DIVA TALK: Catching Up With Two-Time Tony Winner and On Your Toes Star Christine Baranski

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03 May 2013

Christine Baranski
Christine Baranski

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

Christine Baranski
There are few actresses who can toss off a one-liner as dryly as theatre favorite Christine Baranski, who is equally well known for her work on the small screen, which includes an Emmy-winning turn on "Cybill" and her current role as Diane Lockhart on CBS' critically acclaimed "The Good Wife." Baranski, who is also a two-time Tony winner for her performances in Rumors and The Real Thing, will next be seen in the City Center Encores! staging of Rodgers and Hart's On Your Toes, which plays the famed Manhattan venue May 8-12. Directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle with music direction by Rob Fisher, the cast also boasts Kelli Barrett, Walter Bobbie, Jeremy Cohen, Joaquin De Luz, Irina Dvorovenko, Dalton Harrod, Randy Skinner, Shonn Wiley and Karen Ziemba. Baranski, previously seen in the Encores! stagings of Promises, Promises and Follies, is here cast as Peggy Porterfield, the role created by Luella Gear (1936) and later played by Elaine Stritch (1954) and Dina Merrill (1983). Last week, I had the pleasure of chatting with the multi-talented artist, who spoke about her latest stage outing as well as her Tony Awards night memories; that interview follows.

Question: How did you get involved in this production?
Christine Baranksi: Well, I got asked. The nice thing is I’ve done several other Encores, happily. I did Promises, Promises in the mid-nineties, and Rob Fisher was the conductor then, and then in 2007 I did the great Follies production, and they both were incredibly happy experiences. The nice thing is I worked with Warren Carlyle at The Kennedy Center. He choreographed Mame in 2006, so we’ve always wanted to work together again, so I think the offer came out, and as soon as I heard all the pieces  — Warren and Encores! and the Elaine Stritch role, how fun is that? So there’s no downside. Because I’m on a network television show, there’s very little theatre that I can actually fit into my hiatus, so Encores! is perfect.

Baranski and castmate Irina Dvorovenko
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Were you familiar with this musical at all? Had you seen it?
Baranski: I was not familiar with it. I actually did not see it when it was done in the eighties with Natalia Makarova. But I do remember her Tony Awards speech. For some reason I watched the Tonys that year, and when she got up to give her speech, she was so adorable. When she won the Tony, [she said] one of my favorite lines — “I want to thank my husband for staying out of the way” — a memorable line that any actress can relate to, I think.

Question: Tell me a bit about Peggy, the character that you’re playing.
Baranski: Well, I think that Peggy is a lady producer, maybe in an era where there weren’t that many. My backstory is that perhaps her husband was a Sol Hurok-type, and when he passed away, she inherited a lot of money and has a great passion for the arts. I think she’s part-Park Avenue and part-Greenwich Village, in that she loves the avant-garde, she loves the Russian ballet. She has this song about how she was raised by this mother who was in and out of bed with guys and in and out of marriages. I think her mother may have been a gypsy and they traveled the country and were always going to Reno to get mother her divorces. So she had a bohemian upbringing and perhaps married a wealthy man and had a different sort of life that involved having lots of money and living at a certain level. But because of her passion for the arts, I think she loves being around artists and knows how to handle them gracefully. She adores them. I think she treats them like they’re these brilliant, unpredictable children that she has to manage. But she’s good at it, and I think she’s trying to bring this ballet company into the twentieth century. She feels that they’re behind schedule – it’s the thirties, and they’re still doing things that were performed for the Czar. So my whole spine of my character is to move the company to get this wonderful jazz ballet produced. And, of course, at the end of the musical you do have that culmination with the actual ballet being seen.

Baranski and Walter Bobbie
Photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Tell me about working with Warren Carlyle since you have worked with him before, but this time he’s directing and choreographing.
Baranski Oh, and he’s come so far since I first worked with him. In Mame he was the choreographer. He’s just – I call him butter and sugar – he’s just the most lovely, warm, open guy. Mame was a very intense experience. There were so many musical numbers – so much to do – and he is extremely gifted and very nurturing of his performers. And, you know, by now I think he’s on his ninth Encores!, so he’s a veteran here. He really knows the genre, and this is a very particular form, this Encores! I’m not even sure we have two weeks to really do this! We’ll be teching the show in about ten minutes, and this is our second day of rehearsal. So for anybody who hasn’t done it, it’s kind of like, "Whoa!" It’s thrilling. The last one I did here was Follies, and you couldn’t ask for a more ambitious show. We were doing the songs, one great song after another, choreography, and somehow it all comes together. I think Walter Bobbie called it "summer camp for the A Team." It’s really fun, but you have to go with it. You have to be willing to just hop on board and be fearless.

