On March 13 Adrienne Barbeau will return to the New York stage for the first time in over three decades. Barbeau — who is best known to television audiences for her work as Bea Arthur's outspoken daughter Carol in the award-winning Norman Lear series "Maude" — was last onstage in the Big Apple when she created the role of Rizzo in the original Broadway production of Grease!, a performance that garnered the singing actress a 1972 Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. The production that is bringing Barbeau back to the city — she currently resides in Los Angeles with husband Billy Van Zandt and three sons (Cody and twins William and Walker) — is The Property Known As Garland. Penned by Van Zandt and directed by Glenn Casale, the two-character play casts Barbeau as the late, legendary performer Judy Garland, who is about to play what would be her final concert at the Falkoner Center in Copenhagen. A few weeks ago I had the chance to chat with Barbeau about the Garland show, which begins previews March 13 at the Actors' Playhouse with an official opening scheduled for March 23. That brief interview follows.
Question: How did this role come about?
Adrienne Barbeau: It came through my husband, who was sitting in his office trying to decide what he wanted to write next. [He was] looking at his bookshelves and [saw] a host of Judy Garland biographies at the same point that I walked past his office. And he said, "Well, that's what I'm going to do!" When he first started writing it, I said I didn't think I was interested because what I knew about Judy was the distressed side and the pain that she had suffered, and I [wasn't] sure that's something I wanted to explore as an actress. When he finished it and I read it, there was no question in my mind that it was something I had to do because he's just written a great play about her.
Q: Tell me a bit about the structure of the play.
Barbeau: It's a two-character play. It takes place backstage the night of what turned out to be her last performance at the Falkoner Center. She's getting ready to go on, and the young stage manager keeps coming in to try and make sure she's ready to go on. She's hesitant and starts telling stories to postpone having to go onstage, and it's a very witty play. It's sort of a love letter to her I think — a tribute to her, to her spirit and her survival instincts and her wit. The thing that impressed me about her when I first started doing research was what an incredible raconteur she was — she's fast and she's very funny, just really brilliant when it came to telling stories. . . I was really taken with that part of her talent.
Q: Will there be any singing in the show?
Barbeau: No singing.
Q: Does the show use any of Garland's recordings?
Barbeau: Just a few clips of some source music. . . but nothing from me. I wouldn't dare! [Laughs.]
Q: Tell me about the play's journey to New York.
Barbeau: We did a workshop in New Jersey last summer, just four performances, and it was very successful, very well-received. And, we just did two run-throughs here [in Los Angeles]. They were rehearsals — we were still changing the structure but had an invited audience, and they loved it. The script is really good.
Q: Is it a bit intimidating playing such a well-known person?
Barbeau: Yes, it's the most challenging thing I've ever had to do, especially because Judy is so well known. I've done one other character who was a real person, but no one knew who she was. I'm not doing an impersonation. I think of it more like Zoe Caldwell in Master Class — it's an impression of Judy. There are people who do her and who do her brilliantly. That's not what this is.
Q: Who was the other real person you had played?
Barbeau: I did an HBO film years ago. Dennis Hopper played a drug dealer who became an informant for the DEA, and the DEA hung him out to dry, and he was killed by the Colombian cartel, and I played his wife, who I met. But that was totally different. . . . [It was called] "Doublecrossed: The Barry Seal Story." I was playing his wife.
Q: Why do you think Garland was so loved by her fans? What do you think was her appeal?
Barbeau: I think it went far beyond her talent. I think they related to her vulnerability and her perseverance at surviving everything that was thrown at her. I think a lot of them understood what she had gone through at the hands of her mother and the studio. I think they responded to her response to them. She was happiest when she was onstage, when she was performing. And she had said that that was the only place she really felt that she belonged, that she knew who she was. She loved her audiences so much, and all she lived for was to give to those audiences. I never saw her [live], so I don't have the personal experience, [but] I would assume that came across, and that's what an audience responded to.
Q: Have you ever spoken with or worked with either of Garland's daughters?
Barbeau: Lorna and I had children together in Gymboree about 18, 19 years ago. I think I did one of the "We Are the World" things back in the seventies with Liza. I've seen her and chatted with her. I ran into her not too long ago and was able to tell her that I was going to be doing this and that I thought she would really be happy to see it because I think it's a really positive portrayal of Judy that shows parts of her that people who only knew her as an actress and a singer wouldn't know. And it tells her life, what she went through.
Q: What are your thoughts about returning to the New York stage?
Barbeau: I haven't been there since '72. [Laughs.] It's a very exciting time because not only am I coming back to the stage, but I have a book coming out at the same time, so I'm just working nonstop. I'm especially looking forward to being at the Actors' Playhouse because all the years I lived in New York I lived at Hudson and Christopher, so that's my old stomping ground. And to be coming back with this piece of material, I am excited. I can't imagine what it's going to be like, but I'm looking forward to it.
Q: And the book is an autobiography?
Barbeau: It's a memoir [called "There Are Worse Things I Could Do"].
Q: What was the process like writing the book?
Barbeau: It was fantastic. I had a ball. I had started taking a writing class five years ago. I lost my best friend to cancer, and I was looking around for something to occupy my time. I always kept a journal, and my husband said, "You should be doing something with this." I didn't even know people taught writing classes. [Laughs.] I knew that you could learn how to write a screenplay, which I have no talent for at all . . . So I went and started this class and started taking in pieces that I had written about my experiences — starting out in New York working for the mob, doing low-budget horror films. Eventually the teacher said, "You need to get an agent and see what you can do with this." And I did, and I sold it. And then I was hysterical because then I had to write it. [Laughs.] It was the best year of my life. I had a ball. I loved it.
Q: What are some of the memories you explore in the book?
Barbeau: I talk about doing Stag Movie, which was one of those nudie musicals back in the early seventies. [I discuss] just getting started [in the business]. I was 19 when I moved to New York and didn't know a soul. That whole process of going to the non-union cattle calls and singing the last eight bars of "If I Loved You" along with 300 other girls. And then it goes on through "Maude" and the horror films . . . [and] my having the children when I was an old lady. I hope that it is witty and interesting.
Q: How old are the twins now?
Barbeau: The kids are going to be nine.
Q: How has motherhood been?
Barbeau: It's fantastic. That's the only downside of [coming to New York], and it's the reason I haven't done anything in New York all these years because when my older son was born in '84, I just made a decision that I couldn't travel and needed to just be here and do short-term things. Now, the children [are older]. I've got it worked out so I'll be commuting back and forth on my days off, and they'll be coming in for spring break. . . . We'll be apart for about 11 days at a time. When summer comes, if the show is a success and hopefully it will be, I'll bring them [with me].
Q: Tell me a bit about working with Bea Arthur on "Maude."
Barbeau: She was fantastic. She is fantastic. . . . It was a great experience, all six years. Wonderful people to work with and something to be so incredibly proud of, which I took for granted at the time because I came from stage, so I didn't know television at all. I didn't even know what was on. I didn't know Norman [Lear]'s reputation or anything like that. It took me awhile to realize that I had fallen into such a fantastic work situation. And most of that was because of Bea — because she's such a professional, such a great woman to work with. We had a great time.
[The Property Known as Garland plays the Actors' Playhouse, located at 100 Seventh Avenue South. Tickets, priced $35-$65, are available by calling (212) 239-6200 or visiting www.telecharge.com.]
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