Cry-Baby and Million Dollar Quartet star Elizabeth Stanley has had her share of ups and downs as a theatre actress, but right now her career is hitting a high note. Not only is she playing the lust-struck anthropologist Claire DeLoon in the upcoming Broadway revival of On the Town, but her summer line up reads like a Best Actress Tony Awards ballot. She started off the season at Barrington Stage Company (where she starred as Claire in their Broadway-bound production of On the Town last summer) playing the hard-to-get actress Lilli Vanessi in Kiss Me, Kate and from there Stanley traveled to Pittsburgh where she's currently playing the junkyard's washed up "Glamour Cat" Grizabella in the CLO's production of Cats, which she'll immediately follow up by playing the sassy aquatic showgirl Lady of the Lake in the CLO's summer finale, Spamalot. Now that's what we call range!
In the first installment of Stars of Summer, Playbill contributor Whitney Spaner caught up with Stanley in between rehearsals for Cats to chat about spending her summer out of town.
The CLO production of Cats opened July 18, but Kiss Me, Kate didn't close until July 12. That's not much time to rehearse for Cats.
ES: Yeah, it was so crazy. I got here late. The rest of the cast started last Thursday [July 10], so they have had just over a week. I started rehearsals the Monday after, but that worked out because Grizabella is sort of separate from the rest of the cats anyways, by design.
That is a very short rehearsal time. Were you really familiar with the musical beforehand?
ES: I had never seen Cats, to be honest, but when I was working [at Barrington] in Pittsfield, MA, there was a high school that was doing it there, so a bunch of us from the Kiss Me Kate cast went to see that. I don't think I'll be stealing much from it, though they were very good! But, yes, I knew ["Memory"] and I had met with the director, Richard [Stafford] to learn a bit of the choreography that I do. He had also sent me a really detailed document with notes like, "You'll enter here and at the second count of eight, you'll do this," so I was able to mark it all into my music. And because everything is to music it's really set — as opposed to if you were doing a play, and you needed to block all the things to see what organically worked with your character. There's room for personal interpretation in that, but in terms of logistics and blocking it's all very choreographed. I don't think I could do this with any other show. I just became friends with a couple of professional ballerinas this past year, and I was amazed that they would just fly to a city and do a ballet for a night. I was like, "How do you do that?" I feel like that's something I'd never be able to do, but I kind of get it now in that there are certain steps and everyone knows what they are.
But even though you hadn't seen the show you were familiar with the music?
ES: I used to listen to the double cassette back in the day. I would check it out from the library, so I knew it from that, but it's really interesting to see it come to life and see what the movement is. I love it; it's such a unique piece. It's so iconic in the landscape of musical theatre — there's nothing else like it. It's kind of avant garde, and it amazes me that it is such a popular phenomenon. I just feel like if I saw a breakdown that was like "Hey, we're going to set some poetry to music and everyone's going to dress as a cat," people would laugh, you know? It just amazes me that people love it. I feel really lucky to be a part of it, because dancing is not the thing that I spent my life studying, so Cats was never on my radar as a show I would one day do.
I was actually surprised you were playing Grizabella, I think of actresses who are a little bit older playing that role How did that come about?
ES: I had initially come in to audition for Lady of the Lake in [CLO's production of] Spamalot, but because the shows are back to back they were like, "Oh we should consider her for Griz," so then when I got the offer, it was for both roles. I was kind of shocked because I thought, "Really — Grizabella? Isn't she supposed to be old?" But it works. With all the makeup on and everything it's really just a challenge in physicality in terms of how old you look. When I think back, I do think of Betty Buckley or some of those actresses who are older now, and in my mind they've always been old. But Liz Callaway did it for a long time — she's not very old and her voice will always sound young, so, maybe I am that age now.
Do you enjoy traveling and doing several shows in the summer? ES: I love doing summer theatre. I think it's a blast. It's just nice to get outside of New York City in the summer. Kiss Me, Kate was a longer run — and that's nice sometimes because you have more time when you're not in rehearsal and you can actually relax a little bit and enjoy the summer days. But I was just talking to a friend of mine and I was saying that what is so great about being in Pittsburgh is that their production quality is so high, you feel like you're doing a Broadway show. They have such a professional crew and orchestra, everybody is really on their game, so it's a treat to come and work here.
