DIVA TALK: Chatting with Tony Nominees Shelley, Plimpton, Olivo, Gwynne and Damiano

By Andrew Gans
May 15, 2009

This week we chat with the multi-talented women who have been nominated for a 2009 Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical.

CAROLE SHELLEY
Nominated for her performance as Grandma in Billy Elliot the Musical at the Imperial Theatre.

Carole Shelley, one of the great stage actresses of our time, is back on Broadway this season in Billy Elliot the Musical, the Elton John-Lee Hall musical based on the film of the same name.

Shelley portrays Grandma, the grandmother to the title character, and received a Tony Award nomination last week for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. "Friends called me at 8:30 from Chicago," Shelley said the morning the nominations were announced. The actress, who won her Tony for her performance in the original production of The Elephant Man and who has also been nominated for her work in Stepping Out and Absurd Person Singular , says the "the best part [of the nomination] is just being acknowledged."

"In my head she is multifaceted," Shelley says of the character she plays, "[but] probably not when you see it! I think she's somebody who has had a very hard life but a very wonderful life in her past. Dancing was a huge part of her life because it was the time she could escape into a sort of fantasy world, and I think she imparts that to Billy in the song. She talks about the only time that she and her husband really got on was when they were dancing. As soon as they got off the floor, he beat the sh** out of her again. I think it's something she imparts to him that it's a very special place to go to."

Carole Shelley in Billy Elliot, The Musical
photo by Carol Rosegg
It's the dancing, Shelley says, that was the role's biggest challenge. "[Choreographer] Peter Darling really made me move out of my comfort zone," she admits. "He's absolutely brilliant. . . . Between he and [director] Stephen [Daldry] in that number ['We'd Go Dancing'], they just pulled me out of my comfort zone."

Shelley, who has shifted with ease between musicals and plays throughout her award-winning career, says the demands of a musical are greater, but "it's really hard to make a hard and fast rule about it because in the past I have played very physical roles. I suppose as one gets older one chooses less physical roles. What I love most about a musical is being part of something that is so alive from start to finish. The music helps you gear into it."

Does Shelley have a favorite moment for Grandma? "They're actually all favorite moments," the Obie winner says. "It's not a big part, but it's just juicy from start to finish whenever the scene is happening. Whenever I'm working with Billy is very special. Playing off those kids is remarkable."

Martha Plimpton
photo by Corey Hayes
MARTHA PLIMPTON
Nominated for her performance as Gladys Bumps in the recent revival of Pal Joey at Studio 54.

Who knew Martha Plimpton could sing? And sing so well? And vamp? And deliver one-liners with dead-on comic timing? Watching Plimpton portray Gladys Bumps, the been-through-the-mill nightclub performer in the Roundabout Theatre Company's recent revival of Pal Joey was one of the most enjoyable surprises of the season just ended.

In fact, one would think Joey was Plimpton's umpteenth Broadway musical rather than her first. "Well, it wasn't technically my first musical," Plimpton said the morning the Tony nominations were announced, "but I hadn't done one since I was 12 years old when they were all kind of avant garde and downtown. But for all intents and purposes, it's my first big-time Broadway show."

Plimpton, who says she learned about her Tony nomination from her agent at the crack of dawn May 5, is "incredibly [excited] on a thousand different levels. It's exciting for me because I get to be invited to this very exciting, very thrilling party with a lot of other extraordinarily talented and accomplished people. I get to meet them and hang out with them and celebrate the season with them. It's exciting because our show has not been open for a little while. The fact that it got that recognition is really moving and really speaks volumes about our company and about the show. We're all so proud of the show, and to have it recognized in this way is really, really cool. And then the fact that it's a musical, and my first musical is extremely gratifying. It makes me feel really, really proud of our accomplishment."

Martha Plimpton in Pal Joey
photo by Joan Marcus
The stage and screen star, previously nominated for her performances in The Coast of Utopia and Top Girls, credits her Utopia director, Jack O'Brien, for her casting in the Rodgers and Hart musical. "It came about because Jack O'Brien suggested me to [Pal Joey] director Joe Mantello. He told me this at the Drama Desks after Coast of Utopia. He said, 'I'm gonna suggest you to Joe Mantello for Pal Joey.'"

Did O'Brien know Plimpton could sing?

"I don't know if he had ever heard me sing before, but I think he just assumed it," she laughs, "but I'm very glad and gratified that he did, because it started us all down the path towards working together, which was obviously an incredibly joyful experience for me, and not only because of what happened today."

