DIVA TALK: Chatting with Les Miz Star Ann Harada Plus Betty Buckley at the Blue Note

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Les Miz Star Ann Harada Plus Betty Buckley at the Blue Note
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Ann Harada
Ann Harada Photo by Bruce Johnson

Ann Harada, the gifted comedic actress who created the role of Christmas Eve in the Tony-winning musical Avenue Q, is back on a Broadway stage this summer. Harada recently joined the cast of the revival of the international hit musical Les Misérables at the Broadhurst Theatre in the role of comic villain Madame Thernardier.

That role, Harada says, is "totally fun. When I come out of the stage door, everybody tells me how much they love Madame Thernardier and how she's their favorite character. I'm like, 'Really, that's your favorite character?'" she laughs. "I feel like I've met so many people who've said, 'I played her in our production. That's my dream role.' Until I played her, I would have never said, 'That's my dream role,' but it's a really, really fun role."

Part of the enjoyment of the role, Harada says, is the chance to work opposite the Thernardiers of Tony winner Gary Beach and, currently, Chip Zien, who began a ten-week stint in the production at the end of June. "They're very, very different, but they're both legends and pros. I've never had as much fun in my whole life as I have with those guys.

Ann Harada in Les Misérables.
photo by Joan Marcus

"Chip just came in a few weeks ago, so we worked pretty closely trying to figure out what he wanted to do," she adds, "whereas with Gary, he had sort of set his show, and I just tried to fit into it. But Chip and I have been able to work on a whole bunch of different kinds of business. We're both very interested in trying to come up with new stuff. There was one night we were on the subway platform trying to work out a bit, and there was a group of teenagers who had just seen the show laughing and pointing at us!" The actress, who boasts a rich, powerful belt, said her first few weeks in the sung-through musical offered some unexpected comical moments: "In my first week, Gary Beach missed his entrance into 'Master of the House,' if you could imagine such a thing. The company and I were stuck up there for 31 bars of music waiting for him to get onstage," she laughs. "I didn't do anything particularly brilliant. I just kept doing my choreography, where basically I just schlep plates and cups back and forth from the kitchen to the inn, [but] it was going through my mind, 'Should and I try and sing the song and switch gender?' But I was like, 'I don't know even know the song that well. It's my first week!' Both of the Thernardier covers were onstage, and I think they were both independently trying to figure out if they should start singing it!" Harada also admits, "It took me a really long time to be able to hop on and off [the show's turntable] with any grace. And, even now, sometimes I forget and step on with the wrong foot and have a little trip!"

Ann Harada and Carly Rose Sonenclar.
photo by Joan Marcus

Harada says that she is humbled by the opportunity to be in a musical that has been seen and loved by millions around the world. "I have never been involved in anything like it before," she relates, "and I certainly never thought that I would ever be involved in it when I first saw it in 1988. . . . It's tremendous to [now] have that opportunity. People really love it and are devoted to it, and I think for a lot of people who are outside of the theatre, it's their favorite show. I get that response when I talk to people in my life who are not [working] in the theatre. They're like, 'Oh my God, Les Miz is my favorite show.' . . . I didn't know these [friends] had a favorite show. [Laughs.] It's really amazing to be part of such a phenomenon in some small way." Harada was also part of the phenomenon known as Avenue Q, the small Off-Broadway musical by Jeff Marx, Robert Lopez and Jeff Whitty that ended up taking Broadway by storm in 2003-2004, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical. Harada had the chance to re-create her wildly funny performance as Christmas Eve, the outspoken therapist who marries a struggling stand-up comic, for London audiences. "The British actress who was going to play Christmas Eve dropped out," Harada explains. "She had gotten a TV show. They had so little time to find a replacement, and they needed somebody who knew the part. I was like, 'Okay, [but] I have an entire entourage. I have a family.' My parents live with me. They said, 'Bring everybody!'"

After a pow-wow with her family, Harada decided to make the transatlantic trip and open the London Q production, which is currently playing the Noel Coward Theatre. "[London audiences] loved it," Harada says. "It's so subversive. It's very much, I think, to the British taste. . . . I felt so comfortable there, and it was really delightful to see the work play in front of a whole new group of people."

