DIVA TALK: In Good Company: Chatting with Barbara Walsh

News   DIVA TALK: In Good Company: Chatting with Barbara Walsh
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Barbara Walsh and Bruce Sabath in Company
Barbara Walsh and Bruce Sabath in Company Photo by Paul Kolnik

Ever since she played the put-upon Trina in William Finn's Falsettos, one of the great musicals of the '90s, I have been an ardent admirer of the many talents of Barbara Walsh. Whether she's appearing in a musical or in a concert evening, Walsh always manages to shine. Her performances in two of Scott Siegel's Broadway Unplugged concerts — the Town Hall evenings where Broadway performers sing without any amplification whatsoever — remain etched in my mind: thoroughly striking and moving renditions of Finn's "Holding to the Ground" and Stephen Sondheim's "Losing My Mind."

Walsh seems to have a knack for making quiet, somewhat ordinary characters seem extraordinary, which makes her current performance even more remarkable, as Joanne in Sondheim and George Furth's Company is anything but quiet and ordinary, yet Walsh slips into her designer shoes with ease. In fact, though she followed Falsettos with roles in Blood Brothers, Big and Hairspray, it has taken Walsh more than a decade to find another role that fits her so well. And, her acerbic, wise-cracking, triangle-playing Joanne — which includes a powerhouse rendition of "The Ladies Who Lunch," which she builds to a thrilling climax — is just one of the many joys of the thoroughly outstanding revival of Company that recently opened at Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

I have to admit that the previous productions of Company I've witnessed have left me rather cold; I've always loved the score, but Furth's book always seemed somewhat dated. Not here, however: John Doyle's actor-musician staging makes the book come alive in unexpected ways, and the entire show seem as fresh and relevant as ever. I recently had the chance to chat with Walsh about her newest Broadway role and her leading-lady status. That interview follows.

Question: How did this role come about for you?
Barbara Walsh: Mary Mitchell Campbell lives in our neighborhood — she orchestrated the show, and I ran into her just over a year ago. I was doing Hairspray at the time . . . [and she said she would be orchestrating and musical supervising a production of Company in Cincinnati] directed by John Doyle with actors and instruments. I knew that would be a huge opportunity for her. I congratulated her, and I said, "Who's playing Joanne?" [Laughs.] And she said, "We don't know yet, but let me make a phone call." . . . I said, "You know, I don't play an instrument." She said [that] it may not be important for this role. With that, I had an audition two days later. I sang "Ladies Who Lunch" for John, and that day my agent told me a couple of hours after the audition, "You're going to get an offer for this." And I was like, "Wow, that's awesome, I'm thrilled!"

Question: Had you ever performed "The Ladies Who Lunch" before you auditioned?
Walsh: No, but I knew it well enough to know it really well for the audition. Question: Was there any sort of trepidation on your part in accepting a role that's so associated with Elaine Stritch?
Walsh: Well, what am I gonna say, "No"? [Laughs.] I'm not about to say no to a major role, and I knew it would be good for me at this time in my life. It just felt right from the first audition — the whole thing felt right.

Question: Did you originally rehearse in New York or did you rehearse in Cincinnati?
Walsh: We rehearsed in Cincinnati.

Question: What was that process like? Did you work on the music first or the scenes first or . . .?
Walsh: [Doyle] had everybody up on their feet the first day. I'm not kidding. He had actors with their instruments. I mean, I am not a musician, [which] works for Joanne . . . I play the triangle and the glock[enspiel] . . . but the other actors were musicians . . . so [John] said, "Let's try this section of the show, starting with the top of 'Company,' let's read the music." So our music is on the music stand, and we have our instruments, and we're walkin' around. [Laughs.]

Question: What was the sound like the first time?
Walsh: I think a lot of [the actors] had the music beforehand, maybe a few weeks in advance, [and] it was great. These are wonderful musicians, and I'm astounded every night when I listen to the beauty of Mary-Mitchell's work and how they are handling everything wrapped into one [to] make this poetic thing. I mean, it's just daunting to me as I sit there and listen to everyone. I think they're stunning. I think they're amazing.

Question: Everyone who works with John Doyle seems to rave about him as a director. What are some of your thoughts about working with him, or what makes him so special?
Walsh: Well, I think there are a few things that make him special. He is genuinely humble, he is genuinely about the work, not the career. He is genuinely collaborative, and he is a total visionary. But the beauty of what he gives actors is that he provides a very safe environment. The first thing he said to us on the first day that we were all in the same room together — he didn't know any of us, and he'd never worked on Company, and he said, "I'm terrified!" And so that kind of let us all relax. And so by providing that safe environment — where it's not that fear is the neutralizer, but we're all doing something unknown to all of us — means that we are freed up [to explore.] . . .

