DIVA TALK: Chatting with Tony Nominees Aziza, Benanti, Martin, Merediz and Sayre

By Andrew Gans
May 23, 2008

This week we chat with the multi-talented women who have been nominated for a 2008 Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical.

DE'ADRE AZIZA
Nominated for her performance in Passing Strange at the Belasco Theatre.

De'Adre Aziza had gone back to sleep after she brought her son to school the morning of May 13. "I woke up again at noon," she said later that day, "and I saw all these texts and voice mails, and I thought, 'Oh, cool, the show got nominated. Awesome!' Then I was like, 'Okay I'm just gonna go to Playbill.com' because that's my theatre bible. And then I saw the list, and I was like, 'Whaaaaat?!'"

Aziza, who is making her Broadway debut in Passing Strange — which blends the power of a rock concert with the emotion of musical theatre — plays several characters in the new musical, including teenage goddess Edwina, neo-hippie Marianna and avant-garde filmmaker and writer Sudabey. The young actress says her favorite role is the latter: "I get to be really loose with her physically. I can just be kind of dropped in and slouch and sit with my legs open like a dude," Aziza laughs. "She's really loose. It's fun to be able to do that physically."

The actress, whose Off-Broadway credits include Doris to Darlene: A Cautionary Valentine, Dream on Monkey Mountain and Macbeth, says the greatest challenge for her onstage is "not laughing when [co-stars] Daniel [Breaker] and Stew laugh. Because we've done it for so long, I feel really comfortable at this point with the characters, but when they laugh onstage or when we're just having a giddy day, holding that concentration gets tough. We all want to just laugh and have fun and just be stupid, but it's like, 'No, we can't do that!'"

Another challenge for Aziza has been combining a Broadway performance schedule with motherhood (her son is seven). "God bless my mother," Aziza says. "She helps me so much. My family is so understanding. I have the kind of family that's just like, 'Go! Just do it. We'll figure it out.' Like when I had to go to Berkeley [for the pre-New York runs of Passing Strange], they were like, 'Go, we'll figure it out.' So, God bless them. I definitely would not be able to do any of this if it wasn't for my family's help, especially my mom's. They've been very, very supportive."

Does Aziza think Passing Strange has a message? "I really feel like there are so many different messages you could take from it," she answers. "There's the mom/son theme. Then there's the 'artist finding themselves' theme. But that artist theme can translate to anybody, to any profession that you're in. I don't want to say, 'I think this is what the message is' because I think one of the beautiful things about the show is that you just take from it what talks to you.

"But, for me, one of the lines that Stew says that I carry with me all the time is, 'Art is life, but only love is revolutionary.' It's kind of one and the same. Art is my life, but you need the love that you have, not only for this, but for your family and for the world to create change."

Laura Benanti in Gypsy.
photo by Joan Marcus
LAURA BENANTI
Nominated for her performance as Louise in Gypsy at the St. James Theatre.

Laura Benanti and husband Stephen Pasquale, the gifted actor seen Off-Broadway in A Man of No Importance, were preparing to watch the Tony nominations on television the morning of May 13 when Benanti received a text message from her friend Jamie that simply said, "Congratulations!"

"And," Benanti told Playbill.com that same morning, "I was like, 'What are you talking about?' And he said, '[The nominees are] already online.' So [Stephen and I] just pretended we didn't know, and we kept watching," she laughs.

Benanti says she is extremely grateful for the nomination. "It's really nice to feel like your work is recognized. There are so many amazing performances this season and every season, I don't know how on earth they choose, so it's nice to sneak in as one of the chosen ones."

It's the journey her character takes — from wallflower to world-famous-stripper Gypsy Rose Lee — that Benanti says is the most challenging aspect of her latest Broadway outing. "It's really [about] keeping your focus and your energy up," she explains. "I learned pretty quickly early on that I have to eat at intermission, which is contrary to what you would think because I have to basically wear a bikini in the second act. But I've found that I have to eat a protein bar or almonds or cashews or something to keep going. It's very easy to get a dip [in energy], especially because of the adrenaline rush of going into the strip … and then, right after that, when you really should rest, you have to scream at Patti LuPone! You don't want to be 'under' for that moment."

