DIVA TALK: Chatting with Sessions Star Liz Larsen Plus News of LuPone, Graff and Gravitte

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Sessions Star Liz Larsen Plus News of LuPone, Graff and Gravitte
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Liz Larsen
Liz Larsen Photo by Marcel Indik

Broadway favorite Liz Larsen, who received a Drama-Logue Award as well as Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle nominations for her performance as Cleo in the critically acclaimed, Tony-nominated revival of The Most Happy Fella, is back on the New York stage in the intimate Off-Broadway musical Sessions, which features book, music and lyrics by Albert Tapper, at Off-Broadway's Algonquin Theater. The big-voiced belter, who was most recently on Broadway as the conniving Velma Von Tussle in the Tony-winning Hairspray, has also appeared on The Great White Way in productions of Fiddler on the Roof, Starmites, The Rocky Horror Show and The Smell of the Kill. Larsen, who is married to actor Sal Viviano (Broadway's Three Musketeers, Romance/Romance, City of Angels, Falsettos, The Life, The Full Monty), is also the mother of Alessandro, age 12, and Joey, age 9. Last week I had the pleasure of chatting with the intelligent actress, who spoke candidly about her theatre career — including her latest role as "beaten wife" Mary — and her family life. My interview with the multitalented performer, who peppers her conversation with much laughter, follows.

Question: How did the role in Sessions come about for you?
Larsen: They had been doing massive amounts of workshops and rewrites for, I think, three years now. At one point they needed to replace a character. They spoke about calling me to replace, and then they didn't. Later, when they moved to this new venue, one of the people in the show had to leave. They called me to go into her part, which was not the original part that they wanted me to play, but that's the part that was open. . . . They put me in that part and then as things went along, they decided that it would be better if I was in the original part that they had thought of me for! [Laughs.] They moved me over, and then they hired someone else to do the part I was doing.

Question: Which role are you playing?
Larsen: I'm playing the beaten wife — it's a great part. She has some very, very intense material, which is really interesting. What's great about it is, since I moved over into this part, they changed quite a bit of the writing for the character and even some of the vocal stuff to conform to what I do best. That was incredible — that never happens when you replace. You [usually] shut up, you do the lines, you do the blocking and you try not to stand out or make too many waves. [Laughs.] So this has been terrific.

Liz Larsen in Sessions
photo by Murray Head

Question: How would you describe the musical — is it musical comedy?
Larsen: It is. It's funny. It's about a group-therapy session over the course of about a month. Neurosis is funny, and bizarre and sad. It's a lot of stuff. Question: Tell me about the score.
Larsen: It's very pop. I would say musical-theatre pop. Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for your character?
Larsen: Yes. At the end of the show, after we've gotten to know all the people, the doctor is centerstage. He has gone through a crisis, and you don't know if he's going to be okay, after he's been taking care of all of us. His crisis is "I've never made a difference, and it doesn't even matter if I live or die." At the end, we stand onstage while he's thinking these things, and we give him one word that describes what we've learned from him. I have the last word. . . . My word is forgiveness: Basically "forgive yourself for the fact that you couldn't help me." I think that's human and powerful and beautiful in a way.

Question: How long had Sessions been running when you stepped into it?
Larsen: They started rehearsal in late September [2008], and they had been running since late October. I came in in the beginning of January.

Question: I know Robert Newman recently joined the cast, too. When a new actor comes in, do you think that adds new life to a show?
Larsen: The strangest thing about this show is that it's like an ongoing workshop. We're still changing things and trying to figure out the best way to do it. When Robert came in, it wasn't like, "You're replacing John [Hickok]." It was, "Let's reinvent this person. Let's do what's great for you. Let's work out some of the kinks . . . and make it make more sense. . ." He came in, and his energy is so positive. He's so adorable and so correct for the part. He's a true leader, and he's so easy on the eyes! I mean, he's handsome and you want this guy to win. It's been lovely having his energy. It changes how we relate to [the character], how we feel about him, who he is to us. In a weird way he's like Bobby in Company. He's kind of the audience, figuring out these crazy people dancing around him. He's such a warm presence that the audience doesn't really have to work hard.

Question: I know you've stepped into shows on Broadway, including Hairspray not too long ago. What's it like for an actor to join a show that's already running?
Larsen: First of all, the getting of the show is fantastic! [Laughs.] The joining of the show is — there's always kind of a weird insecurity, like, "Oh, she used to do it this way," and "Could you not stand so far upstage when you say that line, because it works [better] this way, and I'm not being upstaged and I get my laugh," and all that stuff. So it's usually kind of awkward for awhile until, of course, everybody falls in love with me. [Laughs.] Then it becomes fantastic. You know what I'm saying? People have to get used to the new [person]. I feel like I've done it a lot.

