Light the candles! Get the ice out! Roll the rug up! Mame is back. And, heading the cast of the reportedly lavish Kennedy Center production is Christine Baranski, the two-time Tony Award-winning actress (Rumors and The Real Thing), who is probably best known for her scene-stealing (and Emmy-winning) work as Maryanne Thorpe, the boozy, witty best friend of Cybill Shepherd in the late-nineties CBS sitcom "Cybill." Directed by Eric Schaeffer, Mame boasts an impressive supporting cast: Tony winner Harriet Harris is Vera, Emily Skinner is Agnes, Jeff McCarthy is Beauregard, Max von Essen is Patrick and Alan Muraoko is Ito. But it is Baranski who is at the center of the show, the one who gets to wear 19 costumes and wrap her voice around such Jerry Herman classics as "It's Today," "Open a New Window," "We Need a Little Christmas" and the second-act showstopper, "If He Walked Into My Life." Earlier this week I had a chance to chat with the intelligent, candid and celebrated actress, who spoke about her long journey to Mame, having first played the role during her senior year of high school. That interview follows.
Question: How did this role come about?
Christine Baranski: Oh gosh! Boy, it's part of my life's mythology. I played it as a senior in high school. It was the spring of my senior year at Villa Maria Academy. I was Mame, and all of Mame's friends were Polish. It was very interesting. [Laughs.] In fact, I just heard from the guy who played Beauregard, who came to see the show the other night. It was an all girl's Catholic school, and the boys were imported from other Catholic schools. . . . Apparently, the boys were asked to help build the sets, and the sets were made out of the coffins of nuns. Is that not heavenly? I just found that out. . .
When I did Sweeney Todd here at the Kennedy Center, it was such a wonderful experience. The Kennedy Center was willing to spend the money on sets and costumes and do that whole extraordinary Sondheim Celebration. They asked me if there was something else I'd like to do. I said, "Well, honestly, I'd like to do Mame." They thought about it but then got back to my manager and said it's too expensive a production. Then, there was interest because the Nederlanders have the rights. I had a meeting with Jerry Herman, and there was some talk of maybe doing it as a Broadway production and going out of town with it, but then I got busy doing a TV show, and the Nederlanders got really entrenched doing La Cage, so once again Mame was on the back burner.
Then, the Kennedy Center came back and said they [did] want to do Mame. [But] I was still under contract with ABC last year with the Bernadette Peters pilot, and ABC wouldn't release me even though Mame had a real date of going in January of this year. I wasn't available until ABC released me, and, of course, ABC released me about a week after the Kennedy Center had to change their plans — Murphy's Law. So it was postponed until the spring, and that's how it came about.
I've been waiting for years to do Mame. After Sweeney, I thought, "Well, maybe I can do this" because Sweeney is very demanding singing, and I've been working for years on my voice and what you call the mix in the voice.
Q: Did you always sing?
Baranski: It's so funny, people always ask me that. I went to one of the world's great music schools, Juilliard, to acting school and never had any voice training. It wasn't until my mid-twenties that I began to go and see a singing teacher, and I discovered I had a voice, but I never felt very much confidence about singing in public and rarely went up for musical auditions. Even though I did Mame in high school, I went to Juilliard, and my whole focus was classical theatre. When I left Juilliard, I was doing regional theatre and Off-Broadway, and I'd do Shakespeare and Shaw and Chekhov and Molière, and I was doing John Guare and Tom Stoppard, new playwrights in New York. But musicals have always been few and far between in my life.
Q: What do you think changed for you in terms of letting yourself sing in public?
Baranski: I was out doing "Cybill" in L.A. and found a wonderful singing teacher who was recommended to me, and I began to seriously work with her, and she really taught me how to mix my voice. One of the big challenges for singers — there's your head voice and your chest voice, but you have to be able to sing in the middle. I began to really work with her, and Skitch Henderson asked if I would open a season of the New York Pops and be the guest soloist because he had heard me sing. I did a few songs at the Kennedy Center Honors. I sang "Welcome to the Theatre," and I think he heard me do that as a tribute to Lauren Bacall and . . . asked me if I'd open the Pops. I worked really, really hard on that. I sang three French songs in the first act, and I sang Gershwin in the second act. I was the guest soloist, which just blew my mind that I would actually ever find myself in Carnegie Hall doing that.
