DIVA TALK: Chatting with Tony and Emmy Winner and Pal Joey Star Stockard Channing

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Tony and Emmy Winner and Pal Joey Star Stockard Channing
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Stockard Channing
Stockard Channing

Stockard Channing is one of those extremely rare species: an actor who can stand still on stage, say nothing, and be completely riveting. Add to that her consummate acting skills, her intelligent delivery of a lyric — her "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" is a mini-drama in itself — and it is no wonder she is one of the great theatre actors of her generation. Audiences are currently getting the chance to revel in Channing's latest role as the sophisticated "cougar" Vera Simpson in the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of the Rodgers and Hart musical Pal Joey, which boasts some of the great performances of the current season and features a new book penned by Tony-winning playwright Richard Greenberg based on the original by John O'Hara. Channing, a Tony winner for her work in Joe Egg and an Emmy winner for her performances in both "The West Wing" and "The Matthew Shepard Story," shares the Studio 54 stage with Matthew Risch, who stars in the musical's title role, the nightclub singer who, as the lyric states, quickly learns "how to spend all the money that Mr. Simpson earns." Earlier this week I had the pleasure of chatting with the gifted actress about her acclaimed performance in the Broadway revival, which has been extended through March 1; that interview follows.

Question: How did the role of Vera come about for you? Had you wanted to return to Broadway?
Stockard Channing: About a year-and-a-half ago, almost two years now, I got a call that they were interested in me doing [Pal Joey], and they sent me the script. I had no plans to go back to Broadway or go back to New York, nothing at all. It was really the furthest thing from my mind. I read [Richard] Greenberg's script, and I thought it was fantastic. So I thought, "Well, I'll talk to [director] Joe [Mantello]." And then I talked to Joe, and I loved what he said. Every time I had another conversation, it just got better and better. Finally, I said, "Well, this is what life's about. You do things you never expected to do." Originally, it was going to be a commercial production, and that sort of fell apart. I was in London doing Awake and Sing! I got a call from Joe saying that it wasn't happening, and I realized I was incredibly disappointed for something that I hadn't really set out to do. [Laughs.] I was terribly upset. About two or three months later, he called me — literally at the end of the run of Awake and Sing! — and said Roundabout wanted to do it. So I said, "Great! Exciting!" That was about a year ago.

Question: Were there any Pal Joey readings that you were a part of prior to Broadway?
Channing: We read the play. I asked to read the play out loud, which, I think, is good — everybody gets a sense of the whole. And, obviously, when we went into rehearsal in October, we had to do that again.

Question: Did you have any apprehension about doing a musical?
Channing: I haven't done one in a very long time. I did. I had a great sense of occasion, a great sense of responsibility. It's hardly an obscure [musical] … and this one number, ["Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered"], especially. I listened to like 25 versions of ["Bewitched"]. You could listen to 100 versions of it! I realized that everybody does this song differently, and everybody sings different verses. That was very liberating, especially when I talked to [music director Paul] Gemignani about it musically. . . . Gemignani is not only massively gifted, he's also massively blunt. I was told, "He'll tell you if he doesn't think you can do it." That was my first requirement to talk to him and work with him a little bit. He said, "You can do this." So we decided to do the song in a way that was appropriate to the play — the choice of where it was put certainly determined how it was sung.

Stockard Channing in Pal Joey
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: I love the way you do perform the song — it's sort of a mini-drama within the bigger drama.
Channing: Thank you. A lot of what I was feeling struck by when I heard all of these versions by famous, famous people over the years was that it was done in this kind of blithe, happy manner, and the "bewildered" part wasn't really emphasized. [Laughs.] Gemignani said, "It's become a book song. It is about her internal life." We didn't make this up. The song, I think, was originally done in the tailor shop. It was certainly done after they've, you know, consummated [their relationship]. It was always done in a kind of wry, city way, which I do in one of the reprises, but in terms of doing it in the bed after they've had sex is, I think, fantastic because her admission that she's in over her head and her kind of recklessness in saying, "I'm going to go for it anyway," is certainly part of her nature. She has a real sense that anything that comes along, she can handle. Of course, we all can relate to that. In fact, the drama is that she gets in over her head. I thought that was really a cool way to do it. And, also, I think it kind of highlights the song, oddly enough, in a way that I don't think it would be if it was sung out [to the balcony], as we've heard many times before. Question: What is it like getting to sing that song every night?
Channing: It's wonderful! Once I got over my fear of it — because Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, you name it, had sung this song — when it became just a dramatic moment, I could feel it, and I really love it because it is a little soliloquy. You also have to be true to the music of it, not just the lyrics. And to stay in the melodic line when you're really not singing out… you can't because, as Joe [Mantello] pointed out, I'm in bed with this guy. [Laughs.] Instead of hitting the back wall, it's a delicate balance of intimacy and being true to the melody. I don't wanna wake him up — or do I?! [Laughs.]

