DIVA TALK: Chats with Carmello, Fields, Lawrence, Leavel and Withers-Mendes Plus LuPone Ignites Her Torch
By Andrew Gans
May 26, 2006
This week we chat with the multi-talented women who have been nominated for a Tony for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical.
Nominated for her performance as Gabrielle in Lestat, which ends its run at the Palace Theatre May 28.
Question: How did you find out you were nominated?
Carolee Carmello: We were watching the telecast of the live broadcast of the nominations being read. I knew sort of what time it was going to be on. We kept switching back and forth between the kids' cartoons, which they watch in the morning, and the telecast on NY1, trying to make sure we didn't miss it. But every time we changed the channel, my son would say, "I want to watch 'Sponge Bob.'" [Laughs.] But, finally, when it was on, I said, "All right, we have to watch this now you guys," and my husband and I were holding hands because we were nervous. And then they got to the category - of course, alphabetically, I knew I was probably going to have [to be] one of the first couple names, so I was holding my breath. Then, when they said it, we both screamed so loud that we didn't hear the rest of the nominations in the category until later. [Laughs.] My son thought the sky was falling because Mommy and Daddy were screaming so loud.
Q: What was his reaction to your reaction?
Carmello: My son got really worried. I think he thought that something terrible had happened. But through our tears we said, "No, it's good. We're happy. Mommy and Daddy are very happy." [Laughs.]
Q: What does being nominated mean to you?
Carmello: Gosh, I think it's hard to put into words. Everybody says what an honor it is, and the word has lost its meaning a little bit, but it really is an honor. It's one of those things that you strive for. I've been in this business for 23 years. . . . It's just such a thrill to have your peers vote you anything - give you any kind of boost of confidence to say, "You're doing a great job. Keep up the good work." It's invaluable.
Q: Since you're the one actor from Lestat nominated, do you feel like you're representing the whole company?
Carmello: I hope they feel that I'm worthy to do that. Of course I was disappointed that more of the actors and the designers weren't noticed, but [director] Rob Roth called me on Tuesday morning, and he was so happy for me and so supportive, and he said, "Thanks for bringing one home for the team." [Laughs.] I felt like if that's how he feels about it, I'm going to hold on to that, too.
Q: Next week you're going into the recording studio for the original Lestat cast recording.
Carmello: Right, in a couple of days. We're doing it on Monday. That's great because I think that once the album is finished and people really get to hear it, they'll appreciate the score more, and hopefully they'll bring more audience into the theatre.
Q: Do you enjoy the recording process?
Carmello: I'm kind of a perfectionist, so it's a little hard for me. Usually with a cast recording, you only get about two chances to do it. Most times there's something in that first or second pass that you don't like, and you end up having to settle for one [track] or the other. It's like, "Well, the last note was better on this one, so I'll take that one." I guess I enjoy it, but I also find it sort of frustrating. When you're onstage and people are listening to you live, the imperfections are not as noticed. And, I know when people get recordings, they listen to them over and over — not that they're being critical, but they pay so much more attention to it because there's no visual. . . .So you want it to be musically perfect, and it's impossible. But I enjoy it to the extend that I can in my little Virgo brain! [Laughs.]
Q: What would you say has been the most enjoyable part of working on Lestat?
Carmello: This is not "bs" because I know a lot of times people will tout their leading man when they don't really mean it, but Hugh Panaro is just the dream of leading men to work with because he's just so sweet, so generous, so hardworking, so lovely. And I couldn't ask for a better partner.
FELICIA P. FIELDS
Nominated for her performance as Sofia in The Color Purple at the Broadway Theatre.
Question: When we talked earlier in the season, you were having a little difficulty adjusting to New York. Has that gotten better?
Felicia P. Fields: I am feeling better about it now. [Laughs.]
Q: Did you find an apartment?
Fields: Yes, I did, and it's a little roomier than I expected and reasonable.
Q: How did you find out about your Tony nomination?
Fields: I was in Chicago yesterday, and I was sleeping on my couch because I went home for Mother's Day to surprise my kids. When they woke up, I was on the couch. But then my agent called and said, "Congratulations," and I went, "You're kidding!"
Q: You were surprised. . .
Fields: Very surprised. There are a lot of people working on Broadway. And when you're working, you don't know who's doing good work because we're all running at the same time.
Q: What would you say has been the most enjoyable aspect of working on The Color Purple?
Fields: The people. They are so supportive and vocal, and I always have women saying to me how they're not going to get beaten anymore. The actual process of changing lives is more than just about theatre for me, so it's become somewhat of a mission to change somebody's life.
