DIVA TALK: Catching Up With Follies Star Jan Maxwell

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06 May 2011

Jan Maxwell
Jan Maxwell

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

The last time I spoke with the gifted Jan Maxwell, she had just received two 2010 Tony nominations — for her performances in the revivals of Ken Ludwig's Lend Me a Tenor and George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's The Royal Family.  The respected actress followed those acclaimed performances with the starring role in Second Stage Theatre's fall revival of Arthur Kopit's Wings, about a former wingwalker grounded by a stroke. And, now, Maxwell, who also received Tony nominations for her work in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Coram Boy, is part of the starry cast of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts' mounting of the Stephen Sondheim-James Goldman musical Follies. Helmed by Signature Theatre artistic director Eric Schaeffer, the classic musical will run May 7-June 19 in the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. The cast, it should be noted, is an embarrassment of riches, boasting two-time Tony winner Bernadette Peters as Sally Durant Plummer, multiple Tony nominee Maxwell as Phyllis Rogers Stone, two-time Tony nominee Danny Burstein as Buddy Plummer, Ron Raines as Benjamin Stone and Olivier Award winner Elaine Paige as Carlotta. Last week, I had the pleasure of chatting with Maxwell about her latest theatrical outing; that interview follows.

Question: How did you originally get involved with Follies?
Jan Maxwell: Well, I was doing Wings, and my agents called me and said that they'd offered me Follies at the Kennedy Center, and I said, "Oh, is that a good thing?" [Laughs.] And they said yes, and I didn't know Follies very much because I don't do that many musicals, so I wasn't really familiar with it, so they said, "Go on Google." [Laughs.] And, I kind of balked because it was out-of-town — I don't like to go out of town — but then there was a conference call with my agents, [laughs] and they kind of convinced me, and then I talked to my family, and they said, "Yeah, we think you should do it." So here I am!

Question: Has it been a good decision so far?
Maxwell: Oh yeah, I don't do many musicals, so I'm just thrilled to death to be learning how to dance, [laughs] and, of course, the music is absolutely stunning, and it's a really good acting piece, too, so, yeah, I couldn't be happier. Everybody is just lovely, and we are sweating to death — every morning we do two hours of tap, and then I do a couple hours on "Lucy and Jessie" a day. It's a lot. I've never been so tired, and I haven't been this thin in a long time. [Laughs.]


Costume Rendering for Phyllis
Costume Design by Gregg Barnes

Question: Now that you've gotten to explore her a bit, how would you describe Phyllis?
Maxwell: Oh, I absolutely love her. I think she's in a lot of pain. I think she's searching, and I think she's a bit jaded. But I think her heart's in the right place. I think she's looking at new beginnings in middle age, and it's tricky because it comes to this point in the play where she has this discovery that it's really not her, it's him. It's hard for someone — she keeps chasing him and wanting him to love her, and tries to perfect herself so much — to be what she thinks is good enough for him. We know these couples where somebody is just not capable of loving somebody else because he doesn't love himself, and I think she just comes to that realization and gives him an ultimatum, and then we go into the Follies section of it — into the kind of breakdown. [Laughs.]

Question: How is it, as an actor, to go from the very real party scene into that fantasyland?
Maxwell: Well, I kind of like it because I've never really seen it in a musical before, where it goes into another realm, and everybody kind of describes themselves in these numbers, after number, after number. So, I really rather like it. I think it's very intelligent, and it's very much — in the '70s when all this therapy was happening — indicative of that period, and smart in that way.

Question: Whenever I've seen the show, I'm always moved the first time that the ghosts come onstage. What is it like as an actor to have someone playing what's supposed to be a younger version of yourself?
Maxwell: Well, it's extremely moving. The show starts out with this gorgeous, haunting music, and these ghosts start to appear, and it's just absolutely stunning — it's also deep in our heats because we're actors. And, it's about the theatre and it's about this crumbling theatre, and it's just beautiful... When we finally see the ghosts in the second act and everybody starts talking to their ghosts and yelling at them and saying, "What'd you do with your life? Why'd you throw it away? What've you done to me?," I find it very moving because I am a middle-aged woman. There are things I miss. There's just so many true chords that are struck within this musical — of being savaged by regret or realizing that you did the right thing and you tried your hardest and you put the best foot forward and you tried to do the right thing, and still happiness was elusive. So it's very moving.


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