by Bruce Janiga
I was born in Florida and raised in Hollywood California. My mother was Judy Canova, comedienne of 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s. So I was raised in show business.
What was that like, growing up?
It's all I knew. I never questioned. Everybody in the family, everybody's family, we all took piano lessons and singing lessons and I just happened to be really good as a singer. There was never really a question in my mind that I wanted to be a performer. Being raised in Hollywood was normal, and fun.
You didn't know anything else...
And it was fun.
And all these people who we see on television you were hanging out with.
Yes, which was very cool. I studied hard and I did all the plays and I was going to be an opera singer because I had an operatic voice and I was a lyric soprano, I was going to be a colatura. I went to L.A. City College to see a musical there. I had always loved musical theater. The first musical I had seen was Angela Lansbury doing Mame, I was about 10 years old. I said "I've got to do it." I had grown up watching my mom do state fairs and TV and other things but seeing a full scale musical really thrilled me. So I went to see this musical at LACC and I fell in love with the facility and everything. I had a full voice scholarship to Cal Arts and I chucked it and went to a junior college to study theater. I started working in TV when I was in college. I was doing sitcoms because I was funny. I saw Company when I was in high school and I thought that was the most incredible thing I'd ever seen and I fell in love with Sondheim and was a Sondheim freak thereafter.
I went on to do television. I did a show called Soap. My career has be based mostly in television. I starred on Broadway a couple of times. I was in They're Playing Our Song and then in Company.
How about playing Juanita Juanita in The First Nudie Musical?
Up until this last movie I did with Meryl Streep, that was the extent of my film career. It was a cult favorite.
How did you come to be cast in Company?
My manager was responsible for it. His name is Jim Curtin. He knows theater extremely well and he said "You've got to try out for Company. They're doing it at the Roundabout. You're perfect for Jenny. You're born to play that part." And I really wanted to try out for it and I got whooping cough and I couldn't sing. So they had read everybody in town. Scott Ellis had auditioned everybody and my agent kept calling and asking, "Are you well yet?" and I said, "No, I'm not!" I couldn't sing. I could barely talk. But as it turned out it was meant to be. After Scott Ellis had seen everybody, and I mean everybody, I finally got well and almost the entire show had been cast. I went in at the very end. I was one of the last people he saw and I walked in and I was late for my audition because I couldn't find the studio and it was a big mess. I walk in in tears and I said, "I can't do this anymore! I can't take this." because I was so scared. I thought Steve was going to be there. I was terrified. When I walked in it was just Scott and Pat McCorkle who was casting it and I went ahead and I sang and we all laughed at the fact that I was drying my eyes up with my skirt. He called me back two weeks later to come in one more time for Rob Marshall, the choreographer, David Louden, and all the other people. And by the time I got in the cab it was mine.
I was really lucky. He said that there hadn't been anyone else who came close to doing the material, which made me feel incredible.
What did you do to audition?
I had to do the pot-smoking scene and I sang "Poor Baby" and that was it. They faxed me the material and they wanted me to sing just that little section. I didn't sing "Bless this day" because they had already cast Patricia Ven Petersen who is an incredible soprano. Susan doesn't have a song other than "Poor Baby" so they had already given her "Bless this day" which was fine with me.
What did you do to prepare for Jenny? What can you tell us about Jenny as you developed her through rehearsals and the run of the show?
Mostly it was a combination of Scott's openness to exploration as the director, which I love about him, and his incredible sense of humor, he's one of the funniest people alive and that really helped me. Also his total understanding of the piece, working with Boyd Gaines in rehearsal and John Hilner who played my husband, all of that became my safety net and she just emerged. Jenny is a lot of me. I'm very much like that.
She is loving, the can-do gal, she wants to please everyone. You only get to see her a tiny little bit, as you do with all of these people. You only get snapshots. You see the person who is the peacemaker. It's funny because the way John was playing David, some people were really disturbed by the relationship because I' so good and you just know that he is a bad guy and you figure he's completely domineering and she goes along with it because she does love him. I don't know whether you know the story of this. George Furth told us about David Selznik and Jennifer Jones; he actually had this experience with them. That's who David and Jenny are: the famous producer and the star. You could see the turnaround when all of a sudden she started having fun, it was time to stop. What I love about it is that you see the whole relationship in one scene. It's a little piece and if you get it right it can be pretty chilling. And I think we got it right.
You were working with a revival, so I suppose in rehearsal there wasn't much tinkering going on, except the addition of "Marry Me a Little".
That was about it.
Was that deliberate from the start?
