DIVA TALK: Chatting with Follies Star Mary Beth Peil

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

Mary Beth Peil
Mary Beth Peil

MARY BETH PEIL
Obie Award winner Mary Beth Peil, a 1985 Tony nominee for her performance as Anna Leonowens opposite the King of Siam of the late Yul Brynner, is one of three actors (theatre vets Don Correia and Jayne Houdyshell are the others) who joined the Kennedy Center's critically hailed production of the Stephen Sondheim-James Goldman musical Follies for its Broadway engagement, which is currently in previews at the Marquis Theatre prior to an official opening Sept. 12. Peil, who was on Broadway last season in the new musical Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, portrays Solange LaFitte, the returning Follies star who gets to sing Sondheim's "Ah, Paris!" Former opera singer Peil, whose Broadway credits also include the recent revivals of Nine and Sunday in the Park with George, is actually doing double-duty these days, filming her role as Jackie in CBS' acclaimed drama "The Good Wife" while offering eight performances a week in the limited engagement of Follies, which also stars Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, Ron Raines, Danny Burstein and Elaine Paige. Earlier this week I had the pleasure of chatting with the delightful stage and screen star, who spoke about her latest roles, her work with the aforementioned Brynner and more; that interview follows.

Question: How did this role come about for you?
Mary Beth Peil: Well, I can only say how the role came about for me from my standpoint and a little bit from director Eric [Schaeffer's] standpoint. I received an email from Eric saying, "We hope you'll join us in the Broadway transfer. I'm sure your agents have talked to you." But I hadn't heard anything from my agents because I had been up in the woods away from all form of communication for three days. So, it was sort of a bolt out of the blue — very, very unexpected — and I really didn't know what he was talking about. [Laughs.] But, we finally got all of the messages coordinated, and then I finally learned from my agents that, in fact, they were asking me to come in, in the role of Solange, so I said yes! [Laughs.]

Question: Had you been aware of the production coming in?
Peil: Yes. I had actually fully intended to go down to DC to see it because Danny Burstein is a dear friend, and I love the show. I love the musical, and it's so rare that you get to see it done. And, I'm a fan of Jan's and Bernadette's and Ron's, and so I was going to go down and see it, and then I got too busy up at this end, and I lost my opportunity. I was aware that there was talk of moving it, but I hadn't heard of when. I don't think anyone realized it was going to happen that soon.

Question: Had you ever been in a production of this show before?
Peil: Of Follies? No, I haven't.

 

Peil in Follies.
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: You were one of three new actors joining the cast. Was that intimidating?
Peil: Well, I was glad to have had company. [Laughs.] I was glad I wasn't the only one, and wonderful company. I mean, Jayne Houdyshell and Don Correia are first-class people and performers, and I had heard great things about the production in DC, so I knew I was in very, very good company. The nature of the parts that we were taking over for — the nature of those parts in and of themselves — were like catching a moving train because you are sort of shot out of a cannon right from the top of the show and then it's over. [Laughs.] It's the first time I've actually done what I would call, I think it's safe to call it, a cameo.

Question: How would you describe Solange?
Peil: [Laughs.] A survivor. A woman of the world and a great, great sense of humor.

Question: How did you go about approaching your song?
Peil: Well, I have to confess, I didn't care for the song the first time I looked at it on the page, and the first time I heard it. I listened to a couple of — there's a lot of different recordings of different versions out there — and I didn't get it. So, I found myself looking at the words, rather than listening to the music or looking at the notes, and as I looked at the words, I realized that they were brilliant. They were so good. So clever, but beyond clever, they felt right in my mouth, but I had a hard time putting them in the right rhythm. I kept thinking of them in three-quarter time instead of two-quarter time, so it took awhile for me to get into Sondheim's head as to why it was in the rhythm that it was, and it slowly but surely became apparent to me. [Laughs.] I think of her as a chanteuse rather than vaudeville. I don't know if that makes any sense, but that has helped a lot in my understanding of why he wrote her the way he did.

Question: Has Sondheim been at rehearsals or has he been at previews?
Peil: Yes, he's been at several performances, and he's given wonderful, helpful notes to all of us. There's nothing like getting the notes not only from someone who knows what he wants to hear and see, but knows what he intended when he wrote it. It's a great, great privilege.

Question: Tell me a little bit about working with Eric Schaeffer as a director.
Peil: The great thing about Eric is that he casts really well. He has a beautiful vision of the overall sensibility of what the piece is about and what he wants it to be about, and then he sort of lets you do your work. He's not one of those guys who puts his fingerprints all over the thing. It's a very tricky line between giving a note at the right time and not giving it too soon. You know, waiting until the actor is ready to get a note. He lets us all find our way, each in our own way, and this is a huge company, and everyone works differently. Everybody attacks their role, or their route to finding their role, differently, and I think he's really good at that — at letting people find their own way and knowing when to give the note, and how to, very gently, guide people into his vision without trying to push you in there before you're ready.

