The original Broadway cast of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Into the Woods boasted so many treasures. One of them was Joanna Gleason, who radiated warmth in her role as the slipper stealing and ultimately ill-fated Baker's Wife. I was lucky enough to catch her Tony-winning turn four times, a performance that was both comical and touching as well as beautifully sung. Thankfully Gleason's work was captured on film for a PBS broadcast, which was subsequently released on video and DVD. Gleason then went on to star as Nora Charles in the short-lived musical Nick & Nora, where she met husband Chris Sarandon, who played Victor Moisa. The twosome relocated to Los Angeles for over a decade, but Gleason was recently enticed back to New York to star in one of the season's hit new musicals, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which is based on the movie of the same name. Gleason portrays Muriel, a wealthy American divorcee who becomes involved in a delightful, humorous love story with the French rogue Andre Thibault, played by Gregory Jbara. I recently had the chance to chat with the charming actress in her dressing room — which is adorned with photos of her family as well as her two dogs, Joe and Paddy — at the Imperial Theatre. That brief interview follows:
Question: To come back to New York for Scoundrels, I know you and your husband drove cross-country with your dogs. What was that experience like?
Joanna Gleason: Just fabulous. It took us four days and four hours. There is something about driving — you take the time to talk. I used to do this with my son when he was little. We would take trips to Yosemite. We would go to San Francisco, but instead of flying anywhere we would drive. Somehow, when a parent and a child or spouses are not face-to-face talking, there's a more dreamlike state than sitting side by side. You're much freer. Maybe it's why therapy started out lying on the couch.
Q: What was your original reason for driving rather than flying?
Gleason: I didn't want to fly the dogs, especially Paddy, she's old. We thought it would be an interesting opportunity to load up the dogs and some stuff and take some time together.
Q: How long do you plan to stay in New York?
Gleason: We took a year lease here on a sublet, and we rented our place out for six months with an option for another six months. But, who knows? I'm knocking wood — the show is a big hit right now, and it looks like, God willing, I'll be a here a year. The show could go on — I could go on with it or go do something else here. It turns out to have been quite a wonderful gamble. Q: When did you leave New York for Los Angeles?
Gleason: I had lived here for ten years, [but] I had been back and forth since the seventies. Lived here the entire eighties. A lot of my work was here in the eighties. Then in '91 I did Nick & Nora with Chris. When Nick & Nora closed, we decided to go back to L.A. for two reasons. I wanted to be full time with my son [who was 12 at the time] and not have the back-and-forth craziness of moving him around. And, there was more work out in L.A., and Chris has three kids. . . What happened was we went back there, and I could literally get in and raise Aaron without ever leaving him. [Gleason points to a poster on her door featuring her son, who is the lead singer and songwriter for the group All Hours]. Their album comes out this week! It's rock-n-roll. They're first album is called "In Flagrante Delicto," and it's on the Hybrid Label. He's 26 now, so basically from the time he was 12 to 26, I didn't go anywhere. That's exactly what I needed and what he needed.
Q: How did the role of Muriel in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels come about?
Gleason: I know Jeffrey Lane, the [musical's] book writer. Jeffrey is a friend of mine because we had worked on Bette Midler's series ["Bette"] together. And when that show ended, we were talking on the phone once, and I said, "What do you want to do?" He said, "I want to write a Broadway musical." I thought, "Yes, yes, and I'd like to fly the space shuttle!" [Laughs.] And then I thought why couldn't he? A couple years later, I heard there was a workshop and a reading [of Scoundrels] with a very, very small part. And I said to him, "What's that part like?" He said, "We don't know yet. It's small." Then, they were going to do another [reading], and the part still hadn't been written, but the actress who had played the original reading wasn't interested because the part was so small. And, I said to Jeffrey that I was coming to do the Normal Heart, and I would love to do this reading. He said, "We've been thinking it over, and we think that there is more of a part there, and if you really want to do it, we'll just see what we can make happen here, but it's not written yet. It's sort of a leap of faith." So I said, "I'm jumping. If it's you, Jack O'Brien, Jerry Mitchell, David Yazbek, I'm jumping."
Q: How did the role change from that workshop to Broadway?
