DIVA TALK: Catching Up With Tony Nominee Erin Dilly, Star of A Christmas Story, The Musical
By Andrew Gans
November 9, 2012
News, views and reviews about the women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
It's been a busy few months for Broadway actress Erin Dilly, who made her Main Stem debut as Young Phyllis in the 2001 revival of Follies and later earned Tony and Outer Critics Circle nominations for her performance as Truly Scrumptious in the family-friendly Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The mom of two young girls, who is married to fellow Broadway actor Stephen Buntrock, spent two weeks this past summer stepping in for Tony nominee Kelli O'Hara in the award-winning Gershwin musical Nice Work If You Can Get It while O'Hara appeared in the developing new musical Far From Heaven at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Now, Dilly has a role all her own — Mother in the limited engagement of the new musical A Christmas Story, based on the Jean Shepherd stories and the beloved 1983 film of the same name, at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Featuring direction by John Rando, choreography by Warren Carlyle, a score by Justin Paul and Benj Pasek and a book by Joseph Robinette, the cast also boasts Dan Lauria, John Bolton and Johnny Rabe, among others. During rehearsals I had the pleasure of chatting with the wonderful singing actress, who spoke about her recent Broadway outings; her roles as mom, wife and actress; and her own holiday traditions.
Question: Before we get to Christmas Story, tell me about filling in in Nice Work. Erin Dilly: Oh, my gosh. It was jumping in the deep end of the most delightful, hilarious pool. I had such a good time. It's just a really joyful company — all so welcoming — and Kelli [O'Hara] is one of my best friends. We go back to Follies because we met in both of our Broadway debuts. So, it was this beautiful sort of passing of the torch. She was just really happy that I could be there, and then I was happy to give it right back to her and go take a nap! [Laughs.]
Question: What was it like getting to sing all that Gershwin music? Dilly: You know, that's the music that kind of pours out of me. It's what I grew up singing — what I grew up listening to in my home, so it was actually a real pleasure every single night. And, just playing opposite Matthew — Matthew is such a fine actor and such an exquisite musician. I don't think that he would say that about himself, but he was marvelous to watch craft a song. I had such a good time with him.
Question: Is there any chance you might get to take over if Kelli leaves, or do a different production of the musical? Dilly: There's been a little bit of a speculation, and I would be delighted if they came a-calling when Kelli is, in fact, done with the show because I hadn't been on Broadway in a while. I'd been raising my babies and doing a lot of television and film work, and it was just such a perfect sort of reintroduction and re-emerging for me…and fun! I hadn't had that much fun on stage in a long time, and I didn't have to work out because I danced my butt off. I literally danced my butt off. I was like, "I'm five pounds thinner after dancing with him every night!" You know, I quickly put that back on, but that's okay. [Laughs.]
Question: How old are your kids now? Dilly: Anna Louise is six, and my baby, Cady — who is not a baby anymore — she's three.
Question: How was it combining motherhood with doing eight shows a week? Dilly: You know, I'm married to a remarkable dad and partner, Stephen Buntrock. He's magic with our kids, and when I had to sort of put it into full gear and start working as hard as I did to get into the show and then run the show, he just leapt in and took over. So our kids, to a certain degree, have always known both of us as primary parents because I would work during the day, doing TV, and take them during the night when Stephen was on stage, so it's a lot of balancing. I'm tired all the time, but I think that's the trial of being a working mom. I wouldn't change it for the world. They think it's very cool. I mean, not me on stage. They mostly like the costumes and the wig room… [Laughs.]