Ann Harada as Madame Thenardiér.
photo by Joan Marcus

When asked how London compares to New York as a theatre town, Harada says, "I felt that it had nothing on Broadway. When you work on Broadway, you really feel part of a community. All the theatres are close together, and you're going to run into people at Starbucks or in the subway. You just feel like you're a part of this world. In London the theatres are further apart. They don't have the same kind of West End events like we have on Broadway where the community comes together for a good cause. It doesn't have that same feeling. It's exciting — you try to see other shows and maybe meet the casts afterwards. Everybody was always very lovely, but it just didn't have the same kind of, 'Hey, I'll see you at Gypsy of the Year' quality." And, would Harada ever consider returning to the New York company of Avenue Q? "Of course I would," she answers without hesitation. "If they wanted me and if the timing was right, I would never say never to Avenue Q." Harada had the chance to relive a bit of her New York Q experience when she watched Dori Berinstein's "ShowBusiness" documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival. About the film — which traces the paths of Wicked, Avenue Q, Taboo and Caroline, or Change — Harada says, "When I look at that footage, I just think of what that year was like and how crazy it got. . . . We didn't really think we had any chance to win the Tony. We were this little scrappy show — I didn't have expectations, maybe my producers did," she laughs. "We were trotted out to do every promotional event in the three weeks before the Tonys. At one point Stephanie D'Abruzzo and I just looked at each other — we had just gotten through singing 'Ruv Someone' that night — and we were like, 'Oh my God, we have sung this song four times in the last six hours.' It was a great time."

Harada's Broadway credits also include M. Butterfly, her Broadway debut, and the Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty musical Seussical, which is currently enjoying a revival — albeit in a 90-minute format — presented by TheatreworksUSA at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. Although she hasn't had the chance to see the new production of the family-friendly musical, Harada says the original 2000 production was "one of the most rewarding shows I've ever worked on. It was my first Broadway musical, and I was so excited to be a part of that particular production because I had been involved with it from the very first workshop and played a whole bunch of different things along the way.

"It was the first time I ever really had to dance in an ensemble, and the fact that I could even keep up, I was so proud of myself. I wasn't fantastic, but it wasn't like, 'She's so terrible she has to be cut out of the number!,'" she laughs. "I was just so proud to be there, and I love Ahrens and Flaherty, of course. It was such a roller-coaster ride — everything that could go wrong went wrong. You'd just show up to work every day and go, 'I wonder what's going to happen today.' We were so up, then we were down, then we were confused. . . . Now we're like war buddies: 'Oh my God, we survived that whole process.' There was way too much drama for one show to take, and it didn't deserve that kind of drama because it's really a great little show. . . . I loved it, and I still love it. . . I just keep thinking about what it was like doing that first workshop and us all just being so blown away by it and being so excited."

Harada, who is mom to two-and-a-half-year-old Elvis, says that combining motherhood and working on Broadway can be challenging. "You're always grappling with the time away, and [Les Miz] is a very long show. When I leave Elvis and he says, 'See you in the morning,' it always throws me off a little bit, and it's sort of like, 'Yeah, I'm not going to see you until the morning.' There are many, many working moms on Broadway, and I think we all have those same issues."

Although she hasn't much time now to catch other shows, Harada says she does try to keep up with what is playing on other stages throughout the city. "It's weird," she says, "because, as actors, we go to these shows, and the older you get, the more people you know in every show. It's harder to distance yourself when you go to see things because it's not just, 'Oh I'm going to lose myself in this show,' it's also, 'I'm so excited to see . . .'

"That's also kind of rewarding, too, that you continue to be blown away by your friends' work, and I feel that really acutely these days when I go to the theatre. It's a privilege to be playing in a community with this level of talent. You kind of can't believe that you've had the opportunity to act with these people at some point in your life. It's like being in Les Miz. If you'd have told me a few years ago, 'You're going to get to play opposite Gary Beach and Chip Zien,' I would have been like, 'You're insane!'"

[Les Misérables plays the Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street; call (212) 239-6200 for tickets or visit www.telecharge.com.]