Peil and Yul Brynner in The King and I.
photo by Henry Grossman

Question: What's it like working with such a large company and people who have so many theatre credits? What's it like backstage?
Peil: I'll tell you, I don't know when I've worked with a company this large where almost — I can't think of one single, and even if I could I wouldn't tell you who [laughs], I can't think of a sour apple. I know it sounds really impossible and it sort of is impossible, but it is the most supportive, good-natured, all-inclusive, no-cliques company I've — maybe I shouldn't say ever worked with — but, certainly, one of the few. Especially when you think that they had three months out of town. That's usually where, if there's going to be cliques, that's when they're formed, when you're on the road and you're away from your family and your friends and you form your own sort of regional-theatre-on-the-road friendships. Not that those [friendships] didn't get formed, but as a newcomer coming on, I had no feeling whatsoever of cliques or being an outsider. Not from day one, and I think that the three newcomers are the best judge of the inclusiveness of this company — the supportive quality.

Question: You were also a part of the Sunday in the Park… revival. What's it like singing Sondheim?
Peil: [Laughs.] And, then there's Sondheim. I think there's something about doing Sondheim that brings out the best in all of us… It's such a high form of the art of musical theatre. It requires such attention, such tender loving care from everyone that you get caught if you start showing off or trying to be silly, trying to be naughty — you get caught! It's just too high. Everyone wants to do their best and be their best, and I can say that about every Sondheim show I've been in. Interestingly enough, the first Sondheim show I ever did was Little Night Music a thousand years ago with Ron Raines.

Question: Where was that?
Peil: That was at a company that no longer exists here in Manhattan. I want to say it was called New York Stage and Opera or New York Opera Theatre… It was a lovely company that was formed to actually enable crossover between the opera world and music-theatre world, and it showed up at the perfect time for me because I was just leaving the world of opera and entering music theatre, as was Ron, he was sort of one foot in both worlds, so it was perfectly timed for me. I'm sorry that company no longer exists.

Question: Who did you play in Night Music?
Peil: I played Desiree.

 

Peil and Sherie Rene Scott in Women on the Verge…
photo by Paul Kolnik

Question: Last season you were in Women on the Verge… Was it disappointing that it didn't run longer?
Peil: Yes, it was disappointing. Obviously, critically it was not well-received, and we sort of had to air our laundry right in front of everybody on Broadway. It's unfortunate that there wasn't at least one, maybe two, out-of-town or less high-profile chances to straighten out the problems. It was a risk, and it was a beautiful risk and Almodóvar loved it, which is enough for me. [Laughs.] And, we had a wonderful time doing it. The people who liked it still tell me how much they liked it, and the album is quite beautiful.

Question: I was glad that it got to be recorded.
Peil: Yes, we were all very happy for that because I think it's some of David Yazbek's best work, and I'm sure the show will be done. It will be produced other places, and it will be interesting to see how they decide to mount it.

Question: Do you have a favorite theatrical experience?
Peil: I think using the word favorite is a very dangerous adjective, but I would say, for sure, the most important — because it changed my life — theatrical experience was being Yul Brynner's last Mrs. Anna in The King and I. I learned so much from him, and it changed my life. It was an entrée into the world of music theatre and legitimate theatre that is where I live now, and I'm grateful for.

Question: When you say "things he taught you," does anything stand out particularly about working with him?
Peil: We used to talk in the dressing room after every performance or [during the] "Uncle Tom's Cabin" [sequence], when the dancers were going on. We would talk about moments — this moment, that moment. I think in general he taught me how to be still. He was such a master of strength..and a lot of it came from his stillness from when he didn't move, and he taught me the value of that. As an opera singer, I was always aware of making graceful movements and trying to make the movement work with the music because that seemed important in that art form, but for music theatre and theatre in general, it's much different, and stillness seems to pay off more than movement. I think that's a huge generality, but I first learned it or heard it from him.

 

Peil on "The Good Wife."
CBS Photo

Question: And, you're also filming "Good Wife."
Peil: Yes. [Laughs.] Talk about lucky! [Laughs.]

Question: What's your schedule like? How are you managing the two?
Peil: Well, you know, I think the blessing of having a small part in both the musical and the TV show is it actually can be done. I can do both. Neither show is suffering. I, so far, have not had to miss anything either way. And the same for last season for Women on the Verge… The TV producers and the Women on the Verge… producers were very accommodating with juggling something if it had to be juggled. If I had a large part in either one, if I had a part that everyone was dependent upon, I couldn't do it. It wouldn't be fair, and it couldn't be done. But, as it works out this way, I get to have my cake and eat it, too, and I'm very grateful.

Question: And, what's it like on that set?
Peil: Oh my God! [Laughs.] It's ridiculous. It's just so, so much fun. It's such a great group of people. First of all, the writing is just so good that you look forward to each script and seeing what they've managed to do this time. And, you know, the crew is first rate, and Julianna [Margulies] sets the tone as far as the high standard of acting and of humanity, and it just filters all the way down. It's just so much fun to be in a show that people really, really like to talk about because it's so smart and so intriguing. I'm not a great TV watcher, so it's really interesting to me to be a part of something that's really high-quality TV.

Question: When you look back on your career, what are you most proud of?
Peil: I have a hard time looking back because I think, "Oh come on now, that's not possible." [Laughs.] "You're making this up!" So, I mostly just look forward. The great thing about the trajectory of my career is that I've reached the point where I truly think that anything is possible because it's been proven true, and when the phone rings, I never know what it's going to be, and that, to me, at my age, is just a miracle. [Laughs.] That's a cagey way of answering your question, but it's the truth.

[For tickets to Follies, phone (877) 250-2929 or visit Ticketmaster.com. ]

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

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