DIVA TALK: Chatting with Damn Yankees' Jane Krakowski Plus News of Paige and Jones

By Andrew Gans
27 Jun 2008

Jane Krakowski
Jane Krakowski
Photo by Ben Strothmann

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

Jane Krakowski
Last summer, City Center launched its Encores! Summer Stars series with a thrilling production of Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents' Gypsy, which later transferred to Broadway and recently won 2008 Tony Awards for its three dynamic leads: Patti LuPone, Boyd Gaines and Laura Benanti. This summer, the acclaimed series is offering the classic baseball-themed musical Damn Yankees, which features a score by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, a book by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop and is based on Wallop's novel "The Year The Yankees Lost the Pennant." Heading the cast in the role originally created by four-time Tony winner Gwen Verdon is another Tony-winning actress, Jane Krakowski, whose theatre resume boasts an Olivier Award-winning turn in the London revival of Guys and Dolls, the Broadway productions of Starlight Express, Grand Hotel, Company and Once Upon a Mattress and the show for which she won her Tony, the David Leveaux-directed revival of Nine. And, who better to play the Devil's seductive assistant Lola than Krakowski, who so memorably made her entrance in the aforementioned Nine sliding down from the heavens wrapped in only a bed sheet? Krakowski, who is known to TV audiences for her work on "Ally McBeal" and "30 Rock," gets to share the City Center stage with a star-studded company: "Will & Grace" Emmy winner Sean Hayes plays Mr. Applegate, Xanadu's Cheyenne Jackson has been cast as Joe Hardy and Tony Award winner Randy Graff is Meg Boyd. Earlier this week I had the pleasure of chatting with Krakowski, who sprinkles her conversation with infectious laughter; that interview follows.

Question: How did the role of Lola come about for you?
Jane Krakowski: Basically they just called me! [Laughs.] I really wanted to do an Encores! [production]. Because of the new summer series, it worked out really well with my "30 Rock" schedule. It's so awesome to be doing a TV show in New York, but I also really miss performing live. The last time [I was onstage] in New York was Nine, and then I did Guys and Dolls in London. I was really longing for performing back onstage again. This call came and I [thought], "This is so perfect!" It worked out really well. The thing is, I didn't know the show that well. I had always heard of the role of Lola, but I never saw a production [of Damn Yankees]. I knew it must have been a good part if it was [played by] Gwen Verdon, and obviously Bob Fosse [choreographed]. But I have to say, now that I've been working on it, I had no idea what an awesome role it is. It is such a great part. It's so fun to be Lola! [Laughs.] She's got such great numbers. We're doing all of the original Fosse choreography, which has been a challenge because I've never done it before. But I am so loving it and so thrilled now that I got a chance to do it sometime in my life. I've been really happy with it. I'm getting a little nervous because we show [it to] people in a week.

Question: How long is the rehearsal period?
Krakowski: Three weeks. For the Summer Series, you get an extra week, [but] it's three weeks to put on an entire Broadway show! We've got John Lee Beatty doing sets, William Ivey Long doing costumes…it's the best of the best showing up for this Summer Series. It's pretty incredible how everyone just comes together and it all somehow gets done in the three weeks. . . . Until yesterday, I kind of felt like we were just doing a Fosse workshop, and we were going to perform it at [choreographer] Mary MacLeod's living room. Then yesterday I was like, "Oh yeah, we gotta show other people this!" [Laughs.] So I'm going to be working on that over the next week.

Question: When you got the role, did you seek out the film?
Krakowski: I did watch the film. Initially we were supposed to be doing "in the style of" Fosse choreography, which I felt that I could probably handle. I was always worried about the dancing in the sense that I know that Gwen Verdon and Bebe Neuwirth [who starred in the Damn Yankees revival] are considered amazing dancers, so I wanted to make sure I was able to do it. I watched the movie to see the original choreography, and I was like, "Holy cow!" I then met with Mary MacLeod a little bit earlier than everyone to make sure I could do the dances. As I say now, I'm really pleased that that's how it worked out. I'm really thrilled that I've gotten the opportunity to do the Fosse choreography. I only watched the movie, really, to see the extent of the choreography. . . . [The movie is] very '50s and . . .Technicolor. It's a very '50s movie musical. I never saw Gwen [perform Damn Yankees onstage], so it was pretty incredible that she's on film doing it. She is so special that I think it is slightly daunting to take on any part that she played. She's so beloved and so talented. I didn't want to be a slave to her in the film, because I think it would be too intimidating, frankly. I did watch for the steps, and I have to sort of let it go at this point so I can make it my own.



Even though she's the Devil's assistant, she has a great heart, which I think is the journey of Lola during the play. One of the most famous songs is "You Gotta Have Heart," and I think that's actually very true for most of the characters in the play, except possibly Applegate. [Laughs.] Lola does make a change and reconsiders all of her choices of selling her soul to the Devil. I think that Gwen's vulnerability and warmth absolutely influenced that in the making of the show.