Anyone who doubts Betty Buckley's vocal prowess or her staggering interpretative skills need only listen to her rendition of Mary Chapin Carpenter's "Come On Come On" for proof that she is one of the master storytellers of her generation. The song, which Buckley had not performed in several years, was reinstated in her repertoire for her July 17-22 engagement at the Blue Note in the West Village.

Buckley mined the haunting ballad — about the first time one encounters heartbreak, "the first time you lose" — for all its dramatic worth, imbuing each repetition of "come on, come on" with more and more emotion and an array of vocal colors. It was just one of the highlights of her hour-long set, which began with a belty rendition of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic "Hello Young Lovers." A milestone birthday was the catalyst for much of Buckley's set list. That birthday caused the Tony-winning actress to literally clean house, and in doing so she rediscovered several songs from previous concert outings. Among those forgotten gems were a song about youthful angst that Buckley penned as a young adult ("If I Remember You Right") and Joni Mitchell's "I Had a King," which had once been the actress' audition tune. Paired together they provided a stirring mini-drama of love lost.

Among the evening's other high points were a rousing, full-voiced rendition of the Bob Dylan anthem "The Times They Are a Changin'," a poignant take on Abbey Lincoln's "Throw It Away" and a lilting "Many a New Day" that segued into a gorgeously-belted "Oh What a Beautiful Morning."

Buckley, who was backed by long-time musical director Kenny Werner on piano, Tony Marino on bass and Anthony Pinciotti on drums, also scored with a lovely reading of "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?" that preceded the evening's surprise special guest, Broadway actress Melissa Errico. Errico also offered a Michel Legrand tune, "The Summer Knows," and then the two gals let their voices blend on the Gershwin classic "Summertime."

Buckley, who will soon release two CDs (stay tuned for details), concluded the evening with her thrilling rendition of Brenda Russell's "Get Here." Her encore, Tom Waits' "Take It With Me When I Go," was perhaps the night's most moving offering. Buckley seemed to become one with the lyric and had her audience spellbound.

Elaine Stritch will revive her Tony and Emmy Award-winning one-woman show Elaine Stritch: At Liberty for New York audiences in 2008. Stritch will present that acclaimed production — which was penned with John Lahr — at the Café Carlyle beginning Jan. 1, 2008. Stritch will perform the show in its entirety for a three-week engagement at the posh cabaret that will end Jan. 19. The famed stage and screen star will be backed by an orchestra led by music director Rob Bowman. There is a $125 music charge for all performances of Elaine Stritch At Liberty . . . At The Carlyle. The Café Carlyle is located within the Carlyle Hotel at Madison Avenue and 76th Street; for reservations call (212) 744-1600; visit www.thecarlyle.com for more information.

Vicki Lewis will play Trina in a one-night-only production of the Tony Award-winning William Finn-James Lapine musical Falsettos in California. The Sept. 8 concert at the Wilshire Theatre will benefit the Actors' Fund of America and will also feature Jason Alexander as Mendel, Malcolm Gets as Marvin, Andrew Samonsky as Whizzer and Hudson Thames as Jason. Additional casting will be announced shortly. David Galligan will direct the evening with musical direction by John McDaniel. Show time is 8 PM. Tickets, priced $30-$250, are available by calling (323) 933-9244, ext. 58 or by visiting www.actorsfund.org. The Wilshire Theatre is located at 8440 Wilshire Blvd. in Beverly Hills, CA.

Joy Franz, who appeared in both the original Into the Woods Broadway company and the musical's 2002 revival, will star in Fair Game, "a new play about a female presidential candidate and the scandals that could ruin her." Franz will portray presidential candidate Governor Karen Werthman in Karl Gajdusek's work, which will begin previews Aug. 17 at Theatre Row's Lion Theatre. Directed by Andrew Volkoff, the production will play a limited engagement through Sept. 7 with an official opening Aug. 20. Franz will be joined onstage by Caralyn Kozlowski, Brian Sgambati, Sarah-Doe Osborne and Ray McDavitt. Tickets, priced $18, are available by calling (212) 279-4200 or by visiting www.ticketcentral.com. Theatre Row's Lion Theatre is located at 410 West 42nd Street.

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

Ann Harada and Gary Beach in <i>Les Mis</i>
Ann Harada and Gary Beach in Les Mis Photo by Joan Marcus
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