DIVA TALK: Chats With NYMF's Catherine Cox, Michelle Federer, Anika Larsen, J. Elaine Marcos, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Melissa van der Schyff

By Andrew Gans
July 6, 2012

News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.



This week spotlights six of the women featured in the 2012 New York Musical Theatre Festival, which runs July 9-29 at various venues around the city. Diva Talk posed the same set of questions to each talented artist; their answers follow.

Catherine Cox
Flambé Dreams at the 45th Street Theatre (Mainstage)
July 9-17

How did you get involved in this production?
Catherine Cox: I was contacted by the wonderful director, West Hyler, many moons ago, and I [also] did a [subsequent] reading.

How many NYMF productions have you been involved in?
CC: One. Last year. So I guess you could say I'm back by popular demand and "on a run." The piece was called Vote For Me (music by Drew Fornarola, lyrics by Scott Elmegreen and direction by Amy Rogers).

How would you describe the character you're playing?
CC: Well-meaning, neurotic, beyond sweet, beyond controlling. In a word… a mother.

Why do you think audiences should attend this particular production?
CC: Because it's incredibly funny and touching and the cast and the material is really, really fabulous.

Why do you think NYMF is so important?
CC: The obvious… it gives writers and actors a venue to work on new musicals and "get them up."

NYMF celebrates new musicals, but which role in a classic musical would you most like to perform?
CC: Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd.

Do you have any other projects in the works?
CC: Yes. Two. One is called The Memory Show. It's a two-character musical about Alzheimer's (and, yes, it's touching and painfully funny). The music is by Zac Redler/lyrics by Sara Cooper and directed by Joe Calarco with Vadim Feichtner as musical director. It will be produced by The Transport Group (thank you, Jack Cummings) and open at the Duke Theater on 42nd St. in March of 2013. And, I have the pleasure to work with Leslie Kritzer.

The other project that's in the works is called Open All Night (music by David Evans/lyrics by Faye Greenberg). It's one-night in the life of an insomniac. (Did I say it was incredibly funny and painfully touching?) I guess that's what I do.

Read more about Catherine Cox in the Playbill Vault.

Michelle Federer

Michelle Federer
How Deep Is the Ocean? at the Theater at St. Clements
July 12-21

How did you get involved with this production?
Michelle Federer: I got involved with How Deep Is the Ocean? through The Midtown Direct Theatre Company, which is based in Maplewood, NJ, where I live with my family. As a company member, I had the opportunity to do a staged reading of the piece last fall. I kinda fell in love with my character Jackie, so when Jeremy Dobrish, who directed the reading, asked me to join this production, I jumped at the chance.

What other NYMF productions have you been a part of?
MF: This is my first NYMF show!

How would you describe the character you're playing?
MF: Jackie is the wife of an artist. She lives at the Jersey Shore year round, works double shifts at the local beauty parlor and drinks Jack Daniels from a coffee mug.

Why do you think audiences should attend this particular production?
MF: I think audiences will recognize the very real struggle the main couple is having in their marriage. What will surprise them is the world they are existing in. The music is great and the book is hilarious, too!

Why do you think NYMF is so important?
MF: NYMF is important because new work is important. It forces artists to get back to the basics, be resourceful, collaborative and creative. It's a great opportunity to see a lot of theatre at reasonable prices!!!!

NYMF celebrates new musicals, but which role in a classic musical would you most like to perform?
MF: Sally Bowles has always interested me, but so has Aldonza from The Man of La Mancha.

Do you have any other projects in the works?
MF: I have to be super selective right now because I have a baby. She is, by far, the best project I have ever been a part of.

Read more about Michelle Federer in the Playbill Vault.

Anika Larsen

Anika Larsen
Baby Case at the Pershing Square Signature Center
July 16-22

How did you get involved with this production?
Anika Larsen: Our director, Jeremy Dobrish, asked me to do a reading of it a few months ago, and I was captivated by it.

What other NYMF productions have you been a part of?
AL: I did a show several years ago called How to Save the World and Find True Love in 90 Minutes.

How would you describe the character you're playing?
AL: I'm playing two women who really lived, which is a first for me and a thrilling challenge. I play Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of Charles and mother of the kidnapped baby, and Anna Hauptmann, wife of the man executed for the crime. The women are, in a sense, different faces of grief, both dealt the devastating blow of the loss of one they hold most dear. But Anne Lindbergh was a wealthy ambassador's daughter, famous and beloved, and Anna Hauptmann was a poor German immigrant, obscure and dismissed.

