DIVA TALK: Chatting with Follies Star Mary Beth Peil

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02 Sep 2011

Mary Beth Peil
Mary Beth Peil

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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.


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