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Side by Side With Kandis Chappell
by Bruce Janiga

The following interview took place at the Broadhurst Theater on Friday, March 22, 1996, five days after opening night and three days after the closing notices were given for the show she was in at the time, Getting Away With Murder. Kandis Chappell played Pamela Prideaux, a socialite who accidentally murdered her husband thinking he was an intruder. Ms. Chappell originated the role in San Diego and came to New York with much of the original company.

Kandis, tell us a little about yourself.
I grew up in San Diego, mostly at the Old Globe Theater which was my local neighborhood theater. In those days it was a community theater and a professional company did Shakespeare in the summer. I did my first show as a prop girl there many years ago. I've done one other Broadway show; I took over in Rumors, in Neil Simon's play, at this same theater. Mostly I work in regional theaters all over the country.

What was your first role on stage?
I can't remember exactly. I do remember when I was in an elementary school play. It was American Dental Week and I played a decayed tooth which was pulled out of someone's mouth.

Sort of like being a dancing band-aid?
Yes, exactly.

What was the first professional show you saw?
I honestly can't remember. I do know that when I was in school, my family wasn't into theater. I never as a child went to see plays. But as soon as I got into an organized drama class with other kids who were interested in it we started going to see things. I remember going to see a lot of the musicals on tour including Company.

So, you had the bug early on in life...
I had the bug even before I knew what it was all about. My brother and I were always putting on shows in the garage, you know, that sort of thing. My parents' friends would come over to play poker, and here was a roomful of adults come to play poker and we'd make them come out to the garage and watch us lip-synch to songs.

Your first Broadway show was Rumors, what was that like, taking over the role?
I actually started as an understudy. My whole experience with that is like a fairy tale. I was first a reader for the auditions in Los Angeles. Which means I wasn't auditioning for the play, I was simply reading with the people who were auditioning. And after four days of that, the producer, Manny Azenberg, said, "We'd like you to come to New York and understudy. And possibly take over a role." And that's exactly what happened. I came to New York with a job that paid me more money than I had ever earned before. I had seven months as an understudy. I went on a couple of times. I saw every show in New York that season because we didn't have to be at the theater for the play, as long as they knew how to reach us. I did every tourist thing in NY. I really got to know the city. Then after seven months Christine Baranski left the show and I took over her role. I played it for a few months and then we took it on tour, and then I played it for three months in L.A. It was a fabulous experience. I had a great time.

How would you compare taking over a role versus originating a role?
Originating a role on Broadway is thrilling. It's something that we all grow up, all of us who are hooked on theater, dreaming about it. So it is different. The opening night of Rumors was exciting but I was definitely second string. I mean you're just in the background. We had a little gathering the other night and I said something to one of the understudies of Murder and he said "Well, the peanut gallery doesn't chip in." We were not talking about chipping in money but chipping in with an opinion. He said "Oh, the peanut gallery", joking around. But it is that to a certain extent, you're definitely the B-team, you're not in the limelight. So originating a part is really exciting.

What was your favorite theatrical experience?
I can tell you that without hesitating. I did a play called Woman in Mind by Alan Ackybourne at South Coast Rep. in Costa Mesa It was the most exciting play. It was a very difficult play. The character is on stage every second. By the end of the play she goes completely insane in front of you, irretrievably insane. And some of it's very dark and what she goes through emotionally is very hard. But the audience loves her. It stretched all my muscles. I had to go to places emotionally that I hadn't ever tapped before. There's a scene in the movie A League of Their Own, and one of the characters is leaving the ball-team and she says "It's too hard." And Tom Hanks says to her, "It's the hard that makes it good." And its true, you reach a point where the harder you have to work the more exciting it is. And that play was that way for me. Also, a very close second which I have to mention, Shadowlands, also at South Coast Rep. That was wonderful. And Dakin Matthews, the man who played C.S. Lewis, was brilliant. We had a very good time.

What was your first exposure to Sondheim?
Well, I was a fan of his for a long time.

