DIVA TALK: Catching Up With Tony Winner and "30 Rock" Star Jane Krakowski

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Catching Up With Tony Winner and "30 Rock" Star Jane Krakowski
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Jane Krakowski
Jane Krakowski

Singing actress Jane Krakowski, who won a Tony Award for her performance in the Tony-winning revival of Nine and an Olivier Award for her work in the London revival of Guys and Dolls, has just released her debut solo recording on the DRG Records label. Entitled "The Laziest Gal in Town," the CD was recorded live at Feinstein's at Loews Regency in October 2009. That Feinstein's run, which marked Krakowski's New York cabaret debut, was received so well that the actress made a return engagement to the intimate nightspot this past spring. On the new disc, the gifted performer offers a mix of standards and comedic tunes, none funnier than a reworking of Rodgers and Hart's "Zip" by Hairspray's Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who retitled the song "Tweet." I recently had the chance to chat with the star of the Emmy-winning "30 Rock"; that interview follows:

Question: I think the last time we spoke, you were in rehearsal for Damn Yankees. What was that experience like for you?
Krakowski: It was one of the most challenging and most satisfying experiences I have had so far … It surprised me to get such a brilliant Bob Fosse education during the process of the whole thing. When they sort of changed the game plan and decided to do all the original Bob Fosse choreography, that became such a great challenge for me, but it is ultimately what made it so satisfying, because I never thought I'd get to do original Bob Fosse choreography at this point in my career … It was such an honor – I mean it in the true sense of the word; it was an honor to get to dance it every single night. Ultimately, it was one of the great summers I've had doing theatre, and it was one of the greatest challenges and so satisfying. I loved every minute of it, working with Sean Hayes and Cheyenne Jackson. I just had the best summer, and I think the exhilaration that came from working that hard over the summer really carried through and informed season three, for me, of "30 Rock." I came back to "30 Rock" with more energy — instead of being tired from working — and it really did, I think, bring a different and a great energy to my performance of Jenna that year. You know, it lasts for a while, which is really the high that I get and the exhilaration I get doing live theatre. [Laughs.] So that's fantastic, but I have said it in the past and it is true – I'm having the best time doing "30 Rock." It is truly an amazing experience, and if I could do theatre every summer hiatus and then do "30 Rock," it would be my ideal life. [Laughs.]

Question: Was there any talk this summer about doing something for the Encores! series?
Krakowski: Well, Encores! is brilliant because the Summer Series fits exactly the schedule [of my summer hiatus]. We have about a three-month break from "30 Rock," which is pretty healthy, but I think for most Broadway producers these days, they're kind of looking for a six-month commitment, minimum, to do a full Broadway show. So there would be overlap on one side or the other, so that's why Encores! fit in so beautifully. I am, however, hoping that something is going to come through for next summer. I'm hoping we can work that out, either starting rehearsals while I'm still filming and/or doing performances a little bit over the time we get back to "30 Rock."

Krakowski with Sean Hayes in Damn Yankees
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: How did the Feinstein's engagement come about?
Krakowski: In the simplest of terms, they asked me to come and perform there. [Laughs.] The only cabaret genre performing I had done before that was Lincoln Center's American Songbook. And I loved the show that we put together for the American Songbook, but it was very scripted and almost historical because it was all banned material, which very much suited me, the topic … It was a great topic, but the patter was very scripted, and I really didn't deviate from it, and so when Feinstein's approached me, I wanted to take the challenge mostly because I wanted to be able to bring more of myself to the room, to the genre, and to be much more relaxed in the patter and go with what was happening in the room each night and to not be nervous about it – to feel comfortable with the people right in front of you and to be more easy-going and not have everything so set in stone. And, that is exactly what I felt we achieved. I had such a brilliant time just living and being with the audience every night, and it was different every night, and the patter would alter slightly based on people's reactions or what would be happening live in the room. It was a challenge for me, but I really loved the ultimate experience of getting comfortable with that.