Do you know anyone in the cast of Cats? ES: No, it's a totally new cast for me. I don't think there's a single person that I had met before, which is so crazy, but I love it. It is such a small theatrical world, so I'm always shocked when there's people I don't know.
Was it hard to join the cast after they'd already been together and rehearsing?
ES: Yeah a little bit, but it's interesting because it's very method. It really works for this character. Grizabella is sort of the cat that is unwelcome so, strangely, it's kind of fuel for the fire.
I am picturing you eating lunch all alone!
ES: No, in real life they're all very welcoming and kind.
You were in the 2011 production Jekyll and Hyde at CLO. Are you excited to be back in Pittsburgh?
ES: Yes, I haven't done a lot since I've arrived, but I've been jogging a few times and it's been fun to be like, "Oh my God, I remember this!" We stay in a section of town called Allegheny, and it's really old and historic and I love it. It's sort of Williamsburg-y — Williamsburg a while ago, not presently. It has a history: There are parts of it that are really beautiful and restored and there are parts that are really run down and slightly dangerous. Pittsburgh is such a cool city. The architecture that is here is beautiful. It's a really hardy town. They hit rock bottom a long time ago, and have been having a renaissance for awhile, so there's a lot of creativity and uniqueness that's unlike other cities where I've worked.
Do you miss New York at all?
ES: Yes and no. I will be so excited to go back this fall, but right now I love the constant rush of working a lot in the summer. You're always meeting new people and you're always working on something new. It's really thrilling in a way that it just isn't when you're in a long run of a show or you're employed for a long time, so I haven't had time to really miss it yet, but I miss people. I miss my friends, and when I go back I will be reminded of how much I miss it. I'll be like, "Oh right, I love this!" But right now I'm happy to be exploring these new places.
You really have the best of both worlds. You are doing several shows this summer out of town, but you know that you'll be back on Broadway this fall.
ES: I'm pinching myself because it's so weird. [Working in theater] you often don't know what you're doing next. When a show closes you kind of go from feeling like, "Oh wow, that was so great, and I'm so fulfilled!" to being unemployed. It's such an extreme range of emotions, so I feel really lucky that I know what I'm doing next. I guess when it rains it pours because I've had plenty of times where I've been like, "Anyone want to give me a job?"
Are you going to get a break between all of these gigs?
ES: I am, actually — it's not very long, but when I found out I was doing On the Town, in hopes that it will be a long run, I wanted to leave the country [before it started]. I love to travel and so my mom — even though she was born in Iowa — is 100% Swedish and she's always wanted to go to Sweden, so we're going for 10 days at the beginning of August.
What's a typical rehearsal day like at CLO?
ES: Depending on what time we start I like to get up and have a bit of a leisurely morning. I like to save something for the day, so I'll usually get up and check email and have coffee, or tea if I'm feeling really slow. If I'm feeling ambitious I'll go for a jog to get my body warmed up, and that also usually warms my voice up a little bit, too. Then I head over to the theatre. Most people stay there on a lunch break, but if I'm not called, I love downtown Pittsburgh — it's such a nice city to explore on foot — so I love strolling around and seeing what I can find. I usually pack my lunch and and find some place to sit outside. Then at the end of the day I'm kind of a homebody. Sometimes people will sit on the roof of our apartment building and have a drink, but I have not done that yet this year.
Do all the cast members live in one apartment building? Do you have roommates?
ES: There are a handful of us in the same building and then there are a number of people in our cast who are from Pittsburgh originally or have some sort of connection here, so they are able to stay with family. Those people are a little trickier to hang out with just because they don't live nearby. We all have our own apartments in this complex. It's nice to be able to be alone sometimes because you have so much time together, especially if you share a dressing room. Sometimes I joke like, "Oh this is more time than you would spend with a spouse." You're working with them and sharing a house with them — it's just a lot of togetherness.
When you have a little more free time, what are you excited about doing in Pittsburgh?
ES: I feel like I have to have a cheesesteak this time, because the last time I was here I was a pescatarian. I want to go to the Mattress Factory which is in the neighborhood where we're staying and the Warhol museum is amazing, so I want to go back there. A couple of my friends that are from here have given me a list of places that I must go. I don't know how much I'll have time for, but I hope I can hit up a lot of what's on the list.