What was the first show you remember?
Company. I was in it in college, but even before that I had discovered the show. It's one of the musicals that when I was in college we drove to Los Angeles to see. The L.A. company with Dean Jones. Then I followed his musicals for a while. And long about A Little Night Music is the last one that I knew every note, every word of it. And, it isn't just Sondheim that I stopped listening to, I just kind of drifted away from musicals. So, I don't know the new stuff.

Tell me about that production of Company.
I played Amy in college. "Pardon me is everybody here...?"

How did you do it?! That patter song is such a tough one...
Well first of all, because I'm not a big singer, they kinda' changed it to just two notes. In the pattern that she sings, there are, like, four notes. I had a little trouble with that, so they changed it just to two notes. But I did apparently one of the fastest versions ever done. At the time, George Chakaris was doing a production somewhere and he came to see our show; he knew the choreographer. And, he came back stage and he was very impressed with the number. It's a show stopper. I had a great time with that.

How did you get to Getting Away with Murder?
I'm an associate artist at the Old Globe and I've worked with Jack [O'Brien] for a long time and when this project came to him I think I came to mind. But, they first talked about a lot of stars - there were big names involved in the project. Somehow, Jack made it happen for me.

Tell us about Pamela...
Well, it's interesting because Pamela has been two different people. Here in New York, Pamela is a Connecticut socialite who comes from an old, established, family with a lot of money and she belongs to the Mayflower Society and that sort of thing. Very elegant. But, in a very different way. In the San Diego version the character was, in the early version, an ex-fashion model who designs jewelry for the one of the home shopping networks. She was much trendier, she was sassier. She was, I can't say street-wise, but she was a little wiser. I wore a suit but it was a much trendier suit and the skirt was a little shorter and the high heels were a little higher, the earrings were bigger, everything was a little more. She was a brunette. In this one I'm a blond and I wear Channel and she's a little more up-tight.

Was it the same name?
The same name.

What happened?
The premise is that they're the seven deadly sins and Pamela is pride and the character I played in San Diego was much more about vanity. They felt she had to have something to be proud of so they gave her this established family and money and she really is a proud woman.

What is she proud of?
Her family background, the fact that she's descended from the Mayflower and has lots of money and she's better than anyone.

She's also connected with a murder isn't she?
Yes. She's not proud of that but she's glad she did it.

Is she?
That doesn't come out in the play.

How do you get into the role? What do you have to do to become Pamela Prideaux?
The groundwork is done, of course, during the rehearsals. I'll tell you what was the biggest step for me, with this new Pamela; I do not know this woman. I mean I don't know anyone like that woman. I really had a tough time with it. And when I put on the wig and the costume that made all the difference. Because her look is so specific and suddenly I knew how to carry myself and much more where it's coming from, the attitude that I had to have for the character. That really, really helped. Jack understood the woman, the director Jack O'Brien, and so he was taking me there. But I didn't make the final leap until I got the look of her.

I use this analogy a lot but it makes so much sense to me, about what I was saying that the groundwork is done in rehearsals. When I was doing this play Woman In Mind, people would say "How can you do that eight times a week? My God's that terrible!" I think of it as a Rubik's Cube. You spend the time in rehearsal trying to figure out where to move the little squares. And you say, "Oh, this one works OK, now, oh, no that doesn't work, go back, and that one works now, oh OK" and you spend three, four weeks figuring that out. You hope, near the time the play opens, you've got the whole cube put together and you say, "Now wait, can we do it again?" and you go back and maybe you make some false steps but, eventually, you learn to get to where you can pick up the cube and go to the end and get it right. And that's rehearsal. And then every night you invite five or six hundred of your closest friends to see what you can do and then you do it. But you've figured out in the weeks of rehearsal where you have to go.

