DIVA TALK: Chatting With Death Takes a Holiday/Tokio Confidential's Jill Paice, PLUS Carol Channing

By Andrew Gans
February 3, 2012

News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.



JILL PAICE
It's been a busy season for Jill Paice, the singing actress who made her West End and Broadway debut in Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Woman in White and was later seen in Rupert Holmes, John Kander and Fred Ebb's Curtains and the Alfred Hitchcock-inspired caper The 39 Steps. This past summer, Paice was featured in the Off-Broadway world premiere of the new Maury Yeston musical Death Takes a Holiday, based on the Alberto Casella play of the same name. And, now, the gifted soprano is lending her talents to a limited engagement of Tokio Confidential, a new musical with book, music and lyrics by Eric Schorr that begins performances Feb. 5 at Atlantic Theater's Stage 2. Directed by Johanna McKeon, the production also features Jeff Kready (Billy Elliot), Austin Ku, Mel Maghuyop, Benjamin McHugh, Manna Nichols and Mike O'Carroll. Last week, I had the pleasure of chatting with Paice, who spoke about her recent projects as well as her work on Broadway and in the Signature Theatre's production of the rock musical Chess; that interview follows.

Question: Before we get to Tokio, tell me about your experience with Death Takes a Holiday.
Jill Paice: That was marvelous… That was a project that I had been working on for five or six years. To see that come to fruition was really exciting. It had really been a labor of love for such a long time—and for so many people, for even longer than I had been working on it. So, it was great to step out from behind the music stand, if you know what I mean—from doing readings and to stage it, and with Maury [Yeston's] music and Doug [Hughes'] direction. It was such an intimate little piece that was amazing to be a part of.

Question: What was it like getting a new leading man midway through?
Paice: Well, Kevin Earley, who stepped in for Julian [Ovenden]...was kind of the knight in shining armor that was able to sweep in and take over the show. He never seemed nervous. He just was very confident, but very open. I mean, he's so brave, in my opinion, to take over. [Laughs.] Just watching him excel and succeed in doing that, it was invigorating.

Jill Paice in Death Takes a Holiday.
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Had you ever sung any of Maury Yeston's work before?
Paice: I had done bits and pieces from Phantom in voice lessons… I had worked on his music before, but I don't believe I had ever been in a Maury Yeston show before. That was my first one.

Question: I know you also did Chess out at the Signature in Arlington, VA. What's it like for you to do a more belty role? Do you have a preference?
Paice: Well, I mean Chess was a blast because I got to feel like a rock star, which is not usually an opportunity that comes my way. [Laughs.] That whole piece was so exciting. It's a show that a lot of people have known about for a long time but have actually never seen onstage, including myself. So, it was fun to be a part of that and redeveloping it—shrinking it down and making it a more intimate piece. 

Question: How did you find it vocally? Is it harder on the voice to do a show like that than Death Takes a Holiday?
Paice: They each have their own challenges. Death Takes a Holiday, I would say, was more vocally demanding because I had so much singing in it, and I really had to take it easy during the day. I kind of hung out with my dog quietly at home. But then, I actually found Chess to be emotionally more demanding. It has its own way of fatiguing you, but I definitely think Maury's show was harder for me. [Laughs.]

Paice and Euan Morton in Chess.
photo by Scott Suchman

Question: That's interesting because you always hear for women singers that belting is not great for the voice.
Paice: Well, yeah, but Chess picks its moments to go into that voice, so it wasn't constant. You have songs like "Heaven Help My Heart," which are lighter. "You and I" can actually be sung more classically—it's not belted out the whole time. Because I'm not a full-time belter, as I will call it now, I pick and choose my moments to use that part of the voice so that I don't fatigue it.

Question: Out of curiosity, what kind of dog do you have?
Paice: I have a Yorkie. She's very scrappy though, she's not a girly dog. She's the most awesome dog on the planet, in my opinion. [Laughs.]

Question: What's her name?
Paice: Lolly.

Question: So, now, tell me how Tokio came about for you.
Paice: I got a phone call. [Laughs.] It's very different from Death Takes a Holiday, where I had been a part of it for such a long time because this didn't come through for me until a couple months ago, so I'm very new to the project. Some people have been working on it longer than others, but I'm definitely in the newbie group.

Question: Tell me a little bit about the show and your character.
Paice: It's a new and original musical. It takes place [after the U.S. Civil War]. I play an American widow, whose husband was always very fascinated with Japan, and after his death, she chooses to make the trip to Japan, which, back then, meant two weeks on a boat. She arrives in Japan to connect with a part of her husband that is now missing [her husband had spoken of Japan while they were courting ]. While she is doing that, she meets a tattoo artist and begins to get a tattoo, which covers her entire back.

Question: What is the score like?
Paice: The score is complicated. [Laughs.] It definitely keeps you on your toes. It takes a lot of twists and turns even within the music. It's definitely unique. It's written by an American, but there is something about it that sounds Japanese at times.

