DIVA TALK: Two-Time Tony Nominee Alison Fraser Chats About Love, Loss... and Arthur Laurents | Playbill

Diva Talk DIVA TALK: Two-Time Tony Nominee Alison Fraser Chats About Love, Loss... and Arthur Laurents
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Alison Fraser
Alison Fraser

Alison Fraser, the Broadway favorite who received Tony nominations for her performances in Romance/Romance and The Secret Garden and who brought much warmth and humor to the role of stripper Tessie Tura in the Arthur Laurents-directed revival of Gypsy, is currently delighting audiences Off-Broadway in Nora and Delia Ephron's Love, Loss, and What I Wore through Aug. 7. Fraser, whose recent theatrical credits also include the critically acclaimed Charles Busch comedy The Divine Sister and Classic Stage Company's production of David Ives' The School for Lies, is featured in a cast that also boasts Anita Gillette, Aisha de Haas, Marla Maples and Zuzanna Szadkowski at the Westside Theatre. Earlier this week, I had the chance to catch up with Fraser, one of my favorite gals, who spoke about her jam-packed year appearing in three very different productions. That interview follows:

Question: How does the rehearsal process work for Love, Loss…?
Alison Fraser: You get the script with the part assignments I'd say about a week before, so you can go in there familiarized with your material. Then there are two very, very intense days of 10 out of 12 rehearsals, which means you're there from like 10 until 10 at night with a break, and you sit around the table and go over the text, and then at night—I believe on the first day—you get on to the stools and in your costumes. You try on your costumes for the powers that be, and they approve it or say, "No, we have to change. We have to make sure everybody is complimenting everybody else…" It's a very accelerated version of a rehearsal process, but it's no less daunting, and what you have to do is you have to really, really figure out a way how you are going to be a team—how you are going to interact rhythmically and energy wise and volume wise with the four other people on the stage. You have to get to know your cast mates, and my cast mates—Zuzanna and Aisha and Marla and Anita—are all amazing women, so it's been a great pleasure learning how to become a part of that team. And, Karen Carpenter, the director, just does a crack job putting it together.

Fraser at a party for Love, Loss...
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN
Question: What was it like the first night performing with not all that much preparation?
Fraser: Well, the first night in front of an audience, for me, is always the most informative because you realize, "Oh, okay, I've got to wait for that laugh. Oh, okay, I'm losing them here. Oh, okay, why did I lose that? Oh, maybe they can't hear me." As far as I'm concerned, for any show, I really am missing a huge part of my package until the audience is in the room. And, this show, particularly, because it is so audience-friendly: The audience is the sixth character of our play, so until that sixth character is with us, all we can do is really the technical stuff. The really emotional stuff comes when we can share it with the audience.

Question: For people who haven't seen the show, how would you describe the experience of Love, Loss…?
Fraser: I think Love, Loss, and What I Wore is this enormously gratifying personal memoir by Ilene Beckerman and then adapted by Nora Ephron and Delia Ephron and produced by the great, great producer Daryl Roth—thank you for this great job, Daryl Roth—and mentored by Karen Carpenter, the director, who also really helped put the piece together. It's a personal memoir that becomes personal for everybody in the audience because we can all relate to the stories that are being told on the stage. I mean, we all have articles of clothing that bring back visceral memories of certain events. I know I've thrown out clothes because they remind me of boyfriends I don't want to think about. I know I'll keep my late husband Rusty Magee's show clothes—I'll never wear them, but I would never, ever throw them away. Shows that have logos of shows that he was involved with—I have a whole bag of them.

Fraser, with Daisy Eagan, in The Secret Garden.
photo by Bob Marshak
I remember my opening-night dresses for Romance, Romance and Secret Garden—I'll probably never wear them again, but I can't imagine throwing them away, or giving them away, and I was always stunned by the concept of borrowing a dress for the Tony Awards. How could you bear to give it back? How can you bear not to be able to take it out of your closet and go, "Oh my God—that's when I was nominated for a Tony!" I just couldn't bear it. I have a real problem letting go of costumes at the end of a show. I hear that Glenn Close keeps all her costumes from movies, and I totally understand that because for me… once I put those costumes on, that's when I decide, "Oh my God! Now I know who I am!" I remember when I did Gypsy, Arthur Laurents and I had such a wonderful relationship, but it got peppery at times, and he was clearly not happy in my initial stages of my doing Tessie Tura, which was odd because I didn't even audition for it. He just offered it to me, and then it was like, "Oh my God, I'm not pleasing him." I didn't quite get what he wanted me to do, and then once the great Marty Pakledinaz showed me the costume sketches, I'm like, "Oh! [Laughs.] Now I get it! Now I know what a bumper is. Now I know who Tessie Tura is. Awesome." And from then on it was clear sailing, but clothes to me are definitely emblematic of what is going on underneath. I try to keep telling my son, I'm like, "Nat, you are getting into the job market. Make sure you are not walking in to a job audition with tattered jeans and a t-shirt with stains on it because people do judge you according to what clothes you're wearing." They just do. If you see a woman who shouldn't be wearing a mini-skirt—oh God, that could be me—walking down the street, you go, "Oh, geez. That woman shouldn't be wearing a mini-skirt." If you see this gorgeous little girl walking around like a schlump, you're like, "Woah. Dress up a little bit. Take advantage of your fabulousness." Clothes to me are a real fashion statement. You are making a statement about who you are at that moment, and that doesn't mean you have to be that same person all the time, but you have to know that when you are putting on clothes, you are making a statement. Is this the statement you want to make?

