DIVA TALK: Catching Up With Tony Nominee Brenda Braxton, Star of Paper Mill's Thoroughly Modern Millie

News   DIVA TALK: Catching Up With Tony Nominee Brenda Braxton, Star of Paper Mill's Thoroughly Modern Millie
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Brenda Braxton
Brenda Braxton

Brenda Braxton
Brenda Braxton, a Tony Award nominee for her performance in Smokey Joe's Café, portrays Muzzy van Hossmere in the Paper Mill Playhouse production of the Tony-winning musical Thoroughly Modern Millie, which plays the New Jersey venue April 10-May 5. A co-production with the Maltz Jupiter Theatre — the musical played that Jupiter, FL, theatre earlier this month — the cast of the Mark S. Hoebee-directed production also features Burke Moses as Trevor Graydon III, Lenora Nemetz as Mrs. Meers, Laurie Veldheer as Millie Dilmount and Jeff Kready as Jimmy Smith. The triple-threat, who was recently seen Off-Broadway in Cougar The Musical, is also the owner of BBraxton, an upscale barbershop located at 1400 Fifth Avenue at 116th Street. Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of catching up with the gifted singing actress, who spoke about her newest role and combining her careers as an actor and businesswoman. My interview with the good-natured artist, whose Broadway resume also boasts the original production of Dreamgirls as well as Chicago, Jelly's Last Jam, Legs Diamond and Cats, follows.

Question: How did this role in Thoroughly Modern Millie come about?
Brenda Braxton: It's so funny. Back in August-September, they asked if I'd be interested in coming in and auditioning for it. I have a barbershop, so I was kind of working at my barbershop and trying to keep my business going — and I had said, "No, I don't really want to go out of town. If you just need me for the Paper Mill leg of it, then that's good." Then they were like, "Okay, no problem." And then back in the end of February, my agent called to say, "They're coming around one more time just to make sure you're definitely not interested in doing it." I said, "You know, tell them if they make me an offer, I'll probably do it!" [Laughs.] They made me an offer, and the rest is history! [Laughs.]

Question: How did the Maltz Jupiter run go?
Braxton: Oh, it was amazing. We had a wonderful time — just a ball — and I believe we got good reviews, they told us. I try not to read the reviews, especially since I'm going to have to do Paper Mill, too, now. [Laughs.] So I don't want to see the reviews yet, you know!

Question: Is the rehearsal process a little shorter since you've already performed the show?
Braxton: Yeah, we go back into rehearsal on Monday. We have three days here in the city in a rehearsal studio, and then we go to the theatre and start blocking and start doing lights with the orchestra. And then on the 10th is the first preview.

Braxton as Chicago's Velma Kelly

Question: Tell me a little bit about working with Mark, the director.
Braxton: Oh my God, I love working with Mark. I've known Mark for a little while now. We were going to actually do a Dreamgirls out in London a couple of years ago, and he was going to direct it, and I was going to choreograph it because I was in the original production of Dreamgirls. So we went out to London, and we auditioned people and went through the whole thing, and then the producers pulled out. That was rough, but we had a good time traveling and getting to know each other. That was fun. So this time was just perfect, and I think that's pretty much, too, why he said, "Okay, just make her an offer" because he knows me, he knows my work, he's familiar with my work ethic and everything, so he thought I'd be perfect for the role. And, I've just loved it. Muzzy van Hossmere is me! [Laughs.] Question: How would you describe Muzzy?
Braxton: Muzzy is Brenda Braxton — very upscale, very pulled up — as we used to say "in the day." She's very pulled up. She married money and is very comfortable with it. She doesn't apologize for having money. She doesn't apologize for being Muzzy van Hossmere, and everyone loves her. And, it's just great. [Laughs.]

Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for her? Is there something you look forward to?
Braxton: Oh, I love my entrance — that's one thing — in the white fur. And then the show takes a very comedic turn for her, too. I don't want to give it away, but when I'm not Muzzy van Hossmere, I become someone else, and it's a very, very funny moment. So I get to do both things. I get to be serious and pulled up, and I get to be silly, too. That's always nice. And, the songs are good — my two songs that I have are good.

Question: Had you seen the show when it was on Broadway?
Braxton: No, I didn't! I had a girlfriend in it who covered Muzzy and Mrs. Meers, and other than that, I knew some of the songs, but I didn't see it when it was on Broadway.

Braxton as Chicago's Velma Kelly
Photo by Joan Marcus

Question: I'm curious about that Dreamgirls production that you mentioned. What role were you going to do?
Braxton: I was going to choreograph. I was recreating the original choreography.

Question: Is that something that you would like to do more of?
Braxton: Definitely. I think Mark is going to look into it again, too, because it's never been done in London, and I think this would be a perfect time. I really just want to do it if it's going to be the original version —with as much original choreography as possible — because it was perfect. It really, really was a perfect show.