Question: In Vera and Joe's first meeting in the show, the way the script is now, Joey is really quite crude. I wondered why you think Vera takes an interest in him at that point.
Channing: This is a really crude way to put it — if you have a two-year-old dog and a six-year-old bitch, they're not exactly looking at their driver's licenses to see what they're like. [Laughs.] I think Vera — I know this is not the first time she's done this. I think there have been a couple of parking-lot attendants. I think that's what she likes. . . .Also, frankly, my inner thought is that she has a bit of Joey in herself. I think she married for money and thought she could control it. She says as much. In fact, she got this guy who's got mega-bucks. We don't know where Vera comes from, by the way. In fact, what [her husband] does is he has her, and then he steps out on her and leaves her there with all her millions. She has her . . . good times and all the rest of it, but she's pretty gutted. I think [she and Joey] are kindred spirits in many ways.

Question: Tell me about working with Joe Mantello as a director. What is his process like?
Channing: Basically, we just work on [the scenes]. He doesn't have a lot of conversation. There are certain directors that give long lectures about the back story. It depends on their style and personality. He is not one of those people. We just worked on it like you go to work. We'd do a scene and then do it again and there's notes. I think he's very straightforward in that way.

Stockard Channing and co-star Matthew Risch
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: During previews you had quite a big cast change…
Channing: For me this is almost a two-character play. Ninety percent of the interaction I have is with the character of Joey. It was really interesting for me and Matt [Risch] — he has to interact with three or four other people. There are only [a few] speaking parts — the four of us [Channing, Risch, Martha Plimpton and Jenny Fellner] and Bob Clohessy. That's five people basically. What we would do, if we had a couple of hours in the afternoon, we would just rehearse this on our own and go through it. Luckily, Matt and I worked together very well. It was really, really fortunate that he was so on top of the material and could take over and that, by chance, we have a very good relationship. So there was a natural chemistry that happened right away and an ease with each other, physically, that really paid off. So basically we've had our own little preview period. That's all you can do. You have to just not think about anything negative and go forward and keep working on it. It has evolved over the performances. I don't know how recently you saw it. Question: I went during one of the press nights a few weeks ago.
Channing: I think that by now . . . I'm not apologizing for the beginning of [the run] because he wouldn't have the job if he wasn't good in it, but it's certainly gotten richer and richer.

Question: How would you describe Vera?
Channing: I think she's a pretty amoral person in many ways, but I think she's got ethics. They're two different things. She's a woman of the world. I think her feathers are definitely singed by this. I don't think she'll ever probably go as deep again [into another relationship]. I do think that she has her own comeuppance in this. That's about as much as I can say. I really leave that for the people watching Vera.

Question: Do you have a favorite moment for her?
Channing: I have many actually. I really love playing her. She's become such a rich character. I love the moment where she realizes that she has made him up, shall we say. I love it when the audience gasps when she realizes that she has fallen in love with this guy that is not what she thought, and that split second where she has to give him up and how horrible that is for her and how gutted she is and how angry she is and how lonely she is. I think that's a very interesting choice. Many moments. I don't want to give the game away by talking about it too much, and certainly "Bewitched" is kind of cool, because the lyrics are really supporting an emotional journey she's going through, which is kind of amazing.

