DIVA TALK: Chatting with Tony Nominees Aziza, Benanti, Martin, Merediz and Sayre

By Andrew Gans
23 May 2008

Nominated for her performance as Frau Blucher in Young Frankenstein at the Hilton Theatre.

Tony Award winner Andrea Martin, perhaps the funniest gal in town, was actually out of town when she heard the good news about her 2008 Tony nomination. "I was in Boston at the Harvard Faculty Club," Martin said the afternoon of May 13. "My first reaction was, 'I'm so glad they called me before nine' because my complimentary breakfast was gonna close. So I was very happy that I heard the great news and I could still get a free croissant," she laughs.

Martin is Tony-nominated for her riotous performance as Frau Blucher in the new musical Young Frankenstein, which is based on the classic Mel Brooks film of the same name. About working with the legendary Brooks, Martin says, "It was very smooth and kind of seamless because we both have the same backgrounds in collaborating and sketch comedy and everybody tossing in ideas [where] the best idea works. In that way our styles were very similar. He was respectful of my contribution, and I was welcoming of anything that a man of his genius had to say. So that was very collaborative and fun and not intimidating. It was really great."

When asked about the challenges of her role as well as her favorite moments in the new musical at the Hilton Theatre, Martin says, "For me, the most challenging is to remain true to the integrity of the character without going for laughs. . . and my favorite moment is when I exit up the stairs. Often times it doesn't get an applause exit, and when I'm coming down the stairs on the other side, two of the crew always greet me and either say, 'Wow, you did it,' or, 'To hell with that audience! After all, it's only a Tuesday night. We got tomorrow!' That's my favorite moment," she laughs.

It's been an emotional week or so for Martin, who was recently honored at Boston's Elliot Norton Awards and also reunited with her "SCTV" acting company. "We hadn't worked together for over 27 years. We did two benefits in Toronto Monday and Tuesday night. And now this! And then doing the show at the same time — there's a lot to process."

And, what does a Tony nomination mean for Martin at this point in her award-winning career? "I guess the stakes are higher the older you get and the more [shows] you're in," she answers. "The first time I got a Tony nomination, I was in L.A., and I didn't even know they were going to be announced. I was a novice, so that had a different kind of excitement. This has a kind of excitement of validation, I guess, that there's some longevity and people still appreciate what I do, so that's a nice thing.

"I have to say," Martin concludes, "I'm really enjoying [Young Frankenstein], really enjoying the audiences loving it and laughing at it. And, I just think the world of the cast."

Olga Merediz with Mandy Gonzalez in In the Heights.
photo by Joan Marcus
Nominated for her performance as Abuela Claudia in In the Heights at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.

Olga Merediz takes a personal journey each night playing Abuela Claudia, the loving grandmother in the Washington Heights-based musical In the Heights, which garnered 13 Tony nominations, the most of any show of the season.

Merediz, who was born in Cuba and raised in Puerto Rico, says she relates to the show's theme of home and identity. "It's mostly my parents' story," she says. "I can relate to it, especially from an emotional standpoint — not specifically what Abuela Claudia goes through — but what we went through as Cuban refugees. . . . I'm very connected to it, the whole pain of leaving home and finding another home and the journey of an exile — of what you have to go through to assimilate and to become a citizen."

The challenge of her role, Merediz says, is playing a much older woman. "The whole energy of the person is not my energy," she explains. "I have nervous energy, and I'm quick and I'm very snappy. This is slow [and] talking different. The voice isn't mine, and also the walk, how she thinks. It's a whole different persona, and that takes a lot of energy out of me. If it was just my natural energy, it wouldn't be so exhausting. The walk does something to my back and my neck because I have to be crouched over a little bit. So it's challenging in that physical sense and energy-wise."

Another challenge, but one she looks forward to each night, is her show-stopping performance of Lin-Manuel Miranda's "Paciencia y Fe." "I get very nervous," Merediz says about performing the vocally demanding song. "I want to be truthful in the moment and take each moment of the song. It goes through many different facets — it's a whole trip that song, a whole journey. I want to make sure that I hit all those moments and that I'm truthful and that I'm grounded, that I hit my notes, and that I reach the audience in a real way, in a genuine, grounded way, truthful as the character.

"Recently," she admits, "I've been sort of peering a little bit [into the audience], and I see people crying [following 'Paciencia']. It's astonishing and very rewarding to see that."

And, how has Merediz, whose Broadway resume also includes Mamma Mia!, Reckless, Man of La Mancha, Les Misérables and The Human Comedy, reacted to her first Tony nomination? "It's very emotional for me," she says, "because I've been in this business for a long time playing different little parts here and there in TV, film and stage. Just to be recognized is what we live for, and to be recognized by your peers is . . . I'm just so very happy to be recognized." It seems "Patience and Faith" have paid off for the actress.

Loretta Ables Sayre in South Pacific.
photo by Joan Marcus
Nominated for her performance as Bloody Mary in South Pacific at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.

"I actually had two phones that rang simultaneously this morning, and I didn't know which one to grab," Loretta Ables Sayre told me the day the 2008 Tony Award nominations were announced.

Those calls were from her friend Greg and Tony-nominated South Pacific director Bartlett Sher. "My friend Greg was screaming. I couldn't understand what he said. And Bart just kept saying, 'Congratulations, darling, congratulations!' I thought that he was calling to tell me that the show had been nominated. It didn't even sink into my brain that he was talking about me. And then he told me, 'You got it! You got it!' I sat there probably for five minutes asking him over and over, 'Are you sure?'," she laughs. "So I still am in shock. I haven't seen it printed or anything on television or on the computer yet."

Sayre, who hails from Hawaii, is currently making her Broadway debut in the acclaimed revival of South Pacific, bringing Bloody Mary to full life, exploring not only the character's comedy but her warmth and her desires for her young daughter. About her Tony nomination, Sayre says, "This is one of the things I never really thought was going to happen at all. I'm totally honest when I say I'm just so grateful to have a job. This is just the biggest shock in the whole world because I feel like nobody knows who I am. I'm grateful to be able to go onstage and do this role. I certainly didn't know that there were people out there that knew who I was and would honor me with this kind of nomination. I'm just out of my mind, happy and in shock.

"That I would be among the handful of people chosen for a nomination," she adds, "is [mind-boggling], especially when you think of, in the grand scheme of things, how many people in the world get an honor like this. To be put in that file with the people that have been nominated before me, and coming from Hawaii, this is much larger than even I could have dreamed. My dream was to get a job here. The rest of this stuff was too big to even think that far. I am totally, totally honored and humbled, which seems so clichéd, but it truly is. Just to feel that respect that I have gotten from other people, to put me in the top five, is unbelievably overwhelming. I'm grateful. I'm just so grateful."

The most challenging part of playing Bloody Mary, Sayre jokes, is "hitting all of the right notes every night! To keep that passion inside of her alive and fresh for every single audience — that's the biggest challenge, but it's the best challenge in the world. It really makes you compete with yourself to be the best that you can and to bring it every night."

["Diva Talk" will feature a complete interview with Loretta Ables Sayre in the coming weeks.]

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