Question: It seems like you really enjoy doing musicals. What is the appeal of musical theatre for you?
Baranski: It’s so liberating. Particularly now that I’m on a network series, where I play this head of a law firm and I have courtroom scenes and office scenes, so much of my acting is just from the neck up. I went to Capezio’s a few weeks ago and bought some tights and tap shoes and a leotard, and I trundled off to tap class down in the Village taking the subway. I was just so happy to be back feeling like a Broadway hoofer, because I’ve got a little soft-shoe number. It’s just so fun and liberating to be around dancers and performers, who live in their bodies, and singers. It’s funny, I came to musicals relatively late in my life, but they’re always wonderful to revisit. As I said, this is my third Encores!, and stylistically so different from the other two. Promises, Promises, of course, is sixties Burt Bacharach, and Follies is that great Sondheim score, and this is Rodgers and Hart. This is the earliest period piece I’ve done here. It’s just so great to revisit these old musicals and to be reminded of how great a team like Rodgers and Hart were.

Question: I think the last time I talked to you, you were doing Mame, and there was some talk of it coming to Broadway. Am I right to assume you wouldn’t mind someday having a big hit Broadway musical?
Baranski: Well, who would mind having a big hit Broadway musical? [Laughs.] I mean, one of the issues, the main issue with Mame at the Kennedy Center –we did it with a full orchestra, enormous sets, and full chorus. Mame is a big, big show and deserves to be done on a grand scale. It’s about a woman who lives large, and it’s about creating a certain period and hearing all that brass and violins and all in the orchestra. As there was a lot of talk about bringing it in, there was not a Broadway theatre available that could accommodate us for very long. And then it became all about downsizing, and Mame is not a musical where we can play our instruments and play all the parts, you know what I mean? Except for those few notes of a bugle that Mame plays at the beginning, you can’t do Mame-lite! So I was happy to have done it when I did it full throttle at The Kennedy Center. We did Sweeney Todd there, too, at the Sondheim Celebration, and that was also with full orchestra. It couldn’t be more thrilling to sing those great musicals with full orchestra.

Baranski on "The Good Wife."
CBS

Question: When do you go back to "The Good Wife"?
Baranski: I’ll go back in mid-July. After On Your Toes, I’ll hopefully have a bit of a break and take some deep breaths. This is a perfect little springtime jounce, you know? It’s just a lovely thing to do for New York — it’s like a little love letter.

Question: So many great actors have been appearing on "The Good Wife." Is there any actor that you haven’t played opposite that you’d really like to? Is there anyone on your list?
Baranski: Actually, I could name about ten people, but I’m not going to single anybody out. But there are still legions of great actors who I can imagine entering our world. Because it shoots in Brooklyn, we’re just so lucky to have this revolving door on some of our great trained theatre actors who come in and do these amazing roles. Our show is known as much for the caliber of acting – featured actors that we have – as it is for anything else.

Question: Since Tony nominations are coming this week, I was wondering what are your memories of winning your Tonys?
Baranski: Oh my God. The first time I was just gob-smacked. I was pregnant with our first child when the Tony nominations came out for The Real Thing. By the time I accepted that award, I was six months pregnant, and it was time for me to get off the stage, but I definitely had trouble finding a gown to cover my emerging baby. I remember that Tony Award show in particular. I was so lucky because the first time I won a Tony Julie Andrews and Robert Preston were the hosts. I walked offstage having just won the Featured Actress award earlier in the evening, and I remember standing back against the wall just trying to catch my breath as Julie Andrews walked past me in these diamonds and black velvet gown saying congratulations. I just thought I’d died and gone to heaven. And, the second time I won a Tony Award Angela Lansbury hosted it and came out in a red dress singing "Everything’s Coming Up Roses." It was beyond thrilling both times to have been in the presence of those serious Broadway legends. That’s what I remember more than my winning an award is who hosted it and who was up on that stage. It was great.

Question: And, where do you keep your Tonys?
Baranski: Well, you know, we do have a little mantelpiece and a little fireplace, and they fit quite nicely there. [Laughs.] I don’t highly feature them – they’re not in the main room. I think that’s a little tacky. I don’t have pictures of myself all over. I don’t want to keep bumping into myself, and I certainly don’t want my children to keep bumping into Mommy and her various wigs, holding awards. I like when I’m home just to be Mrs. Cowles.

[Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased online at NYCityCenter.org, through CityTix at (212) 581-1212, or at the New York City Center Box Office (West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues).]

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