Question: You've done so much theatre. How do you think the demands and payoffs of doing a musical compare to doing a straight play?
Channing: I absolutely love it because you're part of this great, big machine. Every time you hear the orchestra start, you're setting sail like a big steamship. There are all of these moving parts in it. It just keeps going. Literally, the way the set is, we are constantly in motion. I've said this before, but I feel like I'm in a Billy Wilder movie. It's very cinematic in that it just keeps going. It's like it's edited down. It's not like any musical I've ever been involved with or even seen, I think, because it just keeps moving. I think the design is exquisite, and the dancers are fabulous. Once you start, you don't stop, and you feel so supported by this technical bravura that you're surrounded by.

Question: What's it like playing Studio 54? The orchestra isn't in front of you but on two sides.
Channing: I thought that was going to be an issue, but it's not at all. That's also attributed to Gemignani and Annbritt [duChateau] because they are literally conducting the orchestra onscreen, and the band is so tight and good and so sassy. I expected, "Oh, that's going to be strange," but I don't even notice that. [Gemignani] sits there and keeps an eye on us. As someone said to me, "It's like he's breathing with you." He's such a great conductor. Especially with stuff that's very legato, he has to know where I'm going to come in, and he weaves this thing in and out of each other. It's like he can just read my mind. It's never exactly the same. That part of it is really exciting. You just feel completely supported.

Question: Prior to Joey, the last musical you were in on Broadway was The Rink. What do you remember from that?
Channing: I remember, I loved Chita [Rivera]. I had the same feeling I have here. It was great to be a part of this whole complex. I did it for a very short amount of time because they had lost a lot of money. Liza [Minnelli] had had sort of a difficult patch of life, and she had missed a lot of performances for various reasons. I wasn't in it very long, and they had to close. I was devastated. I said, "My God, you'd think I've been in this thing for years!" But I absolutely loved it, and I was very disappointed that it couldn't continue. But I had to prepare for it just as much, even though I wasn't in it very long. I think it closed in August, which is that deadly time of year. I do remember how much I loved it.

Question: You're one of the rare actors who has gotten to re-create a role on film that you played onstage in Six Degrees. What did that role mean to you?
Channing: It meant everything to me. It ended up being four years of my life. Two cities, four different leading men, all of whom were vastly different from each other but divine. It was an extraordinary journey. The good news was I loved the piece so much. It would sort of be terrible to have your biggest artistic experience with something you didn't really respect. But I loved it. [Playwright] John [Guare] is one of my closest friends, and to take that trip with him and [theatre director] Jerry [Zaks] and [film director] Fred Schepisi. It was great. There was no downside to it. It was really a perfect wave.

Question: By the time you got to do the film, did your idea of Ouisa change at all?
Channing: No, not really. I think the relationship with the husband would adjust and the relationship with the young man would always adjust having to do with the person I'm playing opposite. But I was already used to that from having done it in London with a totally different company. It gave me good practice in being flexible about it. But I think the thing about Ouisa Kittredge — someone said this to me, I didn't make this up, early on at a preview of the first production. She's a truth teller in spite of herself, in spite of her silliness and her giddiness, and that remained the same through all of those productions.

Question: You seem so comfortable onstage, almost like you were born to be there. Was that always the case? Did you ever have stage fright?
Channing: I have stage fright when I'm not on top of my material. I just hate not being — I'm not great trying to improvise or wing things. I'm a bit of a grind. I learn my words really slowly. Once I'm in open water, I feel great. It's a total study in contrasts. Up to that point I'm sort of not eating and sleeping, and then it's like sailing. It's really fabulous, and I have to say I'm really happy to be back. I was onstage in London the summer before last, and that was fun. It's really been a long time since I've been in New York and back onstage in America, so it's great to know that I can do it! [Laughs.] It's nice to be back on the bike.

Question: Do you know what's next for you?
Channing: No, I have no idea. They're gonna have to take me out and shoot me. [Laughs.] I have no idea. I'm just here until March.

Question: Would you like to do more theatre after this?
Channing: Yeah, I would, but something this good comes along very rarely. The part is great, and the production is great. We'll see what happens. You never know. That's what I said at the beginning of the conversation. When someone said to me two years ago, "They want you to do Pal Joey," I said, "Oh, yeah right!" [Laughs.] And here I am!

[Pal Joey plays Studio 54, located in Manhattan at 254 West 54th Street. For tickets call (212) 719-1300 or visit www.roundabouttheatre.org.]