Question: What was your experience like working on that production? It's such a landmark show.
Braxton: Oh my God! It was awesome because, for one thing, Broadway had never seen an African-American show of that caliber before. And, working with Michael Bennett and Michael Peters and Bob Avian was just awesome because I was dance captain and assistant to the choreographers, so I got to be in on almost all of the rehearsals. I got to see it from the outside, the inside, upside, downside, everything — went to Boston with it, and then opened in December of 1981, and it was an amazing ride. I learned so much back then.

Question: Does anything stand out about working with Michael Bennett or seeing him work?
Braxton: His way of choreographing — his and Michael Peters, together, way of choreographing I loved because I started out as a dancer. I went to Performing Arts High School for dance. I was a true dancer, and just to see how they worked together and how grounded they were as far as the choreography was concerned was, for me at that age, just fascinating to be able to work with that caliber of director and choreographer. I think it helped shape me to be the kind of performer I am today — no matter what, get the work done, be serious, be good to people, be fair. No matter what you have to do, get the work done. Question: You were also on this season's premiere of "Smash."
Braxton: Yes! [Laughs.] That was awesome, too, to work with Jennifer Hudson and those dancers. It's so funny—during all of the breaks, the dancers were still dancing, just going, and I sat there thinking, "Oh my God. I so remember being that way." Being in the ensemble and just wanting to dance 24/7, and I just watched them, and some of their abilities just blew my mind. The dancers on that show for that episode—they were just awesome. They were really so good.

Brenda Braxton and Danny Bernardy in Cougar The Musical.

Question: What was your experience like in Off-Broadway's Cougar The Musical?
Braxton: Oh! [Laughs.] God, I love that show! I think I'm going to go back into it when I finish at Paper Mill. I know they want me to come back in. That show is so much fun. I wish—I pray—that we can get a producer that can move it to another theatre, and really, really make it a little more upscale. But the show is just precious. There's only four of us, and it really puts the whole "cougar" phenomenon into a different light. It's not just these old women trying to get these young men! [Laughs.] It puts it into the perspective of living your life no matter what age you are, and if you choose to prefer a younger guy, it's okay. And, sometimes, going younger is good. It's a good thing. Sometimes it's not a good thing. Sometimes it just helps you get to another level of your life. You know what I mean? As an older woman — I hate using the word "thrown away," but we are thrown away. Once you're over 50, your whole sexuality and everything is kind of like, "Yeah, okay, whatever." But we are still hot! I'm sorry! [Big laugh.] We are still hot, and I prefer younger men, myself, and it's not a bad thing. And, the whole word "cougar" puts such a negative connotation on it, and we kind of take that away and make it a little more human and a little more fierce. We are fierce!

Question: You've done so much in the theatre, I wonder, when you look back at your career so far, do you have a favorite theatrical experience? What stands out in your mind?
Braxton: Of course, Smokey Joe's Café! That was my Tony nomination. [Laughs.] You know, that experience was once-in-a-lifetime. I plan on winning a Tony Award next time, but…! [Laughs.] But that was such a great experience. I enjoyed doing Chicago, too. I had a great time doing Chicago because I was able to do it with a couple of stars that really I was in awe of and really appreciated their work ethic. I did it with Usher. I did it with Rita Wilson, and I had the pleasure of doing it with Bebe [Neuwirth], and I was doing Velma, and she was doing Roxie, and we had the best time. It was like ebony and ivory! [Laughs.] We had the best time, so that was a nice experience for me, too.

The original Playbill cover for Smokey Joe's Café

Question: Tell me a little bit about how you manage your career and also having the barbershop.
Braxton: Oh, God, I go screaming into the night most days. [Laughs.] I take it one day at a time, you know. I'll never leave theatre completely, but I never thought I'd find something that intrigued me and made me feel excited as much as theatre. And this, for some reason, it does. It's a very upscale barbershop, and I like being here and greeting the clients and talking to them.… A lot of them know me from Broadway or from my theatre, and they're like, "Oh my God, you're really here." And, I'm like, "Yeah! I'm here." [Laughs.] So it's about taking it one day at a time and juggling. Right now I'm looking for investors again to take it to the next level, and it's all exciting—scary but exciting.

Question: Any other projects in the works? It sounds like your plate's pretty full.
Braxton: My plate is pretty full right now. [Laughs.] I like it that way, though. It keeps me going, it keeps me young, it keeps me moving. I'm really, really, really focusing on the shop right now because I need to get an investor on board. This economy is just killing everyone… That's my focus. I'm glad that I have Thoroughly Modern Millie to help me with that, or once again, I'd be running and screaming into the night… [Laughs.] Wearing I don't know what — a white fur coat and nothing else! [Laughs.] And, lashes! You've got to remember the lashes!

Question: And, last question: Why should people to come out to Paper Mill to see Thoroughly Modern Millie?
Braxton: It's a wonderful production. It's totally Broadway… I want to say "Broadway bound" because it could easily open on Broadway. It's such an amazing production of it — the production values. They spared nothing. It's really, really a good production, and it's fun. It's so silly. We need something like this, you know what I mean? It's just a cute, little show. It really, really is. [Tickets may be purchased by calling (973) 376-4343, at the Paper Mill Playhouse Box Office at 22 Brookside Drive in Millburn, NJ, or online at papermill.org.]

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

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