The Great White Way boasts numerous great singers, but there are very few blessed with the comedic gifts of Mary Testa, who has been making Broadway audiences laugh for over three decades. Also a stirring (and Obie-winning) actress, Testa is back on Broadway this season in the surprise critical hit Xanadu, based on the infamous flop film of the same name. Testa, whose massive belt remains as powerful as ever, plays the conniving muse Melpomene and gets the chance to impress with her delicious delivery of "Evil Woman." In the new musical at the Helen Hayes Theatre, the two-time Tony nominee (for her work in the revivals of On the Town and 42nd Street) also has the chance to share the stage — and some of the comic spotlight — with another talented comedienne, Jackie Hoffman. About her co-star Testa recently told Playbill Magazine, "I've always been a fan of Jackie's and have gone to see many of her Joe's Pub shows. We've done benefits and readings together, but we had never worked together on a show. She's delightful. People want to hear that we're dueling divas but we have a great respect for each other. She's a pisser. We have one scene where we're trying to tempt Tony Roberts with money: I set the scene up and then she comes onstage walking sort of like Igor. It's just a small thing but it makes me laugh every night. I always see it out of the corner of my eye."
I recently had the pleasure of chatting with the refreshingly candid Testa, who says her dream roles include Kate in Taming of the Shrew and Serafina in The Rose Tattoo.
Question: How did Xanadu come about for you?
Mary Testa: Well, I got called to do the first reading of it. We did a reading and two workshops of it. They just called me and invited me to do the first reading, and then I was involved with it from the beginning.
Question: Because the film has such an interesting history, when you were first offered the role in the musical, what was going through your mind? Did you think there was a chance it could be a hit?
Testa: I had no idea, absolutely no idea. I never thought it would go to Broadway. I always assumed that it was a show that they were tailoring for Off-Broadway. So I was very surprised when they called and said, "We're going to Broadway." I was like, "Wow, okay."
Question: How much did the show change from the beginning?
Testa: A lot. At the first reading there were about 30 people that were involved. There were a lot of '80s celebrities in the script. It was very different. Each reading the show has been honed in a big way, so from the first time to now, it is quite different. Question: Was Douglas Carter Beane always the book writer, or did he come on board later?
Testa: No, he was always the book writer.
Question: During rehearsals for Broadway, did the show change at all?
Testa: Yes, it really got a lot tighter and more specific, and the story became a lot clearer. Luckily for us, and unluckily for us — because we had so much trauma involved in the show with James [Carpinello] breaking his leg — we had extra time that we didn't think we were going to have. So during that whole process, we actually honed it more.
Question: Was that difficult for the cast when James was injured?
Testa: Yes, it was very difficult. It was really very upsetting. James is one of the best skaters we have, and it was one of those freak accidents. It just didn't make any sense. I wasn't there when it happened because I had been released [for the day], but he apparently wasn't even skating. He was just showing them a spot on the stage where he felt his skate would catch, and his skate caught and he went down. So it was very traumatic for us, and every injury is traumatic for us.
Question: Do you skate at all in the show?
Testa: No, I don't. Thank God! [Laughs.]
Question: Did you try the skates on at all?
Testa: I did. In the previous workshop that we did in January of last year, I put them on. We were at the Minetta Lane Theatre. I put them on in the lobby and walk-skated from the lobby across the stage and back across the stage and back into the lobby and took them off. There was a question of my maybe having to wear skates at that time. But in that reading, Jackie Hoffman and I were both just in rolling chairs, and we never got out of the rolling chairs. I was very happy when [director] Chris Ashley announced on our first day of rehearsal for the Broadway show that Jackie, myself and Tony Roberts would not be skating. [Laughs.] I was like, "Good!"
Question: When did you start to think that the show might be a success?
Testa: The first week we were in previews, we had a very different sound system. After the sound system got fixed and the sound was fixed, the audiences really started to go insane. So then I was like, "Okay, well alright. . ." I'm still kind of in shock. I guess just watching the audience react [made me think we might be a success]. They just have such a wonderful time that we all went, "Okay, not a fluke."
Question: How have audiences been since the reviews came out?
Testa: Great. We get an occasional quiet audience if they're a matinee or an older audience. You have to come on board with the tone of the show. . . . By the end they love it, but it takes awhile for them to warm to it. But we haven't had very many. Just, I would say, one or two audiences that were like, "I don't know what this is," and they're not quite sure if it's serious or what, and then by the end, they're great.
Question: What's it like having members of the audience onstage with you?