Now, how much of that is you and how much of that is Jack?
I can't tell, it's a lot of both. And, depending on the director. Some directors I trust more and I'll take more from them. I'm a very outspoken actress. I have strong instincts and I have no qualms about arguing with the director, even Jack I have argued with, that this doesn't feel right and I think it should be this way. And nobody even remembers anymore was this Jack's idea or my idea. Its such a collaborative effort.

How about the rehearsals with Furth and Sondheim, were they much involved in the actual development during that or was it a matter of rewrites and they would kind of watch and you'd get a new script the next day, or a couple of new pages?
Some of each. Jack asked them when we were in New York not to be at rehearsals. It's very hard to have the playwrights in rehearsal when you as actors are going through the process of learning the words and figuring out who the people are. So he asked them to stay away most of the time. But rewrites were coming all the time, over the telephone and on the fax machine.

How about in California?
In California they were less in residence. They were both there for the first couple of read-throughs. And they weren't back till the first previews. They were there for the previews and then they weren't back until the closing weekend of the show. So for six or seven weeks they weren't there at all.

Then we got here and they were here for the first couple of readings. Then they were gone most of the time. They would come back when we did a run-through. At the end of two weeks you do a run through, and after three weeks. Then they were here a lot during previews. Although, after the first week of previews the show was in shape and had run for a week in front of an audience so Jack left town, to get away from it. He had things to do, but he needed to get away from it. We needed the rest. So for five days he was gone and then he came back and saw the show again and then the third week of previews we really worked hard, the writers rewrote a lot. They were here all the time. Lots of rewrites. They saw the show every night and that's when a lot of work was done.

Would you say it was mostly subtle changes or did the show change a lot either from California or even from the first preview here to opening night?
From California to here there weren't too many changes except my character changed. That was the major rewrite. But, the only major change is in the ending, which was very recent. The other stuff was mostly little stuff. In that third week of previews they added a bunch of lines where the characters sniped at each other, just little bitchy remarks. At first I though, this is not good, just personally I thought this isn't good. But it helped so much. First of all, oddly enough, by them sniping at each other like that you realize that they know each other very well.

How long has Pamela been in therapy?
Well, you know we've never nailed that down but somebody says at one point, "Never in a year have we started so late," so we know it's been at least a year. But they did a good deal of rewriting in the third week, just little stuff and then it wasn't till the fourth week that they changed the ending. And, they tried three different endings.

Tell us about that.
All through San Diego and through the first three weeks of previews here, he got away with murder. The main character, Martin Chisolm (John Rubinstein), goes down in the elevator, turns off the lights, which is the signal, and a little while later the building starts blowing up, so we hope the audience assumes he got away. That was the intent, that he got away with it. And there was kind of a public outcry. Now I don't know who spoke to them, I suppose they heard from their friends and various people. But people were really were put off by that. So they tried that he went down in the elevator and the power blacked out so he got stuck in the elevator and died in the building. And then they came up with the idea of him falling down the elevator shaft as a perfect ending. So that's what happens now.

Tell us about the other ending that John Rubinstein came up with....
He thought that at the end of the play his character, Martin, should get into the real elevator and go down and Terrence's character is trying to stop the building from being blown up by yelling at everybody and out of the elevator shaft where I have been pushed to my death, Pamela comes crawling up, as if by her fingernails she has dragged herself up all twelve stories, and she comes out the bottom of the elevator and she says "I made it!" and just then there's an explosion and she falls right back down the elevator shaft and that's the end of the play.

Did you suggest it to Sondheim and Furth?
I don't know if they've ever told them. I don't think they'd entertain it for a minute. It was just a funny idea.

You don't read reviews but you know that the critics got away with murder in reviewing Getting Away with Murder. Did audience reaction change after the reviews?
Drastically. During four weeks of previews, with a few exceptions, and there are always the audiences where 1000 people who aren't amused all show up on the same night and there's a dull show, and nothing works. So we had a couple of those but not many. And, by the last two weeks of previews consistently the audiences were roaring with laughter. As soon as the reviews came out, it's like Easter Island heads sitting out here. They heard that it's a bad play so they won't let themselves enjoy it.

