On Sept. 23 and 24 at Carnegie Hall U.S. audiences will be treated to a concert version of Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus' international hit Kristina, which will include Helen Sjöholm — who starred in the musical's Swedish production — in the title role with renowned tenor Russell Watson in the part of Karl Oskar. The evenings, which will feature Tony winner Paul Gemignani conducting the 50-piece American Theatre Orchestra, will also boast Canadian actress Louise Pitre in the role of the prostitute Ulrika. The smoky-voiced Pitre, who will be making her Carnegie Hall debut, is best known to Broadway audiences for creating the role of Donna Sheridan in the New York production of Andersson and Ulvaeus' long-running Mamma Mia! Pitre, who also played the role of Donna in the Canadian production of Mamma Mia!, received a Tony nomination for her Broadway outing, and her plethora of Canadian stage credits also include Fantine in Les Misérables, Edith Piaf in Piaf and Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun, among many others. Earlier this week I had the pleasure of chatting with the three-time Dora Mavor Moore Award winner, who spoke about her roles in Kristina, which concerns Swedish immigrants coming to American in the mid-nineteenth century, and the upcoming Toronto premiere of The Toxic Avenger; that interview follows:
Question: How did you get involved with the Kristina concerts?
Louise Pitre: Well, I was on my way out the door here in my apartment in Toronto and I thought, "Oh I'll just check e-mails quickly before I leave." And, there popped up Benny Andersson. I see his e-mail pop up, and the subject of the e-mail was "Work?" [Laughs.] And that's how I got involved. He said, "Call me, I need to talk to you." I called him at his country house in Sweden, and there we were talking about the project. He was going over to the piano playing me some of the songs she sings to make sure the keys were good. And I said, "You know, I actually have the recording of Kristina." Back when we first rehearsed Mamma Mia! in Toronto in 2000, Benny had come to hear the sitzprobe, and he was so happy that he gave us all that triple-CD recording of Kristina. So I had it here, and whether it's in Swedish or not doesn't matter. I could check the keys with that. So that's what I did. I listened to it all and then called him back and said, "You bet! I'd love to do it." So it's very exciting.
Question: You're playing two roles in the concerts?
Pitre: I'm playing Ulrika, but I'm also doing some narration.
Question: Tell me about the character of Ulrika because I'm not that familiar with the story.
Pitre: You know what? I was not that familiar with the story, seeing as the whole pamphlet was in Swedish. [Laughs.] . . . Ulrika is one of the Swedish immigrants who comes to America. They are the first Swedish immigrants to come to America. She is the ex-town whore. How about that? [Laughs.] So she's a bit rough and ready, and she and Kristina have a rather strong dislike for one another until later on in the story.
Question: What are the songs you get to perform?
Pitre: I get to sing a wonderful song off the top called "Never," where Ulrika states a bit of her story and what she is hoping will never happen for her daughter. She wants her daughter to have a better life than her. That's basically what that song's about; it's a really nice song. Some of the music has a real Swedish folk tinge to it, which is really wonderful. A lot of it is very reminiscent of Chess. It's that kind of a score, which is why it's so fantastic because Chess is the best score ever!
Question: It is a great score.
Pitre: Oh, my God, yes. I sing a wonderful duet with Kristina, which is great, once we have stopped hating each other. It's called "A Miracle of God," and that's a beautiful sweet duet for the two women. And quite a few other things. I sing a song called "Lice." [Laughs.]
Question: Do you find Benny and Bjorn's music is a good fit for your voice? Do you find that they happen to write well for your particular range?
Pitre: Yeah, absolutely. I know everybody thinks of me as Mamma Mia! and, to be honest with you, pop stuff is not what I sing as a rule. It's so funny that everybody in New York knows me because of "Dancing Queen." It's so odd because, as a rule, I sing much more stuff like Kristina. I'm at home with pop, but that's not usually what I do onstage. It's funny. This is certainly more along the lines of Chess, which is my kind of thing.
Question: What's the rehearsal schedule like for the concerts?
Pitre: We start on the 11th, and the concerts are the 23rd and 24th. . . . It's fast, but I said, "Send me the music right away," so I've been looking at it a lot. I just want to be totally familiar with it before I get there. I don't think we're all going to be off-book. It is a concert version, and it's a huge piece. Nonetheless, as off-book as I can be — I figure you can sing better if you're not looking at it. So I'm here in Toronto singing my guts out, learning this score as well as Toxic Avenger. Isn't that ridiculous?!
