DIVA TALK: Chatting With Addams Family's Heidi Blickenstaff, Plus Five Questions for Kate Baldwin

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Chatting With Addams Family's Heidi Blickenstaff, Plus Five Questions for Kate Baldwin
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Heidi Blickenstaff
Heidi Blickenstaff

There are many divas I admire: In the first category are those I grew up adoring — Patti, Bernadette, Betty and Elaine, among others — and each time one of these fabulous gals is cast in a show, I still find myself excited anew by the prospect of the next chapter in their respective careers. And then, there are a select group of other women, those I have only discovered since I have been writing this column, for whom I also have a special affinity. One of the talented artists in the latter category is that supreme [title of show] belter Heidi Blickenstaff. In fact, when it was recently announced that the actress would succeed Tony nominee Carolee Carmello as Alice Beineke in the Broadway musical The Addams Family, I was especially pleased. Perhaps it's because Blickenstaff had paid her dues on the road and as a standby,  perhaps it's because she seems so genuine and down-to-earth, perhaps it's because she seems so grateful for the opportunities that have come her way since [tos], or perhaps it's simply because she has the goods — a great sense of comedy coupled with a powerful, rangy, textured alto. Whatever the case, Blickenstaff will be one of many new actors who will pour through the door of Broadway's The Addams Family on March 8; the others include Adam Grupper (Brighton Beach Memoirs) as Mal Beineke, Brad Oscar (Tony-nominated for The Producers) as Fester, Rachel Potter (Wicked national tour) as Wednesday Addams, Jesse Swenson (Spring Awakening) as Lucas Beineke and Tony Award winner Roger Rees as Gomez (Rees begins March 22), who will all join two-time Tony winner Bebe Neuwirth, who continues as Morticia. Earlier this week, I had the pleasure to chat once again with Blickenstaff, who spoke about her latest Broadway role; that interview follows.

Question: Before we get to The Addams Family, I was wondering if you have gotten the chance to see any of the [title of show] productions that seem to be popping up everywhere.
Blickenstaff: I have. The one that we most recently saw was the one in New Jersey at George Street [Playhouse] … and it was so great because it was the first time we had seen people we know in those roles, like Seth Rudetsky, Tyler Maynard, Lauren Kennedy, Susie Mosher. And, aside from Susie Mosher, all of those people I know, and so it was so surreal and wonderful. I mean, it's always surreal to see [title of show], but it was particularly surreal seeing friends play us. It was insane. Tyler Maynard, in particular, because he did  [LittleMermaid with me, and … he was with me in the era when [title of show], for Broadway, was being rewritten and rebooted. And so, he was there, and to see him playing Hunter — my head was popping off. But they were so great, we were so proud of them, it was such a lovely production, and that was really great to see.

Blickenstaff (right) and Susan Blackwell in [title of show].
photo by Carol Rosegg

And then, Jeff [Bowen] and Michael Berresse and I went to Australia to see the Australian premiere, and that was truly something I will never forget. [Laughs.] The show was wonderful. It was produced by a fellow named Sean Bryan. … He was a [title of show] super-fan who became friendly with us. … He's a total youngster and just had a lot of chutzpah and founded a theatre company in Melbourne called Magnormos, and they did [title of show], and it had the same spirit as our original production because Sean really was there for a lot of it. He had done this YouTube series — the Australian version of "the [title of show] show" — and he really brought the same spirit to that show, and it was Bizarro [title of show]. It was so amazing to see them, but they did a really, really great job. They were incredibly freaked out to see us there. It wasn't a surprise that we were coming, but I can't imagine what it must be like to just go [on stage] with us in the audience. The closest I can relate it to is about a year or so ago, I did an evening honoring John Kander at the Hudson Theatre, and I sang "Maybe This Time" with Liza Minnelli in the wings. [Laughs.] And I was like, "How did I get here? How am I going to get through this?" And, of course, she was flawless and so gracious and lovely and such a nice, wonderful lady, but it's really challenging when someone has put their stamp on something, something that you have grown up with. I can't tell you how many times I watched that movie of "Cabaret," and I just love her so much, and to have her in the wings watching me sing a song that she made iconic, for me, was certainly banana-pants. And so, I'm sure those people doing [title of show] [felt that way] when we were in the audience. I'm no Liza Minnelli, but [laughs] them playing me and I'm the audience — that, I'm sure, would be a brand-new kind of challenge. But they were great. Really great.

