DIVA TALK: Chatting With Mamma Mia! Star Felicia Finley

By Andrew Gans
September 14, 2012

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



Felicia Finley
Comedic actress/Broadway belter Felicia Finley, who memorably played the wind-blown Linda in the 2006 musical adaptation of The Wedding Singer, is back on The Great White Way, literally kicking up her heels in the long-running international hit Mamma Mia! Finley, in fact, is one of several new principal players — including Lauren Cohn as Rosie, Aaron Lazar as Sam Carmichael, Daniel Cooney as Bill Austin, Graham Rowat as Harry Bright, Christy Altomare as Sophie and Zak Resnick as Sky — who recently joined the production at the Winter Garden Theatre. The actress, whose Broadway resume also includes Smokey Joe's Cafe, The Life and Aida, plays Tanya opposite the Donna of Judy McLane, a long-time Tanya, who had hoped Finley would step into her shoes. Last week, I had the chance to chat with Louisiana native Finley, who spoke about her latest Broadway outing, her many other theatrical adventures, her admiration for the late Gwen Verdon and more; that interview follows.

Question: How did the role in Mamma Mia! come about for you?
Felicia Finley: I don't know! It came out of thin air. It happened very quick. I had worked with Judy McLane about a year ago now, and she and I had done a reading together. And, she was thinking about leaving [Mamma Mia!], and one day she comes into rehearsals, and she said, "You have to do the role I'm doing. I'm leaving, and you have to do it!" [Laughs.] And, I had never seen this show. I was like, "Okay." And, I said, "Well, I love you for that, but I don't know anything about the show." Life went on, and let's see… Zak Resnick—who is in the show also—we were in this show called Disaster! with Seth Rudetsky, this sketch comedy show. And, we were doing one night a week… Every bad disaster '70s movie all put in one musical. It was hilarious. It was something I was doing because I had free time, and…one night Eric Woodall from Tara Rubin [casting agency] and a bunch of other people came to see the show, and then Monday morning I got [a call saying], "You have to come in very quickly to Mamma Mia! to audition."

Question: Were you familiar at all with ABBA's music or…?
Finley: Oh, yeah! I mean, I was born in the 70s… I remember jumping up on the couches and singing "Mamma Mia!" with my brother in our playroom when we were kids. We used to actually listen to the radio back then, and I remember ABBA coming on the radio and just screaming—just getting so excited that we could sing "Dancing Queen." I remember ABBA being huge. And then I saw the show before I auditioned, and I just loved it. [Laughs.] I hate to say it, but I didn't know if I would. And, I walked out mad at myself because I had not [seen it earlier]. I didn't know what I was going to see… It's my fault… It's hard for me to sit through any show for crying out loud…that's why they have Actors Fund [performances]. [Laughs.] For people like me, so we can all just be dumb gypsies together. Don't put gypsies in a regular audience, you know. I walked out of there just so thrilled about the storyline and how they threaded everything together. It's a good story. And, I had never seen the movie either… It really was surprising how much I went away with this perma-grin! [Laughs.] I looked like I had just [done] one of those commercials where my mouth was stuck smiling. It was very surprising.

Finley in Mamma Mia!
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: How would you describe Tanya?
Finley: I really think she just wants to have a good time. She's not dumb… She likes material things… [Laughs.] You know what I mean? I'm not like that, but I know women who are, and she likes the finer things in life. And, I really think she's very earthy—very earthy—so there's a juxtaposition there. And, I think that ultimately it comes down to she just likes to have a good time. I think that's like the basic, basic of how she thinks. [Laughs.] She's a good-time girl.

