Hello, Again! John Dossett and Michele Pawk Share Another Stage in Giant
By Adam Hetrick
Married acting couple John Dossett and Michele Pawk were brought together by a Michael John LaChiusa musical. Now, years later, here they are again, now in LaChiusa's Giant.
Theatre couple John Dossett and Michele Pawk have been making music together for nearly two decades. The couple first met at Lincoln Center Theater in the 1993 production of Michael John LaChiusa's Hello Again and are reunited on stage this season in the composer-lyricist's latest musical Giant, which opened Off-Broadway at the Public Theater Nov. 15, for a run to Dec. 16.
Playbill.com caught up with Dossett and Pawk prior to a recent evening performance of the sweeping, Texas-set musical that has music and lyrics by LaChiusa and a book by Sybille Pearson. It's based on Edna Ferber's 1952 novel about the changing social and physical landscape of Texas in the first 50 years of the 20th century. Dossett appears as rancher Bick Benedict's Uncle Bawley, with Pawk as Bick's rough-hewn sister Luz in Giant — but they first encountered each other on a bed, as the Senator and the Actress in Hello Again.
The two of you really met during Hello Again?
Michele Pawk: Yes, and here we are doing another Michael John LaChiusa piece in the basement of another theatre. We tend to gravitate toward the basement! [Laughs].
Did you both know there was a spark early on? You share a pretty steamy scene together in Hello Again.
MP: Our lives were very complicated at that time, there was a lot of other stuff going on. I don't know that I knew when you knew.
The cast album of Hello Again was the first time I encountered the two of you. It also introduced me to a lot of big talent, like Donna Murphy, John Cameron Mitchell, Carolee Carmello and Malcolm Gets. That's a really impressive group.
MP: I knew of everyone kind of peripherally at the time. I hadn't been in New York all that long. I had only done Crazy for You, really. And I remember when I jumped through the various hoops and then getting cast, thinking, "I'm in the room that I really want to be in!" I was so honored to be in that cast with those actors. And then Michael John, who is just a genius, I think. The idea to take La Ronde, and to not only tell that story with 10 people, [but] to jump time periods, and to do so musically —
Giant has undergone lots of revisions and streamlining since its premiered in Virginia at the Signature Theatre. Was Hello Again revised extensively during rehearsals and previews?
JD: Her scene! …Scene 8! There was a different version almost every other day. When it was all said and done, Michael John gave us as an opening night gift, what he called "The Scene 8 Songbook," which was every version of that particular scene.
What has the Giant process been like? Michele, you're new to the Public production, but John, you've been with it since Virginia, correct?
JD: No, actually we were both in the first reading. I had to drop out because I was doing another show. That was four and a half years ago.
Can you tell me a bit about being in the middle of the revision process on such an ambitious work?
MP: Obviously, with the help of our director Michael Greif, and I think with [Public artistic director] Oskar Eustis' help, too, they made such smart choices about streamlining it. If you were going to take it from a three-act structure and bring it down to two, you have to ask, "What can you lose and still keep the meat and the juice — and still have people care about the love story? And keep that epicness of it, of what that novel is?" I think they did an amazing job. That's hard to do.
What's it like working with LaChiusa again? Do you have an ongoing relationship with him?
JD: It's just so comfortable. It just fits. He just speaks to us. His work is like Sondheim the way it hits you emotionally. We saw First Lady Suite here at the Public in 1993.
It's not too often you get to share a stage together. Does it feel pressurized for you, or is it a treat?
JD: It's great.
Giant is a really powerful piece. It makes theatregoers flex their muscles, too. Unfortunately, producers don't always see shows like this as commercially viable. Non-profit theatres are really the perfect homes for new works like this. For LaChiusa, Lincoln Center Theater and the Public have really been integral in his development. It allows audiences and writers to grow together. Is this an environment that drives you as an actor, too?
MP: I only want to be in those rooms. I want to be in the room with collaborative, creative people who inspire me to be better. That's really all I want to do. I might have said something different when I was younger. But to nurture new work, it's all there is for me. We are so grateful to the Public for not only nurturing the piece, but for doing it right. Going the extra mile and producing it in such a class-A production: All of those glorious musicians — and our conductor Chris Fenwick, who is like Giant personified! Where would the musical theatre be without the Public, LCT, and Ted and Mary Jo Shen [of The Ted and Mary Jo Shen Charitable Fund]? They are people who take the risk and believe in it.
I didn't realize how politically relevant Giant is, especially in light of recent politics and the election. I was unaware of the Mexican-American racism that was so prevalent in Texas culture.
MP: That's what, to me, is revelatory about the novel. I just read it for the first time this summer. I kept calling John and saying, "This could have been written today." It's about greed, about love of the land and sacrifice, about politics, about race, about immigration. Here we are in Arizona having the same discussion. It's profound. That's what is so interesting: this novel that was written in 1951 is still so relevant. Here we are looking at ourselves again.
The opening sequence made me fall in love with Texas, a state I don't always consider beautiful. You've both been to Texas; John did Giant at Dallas Theater Center.
MP: We've seen skies in that state that rival anything I've ever seen.
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