Fraser in Gypsy.
photo by Joan Marcus
Question: You mentioned Arthur Laurents before. What shows did you work on together?
Fraser: I worked on Gypsy with him, and that was just an amazing experience to be at the table with Arthur Laurents and Patti LuPone and Boyd Gaines and Laura Benanti. It was just like a master class in acting, and he required that the nine principals were there at every table reading. I thought, "Oh, this is how it's done. This is how you examine text. This is how you get to the core of whatever urgency it is, whatever need your character has. This is how you do it." And, I will forever be grateful to Arthur for giving me that opportunity, and also we were great friends. We shared the death experience together—my husband Rusty had the same cancer doctor that Arthur's partner Tom had, and Rusty passed away before Tom, but Arthur and I really bonded over the death experience, and we became friends before I started working for him. I think he saw me in Gunmetal Blues at George Street Playhouse, which is run by David Saint, who was, of course, Arthur's great and best friend, and now I believe he handles his theatrical estate. I have worked at the George Street many, many times—it's really my theatrical home—and Arthur saw Gunmetal Blues and said, "I'd like you to be my Tessie Tura," and I'm like, "Great, that would be wonderful," and I didn't think twice about it because so often when you are offered these things, it goes away, but I had underestimated the power of Arthur Laurents, and it did indeed happen. After it closed I got a call from David Saint. I was up on the Cape thinking, "I'll never work again," and I think Bernadette Peters had some scheduling conflict, [so] she couldn't do a part in Arthur's largely autobiographical—emotionally autobiographical piece—and what turned out to be his last produced play—Come Back, Come Back Wherever You Are… It's a beautiful, beautiful play about a woman who is trying to get over the loss of her beloved husband, and that was a great experience, not only because I had the honor of originating this part in Arthur's last play and to work at the great George Street Playhouse again, but I also got to be onstage with the incandescent and unbelievably wonderful actress Shirley Knight, who has become a great, great friend. She came to Love, Loss… last night, and I'm like, "Tell me what to do. Tell me what to do." And she was just incredibly supportive and said, "You're doing fine," but she did give me a couple of really good notes. To share that experience with Shirley and Arthur and David was really terrific—it was really, really great.

Fraser in School for Lies.
photo by Joan Marcus
Question: You seem to manage to go back and forth between musicals and non-musicals. Does that keep your career more interesting for you?
Fraser: I've got to tell you—I regard myself as the luckiest actor on the planet. In the past two years I got to originate a part in Arthur Laurents' Come Back, Come Back Wherever You Are and then go to The Divine Sister, by Charles Busch, and work with Julie Halston under the direction of crack-director Carl Andress, who really helped to get that show on its feet, and play this wild, wild character Sister Walburga/Domino, this deranged Catholic international hit woman, and wear these wild S&M costumes and a nun outfit and have this incredible German accent. And, to go from that into originating the part of Arsinoe in David Ives' brilliant, brilliant version of The Misanthrope called The School for Lies down at Classic Stage under Walter Bobbie's direction and to work with Hamish Linklater, it was just stunning. It was a stunning run of events, and then to go into this piece… after spending a year being a tortured villainess. [Laughs.] You couldn't get a more evil person, although I really don't think they're evil, but I think the world would definitely consider Domino/Walburga not a particularly nice person, although I do think she would get off of all of her crimes for reasons of insanity and wind up in a straightjacket. That was a hugely fun experience, and still I think that Charles' material is still very grounded. I don't regard it as camp material. I regard it as this very highly stylized genre comedy. It's very intense, and you really have to believe in everything you say. You don't just make goofy faces and do a funny accent—you really have to be totally, totally committed, and then to go to School for Lies, which is the same thing. I played this horrible woman, Arsinoe, who was a gossip and she was a backstabber, and at one point she gets so angry that she has a ballistic fit. I think one of the reviewers called it a "wordless aria," in which she winds up on the floor, barking like a dog, and climbing up ladders, and stealing letters and screaming. So for a year my voice has been [tested and I thought], "Oh my God, thank God this isn't a musical because I've been screaming for a year." And, also, Arsinoe was in a corset with a huge gown that weighed a lot and a big, huge wig, so my costumes for the past year—my villainous costumes—have been daunting. Under the nun costume, I wore that tight leather skirt and the five-inch stiletto knee-high leather boots that Domino became because I wanted to be tall as Walburga, and Julie and Charles are taller than I am, so I just said, "Well, you know what, she would be in disguise under her habit because she has to be ready to be Domino."… I wore the stilettos through the whole thing, but the leather skirt I put on later. But the stilettos—definitely—for the whole show, and it's not a comfortable thing. I'm wearing stilettos now, but I get to sit for the whole show, so to be able to be in Love, Loss, and What I Wore, wearing this fabulous little cocktail dress, and light makeup—no beauty mark—I usually wear a beauty mark on stage, but this time I said, "No, I am going to be as normal and street-worthy as possible." It's like glorified street-makeup, and somebody does your hair and it has to be nice and neat, and get rid of the frizz, and I'm like, "Just go for it." I only have one tiny, tiny, tiny little scream in this one, so vocally, it's a lot easier on me… I have done some concerts and I hope to do more—I did a concert at the Engeman a couple of weeks ago, and I did a wonderful concert up in my hometown in Natick, MA, and I did that while I was doing The Divine Sister and I managed just fine, vocally. That concert was called You Can Go Home Again because I was going home, and it was just a terrific experience.