Question: Since Judy McLane played the part so long, did she have any advice for you in playing it?
Finley: You know, it's so funny that you ask that because when we went into rehearsal, Judy and I have such a mutual-admiration society for each other… It wasn't that she didn't want to give me advice, but she was busy. She had tasks at hand as well as I did, so it wasn't that kind of atmosphere. We both just had to jump into cold water and swim. She got hired quickly like I did… She didn't plan on getting Donna, so she was just as shocked as I was! And so, it wasn't like, "Oh, here's my scepter. Let me give you this…" It was more like, "Holy sh*t! I've got to work!" So it was every-man-for-himself kind of thing, but we were more concentrated on this version of the show versus what she had done because that had already been done, and she's Donna now, so it was more like, "How do we focus on this trio?" It really has never, ever come up... but it comes up from other people, and we always just laugh at each other because she's always like, "I forgot I did that." It's the truth because she did it for so long, it's almost like another show for her. She put a bow on it. She had time to really do her thing with that role. And, I know that feeling—I really do! And, when you're done with that role, you wish the best for everybody—whoever it is.

Finley (right) with co-stars Lauren Cohn and Judy McLane
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Question: I'm just wondering if you had a favorite moment in playing Tanya?
Finley: Every second! [Laughs.]… I'm a Forbidden Broadway girl, and I love comedy, so I always say there's plenty of girls that like to cry on stage—hire them! I love to bring the comedy and the juice. I just love it. I love it, love it… To me, laughter is like a rush. It's like an adrenaline rush, and it just makes me so grateful… My brother is a doctor, and I used to say, "Doctors should, after surgery, have people there clapping for them. Instead of us jumping up and down on the stage and people…" We don't save lives. And, he said, "You're wrong!" My brother said, "You're wrong!" And, I said, "What do you mean?" This was maybe like ten years ago—it changed my life. He said, "Well, you have to remember that laugher raises serotonin, so you're a heart doctor." He said, "You save people's lives by giving them a jolt of serotonin." And, I went, "Wow. I never thought of it that way." He goes, "You can't believe how much laugher helps people," and I was like, "Wow." … I've been doing Broadway since '96… There should be some sort of calibrated science experiment on the demographic of audiences. It's very fascinating to listen to audiences because sometimes you have an audience that's like, last night, was primarily European and Chinese, so you're not going to have a lot of response. You're going to see a lot of smiles, but you can't hear smiles. So you have to go up with your gut that they're just having a good time. Sure enough, at the end they lose their minds, and that's just a cultural thing. And, I've traveled the world, so I do know that most cultures don't respond like Americans. We're very vocal. We're very vocal, and we let you know how funny—or whatever it is, we let you know. Not all audiences are like that, and it's amazing though just to see, like at the stage door, their faces. You've touched them forever. And, I respect that. I respect every person sitting in that audience, and in a time where nobody has any money, I respect it even more.

Finley in The Wedding Singer.
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: What's it like for you as a performer doing the encore as the rock stars?
Finley: Well, my head's not right. I'm a New Orleans girl… Richard Simmons is [also] from Louisiana. Now, I know him because he does stuff for Broadway Cares, so I've worked with him before, and the reason I'm bringing him up is because… [Laughs.] I always say when we're bowing—because it's the longest bow on Broadway I'm convinced. It's a British bow—you bow and bow and bow. There's a silent bow, and then you come out and bow some more, and then you bow by yourself—bow, bow, bow, bow, bow. So then on our final bow, I always tell everybody, "It's time to sweat to the oldies, and Richard's coming out any second!" [Laughs.] Because Richard Simmons would fit there perfectly—in the middle just jumping up and down. It really feels sometimes like I'm "Sweating to the Oldies." And, I love it because it cracks me up! It is another show. It is not the show. It's another show. It's an addendum show. I can't explain it! [Laughs.] It's an addendum show, and I'm waiting for Richard Simmons to show up. It is the craziest thing I've ever done—ever—but it's a show. By the time I'm done with that part of the night, I have sweated all over again. That's why it's sweating to the oldies because you put on those big costumes and those platform boots on a rake like that, you're ass is going to sweat! And, you have to remember that we're doing a rock concert again. It's unbelievable.… They're two shows. It's like two different shows. And, it's good. I mean, I remember seeing it before I auditioned, and I was like, "That was worth the price of admission." It was a dessert I didn't expect. It was like the chef came out and said, "Which one do you want?" And, I go, "Okay, I'll have that one," and he goes, "It's the best one…" You know what I mean? It was a surprise… I actually love doing it. And, people's faces… When we come out of the floor, that slow rise out, there's not a better job in the city! There isn't. You're coming out on an automation on the back of a rake in the Winter Garden, and you've got a tri-spot—three pin-spots on you—and that audience jumps up… Every night I have hair on the back of my neck stand up—every night. I wish you could be in that costume with me! I mean that because it feels like, "Wow. This is what Elvis must have felt like." [Laughs.] You know what I mean? You can't believe. It's everything that you wish a Broadway show would do… When I did The Wedding Singer, all of a sudden I remember John Rando going, "We need to have air just hit you…" And, a Broadway show can do that. You can't do that regionally. Regionally, I'm sure Linda has like a fan on her. But Broadway can go there. And, it was probably the most expensive thing they did in the set—this combustible air pin that came out of nowhere and just hit me. I was joking—I said, when we were in rehearsal, "I should have the air." He's like, "Yeah, we'll make it come out of the floor," and I was like, "Yeah, right!" [Laughs.] And then, when they did it, I was like, "Oh! Okay… That was a lot of money." And, that's Broadway. You want to have that experience on Broadway, and that is the payoff at the end of [Mamma Mia!]—coming out of the floor. Coming out of the floor—it's a rush! It's a rush.