It's not like I'd never done musicals before — I did one of the famous flops in Broadway history, Nick & Nora. I'd been in the workshop of Sunday in the Park with George; I did the workshop production of Assassins . . . but as I said, my musical appearances have always been very sporadic. It's never like "I'm a musical theatre performer." Then after that concert with the Pops, I got a call to do Mrs. Lovett in L.A. in a [Sweeney Todd] concert version, and, of course, I played the album and went, "Oh my God!" But then I thought, I've just been training and training, and I'm going to give it a shot. I did it and got a wonderful reception, and Steve [Sondheim] was there, and I just felt a huge sense of achievement having done it.
When I heard about the Sondheim Celebration, I wrote to Steve and I said, "I would love a shot at doing Mrs. Lovett again" in a full production where I could really rehearse. So, then I came here and did the production of Sweeney with Brian Stokes Mitchell and really got rave reviews and tremendous reception, and that does do a lot for your confidence. So, then I unabashedly said, "If you want to do Mame. . ." I wanted to do it here because I know the Kennedy Center is willing to spend the money [on the production]. We have a Broadway-caliber production here in terms of sets and costumes. We have an absolutely marvelous ensemble. This is a wonderful show, and I'm not sure I'd ever get to do it in New York. It's cost-prohibitive now. People are playing their own instruments now on Broadway. [Laughs.]
Q: There have been some rumblings about the show coming to Broadway, maybe for a limited engagement. Is there any more talk about that?
Baranski: I think they're talking about it, and I think that was always a possibility, although it's not the reason I came here to do it. I came here to just see if I could do it and have the experience of doing it. It's been a real challenge because I actually was very intimidated by the size of the role. Mame has got to be one of the biggest — and in terms of costume changes, I think it is the biggest role. I have 19 costume changes and more choreography than most Mames are given.
On my way to a dance class early in April, I broke my kneecap. I fell on the street and broke my kneecap and had surgery, so then I was chasing the clock to see if I could rehabilitate my leg. Even now, there are nights when I play with a kneecap the size of a grapefruit! It's uncomfortable, but it meant so much to me to do the role that I showed up for a pre-production choreography rehearsal in New York and I was still in a leg brace and crutches. I said to Warren [Carlyle], our choreographer, "I'm sitting here and I'm watching. If nothing else, I'm just going to watch what you have in mind, get it in my mind's eye." I felt a particular sense of triumph on opening night because it wasn't just playing Mame, it was playing Mame maimed. [Laughs.]
Q: Have there been any changes in the show since opening night? Do you feel as though the show has moved forward?
Baranski: Oh my God. I mean the heartache for me is that the Kennedy Center has a limited run, and they felt that they had to publicize it as soon as possible. I didn't even know [that] only after three previews they had major critics there including the New York press. Had I known that I really would have begged them for more time.
Shows this size go out of town for weeks and get worked on. A performer needs [the time]. We have a staircase the size of a Tyrannosaurus rex that we were told, five minutes before our final tech dress [rehearsal], that it was completely inoperative. It took us over a day and a half just to tech Act One because the staircase kept coming to a grinding halt, and we'd just sit there and wait for a half hour. [The show] has huge production values, and everything's on computer. So, the first time we ran through the show without stopping was our first preview in front of a sold-out audience. And, as I said, there are lightning-fast costume changes, there's precision ensemble choreography. Mame is a production in general; everybody needs time, but certainly the leading lady. There's just stuff you don't even begin to realize until you're in front of an audience — just how big you can be. You develop performance muscles and stamina that you can't develop in a rehearsal hall because you're not up to speed, you're not dealing with changing clothes in the dark and racing back onstage. You dance a big musical number, and then you sing one of the greatest ballads ever written, and you're still changing clothes. [Laughs.] I just finished two weeks, [and] I can't tell you how much I've learned. In fact, I feel better on a two-show day, the second show feels easier because you really start getting on top of it. There's a reason these shows go out of town for a long time. It's not just that you're rewriting. It's that performers need to get up to that place where they can carry it every night.
Q: They should have given the cast more time before inviting the critics.
Baranski: After three shows, I was stunned . . . [but] I am getting to play Mame, and audiences — I have never in my career done anything that elicits this kind of response. Their hearts are just wide open, and they're standing and screaming. They've just had a wonderful time. Jerry Herman really knew how to write a big Broadway musical, and when you give it to people full throttle, they literally are dancing in the aisles, and it's just so much fun.
Q: Was Jerry Herman involved with this production?
Baranski: Yes, he came, and he was here for the last two weeks. He was just so supportive, and he was so happy with the production. He's a very loving, supportive man. I think it meant so much to him because he is one of our great, great [composers] and deserves to have his work seen, and I'm happy for him that it's being seen here.
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