DIVA TALK: Chatting with Mame's Christine Baranski Plus Wicked News
By Andrew Gans
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
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?
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?
Q: What do you think changed for you in terms of letting yourself sing in public?
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?
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?
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.
Q: Was Jerry Herman involved with this production?
Q: Did he have any advice for you about playing the role?
A musical number like "[We] Need a Little Christmas" could just be saccharine and sweet, but people really adore that number. They sometimes start applauding before it's over with because they're so delighted. And, things happen to Mame. Mame's flying high it's 1928, everybody's making money in the stock market, but shortly into the show she loses her money, and she's sitting there sobbing because she keeps getting fired from jobs. There's an emotional journey that's made for that character. The one thing she realizes, the true one thing in her life, is her love for this boy who walked into her life. And, then, of course, Patrick also makes a journey. It's like they save each other. He kind of saves her from a life of just decadence and superficiality, and she rescues him from a life of stultifying safety and conservatism. Jerry and I were always talking about how much emotion this particular production has.
So, now, I've been working on just broadening the character. I've found laughs I had no idea you could just bring down the house walking onstage in a pink dress; then you can bring down the house being carried on with a fox in your arms. If you just give it enough time, the audience just goes crazy. And, Jerry knew all this. . . . And when you read the history of this, and how it evolved in all its various transmogrifications, it definitely is a show that people adore.
Q: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for Mame or one that you particularly look forward to performing?
Q: I know you have two children. How old are they now?
Q: I was wondering if the show resonates for you with the idea of a child or children leaving the roost.
Q: Do you have other projects in the works after Mame?
Q: Hopefully Mame will get to New York.
[Mame will play the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts through July 2. Tickets, priced $25-$90, are available by calling (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324. For more information visit www.kennedy-center.org.]
Shoshana Bean and Megan Hilty who have played the roles of Elphaba and Glinda, respectively, in the Broadway company of Wicked will reunite this fall for three stops of the hit musical's national tour. Bean and Hilty will head the cast of the Wicked tour when it plays Portland, OR; Seattle, WA; and Toronto, Canada. Bean, it should be noted, is a Portland-area native, and Hilty hails from Seattle. Wicked will play Portland's Keller Auditorium Sept. 6-17, Seattle's Paramount Theatre Sept. 20-Oct. 1 and Toronto's Canon Theatre Oct. 6-Nov. 26. The latter is a return engagement for the Stephen Schwartz musical.
A preview performance of London's Wicked, which begins its run Sept. 7 at the Apollo Victoria Theatre, will benefit the Elton John AIDS Foundation. Proceeds from the Sept. 19 performance will be donated to the non-profit organization, which has assisted over 12 million people affected by HIV/AIDS. Tickets for the 7:30 PM performance are priced £75 (call 0870 4000 751) or £250 (includes post-show supper; call 020 7348 4840). Wicked co-starring Idina Menzel as Elphaba and Helen Dallimore as Glinda will officially open in the West End Sept. 27.
The open-ended Chicago production of Wicked will celebrate its first anniversary in the Windy City with a public celebration at Water Tower Square Park. The June 20 festivities will kick off at 12:30 PM and will feature a sing-along led by cast members of the Schwartz-Winnie Holzman musical. Wicked fans will be able to join the show's current Elphaba, Kristy Cates, in a sing-along version of the show's anthem, "Defying Gravity." Attendees are also invited to attend the celebration dressed as Elphaba, the not-so-Wicked Witch of the West. The first 365 witches Wickedly dressed and fully greenified will be given a pair of tickets to a future Wicked performance. The Water Tower Square Park is located at the corner of Michigan and Pearson.
Visit www.wickedthemusical.com for more information.
Several more performers have joined the July 10 concert version of Michael John LaChiusa's Little Fish at Joe's Pub. As previously announced, the 7 PM performance at the intimate cabaret will feature the talents of Alice Ripley, Laura Benanti, Lisa Howard and Mary Testa. New additions to the evening include original Little Fish cast members Lea DeLaria, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Marcy Harriell, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Ken Marks, Jennifer Laura Thompson and Eric Jordan Young. Steven Pasquale, Manoel Felciano and title of show's Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff will also be part of the one-night-only event, which is being directed and produced by Ferguson. Composer LaChiusa will be featured at the piano, and proceeds from the concert will be donated in Wendy Wasserstein's name to the Theatre Development Fund's "Open Doors" project. Tickets for the Little Fish concert are priced $30 and are available by calling (212) 239-6200. Joe's Pub is located within the Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Avenue.
Tony Award winner Judy Kaye, who received another Tony nomination this past season for her performance in the now-closed Souvenir, will bring that Stephen Temperley play to the Brentwood Theatre in Los Angeles in the fall. Kaye will reprise her role as the vocally challenged Florence Foster Jenkins Oct. 5-Nov. 5. Tickets, which are not yet on sale, will be available through Ticketmaster, www.ticketmaster.com. The Brentwood Theatre is located at 11301 Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, CA.
On June 19 at 5 PM and June 20 at 3 PM free readings of Marc Castle's Love Incorporated will be presented at the Snapple Theatre Center. Directed by Chris Presley, the readings will boast the talents of Becca Ayers, Heather Ayers, Jim Stanek and Rich Affannato. Jana Zielonka will be the musical director for Love Incorporated, which follows the "adventures of a young woman, Faith Stillman, a successful business woman who is hopeless when it comes to her own romantic life. She decides to use her business skills to catch the man of her dreams." The Snapple Theatre Center is located at 210 West 50th Street. For reservations call (212) 391-2434.
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to email@example.com.
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