DIVA TALK: Chatting with Rock of Ages' Amy Spanger Plus News of Graff, LuPone and Skinner

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Rock of Ages' Amy Spanger Plus News of Graff, LuPone and Skinner
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Amy Spanger
Amy Spanger

Triple-threat Amy Spanger, who received a Drama Desk Award nomination for her performance as Holly in The Wedding Singer, is back on Broadway in the new eighties-scored musical Rock of Ages at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. Spanger plays good-girl-turned-stripper Sherrie in the new musical, which also reunites the acclaimed singing actress with her former Wedding Singer co-star, Constantine Maroulis, who plays Spanger's love interest, Drew. Spanger, who played Bianca/Lois Lane in the Tony-winning revival of Kiss Me, Kate, also has the chance to belt out several rock tunes — including "Harden My Heart," "Don't Stop Believin'" and "I Want to Know What Love Is" — in the new musical, which features a book by Chris D'Arienzo and also stars James Carpinello. During previews for Rock of Ages, I had the chance to chat with the good-humored Spanger, who spoke about her Broadway outings, including her latest role; that brief interview follows.

Question: How did you originally get involved with Rock of Ages?
Amy Spanger: I got involved through just an audition, through my agent. . . . It wasn't on my radar — I was out of town for a lot of the Off-Broadway run, so I didn't see it. I'd heard good things, but I just didn't see it. My agent called me and said, "Would you like to work with Constantine again?" And I was like, "What is this?" And then I read the script, and the script is so smart and funny that I [said], "Yeah, I'm on board." And it also fulfills this rock-star fantasy that I've had my whole life. [Laughs.] So it's the best of both worlds — a theatrical rock-star fantasy that I'm living onstage every night.

Question: Are you a fan of this period of music?
Spanger: I really am. When MTV came on the scene, it was undeniable, and I wanted to be inside my TV. [Laughs.] I was a little girl. I was really attracted to Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon and MTV, so this is sort of the perfect amalgamation of both of those worlds for me.

Question: Did you have a favorite eighties band?
Spanger: I wanted to be Pat Benatar. [Laughs.] I just wanted to be her. I actually had the same haircut as she did back in 1987. All of my girlfriends and I had really short [hair] — we all looked like little boys, but we all thought we were cool because we looked like Pat Benatar.

Question: Do you get to sing any of her songs in Rock of Ages?
Spanger: I don't. There is a medley of "Harden My Heart" by Quarterflash and "Shadows of the Night" that's a really beautiful moment in the show where I decide whether to go down a really dark road or not. . . I don't actually sing the Pat Benatar songs, but I'm involved in one of the numbers. Question: What songs do you get to sing?
Spanger: I get to sing part of "Sister Christian." I get to sing "Harden My Heart," "Don't Stop Believing" and "I Wanna Know What Love Is" by Foreigner. I get on the ride at the top of the show, and it's just the most fun that I've ever had.

Amy Spanger with Constantine Maroulis in Rock of Ages
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Tell me a bit about the character you're playing.
Spanger: I play Sherrie Christian. She's from the Midwest, a small-town girl who has big dreams of becoming an actress. She moves to Hollywood, LA, the Sunset Strip specifically, and starts working in a bar. She meets Drew, played by Constantine Maroulis, and instantly falls for him. They go on a date, and there's miscommunication, and he says that they're just friends. Then she's fired from the bar and has no place to go and is invited to become a stripper and goes down that road and finds herself back with Drew in the end. It's a great, happy theatre-land ending! Question: Since you had worked with Constantine before in Wedding Singer, do you guys have a good rapport?
Spanger: We really do, yeah. There's a mutual respect. We really like each other. I think he's a phenomenal singer. I'm just amazed at what he can do. He's so sweet and vulnerable in this part. I think people will be really surprised at his acting range. It's kind of perfectly suited for him. It feels like it was written for him specifically.

