Tony Award winner Christine Ebersole says she is feeling fantastic. And, why shouldn't she be? After winning every major award available to her for her thrilling performance in the Playwrights Horizons production of Grey Gardens, the celebrated actress is set to bring her acclaimed portrayals of Edith Bouvier Beale and "Little" Edie Beale to Broadway this fall when the musical begins previews Oct. 3 at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Those awards, it should be noted, include the Drama Desk Award, an Outer Critics Circle Award, an Obie, a special citation from the New York Drama Critics Circle and the Drama League's 2006 Distinguished Performance of the Year Award.
Grey Gardens, which features a book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie, was inspired by the 1975 documentary of the same name that captured the lives of the two Beales who were then living in squalor in what had once been a luxurious estate. Ebersole portrays both women with staggering emotional detail: the spotlight-hungry mother Edith in the first act and the middle-aged, nonconformist Little Edie in the second. I recently had the chance to chat with Ebersole about her imminent return to Broadway as well as her solo Actors' Fund of America benefit concert Sept. 18 at New World Stages. That brief interview, conducted by phone as Ebersole was making her way home by train to Maplewood, NJ, follows.
Question: What type of material will you be performing at the Actors' Fund concert?
Christine Ebersole: It's gonna be Christine like you've never heard her before! [Laughs.] I'd say, basically, we're going to Woodstock. It's like Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, The Eagles, Dixie Chicks, Tank, Michael McDonald, Bob Dylan — those kind of songs.
Q: Will there be a band?
Ebersole: Yes, a nine-piece band and back-up singers. It's just going to be a rock-n-roll night! Q: Any Broadway material?
Ebersole: One Broadway song, and that is "Will You?" from Grey Gardens.
Q: Will you have any special guests?
Ebersole: [Grey Gardens co-star] Bob Stillman. I'm singing one of Bob Stillman's songs in the show called "Can't Go Back There," a song that he wrote and recorded. It's a gorgeous song. I'm singing that song, and I also have asked him to sing with me on a Linda Ronstadt song called "Prisoner in Disguise."
Q: What does the Actors' Fund mean to you?
Ebersole: Well, first of all, the Actors' Fund is an unbelievably generous organization. As you know, it helps all the people in the arts, in every field of the arts, in every aspect of the arts, people in need. But the example that they set in their organization, they also set with what they provide for the artists that are performing. And that's unbelievable generosity in providing the band and the theatre. It's not like, "Here's a piano — Go!" [Laughs.] It's like, "You want horns? We'll give you horns. You want back-up singers? We'll give you back-up singers."
Q: Any chance you might record these songs at some point?
Ebersole: We're hoping to do that, yes.
Q: Now, getting to Grey Gardens. How did the roles in Grey Gardens come about for you?
Ebersole: They asked me to do the show. [Producer] Scott Frankel asked me to do it.
Q: I know many critics have said these are the roles of your career. Do you feel that way?
Ebersole: Yes. It's the role of a lifetime really.
Q: Is the show being modified at all for the bigger Broadway stage?
Ebersole: Not really. The Walter Kerr is kind of like a little jewel box. It has 900 seats in it. We didn't want something too big.
Q: What was it like playing the smaller space in Playwrights Horizons?
Ebersole: It's the ultimate intimate experience, but I think you're going to still be able to maintain that intimacy at the Walter Kerr.
Q: When did you first see the documentary of "Grey Gardens"? Had you seen it before you got involved with the show?
Ebersole: It was about a year before. The Sundance [workshop of Grey Gardens] was 2004, [and] it was 2003 that I was first introduced to the movie "Grey Gardens."
Q: Was that independent of being cast in the show?
Ebersole: Completely independent. It was like the stars were just lining up, getting ready.
Q: What were your thoughts when you first saw the film?
Ebersole: I was completely obsessed with it. I couldn't stop watching it. Morning, noon and night. Breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Q: Do you think the film at all exploited the women?
Ebersole: No, it celebrated them, and they were so happy and willing to invite [documentary makers] the Maysles in and have them film them and see them for who they are, which were lovers of music and art.