Now that we know the piece and it's up in front of a paying audience every night — [the audience] doesn't know the piece — it's important for us as artists not to do different line readings every night but to really be in the moment, really listen, and that provides discovery for us. And that's kind of where he wants us to live in that uncertain "I don't know what's gonna happen" kind of mode. And that is completely thrilling to me as an actor. I know my lines, and because I know my lines and I know who I'm playing, I can go out there with a sense of "What's gonna happen tonight?" or "Oh, that felt different." That is just the most glorious feeling in the world to give actors — that confidence that they can be uncertain, and they might find gold by embracing that.

Question: What was the original Cincinnati experience like? When did you start to think that Broadway was a good possibility?
Walsh: Well, we all knew that we were in something special every day in rehearsals — again, John is so much fun. He is so great with actors. He just deals with you very gently. He's never on the attack, he's not ego-driven. He doesn't really allow the ego in the room. He sort of sets that example by his own behavior, and you know how to behave because of the tone he's setting. And so with that knowledge, it was really all about the work.

We watched the scenes happen and evolve and change. Sometimes there were props, and you'd get used to a prop, and then a week later it wasn't there. [Laughs.] And you'd go up to stage management and say, "Well where's that prop? I'm missing it." She'd say, "Well, John didn't want us to have it anymore." [Laughs.] So he pulls the rug out from [under] you unbeknownst to you and lets you find a new way in. I hate props anyway, so it actually works for me. But just when you're comfortable with something, he would mix it up, and that was very valuable because it really was a piece and a story that was evolving. It was evolving from him. We were telling him what he needed and vice versa. It was such a collaborative process, and it was just beautiful.

Question: Was Sondheim involved at all?
Walsh: Yes, Sondheim came before we opened. We opened on a Thursday, I think. He came on a Tuesday night, and we had drinks with him after the show, and Wednesday [John Doyle] ran a work session with him in the afternoon, and [Sondheim] gave us a lot of notes and worked on scenes and worked on some music. It was really a privilege.

Question: How did you approach working on "The Ladies Who Lunch"? What's your process working on a song?
Walsh: I can really only deal with the text that's in front of me, the actual lyrics. They're so rich and they're so clear to me — I saw it as a woman who was making fun of all these people out there until she see herself and looks in the mirror and realizes, "Oh my God, that's me — hideous, grotesque." And, to me, that's the vulnerable [part of her], that's the opening up that she has that is shocking to her and is somewhat epiphanal maybe — maybe. [Laughs.]

Question: How would you say the show has evolved from Cincinnati to Broadway?
Walsh: It just blossomed. I would say it just opened up and blossomed. Everybody's performance has grown in a huge way. . . . I was saying to John before we opened here, "I feel like we were in kindergarten in Cincinnati, and now we're in high school!" Not that we were that naïve in Cincinnati — we had something magical in Cincinnati — but I feel like the time that's gone by and [the] life experiences we've had [has affected us]. Heather [Laws] had a baby; John's assistant, his wife had a baby; and someone got engaged. Life happens to all of us in the span of the nine months . . . and that, I guess, has provided some sort of a groundedness for taking off and getting ready for Broadway. And, just the sheer excitement of it and the fact that how remarkable and stunning that there we were in Cincinnati, and look at us now. I really think that everybody was getting ready for Broadway, and so they're stepping up to the plate, and the bar is high because it's Broadway, and we're gonna nail it. We're going to be as true to this story as we possibly can, and I just feel like everybody's handled it in a very honest way. We just love each other, really, really love each other as a company, and I know that we feel communally incredibly fortunate.

Question: Why do you think the show still resonates so much with people?
Walsh: I think it's a classic, timeless journey of a man and of human beings who long for love and the willingness to let it in. I think that's really what Bobby gets to when he crosses into the light: "Okay, I'm going to be willing. No matter what the outcome is, whether I'm with someone or it doesn't work out, I'm going to open myself up and be ready for hurt to see if I can find someone who will make me be alive." The lyrics are so stunning, and there is an ordinariness in "somebody ruin my sleep" — those wonderful things in a relationship that we take for granted that are small but really add up to a whole, and I think that's what he is singing about, and I hope that people will grasp that. I think they do — it's pretty evident.

