DIVA TALK: Chatting With Broadway and Chess Star Natascia Diaz

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Chatting With Broadway and Chess Star Natascia Diaz
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Natascia Diaz
Natascia Diaz

Natascia Diaz
On July 30 Broadway actress Natascia Diaz, who won a Helen Hayes Award for her performance in MetroStage's world premiere of Rooms, a rock romance, will star in Chess "In Concept" Concert, a benefit for the Actors Fund, at LaGuardia Arts at Lincoln Center. This stripped-down, all through-sung concert version, emulating the original 1984 concept album, will also feature the talents of Tony Award nominee Robert Cuccioli as the Russian, Drew Sarich as the American with Tamra Hayden, Raymond Jaramillo McLeod, Gus Solomons Jr., Scott Wakefield and William Youmans. The upcoming concert, produced, directed and arranged by Christopher Martin, the founding artistic director of Classic Stage Company, casts Diaz in the role of Florence, the part originated in London by Olivier Award winner Elaine Paige and subsequently on Broadway by Tony nominee Judy Kuhn. About casting Diaz, whose Broadway credits include Man of La Mancha, Seussical, The Capeman and Carousel, director Martin told me earlier this week, "[Natascia brings a] great warmth and intelligence [to the role]. And, [she has] an uncanny way with lyrics. She played Esmeralda for me on the demo score of Quasimodo I made some years ago, and I was struck then by her interpretation of my music and lyrics. When this concert idea came up, she is the only one I called. She balked at first, not thinking of herself as a Broadway diva. But this part doesn't demand that kind of singing, even though it's all too often done that way. Character is all, and she's got it nailed."

Martin also spoke about his concept for this one-night-only concert version of Benny Andersson, Tim Rice and Bjorn Ulvaeus' Chess, explaining, "Superstar and Evita have endured and are still very much with us. They, too, were concept albums that became musicals. What was different about Chess? It had dialogue by the time it hit the stage. So I went back to square one and reconstructed the score based on the concept album version, carefully filling it out with the London stage score. The music tells the story, the lyrics define the characters. The Cold War was never meant to be the main storyline. That came out of the London version. The music and lyrics don't support it. The Cold War setting adds an interesting frame for the musical, but the tensions have everything to do with winning the game, and I don't mean the political one. The Soviets were a very proud people. They liked winning. They liked winning over the United States. The players in Chess want to win the game. And the girl. What could be better material for a powerful musical? So, what we have is through-composed and through-sung. From square one to all 64."

Natascia Diaz in Brother Russia
photo by Scott Suchman

A few weeks ago I chatted with actress-dancer-singer Diaz about her latest role, which will see her join forces with her former Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris co-stars, Cuccioli, Hayden and Sarich; that candid interview follows:

Question: How did this Chess concert come about for you?
Natascia Diaz: It comes about as a result of [my association with] this lovely gentleman, Chris Martin. He called my agency when I was with TalentWorks, and he was looking for someone to sing a musical—put a musical down—on CD that he had written about Quasimodo. And, I would say this is about maybe eight years ago. I ended up going. It was for free. We just sort of went, and that was when I just wanted to sing and do stuff. And, I sang this whole score… [and the process] showed his sensibility as a writer and as a person… [who is] a true artistic professional. It turns out that he really liked my look and my sound and my sensibility for Esmeralda—the gypsy. And, my type and my emotional type—the type of performing I like to do—really jived with his. He much prefers the acting over the singing in musicals. If he would have to choose between the other—without putting words in his mouth—he would choose someone who could tell the story more than hit the notes.

He came to see Jacques Brel, and he really resonated with the casting that Gordon Greenberg and our producer, Dan Whitten, had assembled for the Off-Broadway cast… He, apparently, had been trying to tell Tim [Rice] that he has discovered a way that he thinks [Chess] makes sense… He had found a way to present it—cutting and pasting, doing certain things differently, making different choices, adding lyrics, making it all through-sung—and one of the choices that he has made is to present it with this casting. He believes that the two Chess players should be older, and I think he's basing that on something factual… He had to really convince me to do this because I was very trepidatious.