Testa: It's very interesting. [Laughs.] They, for the most part, love it and they love to be involved. It's a great energy . . . . I've not ever done a show where the audience has been onstage.
Question: Has anyone tried to be more part of the show than they should?
Testa: No, and I think they get a big lecture by the ushers before. I think there's a lot of rules onstage. I did have one guy one night who was so sweet. At one point I touch one of the audience members as I'm singing. I do different things. Sometimes I just caress their arm, sometimes I put my hands on their shoulders. It depends what mood I'm in. But I put my hand on this guy's shoulder — and the light's on them because the light's on me — and he took his hand and just put it on top of my hand, and it made the audience laugh. Afterwards he was outside and he said, "I can't thank you enough. I got my first laugh on a Broadway stage!" It was really cute.
Question: How would you describe your character?
Testa: Well, she is the evil — you know, she's not really evil, she's just mad because she was passed over for the lead position. I have it in my mind that she exacts revenge on Clio [Kerry Butler] because Clio calls her old. In my mind that's why she gets revenge on her because she was called old in front of everybody.
Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for Melpomene?
Testa: I don't know, it's [all] really fun. I enjoy when we sit and eat popcorn when we watch the proceedings at one point. It's just all fun. I don't have one favorite moment.
Question: Does it go by quickly?
Testa: It does go by really fast. It's kind of like an amusement park ride.
Question: Since we've never talk before, I just want to go back a bit in time. Where were you born and raised?
Testa: I was born in Philadelphia, but I was raised in Rhode Island — in North Providence, Rhode Island.
Question: When did you start performing? When did you discover that you could sing?
Testa: Well, I was a little kid when I discovered I could sing because my mother would sing with me all the time. I didn't really perform until high school. It was really college when I started to [sing] … but I had no intentions of being a musical performer. I was just in college as a theatre major to be an actor, and I just happened to sing in a piece. Then I came here when I was still in college to do a show at New Dramatists. I was singing in that show, and then everybody was like, "Oh, she just does musicals." It took me a very long time to do both. I do plays and musicals on a fairly steady basis. I want to do both; I don't want to just do musicals.
Question: Going back to college, did you know at that point that this would be your career?
Testa: Yeah, when I was a teenager I decided that that's what I wanted to do. And so I went to college as a theatre major, and I moved to New York. I didn't graduate college. I finished all of my theatre courses by the time I finished my first semester of junior year, and then I worked for an entire summer. I worked three jobs to raise enough money, and then I moved to New York in '76 — and then I just started working.
Question: You've also done a lot of work with William Finn. When did you first work with him?
Testa: When I was in college, that's how I met him. When I was a sophomore in college, we had a Rockefeller Grant to do ten new shows. I was in a production of Antigone, and Bill came. He was still in college, I believe, at Williams. He came — they were going to do one of his shows — and he saw me in Antigone and said, "I want her to be in my show." The show was called Scrambled Eggs. So I was in his show, and that's how I met him. And then when I moved to New York, we — myself, Alison Fraser, and another girl named Kate Pessek — all knew him from various things. He called us all, and we just started singing together, and that's how In Trousers came about and all the other shows.
Question: You did three shows on Broadway and then there was about a ten year break before you came back.
Testa: Yeah, I kind of got blacklisted. [Laughs.] It's a very interesting story. I had done a production of Company at Playwrights Horizons, actually before I did the first three Broadway shows. But I was blacklisted . . . . they were so appalled at what I had done with the material because I kind of took liberties with Sondheim's music. I was unaware that he was such a god because, as I said, I was not involved with musical theatre, so I didn't really know his work. I sort of knew a little bit, but I didn't really know his work. So I kind of took liberties. I was Marta in Company, and people either really loved it or really hated [my performance]. I'm not going to name names, but there was a casting person who totally hated it and was in control of most of the Broadway shows at that time, and blacklisted me for 12 years. But I was very busy doing other things. I wasn't lacking work. I did a lot of concert work at that time and a lot of Off-Broadway and I was always busy. And then in '96 I did Forum and ever since [then] I've been back on Broadway.
I did a lot of downtown theatre. I was in a lot of interesting to-the-left theatre before that time and a lot of concert work. They just weren't seeing me for all the British shows. They weren't giving me appointments. It was fine with me. I was very happy, I was very busy. But Forum was really [the start of a run of Broadway shows] … this is my ninth Broadway show.
Question: During those 12 years that you weren't on Broadway, is there any production that stands out as a favorite?
