DIVA TALK: Chatting with Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark's Isabel Keating

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark's Isabel Keating
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Isabel Keating
Isabel Keating Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

In the utterly enjoyable The Boy From Oz, fans of the late Peter Allen may have come to take in Hugh Jackman's sensational Broadway debut, but by the end of the musical's first act, audiences were equally besotted with Isabel Keating, who was also making her Main Stem bow as another legendary entertainer. Keating's performance as the late Judy Garland was not so much an impersonation of the beloved "Wizard of Oz" performer but a complete embodiment, both vocally and physically — body and soul, if you will. Keating, who received a Tony nomination and a Drama Desk Award for that performance, is currently back on The Great White Way in the most anticipated production of the season, Julie Taymor's Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark, which is currently in previews prior to an official opening Jan. 11, 2011, at the Foxwoods Theatre. The $65 million production casts the gifted singing actress in a variety of roles, including the good-natured Aunt May, who raises Peter Parker, as well as the Classics Teacher and more. Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of chatting with Keating, whose Broadway resume also boasts performances in Enchanted April and the Tony-winning Hairspray; that interview follows.

Question: When and how did you get involved with Spider-Man?
Keating: I think it must have been 2007 because I was in the middle of playing Velma von Tussle in Hairspray when I got a call to do this reading of something that I didn't know what it was: "Could you please go and do this reading, but no, you can't take the [script] pages away with you. You have to read it there." [Laughs.] And I was like, "Well, this is all very interesting," but I, sight unseen, did it because [the information] said it was a project with Julie Taymor, and when I got there, it was also Bono and Edge. We did a couple of days or three days of clandestine [laughs] readings to bring to life, I guess, what must have been the first table read of it... Julie said they've been working on it now for eight years or thereabouts, so at that time, it must have been five years into it, and it looked like it was pretty much all systems go and then, as you know, subsequently — you know the story surrounding the rest of it. [Laughs.] So that was the beginning. It was truly just one of those things — I guess you could call it out-of-the-blue but not quite, because I guess I was chosen particularly for whatever strengths they perceived.

Question: Were you cast already when the production was supposed to come to Broadway in 2009, or had casting not been done yet?
Keating: Yes, I was one of the ones who was slated to come in then, and I guess everybody was sort of in a tenuous position at that point. ...Maybe some of the star people had already signed, but we had not gotten to the point of completing negotiations, but I was on the roster, as they say, as were the design team and everyone else, and everybody kind of had to take a breather and figure some other things out. But I never doubted that it would actually come. It's just too good. I don't know how to say it without overstating it, but at that point, I just knew it was just a matter of time.

Keating as Judy Garland in The Boy From Oz
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: I know you play a few different characters in the production. Tell me about them.
Keating: Rosemary Harris played [Aunt May] in the films. She and Uncle Ben are Peter Parker's surrogate parents, since, according to the story line, the back story of Peter Parker is that his parents were killed, and he is taken in by his uncle and aunt. So that's Aunt May, and then there's … the Classics Teacher. I have called her Cassandra because … she teaches Greek, and I figure, this poor woman has seen the future, and it's not pretty. [Laughs.] I mean, this is all my own back story, because the [musical] flies. It goes like wildfire, but Cassandra Phoenix is the Classics Teacher. She rises like the phoenix from the flames of this poor school that she teaches at. And, I also play — it's so wonderful to switch around to these different characters — Maxie, who's a reporter. You're probably familiar with the Daily Bugle — that's the tabloid of interest. Michael Mulheren plays J. Jonah Jameson, who's the publisher and the editor of that estimable organization.

Question: Is Aunt May your biggest role?
Keating: Yeah, that was the reasoning behind it, and thereafter, Julie goes, "Oh. She does this and this and this. Here, let's [have her] do that." And it's quite collaborative, actually, the whole thing, more so than I ever thought. Question: Tell me what the rehearsal process was like once you all started rehearsing in earnest.
Keating: Oh, gosh. Well, profoundly intense. One thing that I really, really am taken with is, of course, the level of intelligence among the entire creative team, but also the casting. Even the peripherals – everything involved is at such a high level that I feel like it's even pushing the boundaries of what I ever perceived myself able to accomplish, and some of the scenes that are being done have never been done before. So in terms of the rehearsal process, you come into a room not knowing anyone or anything about anyone, and you kind of open yourself and hope that others are open, and what I found is that despite her clear, clear vision — Julie is a visionary and she has specific ideas that will get accomplished — she also is so open and sort of expects a collaborative environment, which as an actor, you never really know what to expect, but you try to come prepared with your A game, and with this, you've got to bring your triple A game, your top, top game to the table, because things move quickly. And, it was and has been and still is an environment of very, very serious fun, which makes for a crackling kind of environment. Things could change and need to change, and everybody's very fluid and able to take a deep breath and go, "Okay, let's rework this" or "That's not happening," and it's just been wonderful. It's been a great creative process.