Question: Why was that?
Diaz: I was trepidatious because I didn't know Chess. I had never had any ambition to do it. Lots of performers—we gravitate towards albums and parts that [we're] interested in. And, Chess was never anything that I was curious about or knew anything about, and I didn't feel like I was missing anything. I just knew that it was a very intricate, sort of opera kind of musical theatre-sound, and everybody sang really high and really loud. And, that's not what I do, so I just never had any curiosity towards it.

Question: What made you accept the role? What changed your mind?
Diaz: Well, Chris asking me to do this changed my mind—and he really had to beg me—because I see how people have been receiving Elena Roger—and I have not seen Evita—but once somebody puts an iconic spin on a role like that, it's pretty hard to wrestle it away. And, Chris' whole point, I think—again, I don't want to speak for him—he wants to try a Florence that doesn't sing really loud and really high. He doesn't think it's necessary. He thinks that's part of the reason, in his opinion, that the story has gotten lost. He wants to try what I would bring to the material. And, of course, when he spoke to me, I went right to YouTube and [thought], "Oh my God. I'm not doing this. I can't do this!" [Laughs.] And, he said, "Yes, you can." He said, "We've had too many Florences that screech and sing very loudly through the entire thing." He said, "I really want to try something different. I want to try an approach where the acting and the story is much more prevalent." And, I said, "With me, that's what you're going to get because I don't belt above a D or an E." [Laughs.] "That's not what I do!" And, he said, "No, but I've seen you on stage." And, he has. He's seen me in quite a few things… I consider myself to be a singing actor. I don't pretend to play in the same ballpark as Julia Murney and as Idina [Menzel]. I was at that Chess concert, directed by my dear friend Peter Flynn, and it blew my socks off! That being said, this gentleman came to me completely separate and wanted to enlist me towards realizing his idea about how to try this and how to present this.

Natascia Diaz in Jacques Brel
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Question: Have you started rehearsals or have you started working on the score yet?
Diaz: [Laughs.] Have I ever! I started a month ago because I knew I had a lot of projects going on this summer, and I really, I mean, did not know it… at all! Not the story… I knew "Someone Else's Story," maybe two of the iconic songs, but that's about it. Never having been interested in trying it, there was nothing that drew me to it. So we had a series of intensive rehearsals—three-hour blocks—where I would just sit there and learn everything and implement the changes that Chris wants to try in doing what he believes will clarify and anchor the emotional journeys more clearly and more strongly. And, apparently, I guess he thinks that putting it in my hands—because I just don't have that kind of an instrument—that it will not be upstaged by any high, belty notes. I just don't sing like that. Question: As you've been working on the part, what have you discovered about either the score or the character? How do you feel about it now?
Diaz: Well, the feeling of trepidation [remains]. Chita Rivera never had to sing Chess! [Laughs.] It's like, "Why can't I just do stuff that I want to do that I can hit it out of the ballpark?" I always find myself being asked to do things that are way outside of my comfort zone, but they're presented to me in such a way that I sort of can't refuse. This happened with me with Man of La Mancha. They said, "We want to bring you in for Aldonza." I was like, "Are you kidding? You need a woman with big boobs and a huge voice to blow a hole in the wall, and that's not me. No, I'm not coming in." And, they said, "You better come in!" [Laughs.]… I was like, "Okay. I don't understand why." And, I did. I came in, and they had me sing through the stuff, and they offered it to me. And, I fought it all the way. I was so afraid of it that I said, "Okay, well look—if I take this job, you have to pay for my voice lessons because I've never had enough lessons to be able to support it," and they did. They paid for my voice lessons! [Laughs.] I wanted to dignify it. I didn't want to be like, "Here I am." Out of all of the women in New York City who I thought were a shoe-in for the kind of voice and the kind of emotional thing that it was, they wanted me. Either you're going to act out of fear and say, "No, I can't do it," or you're going to try. So I tried, and I do my best… Cut to me spitting [onstage] at Brian Stokes Mitchell. [Laughs.] You know what I mean? And, enjoying these amazing moments! Look, every performer has their things that they're insecure about, and of all of my three skills, singing to me is the last. First, I'm an actor, then I'm a dancer, and then I'm a singer. So singing, to me, is always the thing that is the most mystifying and the most terrifying. Now, there are scores and there are places in my voice that scare me less… I've grown to accept my instrument the way it is and try to enjoy it enough to let it come out. And, apparently, people seem to like it. [Laughs.] I'm just going with it. Again, you want to work, you find yourself being asked to do things like this—with your friends—for a very good cause. Either you're going to, like I said, act out of fear and don't challenge yourself or you're going to try because it's for a really good cause.

