished playing “one of the scariest women on the planet” in Nancy and rose to the challenge of Betty. “Once I had the dancing down and that fantastic cape [for my costume] it was like, ‘Oh, I know who this woman is! She’s dancing through life because she’s covering up unbelievable pain.’”

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