Why do you think audiences should attend this particular production?
AL: First of all, the Lindbergh kidnapping is an utterly fascinating event in American history. When I first read the script, I couldn't believe everything in it really happened. It is gripping and deeply moving and horrifying. Not just the events themselves, but the role of the American public and the media in exploiting and commercializing and obsessing about it. That's something we think of as a particularly modern phenomenon, but the circus surrounding public tragedies and court cases today is much the same as it was in the 1930's.

But people should come see Baby Case because beyond the appeal of the story itself, it is so elegantly and deftly told by the show's writer, Michael Ogborn. I continue to be awed by the way he has managed to distill this epic, multifaceted, many-charactered story down to its essence. And he does it through gorgeous music that takes my breath away.

Why do you think NYMF is so important?
AL: It seems so dishearteningly difficult, expensive and risky to get new musicals made. NYMF is one of the few ways that new shows can get a chance to prove themselves in New York City, the mecca of musical theatre, and get a real shot at a future life.

NYMF celebrates new musicals, but which role in a classic musical would you most like to perform?
AL: I've spent the bulk of my career pop/rock belting, and it's only in the past year that I've been getting to play more legit roles (thank you, Baby Case!). I would dearly love to do anything Rodgers and Hammerstein. Maria in The Sound of Music would make me dizzy with delight.

Do you have any other projects in the works?
AL: Recently, I played a nun with a gambling addiction and a heart of gold in Seth Rudetsky's Disaster! There are murmurs that it's going to come back this summer, and I hope it's true because that show is funny in all the right ways and all the wrong ones!

Read more about Anika Larsen in the Playbill Vault.

J. Elaine Marcos

J. Elaine Marcos
Flambé Dreams at the 45th Street Theatre (Mainstage)
July 9-17

How did you get involved with this production?
J. Elaine Marcos: I got involved with this production after West Hyler had contacted me and asked me if I was available and interested. We had met many years earlier in San Diego at the Old Globe Theater when I was doing Lucky Duck. After listening to some songs and reading the script, I knew I would love to play the parts.

What other NYMF productions have you been a part of?
JEM: A few years back I was in a song cycle written by Tim Huang.

How would you describe the character you're playing?
JEM: Desiree is a prostitute. A lovely... prostitute. A great friend with good advice but nevertheless a prostitute. And DiDi is a woman who is desperately looking to date a man of her dreams. And by that she means a maître d'. That's her main requirement. Everything else is optional.

Why do you think audiences should attend this particular production?
JEM: I think audiences should attend Flambé Dreams because it's a fun show with heart and hilarious songs and scenes.

Why do you think NYMF is so important?
JEM: I think NYMF is really important because there is a journey in which a show needs to go through to eventually becomes a full Broadway musical, and being part of this prestigious festival helps to put potential shows on the map. I'm always impressed by those shows that go from this festival and onto the next stage. It's inspiring and exciting.

NYMF celebrates new musicals, but which role in a classic musical would you most like to perform?
JEM: If I had my wish, I would love to play Lucy in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

Do you have any other projects in the works?
JEM: In the fall I will be part of the Broadway revival of Annie playing the role of Lily St. Regis.

Read more about J. Elaine Marcos in the Playbill Vault.

Sheryl Lee Ralph

Sheryl Lee Ralph
It's On at the Pershing Square Signature Center
July 10-11

How did you get involved with this production?
Sheryl Lee Ralph: It was a Christmas/Hanukkah gift to me. Someone dropped out the week before the L.A. reading and the director called me. (He should have called me first.)

What other NYMF productions have you been a part of?
SLR: This is my first and most fabulous!

How would you describe the character you're playing?
SLR: Bold, bodacious babe with a sharp sense of humor. Talented with a keen understanding of people. She can spell couture and wear it, too... when she finds it in the resale shop. Oh and she can sing! Love her!

Why do you think audiences should attend this particular production?
SLR: It is a wonderful show with a great cast, great music and audiences will be able to say, "I saw it first at NYMF!"

Why do you think NYMF is so important?
SLR: Musical theatre is an American art form that must continue to be supported. This is the tradition that created West Side Story, Dreamgirls and that Mormon musical. Besides, some Divas Gotta sing, Gotta dance!