Dilly as Mother
Photo by Carol Rosegg
Question: How did you get involved with Christmas Story? Dilly: I had just finished the run of Nice Work, and my agent kind of grabbed me in the wings, and he said, "I'm working on something." I said, "Alright." I had just heard rumblings that they hadn't found the Mother yet, and I called him on Monday, and I was like, "Is this…?" And, he's like, "Yeah, that's what I'm working on." It was a fairly fast process. I went in about a week after I finished Nice Work, and I got Christmas Story. [Laughs.] I had, for a long time, taken my focus off of musical theatre, largely because film and television is just an easier way to raise kids. I could work episodically, and I can get the most fantastic health-care coverage for them, but I just started to miss being on stage. I really, more than anything, missed the Broadway community. I love walking in the stage door and seeing the people I've worked with for 15 years, and the love and care that Broadway has for each other… It's something I never experienced in film or television, for sure. It was pretty quick. I went in. I got the call about an hour later. My agent actually said something funny. He said, "Now, you've seen 'Christmas Story'?" I said, "Yes, I have." He goes, "Because this is iconic in my family, so the role you are being bestowed with…you can't screw this up!" [Laughs.] I said, "I won't!" And, it's true… It could be intimidating because I think those film performances are impeccable and absolutely iconic perfection, but I kind of realized in the first week of rehearsals, I didn't have to reach too terribly hard for the character because she is kind of me. She's trying to optimistically manage chaos all the time, and that's my life. That's me and Stephen and Cady… I mean, I do literally have Ralphie and Randy, they just happen to be little girls. It's identical!
Question: Is the stage production different from the film? How much difference is there — in your role as well? Dilly: You know what is interesting? It is similar enough to please the film purists, but it has its own original heart, via the fact that it's a musical, and it has this unbelievably inventive, gorgeous score by Pasek and Paul. I know that they kind of burst onto the scene, and they were on the rise with Dogfight… These boys can write… Oh, my gosh! They have this unbelievable wisdom and insight that surpasses their very young ages. I walked in and said, "I could be your babysitter! Both of you!" [Laughs.] But they write as though they both have had children… They just have unbelievable insight and profound storytelling gifts actually. I think that is going to be the element that really surprises people about this production. It will have all the pieces that make everybody happy, like, "Oh, there's the pink bunny rabbit suit, and there's the mashed potato scene," but then there's this score that is so smart and so funny and so full of heart. I feel like I kind of won the lottery.
Clockwise from top left: Dilly, John Bolton, Johnny Rabe and Zac Ballard
photo by Carol Rosegg
Question: How would you describe Mother as she is written in the musical? Dilly: I really see her as the heartbeat. She's the grounding heartbeat of the family. [Laughs.] It's not unlike my own life. I'm always getting somebody fed, somebody clothed, somebody bathed or somebody to bed, but trying to do it with an awareness of the fact that these experiences, even though they're hard, and even though they're every family's struggle, and there's never enough money, that these moments are fleeting. I'm only going to get to see Ralphie in a bunny suit once — one Christmas. I'm only going to get to stuff my boy into the snowsuit one season, and then he'll be like, "I got it, Mom!" So she's heart. She radiates this warmth, and then every once and a while, she'll have this ironic sly sense of humor about all of it that I always think is a lovely surprise. You think she's kind of just holding down the fort, and then she'll say something a little bit kooky… All moms are a little crazy — you have to be — to maintain the level of multitasking that all of us are maintaining. Crazy in a good way! [Laughs.]
Question: Tell me about working with John Rando. Have you worked with him before? Dilly: I always feel like I've worked with him more than I have because he's like my soul-mate director. We did a play together about ten years ago called Things You Shouldn't Say Past Midnight Off-Broadway, and I think it was just as he was kind of exploding onto the scene, and I just thought, "Who is this funny, warm, intelligent, kind man who likes to get in the sandbox and play?" He's not a man who sits behind the table and just pontificates or points. He gets up and puts on the costumes and puts on the hats and throws himself into pratfalls. He's so unbelievably inspiring to be with, and he has such a handle, particularly, on this material because he has a 14-year-old boy. And so the whole Dad-Randy-Ralphie connection, he's just living it. He's walking around breathing it, and the fact that Rando always has heart — always he leads with heart — but he's so funny. He's so funny, personally, and he sees humor in almost everything he does. I think he's like the absolute perfect hand to guide this.
John Bolton, Zac Ballard, Johnny Rabe and Dilly with Pete and Lily
Photo by Carol Rosegg
Question: What's it been like working with the two dogs? Dilly: [Laughs.] I'm so sad! I don't get to play with them! They're Lily and Pete, and only John does — John Bolton — because they want John to have the only significant connection to the dogs, since all the business is based around John on stage, so I just look longingly at them and want to kiss their slobbery faces because I'm a total dog freak. I've got two at home… Truly, the kids in our show, and the dogs… Again, "don't work with animals or children," but they will rightfully walk away with this show.