I'm looking forward to doing a musical again. I mean so far on my roster I think I am going to be doing Theatre for a New City's The Broken Heart. I got asked to do that, and I am dying to work at TFANA because oh my God, their Othello and their Hamlet a couple years ago were just so amazing! I'm like, "Really, I get to work there? I'm thrilled!" And I had so hoped that I had a chance at that Candide in Boston because Candide is my favorite show ever, but damn, that didn't work out. [Laughs.] I did not get that part, but that's okay, something else will come along. I am really looking forward to my next musical. I don't know what it is. I do think that I will be doing another album soon. Chris McGovern, who wrote the wonderful Lizzie Borden musical that I was in, wants me to do another album. He, of course, produced "Men in My Life," my second album, so I believe that we start work on that very, very soon, so if you have any suggestions, send them along!

Fraser and Charles Busch at opening night for The Divine Sister.
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN
Question: The last time we spoke I know you were still in school. I'm wondering if you are still in school or if you finished.
Fraser: That's done—but I teach there now. I thought about going for my MFA, but all of these shows came up, and I thought, "Well, you know what, I think I have to really take advantage of the fact that I'm wanted right now," so I had to put that off, but the schooling experience is so fantastic. You can change your life at any juncture of it, and that's what I did. I turned my life around four years ago by deciding to go back to school, and now I'm a professor at Fordham. I teach a course called "Song as Scene," and what I get to do is I get to talk to these wonderful students about my philosophy of performing, of conversational singing, of making sure that there's honesty behind every syllable, of making sure that you're not just singing for the sake of making noise, which I see so often, especially on things like "American Idol."… I just say, "When you are in my class, I want to know exactly why you are singing it," and that to me is much more important than vocal-pyrotechnics, even though vocal-pyrotechnics I admire tremendously—I wish I could do it—but my proudest moments are when I have kids that walk in that think they can't sing, and I'm like, "You know what, you can sing and this is what we are going to do for you. We are going to choose exactly the right material, and we’re going to make sure that you understand every syllable of what you're saying. We're going to make sure that you are comfortably musically—if it's too high, we're going to take it down. If it's too long, we are going to shorten it. We are going to find you a beginning, we are going to find you an ending, and we are going to make damn sure that the urge—the need—that you have to sing this song is evident, that your intention is completely clear." Matthew McGuire, the head of the theatre department at Fordham, just gave me this wonderful opportunity, and I've taught three semesters now, and I'm really having a great time. I'm going to be teaching again in the spring, and that's daunting, too, because that's on my plate, so it's more difficult for me to go out of town, but I really feel strongly about teaching and I feel like I have a peculiarly individual approach to it… This young girl came in singing "Everything's Coming up Roses," and she's a spectacular singer—a great, great singer—and a beautiful young girl. But you have to say, "This isn't a happy song. This song is not happy, and I have some background here. I sat in rehearsal for many, many weeks, and I know what this song is about, and I know how Arthur Laurents directed it, and I know what he meant when he was writing it, and I saw what Patti LuPone did with it, so let's try this one again." If they come in with something that I have a personal relationship to, it's fantastic. I think I had two kids sing "Hold On," and I can say, "Well, I know that last note is really hard, but here is a way of approaching it." Bringing my personal experience to the classroom is fun, but also, I love it when the students bring in material I had no idea about, and one of my other things I say is, "Make sure that the singer is worthy of the song." For example, if you are not a particularly skilled singer, don't come in with something that was written specifically for Kristin Chenoweth because there is one of the great voices of our time. Pick something that is a little less vocally challenging. Also, make sure that the song is worthy of the singer—don't come in with a minor song and expect me to be impressed, unless you really knock my socks off. Start with a good song. Make sure the singer is worthy of the song and that the song is worthy of the singer.

