INTERVIEW: TALKING “GREY GARDENS” AND MORE WITH RACHEL YORK

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LAST SUMMER, THE HAMPTONS WERE ABUZZ ABOUT THE RETURN OF BIG AND LITTLE EDIE. 

Rachel YorkOf course, the real Beale ladies passed away several years ago. Yet the duo was reincarnated on the stage in a bold and innovative new production of the musical Grey Gardens, based on the famous documentary of the same name. After bringing Gardens back to the place where it was originally set, the cautionary tale of the reclusive aunt and first cousin of Jackie Kennedy Onassis received such an acclaimed response that this production has now transferred to Los Angeles for a limited run.

Now playing at the Ahmanson Theater through August 14, Grey Gardens stars Betty Buckley and Rachel York as the mother and daughter whose complex and often-dysfunctional relationship is at the center of this riches-to-rags story. I spoke with York about her transformation into Little Edie, why Grey Gardens remains such a fascinating story that stands the test of time, her vast career highlights, and more.

ALEX NAGORSKI: What initially made you want to do Grey Gardens?

Rachel YorkRACHEL YORK: I was not that familiar with the material as I had never seen the documentary or the musical when I was offered the role, but I knew I would be playing two very challenging roles with intricate character work – which is my forte. I became an actress because I love delving deeply into character and psychology. Unfortunately, these kinds of roles don’t come along everyday. After I saw the documentary, I turned down a role that paid me substantially more money in order to do the Bay Street Production in Sag Harbor. That’s a tough choice when you have a family to support, but it was the right one for me.

Speaking of the Bay Street Production, this iteration of Gardens is inspired by that production that you did last year in the Hamptons itself. How did actually putting on the show in the same place where it’s set impact your performance?

The production at Bay Street was an “event” in the Hamptons. People were very excited to see it for obvious reasons. We had a lot to live up to. For me, living and working in the Hamptons was incredibly informative. We visited the actual house of Grey Gardens. It has been restored to perfection. I was able to picture being raised in this beautiful house while also imagining its decline. I recited lines from the documentary that Little Edie spoke in that very house. It was exciting and eerie at the same time.

Now that the show has come to LA, have you found new value and/or creative liberty since you’re not actually in the Beales’ space anymore? And what other ways is the show different this second time around?

Little EdieIt has been a wonderful advantage to revisit the play and the documentary a year later. Betty and I viewed a screening of the documentary at the Ahmanson during rehearsals, which was surprisingly enlightening. There were several small details we couldn’t see on a small screen. We were able to view it the way it was intended 40 years ago. We had put the production up in basically two weeks the first time around at Bay Street. Betty and I were both overloaded with information on the Beales. That year away from the material has allowed us to view these characters with a fresh eye. I feel the second time around I am able to present more of Little Edie’s subtleties.

Michael Wilson has created a whole new production at the Ahmanson with projections and a live camera feed. We have more to work with at the Ahmanson. The challenge for Michael was bringing the same kind of wonderful intimacy that we had at the 300-seat Bay Street Theater. We have a bigger and more expensive set now. This allows us to see the outside of the house along with the porch screen door that Little Edie enjoyed prancing in and out of. And I am told by people who have seen both productions that Michael somehow was able to maintain that feeling of intimacy, even though it is such a big production.

How does portraying Little Edie stretch acting muscles for you that your previous roles haven’t?

These roles don’t come along everyday. I suppose the only thing that has come close to this was my portrayal of Lucille Ball in the CBS miniseries, Lucy. The stakes are just as high. Many are obsessed with Little Edie and her idiosyncrasies. It’s important that I create that illusion for people. I want them to feel they are seeing the real thing. I want them to truly empathize with Big and Little Edie. As I said before, I enjoy this type of intricate character work. I have more control over the final product on stage. When I arrived at the set of Lucy, I knew more about Lucille Ball than any one on the set, but choices were already made that I had no control over. I have control on the stage, but I need to be in top form. This show is the most challenging work I have faced because of its size, depth and vocal diversity. I can’t afford to get sick or even be under the weather. The mountain I climb every night can be incredibly intimidating.

So how is your process different when playing a real person like Lucille or Little Edie versus when you’re creating a fictional character? 

With real people, there is usually quite a bit of source material to draw from. When I am creating a fictional character, I just use clues in the script, my imagination and my own person experience and empathy to find my character and her truth.

Betty BuckleyWhat are the most rewarding aspects of working with a theater icon like Betty Buckley?

She’s a fantastic actress. She knows her craft. There’s nothing more exciting than working with an actor who knows their craft. Betty also has great presence, experience and passion for acting and the characters she plays. We are both honored to shine a truthful light on these bohemian-spirited womenBetty Buckley

Now that you’ve seen the documentary, have you also seen the film starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore? If so, did it help you discover your interpretation of Little Edie in any way(s)?

I thought the film with Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange was incredibly well done. I didn’t study their interpretation, but I drew from the same source materials they did, I’m sure.

