DIVA TALK: Chatting with Next to Normal Star Meghann Fahy

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Next to Normal Star Meghann Fahy
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Meghann Fahy
Meghann Fahy

On Jan. 16, the Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next to Normal will play its final performance at the Booth Theatre, so we thought it was a good time to check in with actress Meghann Fahy, who currently plays the role of the troubled daughter Natalie in the emotional roller coaster of a musical penned by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt. Fahy, who was originally the understudy for the role, stepped into the part full time when Jennifer Damiano, Fahy's former roommate, departed the production to star in the new musical Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark. It's a busy time for Fahy, who spent a year performing in the critically acclaimed Normal while also filming a role in the long-running daytime serial "One Life to Live." The young singing actress will also be seen in the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation "The Lost Valentine," which co-stars Jennifer Love Hewitt and Betty White, and premieres Jan. 30 at 9 PM on the CBS Television Network. Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of chatting with Fahy, who spoke about these many projects as well as the recent workshop of the Disney musical Newsies, which cast her in the role of Catherine Pulitzer; the interview follows.

Question: Since we've never spoken before, let's start at the beginning. Tell me where you were born and raised.
Fahy: I was born and raised in a really tiny town in western Massachusetts, an hour outside of Boston … called Longmeadow, and I lived there my whole life until I moved here almost three years ago.

Question: When did you start performing?
Fahy: Well, I started publicly singing when I was eight. Singing was always what I did. I never really acted. When I was a senior, I did my senior class play, and that was pretty much it. … It was The Wizard of Oz, and I was Dorothy. [Laughs.]

Question: At that time, were there any artists, actors or singers that you particularly admired?
Fahy: My parents are kind of young, and my dad always listened to rock music and stuff like that, so I sort of grew up around that. As far as acting goes, I didn't really have any major influences because it wasn't really something that I focused on. [Laughs.]

Fahy in Next to Normal
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: When did that change for you?
Fahy:  I was a senior in high school, and my mom saw on the news at work that they were having an open call in New York, and she thought it's for a musical and maybe we should go and just sort of chalk it up to a new experience … And so, we did. We went. Question: What show was this for?
Fahy: It was for Spider-Man. What happened that day was [casting agent] Bernie Telsey was there, and I sang for him. The audition was in August, so it was a month later – they called me and asked me if I would come in and audition for Next to Normal, for the understudy [for Natalie], for its out-of-town run in Washington, D.C. And so I did. [Laughs.]

Question: Was that your first professional job?
Fahy: It was. Yeah, my first audition for anything.

Question: When did you move to New York?
Fahy: Well, we went to D.C. for three months and then we came back, and we found out the show was moving to Broadway, and we started rehearsals in March [2009] because we opened April 15. So I moved to New York in March, and I lived in a hotel for a couple of weeks, and then I stayed with another understudy friend for a couple of more weeks during tech, until I could get my own place. … Jennifer Damiano, who I understudied at the time, [and I] moved in together for a year, which was really interesting and awesome, and we're best friends now. But now we don't live together. She lives in White Plains, and I have my own apartment.

Question: What was it like for you to shift from being the understudy to actually taking over the role?
Fahy: It was a really, really big adjustment. I mean, I had sort of had a taste of it when I was able to go on, but I sort of went from zero to 60. All of a sudden, I was singing eight shows a week, and it's a really challenging show to be in regardless. It definitely took a lot for me to learn how to pace myself and learn how to get through that eight-show week. It was really, really challenging, but it's been the biggest learning experience of my life so far, and it's been the biggest blessing, too. It's an amazing piece and it's an amazing group of people, from stage management to lighting techs and everybody involved in the show, so it's been the most amazing experience ever. I'm so lucky.