Question: Do you feel like you know the ins and outs of it now?
Larsen: I definitely know the hazards of it, what to do and what to let go and what to fight for.

Question: Do you have a favorite theatrical experience so far?
Larsen: There's a bunch. The most fun I've had onstage in a show is Damn Yankees because I ran around with Joey Pizzi and Scott Wise and jumped off the dugout and they caught me every night. We laughed and sweated, and it was the most fun ever!

The most exciting experience I've had was Most Happy Fella, not only because of the Tonys and the awards and everything, but that it was such an unlikely situation. I mean, we were a summer-stock production of this musical that I knew nothing about. I took the job initially because I needed my insurance weeks. I never really thought I was right for it, and I just thought, "I gotta go. I don't have any money. I gotta go to the Goodspeed and do this show." And then what happened was [director] Gerry Gutierrez, because of the fact that it was at Goodspeed, [he and the creative team] came up with the idea of doing this two-piano version of this show that had just been shelved somewhere. They thought, "That's a way to save money. It's a way to reinvent the show" because the show is very orchestration-heavy. It's gorgeous, it's like an opera. What they did was they cut about 45 minutes of music, did the two-piano version, and it turned into kind of a play with music and no microphones. So we did this kind of naturalistic version of this very deeply-felt opera. Of course, [the source play] They Knew What They Wanted — it was a beautiful play, and Gerry Gutierrez was shocking: He was so bright in how to approach this. We'd go to rehearsal, and we'd say, "Look what's happening. Magic is being made, and I'd better wake up!" Then we're doing it, and we're in this really interesting situation that's really fun, but nobody thought it was going to move. We're doing this great, interesting pared-down production. Well, Frank Rich was about to get married. This had always been his favorite show, and he was in Connecticut with his fiancé Alex. I guess they were looking at venues. I don't know what they were doing, but he said to her, "Hey, Goodspeed's doing my favorite musical. Can we just go see it this weekend?" He was not reviewing it. He was The New York Times reviewer at the time, but he was not assigned to review. . . . So he came to the show, and he loved it and got the approach so much that he wrote a special piece in The New York Times. It was just this, as they say, a love letter, and [he was] so excited by the reinvention of it. And then [Goodspeed artistic director] Michael Price said they got 1,500 calls from producers the next day to move it. I don't know if that's accurate, but Gerry loved the people at Lincoln Center, so he wanted them to do it. So we went to L.A., and then all of a sudden we were on Broadway. And then we were getting awards. And then I was walking in the Booth Theatre every night when I took it originally just because I needed insurance weeks!

Question: So you never know the outcome of a role.
Larsen: Yeah. That was the most exciting for sure. But there's also been artistic ones. Doing Falsettos was an amazing experience. Sunday in the Park was incredibly beautiful…while I was breastfeeding my baby! [Laughs.]

Question: Is there one role that you've been dying to play or anything that comes to mind that you'd really love to tackle?
Larsen: There are roles that I'd love to play… and a lot of them I've played, like Adelaide [in Guys and Dolls]. I think that the role that I'm dying to play is a role that is originated for me — something exciting. Actually, I've done a lot of the stuff that I think would be great, except maybe Mama Rose. But Adelaide, Trina in Falsettos, Dot in Sunday in the Park, Evita… I've gotten to do these things.

Liz Larsen
photo by Marcel Indik

Question: Is there any role you've played that you think has changed your personal outlook on life or changed how you view something about life?
Larsen: Maybe Falsettos because it's about parenthood, which I do offstage. Reconceiving a family, which is what we have to do every day having chosen this business, and being separated from the people that we were born to because they're across the country. So we make our new families. It's very intense getting to know people when you're in theatre. You're an open book, and they're an open book, and you become these little families, and I've stayed families with these people. That's kind of what Falsettos was about. Plus, I've lost so many [people, including] my first boyfriend to AIDS. It was interesting because I did [Falsettos ] with Mark Nelson, who played my husband Mendel. My high-school boyfriend — who was this kind of unbelievable, extraordinary person — went to Princeton with Mark. They became very good friends at Princeton. I had met Mark over the years, and we have always shared the fact that we loved Bill. That was our bond, what we learned from Bill and how we loved him and what he did for our lives. And then when we played opposite, I remember coming offstage one night and I was like, "Mark, Bill's there!" And he was like, "I can't believe you said 'Bill's there.' He's there!" It was like he was onstage with us — it was intense. Question: You mentioned before being married to someone who is also in the business. Do you find that's helpful, someone who also experiences the ups and downs?
Larsen: It's helpful, but it can also be stressful because we're both freelancers in a way. When it's not going well and not as lucrative or happy as it could be, then the other person is part of that, too. I get it, and he gets it with me, but it's a challenge. When it's great, it's great! [Laughs.] When it's not, you wonder what the hell's going on — everything's chaotic and out of control.

