To hear Marin Mazzie live, is to experience one of the great vocal instruments of recent Broadway history: Theatre songwriters such as Stephen Sondheim (Passion) and Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (Ragtime) love how she smoothly moves from "head" to "chest" voice, articulately communicating the feelings of characters. She originated the roles of the supple Clara in Passion and the resilient Mother in Ragtime. Two Tony nominations later, she's now the feisty Lilli Vanessi in the Broadway revival of 1948's Kiss Me, Kate. You imagine, somewhere, Cole Porter is smiling. With memories of the Midwest, Michigan's historic Barn Theatre (where she met Jonathan Larson, who would write Rent), Off-Broadway (where she met her husband, Jason Danieley, in En Garde Arts' The Trojan Women), Mazzie talked to Playbill On-Line about falling "So in Love" with the stage.
Playbill On-Line: One of the things I love about the new revival of Kiss Me, Kate is that you get to make a smashing entrance, in the opening number, in a black and gray Dior dress and vintage hat.
Marin Mazzie: I love that entrance. It's a fabulous costume -- it's basically a knockoff of the very first new look of 1947. [Costume designer] Marty [Pakledinaz] went to museum, to the Met, and looked at the original. It's a great costume.
PBOL: In "Another Openin', Another Show," the show business characters make their entrances on the first day of the rehearsal for the musical version of The Taming of the Shrew, and they do so with underscoring, which is a smart interweaving of the overture. There's so much character information without anyone speaking.
MM: That's [dance arranger] David Chase and [choreographer] Kathleen Marshall and [director] Michael Blakemore. I'm sure they all discussed what they would want for everybody's entrance: What the music would be, how they come in. When Lilli comes in, she's the diva [to "Wunderbar"] and then when she really looks at the theatre, the memories come back [to "So In Love"]. You really see a lot in those vignettes, which is what's so brilliant about it.
PBOL: Because you are playing two variations of Shrew in Kate, the physicality is obvious: You wrestle, fight, dance, slap and more. But your last role, Mother in Ragtime, must have been exhausting, too: She was rigid, corseted --
MM: Upset! [Laughs.]
PBOL: Upset. Through most of the show. How is it physically different?
MM: It's very different. This is physical: Being thrown around, beaten, screaming and yelling. But I have to tell you: It's such a relief after doing Mother for almost three years and spending three hours in emotional turmoil and grief. I used to weep through the whole second act, and that's very draining. [Kate] is actually invigorating. I can get all my aggression out. Any aggression I have gets let loose on the stage. It's really a good change. PBOL: Everything about Mother was poised.
MM: Yeah, in that corset. Until "Back to Before," when she could finally let her voice out. Very different from Lilli.
PBOL: I've known your work for the past 10 years, including stock work in Michigan, when you played Nellie in South Pacific and Amalia in She Loves Me, but I don't know how to describe your voice, your range. It won't offend you if I say you are a force of nature?
MM: [Laughs.] It's a gift. People have always said: "How do you do that? How do sing? How do you change? How do you get your voice to be so seamless?" Some of it is studying, certainly, I started when I was 12 and had a really good teacher when I was young. My belting developed as I got older. I think a lot of young girls today belt as the first thing they do, and that's not the natural place where a voice is going to be. I feel lucky that I had good training. And I have a wide, diverse range, my voice can do a lot of different things.
PBOL How many octaves?
MM: I have three octaves.
PBOL: In Kate, "I Hate Men" is very deep, earthy and rich, and "Wunderbar" soars to a prettier soprano.
MM: And then I get to do the coloratura stuff at the end of Act One, which is really fun.
PBOL: Did you consciously want a change from recent roles, to play someone less passive?
MM: I wanted a change. Having done Mother and [Passion's] Clara, two Victorian women, I was ready to move on into the 20th century.
PBOL: Is it bittersweet that Ragtime is closing Jan. 16, 2000, after only two years on Broadway?
