PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Joanna Gleason; Tony Winner Makes Her Cabaret Debut at 54 Below and Talks Into the Woods

By Adam Hetrick
October 9, 2013

Tony Award-winning actress Joanna Gleason, who took audiences Into the Woods as the original Baker's Wife, makes her long-awaited New York City solo cabaret debut Oct. 9 for a three-performance engagement at 54 Below.



Accompanied by the string quartet Well Strung, Gleason will perform Oct. 9, 16 and 23 at 9:30 PM. The evenings promise "tunes ranging from Billy Joel to Dave Frishberg to Johnny Mathis, with maybe even a little walk through the woods."

In addition to her Tony-winning turn in Into the Woods, Gleason garnered Tony nominations for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. She earned acclaim for her performance in Stephen Karam's Sons of the Prophet and has appeared in The Normal Heart, Nick & Nora, The Real Thing and I Love My Wife.

Playbill.com spoke with Gleason about taking the plunge with her cabaret debut, the challenges of creating a new solo show and her memories of Into the Woods, in the days leading up to her 54 Below bow.

It's surprising that the 54 Below engagement marks your New York cabaret debut.
Joanna Gleason: To be quite honest, I've ducked it for about 30 years because I looked at it like this complete world that was outside of my capabilities. [Laughs.] There are gorgeous men and women who sing and can hold a whole evening of singing. And I thought, "Well, that's kind of not me. I'm an actress who is okay within the context of doing a show or in character. But to just get up as myself, what in the world would I do or say that would be of any interest?"

What made this the right time?
JG: I did two concerts in Provincetown this past summer with Seth Rudetsky and with the quartet Well Strung. I love them. I took the plunge! I was terrified. But Seth is such a master that it was easy for me. It was getting my feet wet. Then, I thought, "That was the summer, that was fun." But Phil Geoffrey Bond from 54 Below called me and I thought this is a sign. The universe was saying, "You know what, Gleason? You have these dreams? Well, wake up." This was my flight or fight moment. I thought, "Well, why the hell not?" I knew that I could write for myself the structure of the story I wanted to tell. You've got to be revealing, why else are people coming? They want to learn about you. What is it about me? What are the songs that have been essential to my life? And what's the part of the story people don't know? So I put it together and it turns out it's an evening to my surprise. That's not to say I don't have those "Holy crap what am I doing?" moments. But I'm doing things that I secretly longed to do.

Joanna Gleason
photo by Michael Crook

I think many people don't realize how difficult it is to create an evening where you are simply yourself without the aid of someone else's script or a character. Does that leave you feeling exposed?
JG: You are exposed. But the thing that is true always, that makes for the connection with any audience, even when there's no character to hide behind, is honesty. If you are stripped bare and you are letting them in, you owe them the truth. So, without it being the kind of night that makes people run screaming from theatre - I'm hoping that it's funny. It's kind of like when you wind up the Joanna Gleason doll and it totters across the floor. "What wound her up? Where did she come from? What has been the thing you would not have known about me or my life? And what have I been looking for and did I find it?" And that's the story.

Audiences who have followed your stage work will also finally have the chance to connect with you up close. Is that kind of personal connection something that appeals to you?
JG: I think that's kind of fabulous. It's like over to dinner and I'm saying, "This is what you're gonna eat. Here's what we're serving and unless you're Gleason intolerant, it should be okay!" [Laughs.] I first thought of cabaret as being "You're out there alone." The fact of the matter is that I'm anything but alone. The fact that you're sitting right there is reinforcement that I'm not alone.

How did the music shape the evening? Did you find that the narrative was driven by musical choices or the text you wrote?
JG: The show asks, "What are the songs that have been the underscoring for your life?" That's what this search was about. It's not one of those shows that says, "And then I did..." That's just not me. Also, I'm not a songbird. I can sing. I'm not one of those glorious women and men who do cabaret because they have a very extraordinary instrument and a gift for revealing an entire songbook. I just needed to get up there and tell you a story.

Bernadette Peters, Robert Westenberg, Joanna Gleason, Chip Zien and Tom Aldredge in Into the Woods.

Will there be any moments from your theatre career? What were some of the musical touchstones that anchor your life?
JG: Of course, I will sing some Sondheim. There's a song from another show, but there's not a lot of show tunes. There are some songs from the 40s, there's some Billy Joel and James Taylor, there's a song from the Dixie Chicks, there's a few standards, too. But it's all within the context of the story I'm telling you. The music will carry you through the story. The trick is not to talk too much, then the song takes you where I'd like you to go in my life. But more often than not, the patter came first. Ironically, there are two songs that I sing, which are from the musical theatre, that have greater resonance where I place them in the story I'm telling than they did at the times I was doing the shows I was in. There's a kind of irony and symmetry in the use of the material. It becomes a bigger evening than I evening realized. But I think it was time to do this.

For Into the Woods fans, this is a real treat to see you outside a role. A moment I loved was your performance with Chip Zien during Stephen Sondheim's 80th Birthday celebration at Avery Fisher Hall. Your first line on "It Takes Two" from Into the Woods - "You've changed" was so wonderfully played.
JG: [Laughs.] It came to me at that moment! It had the added bonus for me and Chip in that we've been friends and so close for 27 years. We've watched our kids grow up together, and now we both have grandchildren. For us to go out there together – it's that feeling of not being alone, of someone knowing you so well, so there for you. I'm a big believer in partnerships; in fact, it's what I've been looking for my whole life: partners, family, belonging somewhere. With whom do I belong? It's been a search.

Fans of Into the Woods have grown up with the PBS taping with the original cast. In theatre it's rare that performances and entire shows are preserved in this way. Has it been something you've passed along with your children and grandchildren?
JG: My grandchildren are very little, but I'm sure they'll watch it. My son was able to watch it over and over again. He's now a married man - he's grown. Because of the PBS taping, it just continues to live, like "The Princess Bride" for my husband [Chris Sarandon]. It lives so that people give it to their children and it becomes a favorite of their children and then they pass it on. That's kind of a major footprint in our culture that you realize you've made sustained by technology.

What do you treasure from that experience?
JG: That show gave me so much. A sense of myself. It brought Chip into my life and all of the other kind of shiny stuff that came with it. I said to Steve [Sondheim] once, "It's as if you've stamped my passport and I could go anywhere."

It really is a special group of performers. It's been interesting to see how many original cast members continue to reappear in Sondheim's shows.
JG: I said this to Sondheim once, "You've created this family - this highly functional family of people who have a secret handshake because we've all done your shows. Though we may inhabit different kingdoms, there's a shared currency." When we did the birthday concerts for him a few years ago, it was wonderful to stand backstage with your arms around each other and remember where you were when you did those original shows.

Since you're charting new territory with 54 Below, what's next for you?
JG: I turned a little corner where I started writing. I've written a screenplay that I'll direct and I've written a novel. I wanted to tell the stories I wanted to tell. If you wait around to get the chance to be in some of this glorious stuff, it's a long wait. I didn't want to sit around waiting because the clock is ticking, and it's time to just kind of get in there and do stuff. So I took up tango a couple years ago. I do it all the time. And writing and now this show at 54 Below. I'm thinking this is not a bad way to spend my time.

For ticket to Joanna Gleason's 54 Below engagement, priced $45-$55, visit 54Below.com. There is a $25 food and beverage minimum. 54 Below is located at 254 W. 54th Street.