It has become one of the plum musical showcase roles for veteran actresses, the scheming, desperate yet strangely lovable Mrs. Lovett in Stephen Sondheim's masterwork, Sweeney Todd. The lush and gothic musical has been a mainstay of both regional theatres and opera companies since its 1979 debut, with a recent PBS concert staging only furthering the piece's reputation. Sweeney will enjoy another major staging in May 2002 with yet another major actress stepping into the apron worn by such luminaries as Angela Lansbury and Patti LuPone. In the upcoming Kennedy Center revival, Christine Baranski will co-star opposite Brian Stokes Mitchell's vengeful barber. Though well-known to New York theatre audiences and not a novice to tuners, Baranski isn't usually thought of as a musical-theatre performer. She won two supporting actress Tony Awards for The Real Thing and Rumors, respectively, and also appeared in Hurlyburly and Terrence McNally's Lips Together, Teeth Apart. In recent years she's followed the siren call of television, landing a recurring role on the sitcom "Cybill." Another TV assignment kept her from a planned supporting appearance in the Roundabout's revival of The Man Who Came to Dinner last season (the part went to Jean Smart). The actress does, however, have Sweeney Todd experience, having played Mrs. Lovett opposite Kelsey Grammar in a 1999 concert staging for L.A.'s Reprise! series.
She also played Lillian Hellman in a recent reading of Imaginary Friends, a new play with music by Nora Ephron, with songs by the Sweet Smell of Success duo, Marvin Hamlisch and Craig Carnelia. And at the finish of her conversation with Playbill On-Line, she was off to pack for Toronto, where she begins filming her scenes as Mary Sunshine in the movie version of Kander & Ebb's Chicago.
Playbill On-Line: Your career is currently taking something of a musical turn. How different is preparing for a musical from doing a straight play?
Christine Baranski: The difference psychologically is pretty great. I didn't begin my career as a singer or with training on my voice. And I was always terrifically shy about singing and thought I didn't have a good voice, just a low voice. I couldn't sing past a certain point without sounding like a fake opera singer. As my career's gone on, I've done quite a few musicals, intermittently. Yet I'm still intimidated by the idea of singing, especially with Sweeney's complexity and demands. I did it for Reprise! knowing there'd be only 10 days' rehearsal, to know both the book and music. I spent three or four months working on it on a daily basis, getting my voice in shape. When I finished at Reprise!, all I could think of was how I hoped I could one day do it again. And the pleasure and thrill I get if I've succeeded doing musical work is far greater than doing a straight play. I take for granted my skills as an actress who does traditional plays or comedies. But when I feel I've managed to sing well, I get a particular thrill.
PBOL: Do you have a particular "take" on Mrs. Lovett?
CB: Well, I was thrilled to hear Brian Stokes Mitchell was doing [the show], because Mrs. Lovett has an enormous sexual attraction to Sweeney. Her first duet is a very lyrical little duet. She's underneath him as he sings about his knives being his friends. She's singing, "I'm your friend, too, Mr. Todd, if you only knew Mr. Todd, ooh, Mr. Todd, you're warm in my hands..." It's a rapturous little bit of music. She's almost swooning as she realizes he's back in her life. She had the hots for him way back, and she couldn't stand the beautiful blonde wife he had. I think "A Little Priest" is a lot about a kind of seduction on her part. She's hoping to have a tryst with him when that song is over. It's almost an orgasmic ending. He's driven by revenge and the memory of his beautiful wife. So his thru line is very clear. Hers has to be attached to her feeling for him. She'd go to that length, of making meat pies, to have him. I just think my particular observation of Mrs. Lovett is how much her fate is attached to him, even though it isn't mutual. When she sings "By the Sea," she hopes they'll have this domestic bliss together. He'll be writing letters and she'll be knitting. It's very quaint.
PBOL: On another musical front, how's it going with the Imaginary Friends development?
CB: We did our second workshop a week ago and left it that [director] Jack O'Brien would be in touch with me. I absolutely loved doing it, even if I end up doing nothing more than those two workshops. I found it so fascinating to read about Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman and that world ? so interesting and complicated and smart. I've never done that much research just for a workshop! All these biographies. I just got such pleasure from entering that world, and what an amazing challenge to try to play Lillian Hellman. She was such a singular presence in the arts world for so long. And I'd never worked with Cherry Jones, who played Mary. I can't say enough good about her. We were supposed to be arch rivals and feuding, which was a challenge to have such a dark feeling about someone I'm so fond of! Anyway, I'd be loathe to say what the next step [for the project] would be. Jack has talked about wanting it to go to the Globe Theatres. PBOL: How long will the Chicago filming put you out of commission?