Fahy following her first "official" performance as Natalie on July 19
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Question: What would you say are the biggest challenges of playing the role?
Fahy: It's challenging vocally, but it's just funny because at a certain point, I realized that the show is really less about singing than I thought. It's just sort of convenient that it's a musical, but really, that's the last thing you're thinking about when you're doing it, is, "How does my voice sound right now?" [Laughs.] Because emotionally, it's so demanding. I think that's definitely the hardest part of it. You have to really be willing to open yourself up and be vulnerable every night in front of a lot of people, and that also took me a little while to get used to because it's not really easy. It's really a beautiful thing to be able to share that with the audience, and I think it's also a blessing to be able to affect people in the way that the show has. But that's definitely the hardest part, just having to be emotional and go to those places every night, because it's a pretty dark show, but it has an uplifting ending. [Laughs.]

Question: How do you think your take on Natalie has changed or altered since you were the standby to now?
Fahy: The other interesting part was, being an understudy, your job really is to best imitate what the other person is doing, and when I took over the role … I was allowed the freedom to find the character within myself and, more specifically, put whatever I thought I could into the character. So that definitely changed a lot for me, and it was a really interesting experience, and I think that the only thing that brought that out was just time. I learned from really talented, amazing people, which was also a blessing, because I sort of have no idea what I'm doing. [Laughs.] I got lucky with that, too. But, yeah, definitely just time in finding who the character is within you. I mean, obviously, it's different for everybody, because every person is different. You're saying the same words and making the same movements, but it's a completely different show with new people in it.

Question: You've now played opposite two different mothers, Alice Ripley and Marin Mazzie. What are some of the differences working opposite the two actresses?
Fahy: They really couldn't be any [more] different. They're just so different, but I think it speaks highly of the show that two really powerful and completely opposite women can play the same role, and it still totally takes your breath away. It still has the same punch and the same hit, and it still gets to you. I can't compare them, but they're both amazing, amazing actresses, and I've been so lucky to have both of them as mentors and role models throughout this whole thing. Marin, at this point, she's like my mom in New York City because my family's in Massachusetts, and she's an amazing, amazing person, and she, every single night, just totally puts herself out there, no matter how many people are in the audience or any of that. She just is so professional all the time. She's such a pro.

Question: Do you have any idea in your mind of what you think happens to Natalie?
Fahy: Well, [laughs], I do. I mean, I definitely don't think it's ever going to be a happy-ever-after story, but I think that she and Henry go forward in their relationship. She makes the decision to allow that to happen, which is a really big deal because she spends most of the show shutting him out, and I think when she finally decides to let him in, that's a really big deal for her. So yeah, I do imagine in my mind that they find solace in each other  because they both need each other for their own reasons, and I sort of like to imagine that they're happy together.

Question: You also filmed a role on "One Life to Live" at the same time.
Fahy: Yeah, I was for a really long time. I wrapped up filming a couple of months ago, but I was doing double duty for a while. I was on the show for a year. Question: What was that like doing both at the same time?
Fahy: That was really crazy because [laughs] the daytime schedule of theirs is the closest to a 9 to 5 acting job that you could possibly have – it's during the week, and it's during the day, and it wraps by 7 PM, but that's the problem because I would have to wake up at 5:30 in the morning and go film. I mean, obviously, I had a deal where I had to be released by half hour, but that's not even really enough time. I love being at the theatre maybe 45 minutes before half hour so that I can take my time getting ready. So I would be taking cabs from the studio to just rush over there and do the show, and it was so exhausting, [but] it was also really, really challenging in a very cool way. And so I was glad that I was able to experience that for a short time but really thankful when it was over. [Laughs.]

Fahy and Marin Mazzie in Next to Normal
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Who was the character you were playing?
Fahy: Her name was Hannah O'Connor, and she was basically a sociopath who was just bats*it crazy [and] was sabotaging the lives of everyone on the show. It was insane, but I loved it. I thought that was great. I would not have been interested in being on a soap opera for a year playing a normal person. I think if you're going to do that, you might as well be crazy and have a lot of fun with it, you know? That was my outlook.