Question: How did the "Maybe This Time" performance go with Liza in the wings?
Blickenstaff: It went really well. The one glitch was that my mike went out, and I didn't know it until about halfway through, and the stage manager came on and brought me a mike. But, you know, you roll with it, "'cause you're a pro!" [Laughs.] But it was totally fine. I feel like, if you looked closely enough, you probably could have seen my heart beating in my chest, but it was thrilling. In the last few years, I have found myself in situations like that. … I certainly had dreams as a kid, but things have happened to me in the last few years that I couldn't have even imagined, and they happen, not frequently, but frequently enough that I just feel like such a lucky girl, and that was one of those. I think, instead of getting overwhelmed by being terrified, I got overwhelmed with gratitude, because not many people find themselves in that situation. I mean, it was scary, but it was wonderful. And it wasn't just Liza. It was Joel Grey and Chita [Rivera] and David Hyde Pierce and then Deb Monk and Karen Ziemba and that whole Kander and Ebb … group of people. And then, there was the new vanguard with Julia Murney … The people that have been doing Kander and Ebb for such a long time and this new family, which I am so honored to be a part [of], because that Kander and Ebb music is my favorite, favorite music to sing, and I've developed this lovely friendship with John Kander. … I couldn't have even dreamt that when I was younger. Now, John is somebody that I know [laughs] and that I can call and say, "Hey, John, how about you and me make an album?" And that's something that's kind of cooking, so that's kind of amazing. He's so legendary and Liza is so legendary and Chita is so legendary, and every now and then I get to perform with them. So, I'm lucky.

Blickenstaff in rehearsal for The Addams Family.
photo by Jeremy Daniel

Question: And since you got to sing "Maybe This Time" in front of Liza, what's it like for you to hear someone sing "A Way Back to Then," from [tos], which is so personal for you?
Blickenstaff: That's a good question. I feel like my true attachment to that song happened early on in its development, and it was so personal to me. I think the last time we spoke, I told you about this, that it was very difficult for me to get through that song without crying. … Every time I sang it, it was a catharsis, and I felt almost like it was too much. It was so personal and so intimate, and my director, [Michael] Berresse, eventually said, "You have to find a way to give it away and be generous with that song." And, somewhere in the middle of rehearsal for our Vineyard production, I finally clicked into giving it away, and that made all the difference in the world, when I shifted. Instead of making it all about me, I made it all about everyone else, which was so helpful, and, much to my surprise, that's when people were like, "That's my story, too! It's my story!" ... And so now, when I see people do it, it's an honor to have my story out there, and I can't believe all these people are singing my song and it means so much to them, but I gave it away a long time ago. I feel like it's out there. It's out there for people to claim because even though I really thought, "This is all mine. This is my specific story," it really isn't. So many people latched onto that and said, "No, it's mine. It's mine, too." And so, it's something, now, that I feel so happy to share. It's really easy to watch it, and I'm always so proud of the person that [sings] it, because I know how intimate it is, and I know it's a challenging song to sing emotionally. I always feel such camaraderie, and I'm so proud of them for getting through it, because it's such a big-feeling song, and I'm proud to have been the first to sing it. Question: I know you guys are working on another project. Is there anything you can talk about at this point?
Blickenstaff: We're really in the heavy-duty development right now. The one thing I'll say is that it is not a continuation of where we left off. It's not [title of show] II: Electric Boogaloo. It's a departure for us, and the book is helmed by Hunter [Bell] and Susan [Blackwell] this time. It kind of was inspired by a lot of the one-off pieces that we had been hawking around town — for Gypsy of the Year, and we hosted an Actors Fund evening, and we were asked to create these pieces that were specific to the event. The one for Gypsy of the Year, in particular, a couple of years ago, was called "My First Time," and "My First Time" was so special to us, and consequently, not to our surprise, it's the same thing as with [title of show]. We wrote it for us, and we wrote it very personally. We were careful to write what made us laugh and what made us cry, and the specificity of that ended up being the thing that everybody latched onto, and the people that were there, those two shows — again, not everybody takes the ride, but those that did were like, "My God! That's such a special thing." And, we started spinning from there. There is a thread in the new piece, but it's lots of different pieces sewn together.

