By Andrew Gans
23 Nov 2012
Randy Graff, a Tony Award winner for her dazzling work in the dual roles of Oolie and Donna in Cy Coleman and David Zippel's City of Angels, is one of our great singing actresses. Graff, who was also Tony-nominated for her work in A Class Act, epitomizes what I enjoy most in a musical theatre artist: simple, straightforward, concentrated singing that is delivered in a heartfelt and ultimately moving manner. Just listen to her beautiful and touching rendition of A Class Act's "The Next Best Thing to Love" on that show's cast recording. The New York native, who also scored in the Broadway comedies Laughter on the 23rd Floor and Moon Over Buffalo, has the distinction of creating the role of the ill-fated Fantine in the original Broadway company of the international hit Les Misérables, which makes its way to U.S. cinemas Christmas Day featuring a cast led by Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway. Earlier this week I had the pleasure of catching up with the gifted Graff, who reminisced about auditioning for, landing the role of, rehearsing and playing Fantine in the 1987 Broadway debut of Les Misérables; that brief chat follows.
Question: Take me back to about a month before you heard about the Les Miz audition. What had you done in New York at that time, and what, if you remember, were your career goals at that point?
Randy Graff: Prior to Les Miz, I was an understudy for Grease on Broadway. I understudied five parts, and I made my Broadway debut in a big bomb called Saravà. [Laughs.] And, I was doing a lot of regional theatre and Off-Broadway theatre, and I'll tell you — I have a very vivid memory. I was at the Broadway Theatre doing Saravà, and I was on the fire escape talking to P.J. Benjamin, who I later worked with opposite in Damn Yankees. Anyway, we were just talking when we were getting ready to close Saravà. It only ran six months. We actually didn't open — we previewed for six months. That's the big joke in the industry. We never really opened! [Laughs.] So, here's the memory: I was looking at the intersection of the signs at 52nd and Broadway, and I though to myself, "When will I ever be back here again?" And, that was '78. Eight years later, I was back at the Broadway in Les Miz at that very theatre.
Question: Before Les Miz, did you ever have doubts whether it would ever happen for you — that kind of success?
Graff: No. I knew it would happen, I just didn't know when. I wanted it to happen in a timely fashion, where I was ready and prepared for it. I didn't want it to happen too quickly. So when Les Miz happened, which was huge for everyone involved, I was thrilled, but I wasn't afraid of it. I felt ready and prepared.
Graff: I was very aware of it. I listened to the recording of Patti [LuPone] singing, and I thought, "Oh, I want to play that part. I want to audition for that part." And, I actually called Andy Zerman, who's a friend of mine who was casting for Johnson-Liff, and I said, "I really want to be seen for Fantine." And, he said, "We'll make sure we get you in." I had an agent at the time, but I just thought, "Why not? I'm going to call my friend Andy as well." And, they saw me, and I had a callback, and I was told that Patti, which is true, had first refusal on the Broadway company, so I had to wait a month for her to decide whether or not she was going to do it. And, I'll tell you exactly where I was when I found out — I was in the middle of an orchestra rehearsal for Fiddler, playing Tzeitel at Civic Light Opera. We were on a break, and I walked passed the stage manager's office, and there was a note in my box that said, "Call Johnson-Liff." And, I thought, "Well, they're not calling me to tell me I didn't get it." [Laughs.] And, I called them on a pay phone — no cell phones! And, Andy being a friend and Vinny [Liff] being a friend, because I knew them both from Grease, said, "You got it!" And, I just started jumping up and down and screaming, and Pat Quinn — God rest his soul — came down because everybody knew that I was waiting to hear. The whole company knew that I was waiting to hear. He heard me screaming, and he came down the stairs and said, "You got Fantine! You got Fantine! You got Fantine!" [Laughs.] And, we were both screaming and were shushed by the stage manager. But that's how I found out — it was fantastic.
Question: Do you remember what the audition process was like? Did they have you sing from the show?
Graff: Yeah, the first audition, everyone sang their own song, so I sang "Where is the Warmth?" That was my big audition song.
Question: That's one of my favorite songs.
Graff: Isn't it beautiful? Such a great song.
Question: And, no one does it anymore! Everyone does "Meadowlark."
Graff: I know! I give it to my students all the time, and I say, "Forget 'Meadowlark.' Sing this. This is better." I sang "Where is the Warmth?" and I was called back to sing "I Dreamed a Dream." And, I worked on it with my voice teacher. I was very, very, very nervous for my callback. I remember that.