Question: How do you find the demands of doing eight shows a week?
Spanger: It's a crazy life. It feels blue collar at times — workin', workin', workin'. Especially right now, where I feel like we're in a really good place. We have a lot of energy, but we've been doing these 12-hour days… I think this is our third week, and we open a week from Tuesday. So we're like, "Let's just get to opening and then we can have our days free." But it's like a muscle. You just have to get the show into your body, and then it becomes easier.

Question: How are audiences responding so far?
Spanger: It's kind of insane. It's a rock concert every night. It's the references, the eighties references… I think our target audience is people in their late thirties or early forties who just get every single reference and are shouting at us and guffawing. It's been amazing. James Carpinello and I are looking at each other like, "Have you ever been in something like this?" We did a show Tuesday night and [the audience was] crazy! The audience was coming out of their seats, standing ovation… I've never been a part of something like this. What comes close is I did the national tour of Rent a few years back. We developed a following and had all of these young fans. It was similar, but this is crazy!

Question: I would think it must be fun to have that sort of response.
Spanger: That's the thing. Even if you're feeling a little tired at the top of the show, the script is so funny and the audience just kind of gets onboard. We have this live band onstage, real rock musician guys just tearing it up every night. I think it's a very fresh take on a Broadway musical.

Laura Benanti with Amy Spanger in The Wedding Singer
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Since we've never spoken before, I wanted to go back a bit. Where were you born and raised?
Spanger: I was born [and raised] in Newbury, Massachusetts, a small town north of Boston. Question: When did you start performing?
Spanger: I've always done it. I guess I was about ten when I did my first community theatre thing, but I remember being five and leading the kindergarten in some song. I remember thinking at five, "This feels right. This feels good." [Laughs.]

Question: When did you know that it would be your career?
Spanger: I moved to New York when I was 21. It's so funny because the Sherrie storyline is not that far from my own story. I think when I got my first job in New York, I was like, "Okay, yeah!"

Question: What job that?
Spanger: It was Cassie in A Chorus Line. I was way too young to play the part, but it was Cassie in A Chorus Line at the Elm Street Theatre.

Question: What was your first Broadway show?
Spanger: My first Broadway show was Sunset Boulevard. I gave myself three years from when I first moved to New York to get on Broadway. I got that show within two years and ten months.

Question: Do you remember what your first night on Broadway was like?
Spanger: It's so funny because I was in the ensemble at that time. I remember there was a moment when Betty Buckley has this solo, and everyone's onstage. The entire company was onstage. I remember looking out into the audience and thinking, "I'm gonna do what she's doing!" [Laughs.] I remember thinking, "I'm gonna get out of the chorus really soon and start playing parts." I've never talked about that before with anybody. But I was very specific. I was like, "Oh yeah, that's comin'!" [Laughs.]

Question: Do you have a favorite theatre experience so far?
Spanger: People ask me that, and I feel like I've been so lucky. They've been so varied and all amazing experiences. Kiss Me, Kate was really kind of breathtaking. I thought the show was just so beautifully constructed and cast. Michael Blakemore is a genius, and I just had an amazing time. I was sort of pinching myself the whole time, like, "Really? I get to do this?" But this experience, I have to say it's such an opportunity for an actor-singer-dancer… I mean, I don't really dance — I dance a little, little bit in this. For an actor-singer, it's just a wonderful, wonderful part in terms of the range of the character, in terms of the range of the songs. I feel like I get to do lots of really broad comedy and some really dramatic stuff, too, within the framework of this wacky, wacky piece.

Question: You've also done TV and film. How does that compare for you to theatre?
Spanger: It's just a very different muscle group . . .. With film, you have to be able to focus when they're all ready to focus. When the director is ready, when the lighting is ready, when the sound is ready, you have to be able to drop into your character. So you have to sort of maintain a focus all the time when you're on set. With theatre, you know that you need to really focus between 8 and 10:30. You need to start focusing around 7 o'clock. It's really different, and I really like both of them. I love the instant gratification of being in front of a live audience. There's nothing like it. I will always, always, always do this.