To my knowledge it was always there. And I thought it worked great. I thought it was a perfect thing to do. And the "Tick Tock" dance was put back in. I know in London it wasn't there. For me, because I had seen the original and I saw Donna McKechnie and thought it was the sexiest, most incredible thing I'd ever seen onstage, I was so glad that I got to watch Charlotte do it every night. Veanne Cox and I would sit on the couch behind the scrim and it was fabulous. I felt so lucky.
What was it like rehearsing for this?
A joy. Every step of the way. It was the hardest I've ever worked and the most joyful I've ever had in my life in anything I've every done and I've done some really wonderful things just for myself where I got so much joy out of it. But to be able to sing....the first time we actually sang Company when we all figured it out and we ran it through was amazing. Even the first day, we sat down around the piano and I started it. I waited six beats and I sang "Bobby..." and I went, "I can't believe I'm doing this! This is the greatest moment of my life." The rehearsal process was great. When we worked on scenes we were having a ball. Especially for my scene because it was so funny. All we did was laugh. You only have 4 to 6 weeks to fall in love with each other which didn't take long because e everybody was so astoundingly wonderful. We became incredibly close. Just the scene itself, Boyd and John and I were able to get it pretty quickly.
Were there any reservations about doing a pot scene?
The only concern was that it might be dated.
Did Steve or George show up during rehearsals much?
George show up once we were on our feet and in the theater and was wonderful. George had come to see me when I was seventeen. I did Mame in a church, and he remembered it. I played Vera Charles and he said, "I remember you, that was a brave performance. You were so great, you were so young." And I said "I can't believe you were there!" So he was there a bunch.
Steve came. We got the score really down pat and after a couple of weeks into it Steve came and gave us his notes which was awe-inspiring for me to have him in the room and be singing, especially that opening number. We finished it and everyone was turning blue, it's a really tough number to sing and it had sounded incredible and there was silence and you heard him say, "It'll never sound that good in the theater." And we all laughed. I don't know if he was right or wrong. All we know is that at that moment we were feeling something quite extraordinary. We were pretty excited that he was there.
When the did the show in London there was a scene, the "gay scene" so to speak. Was there any talk of doing that here?
Not in our show. There were so many rumors flying around as to why we didn't move. One of them was, and this is roughly the story that we were told, that there was a producer who was going to put up the money and we were ready to move and in two weeks we were going to move from the Roundabout and we were told when the move didn't happen that there were some changes that this person was insisting upon and one of them was he wanted the gay scene put in; he wanted Bobby to be gay. Steve and Scott both agreed that rather than go against the integrity of this particular production, they agreed that it would be better to let it go out with a bang, after having sold out the Roundabout, breaking records, lets' go out that way.
Sam Mendes put it in in London. Steve loved the London production based on the way he spoke of it. He was pretty excited about it. But he didn't want to do it with ours. He and Scott felt that they had gone in a particular direction and that's the way he wanted it to stay. I don't think either one of them wanted to be dictated to creatively either and they were right in that. Unfortunately we suffered. We were devastated. Scott had not called me. I guess I was on the road coming into work but I never heard. I got there and everybody was so upset and I thought someone had died. And Jane Krakowski said, "Didn't you hear? Didn't Scott call you?" And I said, "No, what's the matter?" And she said, "We're not moving. It's over. We're closing in two weeks." It was one of the worst things. The last two weeks were really tough.
About a week before we closed I was walking out and there were some people who had just seen the show and they were lamenting the fact that we were closing and they said, "New York needs this show." And there was nothing I could say. They tried so hard. We were going to move to the Cherry Lane, the Union Square. They wanted to put us somewhere and after talking about it at length we pretty much knew that it had to stop. When you work at the Roundabout, you can't live on what you make at the Roundabout. So the other thing was financial. We weren't asking for the moon. We believed in the show so much and we knew we were doing something wonderful and we felt strongly about it but the money was another factor. If we were to move downtown we that that could just kill us. How long can you live in that kind of money? There were people who were fathers and husbands and raising families and it just wasn't feasible.
What was it like playing for the first time to an audience?
The audiences were so odd. Subscription audiences can be so odd. And they were quiet sometimes. You could hear a pin drop. You'd go out there and be doing what you thought was a wonderful job , you'd be cooking on stage because the material is what it is, and nothing. And then the next night standing ovation. So it was weird.
We were very fortunate because Jim Clough who had an iron voice, when Boyd got sick, Jim was there. His voice was so astounding and you heard the score. And that's what people were coming to hear. But what was so nice was that in this production George really felt that his book was being heard as well. That made us all feel really good.