Mat Devine, Laura Beth Wells and Isabel Keating after the first preview
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN
Julie Taymor and Reeve Carney
photo by Krissie Fullerton

Question: How does Taymor work as a director? Can you elaborate a little more, maybe something she's said to you personally that made a big difference...
Keating: She's very hands-on in the greatest sense. She has been an actress, so she understands the internal process, but since she's such a highly visual and also, as I said, highly intelligent person, she can also [put into words] the resulting picture that she needs, and understands the process that one needs to go through to get to that picture. She's also very aural [and] understands tempo and rhythm. People would think it comes as a given that a director would have all of those things, but there's just something extra going on with Julie Taymor. As for things that she told me specifically — nothing that I can recall, specifically — except just that she understands style, and so she's able to communicate in shorthand as well, if she perceives that you're able to have a dialogue in terms of that. But she's very generous and gentle with each individual [and] seems to understand that each individual works differently — very perceptive that way.

Question: Tell me what the score's like. What do you get to sing?
Keating: I don't have an Aunt May solo. [Laughs.] But the music is — it's exquisite. It goes through many different styles, but I believe that [with] Bono and the Edge [writing it], of course, it's recognizable as U2. You can hear some of the U2 grooves in there, but what they've done is really incredible. They've stayed in the rock 'n' roll vernacular, and at the same time, seem to go to an operatic and symphonic place, and I'm sure that's, in large part, due to their collaboration with the orchestrators and the vocal arrangers and everyone involved, but Teese Gohl is the musical supervisor, and he works quite closely with Bono and the Edge. In order to tell the story, of course, there are a number of different styles within the overall rock 'n' roll arena spectacle that it is. There's a power ballad for Peter Parker, and just heartbreaking music all around and some really great grooves.

Question: There's been so much media interest in the show. What do you make of all the coverage?
Keating: Oh, boy. I'm so boring. I must be the last person on the planet who's not on Facebook … because I'm sensitive to communications, and I like to actually speak to people on the phone or even, preferably, in person. And the email thing is good and convenient, because [I keep] strange hours, but I don't read the coverage. I hear, of course, everything that's going on, and I make myself aware of it so that I know what to be able to deflect if I need to, wherever discretion is needed. But I think, just from the point of view of publicity, it's fantastic that everybody's spoofing the show, in large part based upon false information, which is fine because that's the way the media works. We all just have to understand that if something happens, it's like the telephone game, so that by the time it reaches Person No. 50, it's like, "An egg dropped..." So I kind of have to take it with a grin and just know that, if it's getting people interested in this fantastic story, then so be it, even if it has to be the butt of some late-night jokes.

Question: How have the last few previews been? Has the technical side been pretty much worked out at this point?
Keating: Yes. We have an amazing crew over at the Foxwoods, and as everyone knows, the way the process works is we, the actors, have a process in a room for a good amount of time, and then we get into the tech process … We tech each scene, which with Spider-Man is a really huge task, and then you start trying to have run-throughs before an audience comes in, and so we finally had a chance to put some things together, and, as anything, practice makes perfect... I think it would be interesting to be an audience member and just watch the backstage choreography, because that's a production unto itself. It's just remarkable what happens back there, and so quickly — flying things out and flying things in, and then wardrobe is working their butts off doing changes and things. So, yeah, [previews have] gone remarkably smoothly, and the audiences seem to love it. I saw a little kid in the front row yesterday who was just beaming and jumping up and down for joy. [Laughs.] It just reminds you of the things in your life that become a memory for you, and I just hope he wasn't too traumatized by the Green Goblin. [Laughs.] Patrick Page is amazing.