Q: Is there anything that someone has said to you that particularly sticks in your mind?
Fields: There was a young man, a kid. He said, "You made me understand that women are equal, and I would not beat my girlfriend or my wife." It was profound.
Q: How long will you stay with the show?
Fields: [Co-producer] Roy Furman asked me to stay about six years. [Laughs.] I know that they're going to [bring the show to] Chicago, and a lot of people are asking me about coming there. I may go back and forth, but we'll see.
Q: Have you been enjoying Broadway?
Fields: Everyone has been warm and embracing. I could not have imagined the warmth of this community. It has really been something special.
Nominated for her performance as Gladys in the revival of The Pajama Game at the American Airlines Theatre.
Question: How did you find out about your nomination?
Megan Lawrence: We were listening to it on our little computer because we don't get NY1.
Q: What was your reaction?
Lawrence: When they got the "M" of my name out, my mother-in-law screamed like she was being tortured and then started sobbing. It was that throw-up thing - when one kid throws-up, like 12 kids throw up. [Laughs.] We were like, "Ahhh, ahhh, ahhh," so then we were all sobbing and crying. And then the baby started crying because she was freaked out.
Q: You have a baby?
Lawrence: I have three. I have [kids ages] four, two and one. . . . For five seconds I was feeling great, and then it's back to the, "Mom, I wet my pants." You get back into the world. It was great, and everybody was so proud. I was so glad my family was there for that moment. They've helped out with so much because sometimes you work, sometimes you don't. You struggle, and they've never said, "Maybe you should teach or . . . " They've been really supportive of us, and it was that moment of like, "I'm doing the right thing. I feel good," and they were there to experience that with us.
Q: What would you say has been the most difficult part of The Pajama Game experience, and what has been the most enjoyable?
Lawrence: I have to say this has been, fortunately, smooth sailing. We had more than enough rehearsal time. We were quite ready to open before we opened. We were just waiting to see what the public would think. People seemed to enjoy it - it's a feel-good musical. And we sort of went, "Wow." We were blown away at how much people were having a great time at the show. . . . I've done a lot of [shows] that have failed, bombed, not made it . . . this has been a pretty easy ride.
Q: Will you come back for the commercial run in the fall?
Lawrence: I guess we're just waiting to see. . . . They need to find a theatre, [and see] who's gonna come in. There are a lot of unanswered questions in the Pajama Game world that I'm waiting to delve into.
Q: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for your character?
Lawrence: There are so many great little moments because she doesn't have a lot of boundaries, so it's been really nice to play the show and do "Hernando's [Hideaway]." There's a lot of free play in the show, and working with Michael McKean has been amazing. He's been around, he knows so much, and he's such a genuine guy. I love being onstage with him. It's been a great honor.
Q: Do you have any other projects in the works?
Lawrence: I'm doing Cry Baby, which they're supposed to bring in this new season. We're doing a big reading of that the day after Pajama Game closes. We're doing like a three-week thing with Cry Baby. . . . I sort of have my hands in that and then will spend a couple months with the kids, which will be great.
Nominated for her performance as The Drowsy Chaperone in The Drowsy Chaperone at the Marquis Theatre.
Question: How did you find out you were nominated for a Tony?
Beth Leavel: I was laying in bed with a pillow over my head, and I told my husband, "Just come up. Just tell me one way or another, so I can go on with my life." All of a sudden, I look up and he's in the room. And, I'm like, "Hi. What?" And he said, "I was watching some news program, and it cut [away] right when they were gonna announce Featured Actress." Now I'm wide awake, and he said, "Okay, I'll be right back. I'm going on-line." And he came back five minutes [later] and said I was nominated. It was really sweet, so we all had a little cry-fest and I called my mother.
Q: Did you get a lot of calls?
Leavel: Oh my gosh, yes. It was fantastic. It was one of those days that I wish I'd been two people - one person to actually go through it and the other person to remember every single thing that happened and write it down and file it and don't forget. It was a great day.
Q: How did you get involved with The Drowsy Chaperone originally?
Leavel: I auditioned in August, a series of auditions. They actually offered me the role three weeks before they were telling me I was going to Los Angeles for three months. It was like, "Ahhh, I guess I should do laundry." [Laughs.] And then it's been a whirlwind since then.
Q: What would you say has been the most difficult aspect and the most enjoyable of this whole experience?
Leavel: The most difficult thing is, truthfully, being away from my family for so long. I have two kids [ages 16 and 10], so it's always a challenge dealing with the logistics of leaving my husband as a single parent and still having a relationship when I get home. Another difficult aspect of it, which actually is not difficult - I'm going to turn that around and say it was probably one of the best things - the role was kind of completely open for exploration. Doing that is terrifying and gratifying and thrilling, so that brings me to what's one of the most exciting things is that I'm here today with that wonderful company and this show that I think is so great.