Testa: Geez, I have a hard time remembering what I do. [Laughs.] The only time I can remember what I've done is Broadway simply because the years get emblazoned into your head.
Question: And, how about Broadway? Is there anything that stands out as a favorite?
Testa: Oh, God. I have to say, I stood by for Liza Minnelli in The Rink in 1984 and ended up going on for two weeks with Chita [Rivera]. It was sort of overwhelming, but it was a great part for me, and I had a great time. I think Terrence McNally sort of became a slight fan of mine. He was always very sweet during that show. I think I heard he had told some people that they should come and see me do the role because I was really good, which was very nice.
Question: What was it like getting to play opposite Chita?
Testa: It was great. She was phenomenal, and that's when I met Graci, and I've worked with Graciela Daniele a long time as well. Graci was the choreographer on that show, and Rob Marshall was her assistant. . . . No, I actually knew Graci before, but I had never worked with her. I just adore Graci. She is one of my favorite people to work with on the planet.
Question: Do you have any other projects in the works while you're in Xanadu?
Testa: Well, I'm not doing anything right now, but I had done my own show at Joe's Pub that I had worked on for about five years. It's not really a cabaret. I want to do it in a theatre. I've got to pick that back up now that we're open. During the rehearsal process, there was no time to work on anything else, so I want to revisit that.
Question: What's that show like?
Testa: It is all-sung. It's called Sleepless Variations, although that's not really the title I ultimately want to keep on it. It's a show about the kind of thoughts you have when you can't sleep, the way your brain works when you can't sleep.
Question: Is it new material?
Testa: There are 25 songs. Half of them are brand new, from people like Michael John LaChiusa and Ricky Ian Gordon and Rusty McGee and Bjork. It's just an interesting combination of music that I've put together with Michael Starobin, and we've been working for quite a long time on it. So we did two shows at Joe's Pub to see if the piece worked, and now we want to work on it some more. Question: How long do you think you'll stay with Xanadu?
Testa: I have a year's contract.
Question: Do you like long runs?
Testa: Long runs are interesting. I've only done two — I've done Forum and 42nd Street. Both of those were two-year runs for me. [With] Forum I did a million things while I was doing [the show]. I did the workshop of Marie Christine during that time, and I did On the Town during that time, in the park. . . . I did a lot of stuff during 42nd Street as well. It's a blessing and a curse [doing] a long run. But in these days, with this financial climate, it would be nice to have a long run and have a steady job.
[Xanadu plays the Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 West 44th Street; call (212) 239-6200 for tickets or visit www.telecharge.com.]
How exciting that the York Theatre Company's Musicals in Mufti series will present Stephen Schwartz and Joseph Stein's The Baker's Wife this fall! The news got me to thinking of who I'd like to see play Genevieve (the role created by Tony and Olivier winner Patti LuPone) in the Oct. 26-28 staged concert performances. At the top of my list would be Judy Kuhn — just to hear Kuhn wrap her rich tones around "Where Is the Warmth?" would be worth the price of admission. Of course, if La LuPone is free it would be more than a thrill (and a little bit of a lark — meadow, of course) to see her re-create her performance. E-mail me, and let me know who'd you like to hear belt out "Meadowlark" and "Gifts of Love." . . . The other Mufti offerings — all featuring a book by Joseph Stein — include Zorba (Sept. 14-16), Enter Laughing (Sept. 28-30) and The Body Beautiful (Oct. 12-14). The Mufti series is presented at the Theatre at Saint Peter's, which is located at 54th Street, east of Lexington Avenue. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (212) 935-5820 or visit www.yorktheatre.org.
Three Broadway-themed evenings will be offered at Manhattan's Town Hall in October as part of the third annual Broadway Cabaret Festival created, hosted and written by Scott Siegel. On Oct. 19 a concert celebrating the music of composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz will be presented at 8 PM. A host of Broadway actors — including Liz Callaway, Judy Kuhn, Lari White and several others associated with Schwartz's music — are expected to honor the composer of Wicked, Godspell, Pippin, The Magic Show and The Baker's Wife. . . . Oct. 20 will feature An Evening with Betty Buckley. The Tony Award-winning actress, who has graced the Broadway stage in Sunset Boulevard, Triumph of Love, Cats, 1776, Carrie, Song & Dance, The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Pippin, will make her solo Town Hall debut at 8 PM. Buckley will celebrate the release of her forthcoming recordings (stay tuned for exciting details!) during the concert and will also offer tunes from an eclectic repertoire that spans the worlds of pop, rock, folk, blues, standards and musical theatre. . . . Broadway Originals! is the title of the 3 PM concert Oct. 21. The afternoon performance will feature "a dazzling array of Broadway performers reprising songs they introduced either in original Broadway productions or Broadway revivals." Among those already scheduled to perform are Len Cariou, Alan Campbell, Anita Gillette, George S. Irving and Martin Vidnovic. Tickets for the concerts are $50 each and are available by visiting www.ticketmaster.com. Town Hall is located in Manhattan at 123 West 43rd Street. For more information visit www.the-townhall-nyc.org.
