It happened in Monterrey, Mexico, a long time ago. A passionate, heart-grabbing soprano voice rode the airwaves from a radio station south of the border, speeding 200 miles north, into Corpus Christi, TX, and directly into the heart of an impressionable 15-year-old kid named Terrence McNally. It was love at first sound.
Now, 57 years later, that love is alive and well and, as of July 7, manifesting itself for all to see at the Samuel J. Friedman, in Master Class, a Manhattan Theatre Club revival of his 1996 Tony-winning valentine to the opera world's La Divina.
"I didn't research a minute of this play," McNally announced with sunny pride at the play's after-party. (Where better, I ask you, to celebrate a 40-carat portrayal of Maria Callas than B.B. King Blues Club & Grill on West 42nd, right?) "It was her voice that attracted me," he continued. "Then, of course, I learned the rest of her story as she became more famous — the dramatic loss of weight, the seeds of temperament."
Not the least of her story was her operatic, if not Olympian, affair with the Greek shipping tycoon, Aristotle Onassis. He called her his canary, couldn't care less about her internationally worshipped talent and eventually dumped her on the world stage for Jackie Kennedy, the bastard. Callas went into an emotional tailspin, crashing and burning in public, never recovering her golden perch having sung and loved too recklessly. McNally's play catches her at one of her more vulnerable plateaus — giving master classes at Juilliard to aspiring young singers, teaching them not to sing as much as to feel while and what they sing, chiseling away at those healthy little egos until they are whooping wounds running for cover. Evidently, there were not charm schools near La Scala — and Callas was too art-above-all to avail herself if there was.
Imperious schoolmarm that she is, Callas drifts away from the petty performances of her pupils and into dark reveries about her life with Ari — the battering-ram comments, the indignities to her creative spirit, the abortion — then back to class.
This is not the first time his Callas obsession has gotten the best of him—and the best out of him. The Lisbon Traviata of 1989 was a tragicomedy about gay opera buffs working themselves into a tight-wound frenzy over the prospects of a "lost" Callas recording. "It didn't exist," McNally admits now. "I was going to call it The Chicago Trovatore or The Lisbon Traviata — those were the performances she gave, but there's no copy of them so I made it up. Then, after the play got noticed, I guess, somebody came forth and said, 'I actually have a tape of that performance.' You can buy it now. And that's how that happened."
|photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
Another great thing to come out of The Lisbon Traviata was Nathan Lane. There's a scene where he is bending over the back of the couch when he hears the news that such a recording exists — and he reacts instinctively. Critic Howard Kissel called it the first time he'd ever seen an ass do a double take.
That ditzy character's name was Mandy, and a sequel called Mandy in Love is still on McNally's to-do list. Next on that list is Voigt Lessons. "I've written a piece for Deborah Voigt that we're going to do it at Glimmerglass. It's her talking about being a singer — and singing, but not opera." It differs from the show he wrote for Chita Rivera. "That was just Chita doing her greatest hits."
But we digress from La Divina. During the previous 598 performances of Master Class, there was a uninterrupted run of wonderful Callases — from the Tony-winning original (Zoe Caldwell) to a future Tony-winning Mama Rose (Patti LuPone) to, in her last roar of greatest, a startlingly vivid Dixie Carter.
For Callas' current resurrection, McNally tapped an even earlier Tony-winning Mama Rose, Tyne Daly, who thought he was kidding. "Fortunately," the playwright remembered, "she was very brave, and she said, 'I'll try it.'" And try it she did, from March 25-April 18, 2010, for a three-play McNally-goes-to-the-opera festival at the Kennedy Center (The Lisbon Traviata and a new play he is still working on for New York called Golden Age shared the bill of fare.)
Hosannas for Daly's Callas were heard as far north as NYC, prompting Lynne Meadow andBarry Grove to wave her in to begin Manhattan Theatre Club's new season at the Friedman. It's MTC's 11th McNally offering, and Daly's first time back at the Friedman since her Tony-nominated work in Rabbit Hole.
The actress tends to pooh-pooh the critical noise she made down in DC with only a few weeks of rehearsal. "I was okay in Washington," she reluctantly allowed. "They were very forgiving. I got a C+ in Washington. I've got a B+ now." Pooh-pooh to that.
"I'm still researching Callas. I will do that till the end. I also found out a great voice — a great interpreter. I could listen the recordings of her — oh, my goodness gracious! Here's a girl who not only threw her hat in the ring, she threw every article of clothing — and herself into the burning circle of fire. I love greatness. For anybody who's really, really good at what they do, I'm a talent whore."
So, eventually, was the opening-night audience, who forced her back on stage for a third bow. She usually calls it a night with her second — an odd pose that seems to come out of a 17th-century theatrical book. "It's sort of a Harlequin creation," she explained. "Because Maria says, 'Never move on your applause — it shortens it,' I take an opportunity to wait for a minute, then move. It's a little bit of a joke, but why not? It's also the exhausted-actor bow. 'I've left everything on the stage.' And I think you should always have a little left over. I'm an actor who doesn't like applause, y'know."
The most finished and formidable of her students is played by Sierra Boggess, the erstwhile Little Mermaid — here finless but with a seashell swirl of hair. She defends her character's emotionally quick trigger: "It's not like, 'Oh, this girl Sharon is angry, and she is just going to yell at Maria Callas.' It's a separate reality. She believes that she's right. She wants Callas to work with her and make her better than she is, but there's something she doesn't like about Sharon — and what can you do with that? How many instances do we all have that in our life? Literally, it's that somebody decides they don't like you. What are you going to do about it?"