Question: A lot of the press coverage has been about safety concerns following a few cast injuries. Do you think those concerns are warranted, and what's the atmosphere like backstage with actors? How do people feel about what they're being asked to do?
Keating: Well, from day one, we have felt imminently comfortable because everyone is taking everything very seriously — from the producers on to the stage management team. We're aware there's a lot going on up on that stage, and each one of us is aware of how risky the environment is, so I think everybody's being very, very cautious, but also not cautious because of what has happened. It's just that we know there's an inherent risk involved. There's an inherent risk involved in just about anything that we do, but you have to be extra careful when you're working at such a high level and high speed and that sort of thing. The flying — everyone feels very confident, and there's no concern. Everyone is just happy to be there. I don't know all of the details surrounding Natalie [Mendoza's injury], but we know that she's recovering quickly and she can't wait to come back. Hopefully, she'll be back [soon]. And, Kevin [Aubin] is healing really nicely, too, and he's ready to come back. He's champing at the bit to come back and fly. Everybody feels really good about it. We're very supported, which I think is great. Question: During previews, what types of changes, if any, are being made to the show?
Keating: Well, of course, all of the things that you would assume, which would be tweaks — Eiko Ishioka is the costume designer, so little tweaks in [the costumes and] things like that, either for the sake of movement or for the sake of the visual. Some minute blocking changes. Of course, the way that you would do in out-of-town previews, tweaks to the book and tweaks to the script. No major changes, but just things that help the story be told in a more fluid manner, so it can make for a better and better and better and better experience. So our hope is that over the course of the next five weeks, by opening we'll have a show that will blow people away even more than the last six performances have already blown people away. [Laughs.]

Bono and Julie Taymor in April 2009.
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Are the composers coming in? I know they're touring. Or is the score petty much what the score is at this point?
Keating: You know, you just never know. We've had some changes to the score during tech, and we've been rehearsing that. We got in the room with Bono and the Edge — it must have been a couple of weeks ago, or three weeks ago — just to make some, not major changes, but they've been writing new stuff for the piece. And now, they are not with us, but they will be back, of course. I can't really say whether they have something new up their sleeve or not, but as far as I know, the score is pretty much intact.

Question: What would you say, for you, has been the most exciting aspect of this whole adventure?
Keating: [Laughs.] Oh, my God, it's hard to even pick it apart! As you're asking me that — this is crazy — I'm sitting at the window and I realize, "Oh, I haven't been in my apartment long enough to clean away anything, and so there are all these cobwebs," and literally, the metaphor that I was going to use there is, "It's hard to pick one thing out of the web," and I'm staring at this spider web. [Laughs.] It has to be the whole thing. For one thing, I love tech, and I was just telling somebody about that yesterday. That seems so at odds with what the actor's process is, because I know most people sit there and stand on the stage — they're like, "Can we get back to the scene, please?" I would be out in the house at every second to not miss anything of this incredible technical rehearsal process, because there are so many elements that are ... so exciting to me. To witness the page-to-stage creation, literally the pop-up, the miraculous, 3D, bringing about of this huge thing, which is ultimately a love story, coming into fruition and to be a part of it, and then on a more mundane level, just the daily going to work with this incredible group of theatre artists. Julie and Bono and Edge and Glen [Berger] and Danny Ezralow, and then coming to the technical rehearsals to witness the work of these amazing artists. And then the cast — some of the aerialists and the bodies on these people — it's a crazily sexy time. [Laughs.] It's like, "What!?" It's really, really, really, for lack of a better word, sexy.

Question: Do you have any other projects in the works or are you just focusing on Spider-Man at this time?
Keating: Well, yeah, right now, there's really no head space beyond that. I do have a couple of things in the works. I'm working on a music project because I haven't really gotten back to the singing drawing board, even though here with Spider-Man I'm involved with that. I'm looking at an album of standards, which will include a couple of new pieces by Mark Berman, who is the most amazing pianist and my significant other, and a great producer. He's an amazing jazz guy.

Question: Do you have a timetable for the recording?
Keating: It's going to probably, just realistically, not happen until after the first of the year, but it's going to include big band. My focus is to employ as many live musicians as possible, because on the downside of things, it's really something that I want to bring to light, is the way that the music business has changed. And, I'm sure that Bono and the Edge would concur. We have an amazing orchestra there [at Spider-Man], and of course, Broadway has its minimums, but the scene has really changed a lot, so I thought, "God, we have these great trumpet players, these amazing trombonists, wonderful sax players. Let's just get 'em all in a room and sing some songs!"

Question: You really do forget when you hear great orchestrations played by a full orchestra what it sounds like.
Keating: Yeah. The sound at Spider-Man is quite wonderful, as well, and it's great to have at least a couple of live musicians up there [on stage], because Reeve Carney's band is a part of the action, and his brother, Zane, is a great guitar player, and so he's up there, and Aiden [Moore] is up there playing bass, and it reminds people that over the course of Broadway history, musicians have gone from playing on the stage to under the stage to well under the stage to then just being relegated to a room, and it makes people go, "Oh, that's right. There are real people playing this. It's not just a CD!" So it's great whatever we can do to remind people about the connection between the live musicians and the live actors.

[Tickets for Spider-Man are priced $67.50-$135 for weekday performances and $67.50-$140 for weekend performances. Visit SpiderManOnBroadway.]

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

Julie Taymor and Reeve Carney talk about spinning Spider-Man's web:


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