Question: As you're rehearsing, are you feeling more comfortable with the score or…?
Diaz: Chris' lens is so specific, and had we more time, we would really have time to explore the wonderful perception that he has of these moments that are very clear—they're very clear, they're very bold. And, it's almost Chekhovian… What I do is I have him talk into a tape, so I can hear him in lieu—instead of rehearsal time—I have him going over every lyric to hook it into what exactly it means… I have him speak about each phrase of the show and what it means because I've been listening to these lyrics—"Someone else's lifetime…"—they could be generalized. These ideas—they're not that specific, and they could be generalized, and I really pressed him about, "So what does she mean by this? What does this mean?" And, he elucidates it really, really specifically and very strongly, so whether I can pull it off to the depth that he understands without any rehearsal, I don't know! [Laughs.] But I am certainly going to try, and I think the way that I come off, I have a very European feel… And, Bob and I and Tamra and Drew shared a very special kind of journey with Jacques Brel, and we sort of have lived in this epic place—a very European-like place. We're going to try to do justice to Chris' very specific, emotional vision of the emotional beats of every single line. I mean, he doesn't let one line go untranslated. He doesn't leave one idea left. He says, "This is what's happening here. This is what you really mean, so this has to really come through that line." And, I'm finding that is what is hooking me in more than anything… Yes, it is a monstrous score. It's like a tidal wave. And, me, who's like this singer-dancer-actor person, especially coming from a world like Chicago just two minutes ago, this is a totally different world. I'm finding that through his understanding—through his deep understanding—of what is the emotional interplay that that is what is hooking me in, and that is what I am finding resonates with me. So that will serve me in as much as it can in this little amount of time. I don't have forever. As a matter of fact, I have one run-through, so I hope that everything he has given me will come through as much as possible. If not, I think that just structurally, you'll be able to feel a difference apparently… This is what I'm told. The people who know Chess will be able to see very clearly what he has changed and what he is suggesting, and they will get it through a casting of these roles that I think has not happened before from what I understand. I don't really know. I know that Julia Murney and Judy Kuhn are incredible actresses in their own right. I don't know what kind of directors they had. I don't know if they have the same information that Chris has. I'm huge fans of theirs, so I'm trying to do what I am told by him, and I am going to try and give it as much fullness as I can with as little time to prepare.

Natascia Diaz with Patti Murin in Chicago
photo by Larry Pry/The Muny

Question: You mentioned Chicago. What was your experience like working at the Muny? Had you performed there before?
Diaz: I had. I had. I did West Side there, and it was glorious. [Executive producer] Mike Isaacson is—I don't know—like a walking angel, living, breathing angel. The generosity with which he offered me this role without an audition, having remembered my performance there, is exciting. The support at rehearsals. He would just get verklempt because he was so excited that, as he explained it to me, he was able to do things his way. And, that's what's, apparently for him, was a thrilling prospect of taking over the Muny position. He could have a place where he could do things as his dream. And, that I was a part of that dream is incredibly touching and just a big honor, and I think it came out spectacularly. And, for me, my whole career I wanted to do that part and inhabit that show, really. It almost didn't matter what part… I feel like "anything Chita does, I will do later!" [Laughs.] It just seems like we seem to resonate in these roles. She blazoned a path that resonates with me, so it seemed to make sense. I can finally check it off the list. Of course, I would love to do it in New York… The fact that I've sung "All That Jazz"—once you've really done it, it's thrilling. It's beyond thrilling! It's no longer this abstract concept in my mind. [Laughs.]

Question: When you look back on all the different roles you've played, do you have a favorite theatrical experience at this point?
Diaz: Well, Anita, for me, is just beautiful. I learned how to do it. It took me about seven years, but I worked at it. I learned how to do it—to do it without harshness, without pushing. To do it without acting bitchy. She's proud, and she's feminine. And, the fact that I got to work on it with Jerome Robbins, even for the short weeks that I did, was unspeakable. He taught me to not push—"Don't dance too hard. It's elegant. You're elegant. You're feminine." And, I took that with me. The women and the people that I got to play with. To me, she has her own version of that speech at the end, when she gets up off the floor from the taunting. It's like she sees what Bernardo has seen for the first time. And, that's the death of her innocence. America is no longer the beautiful place she thought. And, to me, that loss of innocence was not only palpable, but really sad, really epic and imminently playable, and that was what was an important thing to me. It was an archetype. It was an archetypal thing for an immigrant to face—that fall from innocence, where it's not such a great place. They hate you here. And, to look into someone's eyes, who is looking at you with so much hate, it's arresting.