And, we're really grateful to the Vineyard to give us that time and space that we need, again, to continue to develop it, because it's very loosey-goosey right now. Originally, we were using music that already existed — music from the 80s, because a lot of us love Duran Duran and Hall and Oates … and we were using a lot of that music, and now we've decided to have Jeff Bowen take his crack at it again. So, it's becoming a monster, a beautiful, wonderful monster that we love. At first, we thought, "Oh, this'll be smaller," and now it's getting bigger again. But it's exciting! It's really exciting, and Larry Pressgrove is adding all of his musical genius to it, too. So, it's the same team, back together again, and we're going to make a mess [laughs] and see what sticks. It's very exciting to be together again. I mean, I love those people so much that any time spent with them is always such a pleasure, and I feel lucky to have found them. They're definitely my tribe.

Blickenstaff, with Jesse Swenson, in rehearsal.
photo by Jeremy Daniel

Question: How did Addams Family come about?
Blickenstaff: Well, hilariously, Addams Family floated in my lap like a feather. There are some jobs that you have so many callbacks for that they have to pay you for. ... A lot of times, it's this arduous, long process. Rob Ashford likes to call me back a lot. [Laughs.] This past year, I think Rob Ashford holds the record for calling me back the most. … But Addams Family was not even on my radar, and as a matter of fact, several of my friends had gone in for the role of Alice to replace the incomparable Carolee Carmello, and I remember thinking, "Oh, that's so great!" And it never even occurred to me, "Why aren't I going in for that?"... You know, the way I look at stuff … is, if they come, they come. If they don't, they don't. I just sort of wait for it to happen, and I'm not particularly voracious about fighting for something unless it's something highly unusual. But this was not on my radar at all, and I got a call from my agent saying, "They've been having trouble casting this, and this is their definite last day, and they have a really small window of time when they're seeing people. Do you want to go in?" I think she called me on Friday, and the audition was on Monday, and I was like, "Sure! I'll go in. Fine." And she sent me the song, and I didn't have time that weekend to go see the show. So, I went in completely blind. I did not have the script. I just had a couple of scenes that they gave me... and the cast recording of it. And I was also sick. [Laughs.] Generally, a recipe for disaster. This is not how you book a job. So, I went in, and I was waiting in the little lobby area. And, there were all kinds of fancy ladies around me, who shall remain nameless, but I was in such amazing company and sort of shocked to be there and wasn't even sure if I was right for it or not. [I] had made some decisions about how I was going to do it, but I hadn't obsessed about it at all.

And I went in [to the audition room], and there was Jerry Zaks. And I was like, "Hey, Jerry Zaks," just taking it all in. Sometimes, you are so nervous going into these things. … And I went in, and within, I don't know, 30 seconds, I got that feeling that you get when an audition is going well. And I was like, "I have no idea what I'm doing, but whatever I'm doing is working." And the table was laughing and they were asking me for scenes, and they gave me a scene to cold-read that I hadn't been given previously, and I sang the song. They were gracious, and I got walked out of the room by [casting agent] Bernie Telsey, and he was like, "Heidi, hang on one second." And [of] all the girls that had gone before me, no one had been asked to wait. So I was like, "Hmm. What's going on?" And Jerry Zaks came out, and he gave me a coaching out in the lobby, in front of all of those other women. He gave me a five-minute coaching. I was like, "Why aren't we doing this in the room?" [Laughs.] … And it was so awkward because I could feel the other women … leaning in, trying to get tips for their audition, which I totally would have done, too! [Laughs.] I would have been like, "What's he saying to her? ..." He was lovely and very generous and very supportive of [me] … just right off the bat. And then he said, "Have you seen the show?" And I looked at him, and in my head, I was thinking, "Do I lie? What's the right answer to this question?" And I kind of gave him this blank look, and he said, "You haven't seen it, have you?" And I said, "No, I haven't seen it. I just haven't been able to get to it." And he  said, "It's good! It's good! I want you to do you," and I was like, "Okay." I guess it was working for me. So, they brought me back into the room to do the material again, and it went over well, and about 20 minutes later, I got a phone call from my agent saying that they were going to offer me the part.