And what is it like performing that final dressing room with co-star LuPone, who is also Tony-nominated for her superb performance as Rose? "It changes every night," Benanti says. "It's so malleable. Getting to play with Patti LuPone — she's a master, so it's exciting and it's nerve-wracking, and I don't ever want to be bad because she's always good. I don't want to falter. It's exciting, and it's challenging and it's rewarding. Some nights are better than others, but all in all, it's a pretty great way to earn a living." Among Benanti's favorite onstage moments in the Arthur Laurents-directed Gypsy are "If Momma Was Married," "Together Wherever We Go" and the strip. "I do look forward to the strip now," she confesses. "I didn't always, but now I've gotten to a place where I really enjoy myself. I'm really having fun with it, so that's good."

When asked how she feels her performance has changed from the summer Gypsy engagement at City Center to the Broadway run, Benanti answers, "I can't see my performance from the outside, but I'm hoping it's more layered. That was certainly my goal to not just go through two or three emotions, but to enable myself to experience many emotions within whatever experience the character is having at the time. And, honestly, to be more comfortable in the strip. When you only have three weeks [at City Center], and you're used to being [onstage] in dirndls or habits or trench coats, it's hard to go like, 'I'm taking my clothes off!' I really tried to work hard on being comfortable within the strip, so hopefully all of that came through."

As for her current good fortune, the recently married, Tony-nominated actress surmises, "I feel really grateful. I got married, and it's been a great ride with the show. So in general, my life feels really happy right now. I'm just enjoying this time because it's not always like this."

Andrea Martin in Young Frankenstein.
photo by Joan Marcus
ANDREA MARTIN
Nominated for her performance as Frau Blucher in Young Frankenstein at the Hilton Theatre.

Tony Award winner Andrea Martin, perhaps the funniest gal in town, was actually out of town when she heard the good news about her 2008 Tony nomination. "I was in Boston at the Harvard Faculty Club," Martin said the afternoon of May 13. "My first reaction was, 'I'm so glad they called me before nine' because my complimentary breakfast was gonna close. So I was very happy that I heard the great news and I could still get a free croissant," she laughs.

Martin is Tony-nominated for her riotous performance as Frau Blucher in the new musical Young Frankenstein, which is based on the classic Mel Brooks film of the same name. About working with the legendary Brooks, Martin says, "It was very smooth and kind of seamless because we both have the same backgrounds in collaborating and sketch comedy and everybody tossing in ideas [where] the best idea works. In that way our styles were very similar. He was respectful of my contribution, and I was welcoming of anything that a man of his genius had to say. So that was very collaborative and fun and not intimidating. It was really great."

When asked about the challenges of her role as well as her favorite moments in the new musical at the Hilton Theatre, Martin says, "For me, the most challenging is to remain true to the integrity of the character without going for laughs. . . and my favorite moment is when I exit up the stairs. Often times it doesn't get an applause exit, and when I'm coming down the stairs on the other side, two of the crew always greet me and either say, 'Wow, you did it,' or, 'To hell with that audience! After all, it's only a Tuesday night. We got tomorrow!' That's my favorite moment," she laughs.

It's been an emotional week or so for Martin, who was recently honored at Boston's Elliot Norton Awards and also reunited with her "SCTV" acting company. "We hadn't worked together for over 27 years. We did two benefits in Toronto Monday and Tuesday night. And now this! And then doing the show at the same time — there's a lot to process."

And, what does a Tony nomination mean for Martin at this point in her award-winning career? "I guess the stakes are higher the older you get and the more [shows] you're in," she answers. "The first time I got a Tony nomination, I was in L.A., and I didn't even know they were going to be announced. I was a novice, so that had a different kind of excitement. This has a kind of excitement of validation, I guess, that there's some longevity and people still appreciate what I do, so that's a nice thing.

"I have to say," Martin concludes, "I'm really enjoying [Young Frankenstein], really enjoying the audiences loving it and laughing at it. And, I just think the world of the cast."

Olga Merediz with Mandy Gonzalez in In the Heights.
photo by Joan Marcus
OLGA MEREDIZ
Nominated for her performance as Abuela Claudia in In the Heights at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.

Olga Merediz takes a personal journey each night playing Abuela Claudia, the loving grandmother in the Washington Heights-based musical In the Heights, which garnered 13 Tony nominations, the most of any show of the season.