What do you think it is about the story of Grey Gardens that makes so many people want to explore it across such distinctly unique artistic mediums?

Betty Buckley and Rachel York

These two ladies were fascinating, colorful characters and there is a mystery about this story that leaves everyone perplexed and saddened.

And what is it about this mother and daughter pair that still makes their struggles so relevant and poignant in 2016?

I think it’s a story that tugs at some of our deepest fears. It’s difficult for people to fathom how this could have happened to these women and we feel truly sad for them in the end. There is a mystery to this story and the play leaves us analyzing and asking many questions

Prior to this production, you co-starred in the Broadway comedy, Disaster! What was the most fun part of getting to perform in such an outrageous, over-the-top musical every night? 

It was pure fun working with such a skilled group of comedic actors. It was the perfect job! We all had such a blast every night. The music and time period transported me back to the happiness I felt as a kid in the 70’s.

Disaster was comprised of so many terrific songs from that decade. Which did you enjoy singing the most? And how do you plan on celebrating the upcoming release of the cast recording? 

“I Will Survive” was my favorite. I’m excited to hear the recording! But I haven’t made any plans to celebrate as of yet.

As an actress, do you typically try to balance the types of projects you choose across different genres? If so, which have you found to be your favorite? 

In most instances, the projects have found me. I’m fortunate to have played a variety of different characters throughout my career, whether is be comedy or drama. I like to mix it up. My favorite always seems to be the character I’m playing at any given time. There are so many the past that are my “favorite” that I can’t select one. Right now my favorite is Little Edie.

In addition to your theater work, you have a vast career as a concert soloist, having performed with such esteemed acts as the New York Pops, the National Symphony, the Los Angeles philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony, and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, to name a few. What type of artistic itch does performing in this capacity scratch for you that playing a character in a musical does not?

Singing with a huge orchestra is glorious, but acting is my passion.

You received a Drama Desk Award for your co-starring turn in Victor/Victoria alongside the legendary Julie Andrews. What was the best advice that Julie gave you that you’ve carried with you ever since? 

Always decorate with creams, whites and taupes. They make every room appear larger, cleaner and fresh.

Catch Rachel York in Grey Gardens, now playing at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles through August 14. Click HERE to purchase tickets.

#GreyGardensCTG

Originally published on PopBytes

CONCERT REVIEW: AUDRA MCDONALD AT NYC’S CARNEGIE HALL

Audra McDonald doesn’t need to sing a single note to get a standing ovation.

Audra McDonaldCarnegie Hall04.29.2015The second she walked onto the Carnegie Hall stage for a one-night-only concert last Wednesday (04.29), she was greeted with the same type of rapturous applause typically reserved for the end of an evening of phenomenal performances. This entrance alone was a testament to the star she has become: a living legend whose accolades not only are unprecedented, but one who is the envy of any aspiring Broadway actor.

McDonald, 44, is the recipient of two Grammy Awards and a record six Tony Awards. She’s also the first—and only—person to have won Tonys in all four acting categories. Most recently, she took home the prestigious award for her jaw-dropping transformation into Billie Holiday in last year’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill (which I reviewed here). But for her solo show, unofficially titled “Songs from My Living Room,” McDonald wasn’t trying to be anyone but herself.

Having curated a set list that consisted of everything from musical theater standards to contemporary compositions and lesser-known favorites, McDonald tied her song selections together by recounting how she grew up in Fresno, California, dreaming of one day becoming a Broadway performer. Citing idols and influences like Chita Rivera, Barbara Cook, and Judy Garland, she took her audience on a deeply personal journey through some of the songs that have inspired, impacted, and shaped her illustrious career thus far.

Accompanied by her music director Andy Einhorn on the piano, McDonald opened her show with “Sing Happy,” the first of four Kander & Ebb pieces she performed. A celebration of the uplifting power that music can have, this song perfectly introduced the theme of singing as an emotional outlet, something that McDonald would continue to underline in various ways throughout the night. Her other Kander & Ebb selections included “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer” from The Rink, and an interpretation of Cabaret’s “Maybe This Time” so heartfelt that it would make you want to start a petition for her to play Sally Bowles.

But of all the Kander & Ebb she chose, it was McDonald’s rendition of “Go Back Home” from The Scottsboro Boys that packed the hardest punch. Before singing the song, she talked about how once in between Lady Day performances, she walked over to Covenant House (a charity benefiting homeless children in New York) to make a donation. While she waited there, a teenage boy with only a trash bag full of belongings walked in, unsure of what to expect. She watched as the same workers who only moments prior had joked around and flirted with her went into superhero mode and welcomed the boy, offering him food, shelter and, above all, a sense of safety and belonging.

McDonald was so overwhelmed with emotion upon seeing this that she is now is a member of the Covenant House board. She dedicated the hopeful and gorgeous “Go Back Home” to the children (or “my kids” as she now calls them) the organization helps – including those who were in attendance at the concert.