And, I have never gotten a job that way before, ever. Usually, it's like the Rob Ashford thing where you have multiple callbacks. The only other way is I've done workshops of shows where you went into the part just straight from the workshop. But, this was the first time – and I've, of course, heard many stories from friends who this happens to, but this was a very special, special experience, because I had no idea what I was doing. [Laughs.] It's like a terrible lesson. How do you book a Broadway show? Don't see the show, don't read the book, don't listen to the cast album. Just go in and be yourself. I have to say, people ask me all the time, "What's your advice for people who are auditioning for Broadway shows or for young people who are just starting out?" And, I keep coming back to that thing, which is being yourself, being the best version of yourself. It kind of always wins, and the great thing about it is, if you're not right for [the part], they'll see that, but if you are, they'll see that, too. Don't try to be anybody else, just be yourself. Take great risks, and be yourself. … And then, I saw the show two weeks later. I was like, "Oooohh! [Laughs.] That's what you're supposed to do." And, I saw Carolee after the show, and we chatted, and she said, "I can't believe you got the job without seeing the show." And I said, "I know. It's insane." And she said, "Well, you're going to be great," and she's been so supportive and just lovely. I love Carolee so much, and I'm sort of obsessed with her and have been such a fan for such a long time, and on top of being so talented, she's the nicest person, too. … She is so professional and so honest, but also a lot of fun and really easy. I have not worked with her, so I can't speak to how she is in a rehearsal process, but as somebody to talk to, she just seems normal, which I am such a fan of, because there are so many crazy people, in all businesses, but in this business, there are a lot of crazy people. So, it's so nice when you run into someone who's as talented as she is who's also as nice and normal. And she sold me her couch, so I'm excited about that. [Laughs.] Yes, she sold me her dressing room couch, so I'm going to be taking naps on the same couch that Carolee Carmello takes naps on.

Blickenstaff and Adam Grupper in rehearsal.
photo by Jeremy Daniel

Question: How are rehearsals going so far?
Blickenstaff: They're great! Replacing is an interesting business. Obviously, this show has been running for more than a year, and they workshopped it forever and had an out-of-town tryout, and so, they really know what works, what is tried and true. But, they have been so generous to us, really letting us bring our uniqueness to the table. They're not trying to reinvent the wheel, because they know what works and it's all good, but if we're uncomfortable with certain things that come out of our mouth, they've been really open to changing a few words around here and there. I'm not Carolee. I wish I was — I'm not Carolee — and what I'm bringing to the table is something totally different, and they are very receptive to that. And, I love that. I have replaced before where the creative team, at first, says, "We want you to be you!" And then, something happens and they say, "Except, could you do this bit like your predecessor?" And so far that has not happened at all … and it doesn't hurt that I'm working with such amazing actors. It is such an ensemble piece, which I love, which is totally my favorite, to work with an ensemble of people, because you feel like you're really building something together every night. This is my favorite way to work, and to have brilliant people like Roger Rees and Brad Oscar and Adam Grupper, who plays my husband, who is so delightful. We haven't worked with Bebe [Neuwirth] yet. She came and said hello the other day, but we'll start working with her later in the week. But, everybody's so great, and Steve Bebout, the associate director — because we haven't had Jerry too much, we've mostly had Steve — is so great and so generous to us, and it's been such a pleasant experience, where it could have been terrifying. It's been just totally lovely and easy, and I keep waiting for the shoe to drop. The only thing bad that's happened so far is, I'm waking up at 5:30 in the morning going, "Oh, my God! I'm going to be on Broadway on Tuesday! Oh, my God! That's going to happen again! That's going to happen again!" [Laughs.] And, it's so insane to me that, in a week, I'm going to be back on Broadway. It makes it a little easier that I'm back at the Lunt[-Fontanne Theatre], which is [where I did] my last Broadway show. So, I'll be on the same stage where I did Mermaid, which'll be fun. But, it's going great.