Q: What do you think the turning point in their lives was — that brought them from grandeur to living in squalor as they did at the end of their lives?
Ebersole: I think a big part of that was when Phelan Beale left and left them with no means of support, and they really couldn't adapt and they wouldn't conform.
Q: Do you identify with either of them in terms of being someone who doesn't necessarily conform . . .
Ebersole: Well, I think that's what inspires me about them. I think we all want to be individuals and not kowtow to what society dictates we should be — that we don't measure ourselves by the society that we live in. And they're a perfect example of that, aren't they? [Laughs.]
Q: Have there been any changes in the script or the songs for the Broadway run?
Ebersole: I think so. I'm going to find that all out tomorrow because we have our first day of rehearsal.
Q: Why do you think "Little Edie" wasn't able to escape Grey Gardens in the end?
Ebersole: There's a line that she says in the movie: "Aristocracy is the hallmark of responsibility." So, in other words, she understood her position in life, the station that she came from. She was very devoted to her mother — she was absolutely faithful and loyal. She stayed because of the mother — she had to help her mother preserve Grey Gardens, to fight for Grey Gardens.
Q: Have you had the chance to visit the real Grey Gardens?
Ebersole: Yes, I was just there for the second time on Saturday.
Q: What was the experience like the first time you went?
Ebersole: It was just so special and sort of other-worldly really because here I was entering into the very, very spot that was the genesis for the musical.
Q: What shape is Grey Gardens in today?
Ebersole: It's absolutely restored to its original splendor. Its owned by Ben Bradlee, the editor of the Washington Post, and his wife Sally Quinn.
Q: Have they seen the musical?
Ebersole: Yes, they were there opening night, and they're coming opening night when it moves to Broadway?
Q: How demanding is the show?
Ebersole: It takes everything out of me. . . .
Q: How do you manage to preserve your voice for eight shows a week?
Ebersole: I try to just nap. It's rest more than anything. It's the conservation of energy. You have to store it up in order to put it out.
Q: Do you have a favorite moment in the show?
Ebersole: Well, as long as I'm in the moment and stay present, then the whole thing is my favorite. [Laughs.] I'm enjoying each moment.
Q: What do you think is the message of Grey Gardens?
Ebersole: Well, I think it's so multi-layered, which is why people come and see it so many times. I've had people tell me that they've seen it 17 times. It's one of those shows that you can't really take it all in at once. It has a lot of things — mother and daughter relationships, parent-child relationships, opportunities missed, the road not taken, trying to bring back the past, to draw the line between the past and the present. . . . Also, it's a type of transformational experience because of the dramatization of it. It allows you into those places in our heart that produces suffering and longing. And I think people can identify with that. It's really about having compassion for human suffering and for all the things that we must deal with as human beings. It's an opportunity for us to find compassion, not only for the suffering of others but for our own.
Q: Do you feel the show has at all changed you or your outlook on life?
Ebersole: Well, it's made me stronger I think. Not just physically, but mentally it's made me stronger because I think Edie has really been an inspiration to me — just in terms of the strength and endurance and what they were assigned to endure in the great scheme of things. . . . People feel as though when you're wealthy, when you have a position in society like that, that it's going to somehow save you from suffering, and it doesn't. In a way, humanity is the great equalizer. It doesn't matter if you're rich or poor.
Q: Do you have any other projects in the works?
Ebersole: Well, the Actors' Fund concert is a huge project for me because it's not business as usual in terms of the treasure trove of jazzy tunes that normally people associate with me. This is really going back to — again, which is Edie-inspired — a time in my life when I felt that as an American citizen that I had a voice and that our society had a voice, that together we could make a difference. . . .