Q: Who did you draw on for the character?
Leavel: Many different women, like Vera Charles, that kind of archetype - some women of the films. We did a lot of research when we were in Los Angeles, looking at old films from the twenties, just so we were all on the stylistic same page. . . . [Also] a compilation of roles I've played before, and some I have no idea where she came from, and that's the truth. I just pulled it out of my acting "whatever." It's like, "Oh, there she is," and the audience kind of helped inform that. They would tell me what worked and what didn't work.
Q: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for Drowsy?
Leavel: I have so many favorite moments. This will probably surprise you - even though I love singing my song - my favorite moment is the very end when Drowsy comes up to Man in Chair and asks him to get on the airplane and join them. That has to be one of my favorites, and I love being onstage in the blackout when the lights go out and experiencing the audience in the dark. And the laughing. It's so exciting every single night.
Q: And you also get to be in the scene that's not in the show.
Leavel: The Nightingale. Isn't that amazing? That's really fun. It's fun now - now that we know how to do the costume change! [Laughs.]
Q: Did you know that Drowsy Chaperone was going to be a hit before you came to New York or are you surprised that it's a hit?
Leavel: I'm not surprised it's a hit. I like to think that every show I'm ever cast in is going to be the hit of a lifetime, but you know what, it doesn't really work out that way. [Laughs.] After we were in Los Angeles for a while, it became really obvious that it was really special and the audiences were just loving it, so I'm not surprised now. It's a little gift.
Q: How long are you contracted with it?
Leavel: For the rest of my life! Do you think that's bad? [Laughs.] I cannot imagine anything giving me more pleasure.
Nominated for her performance as Shug Avery in The Color Purple at the Broadway Theatre.
Question: How did you find out you were nominated?
Elisabeth Withers-Mendes: My management company, DAS Management, called me and said, "Congratulations, Elisabeth." And I said, "Congratulations?" And I'm feeding my daughter in bed - I think it was like 9 o'clock in the morning. "On the nomination." And I hollered! . . . He tells me that he was watching [the nominations] on television. And I said, "They announced my name on TV?" And he said, "Yeah, Elisabeth, they announced your name for Featured Actress [in a Musical] on Broadway."
Q: What does being nominated mean to you?
Withers-Mendes: It means being part of a legacy. For me, it's like Christmas. It's like somebody asking what do you want for Christmas, and me just giving an incredible wish list, and then on Christmas Day, God blessed me with every thing I ever asked for and more. . . . I've always had a dream. I remember being like six years old and pretending to give my Tony speech as a kid in my bedroom, but then to actually get [the nomination] is respectful of the legacy and the award.
Q: I was amazed that this was your Broadway debut. You seem like you've been onstage your whole life. Have you had other theatre experiences?
Withers-Mendes: [Laughs.] Thank you. The only theatre experiences I had was playing a fairy in Midsummer Night's Dream when I was in high school, and right after that I did Dreamgirls when I was just coming out of high school at a junior college, and I played [the] Diana Ross [role, Deena Jones]. But that was ages ago. This whole experience has just been an amazing journey. It's like, "My God, how has it all happened?" I don't stop long enough to even ask the question because it's just a huge blessing.
Q: How did this role come about for you?
Withers-Mendes: Quincy Jones had called Valerie Simpson and said, "We're looking for a Shug," and she said, "Well, I don't know anybody, but I'll talk to you later." The conversation was ended short, and then Nick Ashford of Ashford & Simpson said, "Wait, what about Elisabeth?" And then a light came on, unbeknownst to me - they ended up telling me this later - they said, "Oh yeah, she'd be perfect for that." So they called me, and I had just had my daughter three months prior. They said, "Elisabeth, we recommended you, and you'll be getting a call from [co-producer] Scott Sanders' office." . . . And I was like, "You remember now that I just had my daughter?" . . . They said, "The role is perfect. It's gonna require just a short kiss and a nude scene." And I said, "Remember now, I just had a baby!" [Laughs.] So, that's how I found out. Ashford and Simpson recommended me for the role.
Q: And then you auditioned?