Question: Would you say it's more…
Paice: It's legit. Is that what you're wondering?

Question: So, more soprano-y than part-time belter?
Paice: Yes.

Paice and Meredith Patterson in Paper Mill's White Christmas.
photo by T. Charles Erickson

Question: It's such a limited run. Is there chance for an extension…?
Paice: You know, I haven't heard anything like that. I think it's here to have its little life. [Laughs.] I haven't heard anything of playing it beyond its closing date.

Question: Does that factor into deciding whether or not you want to take a role? Putting in a lot of time to learn something for a limited engagement…
Paice: Because we rehearse three weeks and then we play three weeks, what's great, in a way, is it's not a huge time commitment. Of course, then, I'm immediately unemployed afterwards. [Laughs.] But, sometimes, it's good to keep changing jobs and mixing things up and keeping you on your toes, so I appreciate the length of this run, actually. I think it's good timing, and it will be nice to have worked on it as hard as we have and still have three more weeks to perform it.

Question: Since we've never spoken before, I just want to go back a bit. Where were you born and raised?
Paice: I was born in Minot, North Dakota, but I grew up in Ohio mostly. My dad was in the air force, so we moved around quite a bit, but I grew up in Ohio.

Question: When did you start performing?
Paice: I started performing when I was eight years old in the high school production of Oklahoma! My mom took me to that audition because we had been moving around a lot, and I was having trouble—showing up at a new school, and she thought maybe this would be a good way to meet people. She dragged me to my first audition, and ever since then has maybe regretted it—I don't know! [Laughs.] Sending your child into theatre, willingly, is not easily done.

Paice and Katie Finneran in Company at the New York Philharmonic
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Question: When did performing change from a hobby to when you knew or wanted it to be your career?
Paice: I know I got more serious in high school just because you start thinking about your future, and you start thinking about college, and I thought, "Maybe I should just move right to New York," but I'm very grateful that I went to college first. But, for years, tours would come to Dayton and play at the theatres, and, my family, we would always go see them. I never realized people got paid to do this. [Laughs.] I didn't know it was a job for a very long time.

Question: Was it in college, then, that you thought you wanted to pursue this?
Paice: No, it was definitely in high school. Probably junior year of high school. I had some pretty awesome mentors in my life who started helping me figure out where I wanted to go with my life and encouraged me to pursue a degree in musical theatre.

Question: When you were in high school or maybe early college, were there any artists or singers that you particularly admired or influenced you?
Paice: Absolutely. I really look up to Kelli O'Hara, and I always have, even before I ever met her. I just think the combination of her voice and the actress that she is is something really to strive for, and I used to watch Kristin Chenoweth. I used to play her performance on the Tony Awards when she was in Charlie Brown over and over again.

Question: When did you finally get to New York?
Paice: I moved to New York in 2002 when I graduated college, but then I immediately left. I went on tour with Les Miz, and then I went to Vegas to open Mamma Mia! out there.

Question: You have a rare resume in that you made your West End debut before your Broadway debut, right?
Paice: Yes, I did.

Question: How did that come about—the casting in Woman in White?
Paice: I still don't really understand how it happened. [Laughs.] I know, from my side, that I had chosen to not renew with Mamma Mia! in Vegas and make a go of it—come back to New York—and make a go of it here. At the same time in London, they were having trouble casting a couple of the roles [in Woman in White], and Trevor Nunn wanted to open up the casting to America, so they put a bunch of us on tape, and I don't know—that's the part that I don't understand—why I ended up in that room because there were a lot of A-lister names there—those very same people that I had been looking up to. So, I didn't understand why I was there, and I think it was a VHS tape—this was a long time ago. [Laughs.]… From there, Andrew [Lloyd Webber] came over and I sang for him, and then they sent me over to London and I sang for everybody there, and it just sort of unraveled that way.

Paice in The 39 Steps.
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: What was that like for you? How did you process that you would be making your West End debut before Broadway?
Paice: Yeah, it was surreal… That was never even in my realm of thinking. I didn't even know that was possible. While I was actually still in London, I found out that I got the job and would come back in a couple of months, and it was just surreal and beyond my wildest dreams or hopes. It was totally wonderful, and that's the really, really best way to explain it.

Question: You also got to replace in 39 Steps. What was that like to do a non-singing role? Would you like to do more of that?
Paice: I would love to do more of that! [Laughs.] You know, it's a challenge. That show was a challenge both physically and from the point-of-view of an actor. I found it to be easier because you didn't have to sing and didn't have to wake up worrying that you were going to be sick or anything, but it was exhausting because I'm very hard on myself. Especially with a comedy, if you feel like you're not landing it and you start analyzing why it's not working, you become your own worst enemy, and it's also a challenge to step into a show… Often when you replace, you're put-in by a stage manager, and I had an amazing stage manager, but there were still things—even when we closed—that I was trying to get right.