As for the demands of a musical versus a play, Plimpton says, "I would say that doing Shakespeare probably is the best preparation for doing a musical if you haven't done one before. The reason for that is because it trains you in how to be an athlete onstage. I don't know if I ever achieved athletic status in the show like the women dancers do. They have a level of physical agility and stamina that is really just mind-blowing to me. But I was very surprised at just how important it is to be in condition. That coupled with the fact that, once the music starts, you're just really not in control. [Laughs.] You'd better go with it because the train has left the station. For me there's a certain level of fear involved in that — if not to overcome, at least to learn how to manage it."

When asked whether she would consider working in another Broadway musical, Plimpton says, "Well, we'll see. It's not every day that you get a musical with Graciela Daniele, Paul Gemignani and Joe Mantello and Rodgers and Hart. I don't know if it's something that I would make a regular thing. Musicals are extremely difficult, and extremely difficult to get right. And, also that terror that I mentioned before, that's no joke. I do not take that lightly," she laughs. "So I don't know. It remains to be seen, but I certainly had a great time doing this one."

Karen Olivo
KAREN OLIVO
Nominated for her performance as Anita in West Side Story at the Palace Theatre.

Last season, Karen Olivo, who boasts one of the most exciting belts on Broadway, played Vanessa in Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony-winning musical In the Heights. This season, Miranda and Tony winner Cynthia Nixon were responsible for announcing the 2009 Tony nominations on May 5.

"I asked [Lin] to text me when he knew," Olivo said with a laugh the morning of those nominations. "Strangely enough, I ended up getting my manager's text first. So when I woke up this morning, my manager's text came, and then I got Lin's text."

Olivo is nominated this season for her powerful performance as Anita, the role created by Chita Rivera, in the Arthur Laurents-directed revival of the classic musical West Side Story. "I've known about the Tonys since I was a little girl," says Olivo. "When I first started acting, everyone always wanted a Tony. Once you realize how much work goes into it, that dream sort of goes away and you realize that just getting jobs is what's most important. This is one of those dreams that you let go of, and it sort of materialized. I kind of feel like I won though: I know how hard it is just to get nominated, and it's such an honor, I feel like I should start celebrating right now."

Karen Olivo in West Side Story
photo by Joan Marcus
The triple threat says working with director Laurents, who also penned the show's libretto, was "amazing. I know that there are lots of different opinions about Arthur and his methods, but I am one of those people who really likes honesty. I really respect someone who can be blunt with me. I feel like you can't fix things as an actor if you don't know the truth, if you don't know what's wrong. Arthur was always a straight shooter. I found him to be very generous with his time and with his knowledge. He really treated those of us who were scared about the project like his kids. He really made it so that we felt comfortable with the material so that we could do our best. The fact that Josefina [Scaglione, who plays Maria] and I are both nominated, I think, is a testament to basically his coddling because he really did treat us like little girls."

Olivo, whose Broadway credits also include Rent and Brooklyn , says the biggest challenge of her new role is the stamina required to fully bring Anita to life. "It's really just pacing," admits Olivo. "I find that I have to really be smart about what I do during the day because not only is it physically and vocally demanding, but emotionally it's really demanding. To make sure that I hit all of the marks I've got to, I've got to be really careful."

One of Laurents' ideas for this revival was to feature a few of the songs — including Olivo's powerful "A Boy Like That" — and some of the dialogue of The Sharks in the characters' native tongue, Spanish. Olivo thinks that decision "adds a whole layer of authenticity, and it really does equalize the playing field as far as the two gangs are concerned. You really get to see two sides of a very well-known story for the first time."

When asked her favorite moment in the show for Anita, Olivo replies, "I love singing 'A Boy Like That' with Josefina. That's really an amazing point for both of us because it's the first time that we're doing a version of West Side story that is only ours and speaking Spanish. So that's a very intimate and very personal moment for me and Josefina. I really love that."

Haydn Gwynne
HAYDN GWYNNE
Nominated for her performance as Mrs. Wilkinson in Billy Elliot the Musical at the Imperial Theatre.

"I was on the wrong channel," Haydn Gwynne explained with a laugh the morning the 2009 Tony nominations were announced. "Part of me would just like to have been in bed and try and pretend it's not happening, but I had to get my kids up for school anyway, and I thought, 'In for a penny, in for a pound.' I found out by [press agent] Miller Wright calling me up saying, 'Congratulations, nominee,' and I said, 'Oh, what? Where? When? How did I miss that?!"

Gwynne was nominated for her performance as Billy Elliot's spirited, yet empathetic dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson, the role that earned the British actress an Olivier nomination in the show's West End run. Gwynne says the Tony nod is a "huge deal for a start. I never really imagined I'd be over here doing this to start with. I really thought I shan't be getting the job in London in the first place, so to come over has been a very big deal. Although it's such a British piece, but nevertheless Broadway is the home of the musicals. It's just a huge deal. That it should have had this kind of success over here, I don't think anybody takes that for granted. It really means a lot to everybody. I know it does."