Question: After "The Ladies Who Lunch," there really isn't a chance for the audience to respond because the song goes right into the next scene.
Walsh: Yes, that was my idea in Cincinnati. As we were working on it, I asked John what the "rises" meant. And he said, without a beat, "a cry for help." . . . Since I had seen him work on the other scenes, and he was going for a fluid thing and there was not applause in prior moments, I said, "Well, then in that case, can the instruments come out? Can the music gradually come out, and can I be left with a few 'rises' by myself out there, and then go into the scene?" And he said, "Oh yes, I love that. Let's do that." That was fairly early in rehearsal.

When I read the text before I went to Cincinnati, there's nothing on the page between the song and the scene, but I felt that there was a vulnerable moment. And, so in Cincinnati it was a different vulnerable moment — it was more like a cry, which ultimately then changed. . . . I got a note from Sondheim and he said, "Don't cry," and I went, "Okay." So that changed a bit as kind of a final thing [leading] into the scene. Sometimes they applauded and sometimes they didn't — on Broadway in previews they'd keep applauding, and it was because of how I was saying the line, "Larry, I would like a cigarette." There was punctuation on it. Or I'd go to the cigarette case and I'd close it quickly, and it was like punctuation. . . . I was starting to enjoy the applause — John and I had this little battle about the applause. [Laughs.] But it was all in fun, and I ultimately wanted what he wanted, which was what I originally wanted, which was no applause. And now I've found something that really works for me, and I hope it works for the audience. . . .

They don't know what she is going to do next, and she's really left out there [alone], and the first person she calls is Larry, who pisses her off. I think that's really interesting, and then she asks for something and it's not a vodka stinger. It's a cigarette — that'll calm [her] down, and then she gradually gets her feet back, but I think it's an uncertain moment for a really larger-than-life character, which I think is potentially very exciting. . . . And, why do we really need applause? Do we really need to stop the show again? Let's just move it forward, and hopefully they'll make up for it in my curtain call! [Laughs.]

Question: You had mentioned before about Hairspray. I was wondering what it's like going into a show that's already running, versus this show where you're creating it from the ground up.
Walsh: Well, what's divine about this is that I'm originating this in the regions. I mean, I'm originating this revival, and it's transferring to Broadway. That's the best — it's just the best. Hairspray was a godsend for me at a very difficult time, and I was so fortunate on the one hand because I came into a hit right after they won the Tony for God's sake! I didn't have to play out of town. I didn't have to have weeks of previews and uncertainty. I had two weeks of rehearsals, and I was in a hit! [Laughs.] It was a scene, and it was fantastic and a whole other kind of experience — a wonderful experience — for two-and-a-half years. And then I did my audition thing and I ended up with Company right now, and I'm savoring every second of it.

Question: One of my favorite shows that you were in was Falsettos. What sticks out in your mind about that experience?
Walsh: Well, that and this one are my highlights. It's pretty evident to me. I mean, I did Mother in Ragtime in Chicago. I replaced somebody there — that was a replacement situation. Not a lot of people saw me do "Mother" in Ragtime, but I had an extraordinary time with that.

Question: That's a great role, too.
Walsh: It is, and I've certainly enjoyed other work in my career that wasn't in New York — in regional theatre and whatnot. But as far as roles and exposure, it's got to be Trina [in Falsettos] and Joanne [in Company], and Trina was 14 years ago. Even though I'd been in New York for 12 years at that time . . . there was a part of me that was green as far as having a leading role in a Broadway musical goes and just the nature of that level of performance. I mean I was 37 — that's certainly old enough. [Laughs.] And I had done Broadway before — I did ensemble parts, but that was just an extraordinary moment. I felt so fortunate because I had done [Falsettos] at Hartford Stage with Graciela [Daniele directing], and that was a sublime experience, and I was fortunate enough to go to Broadway and James Lapine directed, so I could experience two very different productions of the same piece. That was exceptional — I was so fortunate to know both things, and again, [we were] a very tight company, and I'm still friends with those guys and the women, and it was huge for me personally and professionally. It was wonderful.

Question: I always thought it would have been a perfect show for PBS to film.
Walsh: You and me both, baby! Absolutely. Hopefully they can get around to it with Company, but I totally agree with you.