Finley in Evita.
Photo by Olgonquit Theatre

Question: You said earlier that you had done Forbidden Broadway?
Finley: Twice, yes. And, that's my family.

Question: What are some of your best impressions?
Finley: [Laughs.] Well, I recorded Spoof Odyssey, and we won all kind of awards that year. And, [Ben] Brantley went "goo-goo-gaga" over a few things I did. I originated a lot of impressions that year, but I think the one that changed my career was when I impersonated Heather Headley because I wasn't doing Aida yet, and the heads of state over at Disney, including Heather Headley, all saw me do her. And then I got Amneris because I was doing Heather…and she just won the Tony… I had done Bubbly Black Girl with LaChanze over at Playwrights, and they were looking for someone to impersonate Heather Headley, and I was the only white girl that auditioned. [Laughs.] They actually thought I was African-American because my resume reads like a black girl because I've done all these black shows, and I'm from New Orleans, and they didn't ask me for a picture. And, when I walked in they said, "Who are you?" [Laughs.] And, they said, "What are you doing?" And, I said, "I don't know! You called me here." Anyway, I ended up doing a bunch of impressions. I never tried to do impressions, and I just kept doing them, and they just kept laughing, and next thing you know, I got the job. And, I did [Forbidden BroadwaySVU a couple years later—right after Katrina, actually, and right before Wedding Singer—and I got to do Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and I came out as the car, and my boobs were the headlights. [Laughs.] So funny! I mean, I had a ball! Whenever I can do that show… I'm so glad they reopened. They make me crawl across the stage because I'm crawling up from Broadway back to Off-Broadway. [Laughs.] But they're my family. I did "Beauty's Been Decreased"—that was mine—I helped create that. I mean, I've done a bunch of them. When you originate a show in Forbidden Broadway, you're never the same. It's quite an experience. There's so many characters, it's hard to pick one. But I will say when I did Heather Headley, it's the reason I got Aida because they saw me doing their show. That was the liaison for me getting Amneris.

