SECOND FLOOR OF SARDI'S: A Drink With Follies Star Jan Maxwell

News   SECOND FLOOR OF SARDI'S: A Drink With Follies Star Jan Maxwell
Jan Maxwell was sidelined from Follies for a few days after she was struck by vehicle in the theatre district on Oct. 29. Rested and ready, she returned to the show on Nov. 1. Days before the incident, she shared stories at the upstairs bar of Manhattan's famed theatre-district restaurant.

Jan Maxwell
Jan Maxwell Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN


Jan Maxwell, four-time Tony nominee and acting, dancing and singing star of what may become the most commercially successful production of Follies on Broadway, will not have a drink.

"Not with Sondheim's lyrics," she joked. "Actually, I'd like to do that, but I'll leave that to the Wooster Group."

She protested, "I have to live like a nun. It kicks my butt, this show. Particularly, Act Two. I have 'Could I Leave You?,' which is emotionally draining. And then I have 'The Story of Lucy and Jessie,' which is physically draining." She already injured herself during the run of the rigorous show. She tore her hamstring. "It was hard to go out there and be careful" when you're dancing, she said. "I like to do things with abandon." She has since healed, but at the time her "subtext was Ow. Ow. Ow." in every dance number. 

Always an admired performer, Maxwell has been killing it the last couple years, raking in two Tony nominations in 2010 alone, for The Royal Family and Lend Me a Tenor, and winning a Drama Desk Award for the former.  

Jan Maxwell
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

The Kaufman-Ferber satire was a particularly cherished assignment. "I was a fortunate year last year, because I got to do Royal Family," she said, "which I always wanted to do. It's something I saw in college on a black and white TV in Fargo, North Dakota," referring to the famed filmed version of the 1977 Broadway revival starring Eva Le Gallienne and Rosemary Harris, who "immediately became my favorite actress." Maxwell got to play the Harris role in the Manhattan Theatre Company production, opposite Harris herself, who took on the Le Gallienne part.

As every Broadway Sondheim revival is highly scrutinized, Follies may be Maxwell's most high-profile gig to date. The Eric Schaeffer-directed production, which began at the Kennedy Center, has been praised on all fronts, with Maxwell's hard-edged, sarcastic Phyllis Stone collecting her share of kudos.

The actress was not unfamiliar with the composer's work; she performed in Side by Side by Sondheim in college, and has done an evening of Sondheim songs here and there. But that doesn't mean she was necessarily versed in the iconic musical. "I remember my agents called me and said, 'You've been offered Follies in DC.' and I said, 'Oh, is that a good thing?,'" she laughed. Only then did she sit down and listen to the entire album.

Jan Maxwell
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Maxwell said she had her own ideas of the kind of person Phyllis was, and wanted to express that in everything right down to her clothing. "The costumer designer wanted to put me in more of a pant suit, and I said I wanted her to be as feminine as possible," she explained. "I didn't want anybody in the audience thinking, well, she's not feminine. I didn't want her husband Ben to have an excuse, to have a reason [to ignore her]. I didn't want her to look hard. I think women get blamed for a lot of things in a relationship, and I knew that being a political wife, she would have to have a good sense about her, she would have to be open. I think she's his backbone and she's the one people respond to. He might have the talent and legalese to write the political speeches, but she has the warmth and smarts to be a very big asset in his world."

"It's very Chekhovian," she continued, talking of the piece in general. "It's kind of a lonely journey. Everyone wants the wrong person. Everybody doesn't have what they want."

Drawing on that sentiment, I asked her which of the show's four miserably married protagonists was the most screwed up. Maxwell cracked a half-smile. "It's kind of obvious," she replied. (Sorry, Sally.)

With a husband and teenage son in Manhattan, Maxwell doesn't tend to travel outside of New York for work. But she did for Follies and thoroughly enjoyed herself. "At first I thought, 'All these divas in a room, what am I going to do?' But we just started rehearsals, and we all bonded so well, because it was Washington, DC, and there was nowhere to go. After the show it was, 'Let's go get dinner or let's get a drink.'"

She credits producer Michael A. Kaiser with getting the show from DC to Broadway. "Michael is the reason we are here," she said. "He loves the show so much. And he worked so hard to make this happen." Sondheim checked on the work from time time, both at the Kennedy Center and in New York, but Maxwell is hesitant to tell tales of the great man. "I have so many stories about him, but the moment you mention Sondheim in this city, everyone starts dissecting every little thing. So you keep it close to the vest. There are a lot of people who are obsessed."


Jan Maxwell
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

As an actress, Jan Maxwell is best known for plays, both dramatic and comedic, with credits including Coram Boy, The Dinner Party, House and Garden, Scenes from an Execution and Sixteen Wounded. So, to some, her expert singing in Follies came as a bit of a surprise. Even more surprising is that it comes naturally. She took singing lessons when she played Elsa Schraeder in The Sound of Music in 1998, because the producers required her to, but hasn't studied since then. "It's like antibiotics," she said. "You feel better, so you stop taking them."

Aside from the show, she professes to have a "very dull life." She has found time, however, to visit the Occupy Wall Street site in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan. "I've been down a couple times," she said. "It's very peaceful, very communal. It's rather invigorating. It's quite organized and yet at the same time it's very grass roots. It's such a small park. I took down blankets because it's getting colder. It's impressive, the dedication people have. It's inspiring. I hope it can do something to change the way things are done."

She recalled being frustrated with counter-protesters during the occupation's early days. "People were holding up signs saying 'I work hard for a living. I am not the 99 percent. I went to college.' What is the college that did not teach you the difference between a statistic and an opinion?"

Despite all her recent success, Maxwell does not know what she's doing after Follies ends its run at the Marquis Theatre on Jan. 22. "We're freelancers," she said, "we" meaning "actors." "We never know what's going to come. And we always think we'll never work again. And one day we'll be right."

Jan Maxwell in <i>Follies</i>.
Jan Maxwell in Follies. Photo by Joan Marcus
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