Question: When you play a character like that, what kind of response do you get from the fans of the show? Do you get hate letters or do people understand it's just a character?
Fahy: Well, I did. [Laughs.] I think most people were just joking, but there are some intense soap opera fans who, I think, might even be a little bit confused when they find out that the show isn't real. [Laughs.] I definitely got a lot of really opinionated letters because I was coming in between one of the show's favorite couples. People really were a little bit up in arms about it, which was really kind of funny after a little while. I would get noticed on the subway, and people would start yelling at me and stuff. It was a little bit scary and kind of embarrassing, but that happens a lot less now, because I'm not on the show any more, so I don't have to deal with it. [Laughs.]

Question: You were also part of the Newsies reading. Who did you play in that, and what was that experience like?
Fahy: I played Catherine Pulitzer, who is a character that doesn't actually exist in the film adaptation, but because there weren't really any women in the film, they wrote her for the [stage] musical version. And, she basically is just a feisty reporter who is the daughter of [Joseph] Pulitzer, and she sort of defies him and helps the newsies with their strike and helps them get their story printed. That was also so much fun to be part of. That was another really great group of people, and the music's great and everybody involved on it is really cool, so that was a lot of fun. It was cool to do something new.

Question: Is there any word on a production of that at this point?
Fahy: I heard, actually, at the stage door the other day, because somebody asked me if I was doing it, that they're doing a production at Paper Mill [Playhouse]. I don't know what the status is. I haven't heard anything from any of the creative team or anything, but I have heard, yes, that they are doing that.

Fahy and Ron Clinton Smith on the set of "The Lost Valentine"

Question: You also did a TV movie with Betty White.
Fahy: I filmed it over the summer in August and September. It's actually based on a book called "The Lost Valentine," and Betty White plays [a] character [named] Caroline, and I play her younger self in flashbacks. So it's a love story, and she tells the love story, and once she starts retelling it, it flashes back to me and the man who plays her young husband at the time, who is a Navy pilot in the war.

Question: Did you get to work with her at all?
Fahy: Well, we didn't have any scenes together, obviously, but I did meet her on set, which was really exciting because, I mean, it's Betty White! She's an icon, and she's awesome, and she's at the peak of her career right now. She's 87 or something, and she totally eats chocolate cake for breakfast and is the sweetest person that you have ever met. The thing that I found so amazing about her is that she's been in this business for so long, and she is the most down-to-earth human being that you will ever meet. She doesn't have her own makeup team or anything. She eats with people, she hangs out with people, she talks to people. She's so, so sweet. It blew my mind because I feel like, after being around for that long, to not even be a little entitled is awesome.

Question: How are you feeling about Next to Normal coming to a close?
Fahy: Well, it's definitely bittersweet, and it's definitely been something that I haven't been able to prepare myself for at all. I don't think you really can prepare yourself. I mean, this is my very first show, and I've been a part of it for a while, so it's going to be a really big change for me. I'm looking forward to the next chapter, but I'm going to miss it every day. And I sort of can't even really think about it because it's been so special to me, and it's hard to imagine that a week from this Sunday, I'll never do it again. It's kind of hard to wrap my brain around. I think everybody at the theatre is just really taking every show, show by show, and really appreciating these last couple of weeks and just soaking it up... I think it's probably going to be a really emotionally intense ending, but it comes and you can't stop it and you can't prepare yourself, so you just have to deal with it when it gets there.

Question: How do you think playing the role has changed you as a person?
Fahy: Oh, it absolutely has, in a lot of really good ways, too. It's definitely helped me to get more in touch with myself, and it's forced me to be open and honest. It's taught me that sometimes things aren't fine, but that's okay. You do deal with it, and life continues, and I think that's definitely one of the big messages in the show that I hope most people can take home with them. I mean, it's taught me to trust really deeply, too. Adam Chanler-Berat – he plays Henry – it's a really very special stage relationship that you have, and I think anybody would probably tell you that. To play opposite somebody in a show like this, it really, really requires a lot of trust, exclusive trust, and I have learned that with him, which has also been a really awesome gift. The show's really difficult to perform, and it requires a lot, but it also gives as much as it takes, and it's totally worth it.

[Next to Normal plays the Booth Theatre. Visit NexttoNormal.]

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

The cast of <I>Next to Normal</i>
The cast of Next to Normal
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