Debra Monk inhabits Carmen Bernstein, a brassy lady who puts the broad in Broadway producer. Carmen's new Broadway-aimed musical is threatened when her star is murdered in the out-of-town tryout.
Such is the plot of the murder mystery musical from the hands of John Kander, Rupert Holmes and the late Fred Ebb and Peter Stone. The show is itself making its debut out of town — at Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theatre, with an eye on Broadway.
The Tony Award-winning star seen in the 2004 Broadway revival of Reckless — who has since appeared in Chicago and Off-Broadway's Show People — spoke with Playbill.com about her current turn.
Playbill.com: Explain the musical Curtains for anyone who has never heard of it.
Debra Monk: Curtains basically is about an out-of-town tryout of a new musical in 1959 at the Colonial Theatre coming to Broadway. It stars a former film star, who's not very good, she can't really sing, she can't really dance. On opening night, at the end of her curtain call, she faints and later on you find out that she had died.
Playbill.com: Who do you play in the musical?
DM: I'm the producer of the show. Carmen Bernstein is kind of a tough, real business woman and she's a great character. Not based on any one producer we know because it takes place in the fifties. Playbill.com: You've been with the show since its early development, how has it evolved? And your character?
DM: 2001 was the first reading I did of it. [Director] Scott Ellis talked with Freddy and John about doing a reading of it with Peter Stone who had written it. We did the first reading and I've done like, I can't remember if it's five readings or so, over the years, many different readings with many different people. Then, unfortunately we lost Peter and we got Rupert, which was just a wonderful thing. And then we lost dear Freddy and John decided he wanted to finish the show. That was the impetus and then the thing that really pushed it through was when Michael Ritchie, who runs the Center Theatre Group, told Scott "Bring it here."
A lot of things have changed and I don't want to give away the plot, so I don't want to talk about too much because it's a murder mystery and I really want people to come see it fresh and not know what it's about. But, basically I could just say that it has always been a murder mystery, but when Rupert got a hold of it, he changed it slightly and there's lots of surprises. So, when you think you think you know what's happened, it always changes. And that touches all of our characters, not just mine. But she always was a pretty strong character and all the songs that I have were written before Freddy died and they're really... she's pretty much out there with what she's saying. Pretty tough and funny, very funny.
Playbill.com: Tell me a bit about the other characters and actors involved.
DM: David Hyde Pierce plays the detective who comes to the theatre. And we are all quarantined in the theatre so he could solve the murder and he also solves all the problems of the show. Karen Ziemba and Jason Danieley play a married couple who are now divorced and they're working together> They're a songwriting team, a very successful one, but they haven't had a hit in a while and they're in this show and it's falling apart. During the process of the show, since our leading lady dies, our director — brilliantly played by Edward Hibbert — decides that Karen Ziemba's character, Georgia Hendricks, should take over the lead. She was a former singer and dancer and even though she hasn't danced in a long time, she takes over the role.
Playbill.com: What is the name of the musical within the musical?
DM: Robbin' Hood. It's a western version of Robin Hood, Robin Hood set in Kansas.
Playbill.com: You've been involved in recent years with a number of developing works, from James Lapine's Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing to Jeff Whitty's Suicide Weather, is that something you seek out?
DM: I don't choose anything. You know, it just so happens that these things come along when they do. When we started Curtains in 2001, who knew that it would take until 2006 to do it? I mean, I choose projects because they are [attached to] great people and I love Freddy and John and Scott Ellis and all the people involved in [ Curtains].
I really try to choose things that I want to do and be involved with and that's what I do. So, if are in development or if they're revivals, whatever it is, it just so happens that they are. Reckless was a revival and it just so happened that that was another great instance with [director] Mark Brokaw and [star] Mary-Louise Parker, so I jumped at that one. I'm just lucky that I get a chance to do these different things. But, I never plan anything specific because you really can't.
Playbill.com: You made a cameo in The Producers movie as Lick Me-Bite Me, one of the elderly ladies Nathan Lane's Max Bialystock coaxes money from. Can we expect to see you on the big screen soon in perhaps a bigger role?
DM: I just finished doing a movie called "The Savages" with Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman which is supposed to come out, I guess, in the fall. Laura and Philip play sister and brother and their father is an aged man who has been living with my mother and when my mother dies, I tell them they have to take over their father now.
Playbill.com: Can we expect to see you in Curtains if/when it comes to Broadway?
DM: Oh God yes, I've been with this too long. [Laughs.] No no no, I'm with it for the [long haul]... I really wanted to do this for Freddy, I'm just determined to do this as long as we can do it and hopefully we'll get a chance to do it on Broadway for him.