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As much as she loves classics and revivals, McDonald emphasized how important it is for musical theater to continue to evolve and remain current. Thus, she spotlighted the music of some very recent and rising composers who have particularly resonated with her.

These songs included “No One Else,” a haunting ballad from Dave Malloy’s War and Peace-inspired 2012 electropop opera, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, and a children’s lullaby by Shaina Taub called “The Tale of Bear and Otter,” which was divided into chapters to feel like a real bedtime story. The true standout of this newer material, however, was Kate Miller-Heidke’s “The Facebook Song,” a breakup song that McDonald believed to perfectly encapsulate “heartbreak in the 21st century” and that allowed her to dare to drop a number of F-bombs in Carnegie Hall.

But McDonald didn’t only pay tribute to up-and-coming composers. The crowd went wild at the end of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Mister Snow,” the Carousel staple that produced her first Tony win back in 1994. She slowed things down for Kurt Weill’s “It Never Was You” and picked them up for a revamped version of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Not Talk About Love” that featured a new hilarious verse (with additional lyrics by Larry Dachslager) about all things Audra – including her undying love for Chipotle, manipulating her voice to sound like Billie Holiday, and advocating for marriage equality.

And speaking of custom-written lyrics, McDonald called upon the prolific Stephen Schwartz (who also was in attendance) to tweak “Proud Lady” from The Baker’s Wife, making the song from Genevieve’s rather than Dominique’s perspective. This revised version of the song showcased McDonald’s stunning lyric soprano voice in ways that were nothing short of triumphant.

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Before going into “How Could I Ever Know” from The Secret Garden, McDonald took a moment to reflect on a very difficult chapter in her life. She spoke about how, when she was still a student at Juilliard, she survived a suicide attempt. Not long after, she booked her first Broadway role as Ayah in The Secret Garden, and she officially transitioned from focusing on opera to musical theater. While “How Could I Ever Know” was never a song she sang in the show (it’s performed by characters Lily and Archibald), it was one that she would listen to from the sidelines. It helped her find a new purpose in life and emerge from the darkness she felt in her past.

When it came time for “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” McDonald applauded NBC for resurrecting the lost and incredibly difficult art of putting on live televised musicals. She told the audience that she never expected she’d be cast as the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music, and was so grateful to the network for giving her the chance to play such an iconic role.

She joked that she liked to tell people that she was “from the really sunny side of the Alps.” She also told an amusing story about how her nerves were calmed about performing for so many millions of people live when she received a text message from her daughter asking a question about the laundry moments before stepping in front of the camera. And just as it sounded during that telecast, her rendition was a true show-stopping tour de force.

Other highlights throughout the evening included the Depression-era “My Buddy,” which McDonald sang in honor of a World War II veteran she heard singing the song outside of (you guessed it) a Chipotle while she was in Cambridge, Massachusetts working on Porgy and Bess; and “Rainbow High” from Evita, which she performed for the first time since starring in the show as Eva Peron at age 16 back in Fresno.

She also sang “Make Someone Happy” from Do Re Mi because the song’s lyrics about finding fulfillment through bringing joy to someone else falls in line with some of the best advice she’s ever received; paid homage to Betty Buckley with The Mystery of Edwin Drood’s “The Writing on the Wall;” and impressively showed off just how high she can sing with “Vanilla Ice Cream” from She Loves Me.

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McDonald wrapped up her encore with a sensational take on “Over the Rainbow.” Before she started to sing it, she spoke to the audience about how original singer Judy Garland’s funeral in 1969 helped inspire the Stonewall riots. That turned into a brief discussion about why she’s such a vocal champion for marriage equality. She talked about how, as an African-American, there are so many experiences she’s had that she wouldn’t have been able to have had she been born earlier. And that it was thanks to the civil rights leaders who stepped up to fight for what was right that she’s been given the chance to accomplish all that she has. Why then, she asked rhetorically, would she not support another part of the population who was being discriminated against?

Listening to McDonald speak about this, especially knowing that hearings on this topic were taking place in the Supreme Court at that exact time, the audience knew they were witnessing a truly monumental moment. Naturally, then, her “Over The Rainbow” shined with new meaning and beautiful encouragement.

McDonald will next be seen in the Meryl Streep film, Ricki and the Flash, and the upcoming HBO special presentation of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. There was a lot of speculation about what her next Broadway foray would be. Would it be in a revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play ‘night, Mother, opposite Oprah Winfrey in her Great White Way debut? Or a revival of Kiss of the Spider Woman alongside Alan Cumming? Or a new musical adaptation of the film Corinna, Corinna written for her by composer Alan Menken?

As it turns out, McDonald’s next project will be Shuffle Along, a new musical (set to open in 2016) that explores the origin of the nearly forgotten 1921 all-black musical of the same name. Helming the show alongside director George C. Wolfe and choreographer Savion Glover, McDonald may need to begin preparing room on her shelf for a seventh Tony Award.

After all, if her concert at Carnegie Hall was any indication, hers is a voice we’ll all be clamoring to hear for years and years to come.

Originally published on PopBytes