MM: I'm very sad that it's closing. It breaks my heart. I think it's a show that should run forever because it's an accessible musical that says a lot about our culture, our country, our history and issues people need to hear. The story still needs to be told. I had people writing me, mostly women -- a lot of young women. "Back to Before" became, for a lot of people, a theme song or an anthem. I had people write to me and say, "I listen to that song every day when I wake up." It was a gift to be able to do it.
PBOL: What kind of music did you listen to as a kid?
MM: I did listen to cast albums, I liked The Beatles, I listened to a lot of Liza. I was really kind of show freak, and I would glom onto one show. When I was growing up, I'd get 45's and I would listen to any popular song. I grew up in Rockford, IL, and WLS-AM in Chicago was my radio station. AM!
PBOL: "Leaving on a Jet Plane"?
MM: Every pop song! I know them all. And I love vocalists. I did not like Janis Joplin, because I didn't think she could sing well. [Laughs.] The sound was important to me. I loved The Monkees, I loved Paul McCartney, and I was TV kid, too. I loved "The Partridge Family." [Laughs.]
PBOL: You wanted to be Susan Dey?
MM: I had the whole fantasy that I would be the long-lost daughter. That they would find me, and I would be able to date David Cassidy, too, on the side. And I had the whole episode, how they would find me. I wanted one of those velvet suits with the big ruffle collar. [Laughs.]
PBOL: The Partridges would "find" you...?
MM: Oh, yeah, they found me. I was the long-lost sister they had, somehow, lost along the way.
PBOL: And your character's name was...?
MM: It was, like, Candy, I think. Candy Partridge. [Laughs.]
PBOL: Did your folks take you to the theatre?
MM: Yes, they did. In Rockford, there was a lot of community theatre and there's a professional theatre, New American Theatre. There was summer theatre, the Starlight Theatre, which was at one of the local colleges, which I was involved in when I got into high school. There were touring companies. One of my first memories is of the Coronado Theatre, which is being renovated. They had a touring production of Carousel with John Raitt, when I was about eight years old. We went in June, and it a was a very rainy night. During the dream ballet, there was power outage and all the lights went out. People came running down the aisles with flashlights and they finished the show, with flashlights shining on the stage. At the end of the show, John Raitt came out and said they didn't want anyone to leave because the whole city was blacked out. He said, "I'm going to sing for you." He had his conductor down there and sang a ton of songs. I loved that experience. That's what's magic about theatre, something is different every night.
PBOL: You started performing in high school?
MM: I started when I was young, in a little theatre group at the YMCA, called Thimble Theatre. I was about 10. It was a Saturday morning program, we put on Alice in Wonderland, Winnie the Pooh, Wizard of Oz... That's where I first learned stage right, stage left, up stage, down stage...
MM: I went to Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo (my family had moved to Michigan). I apprenticed and got my Equity card at the Barn Theatre [in Augusta, MI]. I had a theatre major and a music minor. I came right to New York, and got my first job two weeks after I moved here, up at An Evening Dinner Theatre. Big River was the first Broadway show.
PBOL: Is there talk of a solo recording for you?
MM: I am talking to a couple of people. I am talking to people about what I really want it to be. Because of all the different types of music that I love and can sing, I'm trying to figure out what it will be. I've determined this year is the year it's going to get done. I want it to include pop stuff, more pop stuff.
PBOL: What's the weird show that few people know you did? Something that isn't on your resume.
MM: When I was an apprentice at the Barn I played Mrs. Eynsford Hill in My Fair Lady, when I was 19. You know Robert Newman, from "Guiding Light"? I played his mother. And one of the craziest things was when I did my club act with Jonathan Larson and my best friend, Scott Burkell, in 1984, at Don't Tell Mama. We all met at the Barn. But before Don't Tell Mama, we went to these places that had open mike nights and our opening number was a medley of "Downtown," "Fame" and "On Broadway." We called ourselves "J. Glitz." Once, we went to an open mike place and my mother was in town. We go into this smokey bar in The Village and set up, my mother is sitting at the bar, and we notice there are only women in the bar. There's my mother, in her fur coat, from Michigan, in a lesbian bar listening to her kid sing, "I hear the neon lights are bright on Broadway..." It was hysterical. We were fearless.
-- By Kenneth Jones