The 1998-99 season in New York has been big for the big-voiced character actress Mary Testa. In summer 1998 she played a homeless woman intruding on the urban middle-class milieu of William Finn's A New Brain, in a world premiere at Lincoln Center Theatre. By fall 1998 she was reprising her role as Madame Dilly, the dipsomaniac voice-and movement teacher in George C. Wolfe's Broadway staging of his previous Central Park Public Theater revival of On the Town. Italian American Testa -- an indelible, alive, almost brutish presence on stage -- managed to both steal scenes and be part of the ensemble. March 25-29, the actress also known for pops concert work, cabaret and comic roles in Broadway's recent A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Off-Broadway's Lucky Stiff performs in The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, revived in concert form by "Encores!" at City Center. She spoke with Playbill On-Line about the funny way things are -- and the way they ought to be.
Playbill On-Line: Madame Dilly in On the Town was one of the great comic turns of the Broadway season. You seem naturally funny.
Mary Testa: I had a conversation with Pat Carroll about this. All the great comedians are great tragedians as well. In order to be funny you have to have a sense of both extremes. I like doing the dramatic stuff, too. Usually, if I'm cast in show, that's what I'll be cast as -- the comic role. In New Brain, I didn't think I was the least bit funny. Everybody would say to me, "You were hysterical!" -- and I wasn't trying to be.
PBOL: In A New Brain, you wandered the audience in rags singing, "Change," asking for pennies, nickels and dimes. I was sitting on the aisle, and, when you asked, I wouldn't fork over any coins.
MT: Damn you. That was an interesting role to play. A lot of people were very bugged by my presence, just as they are with a homeless person. Toward the end of the run, I made $50 in change, and donated it to Comic Relief.
PBOL: It's clear in shows such as On the Town, where you sang hyperextended vocal exercises, that you've got a wide vocal range, but I didn't know you've done concert work.
MT: For many years no one would see me for any Broadway shows, when the British shows were all happening, so I did a lot of concert work all over the country. The thing that I used to love about pops concerts with orchestras is that you have to rely on your own personality in order to put a song across; not only do you have to sing well, you have to compel the audience in some way.
PBOL: Did your folks take you to the theatre when you were growing up in Rhode Island?
MT: I just kinda always wanted to do it. In high school, I was toying between being a lawyer or being an actor, and then I decided to be an actor and I studied. We did the normal things that families do: Movies and stuff, but we didn't go to the theatre. PBOL: You just completed a cabaret of classic show tunes and American pop songs and you anticipate a future nightclub gig with pop songs and work by Polly Pen and Michael John LaChiusa. What do you listen to at home?
MT: I'm not a musicphile that much at all. Whatever compels me at the moment. I like jazz, I like rock, I like rhythm and blues. I very rarely listen to show tunes. Because I've done so many new musicals, I don't have a sense of the old classics. I'll say, "Gee that song is gorgeous, what's it from?" And people say, "Oklahoma!"
PBOL: Are you in a position to be picking and choosing projects?
MT: Oh, God, no.
PBOL: If someone offered you another huge comic role...?
MT: It would depend on what it was. I don't like tours or things like that, I never have. I like to be home. Somebody said to me the other day, "Have you ever played Miss Hannigan?" No, nor would I want to. I like doing the new musicals. I know I've done two revivals in a row (Forum and On the Town), but I like new material.
PBOL: What's your dream role?
MT: You know what I'd like to play? And no one will hire me. I know they're thinking about doing Kiss Me Kate (on Broadway) and I would love to play Kate. But no one will ever hire me for that role.
PBOL: You have the range.
MT: I do have the range. And I have the chops to do it. But they see that role -- and this is what I hate about the theatre -- as a "leading lady" type, and I think that's what screws up all of this business. That's why I like European films -- you go to those films and you see people in roles, you don't see [a] pretty girl playing the lead. I think this business suffers for it. Mix it up! I'm sure there are pretty ingenue girls who want to play character parts. I would also love to play the role in The Taming of the Shrew.
PBOL: Is there a project you couldn't wait to get off your resume?
MT: Absolutely. I will put it in print. It was a horrible mess of a musical called One...Two...Three...Four...Five (about the five first books of the Old Testament) at Manhattan Theatre Club. Horrible. Horrible! It was embarrassing! The only good thing about it was Larry Gelbart and the cast. It was a horrible nightmare of an experience. (The creative team) fought and stopped working on it. We had to wear these longjohns with fake boobs and penises attached to them when we were in the Garden of Eden. (MTC artistic director) Lynne Meadow would make a speech saying, "This is a work in progress," and we weren't working on it anymore because everybody was gone. I woke up for months after that show closed and said, "I don't have to do that show anymore!"
PBOL: Who is your favorite person in the theatre?
MT: I love [director-choreographer] Graciela Daniele. She comes from a place of pure art and she's a joy to work with. She's a total collaborator. She has no ego about her. And she's like everybody's mom. When you get in a show with Grazie, she's like the mom. She's just a joy.
-- By Kenneth Jones