Question: How old are your kids?
Larsen: Our oldest son Alessandro is 12, and our youngest son [Joey] is 9.

Question: How do you find mixing motherhood and performing?
Larsen: It was always a negotiation, and it still is. It was very challenging in the beginning because for some reason I felt like I only had so much love, and if I went and put love into my work, then I was impairing them in some way. . . The bottom line is we really do spend so much more time and are able to really be more involved in their lives than we would if we had nine-to-five jobs. We're there for the basketball games, and we're there for the luncheons. The only thing that's hard for me is not putting the kids down at night, because I like to, even still, to read to them. Coming home with them being asleep is not my cup of tea, but it's part of [the job].

[The Algonquin Theater is located in Manhattan at 123 East 24th Street between Lexington and Park Avenues. Tickets, priced $50, are available by visiting www.smarttix.com or by calling (212) 868-4444.]


Patti LuPone
photo by Ethan Hill

Olivier and two-time Tony Award winner Patti LuPone will bring her newest concert act, The Gypsy in My Soul, to several venues throughout the country. As previously announced, LuPone will debut Gypsy in My Soul June 20-21 at the Orleans Casino & Hotel in Las Vegas, NV. The acclaimed singing actress will perform for Atlantic City audiences Aug. 15 at the Music Box at The Borgata Hotel & Casino. New Gypsy in My Soul dates include Sept. 26 at the University of North Carolina's Aycock Auditorium in Greensboro, NC; Feb. 17, 2010, at the Tennessee Williams Theatre in Key West, FL; and April 24 at the Music Center at Strathmore in N. Bethesda, MD. In The Gypsy in My Soul, press notes state, "LuPone will perform songs that have long been associated with her four-decade Broadway career, as well as some of her personal pop favorites. 'I Get A Kick Out Of You' from Anything Goes, 'As Long As He Needs Me' from Oliver! and 'Some People' from Gypsy are some of the well-known show stoppers the two time Tony Award-winner will perform. In between musical numbers, LuPone will engage the audience as she shares backstage stories and personal reflections from her illustrious career." A slew of other new LuPone concert dates have also been announced, including Oct. 3 (Matters of the Heart at Purchase College's Performing Arts Center in Purchase, NY), Nov. 5-7 (Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, CA), Nov. 20 (Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda at the Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, MI), Jan. 2, 2010 (Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda at the Symphony Hall in Phoenix, AZ), Feb. 19 (Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda at Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in Sarasota, FL), May 13 (Matters of the Heart at The Grenada in Santa Barbara, CA), May 15 (Matters of the Heart at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, CA) and June 18 (Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda at the Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, MN). For more information visit www.pattilupone.net. The annual Broadway Stands Up for Freedom! concert will be held July 20 at the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. The 7:30 PM concert will benefit the Youth Programs of the NYCLU and will feature the talents of Michael Emerson, Roger Rees, Michael Cerveris, Randy Graff, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Michael Rupert, Stephen Bogardus, Liz Callaway, Gavin Creel, Carrie Preston, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Todd Buonopane, Brian Lowdermilk, Liana Stampur and much of the cast of the Tony-winning revival of Hair. Jen Bender and Danny Goldstein will direct the evening, which will feature musical direction by host Seth Rudetsky. NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts is located at 566 LaGuardia Place (Washington Square South) in Manhattan. For $60 tickets visit www.skirballcenter.nyu.edu/calendar/broadway_stands_up_for_freedom. For more information go to www.nyclu.org/bway.