Patti LuPone

Olivier and two-time Tony winner Patti LuPone, who recently concluded her award-winning, acclaimed run in the Broadway revival of Gypsy, has landed a guest-starring role on an upcoming episode of the Emmy-winning "30 Rock." Entertainment Weekly reported earlier this week that the former Evita star will play the mother of Frank (Judah Friedlander), the wise-cracking writer on the hit series that was created by Tina Fey, who also stars. An air date for LuPone's appearance has yet to be announced. For more information about "30 Rock," visit www.nbc.com. 3 Mo' Divas!, which is described as a "musical celebration of class, sass and style," will be broadcast on PBS stations around the country in March. Created, directed and choreographed by Marion J. Caffey, 3 Mo' Divas! was filmed July 1-2, 2008, at the Denver Center Theater Company in Denver, CO. The filmed version stars Nova Payton (Effie White in the Prince Music Theater's Dreamgirls), Laurice Lanier (Broadway's La Bohème) and Jamet Pittman (NYCO's Porgy and Bess). PBS will broadcast 3 Mo' Divas! March 1-10 and June 1-15; check local listings. In celebration of the PBS special, 3 Mo' Divas will release their debut CD, "Smashing Musical Barriers," March 1 and a Hi-Def and Blu-Ray DVD recording of the PBS special May 12. Upcoming performance dates include June 27 at the Apollo Theater (253 W. 125th Street in NYC), April 10-11 at The Cerritos Center (Cerritos, CA), July 7-Aug. 9 at The Geva Theater (Rochester, NY) and Oct. 2 at The Lyric Theater (Baltimore, MD). For more information visit www.3modivas.com.

Maureen McGovern
photo by Gideon Lewin

The annual Broadway Backwards concert — featuring male singers performing songs traditionally sung by women and women singing tunes written for men — will be presented Feb. 9 at the American Airlines Theatre. A benefit for New York's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender (LGBT) Community Center, the starry evening will boast the talents of the previously reported Tony Award winner Alan Cumming, Tony and Academy Award winner Whoopi Goldberg, current Shrek star Christopher Sieber, Assassins' Mario Cantone, stage and screen actress Megan Mullally (Young Frankenstein, "Will & Grace"), Jai Rodriguez ("Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," Rent), Gina Gershon (Boeing-Boeing), Aaron Lazar (A Tale of Two Cities), John Tartaglia (Shrek the Musical), Marty Thomas (Xanadu), "Ugly Betty" stars Becki Newton and Michael Urie, Cheyenne Jackson (Xanadu, All Shook Up), Tony Award nominee Sally Mayes (She Loves Me), Kate Reinders (Good Vibrations, Gypsy; one-half of TASTiSKANK) and Tony Yazbeck (Gypsy, A Chorus Line). Newly announced for the one-night-only event are Sandra Bernhard (I'm Still Here… Damn It!, "Rosanne"), Florence Henderson (Fanny, "The Brady Bunch"), Maureen McGovern (Little Women, Nine) and Ron Palillo (Hot L. Baltimore, "Welcome Back, Kotter"). Jim Caruso will host. Robert Bartley will again direct the 8 PM benefit concert. Tickets are available by calling (212) 352-3101. The American Airlines Theatre is located in Manhattan at 227 West 42nd Street. Vocalists have been announced for It Started With a Dream: David Zippel — Lyrics He Wrote, Lyrics He Wishes He Wrote, which will be presented at the 92nd Street Y in February. Part of the Y's acclaimed Lyrics & Lyricists series, show times at the East Side venue are Feb. 21 at 8 PM, Feb. 22 at 3 and 8 PM and Feb. 23 at 2 and 8 PM. Zippel, who is artistic director, will host the evenings with musical direction by Christopher Marlowe. The starry list of vocalists includes Broadway actors Kate Baldwin, Kevin Earley, Tony winner Debbie Gravitte, Danny Gurwin and Tony winner Lillias White. Individual tickets are priced $60 and $50. There is also a special under-35 ticket price of $25 for the Saturday and Sunday evening shows. To purchase tickets visit www.92y.org.