Question: You've also done concert work as well. I was wondering how that compares with doing a role in the theatre.
Walsh: I do have a show, sort of a theatre/cabaret hybrid. I don't like the genre of singing a song, talking about it, singing a song, talking about it. I just don't care for it. I mean, I enjoy other people's [shows] . . . but if I'm gonna do a one-woman show — and I do have a better one in me somewhere — [I want it to be a mix of] storytelling and music and acting, the whole thing. But you know, it's kinda lonely up there. [Laughs.] I did have a tremendous time with my last one. We did it at Joe's Pub — I've done it down at the [Connelly Theatre] on my husband's dark nights for his theatre company, and it's a real eclectic mix of some of my favorite stuff. So I may do that. I would like to do that again because God knows Joanne is not a singing role, which I'm really loving! [Her singing is] down in the basement, and I don't know about my mezzo anymore. [Laughs.] My upper register needs a little work I would say — it's a little rusty. But yeah, once things settle down after the holidays, maybe I'll try and book the Pub. Question: You had mentioned your husband, who's a director . . .
Barbara Walsh: Jack Cummings — he has his own theatre company, Transport Group.

Question: Did he advise you at all for this role?
Walsh: Oh no, no, no, I would never do that. . . . John [Doyle] is my director, and [Jack] would totally respect that, and Jack admires John so incredibly. He would never meddle. If I had problems, I might discuss my inability or my block about something, and he would try and help me with that, but not in a directorial way. . . . Sometimes he gives me notes on other stuff, and I'm just like, "Sorry, this ain't your show, honey." [Laughs.] Sometimes he's said things in other productions and he's helped me — something he said is something I needed to hear or was new, [but] it varies for every show.

Question: Do you have any other projects in the works, or are you just concentrating on Company at the moment?
Walsh: Well, right now, I'm just concentrating on enjoying all of this time and savoring it. You never know how long anything is going to last, and it's a wonderful time, and I'm just loving every minute of it. I really hope it opens up some major work for me or major work comes my way. I feel like a leading lady, and it's interesting because they had a car pick me up for the show's opening night, and there I was stuck in traffic and just kind of feeling happy, and I literally thought to myself, "I feel like a leading lady now." It's taken a long time, 26 years, but, hey, I'm luckier than most. At the party afterwards, at the Copacabana, George Furth said to me, "You're a leading lady now!" [Laughing.] I swear to God! Well, that is the most wonderful synchronicity moment, you know?

[Company plays the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, located at 243 West 47th Street. For tickets call (212) 239-6200.]

Darlene Love, who plays Motormouth Mabel in the Tony-winning musical Hairspray, will bring her annual holiday show to the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center Dec. 17. The 7:30 PM concert, titled Love for the Holidays, will boast several guest stars: Tony Award-winning "Jersey Boy" John Lloyd Young; Hairspray's Tevin Campbell; soul singer Cissy Houston; "David Letterman" band leader Paul Shaffer; and the 20-voice Choice's Way Choir. Love will also make her 23rd annual appearance on "The Late Show with David Letterman" Dec. 23 singing her 1963 hit "Christmas Baby, Please Come Home." The Rose Theater is located at Broadway and 60th Street. Tickets can be purchased by calling (212) 721-6500 or by visiting www.jalc.org.

By Side By Side By Side By Side by Stephen Sondheim is the lengthy title of the 23rd Annual Southland Theatre Artists Goodwill Event (S.T.A.G.E.), which will be held March 10 at 8 PM and March 11 at 3 PM at the Wilshire Theatre in Beverly Hills. David Galligan will direct the concerts, which will celebrate the work of Tony Award-winning composer Stephen Sondheim. Gerald Sternbach will be the musical director for the two performances, and a star-studded cast is currently being assembled for the Sondheim fest. Already committed to appear are Shaun, Patrick and David Cassidy and Academy Award winner Shirley Jones. The S.T.A.G.E. concerts are the longest continuously running AIDS benefit in the world; proceeds from this year’s event will go to AIDS Project Los Angeles. The Wilshire Theatre is located in Beverly Hills, CA, at 8440 Wilshire Blvd. For ticket information call (323) 656-9069 or visit www.stagela.com.

Melba Moore, who recently concluded a stint in the tour of Brooklyn The Musical, will join the national tour of Chicago Dec. 26. The Tony-winning actress will play Matron "Mama" Morton when the tour of the acclaimed Kander and Ebb musical arrives at Philadelphia's Merriam Theatre. Moore is scheduled to play the prison matron Dec. 26-31. Moore will also offer On Broadway with Melba Moore Feb. 11, 2007, at the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts. The 2 PM show, according to press notes, will highlight Moore's "legacy in Broadway, television and radio." For tickets visit www.brooklyncenteronline.org.

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

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