CB: Well, the filming goes on for months, but I'll only pop in and out whenever they need me. I'm playing Mary Sunshine, which they usually get a drag queen to play, so I'm not sure what to make of that. But Rob Marshall and I worked on Promises, Promises together and we just adore each other. And I just love Renee Zellweger and Cathryn Zeta-Jones.
PBOL: As if all those projects weren't enough, you also just finished doing a reading for the "Food for Thought" Lunch-Hour series.
CB: [Artistic director] Susan Charlotte asked me to do one last spring with Matthew Cowles, my husband. I'd never done one, but it was just so fun and so easy. It could not be a more relaxed environment. So this time I realized I never once ever did a Harold Pinter play. So Matthew and I read The Lover. We read it with Dorothy Parker's little play about a couple married about three hours and having a bumpy start. Matthew and I get to sit in our living room and read Pinter and Parker aloud together. It's great for a married couple, because you can rehearse whenever you want to. We're thinking about doing some Noel Coward next. You just read, have lunch, do it for a rather lovely audience. I'm happy I became involved in the group.
PBOL: Speaking of happy experiences, do you recall the first theatrical performance you saw that made a lasting impression?
CB: I think I might've been in seventh or eighth grade. Back in Buffalo they'd put us on trains and get us up to Stratford, Canada. I was watching a production of Measure for Measure and was totally enraptured by everything. Looking at William Hutt, one of Canada's greatest actors, doing the Duke ? it was almost like being in church. And I'd been kind of enraptured by performing all my life. Theatre seemed very serious, beyond entertainment. It seemed a noble thing to do Shakespeare. I remember thinking the same thing when I saw ballet for the first time: what a serious art form! That would require a lot of skill and talent to do. It was almost like getting a religious vocation that day.
PBOL: In a far less sober vein, can you share your most odd or embarrassing theatrical experience?
CB: Well, I won't name names. But someone in a rather serious, really serious moment of a four-character play, someone broke wind very loudly. It could not have been a more serious moment. We all thought we'd die. We didn't know where to look. We were putting our faces into our armpits. And the first few rows of the audience were in on the joke, too. It was physically painful. You know how it is: the more you try to control it, the worse it is. Then you see your colleagues heaving and you think, "How will we possibly get back on track?"
PBOL: Are you sure you won't name names?
CB: Um... It was in Lips Together, Teeth Apart but no longer when we had all of the original cast. It was when one character gets pulled out of the swimming pool and a person was afraid of being infected with AIDS. My favorite story about something going wrong onstage is the one John Tillinger tells about when he was onstage up at Stratford. They were doing Julius Caesar. There's a backstage public phone that's taken off the hook so it doesn't ring. But this time it wasn't taken off the hook. So they surround Caesar and kill him. Suddenly the phone starts ringing. Ringing and ringing and ringing. And they start laughing. Finally, one actor says, "What if it's for Caesar?" There was no going back.
PBOL: Speaking of going back, any thoughts on the best and worst bits of advice you've received over the years?
CB: One of the best pieces of acting advice, for me personally, was in my third year at Juilliard. Michael Kahn said, "Don't worry about having flair. You'll always have that kind of facility and flamboyance. You will have to concentrate on grounding the work and making it truthful." That's been very good advice for me. I do have a certain facility for one-liners and martini entrances. You can see it in that TV show I was on; the kind of sophisticated, facile stuff I do easily. It was good to be told to work on centering and the truth. As for bad advice, I had a choice to make: Go on a tour of Six Rms Riv Vu with Tab Hunter, which paid some money, or understudy Meryl Streep in 27 Wagonloads of Cotton, which didn't pay much. I regret not taking the Williams play. That was the first time anybody saw Meryl Streep, even before she did Central Park and before everyone went "ohhh, Meryl Streep." I could've gotten to know her and watched her work. We've never worked together, though we live not far away from each other in Connecticut, and we're raising kids rather in the same manner. But our paths really haven't crossed. I admire her professionally, and I love the way she's handled her career.
- By David Lefkowitz