Gleason: It became a role. There really was no role. David started writing music. Jeffrey created a fabulous love story between me and the amazing Greg Jbara. And, Jerry Mitchell created this dance, this number that we have. And, suddenly, it started to [become a woman] who is conned, but the willingness of being conned, at first, is just because it's a place to be in a life that doesn't seem to have any real meaning. Then she gets caught up, and she realizes she finds something else and changes Greg from being just a lonely, aging bachelor and con man into somebody who wants something, too, something real. And they drop all pretense with each other, and it becomes real.
Q: Did you base Muriel on anyone?
Gleason: No. There are a lot of these women with a lot of money and they're alone. And there comes a time when they have all the right clothes but nowhere really to be. So they try to be where the clothes would be [laughs] — which is how I sort of thought about it — until they fill out their life. And they live in a kind of fantasy world. And they're wonderful women and really American and giving and problem solving and "What can I do to help?" and "I'm going to volunteer here" women. These are fantastic women, but a lot of them are quite lonely. My favorite line of Muriel's is — he says, "You have a lot of energy, don't you?" and she says, "Well, I have a lot of time." It's just heartbreaking. Her husband left her. She's got money and nothing for the heart, so she runs around.
Q: Are you having as much fun onstage as it seems?
Gleason: Probably more. [Laughs.] I've been extraordinarily blessed. The cast of The Normal Heart, even under very, very difficult circumstances, these men and I developed an incredible love for each other and had a wonderful time. And, certainly in Nick & Nora I met my husband. And, in Into the Woods I made friends, and Chip Zien is my lasting, lifelong friend to this day. It's actually his birthday today. So, I come into this company, and it's headed by John Lithgow, who is exactly who you think he is — the sweetest, smartest, most elegant, lovely guy. Norbert Leo Butz, a pistol, an absolute pistol; what a doll, father of two. We all have children — Sherie [Rene Scott] just had a baby; she's like my new little sister, and I'm in love with that child. And, Greg Jbara with two amazing kids and a fabulous wife. We have a lot to talk about that isn't just the theatre and love to be together and socialize apart from here. And, it's rare if you actually want to hang with the people [you work with]. Also, there are members of the orchestra and the ensemble — we have game night. We play vicious, competitive, bloody games — word games, running charades.
Q: Tell me about your experience on "Bette."
Gleason: To my mind, in concert from what I have seen or just seen film of, there's almost nobody who can do what she does. My admiration for her is absolutely unbounded. She's an interpreter of a song with almost no tricks, and she's always been that way. She's always been right from the heart, from the kishkas. She's clever, she's a smart woman. Nobody can hold a candle to her in that arena. I'm a huge fan. We got along beautifully — we gave each other little gifts. We would sit and laugh; we had a lot of shared history intersecting from the seventies and eighties in New York, though we hadn't known each other. It's just that [television] wasn't the milieu for her.
Q: You also directed A Letter from Ethel Kennedy Off Broadway. How was that experience?
Gleason: I loved it! Manhattan Class Company, one of the truly classy places to be. Bernie Telsey and Bobby LuPone and Will Cantler — they let me direct this play by a friend of mine [Christopher Gorman] who had just died, and his dying wish was that I direct his play. It was really quite a long and emotional story. It's his life story actually. That was quite successful, and I loved it, and I would direct again.
Q: Was that the first time you ever directed?
Gleason: No, but it's the first I ever directed in New York.
Q: What's it like for an actor to direct other actors?
Gleason: Oh my God, it's heaven. You speak the same language.
Q: Since this week is Sondheim's 75th birthday, can you tell me about your memories of being part of Into the Woods?
Gleason: My memories are all good. I made a friend of Steve — as I said, I made practically a family member of Chip — and also James Lapine, for whom I have endless admiration. When you do a Sondheim show, especially like that, it gives you a kind of iconic status, which was completely unexpected and still surprises me. But to have done a Sondheim piece, I guess, is one of the great miracles of my career.
[Dirty Rotten Scoundrels plays the Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street. For tickets call (212) 239-6200.]