Daphne Rubin-Vega

Additional participants have been announced for the Drama League's annual all-star gala, A Musical Celebration of Broadway, which will be presented Feb. 2 at New York's famed Rainbow Room. The evening — which will honor producers Stewart F. Lane and Bonnie Comley as well as the 25th anniversary of The Drama League Directors Project — will feature the previously announced Chita Rivera, Donna Murphy, Cheyenne Jackson, Kerry Butler, Nancy Opel, Cady Huffman, Keith Carradine, Julie Halston, Bailey Hanks, Lee Roy Reams, the original "Cagelles" from the 1983 Broadway production of La Cage aux Folles and the original Broadway cast of The Will Rogers Follies. Newly announced for the starry celebration are Tony Award winner Julie White, Equus' Kate Mulgrew, Spring Awakening's Lauren Pritchard and Skylar Astin and original Renter Daphne Rubin-Vega. One of the evening's highlights promises to be a performance of Gypsy's "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" featuring Julie Halston as Electra (the role she played in the 2003 Gypsy revival), Cady Huffman as Mazeppa and Daphne Rubin-Vega as Tessie Tura. Tickets, priced $900-$2,500, are available by calling Roger Calderon at (212) 244-9494, ext. 5. For more information visit www.dramaleague.org. Details have been announced for the New York Pops' 2009-2010 season at Carnegie Hall. The upcoming season, featuring new music director Steven Reineke, will kick off Oct. 9 with Wayne Brady's Sammy and Sam: A Tribute to Sammy Davis Jr. and Sam Cooke. Brady, the Emmy-winning TV star seen on Broadway in Chicago, will perform at 8 PM. Too Marvelous for Words: A Johnny Mercer Centennial Concert will be presented Nov. 20 at 8 PM. Guest artists will include Anne Hampton Callaway (Swing! Tony nominee) and N'Kenge. Expect such Mercer classics as "Laura," "Dream," "Blues in the Night," "Come Rain or Come Shine," "One for My Baby," "Hooray for Hollywood" and "Moon River." The New York Pops will celebrate the holidays with vocalist Sandi Patty Dec. 18 and 19 at 8 PM. On March 12 the Pops will offer Celtic Music: A Saint Patrick's Day Celebration. The 8 PM concert will feature Ronan Tynan, Méav, Liz Knowles and Kieran O'Hare. The season will conclude April 16 with The Best of Lerner and Loewe. The 8 PM concert will feature South Pacific co-stars Kelli O'Hara and Paulo Szot as well as The Clurman Singers. For ticket information visit www.carnegiehall.org.

Shelly Burch
photo by Rebecca Douglas

A host of theatre favorites will take to the intimate stage of Manhattan's Metropolitan Room in February. Amanda McBroom, the composer of "The Rose," Heartbeats and A Woman of Will, will celebrate both the release of her new CD, "CHANSON . . .Amanda McBroom Sings Jacques Brel," and Valentine's Day with a weekend of concerts at the New York City nightspot. Show times are Feb. 11-14 at 7:30 PM. Natalie Toro, who was most recently on Broadway as Madame DeFarge in A Tale of Two Cities, will celebrate the release of her self-titled debut CD with two concerts at the Metropolitan Room: Feb. 21 and 27 at 9:45 PM. Broadway favorite Judy Blazer, whose numerous stage credits include Me and My Girl, Titanic and Lovemusik, is scheduled to perform Feb. 23 at 7 PM. February will also welcome the return of actress Shelly Burch, who left New York City in 1989, after triumphs in Annie and Nine. Burch's show, which is titled Second Coming, will feature musical direction by Keith Levenson and arrangements, lyrics and direction by Tony winner Martin Charnin. Burch's show, according to press notes, is a "celebration of life, love, hope, courage, and optimism." Show times are Feb. 25-28 at 7:30 PM. The Metropolitan Room is located at 34 West 22nd Street (between 5th and 6th Avenues). For reservations call (212) 206-0440 or visit www.metropolitanroom.com. And, finally, tickets are still available for the Actors Fund of America's benefit performance of Billy Elliot — The Musical Jan. 25 at 8 PM. Tickets, priced $41.50-$126.50 (with premium seats at $301.50), are available by calling (212) 221-7300, ext. 133. For more information visit www.actorsfund.org.

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

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