Krakowski with Damn Yankees co-stars Sean Hayes and Cheyenne Jackson.
photo by Joan Marcus
Question: What's it been like working with John Rando, who is directing?
Krakowski: He's so great. I had never met him before. We've not worked together. I met him on the first day of rehearsals here. You know, he loves baseball! [Laughs.] So he's the perfect guy for the job, and his enthusiasm for baseball is very infectious. He loves the piece so much. He's such a champion…I sort of feel like he's the mayor of baseball and of the enthusiasm for this production. He's been pretty incredible to have as our leader.

Not only do I think it's an asset that we're doing the original Fosse choreography, but we're keeping it very '50s, and I think that is the way to go. We're not reinventing the show. We're not taking it darker or a more modern look at Damn Yankees. [Laughs.] Before I did Guys and Dolls, honestly, I had never done what I consider a more old-fashioned, traditional musical. When I got [Guys and Dolls], I sort of thought, "I'm not right for this!" … I had never played a part in musical theatre where people meant everything they said. There's no subtext, they actually mean what they're saying. [Laughs.] I think musicals post-Sondheim have subtext and irony. The ones pre-[Sondheim] don't. It was a very interesting experience for me to do that show and to actually learn the joy of those musicals. I ended up loving doing Guys and Dolls and playing that role and actually meaning everything you say. It was actually quite freeing. The more you gave into the skit — if I could use that word — or the genuineness of the material, what was on the page, the better it was and the more the audience enjoyed it and the more enjoyable it was to play. That experience actually changed me quite a bit in that it made me more open to doing more old-fashioned, Golden Age musicals.

In this production I'm really glad we're embracing the '50s-ness of it because I think it is integrally '50s. There's no way to avoid it if you do the original choreography because there are so many steps that are awesome and signature moves, but that you would never pick if you were creating a new musical today. [Laughs.] You could never do a turn, throw your hair back and put your hands on your hips with your legs astray and start singing. [Laughs.] You'd be like, "What?" But in this, not only do you want to do it . . . it's meant for that, and there's no other place where you could really do it. I'm really embracing that side of the '50s choices.

Question: It's such a great cast, too. Tell me about working with Sean Hayes and Cheyenne Jackson and Randy Graff.
Krakowski: When I heard the list, I just was astounded and thrilled with the great people that they got for every role. Sean Hayes — I think people are going to be blown away by him. This is his New York debut, but he is an unbelievable showman. He is meant for this world. I have a complete comedy crush on this guy. We have really great chemistry, but the man can do nothing that is not funny. Literally, I asked him the other day, "Do you wake up with funny thoughts?" It's pretty incredible. He's such a great, fun guy.

Cheyenne Jackson is just a dream. We had become friends after doing the Xanadu workshop, so we had always wanted to do something together after that. I feel really lucky that I get to do this with him. And, he's just so dreamy, you know? [Laughs.]

And I was thrilled when I heard Randy Graff was playing Meg. She has such an earthy realness that I think adds so much to that side of the story, so I think she's a gift to the production as well. It makes the show very balanced, but it also makes you really root for what is the story — that Joe gets to go home. She's wonderful. Unfortunately, we lost Ana Gasteyer [who was injured during rehearsals], but we've gotten Megan Lawrence. It's turned out good, but it was weird when you only have three weeks to have to make a switch out. Everyone's great. All the baseball players are great. The dancers are amazing. It's just a really great group of people. There seems to be an enthusiasm, and everyone is really excited for the production. The whole vibe is really good.

Question: I know last summer the Summer Stars production of Gypsy ended up transferring. Is there any talk of Damn Yankees possibly transferring, or is this being looked at as a limited run?
Krakowski: I don't know. It seems like because the Encores series has produced such successful productions that have moved, I think [that's always the question]. . . . That's been the pattern. I don't know if they have specific sights yet. I think everything depends on how it all turns out and what the response is to it, so we'll see.

Question: Would you be open to a Broadway run, or does your TV schedule conflict?
Krakowski: It would depend on when it ran. I would love to be able to try because it's such a great part. If I could do "30 Rock" in the day and dance my butt off in Damn Yankees at night, that would be really fun, if it happens. I would love to try if we are lucky enough for that to happen.