Withers-Mendes: I actually had three auditions. The first audition they asked me to come back and read through a couple of sides. I did my sides, and then they asked me to come back that Friday. A matter of fact, I didn't even think I was going to get it. My mind wasn't even on it - I was really on my family and taking time off [to be with them]. And when I finished the audition, Scott Sanders and [director] Gary Griffin and some of the writers came out and said, "Elisabeth, congratulations." And all I was thinking about was "My husband's gotta move the car. I know we're gonna get a ticket. My baby, is she all right? Did she eat?" . . . I was not hearing a word they were saying. All I know is I just started crying. Then Gary said to me, "Did you hear what I said?" And I said, "Just say it again." And he said, "Congratulations, I look forward to working with you," and, child, I cried. I told him, "Gary, this is the best news, other than my prayers at night and marrying my husband and having my daughter."
Q: What would you say has been the most enjoyable part of this experience?
Withers-Mendes: The most enjoyable part has been working with Gary Griffin and working with the creative team and working with the unsung heroes, the ensemble. They are so supportive. They are seasoned musicians, actors and dancers, and when I think of how supportive they've been with me throughout this entire Broadway experience - I couldn't have done my job to the maximum without their support. . . . They were so patient with me throughout this entire thing, and I'm blessed because of them.
Q: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for Shug?
Withers-Mendes: My favorite moment is when Shug finally realizes the beauty in Celie, and their relationship starts to develop - that sister-friend sincere friendship starts to develop. Celie has never really known - other than her sister - true love because she's been abused for so long. And as quiet as it's kept, [Shug has] been used and abused in different types of ways. And seeing that their friendship develops from a pure place, that's heartfelt and touching to me. The other part is when Celie looks at Mister and says, "I might be black, I might be poor, I might even be ugly, but I'm here." And that's like my anthem now! [Laughs.]
Q: Would you like to do more theatre now?
Withers-Mendes: I've been bitten by the bug. I would love to do more theatre. . . . Now that I've done The Color Purple, I would love to do a Josephine Baker story or a Ruby Dee story, something like that.
PATTI LuPONE in Concert
In a generous two-hour, two-act concert this past Monday night at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, current Sweeney Todd Tony nominee Patti LuPone probed the depths of torch songs with her singular style and her trumpeting voice that still amazes with its power and range. The Tony and Olivier Award winner's program ran the gamut from songs about lost love and the plight of "The Other Woman" to the joys of Paris, yet she was at her most moving in a beautiful, simple rendition of the World War II favorite, "My Buddy," which she dedicated to the memory of her late musical director Dick Gallagher. LuPone's voice was filled with emotion as she sang, "My buddy, my buddy, your buddy misses you," and there was a supremely touching break in her tone as she sang the final "you." The evening, a benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, also demonstrated that LuPone is one of the most gifted comedians in the musical theatre, drawings laugh after laugh with her witty asides and with her interpretations of the classic revenge song "I Wanna Be Around" and the "French chanson" "I Regret Everything." She also scored with powerful versions of Cole Porter's "So in Love," and the Gershwins' "The Man I Love," her high belt echoing throughout the theatre that housed one of her earlier triumphs, Anything Goes. The sold-out crowd, which rose to their feet on several occasions, demanded encore after encore, and proved that LuPone needs to record this eclectic mix of torch songs. Oh wait, she already has — the sublime The Lady with the Torch recently hit stores on the Ghostlight Records label.
Frances Ruffelle, who created the role of Eponine in the London and Broadway productions of Les Misérables, will make a rare New York nightclub appearance in June. On June 26 the Tony-winning actress will play The Supper Club on West 47th Street. Backed by the George Gee Big Band, Ruffelle will offer an evening of Big Band favorites, show tunes, pop songs and standards. Show time is 8:45 PM; doors open at 7:30 PM. Ruffelle's engagement will coincide with the release of her forthcoming solo CD, which was recorded live in London. The disc, due this summer, is simply titled "Live at Ronnie Scott's." The Supper Club is located in Manhattan at 240 West 47th Street. Call (212) 921-1940 for reservations.
With author Greg Lawrence, Tony Award winner Donna McKechnie has penned her autobiography. Entitled "Time Steps: My Musical Comedy Life," the new tome is due in stores in September from Simon & Schuster. Chapter titles include "A Make-Believe Childhood," "How to Succeed as a Teenage Gypsy," "Promises, Promises," "Company," "A Chorus Line," "A Choreographed Marriage and Other Singular Sensations," "Masochist's Lament," "Sweet Charity," "Inside the Music" and "My Musical Comedy Life."
Isabel Keating, who portrayed Judy Garland in the Hugh Jackman vehicle The Boy From Oz, will return to Broadway in June. Beginning June 6, the Tony-nominated actress will assume the role of Velma Von Tussle in the hit musical Hairspray at the Neil Simon Theatre. Keating succeeds Leah Hocking in the role that was created on Broadway by Linda Hart.
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.