Fraser with Love, Loss... castmate Zuzanna Szadkowsi
Question: So it sounds like you're busy.
Fraser: Yeah, you know, I am. I have some free time coming up, after Love, Loss… ends, because Love, Loss… is only five weeks, and I think that's what really keeps it so fresh and fun—the fact that it's a rotating cast. And, what an honor to be part of this parade of magnificent women. You look at the women that have been in it, and I'm like, "Oh my God, I get to be in this incredible club." It just feels like an embrace from the world of theatre, and again, I have to thank Daryl Roth for that, along with bringing The Divine Sister to life, and the incredible Through the Night, and The Normal Heart. She is the most wonderful producer, and I feel really lucky to be in her incredibly capable hands.

I just have one more thing to say—it's a salute to my cast members. The first four times I saw Love, Loss, and What I Wore—because I kept having my friends go in to it, and it was really fun to see how different the show is with different casts—I noticed that the audiences were largely female. There were maybe a few guys there. I don't know if it's the combination of Anita and Zuzanna and Aisha and, obviously, Marla, [laughs], but it's like all of a sudden I'm looking out, and there were so many guys in the audience and they were having a great time. Afterwards there were a bunch of guys waiting around for autographs. Maybe I'm totally wrong—maybe it was an aberration, maybe I just happened to be there the nights that the audience was largely women, but there were so many guys, and they were having a great time, so my suggestion is: Girls, come again, and guys, come for the first time because you are going to have a great time. [For tickets phone (212) 239-6200 or visit Telecharge. The Westside Theatre is located at 407 West 43rd Street in Manhattan. Visit LoveLossonStage.]

Betty Buckley
That Tony-winning and Olivier-nominated talent Betty Buckley, who is currently filming an episode of "Pretty Little Liars" -- directed by brother Norman Buckley -- will offer a four-day Song Interpretation, Scene and Monologue Workshop in Manhattan beginning July 25. The workshop at The Jason Bennett Actor's Workshop will consist of four sessions, July 25-28. Classes will begin at 6:30 PM and continue to 11 PM. The Tony winner, according to press notes, "will assist aspiring artists, educators and experienced performers in the craft of singing, acting and storytelling. Ms. Buckley shares her expertise and guides her students through a methodology that facilitates audience connection through songs and monologues. Her emotional connection to songs and audiences is renowned, and that very connection is at the heart of what Ms. Buckley imparts to her students." The class welcomes auditors, at a reduced rate, who participate in all aspects of the class – including group exercises and work with partners – except the individual singing and monologue coaching by Buckley. For further information and an interview with Jason Bennett, call (212) 777-7603 or go to JBActors.com... And, Buckley, who will return to Feinstein's in October, will also release her latest solo recording, "Ghostlight," which was produced by T Bone Burnett, in February 2012.

Original Avenue Q cast member Jennifer Barnhart will play the title role in The Legend of Julie Taymor, or The Musical That Killed Everybody!, which will make its world premiere this August at the Bleecker Theatre as part of the New York International Fringe Festival. The cast will also feature Christopher Davis Carlisle (Off-Broadway’s With Glee) as "an unrelenting theatre columnist," with Clint Carter, Lynn Craig (national tour of Cats), Kiley L. McDonald, Shaun Rice, Barry Shafrin and Michael Titone. The musical by my Playbill.com colleague Travis Ferguson (book & lyrics) and Dave Ogrin (music & lyrics) "rips straight from the headlines and follows Julie's course through the most expensive Broadway musical of all time; facing financial problems, actor injuries, technical malfunctions, opening delays, scathing reviews, all while battling her arch-nemesis, an unrelenting theatre columnist." Performances are scheduled for Aug. 12 at 5 PM, Aug. 16 at 2 PM, Aug. 18 at 8:30 PM, Aug. 21 at 3 PM and Aug. 24 at 7 PM. Bleecker Theatre is located at 45 Bleecker Street. Tickets can be bought beginning July 22 online at www.FringeNYC.org or by phone at (866) 468-7619. For more information visit www.LegendOfJulie.com.

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

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