How as a cast do you respond to that? I mean, the critics killed the show, really.

What do you do? The advertising is making light of it: "The gargoyle's adorable!" Now it's going to shoot itself in the head but what do you as a cast do? What's your attitude? Is it a wake for two weeks? Or "We're gonna' do our best because we're convinced..."?
We are doing it for the people who have still paid their money to come see it and for ourselves. But I tell you it's so hard. It is so demoralizing having done a fun play. None of us thought we'd be running for two years on Broadway but we never thought we'd get killed like this in the reviews. It's really hard on everybody. So much work has gone into it. Everybody's worked so hard.

I heard that one night the gun wouldn't go off. What happened? What did you do? It has to be an actor's worst nightmare: what happens in a murder when the weapon doesn't work?
It's one of the funniest things I have ever been a party to. John fired the first shot, so the police officer was killed. Then he turns the gun on Terrence Mann who's coming towards him and he clicked it a couple of times and it didn't go off, so he immediately started moving. And the thing is, the stage manager off stage has a gun so if John goes click, click if he would go the third time the stage manager would shoot. But he didn't remember this. Well, the gun didn't go off and Terrence is running towards him so he runs up to Terrence and pistol-whips him to death. Now as soon as the shooting starts the other guy in the show, Vasili (Josh Mostel), is supposed to get up and run into the doctor's office. He started moving, so John, who usually kills the three women and then him, had to stop him right away so he comes over and hits him over the head with the gun but, for some reason Josh wouldn't die right away. He didn't realize what was happening so John had to take a long time to kill him.

Then I don't know what John did to the other women, but he came over to me and grabbed me around the throat and throttled me and broke my neck so that I was sitting there with my head at a funny angle. When the curtain came down we were screaming with laughter so loudly that the stage manager had to come and tell us to shut up because the audience could hear us. We were hysterical, it's the funniest thing I have ever seen. And we all said that everybody should write down what John did to us because nobody knows the whole thing, it all happened so fast.

Any other interesting stories from the run?
In the play, Terrence's character comes on stage and he right away wants to use the phone. He goes into the doctor's office and says, "I desperately need a phone." And in the course of the play, especially in Act One, he makes six or eight important phone calls. Well one day, on a Sunday matinee in San Diego, he says, "I desperately need the phone" and he goes in the other room and he comes back and he's supposed to be dialing and making a call but instead he says, "That's funny, there's no phone." You should have seen the looks on our faces. Everyone on stage thinking, "Oh my God, now what do we do?" So I started on the next piece of dialogue which is my snappy exchange with Terrence. So we continue that. One of the actors, Josh Mostel, got up and walked off stage, it's the hallway in the set, but assuming he would find someone backstage and say "Get me a phone, get me a phone!" Well no one was on that side of the stage. The backstage crew were all on the other side. They had run the fight scene before the play and the phone gets moved during the fight scene and they hadn't replaced it in its cradle. Finally, during the blackout the propman brought Terrence the phone.

What's amazing to me is, the play is not in chronological order, it starts at one point and it progresses and you see some flashbacks that are a month ago. But at the end of Act One you see a flashback that was about ten minutes before the play began. And John Rubinstein said, he's part of that scene, that flashback, and he said, "I can't put the phone back in its rightful place." This was during a blackout and I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "In that scene I can't put the phone back in its place because then it makes sense that Terrence's character comes in and can't find the phone." How does he think that fast? I'm so impressed. What a brain!

Sondheim has a history of giving interesting opening night gifts. A lot of puzzle connections. Did it continue with this one?
Yes, it did. Both in San Diego and here. You know in San Diego the play had a different name. It was called The Doctor is Out and had a different logo of course. And in both places he and George had little wooden jigsaw puzzles made of the logo with the title and those were given to us. They also at one point gave us a box of cigars called Bering Cigars, for Dr. Bering. So that was fun.