CHILDREN AND ART
In a wonderful, sometimes thrilling concert celebrating the 75th birthday of the one-and-only Stephen Sondheim, there were two standing ovations — one for the legendary Angela Lansbury, who made a brief non-singing appearance, and the other for the birthday boy himself — and two highly moving moments that balanced time past with times yet to come. The first arrived early in the intermissionless, two-hour evening at the New Amsterdam Theatre when Harvey Evans, Kurt Peterson, Marti Rolph and Virginia Sandifur — the Young Buddy, Young Ben, Young Sally and Young Phyllis in the original 1971 production of Follies — re-created a bit of stage magic with song and dance in a medley of "You're Gonna Love Tomorrow" and "Love Will See Us Through." As their number progressed, the foursome seemed to become rejuvenated, and their sense of joy was palpable. Towards the end of the evening, the Young People's Chorus of New York City, conducted by Francisco Nuñez, built the Merrily We Roll Along anthem "Our Time" from a gentle beginning to a full throated climax, and one couldn't help be touched by the earnestness on these young faces as they claimed, "It's our time, breathe it in/ Worlds to change and worlds to win/ Our turn coming through/ Me and you."
The evening, directed by Richard Maltby, Jr. with musical direction by Kevin Stites, began with an Overture comprising several Sondheim ditties, all well sung by the 75-member Broadway Star Chorus. Bernadette Peters, who created roles in both Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods, made a brief appearance via a large video screen, wishing Sondheim well and singing a few bars from the song she introduced — which was also the title of the evening — "Children and Art." Harold Prince offered a few remarks, recalling his and Sondheim's many collaborations, before Ann Morrison, Lonny Price and Jim Walton took charge of the stage to deliver the song they debuted in the original 1981 production of Merrily We Roll Along, "Old Friends." The ever-youthful Judy Kuhn, a luminous Rebecca Luker and Tony winner Michele Pawk were joined by Michael Cerveris, John Dossett and Hugh Panaro for a terrific rendition of "A Weekend in the Country."
Academy Award winner Whoopi Goldberg drew laughs but also touched the heart with a sincere thank you to Mr. Sondheim for allowing her the chance to sing on Broadway in one of his musicals. As successor to Nathan Lane in the A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum revival, Goldberg said that opportunity gave her the chance to ply a good natured Sondheim with dozens and dozens of musical-theatre-related questions. The Broadway Star Chorus offered "Loveland," and Debra Monk and David Hyde Pierce deadpanned their way through Company's "The Little Things You Do Together."
Jason Danieley then performed a superb, full-voiced rendition of the magnificent "Marry Me a Little," which was followed by the aforementioned Follies reunion. Alice Ripley reprised her comical, lightning fast rendition of "Getting Married Today" — from the Kennedy Center mounting of Company — opposite the Paul of Brian D'Arcy James. The cast of "Desperate Housewives" offered one of the most humorous moments of the night in a short film created especially for the evening by creator Marc Cherry, who has titled his "Housewives" episodes with Sondheim song titles. With the now-familiar voiceover of Wisteria Lane's Mary Alice Young (actress Brenda Strong), each of the "Housewives" characters announced his or her favorite Sondheim song: the fastidious Bree Van De Kamp (Marcia Cross) chose "Losing My Mind," the shirtless gardener John Rowland (Jesse Metcalfe) picked "Ah, But Underneath" and the sexy, somewhat ditzy Edie Britt (Nicollette Sheridan) chose "Jellicle Cats."
Mia Farrow thanked Sondheim for his kindness toward her children, getting laughs when she confessed that the first gift the word-loving composer ever gave her daughter was a thesaurus, which weighed more than she did at the time. Two Tony Award winners and Broadway favorites, Betty Buckley and Harvey Fierstein, then displayed their inimitable skills. Buckley belted an upbeat version of West Side Story's "Something's Coming," and Fierstein — in complete Tevye drag — got the chance to sing a surprisingly powerful version of the second half of Gypsy's "Rose's Turn."
John Weidman introduced most of the recent cast of Assassins, who delivered a chilling version of "Everybody's Got the Right," and three numbers from what is arguably Sondheim's masterpiece, Sweeney Todd, followed: "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" (featuring The Broadway Star Chorus), "Kiss Me" (with Stephen Buntrock, Walter Charles, Blake Hammond and Anne Hathaway) and "A Little Priest" (with George Hearn and Patti LuPone).