Merediz, who was born in Cuba and raised in Puerto Rico, says she relates to the show's theme of home and identity. "It's mostly my parents' story," she says. "I can relate to it, especially from an emotional standpoint — not specifically what Abuela Claudia goes through — but what we went through as Cuban refugees. . . . I'm very connected to it, the whole pain of leaving home and finding another home and the journey of an exile — of what you have to go through to assimilate and to become a citizen."

The challenge of her role, Merediz says, is playing a much older woman. "The whole energy of the person is not my energy," she explains. "I have nervous energy, and I'm quick and I'm very snappy. This is slow [and] talking different. The voice isn't mine, and also the walk, how she thinks. It's a whole different persona, and that takes a lot of energy out of me. If it was just my natural energy, it wouldn't be so exhausting. The walk does something to my back and my neck because I have to be crouched over a little bit. So it's challenging in that physical sense and energy-wise."

Another challenge, but one she looks forward to each night, is her show-stopping performance of Lin-Manuel Miranda's "Paciencia y Fe." "I get very nervous," Merediz says about performing the vocally demanding song. "I want to be truthful in the moment and take each moment of the song. It goes through many different facets — it's a whole trip that song, a whole journey. I want to make sure that I hit all those moments and that I'm truthful and that I'm grounded, that I hit my notes, and that I reach the audience in a real way, in a genuine, grounded way, truthful as the character.

"Recently," she admits, "I've been sort of peering a little bit [into the audience], and I see people crying [following 'Paciencia']. It's astonishing and very rewarding to see that."

And, how has Merediz, whose Broadway resume also includes Mamma Mia!, Reckless, Man of La Mancha, Les Misérables and The Human Comedy, reacted to her first Tony nomination? "It's very emotional for me," she says, "because I've been in this business for a long time playing different little parts here and there in TV, film and stage. Just to be recognized is what we live for, and to be recognized by your peers is . . . I'm just so very happy to be recognized." It seems "Patience and Faith" have paid off for the actress.

Loretta Ables Sayre in South Pacific.
photo by Joan Marcus
LORETTA ABLES SAYRE
Nominated for her performance as Bloody Mary in South Pacific at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.

"I actually had two phones that rang simultaneously this morning, and I didn't know which one to grab," Loretta Ables Sayre told me the day the 2008 Tony Award nominations were announced.

Those calls were from her friend Greg and Tony-nominated South Pacific director Bartlett Sher. "My friend Greg was screaming. I couldn't understand what he said. And Bart just kept saying, 'Congratulations, darling, congratulations!' I thought that he was calling to tell me that the show had been nominated. It didn't even sink into my brain that he was talking about me. And then he told me, 'You got it! You got it!' I sat there probably for five minutes asking him over and over, 'Are you sure?'," she laughs. "So I still am in shock. I haven't seen it printed or anything on television or on the computer yet."

Sayre, who hails from Hawaii, is currently making her Broadway debut in the acclaimed revival of South Pacific, bringing Bloody Mary to full life, exploring not only the character's comedy but her warmth and her desires for her young daughter. About her Tony nomination, Sayre says, "This is one of the things I never really thought was going to happen at all. I'm totally honest when I say I'm just so grateful to have a job. This is just the biggest shock in the whole world because I feel like nobody knows who I am. I'm grateful to be able to go onstage and do this role. I certainly didn't know that there were people out there that knew who I was and would honor me with this kind of nomination. I'm just out of my mind, happy and in shock.

"That I would be among the handful of people chosen for a nomination," she adds, "is [mind-boggling], especially when you think of, in the grand scheme of things, how many people in the world get an honor like this. To be put in that file with the people that have been nominated before me, and coming from Hawaii, this is much larger than even I could have dreamed. My dream was to get a job here. The rest of this stuff was too big to even think that far. I am totally, totally honored and humbled, which seems so clichéd, but it truly is. Just to feel that respect that I have gotten from other people, to put me in the top five, is unbelievably overwhelming. I'm grateful. I'm just so grateful."

The most challenging part of playing Bloody Mary, Sayre jokes, is "hitting all of the right notes every night! To keep that passion inside of her alive and fresh for every single audience — that's the biggest challenge, but it's the best challenge in the world. It really makes you compete with yourself to be the best that you can and to bring it every night."

["Diva Talk" will feature a complete interview with Loretta Ables Sayre in the coming weeks.]

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