Christine Toy Johnson, who has been seen on Broadway in The Music Man, Grease! and Chu Chem as well as in the national tours of Bombay Dreams, Flower Drum Song and Cats, is currently starring as Bloody Mary in the Guthrie Theater production of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific. The singing actress, who is also an accomplished playwright and librettist, is joined onstage by Erin Mackey as Nellie Forbush, Edward Staudenmayer as Emile de Becque, CJ Eldred as Lt. Cable, Jimmy Kieffer as Luther Billis and Manna Nichols as Liat. Artistic director Joseph Haj directs the limited engagement, which continues on the Wurtele Thrust Stage through August 28. I recently posed a set of questions to Johnson, who has a recurring role on TV's The Americans; her responses follow.
How did this role come about?
Christine Toy Johnson: My wonderful agent Steve Unger submitted me to the Guthrie’s casting directors, Pat McCorkle and Jen Liestman, and I auditioned for Joe Haj (the theatre’s new artistic director and our director for South Pacific) and his team twice in March. I couldn’t have been more thrilled to get an offer shortly after that to come here for the summer! South Pacific has always held a special place in my heart; I got my Equity card playing Liat a gazillion years ago. And the Guthrie is…well, the Guthrie.
Is this your first time performing at the Guthrie? What has the experience been like?
CTJ: This is my first time performing at the Guthrie. Working here and working with Joe Haj has been beyond extraordinary. I’m actually grateful that I haven’t had a chance to work with Joe and/or the Guthrie until now (some 30 years into my career), because now I’m spoiled for life. There is such a commitment to excellence in storytelling from all departments. And Joe is that beautiful combination of being a true leader who honestly and thoroughly collaborates. I felt that from my very first meeting with him. There isn’t a moment in the show that hasn’t been mined and unpeeled—by both director and actor working in tandem. The production is Joe’s vision, to be sure, but it’s amazing to be a truly integral part of helping make that vision come to fruition, through our own individual contributions. I honestly feel like I’ve become a better actor, having been through this process. The whole cast (made up of Twin Cities actors and New York-based actors) is fabulous. And our design team is so fancy: John Lee Beatty (sets), Justin Townsend (lights), Jennifer Caprio (costumes)! Stunning work from all! (Can you tell I’m in love with this place and this show?)
How would you describe Bloody Mary?
CTJ: She is the epitome of a survivor. Joe had this idea that Bloody Mary is a kind of “Mother Courage” character. That image, coupled with the inspiration I’m drawing on, from women I have observed in the part of the world where the show takes place, definitely have made our Bloody Mary into a woman who lives and breathes survival tactics, navigating her way through the war in the best way she knows how and doing whatever it takes to make sure her family thrives. I think she is fierce and loyal and has an awesome sense of humor.
What do you think are her strengths/weaknesses?
CTJ: Strengths: She has this joie de vivre that informs everything she does, and which subsequently makes her so fully present in every moment—whether that moment is full of joy or pain or annoyance from dealing with a “stingy bastard” who refuses to buy a grass skirt. And I love her resourcefulness and perseverance to get through anything and everything, both of which are reflected in her commitment to making a good life for herself and her daughter. Weaknesses: her inability to “filter” what she says (especially with people who think they have the power to control her) and her do-or-die stubbornness. I think her Achilles heel is being told she can’t do something that she is sure she must. That’s when all bets are off, and you really don’t want to mess with her because you can’t be sure what will happen next. Also, in the other sense of the word “weakness,” as in things she can’t resist—her daughter and her daughter’s well-being guide her decisions, for better or worse.
Do you think the themes of the show still resonate with audiences?
CTJ: Yes, absolutely. I believe that though many things have changed since 1949, we as a society are still struggling with fear of those who are perceived as “other” and the ensuing prejudice and racism that often come from that. Some of this prejudice and racism is subtle, but much of it is blatant. And we need to continually be shown a way into a more loving, humane point of view. And the theatre can do that! The theatre has this incredible power to shift the lens through which we see each other and ourselves—which is why a musical like South Pacific still resonates with today’s audiences. Though we’re transported to another time and place theatrically, the humanity and the lessons learned by the various characters that we collectively witness are timeless—and they grab a hold of us, put a mirror up to us, make us think and feel and laugh and cry, and don’t let go until after the curtain comes down. That’s a classic for you!
Any future plans?
CTJ: I am stepping off the plane in NYC on August 29 and into a rehearsal for a play I wrote with Kevin Duda, that Playbill.com reported on in May, called Diary of a Domestic Goddess. We’re doing a big industry presentation of it on September 12 and have been working with this incredible powerhouse cast: Ann Harada, Lewis Cleale, Rebecca Baxter, Wade McCollum and Jeanne Lehman, with Alan Muraoka directing. It’s a love fest, really, and one that makes me laugh so much! I’m also looking forward to spending some time at the O’Neill this fall, where Alan Campbell and I have been invited to develop a solo piece about Frank Lloyd Wright that I wrote for Alan and am directing him in.
What was your favorite show that you saw on stage this season?
CTJ: You mean other than Hamilton? I would say Waitress, definitely. Such a beautiful score with such a stellar and diverse cast! (Oh great, now I want a piece of pie.) I also loved King Charles III, Eclipsed, Blackbird, The Crucible, Noises Off, Fiddler on the Roof, Shuffle Along and Bright Star. I’ve been a Tony voter for quite a while, and it is always a privilege, but this season was especially exciting!
For ticket information visit www.guthrietheater.org.
Well, that’s all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to [email protected].
Senior editor Andrew Gans also pens the weekly Their Favorite Things.