Question: Do you have any other projects or workshops while you're doing Tokio or are you just focusing on this?
Paice: I'm just waiting for the next job. I don't have anything lined up right now. I did just film an episode of "Person of Interest."

Question: What was that like for you? Had you done TV before?
Paice: I've done other TV, but I've never made it to air! I've been cut out of everything I've ever done, so I'm really hoping it makes it this time. [Laughs.]

Question: What's that process like—filming versus being on stage?
Paice: Filming—they're definitely longer days. Obviously, my part was very easy. I imagine, for whoever's running around doing all of the action sequences, they would probably have a totally different perspective. But we were just hanging out in a house out in Queens, so I found it to be easy, and it was fun getting to know a whole different group of people, a whole different vocabulary for how things are run. It was a wonderful time.

Question: Do you have any dream roles in musical theatre? Is there any role that you would love to do?
Paice: I'd love to do Music Man, and I'd love to do The Sound of Music.

[Atlantic Theater Stage 2 is located at 330 West 16th Street. For more information and tickets, call (212) 279-4200 or visit www.ticketcentral.com or www.TokioConfidential.com.]

Carol Channing
photo by Dramatic Forces

CAROL CHANNING
The new documentary "Carol Channing: Larger Than Life" opens Feb. 3 in New York and San Francisco and offers an in-depth look at the Tony-winning star of Hello, Dolly! I thought you would enjoy this fun chat with the humorous Channing, which was provided by the press agent for the film. Directed by Dori Berinstein ("Show Business: The Road to Broadway"), the new film features interviews with Channing, her husband Harry Kullijian (who died earlier this year), Jerry Herman, Lily Tomlin, Margie Champion, Betty Garrett (who has since died), Chita Rivera, Barbara Walters, Tyne Daly, Debbie Reynolds, Phyllis Diller, Loni Anderson, JoAnne Worley, Bruce Vilanch and many more.

Q: Are there any roles you would have liked to have played, in either a recent or a classic musical or play? What are they, and why?
A: I don't know that I've ever had time to think about what or whom I would like to have played. I would, of course, dearly loved to play Dolly in the movie version. I remember thinking, Oh Jerry's Mame would have been fun. But how could you top Angela’s performance? Although she and I did switch roles ever so briefly… oh years ago, during a tribute to Jerry when she came out as Dolly and I as Mame. Oh, that was fun!

Q: Which performers today do you particularly admire, and why?
A: I wish I could answer that with more knowledge. So many times I'm introduced to someone whose work I know I should know and I don’t. I’m always so embarrassed that I haven't kept up better. I'm awfully impressed with Catherine Zeta-Jones. It’s pronounced Zeeeeeta, you know … Oh, and Kristin Chenoweth. I'm impressed with her. There is also a young man I met from a show called "Glee." I've never seen him on the show, but have worked with him on stage. Oh, what’s wrong with me? Why can't I remember his name. Anyway, him.

Q: Had you not become a performer, what field would have interested you?
A: Oh! Ahhhhhh, I don't know. I’ve wanted to be a performer since I was 7. I imagine if I hadn't, I'd have found something associated with the industry.

Q: You've led an extraordinary life, on stage and off - what continues to inspire and motivate you?
A: Others. When I see someone who's passionately working on something, whether on stage or for the community, it inspires me. My motivation is always that next show, that next character or that next appearance. I'm always so sure that it will be my best performance or my greatest accomplishment.

Q: Imagine if they were real people who met each other, what would Lorelei Lee have thought of Dolly Gallagher Levi, and vice versa?
A: Isn't that odd, no one has ever asked me that before. I imagine they would have gotten along wonderfully. They were both and are such strong personalities that I think off stage they would have been tremendous friends, but on stage …well, the poor audience would have difficulty focusing on just one of them. They would overpower each other.

Q: What do you think of "Carol Channing: Larger Than Life?" Did you enjoy the filmmaking process?
A: [Director] Dori Berinstein's film? Oh, it's wonderful. There have been many who have approached me over the years, asking to do a documentary. However, they discovered how much work it was going to be and it never happened. Oh, Dori was so patient with me. Sometimes my schedule would change at a moment's notice and I’m sure it would completely mess up her plans. I don't think most actors think in terms of looking at what we’ve already done, rather than what can I still do now. They don’t write their memoir until someone pushes them and it takes a very special person to go through all the archives … or junk, and I have a lot … to weed out the important things that the audience will want to know. I've always relied on those around me, knowing and caring about what they are doing to make me look good. It's a team effort. You don’t take those people for granted. The really good ones truly love what they're doing and believe in it. I was just lucky enough to have someone like Dori, who believed enough in me, to do it. And do it so well. There were times when I thought, isn't it done yet? But, Dori wanted it to be perfect and I think she accomplished it … even if I wasn't wearing my eyelashes in that one scene. 

For more information visit www.carolchanningthemovie.com.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.