Question: Was there something appealing about doing this show since it's just a limited run? Dilly: Oh, my gosh! It's right up a mother's alley! [Laughs.] I was like, "Yes!" What I've been doing in television is working episodically, which has worked. The gods have been good to me this year. I've been working episodically on Broadway. It's kind of nice! [Laughs.] It's such a warm, hilarious show. It's going to be a nice place to go to work over the holidays. Both my girls are excited to see it. They're excited to meet all the kids in the show, so the event of it doesn't make them feel, "Oh, Mommy's going to work." It makes them excited, too.
Question: Since it is A Christmas Story, what are some of your own holiday rituals? Dilly: Traditions! Well, the big Buntrock tradition is that my husband — and it's something he created… Well, there's two things. There's two. One is Bob the Elf shows up on Dec. 1. He's the little elf that comes to our house. [Laughs.] He is sort of like Santa's spy — and based on the children's good behavior or lack thereof, he brings them a treat every day in December for Christmas. Sometimes, he's not there because they've been naughty or there's been a tantrum. But, the big tradition is we have this huge, huge Christmas Eve blowout party. It started very sweetly and simply about eight years ago when my husband just cooked for about six of our friends. And, the next year it became like 20. I think we topped out one year at about 65 on Christmas Eve, where he cooks like a madman. He's so happy. He cooks and cooks and cooks. I walk around and serve the drinks and tell stories and kiss the children. We basically open our doors to the entire neighborhood to come and just celebrate for a couple hours on Christmas Eve, and sometimes he takes his musket out at midnight and shoots it into the air. [Laughs.] It depends on how much wine my husband has had, but he is a Civil War re-enactor, and inevitably every Christmas Eve he claims, "Honey, somebody wanted to see my musket!" So he takes it out to the backyard and shoots it off.
Dilly in Follies with Joey Sorge, Lauren Ward and Richard Roland
Question: Looking back, do you have a favorite theatrical experience? Is there one that stands out in your mind? Dilly: You know what remains, I think, one of my most amazing times was Follies — not the most recent Follies, but the first revival that Matthew Warchus directed — and, I think, it was in part because it was my Broadway debut, but also because the alchemy of people was so extraordinary. It was Blythe Danner and Judith Ivey and Kelli O'Hara and Richard Roland and Joey Sorge — people who still, to this day, remain dear and close friends of mine. I got to sit down and watch people like Treat [Williams] and Judith and Blythe do their stuff and Polly Bergen and Betty Garrett — God rest her soul. It was just sort of like a parade of people to learn from. And then we also just happened to absolutely fall in love. It was as positive of an experience I could have had, actually. But I don't know, this is going to be right there up there. I'm a big, sobbing idiot at rehearsals. I'm crying. We all cry at this show because it's surprisingly moving. There are moments of such musically profound truths that you go, "Ah!" And, it's not just sentimental. It's so wise. The storytelling, musically, is so wise. And, funny. These boys are funny.
Question: Is there a plan to put it on each season? Dilly: The producers are so classy and so full of integrity and heart, I think their absolute intention is to maybe — not dissimilar to White Christmas — find the market for it each year. If it's just going to be a small tour next year and come back to Broadway in a bigger venue, and I do think it's the beginning of a long tradition. I think it's going to knock New York out. I really do because it's not like a cute holiday show. It's this beautiful, smart reinvention of something that's always meant so much to people, but now lands emotionally in a much more powerful place.
Question: Is there a chance that it can extend if it does prove to be a hit? Dilly: Wouldn't that be lovely?! I mean, it's A Christmas Story. I watch it all the time anyway. I don't know, but let's put that in the universe right here and now. I would like that very much.
Question: Last question: Any other projects in the works or are you just focusing on this at the moment? Dilly: You know what, this and the raising of Anna and Cady and Stephen. [Laughs.] I am full up at the inn, but really, really happy and very grateful.
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to email@example.com.