Amy Spanger in Rock of Ages
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Do you know if there is cast recording of Rock of Ages planned at this point?
Spanger: Yes, there is. New Line is actually going to produce it. I think it will be really fancy. I'm excited about that. I don't think they have the date planned yet. It's so crazy with Broadway. Usually they have you do it right after your day off. So you open, you have one day off, and then you do the recording and you're like "Ahhh, God!" But I think this will be kind of a different experience in terms of recording. I think they're gonna take their time and really get it right. Question: New Line has the film rights, too, don’t they?
Spanger: Mmm hmm.

Question: Have they talked about that at all with the cast?
Spanger: No, no. I'm not holding my breath. I think, in order to sell a film version of this, they would need big, big celebrity names. I would love to be a part of the film in any capacity. And if they want me to play Sherrie in the film, that would be amazing. So who knows?

Question: Do you have any other projects in the works or are you just focusing on this for the moment?
Spanger: I do. I don't know if I should say, but there's another musical project that I will be doing the pre-Broadway workshop for. I don't know if I should say anything, but there are other things that are definitely in the works. And I was a part of a pilot called "Michael and Michael Have Issues" for Comedy Central that was picked up, I think, for six episodes, and that films in New York. I play one of the lead guy's wives on it. I play Michael Ian Black's wife.

[Rock of Ages plays the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street; for tickets visit Ticketmaster.com or call (212) 307-4100.]

Randy Graff

One of this column's favorite singing actresses, Tony Award winner Randy Graff, is about to launch Acting the Song, private coaching designed to teach singers, dancers and non-singing actors how to best express the meaning of a song. About the coaching sessions, Graff said in a statement, "There are a lot of great voices in New York. However, I believe it's the great singer who really acts the lyric that gets noticed. I was fortunate enough to learn this technique very early on, and now I would like to pass it on. This coaching is about how to approach a song as an actor." For more information call (212) 631-1058. The Paley Center will present The Musicals of Lerner & Loewe: An Evening of Song and Television April 27 at 6 PM. Curated by Rebecca Paller, the 90-minute evening will boast performances by Brent Barrett, Jenny Fellner and Liz Robertson as well as a special appearance by Tony winner Donna McKechnie. Mark York will accompany the singers on piano. "The creative output of lyricist-librettist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe," read press notes, "who collaborated on some of the best-loved shows in Broadway history (including Brigadoon, My Fair Lady, and Camelot), is examined through rare radio and television clips from the Paley Center archives, live performances by Broadway and cabaret performers, and narration by musical director Aaron Gandy." Footage shown will include Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison re-creating their rehearsals for My Fair Lady on the 1960 CBS show "The Fabulous Fifties" and Andrews, Richard Burton and Robert Goulet performing selections from Camelot on "The Ed Sullivan Show." The Paley Center is located at 25 West 52nd Street. For tickets, priced $30 (members) and $40 (non members), call (212) 621-6780 or visit www.paleycenter.org.

The spring and early summer line-up for Lee Summers' Just a Piano concert series at New York's Triad Theatre has been announced. The series, which features piano-and-voice concerts, will continue April 13 at 9:30 PM with Aziza Miller. Others who will be taking part in the series include Erika Banks (April 25 at 7 PM), Zakiya Young Mizen (April 27 at 9:30 PM with special guest Norm Lewis), Lee Summers (May 11 at 9:30 PM), Kecia Lewis-Evans (June 1 at 7 PM and June 5 at 9:30 PM), Tony winner Melba Moore (June 1 at 9:30 PM), Tituss Burgess (June 29 at 9:30 PM) and Tony winner Lillias White (July 20). Concerts with Chester Gregory and Mel'isa Morgan will also be announced shortly. Pianists will include Timothy Graphenreed, Brian Whitted, James Samplina, Onaje Allan Gumbs and Shelton Becton, among others. The Triad Theatre is located 158 West 72nd Street (between Broadway & Columbus). Tickets, priced $10-$30 (plus a two-drink minimum), are available by calling (212) 362-2590 or by visiting www.triadnyc.com.