Question: Did you find as your engagement went on that you became more comfortable playing in such a small venue?
Krakowski: Yes, absolutely, and because we went back in May, it got even more comfortable. Just like any other performance, I think many of the songs got richer and more layered, and, of course, the patter gets more easy-going. There's one song that we do called "Handy Man" that I do with just Jay Leonhart on bass, which is one of my favorite numbers to do. It's all about double entendre and why he is my handy man, so to speak, and all the things he does for me. And, initially, it was a singer and a bass, and now it has become a vocal duet. It's a duet with a bass, because Jay has so deliciously added a vocal line for him that ultimately has become the punch line of all of the double entendres. I love it, and every night he changed it, and when we just finished at Feinstein's in May, I was like, "Oh, my God, I wish we could re-record it because it's gotten so much more clever." Question: I also love the "Tweet"/"Zip" number. How did that come about?
Krakowski: [Laughs.] Well, I wanted to do an updated version of "Zip" because I always just loved that song. Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman – I'm so lucky to have them as friends and that they were willing to do this. I definitely wanted to have something in the show that was original material in some way. I wanted to have something that was specific, initially, just for that run at Feinstein's. So I called them about doing "Zip," and they wrote me a version of "Zip," and one night I got an email from Marc saying, "I'm working on these, and you know what? These are tweets. I'm basically tweeting." We all thought that was brilliant, and it even made it more modern than just a modern pop-culture reference to "Zip." And, literally, I think, 24 hours before we did our first performance, Marc and Scott rewrote the entire thing to be tweets, and I think it's the highlight of the evening, and people love it. And because it expires so quickly, all of the references in it, every single time we've performed it, there [have] been new tweets. They've been so gracious to update it every time I am doing a gig somewhere [Laughs.] The one that is now on the CD is a bit of an archival piece [laughs] because it was our original "Tweet," but now every time we perform somewhere, they have been so generous to update it and give me new tweets [about] what has gone on exactly on that day. And even at Feinstein's, we were getting new ones along the way, because so much was going on last October, that they kept updating them even over just our two-week run. And there were so many great ones that were lost that I would end up reading many in the room, many of the ones we had to take out, because they were just too good to be missed.

Krakowski at Feinstein's

Question: I also thought the "I'm Old-Fashioned" medley sounded so good in your voice.
Krakowski: Oh, thanks so much. Michael Kosarin initially came up with the idea of doing "I'm Old-Fashioned." I've always listened to it, Ella's version. I love it, but I never thought that that would be a song that would suit me, and it is one of my favorite listening moments on the CD as well. Ultimately, as we were looking for songs, many of the women who had inspired me throughout the years had become a large inspiration, and Eartha Kitt sort of makes her way in there with "Old-Fashioned Millionaire."

Question: Who are the other singers that really influenced you?
Krakowski: Well, out of the song selection, it's Eartha Kitt, Ann-Margret. . . . Gwen Stefani became the inspiration for the reworking of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend." [Laughs.] So it became an eclectic list of women that had inspired [me], but it all initially came about when I was home channel-surfing one day, and I stopped on PBS, and they were doing one of those fund drives where they show the lost TV specials or lost Tony Awards broadcasts, all that stuff. I happened to stop on Mitzi Gaynor's TV specials [as they] were being played, and I had no idea what she was doing at 8 PM on NBC back in the day [laughs], and I was blown away by all of the numbers. I was blown away by her, by her talent, by what they let people do on TV then, by the Bob Mackie gowns, the wit, the humor, the cheekiness. It was all in there, so I ended up buying the DVD set and got the tote bag from PBS. That became a launching point because then we went back and watched Ann-Margret's TV specials and Eartha Kitt's, and suddenly the song list started forming itself. It's a very interesting process because normally I'm hired to be in a show, and this is the book and this is the music or this is the script, and you know the parameters of what you need to fill out. And what I admire so much about people who do the cabaret world on a regular basis is how many shows they come up with and all the songs that they know and how they weave them into evenings. I think about Mary Cleere Haran or some of the great women who do this all the time, and the amount of material they must have in their head to pick from impresses me so. So we tried to pick songs that would be what people would somewhat expect from an evening from Jane Krakowski, but also hopefully throw in some modern-day surprises.