How does it feel to be part of a first? Sondheim's first non-musical for stage...
It's kinda fun. You feel like you've made history, it's one of those things, "They can't take that away from me". No matter what happens I was in Stephen Sondheim's first non-musical.

...his first Broadway show not to have an original cast recording. But you did get "Hirschfeld'ed" though.
Yes. That was exciting. I grew up admiring his pictures and I have books of his drawings and I remember counting Nina's.

How many Nina's are in the Getting Away?

Did you get one of them?
No. I was hoping I would but I didn't. But that's OK I have no complaints.

Someone online suggested that perhaps Murder might make a good musical. Sondheim usually adapts the works of other people. What would you think about Sondheim turning this into a musical?
I can't imagine. If he wants to have a go at it... but I'll tell you what used to happen. It happened just a few times here, but in San Diego we would be rehearsing and someone would say a line from the play, or Jack O'Brien would make a suggestion that sounded like a lyric from a song and instantly everyone would burst into the song. We have a lot of singers in the show and it was hilarious. I don't work on many musicals, maybe that happens all the time but it was so funny because it would just stop rehearsal. People would beat rhythm to the music, and do harmonies and for three minutes we would stop rehearsal and everyone would sing. It was really fun.

Any role you'd want to play in theater?
The one that got away from me is Rosalind, in As You Like It. I would love to do that some time. And I just did Three Tall Women and some day I want to play the oldest woman, that's kind of an interesting role. There're so many roles that I'd like to play. Some roles that people say, "You should play this role sometime." Like Hedda.

Do you have an affinity for comedy, drama, classics?
I do a little of everything. I always have considered myself a comedienne, but most of my recognition lately has come from doing dramatic roles, which is very interesting. I just read a biography of Maggie Smith and they talk about the fact that you can only do tragedy if you are very, very funny and you can only do funny if you are tragic. You have to have both of them in there somewhere. And it's only more recently that I've done tragic roles. And I've been trained to do classics. I do a lot of it at the Globe and around the country.

I'm very lucky because my look changes so much from one play to another - wigs and things. I once auditioned for a play and the director sent my resume to the playwright because I was completely unknown to them. The playwright looked at my resume and said, "Ah, Kandis Chappell, the Tracy Lord, Lady Bracknell type." Because I had played Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story, the Katherine Hepburn role, and Lady Bracknell in Importance of Being Earnest, in one season.

What else do we need to know about you?
Not a single thing. I'm one of those classic type actors that doesn't exist offstage. I don't find myself interesting outside of my work. Maggie Smith said this. She was doing a play with Brian Bedford and she was getting made up and he peeked in to see how she was and she was sitting there staring at mirror and she said, "Oh, God darling - one's nothing off." Meaning, offstage you're nothing. So I'm afraid I don't find myself very interesting.

Thank you, Kandis.
You're welcome.

Chappell went on stage that night to perform like a trooper and the audience greeted the play warmly. Some of the people sitting by me were commenting before the show started about the reviews. I challenged them to forget the reviews and give the play a chance on its own. At intermission and the final curtain, they agreed that it wasn't what the critics pronounced it to be. In fact they had enjoyed it. Ms. Chappell told me after the show that the audience was the best they had had all week.

Kandis has already bounced back from the quick to close Murder. She has returned to the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. Kandis stars, opposite Robert Foxworth, in Noel Coward's Private Lives, directed by Sheldon Epps.

Getting Away was written originally for fun (Sondheim referred to it as his "secret project") until he was encouraged to have it produced professionally. Other than the movie, The Last of Sheila, it is Sondheim's only other non-musical, professional theatre, effort. His second non-musical mystery. Rooted in his affinity for puzzles it may have been too difficult to follow for the average audience member (and critic). Personally I found it more enjoyable the second time around as I knew who the murderer was and could watch how the show led up to the eventual denouement. Hopefully, Sondheim and Furth haven't been stung too harshly by this experience and we may see more work in this genre from them in the future.

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