The 2008 season of the 92nd Street Y's acclaimed "Lyrics & Lyricists" series will feature five shows created by five different artistic directors. The series will kick off Jan. 12-14, 2008, with It's Magic: The Lyrics of Sammy Cahn. Tony Award winner Ted Sperling will be the artistic director for the concerts, which will explore "the wide variety of Cahn's lyric writing, the simplicity of songs like 'I Fall in Love Too Easily,' and the playfulness of novelty songs like '10432 Sheep.'" . . . Rob Fisher will be the artistic director for Life Is a Cabaret: A Tribute to Fred Ebb, which will be presented Feb. 23-25. Fisher was music director and conductor for the revival of Kander and Ebb's Chicago and also knew Ebb personally. The evenings will feature songs from such Kander and Ebb scores as Cabaret, The Happy Time, Zorba, Chicago, Woman of the Year, The Rink, Kiss of the Spider Woman and Curtains. . . . I've Got Your Number: Romance, The Rat Pack and Carolyn Leigh will feature artistic direction by Deborah Grace Winer, music direction by John Oddo and stage direction by Mark Waldrop. The March 29-31 concerts will pay tribute to Leigh, the lyricist of such songs as "Young at Heart," "Witchcraft," "The Best Is Yet to Come," "Rules of the Road" and "I've Got Your Number." . . . Two cabaret favorites will close out the season. The 1959 Broadway Songbook (May 3-5) will feature Jeff Harnar as artistic director, host and vocalist. One of Harnar's most acclaimed acts, the evenings celebrate the songs of 1959, including tunes from Gypsy, The Sound of Music, Fiorello, West Side Story, The Music Man and My Fair Lady. Harnar will be followed by Andrea Marcovicci, who is the artistic director, host and vocalist for Did the American Songbook End in 1965?. The May 31-June 2 concerts will feature musical director Shelly Markham on piano. The evenings will include songs written after 1965 that have become popular standards. Audiences can expect to hear tunes by Hal David and Burt Bacharach, James Taylor, Billy Joel, Joni Mitchell, the Beatles, Alan and Marilyn Bergman, Paul Simon and Stephen Sondheim. Tickets are now on sale by calling (212) 415-5500 or by visiting www.92Y.org/lyrics.
Due to fall renovation at the Merkin Concert Hall, the Kaufman Center's Broadway Close Up series will be presented at TimesCenter, located in the New York Times building on West 41st Street. The series, which presents "an inside look at the world of musical theatre," will comprise three evenings: Stephen Schwartz: Magic To Do, Sheldon Harnick: To Life! and Bound for Broadway VIII. Wicked composer Schwartz will discuss his work Oct. 1 at 8 PM. Sean Hartley will host the evening, which will feature performances by Debbie Gravitte, Liz Callaway and Marni Nixon. . . . Sheldon Harnick, who penned the lyrics to Jerry Bock's music for The Apple Tree, She Loves Me, Fiorello! and Fiddler on the Roof, will chat about his creations Nov. 5 at 8 PM. Hartley will also host that evening, which will feature Rebecca Luker and David Margulies. . . . The series will conclude Dec. 3 at 8 PM with the eighth edition of Bound for Broadway. Liz Callaway will once again host the evening that offers a sneak peek at five new shows headed for Broadway. The three-concert subscription is priced $85; single tickets are $35. For tickets call (212) 501-3330 or visit www.merkinconcerthall.org.
Broadway belter Mary Bond Davis, who originated the role of Motormouth Maybelle in the Tony-winning musical Hairspray, will head to Provincetown later this month. Davis will perform a solo concert at the The Crown and Anchor Aug. 19. The 10 PM concert will feature a mix of standards, blues, pop, show tunes and, according to press notes, "a bit of dirt and gossip." Davis will be backed by Michael Fauss on piano. The Crown and Anchor is located at 247 Commercial Street in Provincetown, MA. Tickets, priced $25, are available by calling (508) 487-1430.
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to [email protected]