Question: When did you play the part?
Diaz: Oh, God. Well, the last time I played it was in Germany in 2008, but I did it on the national tour, '95-'97. I did it at the Muny. I think I've done it five places in total. The elegance of this young girl, and the smartness of her… Brother Russia was [also] incredible. I mean, Brother Russia, I got to be a princess—literally. What girl does now want [to play a princess]?… It was the first time that I've ever worn a crown in a production. They put a crown on you, and you go, "Oh my God, these are my little girl dreams!" But she was very gentle. She was very subdued and very gentle and very graceful… Again, another thing that was so weird to me was that they wanted me. They didn't want an ingénue, they wanted me. I get scared of it. They wanted someone with a low voice. They didn't want me to sing high. They wanted a rich, low sound. And, I said, "Oh my God, I've waited all this time in my career, and now I'm finally playing a princess of this grace and this warmth—this warmth and earthiness." That was pretty amazing. Savage in Limbo was transcendent for me. If you asked me when I graduated, I never would have thought that I would not be in plays this much. I never thought I was going to do as many musicals as I've done. I had fully intended to be in a corset running through a field. [Laughs.] Literally, that's where I felt I belonged.

As I went along in my journey—year 1, year 2, year 3 after graduating—I saw what was happening and where I was getting far in things. It was always me and the blondes. It was me up against the blonde for Martin Guerre. I can only assume that the actor and the storyteller in me challenged their perception as to what their ingénue would look like—instead of always being blonde and white! [Laughs.] And, a couple of times, they went in my direction, and a couple of times they didn't. Obviously, Martin Guerre went to Erin Dilly, and Saturday Night Fever… I had a whole journey with Saturday Night Fever—and it went to Paige [Price]. They were fashioning me to have this part, and the producer came and said, "No, I want the blonde." I used to talk about this with Sara Ramirez… It's amazing. It happens over and over and over. And then, of course, we know what happened to Sara. Mike Nichols had the good sense to see that [The Lady of the Lake] was her role. She was funny, and this was her role. I've never had to cast something, so I don't know what it feels like to be on the other side of the table and talking about type and stuff. Like everybody else, I think I've found myself in places where people resonate with my storytelling. My type of performer either is attractive to you and will help you… If I can be of help in the production and elucidate moments, then great, or it's not. You will never, ever see me in Shrek. It just won't be. I won't do that. Then again, not that there's anything wrong with that, but you get to know where you fit… and then make peace with it! That's a whole other layer. [Laughs.] Whether you like it or not, you have to. I stopped trying to put myself, even though I had the skill set of the singer-dancer-actor, and I could do anything that these amazing Broadway divas could do, I said, "Well, why can't I be in that?" If I think about it long enough, I actually don't really want to be in that… And, there's a weird turning point in your career when you turn from doing anything and everything that you can to choosing [what you want to do]. It's funny, it sneaks up on you… I think I was even late because in my mind, you are so conditioned to just take anything that anyone gives you. And, I never missed an audition. I would always go in for everything. I barely turned anything down. I started turning things down way after my contemporaries. Like, "Oh, I turned that down. I didn't go in for that."… "How could you do that?" [Laughs.] "Why would you turn down an opportunity to go in for anything?" God forbid! And, it took me a long time to understand that there comes a point where not only it's advisable, but you should.



[LaGuardia Arts is located at 100 Amsterdam Avenue. Tickets, priced at $128.50 (reserved) and $67.50 (general admission), can be purchased online at www.SmartTix.com or by phone at (212) 868-4444.]

Well, that's all for now. Diva Talk will return July 27. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

Natascia Diaz and Patti Murin in <i>Chicago</i> at The Muny
Natascia Diaz and Patti Murin in Chicago at The Muny Photo by Larry Pry/The Muny
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