Next up for Boggess? "I'm doing the 25th anniversary of Phantom of the Opera — the concert in London at Royal Albert Hall." She had the female lead in the London lift-off of the Phantom sequel, Love Never Dies. The show did and is being tinkered back to life. "Hopefully," she will be a part of the Broadway transfer. "If it comes, then I'd love to be a part of it," she admitted. "I adore Andrew."
Buy this Limited Collector's Edition
The rest of the young Master Class cast is ringing up Broadway debuts right and left.
In the case of the callow tenor who oddly gets through to Callas, Garrett Sorenson is racking up a field of firsts with this performance. "This is my stage debut. I've never done a play before in my life. I come from an opera background. My opera manager, Matthew Warner, called me up one day and said, 'This is something really different, but they're not finding the right guy for this. Do you want to try it? Here are the sides.' I said, 'What are sides?' And then away we go . . ."
"Al Silber" is the way Alexander Silber prefers to be addressed: "It's my name," she insisted. "I've tried everything else. It started at summer camp, and it's me. And, when you get to know me, you would find it's so unbelievably my name."
Her date for her Broadway-debut evening was her best friend who goes back to high-school arts-camp days: Michael Arden, the actor (Big River, Bare) lately turning director (he's off next to twirl La Ronde in L.A.).
"What's really interesting is that Michael Arden is the first person to introduce me to [Master Class]," she noted. "It's his favorite play in the world. He wrote a college essay about it, and he made me read it. It was just wonderful knowing he was out there in the audience tonight." Her performance of a budding hopeful named Sophie De Palma has brought her to Broadway stardom. "It's an alchemical transformation," she said of her sudden career upgrade. "In life, we only have 100 percent of what we've got today. The 100 percent I had yesterday is not the 100 percent today, nor will it be what I've got tomorrow. As long as I use all I have right now in this moment, all my work will always be truthful.
|photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
"Most of all," she continued, "Sophie De Palma doesn't know this is Al's Broadway debut. She wants and needs things right this second from Callas, from life, from her own heart and soul — and that's what I'm trying to honor and endeavor to deserve to honor every single day. Once that's done, I can bow as Alexandra with joy and pride and recall that little girl who had this dream to be on Broadway one day . . ."
McNally created some neat little character comedy from the lofty Callas having to deal with a lowly stagehand. Clinton Brandhage grooves to this chemical friction with the star. "It's so much fun to play with Tyne every night," he admitted. "Whatever she does or whatever I do, she's there 100 percent."
He's also observing backstage life, picking up character tips from the working stagehands. "I study them all the time. I'm hoping by the end I can join Local One."
The nicest person on the stage, no doubt about it, the sweet-tempered self-effacing accompanist, played with much nervousness and nuance by Jeremy Cohen, "It's a wonderful role. You get to be on stage pretty much the whole time — with the exception of Tyne's soliloquies — and you want to contribute without distracting. You want to enhance the story at the right moments and develop the relationships between the students and with Maria, all while playing that beautiful music."
Even their director — a very high-profile director in opera who directed Beth Henley's 1998 Impossible Marriage, Off-Broadway — Stephen Wadsworth is marking his first work on Broadway. Daly recommended him for the job because he had helped her negotiate the dizzying heights of another regal personality, Clyaemnestra, in the Aeschylus Agamemnon. Making it an even better fit, Wadsworth runs the program that brought Callas to Juilliard in the first place and, routinely, teaches actors to sing.
"This was a very tough thing to cast because you need actors and you also need singers and they all have to be in the same body," he pointed out. "So we saw a lot of opera people and we saw a lot of music-theatre people and we saw a lot of actors who have voices and we cast one of each. They all come from different places.
"But the two women! This is a new way of singing for Sierra, and her mastery of it was so fast and so incredible how she soaked up beautiful Italian, beautiful style in a very musical sense — just stunning! And 'Al' — I said, 'Hey, wait a minute. That's a major instrument.' I said, 'Give me a year, and I'll get you a Micaela at The Met.'"
|photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
Mrs. Wadsworth, actress and author Francesca Faridany, who headed the second wave of actors rushing into the long-running hit, The 39 Steps, will be returning to Broadway herself when the two come back from their summer vacation to play Frank Langella's wife in Terence Rattigan's 1963 play, Man and Boy, which Roundabout is reviving Oct. 9 at the American Airlines Theatre.
Faridany said she and Wadsworth "met about 15 years ago at an audition for An Ideal Husband at Berkeley Rep. He gave me the role."
Betraying her actress roots in glamorous sunglasses, the director of Man and Boy is Maria Aitken (they call Aitken and the wind MaRIa). She said Adam Driver and Michael Siberry, both from the recent Mrs. Warren's Profession, will co-star. "It's about a Ponzi scheme in the Depression, and it's based on a real person," she said. Charles Boyer played the lead originally.
Daly's next play is a musical comedy called It Shoulda Been You out of town in the fall. One of her co-stars (Edward Hibbert) and her debuting director (David Hyde Pierce) joined her opening-night cheering section. "Harriet Harris, Howard McGillin and Lisa Howard are also in it," noted Herr Director. "The idea is to cast good people so I don't have to direct."
Nina Arianda, last season's new Judy Holliday (via Born Yesterday) and this season's new Nina Arianda (via her Venus in Fur, up next at the Friedman this fall), can also be seen on screen in the delightful, time-traveling "Midnight in Paris." She's in the contemporary scenes and was given only that part of the script, so she is as amazed as everyone else is about the film's content — but "I was perfectly fine with it. When you have such a wonderful director like Woody Allen, who's saying he trusts you, then that's a.) a huge honor, and b.) you're going with it, and do whatever you need to do, make some choices."
McNally's Ragtime words and music — lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty — said they'd just finished their Susan Stroman workshop for Lincoln Center Theatre. "It's called The Little Dancer — at least that's this week's title," cracked the composer.
View highlights from the show: