DIVA TALK: Chatting with Stephanie D'Abruzzo Plus Spring Awakening on CD

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Stephanie D'Abruzzo Plus Spring Awakening on CD
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Stephanie D'Abruzzo as Patti Miller in
Stephanie D'Abruzzo as Patti Miller in "Scrubs." Photo by NBC Photo: Chris Haston

Stephanie D'Abruzzo, the multi-talented and Tony-nominated star of the original cast of the hit musical Avenue Q, will make her major network television debut Jan. 18 on the NBC comedy "Scrubs." The musical episode of the series, which is set in the hospital Sacred Heart, casts the charming D'Abruzzo as Patti Miller, a woman who hears songs rather than spoken conversation.

Supervising producer Debra Fordham, who penned the musical episode, told me earlier this week that she thought D'Abruzzo would be perfect for the role after catching her performance in the Off-Broadway musical I Love You Because. "I needed an actress that was equally adept at comedy and drama and could make the switch between them instantaneously," Fordham says. "Stephanie had this great moment in I Love You Because where she did just that. It was a completely underwritten moment where she had to make this sudden discovery — all on her own and without dialogue — that she was in love with her sex buddy. That moment really stuck with me. So when it came time to write this script, Stephanie immediately came to mind. She's a brilliant comedienne with pitch-perfect timing who can turn on a dime and instantly break your heart. And that's exactly what I needed to make this episode work. She was a perfect choice in every way."

After working with D'Abruzzo, Fordham says she is now even more an admirer of the singing actress, who is terrific in the "Scrubs" episode, which is funny, clever, melodic and ultimately touching (I was sent a rough cut last week). "I already knew that she was a wonderful actress, singer and comedienne," Fordham says. "What I didn't know is that she is also the most likeable and accessible person on the planet! She completely charmed everyone on the set — actors, grips, transpo guys, you name it. So in those final scenes, when our cast is rallying around her character, there was definitely an extra layer of emotion because it was Stephanie, the person, on the operating table. I think it was Ken Jenkins who made the observation that whether or not this episode works depends on whether or not we, as an audience, invest in Stephanie's character. Well, I'm here to tell you that we not only invested in Patti (her character), the entire company of 'Scrubs' was and is completely invested in Stephanie."

Fordham adds, "This really is a deceptively difficult role. A good deal of her time was spent simply reacting to what's going on around her. And if you think that's easy, you've never had to do it! Stephanie found her own throughline and developed this whole arc for how her character responds to the singing. There's an actual progression to it that was neither directed, nor scripted. Then, to make the role even more challenging, after spending most of the episode off to the side, she has to suddenly take center stage and make the whole story mean something! It really was a lot to ask, but Stephanie absolutely nailed it."

Coincidentally, the episode happens to feature songs penned by Avenue Q Tony winners Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx. "I wrote the role for Stephanie in July," explains Fordham. "Then, in August, Zach Braff overheard me asking our producer if it would be possible to get actual Broadway composers to work on the episode. It was Zach who then uttered the immortal words, 'Hey, we should get those guys from Avenue Q.'" Other songs were written by Fordham, Jan Stevens and Paul Perry. The "Scrubs" episode — which is simply titled "My Musical" — also boasts several other Broadway connections. Tony Award-winning orchestrator Doug Besterman arranged two of the songs featured in the situation comedy: "Welcome to Sacred Heart" and "Everything Comes Down to Poo." Another Tony winner, Karen Ziemba, makes a brief cameo in the episode, and the director of this special episode, Will Mackenzie, played Cornelius opposite Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly!. Several of the series regulars — including Ken Jenkins, Judy Reyes and Sarah Chalke — also boast many theatre credits.

Last week I had the pleasure of catching up with D'Abruzzo, who was thrilled to get the chance to appear on "Scrubs," which happens to be among her favorite television programs.

Question: How did "Scrubs" come about?
Stephanie D'Abruzzo: Well, the story as I've come to understand, is that Debra Fordham, who wrote the episode, is a huge theatre fan. She comes to New York many times a year to see shows, and she saw me in I Love You Because — actually, I think she saw it twice. At the exact same time, Bill Lawrence, who is the executive producer/creator of "Scrubs," is also a long-time musical theatre fan. They've done a lot of musical elements in "Scrubs" over the years. They did a little West Side Story parody in their first or second season. . . . and he's always talked about doing an entire "Scrubs" musical [episode], but he wanted it to be rooted in reality. He told the writing staff last year that if anybody wanted to take a crack at doing the musical script, that season six, this season, would probably be the year to do it. . . . So all eyes apparently looked to Debra, and she started working on a concept. Apparently, when she was working on it, she had seen I Love You Because and thought of me for it . . . and then somehow convinced the powers that be to cast me in the episode.

Question: Did you have to audition?
D'Abruzzo: Because most of the people she had to convince were familiar with my work, but only from Avenue Q — they had only ever heard me sing like Kate or Lucy — I did have to send some samples of vocals. I did a little two-minute montage of other vocals. I don't know who ended up hearing that or who didn't end up hearing it, [but] that was the closest thing I did to auditioning.

Question: How many songs did Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez write for the show?
D'Abruzzo: They wrote four of the songs. They wrote "Welcome to Sacred Heart" and "Everything Comes Down to Poo," and there's a song called "[When the] Truth Comes Out," and then the finale. There's another songwriter on the show, Paul F. Perry. He actually is a cast member on the show. He is one of the member's of Ted's band. Sam Lloyd, who plays Ted on the show, in real life and on the show, has an a cappella band. In real life they're called The Blanks . . . and on the show they're called the Worthless Peons. And Paul Perry is one of the members of that band, and he also does the majority of the arranging. They're stunning, stunning arrangements. On "Scrubs" in the past, they've done everything from the theme to "Charles in Charge" and "The Facts of Life" to this beautiful a cappella rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." So, Paul wrote "Guy Love," which is on YouTube right now, and a song that Carla sings to Turk called "For the Last Time I'm Dominican," and then he also wrote "The Rant Song" that Dr. Cox sings. It's very Gilbert and Sullivan. [Perry also wrote] a little bit at the beginning that sort of sets up when Patti faints and realizes that everybody's singing. . . [and] "[We're Gonna] Miss You Carla." . . .

Debra actually wrote the lion's share of the lyrics. As the writer of the episode — and I remember in an early draft she shared with me — what she basically did was she had written her ideas, which she thought would be temp[orary] lyrics — and a lot of them were temp lyrics, some of them changed. She worked very closely with Paul because Paul was in L.A. with her. And then the same thing happened with Jeff and Bobby, only it was mostly over the phone. But there was less immediate collaboration with lyrics. It was more [that] she gave them her stuff, they tweaked, and then some of it was hers, some of it was theirs. But I should definitely mention that Deb not only wrote the episode but [also] wrote [many of] the lyrics. Because as she said, there's not a lot of speaking outside of the songs in the show. There's about, I would say, 19 minutes of music. And the show is 23 minutes long, and it's going to be a super-sized episode.

Question: Had you been a fan of the show before you were cast?
D'Abruzzo: Huge fan of the show! I was a huge fan. . . . Before I knew whether [I would be cast], I emailed [Debra] to tell her that even if nothing happened, I was such a fan of the show, such a fan of her work. She had written some — well, all of the writers are incredible — but there was one episode that she had written that was particularly memorable for me. It was an episode called "My Life in Four Cameras." It was in the fourth season where in the entire second half of the episode, J.D. [Zach Braff] imagines how much better life would be like if life was like a sitcom. This is a typically single-camera show, and in this episode the second act was all shot sitcom-style: four cameras with a live audience on video tape. Even the costumes were changed to give that feel of what a classic multi-camera sitcom would do with it as opposed to a single-camera sitcom. That episode stood out in my mind, and when I wrote to her, I wrote what a huge fan I was of the show. I've watched it since season one, have the DVDs that have come out. In fact, during I Love You Because — because our dark nights were Wednesdays [and] Tuesday was our last night of the week, it was always the roughest night to get through. And, when I would call my husband on the way home from the show, he'd say, "There's 'Scrubs' on the DVR!" [Laughs.] So that was always such a great thing to look forward to.

Question: What was the rehearsal process like for "Scrubs"? Did they send you the songs before rehearsals began or did you learn them there?
D'Abruzzo: They actually pre-recorded the songs before the rehearsal. This was a totally unique experience for them in that they even had a rehearsal week before the filming. The pre-record actually happened the week before the rehearsals; however, I did not pre-record until the week of rehearsals . . . I only flew out to L.A. for the rehearsals. Because so much of the episode is in my character's head, I didn't have as much to do as everybody else vocal-wise. I was able to churn out my vocals in a few hours.

Question: You recorded the vocals first, and then you lip-synched to them?
D'Abruzzo: Yes, yes, I don't think anybody was going to do anything live. And plus, technically, it's just so difficult to do because when you're dealing with live audio and then you're dealing with a track, then you have to deal with earpieces, and the shoot was so complicated anyway.

Question: What was the filming experience like?
D'Abruzzo: Oh, it was amazing! . . . As time has gone on in the history of ["Scrubs"], they've gotten more and more ambitious with some of the things they do. They have incredible stunts on the show — they do these incredible crane shots. They shoot it at a real live hospital in North Hollywood. It's an old abandoned hospital, and everything is there — from where they shoot it to the dressing rooms to casting to post-production — all of it is in this one building. Because they're not on a lot, they have admitted that executives don't come by as much as they would if they were on a back lot. So they don't have people looking over their shoulders, which gives them a certain amount of freedom to really push the limits and do these incredible things.

To have an opening number where there are five cameras in the parking lot and on a crane, and 50 dancers, was unprecedented and par for the course all at the same time. This is a show that I've seen have hundreds of extras charging a hospital and then body surfing Zach Braff. This is a show where I've seen, many times, people flying off the roof of that hospital. They have incredible stunt people on it. . . . I did my own little [stunt] when I faint in the park. I did my own fall, and [stunt man] Noon [Orsatti] taught me how to do it correctly because I wouldn't have known how to do it correctly! They're very careful, but this is a show that really does a lot of wonderfully outrageous things and likes continuing to challenge themselves.

. . . . What that rehearsal time did for me was figure out exactly what my arc of reactions should be. Because the reacting can get really old very quick, and it depends on what you're reacting to. The challenge for me as an actor was [in] not speaking and not having lines but trying to get across a character, and not knowing when that camera was going to cut to me.

Question: Tell me a little bit about the character you played.
D'Abruzzo: It's funny, you don't really wind up knowing that much about her. She faints in the park and when she comes to, everybody is singing, and it becomes a matter of figuring out whether she's crazy or whether there's something else going on. . . . The big challenge was [that] I'm in every number, whether I sing a note in them or not, because all of the music is in my head. Any spoken dialogue happens when I'm not there. In fact, there's a great moment when the characters of Elliot and Carla — Sarah Chalke and Judy Reyes — are talking, and then I get wheeled through in the background and their talking becomes singing. And then when I get wheeled away, out of the shot, they go back to speaking.

Question: Have you seen the final version?
D'Abruzzo: I've only seen some numbers. I have not seen the final version, so I'm very curious to see how it all came together. But it's exciting! The numbers that I've seen on-line look great.

Question: How did this compare for you with working in theatre? Would you like to do more television?
D'Abruzzo: I've always wanted to do more television, since I've worked in television for some time on "Sesame Street." It's a great experience. Doing television is unlike anything else. Doing theatre is unlike anything else — they both have their pros and cons. [In] television you're working so fast, you're working so quickly. And with a single-camera show, you're basically shooting a feature film in record time. So, yes, you can try to perfect it and try to hone it, but at some point the sun goes down and you have to move on. Or the clock is ticking, and there's an incredible amount of money involved — every second is incredibly expensive when you're dealing with television and a filmed show like "Scrubs." Even though "Scrubs" is only filmed on 16-mm, it's still film, it's still very expensive. And you're still dealing with union crews and union casts and all of those things.

Theatre, you obviously have much more time to hone and to perfect, almost to excess sometimes. [Laughs.] I think sometimes you get tired of rehearsing. But you have all those weeks of rehearsals and all those weeks of previews and trying it out in front of an audience, and that's something you don't have in TV. I always say, in TV you know you're doing something right when you can make the crew laugh! Because they've seen everything . . . they have seen it all and done it all, and so if you can make your crew laugh, that's wonderful. There are also the obvious differences of a smaller performance and a more focused performance in television as opposed to theatre, which has to be much bigger. But also, really, when you're in theatre, I think it's the one time where you are pretty much in total control of your performance from beginning to end. Whereas in television, if the camera's not on you, the camera's not on you. And so whatever you're doing as a performer is gone. So those are some major differences, but I loved working with that cast and crew. Those people could not have been more welcoming to me, and I don't think it hurt that I came in telling everybody what a fan I was of the show. When you work on a television show — it was this way on "Sesame Street" and I'm sure it's this way for them — you work in a vacuum, and you don't know who watches the show. . . . So I think they were just happy to have someone there who watched the show. But at the same time, because I had seen the show so much, it was so comfortable to be there, and everybody top-to-toe was kind as could be.

Question: Who are you planning to watch the episode with when it airs?
D'Abruzzo: I still haven't come to terms with that one. [Laughs.] If you have a little get-together with people, I don't want it to turn into, "Look at me! Look at me! Look at what I did!" [Laughs.] You know, there's something a little less than humble about that. . . . I've wanted to get into television as a non-puppeteer for some time, and then to work on a show that I love and respect [is a bonus]. But then to be working on a show that is so high-profile and so unique and is getting so much press. I had no idea that any of this would be happening, so it's still rather overwhelming to me that scenes from the show are being put on YouTube. I think that it might be too overwhelming to have a bunch of people . . . maybe a couple of close friends who want to come over and see it. A couple of people have expressed, "I really wanna be there!" But yeah, everyone has said, "You should have a big party," but I don't think I can… I'm not that person!

Question: So what's next for you? Do you have other projects in the works?
D'Abruzzo: I'm just sort of auditioning and praying right now. [Laughs.] I had done three guest appearances at Into the Weeds, the Bill Weeden revue earlier this year which closed. And there's talk of video taping a live stage version of that, and Bill had asked if maybe I would be interested in being the person to sing the guest song. That would be cool. It's an amazing song. I loved singing it, and that cast is a wonderful company. They, too, were also very welcoming to me, and I loved working with them. So there's the possibility of maybe that, but right now there aren't any grand projects on the horizon. I'm just sort of going back and pounding the pavement and seeing what's next, but at the same time trying to enjoy the time off, trying not to get stressed about things, trying not to say, "I'll never work again." [Laughs.]

This summer I did theAtrainplays, and so I'm hoping that if there's another installment of that, whenever that may be, I'd love to do another one of them, especially while not being in another show. I did that while I was in If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, and that was probably not smart. Atrainplays is a staggering amount of energy that's required to do it, and yet it was the most exciting thing I'd ever done. It was one of the few things that I can honestly say that after I did it, I was a better performer. After those 24 hours, I came out of it a better performer.

I also recently guest-starred as a puppeteer on two episodes of "Jack's Big Music Show" on Noggin. I play a scatting cat named, appropriately, Scat Cat, in one episode, and in the other one, I play Gertrude the Groundhog opposite the one-and-only Jon Stewart — that will air on Groundhog's Day, of course.

Question: Have you ever been back to see Avenue Q?
D'Abruzzo: I don't know that I could ever see Avenue Q, and I'll tell you why. All of my memories of the show are from the other side of the stage, [so] I think I'd rather keep my memories there. It would be really difficult, I think. . . It's just me. Other people [from the original cast] have seen it, and they've been fine! [Laughs.] But I think I would rather keep my memories pure, if you will, of that experience from that point of view. Though, I'm sure it would be absolutely fascinating to see it from that [other] side of the stage. Question: Would you consider doing a non-musical?
D'Abruzzo: I would kill to do a non-musical! Absolutely! . . . I would love to do a straight play — comedy or dramatic, really. But it does get difficult because there are things that I can't always get seen for — particularly straight plays. With Irish Rep, I did a small reading for them this fall, The Cherry Sisters Revisited, and when the woman called, I immediately thanked her, profusely thanked her, because it was a straight play. I really appreciated it because it keeps your chops going as an actor.

Question: Hopefully "Scrubs" will bring you to a wider audience.
D'Abruzzo: I hope so, too. It's really a lesson of you never know what's going to happen. You know, I Love You Because ran for three months, and even if "Scrubs" didn't happen, I would never have regretted leaving Avenue Q to do it. Because I needed to move on. It was time to move on — I needed to flex new muscles . . . and even though it was another musical, it was still a step because there wasn't a puppet!

["Scrubs" — with guest star Stephanie D'Abruzzo — will air on NBC Jan. 18 at 9 PM ET; check local listings. Visit www.nbc.com/Scrubs for more information.]

FOR THE RECORD: Spring Awakening
For Spring Awakening — the new musical that has ushered in a slew of fresh, young talent, namely Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele, who play, respectively, the lovestruck (and ill-fated) Melchior and Wendla — Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik have penned a rock score that pulses with vitality. In fact, it is the first since the one written by the late Jonathan Larson for the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rent to so excite a whole new generation of theatre fans.

The Decca Broadway recording of Spring Awakening opens quietly with the haunting "Mama Who Bore Me," sung in simple, clear tones by Wendla (Michele). The mood, however, quickly shifts as the rest of the teenage girls offer a rock version of the same tune that says, "Mama who bore me./ Mama who gave me/ No way to handle things./ Who made me so sad."

Composer Sheik has written a host of truly beautiful melodies, some that express the longing and questioning that infuse teenage life ("All That's Known," "Touch Me"), while others speak to the despair and rage that can come from living in such a repressed environment ("The B**** of Living," "Totally F*****"). The musical also tackles a host of topics not usually addressed in musical theatre: masturbation ("My Junk"), incest ("The Dark I Know Well") and suicide ("Left Behind") as well as teenage sex, abortion and homosexuality.

If Sater's lyrics at times create a mood rather than advance the plot, he has crafted a new, often-poetic vocabulary that evocatively captures young love. In "The World of Your Body," the characters sing, "O, I'm gonna be wounded./ O, I'm gonna be your wound./ O, I'm gonna bruise you./ O, you're gonna be my bruise." And, in "My Junk," the cast sings, "I try to just kick it, but then, what can I do?/ We've all got our junk, and my junk is you."

In addition to the aforementioned Groff and Michele, the musical also introduces another great voice, one belonging to Lauren Pritchard. As Ilse, Pritchard gets to wrap her rich, folk-flavored voice around the haunting "Blue Wind."

It should be noted, however, that although Spring Awakening addresses difficult subjects, things are not entirely bleak. There are songs of hope and renewal, including the first-act finale, "I Believe," where Melchior and Wendla give in to their passions; and the stirring, uplifting finale, "The Song of Purple Summer," where the entire cast sings, "And all shall know the wonder,/ I will sing the song/ Of purple summer."

Tony Award winner Betty Buckley, who made her professional debut at age 15 in a Casa Mañana production of Gypsy, will return to the Fort Worth theatre in February to teach a series of master classes. Buckley will offer a "Song Interpretation Intensive" on Feb. 12 and 19 and March 5, 12, 20 and 26. The classes, designed for dedicated students and advanced professional performers, will begin with a lecture/demonstration focusing on Buckley's tools, philosophy and relaxation-meditation techniques. Subsequent classes will begin with meditation and then focus on individual voice and song interpretation work. An accompanist will be provided for the classes, which begin at 6:30 PM and last four to five hours. Auditors are also welcome to attend the classes and will participate in all exercises with the exception of the individual singing exercises. By-appointment-only auditions for the classes will be held Feb. 6 and 7 from 6:30-10 PM at the Casa Mañana Theatre. Call (940) 300-4944 or visit www.casamanana.org for further information. The theatre is located in Fort Worth, TX, at 3101 W. Lancaster Avenue.

Tony Award winner Lillias White will be part of the cast of the Off-Broadway premiere of Alan Govenar and Akin Babatunde's musical Blind Lemon Blues, which will be presented by the York Theatre Company in February. Performances of the production, which features more than 60 Blind Lemon Jefferson songs, will begin Feb. 15. The limited engagement will play through Feb. 25. Babatunde will head the cast as Blind Lemon Jefferson. He will be joined onstage by Tony winner White as well as Benita Arterberry, Cavin Yarborough, Alisa Peoples Yarbrough, Walter Fauntleroy and Liz Mikel with guitarist Sam Swank. Babatunde is also the show's director and choreographer and wrote musical arrangements with Cavin and Alisa Peoples Yarbrough. The York Theatre is located at St. Peter's at 54th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues. Tickets, priced $35, are available by calling (212) 935-5820 or by visiting www.yorktheatre.org.

Two-time Tony nominee Kelli O'Hara will be Eliza Doolittle opposite the Professor Henry Higgins of "Frasier" star Kelsey Grammer in the New York Philharmonic's upcoming semi-staged concert performances of My Fair Lady, which will play Avery Fisher Hall March 7-10. Rob Fisher will conduct the famed orchestra, which will be situated onstage with the actors. The starry cast will also boast Charles Kimbrough as Colonel Hugh Pickering, Brian Dennehy as Alfred Doolittle, Marni Nixon as Mrs. Higgins and Tim Jerome as Professor Zoltan Karpathy. Tickets, priced $65-$245, may be purchased by calling (212) 875-5656 or by visiting www.nyphil.org.

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

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