I think the show really formed itself to become a really fun and frothy evening. Our first show that we ever did of this particular act was at the Kennedy Center. We did it the weekend before we opened at Feinstein's. The audience was so amazing in D.C. and so generous and so informative, because first of all, I didn't know how long 70 minutes was in song/patter. And the first show we did in D.C. went on for, like, an hour and 40 minutes. It was so long! And I felt so bad for the audiences, like we had held them captive way too long, [but] they were so thrilled. I mean, they were screaming and cheering and so supportive. But it was very obvious when we were in D.C. which songs – obviously, we had too many – needed to go. And then we crossed off the ones that didn't succeed as well on the night. We ended up with the song list that we have on the CD, and we basically took out all the bummer songs. [Laughs.] It ended up [that] the songs that people wanted to hear were the most fun ones. And then the evening just became this fun and frothy evening, and we were like, "Wow. D.C. really taught us what this show should be." And we're obviously very thankful to them because ultimately it has become what is the CD recording.

Question: I noticed that in the liner notes and then also in your show, you thank Barbara Cook. I was just wondering what her involvement was in the show.
Krakowski: Well, Barbara's been a long-term friend of mine and Michael Kosarin, my musical director and arranger. We have socialized a lot together, and I have gone to see her in all of her performances. I think she's one of the best in this world, the world of cabaret. When I first did my show at American Songbook, when I first took a stab at this [laughs], she came to my first show and she was very supportive and helpful in giving me, I think, instructive and encouraging notes, just about what the genre is. When we came to Feinstein's this time and she came, she was just so brilliant about saying, "You've figured it out. You now understand the intimacy of the room and what it is," and it was just so lovely for her to inspire our evening. She does make it into some of the stories on the CD as well.

Krakowski at Feinstein's

Question: Do you have any plans to do this show again?
Krakowski: We already did a return engagement to Feinstein's with this same show, so the next time I come to Feinstein's, I'm hoping we'll be making a new show. But we are sort of touring around with this one. We've been doing gigs all over, and now that we're promoting the CD we're doing lots of performances of the show as well. Question: How do you find it playing other cities? How does this show go over?
Krakowski: Really, the show seems quite universal, actually, and that's a great thing to discover because you don't want it to time out too quickly, the choices. So, yeah, people have loved it, and it's a really fun show to perform. Myself and the entire band – we just love doing it. It is a really fun show to play for everyone.

Question: You mentioned before about possibly coming back to Broadway. Are there any roles that you would particularly like to do?
Krakowski: Oh, my gosh. In the whole musical theatre world? Yes, there are many. [Laughs.] I always find that my list gets shaped and changed, though, by what has been done recently because there's so many parts you want to do, but if they've done a revival recently, the chances of you getting it back on Broadway in time for you to be the right age for the part always changes. I really would have loved to have brought the Guys and Dolls that we did in London here, the Michael Grandage-Rob Ashford production that we did in London. I really would have loved to have gotten the chance to do that role here, and in that production, because I was very proud of that production. I've always wanted to play Dot in Sunday in the Park with George, but that was just done, so I don't know! I might have to wait a little while. [Laughs.] I don't know when my age expires for getting to play them. So, there's a lot of other roles out there like that. Hopefully, what we're working on for next season would be both new pieces, either a play or a musical. So that would be very exciting. I think not since Grand Hotel have I done an original musical, believe it or not. Everything has been dominated by revivals, and I have come to learn how to love the challenge of doing a revival – meaning reinventing it for you and not being haunted by the greats that have played them before.

Question: Any chance of you singing on "30 Rock" this season?
Krakowski: Oh, I hope so! My gosh. I mean, in my own Jenna, special way. [Laughs.] They're writing season five right now, and we start in three weeks. So I don't know what they've come up with, but I hope so. It's one of my favorite things that they've incorporated into my character.

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

From Left: Jenna Russell, Ewan McGregor, Douglas Hodge and Jane Krakowski in <i>Guys and Dolls</i>
From Left: Jenna Russell, Ewan McGregor, Douglas Hodge and Jane Krakowski in Guys and Dolls Photo by Lorenzo Agius
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