NYMF celebrates new musicals, but which role in a classic musical would you most like to perform?
SLR: Auntie Mame! Dolly! That Diva in Applause! Margo Channing.

Do you have any other projects in the works?
SLR: My new book "Redefining DIVA" published by Simon&Schuster is in its fifth printing and I continue to tour with it. My one-woman show Sometimes I Cry, the lives, loves and losses of HIV-positive women, continues to move around the world. SometimesICry.org.

Dec. 1 we will celebrate the 22nd annual DIVAS Simply Singing!, the longest consecutive-running musical AIDS benefit in the country. TheDivaFoundation.org.

Just wrapped a pilot about the regrouping of an 80s girl group after the death of their manager. Divaliciously funny!

Read more about Sheryl Lee Ralph in the Playbill Vault.

Melissa van der Schyff

Melissa van der Schyff
Baby Case at the Pershing Square Signature Center
July 16-22

How did you get involved with this production?
Melissa Van der Schyff: The production called my agent to offer me the role of Violet Sharpe (the Lindbergh maid who was suspected of being involved in the kidnapping), and they sent me an MP3 of her song "Dirty Dishes." As soon as I heard the song, I got chills and immediately connected to the character. I couldn't stop singing "Dirty Dishes" because it is so haunting and catchy! Then I started to do a little research on the Lindbergh kidnapping as well as Violet and her role in the story and was absolutely fascinated by the real-life twists and turns of this mystery. I ended up ordering three books on the subject that I can't put down! At that point I knew I needed to accept the job! I couldn't let Violet go without further exploration!

What other NYMF productions have you been a part of?
MV: I am new to New York so this is actually my first time participating or attending the festival.

How would you describe the character you're playing?
MV: Violet is such a mystery! She reminds me of a wild stallion that everyone is trying to restrain. When she was interrogated by police about the kidnapping, she was very volatile and defiant. She lied at first, saying she was at the movies to cover up that she was actually at a bar drinking (during the time of Prohibition!) on a date with a strange man. Apparently she had an appetite for men and booze at a time when women were expected to behave in a certain manner, yet she was the perfect housemaid always diligent in her duties. The police came to question her several more times about her lies, and upon hearing she would be questioned yet again and on the verge of her reputation being totally tarnished, perhaps being fired (during the Depression when there were no jobs to be had)…or even worse being charged with the crime, she committed suicide by drinking silver polish. She took any secrets she may have known with her to the grave.

Why do you think audiences should attend this particular production?
MV: Well, the Lindbergh case didn't get the nickname "The Trial of the Century" by accident! It is so compelling and there are so many bizarre details that just make your jaw drop open! This country has a history with becoming obsessed with certain trials, like the OJ case, the Jon Bennet Ramsey case, etc. Real-life mysteries are hard to resist. Michael Ogborn has done a brilliant job of assembling the facts and speculations surrounding this epic story with his book and score (the music and lyrics are thrilling… poignant, extremely witty as well as melodically catchy). He also examines how these sorts of news stories appeal to the darker side of our psyche and become sensationalized and capitalized upon so that the case takes on a life of its own and grows into a phenomenon. Director Jeremy Dobrish is a fantastic leader for this piece and Warren Adams is doing some really amazing and interesting choreography. And, last but not least, we have 11 actors playing about 97 roles. It's good old-fashioned teamwork at it's finest.

Why do you think NYMF is so important?
MV: My favorite thing in the world is to work on developing a new show. It's obviously important for the future of the theatre to have a place where we can risk trying new things and have that intention embraced and supported. It is so important to have a forum that celebrates that, with the understanding of the time and budget constraints involved. And, when you have a festival that brings the community together to present multiple projects there is wonderful creative energy and excitement that you can feel flowing. Knowing that while we are rehearsing and figuring things out there are multiple companies across the city doing the same thing is such a powerful thing. It makes me proud to be a craftsperson.

NYMF celebrates new musicals, but which role in a classic musical would you most like to perform?
MV: Ooooh that's a good question. I will have to think on that! There is so much!

Do you have any other projects in the works?
MV: I always have a few pots boiling on the stove… I'm a composer as well as an actor so I am working on an original CD right now. I also write some comedy stuff, so I have been writing an animated series. As far as acting, there are a few projects brewing, but I'm not at liberty to say anything at this moment, but hopefully soon!

Read more about Melissa van der Schyff in the Playbill Vault.

Visit NYMF.org.

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