Renée Fleming has sung for big audiences around the world during her illustrious opera career; she even sang the national anthem at the Super Bowl. Yet weighing whether she's excited or terrified about starring on Broadway in Living on Love she says the scales quickly tip to "mostly terrified."
"It's a pretty huge risk — opera singers aren't typically asked to perform in plays," says Fleming, 56. "And there's always special scrutiny when [you] cross over into new field, people folding their arms and saying, 'Do you really think you can do this?'"
Broadway has actually welcomed plenty of newcomers this season — Jake Gyllenhaal, Larry David, Sting, the cast of This is Our Youth (Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin and Tavi Gevinson) — most with commercial or critical success. This spring brings three more rookies: Fleming, "High School Musical" star Vanessa Hudgens in Gigi and David Hyde Pierce.
Pierce, who debuted on Broadway 30 years ago and has won a Tony Award, a novice? With It Shoulda Been You, he is, for the first time, taking the helm as director. Pierce, 56, first directed this show at George Street in New Brunswick, but says "Broadway is different."
"I'm not sitting in rehearsals saying, 'Uh oh, I hope that's a Broadway choice,' but just knowing you are directing for Broadway heightens everything," he says.
Pierce's knack for imposing his ideas dates back to childhood, arranging battle scenes for hundreds of tiny soldiers, who, unlike actors, couldn't talk back; "I miss those days," he jokes. But on "Frasier," when friends and colleagues urged him to direct, he said no. "I'm not interested in the technology and did not want to be behind the camera," he says.
Theatre is different, especially with a script from a writer he loves and respects. Directors always say that, but in this case, it's really true: writer Brian Hargrove is Pierce's husband. (Pierce will also direct a David Lindsay-Abaire play at Manhattan Theatre Club this year.) Their personal relationship proved strong enough to withstand the director-playwright dynamic. "We have found we can say pretty much anything to each other because there's not anyone in the world we trust or respect more than each other," he says, though sometimes during these "therapeutic" discussions, he acknowledges, "our dogs get a little concerned."
Oddly, the bigger challenge for Pierce has been dealing with actors. He builds cohesive companies by casting people, "not just for how they act, but for how they interact," but he is still learning when to step back. "It is hard to say nothing," he says. "My experience certainly helps me direct — I know how it feels to play a scene and how to be directed, but I have to be careful not to impose my way of working. I need to allow the actors space and creativity. You'd think I'd be sensitive to that, but what I am still learning to do is to shut up."
For Fleming, who says she's "an adventurer, and I like to keep growing," the challenge is the opposite. She needs to find her voice. Not her famous singing voice, of course. "This is about finding my speaking voice," she says, adding that while she acts in character in operas, the freedom to create your own rhythms and timing is daunting for someone who traditionally stays with the music. (Playing an opera singer makes it easier; she improvises much of the singing she does on stage.) When she starred in Living on Love in Williamstown the thing that was scariest of all was the silence, when there was no music to prompt or provide a foundation.
What Fleming can't get enough of after a lifetime of "sad characters" in tragedies, is comedy. "I love making people laugh and could get addicted to it," she says. "It's such a joy."
She is a bit concerned about performing eight shows, week in and week out, but looks forward to settling in. "I haven't been home in New York for longer than two months since I graduated Juilliard." Vanessa Hudgens, who did a pre-Broadway run of Gigi at the Kennedy Center, acknowledges that performing every night is "a bit taxing," but says performing live more than made up for it. "When you realize that every little choice on stage makes the show different and you see the impact the audience has on the show, that makes it exciting," she says.
Just 26, Hudgens jokes that performing on Broadway "was on my bucket list," adding that she didn't have a timetable — "I believe when it's meant to happen the opportunity will present itself" — but that she loved the script and the transformational nature of her character, so she jumped at this chance.
Singing and acting live is "so much scarier and more honest, but that's what makes it thrilling," she says, adding that the more experienced cast members were so welcoming that she always "felt safe." And while she says every actor has "those little voices like 'Birdman' that get inside your head that you have to push down" she has felt totally at home on stage… so much so that it may alter her career trajectory. "When I got on stage during tech, I said, 'Oh my gosh, do I have to do films still or can I just do theatre forever?,'" she says, adding with a laugh that she will, of course, return to movies. But she says, "I've fallen in love with theatre."