Question: Have you ever played Carnegie Hall before?
Pitre: That's like, hello! That's the mecca. Right under Broadway… and I'm not even sure if it's not above, to be honest with you. I think my sort of flagship dream — I always think of "Judy Garland Live at Carnegie Hall." It's the ultimate thing to me. So, yes, it means a lot to me to be performing there. And, frankly, to be able to sing this kind of music of Benny and Björn's. The non-pop stuff is thrilling at Carnegie Hall and with Gemignani at the podium. I mean, holy jeez. This is fantastic!
Question: It doesn't get much better than that.
Pitre: No, it doesn't!
Question: You mentioned Toxic Avenger. How did that come about? Had you seen it here?
Pitre: No, I had not seen it. I had seen an article in The New York Times about Nancy Opel, which I thought was really neat. They talked about the show, but that was quite a while ago. Dancap Productions, who is putting it on here, just called me and offered me the part. I said yes [even though] this is not the kind of show I would normally do. It's not the kind of show where I'd go, "Oh, I must do that," but John Rando is coming to direct, and that's why I'm doing it. I love him, I think he's fantastic, and I want to work with him.
Question: Have you gotten a chance to go through that score yet?
Pitre: Yes, I have these two scores, which is ridiculous because they couldn't be more different. I'm going between the two. I'm singing all my stuff everyday at this point because I've learned it all. So I'm singing my guts out, first Kristina, then Toxic Avenger. [Laughs.] It's a bit weird.
Question: Do you have a music director that plays for you, or do you work with tapes? How do you go about learning all that music?
Pitre: I play piano. . . . Once you know it really well then it's good to get away from the keyboard, from playing it yourself, and having someone else play it through. But I play, so I always learn my stuff by myself.
Question: What's the schedule for Toxic Avenger? When do you start previews?
Pitre: Actually, they start rehearsing while I'm in New York. They're letting me off to do Kristina. I'm missing the first three days of rehearsal. We preview Oct. 20, and we open on Halloween night, appropriately enough. [Laughs.]
Question: Is it a limited engagement or open-ended?
Pitre: It's open-ended.
Question: I know a few years ago you got to sing one of my favorite Andrew Lloyd Webber scores, Song & Dance. What was that experience like, having the whole stage to yourself and performing that song cycle?
Pitre: Actually, it was kind of neat, I have to say. Once I start doing a show, I love to just stay onstage, and I usually play roles that are onstage a lot anyway. They're busy. But to be onstage and not leave it for one second, I love that. I really do. It's hard, but I like to start at the beginning and go. The whole act to yourself — it was a pretty cool feeling, I have to say. I don't know that it was the best production of the show ever, but I had a good time doing it. It was a killer sing, but it felt great.
Question: What version of the show was it? Was it the one that Bernadette Peters did, or was it the original London one?
Pitre: It was the original London one.
Question: Did you record any of the score?
Pitre: No, we didn't. [Laughs.] Well, I thought I was a bit old then, so I'm definitely too old to do it ever again. That's for sure. [Laughs.]
Question: You're also hosting a new series for Bravo.
Pitre: Yes! It's all shot, so it starts to air on Sept. 12. It is the Canadian version of a big hit in England actually. It's a BBC series. It has been the biggest surprise and the most wonderful treat for me. It's all about portraiture artists. Each episode has one celebrity guest. That celebrity guest comes and meets three portraiture artists. These three artists don't know who they're about to paint. So they meet the celebrity, and away we go. They only have one sitting with that person, so they do whatever they need to do during that sitting. My job is to keep talking with everyone and make it interesting. At the end of the first sitting, the artist gets to take some photos, and then they have only two weeks to do their portraits. So I would go to their studios and visit them after one week to see the progress. And then after two weeks, we all met again, and then I unveil the three finished works to the celebrity, and they get to choose one to keep. The others — the Portrait Gallery of Canada chose six to hang in the gallery, and the rest are all going to be auctioned at Waddington's, and all the proceeds go to charities that the celebrities choose. It was the best, best, best — fantastic! All these artists were amazing. They were all so vastly different, and to see three incredibly different renditions of the same person is a really wonderful thing. I found it incredibly emotional. The time and effort that goes into making a portrait — and to have three, I think the celebrities were all pretty blown away every time. It was really great.
Question: It sounds like an interesting concept.
Pitre: Yes, and whether you know a lot about art or nothing at all, it doesn't matter. It's really neat to see how all these artists actually work. Their processes are all so different. It's fascinating.
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