Stand back, Australia! Tony Award winners Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin are headed your way. LuPone and Patinkin, who originally shared a stage in the New York premiere of Evita, will reteam for a series of performances of An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin this summer in Australia. According to LuPone's official website, the duo will play the Queensland Performing Arts Center in Brisbane July 18 at 8 PM, The Arts Center in Melbourne July 21 at 8 PM, the State Theatre in Sydney July 24 at 8 PM and the ASB Theatre/Aotea Centre in Auckland City (New Zealand) July 29 at 8 PM. For ticket information visit www.pattilupone.net.

Ali Ewoldt, who played Cosette in the Broadway revival of Les Misérables, will star as Maria in the upcoming European/international tour of the classic Arthur Laurents-Stephen Sondheim-Leonard Bernstein musical West Side Story. The production will be directed and choreographed by Joey McKneely, who reproduced the original Jerome Robbins choreography for the current revival of West Side Story at the Palace Theatre. McKneely is a two-time Tony nominee for his choreography for Smokey Joe's Cafe and The Life. Ewoldt joins the previously announced Michael Jablonski (Cry-Baby), who will play Riff. No other casting for the upcoming European/international tour has been announced. Rehearsals for the West Side Story tour will begin in Germany May 4 with an official opening in Lyon, France, in June. The tour is currently scheduled to play stops in Spain, Japan, Israel, Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland. (The European/international tour is not affiliated with the current Broadway production.)

Upright Cabaret's Wicked Summer Nights: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road concert series will play Los Angeles' Ford Amphitheatre beginning June 2009 and will boast the talents of Wicked composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz and former Elphabas Shoshana Bean and Eden Espinosa. The series, presented by Chris Isaacson and Shane Scheel, will kick off June 11 at 8:30 PM with Shoshana Bean: A Happening at the Ford. The first half of the evening will find the former Hairspray star singing the hits of Barbra Streisand in "Shoshana Sings Streisand"; the second half, entitled "My Name Is Shoshana," will include songs from Bean's debut recording, "Superhero." On July 24 at 8:30 PM, Brooklyn's Eden Espinosa will present her critically acclaimed solo show, ME. Singer-songwriter Audra Mae will be Espinosa's special guest. The concert will feature arrangements and musical direction by James Sampliner. The summer series will conclude Aug. 23 at 7:30 PM with Stephen Schwartz: Making Good. The award-winning composer will present a sneak peak of his new opera, Seance on a Wet Afternoon during the show's first act. The second act will boast a mix of performers interpreting some of Schwartz's biggest hits. John Anson Ford Theatre is located at 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East in Hollywood, CA. For tickets visit www.fordtheatres.com or www.uprightcabaret.com/events or call (323) 461-3673.

Excerpts from Barbra Streisand's 2006 concert tour will be broadcast on CBS-TV later this month, according to the Academy Award-winning actress' official website. The one-hour TV special is scheduled to air April 25. The TV program will coincide with the upcoming three-DVD release of "Barbra Streisand — The Concerts." Details about the three-DVD set follow: Disc 1 features the previously unreleased Fort Lauderdale show, with special guest and multi-platinum recording artist, Il Divo; Disc 2 is the concert live at Arrowhead Pond from Anaheim, CA; Disc 3 is titled "Putting it Together" and takes viewers behind the scenes of the making of "The Broadway Album." The 2006 Streisand tour was co-directed by Streisand and Richard Jay-Alexander, and the 64-piece orchestra was conducted by William Ross. Pre-orders are currently being accepted for the three-DVD set, which will arrive by Mother's Day. For more information visit www.barbrastreisand.com.

Side Show Tony nominee Emily Skinner will star in the Hangar Theatre's upcoming production of Claudia Shear's Dirty Blonde, which will play the Ithaca, NY, venue June 3-13. Directed by Peter Flynn, the cast will feature Skinner as the legendary Mae West as well as Joe Kinosian and Kevin Carolan. Tickets will go on sale May 1 by calling (607) 273-4497 or by visiting www.hangartheatre.org.

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

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