Question: Is there anyone that you've drawn on to play Alice, or is it all from your imagination?
Blickenstaff: That's funny you should ask that. I've been thinking about making a collage of people that have been inspiring me. I did that when I played Ursula, and it was always so helpful to me to think about Mae West and Eddie Izzard. But, for Alice, she's so manic and up-and-down that Carol Burnett keeps coming in. Jennifer Coolidge is being very helpful to me. And, Alice gets slipped a mickey at the end of the [first] act and goes a little crazy and the lid comes off and she loses her inhibitions. She's not exactly drunk, but she certainly [has] lost all of her inhibitions, which is delightful to play. … [There are] specific images that are coming in, and I need to make a collage of all of that, because that's always really, really helpful to me. But yeah, I think Carol Burnett is the one who keeps coming back — kind of [her character] from "Mama's Family," even though I wasn't a fan of that show, but the twists and turns that her character always took, where she always started out really sweet but then she would pop out with these daggers. It's kind of like that. I'm still finding my way, so we'll see. [Laughs.] Question: You mentioned earlier about a possible CD...
Blickenstaff: My very good friend, David Loud, who is, in my humble opinion, the best arranger on Broadway, and he is an exquisite music director as well — he and I have been talking about doing an album for quite a long time, and it's my dream to work with John Kander. John and I have talked, and as soon as I get settled down into The Addams Family, that is going to be my project, and that's been something that I've been wanting to do for a really long time. There's something in me — and I know I'm not the only one — that responds so passionately, organically, viscerally to Kander and Ebb music. And, I've been lucky enough to work with John and David on a couple of things, and every time I do, I just feel like I'm in my skin... David's arrangements  are just stunning and perfect — that it feels like such a perfect fit, and so it would be my dream to make an album with those two guys. … I feel so lucky that both of them are interested in doing that with me, so keep your fingers crossed. Hopefully, that will happen.

[The Addams Family plays the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, located at 205 West 46th Street. For more information, visit www.theaddamsfamilymusical.com.]

Kate Baldwin

Kate Baldwin, the singing actress who enthralled audiences, critics and Tony nominators alike for her enchanting performance in the recent Broadway revival of Finian's Rainbow, will go it solo (with a very special guest) March 8-12 at Feinstein's at Loews Regency. She will appear with lyricist (and occasional composer) Sheldon Harnick in a show of all-Harnick songs. She Loves Him: Kate Baldwin Sings Sheldon Harnick will feature such tunes as "The Shape of Things," "When Did I Fall in Love," "You're Going Far," "Will He LikeMe?," "I Couldn't Be with Anyone But You," "Gorgeous" and "Matchmaker"/"Far From the Home I Love." Scott Cady is the music director for the evenings.

We recently posed five questions to the celebrated performer, who is also expecting her first child with husband and fellow actor Graham Rowat.

How did the idea for a Sheldon Harnick show come about?
The initial idea was to do a Sheldon Harnick Songbook album.  It seems like the best way to celebrate one of the best lyricists who has ever created theatre. If one already exists, I can't find it.  But producing a studio album is expensive and though I had a terrific time working on my Burton Lane/ Yip Harburg album, I'm not in a position to finance another one so quickly.  So, I thought a live show could be the first step in that direction.  And when Sheldon agreed to be a part of the evening, the show really began to write itself. It's going to be a fun evening of his songs and stories plus a few of my own which relate to him and his work.   

When did you first meet Harnick?
He doesn't remember when we first met, and I don't blame him. I was a sophomore at Northwestern University, and our school was working on his musical A Wonderful Life. He came to campus to help during rehearsals. I was so shy and, even though I had a small role, never mustered more of a conversation-starter than a meek, "Hello, nice to meet you, I love your work," which is probably what every student was saying.  

Baldwin at her Feb. 19 "American Songbook" concert.
photo by Krissie Fullerton

What is your most memorable interaction with him?
Fortunately, my conversation skills have improved and when Sheldon came to see Finian's Rainbow at Encores!, we talked about our love of Yip Harburg. Later that year, Sheldon invited me to record two songs for his new musical and when I arrived at his apartment to rehearse them, he opened the door and said, "Wait here! I have treasures!"  He ran to retrieve a framed picture of himself and Yip Harburg surrounded by students. He also shared some personal notes that Yip had written, encouraging him with sly humor.  I love seeing the chain of relationships like that. Do you have a favorite Sheldon Harnick song and why?
"Will He Like Me?" from She Loves Me is my favorite song of his. It captures the moment of Amalia's self doubt coupled with yearning so well.  And, the release of the song is one of the best ever written.

What's next for you after the Feinstein's engagement?
I'm expecting the birth of my son in late April! So after these concerts, I will take some time off to be with my new family.  It's a little tough for me, because I really like to work, but I have to admit, I'm looking forward to sitting still for a while.

[The club is located at 540 Park Avenue at 61st Street in New York City. For ticket reservations and club information, call (212) 339-4095 or visit Feinsteinsatloewsregency.com and TicketWeb.com.]

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

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