The evening, it should be noted, benefited Young Playwrights Inc., an organization founded by Sondheim in 1981 to nurture young playwrights. One of those former young writers, Kenneth Lonergan — of This Is Our Youth and "You Can Count On Me" fame — then spoke dryly, but humorously, about his participation in the program years ago. Lonergan said he was thankful for that opportunity even though he didn't enjoy it! A surprise delight of the night was B.D. Wong — who knew he could dance so well? — who performed "Dick Tracy"'s "More." With choreography by Darren Lee, Wong was joined by his recent Pacific Overtures castmates Michael Bulatao, Evan D'Angeles, Rick Edinger, Lee, Telly Leung, Mayumi Omagari, Yuka Takara, Kim Varhola and Scott Watanabe.
Dame Edna Everage commandeered the stage, explaining that the show had now reached its climax — "whenever I'm onstage, it's the climax" — and that she had left her own tribute at Lincoln Center to attend the Sondheim evening. Her interesting version of "Losing My Mind" — it's impossible not to laugh at the Dame's facial expressions as she sings, "not going left! not going right!" — followed her amusing musings.
Barbara Cook scored with "Buddy's Eyes," and Brian Stokes Mitchell — accompanied by John Bucchino — lent his rich baritone to a jazzy "Pretty Women." Marin Mazzie delivered a booming, teary-eyed "Not a Day Goes By," and Stephanie D'Abruzzo — with Avenue Q's Lucy T. Slut on hand — vamped her way through "Sooner or Later."
Donna Murphy's high voltage "See What It Gets You" was followed by Tonya Pinkins, who fared better with a lovely reading of "I Remember" than she did with an odd, too-rangy arrangement of "Another Hundred People." Audra McDonald demonstrated why she wins award after award with a terrific version of Anyone Can Whistle's "There Won't Be Trumpets," and Cynthia Nixon's remarks about Young Playwrights Inc. preceded the already discussed performance by the Young People's Chorus.
Barbra Streisand also made a video appearance — with her dog growling in the background — and recalled the weekend she spent with Sondheim while he rewrote lyrics for "Putting It Together." Gerald Schoenfeld spoke about how he relished producing Sunday in the Park with George, and Melissa Errico and Raul Esparza performed two songs from that brilliant musical, "Move On" and "Sunday."
Betty Buckley returned for a stirring version of Into the Woods' "Children Will Listen," backed by the Broadway Star Chorus, and the end of the evening also included brief remarks by Lansbury and Sondheim himself, who was too choked up to say more than a few thank-yous.
The "art" of Children and Art was clearly evident, though it's impossible to choose a favorite from the evening, almost as difficult as choosing a favorite Sondheim tune. But, how fitting that the "children" of Children and Art provided what, for me, was the evening's most touching moment. Let's hope that Mr. Sondheim gives them, and us, "more to see."
The Sondheim festivities will continue this summer when the Hollywood Bowl presents Stephen Sondheim's 75th: The Concert July 8. Featuring the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the direction of longtime Sondheim musical director Paul Gemignani, the 8 PM concert will boast special guests Jason Alexander, Jason Danieley, Victor Garber, Nathan Lane, Angela Lansbury, Marin Mazzie, Donna Murphy, Bernadette Peters and Brian Stokes Mitchell. Produced and directed by Paul Lazarus, the evening will also feature the presentation of a special award to Sondheim by Academy Award-winning lyricist and ASCAP President Marilyn Bergman. The Hollywood Bowl is located at 2301 Highland Avenue in Hollywood, CA. Visit www.hollywoodbowl.org for more information.
Cabaret veteran Karen Akers, who triumphed last season with an evening of standards entitled "Time After Time," will return to the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room next month with a brand-new program. From April 12-May 28, the singer-actress will offer "When a Lady Loves," which explores the themes of love, passion and desire. Accompanied by musical director Don Rebic on piano and Chip Jackson on bass, Akers will interpret tunes by Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael, Cy Coleman, the Gershwins, Jerry Herman, Cole Porter, Charles Strouse and Jule Styne. Cabaretgoers can expect to hear Akers wrap her lush voice around such tunes as "They Can't Take That Away From Me," "I Get Along Without You Very Well," "The Laziest Gal in Town," "As Long As He Needs Me," "Just in Time" and "Stormy Weather." "When a Lady Loves" is directed by Richard Niles. The Algonquin Hotel is located in New York City at 59 West 44th Street. For more information, call (212) 419-9331.
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to [email protected]