"Don't Speak!": Tony Nominee Marin Mazzie Takes On Bullets Over Broadway's Diva Helen Sinclair

By Harry Haun
March 31, 2014

Three-time Tony nominee Marin Mazzie chats with Playbill.com about playing Broadway diva Helen Sinclair in the new musical Bullets Over Broadway.



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"Speak! Speak!" I implored Marin Mazzie when I found her in a quiet, tucked-away corner of Le Pain Quotidien on the Upper West Side. It got a laugh from her.

These days she is playing Helen Sinclair in Bullets Over Broadway, a calculating, controlling diva who directs her own love scenes, trying to hush the passion of her insistent suitor with weak, womanly, theatrical pleas of "Don't speak! Don't speak!" The suitor in this case is an innocent, eminently gullible first-time playwright. She's vamping hot and heavy in order to get him to build up and sex up a stage role.

On this particular day it's hard to follow orders to speak. Mazzie woke up with a toothache and was midway into an emergency run to her dentist when the Helen Sinclair in her decreed "The interview must go on," so she just willed the pain away and began.

First off: No, she won't return the serve when asked if she was aware of the bold-face names who cat-fought to get the part — even to the extreme of, God forbid, auditioning for it before Woody Allen (book writer), Susan Stroman (director-choreographer) and Glen Kelly (music supervisor-adapter-lyric tweaker).

"I don't really think about it," she said, opting for the High Road. "It's not something I seek out to know. I do know it was very much a desired role — and it was very much desired by me. When I saw the movie, I thought, 'I want to play that part' — just because it is the ultimate over-the-top theatrical diva. I could see myself having a really good time with her, being able to stretch myself in comedic ways."

Doubtlessly she could also see the outrageously goofy good time Dianne Wiest had in the role. It became the second time Wiest won an Oscar for a Woody Allen film, and she told the press that she was going to have her awards turned into earrings.

It is the role awards seasons were made for, and Mazzie could enjoy a Wiest-like feast of theatre accolades by season's end.

Mazzie's Helen Sinclair is not based on a specific actress, she said, but rather is an amalgam of actresses who've influenced her over the years — "Joan Crawford and the great comediennes — Rosalind Russell, Irene Dunne, Carole Lombard. This is not a new story — the aging diva trying to play a role she's way too old for." Her most helpful references for the actress who refuses to act her age: Bette Davis in "The Star," Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard" and Catherine O'Hara in "For Your Consideration."

William Ivey Long
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

William Ivey Long, the show's costumer, has apparently fallen under Helen's spell as well.

"The role is also what I wear: nothing frumpy. You see in her costumes how she manipulates. She looks like the ingénue, and the ingénue looks like the frump." True to the 1994 Woody Allen antic it's based on, this musical is a broad-stroked, brightly colored Valentine to the Roaring Twenties when mobsters muscled in on the Great White Way and, more or less, "bought shows" to give their girls a break.

It has Zach Braff, Betsy Wolfe, Brooks Ashmanskas, Karen Ziemba, Lenny Wolpe, Nick Cordero, Helena York and Vincent Pastore singing the roles that were previously played on film by John Cusack, Mary-Louise Parker, Jim Broadbent, Tracey Ullman, Jack Warden, Chazz Palminteri, Jennifer Tilly and Joe Viterelli.

The musical score is a parade of 1920s-vintage ditties, selected by Allen, Stroman, and Kelly for specific characters and situations. They range from jazz standards like Cole Porter's "Let's Misbehave," and "I've Found a New Baby," to more obscure titles like Butterbeans and Susie's "I Want a Hot Dog for My Roll" and "I Ain't Gonna Play No Second Fiddle," a duet for Mazzie and Braff. Mazzie's numbers have been selected to perfectly fit her character's fragile, fractured psyche. "These songs were deeply thought about in that respect — in fact, [they were] carefully picked for everyone." The '20s are especially up Allen's alley. "The music of that period obviously is one of his passions and something he's quite knowledgeable about."

It's not Mazzie's first time at the rodeo playing an actress. Her specialty is the stage spitfire at war with her ex: Lily Garland in a 2005 Actors Fund benefit performance of On the Twentieth Century, and a Tony-nominated Lilli Vanessi in the 1999 revival of Kiss Me, Kate. "I don't think they were as delusional as Helen," she said. "Helen is pretty over-the-top insane. I mean, the woman drinks paint remover."