When [Edie] says, "They can get you in East Hampton for wearing red shoes on a Thursday," and she says, "They can get you for almost anything. It's a mean, nasty Republican town." So, it's the idea, it's the metaphor of the red shoes that is almost like her strength in starting the revolution, of wearing red shoes on a Thursday, of standing up for what you believe in and finding a voice and being a nonconformist. I think she's been an inspiration for me that way, and that's sort of what became the inspiration for the Actors' Fund benefit. . . . . She talks about the revolutionary costume and all that as an act of defiance. This is sort of an evening of protest songs, but it's more than that. It's about believing that we can make a difference, that we have a voice and can make a difference in the world. Q: Who is the musical director for the concert?
Ebersole: Bette Sussman, who just finished [musical directing] Bette Midler's tour.
Q: Have you ever worked with her before?
Ebersole: I have. I worked with her at the Carlyle in 2002, and we also worked some venues around the country. . . . [Joni Mitchell's] "Woodstock" [was] a song that we had once arranged together on our way out to California. . . . Music really has been such a strong tool in effecting sociological change. So, that's one of the songs that we did together a couple years ago, and now that's becoming the calling card for this concert.
[Tickets for Ebersole's Sept. 18 Actors' Fund concert at New World Stages (340 West 50th Street) are priced $100, $250 and $500 and are available by calling (212) 221-7300, ext. 133. For more information visit www.actorsfund.org. Tickets for Grey Gardens at the Walter Kerr Theatre (219 West 48th Street) are available by calling (212) 239-4200 or by visiting www.telecharge.com.]
Four-time Tony Award winner Angela Lansbury will return to the Broadway stage this fall for a one-night-only reading of This Is on Me, An Evening of Dorothy Parker. The benefit for the Acting Company will be presented Nov. 5 at 7 PM at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, and Lansbury will be joined onstage by Tony Award winners Boyd Gaines and Harriet Harris as well as Lisa Banes and Lynn Collins. Warner Shook will direct the evening, which features Tom Fontana's adaptations of Dorothy Parker's works. In a statement actress Lansbury quipped, "I’ve been Mame Dennis, Mama Rose and Mrs. Lovett, why not Dorothy Parker?" Tickets for are priced $85, $100 and $250 and are available by calling (212) 239-6200 or by visiting www.telecharge.com. Benefit tickets, priced $750 and $1,000, are available by calling (212) 258-3111. The benefit tickets also include a gala supper following the performance. The Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre is located in Manhattan at 236 West 45th Street.
Speaking of Lansbury, the original Mrs. Lovett will present the most recent Mrs. Lovett, Patti LuPone, with the John Houseman Award at the Acting Company's Masquerade Oct. 23 at Cipriani Wall Street. Tony and Olivier Award winner LuPone will receive the award for her "her outstanding contributions to the theatre." The evening will also honor former Governor Thomas Kean with the Warburg Award for his humanitarian work. The event is scheduled to begin with cocktails and a silent auction at 6:30 PM, followed by dinner and dancing, entertainment and the awards presentations. The Drowsy Chaperone's Bob Martin will emcee the entertainment portion of the evening, which will boast a performance by Tony winner Audra McDonald. Cipriani Wall Street is located in Manhattan at 55 Wall Street at William Street. Dress is black tie or costume. Tickets, priced $550 and $1,000, are available by calling (212) 258-3111.
Speaking of LuPone, Leslie Kritzer, a Drama Desk nominee for her work in The Great American Trailer Park Musical, will re-create the former Evita star's now-legendary concerts in an evening entitled Leslie Kritzer is Patti LuPone at Les Mouches. Directed by Joy's Ben Rimalower, the evening is scheduled for Oct. 4 at 9:30 PM at Joe's Pub. During her run in Evita, LuPone played an extended, acclaimed engagement at the now defunct New York nightspot Les Mouches. LuPone's original musical director, David Lewis, will return as musical director for Kritzer's evening and will utilize the show's original arrangements. Concertgoers can expect to hear such LuPone signature tunes as "Meadowlark," "Rainbow High" and "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" as well as "Because the Night," "Love for Sale," "Downtown," "Not While I'm Around" and "Come Rain or Come Shine." Joe's Pub is located within the Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Avenue. There is a $25 cover charge plus food/drink minimum. Call (212) 239-6200 for reservations or visit www.telecharge.com.
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to [email protected]