DIVA TALK: Catching Up With Follies Star Jan Maxwell

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

Jan Maxwell
Jan Maxwell

JAN MAXWELL
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.

 

 

Jan Maxwell with Kelli Barrett in The Royal Family
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Phyllis gets "Could I Leave You" and also "Lucy and Jessie." How did you go about approaching the songs, and what's it been like singing Sondheim?
Maxwell: Well, what I love about "Could I Leave You" is that it evolves from the scene... There are so many musicals now that are movies and people start song spotting — a little annoying. [Laughs.] What I love about "Could I Leave You" is that it comes right out of the scene and keeps the scene going rather than stopping the scene and going, "This is how I'm feeling!" [Laughs.] It's more of a conversation, which is actually the reason why I said yes to it because I really, really think that it's an incredible song and an actor's dream to be able to play, although it's very hard on me too, emotionally.

Question: Sometimes different versions of Follies use different songs for "Lucy and Jessie." Was there any talk as to whether they'd use "Ah, But Underneath," which they had done in London, or has it always been "Lucy and Jessie" for this production?
Maxwell: It's always been "Lucy and Jessie," [laughs] and I wasn't consulted, and Warren Carlyle is cracking the whip. Let me tell you, I think he's trying to kill me! [Laughs.] He is a lovely, lovely man and his support and creativity are very, very infectious. He's a wonderful spirit, and I have the best male ensemble I've every worked with — they're so good. So, we're having a blast! I'm thrilled to be my age and dancing on the stage. It's a lot of fun.

Question: It's also such a starry cast.
Maxwell: Oh, I know. There's so many celebrities I won't even register, but it doesn't matter because I'm thrilled to learn to sing and dance, and I love this character so much. Question: Tell me a bit about the atmosphere with all of these great women — yourself, Bernadette, Elaine Paige, Linda Lavin... What's it been like?
Maxwell: Well, as I said, it's celebrity-filled, but it's kind of funny because we all have to put on tap shoes at 10 o'clock in the morning, [laughs] and dance for two hours, so we're pretty much howling with laughter because it's just fun. We're all in the room. We're all warming up. We're all sweating. Nobody's pulled any diva stuff. Everybody is working very, very hard and having a good time doing it, and it's one of those things, too, where you do have all of these celebrities, but everybody gets their moment. It's not one of these things where we are all in everything together. It's very compartmentalized in that everybody gets their own number, so in that way I think it makes for a very happy company. [Laughs.]

Question: What would you say has been the biggest challenge of the role so far?
Maxwell: I think the dance. [Laughs.] Yeah, the dancing is challenging for me, but, as I said, it's also absolutely thrilling, and I've always wanted to do something like this, so to be able to get the opportunity is wonderful. And, again, I relate pretty deeply with the character, so all of that stuff is all frosting for me. It's a great job, and they are treating us really well here.

Question: Tell me a little bit about working with Eric Schaeffer.
Maxwell: He's wonderful. To tell you the truth, because Warren Carlyle had to leave because he's doing Hugh Jackman's show, in the first two-and-a-half weeks, we really concentrated on dance, and right now we're going into the scene work, and he's really wonderful. Very, very nice, and I think a great guy to be mediator [laughs] for all of these women. We're having a really good time.

Question: Do you have a favorite moment yet for Phyllis, or have you not gotten there yet?
Maxwell: No, we haven't really gotten there yet. We're still working — we've just done a couple of rough run-throughs — and this is what's hard about it is that you go off [stage] and you come on, you go off, and come on. It's not stepping on a ride; you kind of have to keep the ride going backstage. So your subtext has to keep peddling because you can go off and there can be two songs that are sung between your first scene and your second scene, but yet they're continuous. So it's a little tricky in that sense, so the run-throughs are really helpful because you want to keep on the ride, and you have to know what your backstage path is going to be because you need to keep in there.

Question: I'm wondering whether you've seen either the costumes or the set yet.
Maxwell: Yeah, we've seen little tiny [laughs] models, and they are actually doing a put-in right now, so it looks beautiful to me. I mean beautiful in a dilapidated way, and, of course, Gregg Barnes is a genius — the costumes are beautiful, just gorgeous.

Question: I just saw two sketches today — one of the ghost and one of the "Losing My Mind" costume, and they are amazing. 
Maxwell: Yeah. Oh my God, yeah. It's beautiful, and Bernadette has gorgeous, gorgeous costumes — we all do, but if you saw those you saw some cream-of-the-crop there.

 

Jan Maxwell in Lend Me A Tenor
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: I think the last time I spoke to you was last year when the Tony nominations came out and you had gotten two. I wonder, looking back at that year, what was it like to be in two different productions and get recognized for your work in both?
Maxwell: Oh, it was surprising and a lot of fun. I was just happy to be working to tell you the truth. To have that happen was really an honor, and I really had a happy and lucky year, and I'm forever grateful for it.

Question: Do you know what's next for you after Follies?
Maxwell: Yeah, I fly out of here right after the last matinee and I go up to Middlebury, VT, and rehearse for a couple weeks for Howard Barker's Victory. We're bringing that in to the second stage at Atlantic in July. So I go from the '70s of Phyllis to King George and traveling all over England to collect my husband who's been cut up for being a revolutionary figure, so it's kind of a 180. [Laughs.]

Question: I would think that must keep it interesting for you.
Maxwell: Oh, yeah, I absolutely love it. I hope — we all have to work and put the peanut butter on the table — but I always want some kind of requisite that it's got to be different — the next one has to be different, so this will be fast and different, and I'll be memorizing Victory as we get further into Follies, as we get into the run.

[Performances will take place Tuesday through Saturday evenings in the Eisenhower Theater at 7:30 PM. Beginning May 11, matinee performances on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons will run at 1:30 PM. Tickets are available at the Kennedy Center box office or by calling Instant Charge at (202) 467-4600. Patrons living outside the Washington metropolitan area may dial toll-free at (800) 444-1324 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.]

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