Krakowski in Nine.
photo by Joan Marcus
Question: Going back to your last Broadway show, Nine — what did it mean to you winning the Tony?
Krakowski: It was pretty incredible. I grew up in New Jersey. I was one of those people who watched and videotaped the Tonys every year and kept a highlight reel every year. I saw every Broadway show as a kid. Basically, I would sit there in the audience and go, "I wish I could do that one day." The fact that I even get in Broadway shows is, to me, still amazing, but then to win a Tony was just incredible. I don't know, it definitely is an out-of-body experience when it's happening. I really don't remember those five minutes very well. But when it's on my bookshelf, I'm like, "Oh yeah, it really did happen!" So that's kind of cool. It was a great experience, my whole Nine experience. . . . I was living in L.A. for five years with "Ally McBeal" and then [was able to] come back and to get into a Broadway show that I thought was so beautifully done. I loved what David Leveaux did to this Nine. And to have Antonio Banderas and Chita Rivera [as co-stars]. One of my earliest memories of coming to see Broadway shows was seeing Chicago with Gwen Verdon and Chita and Jerry Orbach. I remember just being blown away by them. In the curtain call where they throw out roses, Chita Rivera threw me one when I was like ten years old. Then to get to work with her was pretty incredible.

The weird thing about the Tony race is that year there were so many amazing performances — in Nine alone. I was [nominated] opposite Mary Stuart Masterson and Chita Rivera in my own show, so you kind of wish that everyone could win. Even this year, in the lead actress category, I thought every one of those people could have won or, in other years, would have won. That category was just insane. The performances were amazing this year...it's always hard when one person has to win.

Question: You talked a bit about TV and film and coming back to theatre. What does theatre give you that the other forms don't?
Krakowski: I love it! I love the discipline of it. I love how hard you have to work. I think because I started with dance lessons and that discipline of ballet and dance, it's something that is very satisfying to me. I love that you have to eat right and sleep right so you can be ready at eight o'clock to do the best show you can. It sounds so geeky, but I really do love being exhausted during "10 out of 12" when you have to somehow get energy to put the show out there for previews. I love it. I think that's mostly what it is. I also love the collaborative process. The rehearsal process is always so fun. You learn so much from everybody's input. Even if someone just says something in passing, it goes in and it means something and becomes a part of your performance. Even photos, collage photos that are put on a wall — everyone has an influence in everyone else's performance, and I really enjoy that collaborative work.

Question: Getting back to Damn Yankees. How would you describe Lola?
Krakowski: Oh, my God! How would I describe Lola? I guess she's described as the Devil's assistant. It's interesting when they say things about her in the play. Sean has a line, "I'm giving you the opportunity to meet one of the most interesting women in history," and you're like, "Sh*t! That's before I even come out! I've got a lot to live up to!" [Laughs.] It's like, "Sean, you don't have to sell me that far." I do think, because of the numbers that she gets, she is one of the great singing/dancing/acting roles in musical theatre. I think there's not that many leading roles where dance is a big part of the vocabulary of the character. I think if you take on any part that Gwen created, you're going to have that. It's in Sweet Charity and a lot of the other shows that they did, because of the creations that were made between Bob and Gwen.

What I think is so fun about the part, and what surprised me about the choreography, is how goofy it is and how athletic it is. I'm one of those people who knows the Bob Fosse a little later in his career, Cabaret, Chicago, when he was more about simplicity and minimalism. I think his earlier choreography, like in Damn Yankees, is so athletic. "Who's Got the Pain?" is a full-out aerobic mambo! [Laughs.] And, "Whatever Lola Wants," all the steps in it are not what you would expect as seductive, sexy steps. They're actually really out there and very goofy and comic and character-driven. . . . Because Mary MacLeod learned all the steps from Gwen, every step is rooted in a character choice. For example, when she is taking her pants off on the floor — she does sort of this vogue move to take her pants off — but it was basically picked because Lola used to be the ugliest woman in Providence, and she used to be very fat. Gwen and Bob created that step as if it was a fat girl taking off a snowsuit. These things are very thought out. Because Mary learned from Gwen, we've been given a lot of stories. You wonder when you do a revival why things were created. You sort of have to do the puzzle in a backwards way because you weren't there. It's kind of amazing that all of those steps were really thought out character-wise. I find that very exciting to learn that process.

Question: Do you feel, in a way, that you are now a small part of Fosse's history? Because someone is teaching you these steps, someday you might have to teach them to someone else.
Krakowski: Don't ask me to do that! [Laughs.] I'm just trying to do the best I can right now. I will say there are moments, especially when I was originally learning it, when you just have to stop and say, "That is so f***ing Fosse!" He had his own language that nobody does in the same way. There are steps that are irreverent, where [Lola is] doing this sort of prowling step and suddenly she stops to scratch an itch — but in such a Fosse way — with the broken-ankle look, and it just stops for a second and then she picks up right where she was. It's like, "Who does that except Fosse?" I'm really thrilled that I've gotten the chance to give it a try.

[Damn Yankees, which will play City Center July 5-27, is directed by John Rando with musical direction by Rob Berman. Mary MacLeod is re-creating the original Bob Fosse choreography. Opening night is July 10. City Center is located in Manhattan at West 55th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. For tickets, priced $25-$110, call (212) 581-1212 or visit www.nycitycenter.org.] Continued...