The third annual Summer Broadway Festival will be presented at Town Hall in Manhattan in July. Created by Scott Siegel, the series will kick off July 13 with Broadway Winners: The Award-Winning Music of Broadway. The 8 PM concert will boast the "music created on the Great White Way that won Tonys, Grammys and Oscars." Siegel will narrate the evening, which will feature the talents of Marc Kudisch, James Barbour, Tony Award winner Debbie Gravitte, Alexander Gemignani and Farah Alvin . Broadway's Rising Stars is the title of the July 20 concert, also at 8 PM. Emily Skinner and Scott Coulter will co-direct the evening, which will feature students selected from such theatrical institutions as AMDA, CAP 21, Juilliard, CCM, Carnegie Mellon, NYU Steinhardt and Tisch Schools, Marymount and The New School. The series will conclude July 27 at 8 PM with All Singin' All Dancin'. The evening of song and dance will feature several Broadway favorites and will be choreographed by Shrek The Musical's Josh Prince. Siegel and Prince will co-direct the evening; casting will be announced shortly. Town Hall is located in Manhattan at 123 West 43rd Street. For tickets call (212) 307-4100 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.

The 2009 Tony Award-winning Signature Theatre, one of the nation's leading forces in musical theatre, will present a "Sizzlin' Summer Cabaret" series beginning July 7. The three weeks of live music and performances will kick off July 7 with "Revenge of the Understudies II," which features performances by the understudies of this season's Signature productions; show times are 7:30 and 9:30 PM. On July 8 and 9 Helen Hayes Award winner Natascia Diaz, star of Signature's Kiss of the Spider Woman, will perform her evening of tunes; show time both nights is 8:30 PM. Washington-area chanteuse Judy Simmons will perform July 10 at 7:30 pm, and she will be followed at 9:30 PM by Washington Improv Theatre's iMusical: The Improvised Musical, "amazing improvised scenes, lyrics, and music, all inspired by a single audience suggestion," according to the Signature. Helen Hayes winner Will Gartshore will perform his cabaret act Perfect/Finite July 11 at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Expect "an eclectic combination of pop, rock, and contemporary theater songs of auspicious beginnings, messy endings, and love's beautiful flaws." The second week of the series will include actor Stephen Gregory Smith (July 15 at 8:30 PM), theatre composer Peter Lerman (July 16 at 8:30 PM), former Broadway "Dreamgirl" Julia Nixon (July 17 at 7:30 and 9:30 PM), Taboo Tony nominee Euan Morton (July 18 and 19 at 7:30 PM) and comic and cabaret performer Colleen McHugh (July 18 at 9:30 PM). Side Show Tony nominee Emily Skinner will entertain audiences July 21 at 8:30 PM, and on July 22 Signature will present "Next Generation Composer Cabaret," featuring the work of up-n-coming musical theatre composers Gabriel Kahane, Adam Gwon, Peter Foley, Marisa Michelson and Matt Conner. All performances take place in Signature Theatre's modern theatre complex. Tickets for all cabarets are $20 general admission; an all-access cabaret pass costs $75. Tickets can be purchased at the box office or by calling Ticketmaster at (703) 573-SEAT (7328) or by visiting www.signature-theatre.org.

Baltimore's Centerstage has announced its 2009-2010 cabaret series, which will launch Oct. 15 with Tony Award winner Judy Kaye. Tony winner Kaye will play the Maryland venue through Oct. 18. She will be followed by Taboo's Euan Morton, who will perform for Baltimore audiences Nov. 12-15. E. Faye Butler, who was seen in Centerstage's production of Caroline, or Change, will perform Feb. 11-14, 2010. The series will conclude with Tracie Thoms and Friends April 29-May 2, 2010. Thoms, who was seen in the film and stage versions of Rent, will be joined by special musical guests during her Centerstage run. Cabaret series tickets are currently available only as part of a 2009–10 season membership; details on memberships can be found by visiting www.centerstage.org or by calling (410) 332-0033.

The Hudson Riverfront Performing Arts Center's Summer Concerts on the Hudson series will continue June 29 in Lincoln Harbor Park. Entitled An Evening of Broadway, the 7 PM concert in Weehawken, NJ, will celebrate the work of the late director/choreographer Jerome Robbins. Expect tunes from West Side Story, On the Town, Fiddler on the Roof, Gypsy and more. Among those currently scheduled to lend their talents to the free evening are Mary Testa (Guys and Dolls, Xanadu), Sierra Boggess (The Little Mermaid), Lisa Howard (9 to 5 The Musical), Graham Rowat (Guys and Dolls), Donna Marie Asbury (Chicago) and tap wiz Kendrick Jones (Broadway by the Year). For more information and directions visit www.hrpac.org or call (201) 716-4540.

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

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