Finley in Damn Yankees.
photo by Paul DeGrocco

Question: Do you have any dream roles onstage that you'd like to do?
Finley: I've been very lucky—I have to tell you that first. I would love to play Evita. I mean, I've played her already… I don't know if that's on my trajectory anymore…She's my favorite role because I can sing that music. For me, it's a rock opera, and I love Heart—the group Heart—and I would warm up to Heart when I sang Evita. And, I could do her eight shows a week and not flinch. I would love to play Dolly down the road. I would love to play Roxie. I starred at Atlantic City at Caesar's Palace. It was 90 minutes of me doing everything you can imagine from Broadway! It was Felicia Finley in Nights on Broadway in Caesar's Palace. It was amazing. It was a great job, and I had billboards all over Atlantic City, and I loved it. But I got a taste of doing Roxie, and that was really fun. And, plus I knew Gwen [Verdon]. I worked with Gwen. And, I've gotten to play Lola. I would love to do her again on Broadway. I got to play her opposite Andre De Shields! Andre and I got to play opposite each other two summers ago… It was amazing, and if you saw that show, you saw a show! I'm going to tell you something—he was born to do that role! Born to do that role, and I was born to be his Lola. Not kidding. There was something so magical… And, we both talk about it. We fell in love on stage. I mean, we fell in love behind stage. We fell in love with each other, and I would love to play that at a bigger venue because of the story… And also because I knew Gwen, and because I had worked with her. I got to shadow her for two weeks; I really got in her brain.

Finley, Judy McLane and Lauren Cohn in Mamma Mia!
Photo by Joan Marcus

Question: What show was that?
Finley: When I was doing The Life…we did the Sweet Charity [benefit] with all the Charitys. And, Gwen put it up, and I asked her because Cy was alive, and I was doing The Life with Cy and Marty Richards. It was such a scene. They were all old-timers. Liza was hanging out there. And, they were all so close. So we were doing, "The minute you walked in the joint…" And, Bebe [Neuwirth] was in it, and she had just won the Tony for Chicago and all that, so I had the balls of the world, and I just said, "Gwen, can I follow you?" She said, "Get a paper and pen and sit right here." I got to trail her for two weeks, and I still can't believe it! [Laughs.] I mean, I can't believe what she told me and what I know… Chita and she loved each other, and they cooked for each other! That's the one thing that I learned from them—the gypsy does a show eight-shows-a-week—a real gypsy. You get on stage, and your blood is left. Your corpuscles hurt. You can't give anymore, and on that second show—or whatever day it is—you've got to bring in some food! Especially if you're a lead—you've got to take care of your company. Judy's good like that, and I'm good like that because we've been around enough to see that change has gone into the commercial world from when it was more mom-and-pop, and I miss it. I try to bring in that family. We're in this together. We're a family. We have to take care of each other. She taught me that. I remember Chita coming in with a big cake for Gwen, and then Gwen, the next day coming in with something for Chita. They loved to cook for each other, and being southern, I love cooking. I love that bedside manner. And, there was a bedside manner that I got to see with the Greats. I got to watch that. I was young enough. They were passing as I was coming in, and I got so lucky that I got to witness… It was like a changing of the guard.

Finley with Chuck Cooper in The Life.
photo by Carol Rosegg

Question: How long will you stay with Mamma Mia!?
Finley: Well, I don't know! I mean, I'm a year and then we'll go from there. I love this job. I really love the character, and I love the match up. It's a good match up of energy versus character. And, vocally I'm suited for it. As far as the physicality it requires, I feel like I was born to do the physical comedy that maybe you don't see a lot anymore on Broadway. I feel like I've been around enough now, and I've worked with so many amazing performers. I feel like I come from the old school. I do! I'm now a part of the old school, and I like bringing that aspect to the stage. I try to be gentle about this, but Broadway is different from television! [Laughs.] They're not the same. They have nothing to do with each other. That's why it's really difficult for cinematic/television folk to translate on Broadway. The technique is so incredibly different. You have to touch the back of the balcony. That person needs to feel it. That is a different technique than just using your eyes. [Laughs.] … [Some screen actors] have no idea of the importance of technique and the control of the core when you're on stage and the trajectory of two-and-a-half hours versus, "Take a scene. Take a break. Do a scene. Take a break." We're athletes—that's what we do—and I'm so grateful that Mamma Mia! went back to the pool of athletes, who will show up for the eight shows and be grateful, you know, because I've also covered many stars, and eight is optional. [Laughs.] I don't like that. I personally don't like that. Gwen showed up for eight. Chita shows up for eight. What's the problem? You signed up for eight, show up for eight. It's not seven shows a week, it's not six shows a week, it's eight shows a week!

[The Winter Garden Theatre is located in Manhattan at 1634 Broadway. For more information visit mamma-mia.com.]

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