The actress, who was also Olivier-nominated for her dual roles as Oolie and Donna in the London staging of City of Angels, said there were two main challenges in creating the role played in the film version by Julie Walters: "finding the character" and keeping her fresh. "Mrs. Wilkinson is quite a long way from me," Gwynne says. "She's not close to me in many respects, so it was the usual actor's challenge of 'Can I get under the skin of who I think this woman is?' I'm now in the privileged position of having done the role before and lived with her for quite a long time.

Haydn Gwynne in Billy Elliot, The Musical
photo by David Scheinmann
"I think I was also worried when I first came out that if you play somebody for a long time, do you peak and then have trouble finding the freshness when you're doing something eight shows a week and you've done it for a long time? But actually I've found that I feel like I know her so well, whatever my version of her is. The truth is, coming and doing it with a different company — and then, of course, the strange situation where you change leading men frequently — is actually very helpful because you have this immense variety in the show. So you've got different things to react off all the time."

And has Gwynne, who will be with the show at least through September, gotten the chance to enjoy New York City? "I have to say, I'd love some more time off, " she laughs. "Between the kids and the school run… not as much as I would like. I did have some injury time recently. Although that was pretty ghastly, it did give me an opportunity for a couple of weeks to be in New York and to enjoy New York. But I do try. I was doing a school trip with my eight-year-old a few weeks ago. We went to Ellis Island. It was great to see the city from the river. It's a pretty amazing city."

Jennifer Damiano
JENNIFER DAMIANO
Nominated for her performance as Natalie in Next to Normal at the Booth Theatre.

Jennifer Damiano, who made her Broadway debut at age 15 in the Tony-winning Spring Awakening, said she slept through her alarm the morning the Tony Award nominations were announced. "My manager called me at like 8:40 and told me the news," Damiano said May 5. "That call actually woke me up, but it was a pretty great wake-up call!"

Damiano, who plays daughter Natalie in the emotional new rock musical Next to Normal, said the recognition of a nomination is "incredible," but "I feel like what's still going on in my head is that I need to make sure I'm producing what I need to produce every night onstage and that my performance is always 100 percent. Every day for me sort of revolves around the hours of 7-10 and what happens onstage and what people leave the theatre with. . . . I think that [the nomination is] sort of this benefit that is truly a blessing. I'm really honored, but I'm still just trying to keep my feet on the ground and do the best that I can every night."

Natalie, says the actress who plays her, is "lost. She's just confused. I feel like she really wants to open up, but she wants to be able to live with a clear head and to get things straight in her own life, but she can't because she's always revolving around her mother's life, and she's always trying to make sure that everything as a whole in her home is good. She's just really waiting for the time that she can finally forget about that stuff and live her own life but, for some reason, as with [her father] Dan, something is tying her down to her house and to her mother and to this conflict that has been getting worse and worse and has never been resolved.

Jennifer Damiano in Next to Normal
photo by Joan Marcus
"I think [Natalie] strives for the truth," Damiano adds. "Towards the end of the show, that's what she really wants from her mother, for the truth and the real words to be put out there. . . .Her story is basically the message of the story, which is just to realize that even though everything really sucks, at least we're aware of that. At least we're conscious of it, and we talk about it. So I think she doesn't really want everything to be perfect, she really just wants truth."

Damiano, who received a Helen Hayes Award nomination for her performance in the pre-Broadway Arena Stage mounting of Normal, says the challenge of the role is to allow the audience to see the heart that lies beneath Natalie's tough exterior. "Natalie has a lot of walls," Damiano explains. "She's a really closed-off person, but you have to be able to poke a lot of holes in those walls for the audience to see to her heart and to feel for her and her story. I think the character Henry, Adam [Chanler-Berat]'s character, really helps that and helps people see through her. She's pretty ironic and sarcastic, too, so it's just about making sure that people can see to her heart and her needs."

Damiano says her favorite moment in the show is "the confrontation between me and Alice [Ripley]… I mean, when do you get to see two women saying those things to each other onstage, a mother and a daughter? It's really beautiful, and it breaks my heart every single night."

The young actress is equally taken with the rest of the six-person cast. "I feel totally spoiled. If I'm going to be in shows one day with casts of like 30 or 40 people, I'm gonna be like, 'What is this?'," she laughs. "It's incredible. It's such a blessing. Everyone is my heart. The entire cast makes up my heart. We're really all that close."

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