What was opening night like for you?
It scared me to death. La Chanze had to take my hand, look in my eyes and pray with me because I was so nervous. At that point we had been performing for a month but this was big and I hadn't had an opening night like this. When I went into They're Playing Our Song I followed Stockard Channing. It had already been running but this was different. This was big. This was the biggest thing I'd ever done and I was terrified. For me getting out there is the most fun in the world and this just scared me. But once I heard that opening note everything was okay. Just get in place, let the light hit your face, everything will be fine. And it was wonderful. It was a great, great night.
Jenny has the first notes, right?
So you got to open it.
I opened it.
Any stories from the run?
We had promised each other that we wouldn't tell each other who was in the audience. SO one night Kate Burton just couldn't keep her mouth shut. She looked like the cat that swallowed the canary during the first act. I said, "What is it? There's somebody out there, it there?" She said, "Do you want to know?" I said, "You can't tell me." Then she said, "Don't you want to know?" Finally I said, "Alright, who is it?" And she said, "Warren Beatty." For some reason that just rocked me to my socks and I went out there to sing "Poor Baby" and I completely choked, I started to cough. But it was great because at the end he and Annette started the standing ovation and then afterwards I got to meet them and he gave me a hug because I said, " I realized you were out there and I almost passed out." He gave me a big hug. It was worth it for that.
And then the night that Julie Andrews came. That was like having an audience with the queen. And the night Dean Jones came. He signed my book. He signed it "Class of 69". Everybody who came, who was in show business really dug the show.
It's very special piece. I remember looking out there one night, there was a woman standing up, applauding at the curtain call, tears just streaming down her face. And then another night there was a thirteen year old boy in the front row and he was just beside himself with joy. He was thirteen, like a kid!
You gave him the bug.
Yeah. That's pretty neat.
What was the recording session like? Was it anything like the video of "The Making Of"?
No. For one thing we didn't have "la Stritch". Enough said. She's so cool. I was on my way down 46th Street, I was going to Joe Allen's for dinner and I ran into her. I had never met her but having seen the original I said "I have to introduce myself. I'm in the revival of Company." She said to me, (imitating Stritch) "Oh, Don't you hate 'Side by Side'?"" I said, "Well, yeah, it's a killer." Then she said, "You know, everytime we had to go (singing) 'What would we do without you' I'd wanna kill myself!"
I wish I could put your imitation on paper.
Unless you hear the voice you can't really....It was so funny. And she said, "I'm gonna come see it. I don't want you to get nervous. I won't tell you because I don't want you to be nervous."
One night the set didn't come out for Veanne on "I'm Not Getting Married" which was very funny. Danny Burstein was supposed to come out and say, "Honey, I can't find my shoes," and he came out and he said, "Honey, I can't find my set anywhere." It was great. The house came down. So she just came out with a stool and they did the whole scene with a stool. They could not get the set on the stage.
What is it about poor Bobby? In the original production and then in your production the poor guy keeps getting sick.
This was such a nightmare for everyone. For Boyd, it was horrible. We called it dueling Bobbys after a while because we had dueling Bobbys. There were different things I had to do prop-wise for each guy. Sometimes I had to remember which Bobby I was catering to. Acting-wise it was a completely different ballgame. They are two totally different actors, both quite wonderful and I felt for Boyd. I had vocal problems for about a week. It had started around when Warren Beatty came and I thought it was because he was there. In retrospect I finally figured it out because I was smoking this herbal cigarette that they made into a joint. I would be smoking that stuff and I would be laughing and then I would sing "Poor Baby" later on and I couldn't figure out what was the matter with my throat. It took me a year before I realized I was smoking and I would have to inhale and I was doing all that raucous laughing. So I thought, this I've been going through for a week of hell and I only have to sing a little bit as far as the solo is concerned but poor Boyd, when he would go out there and sing Someone Is Waiting" your heart would just break because he couldn't hit those notes. We'd all be looking down at him , knowing he was in a lot of pain. It was hard. As sublime an experience as it was it was tough to watch him go through that. We knew that he was going to stick it out because he was the quintessential Bobby, Boyd Gaines was one of the most brilliant Bobbys ever. He was so right for the part. I just think vocally, and I know he would agree with this, but vocally it conquered him. I don't think anybody expected that to happen. It just shows you what an incredibly difficult score it is. That's one of the hardest roles in musical theater for a male vocally, it's just a killer.
What are we going to see you in in the future? Any plans?
I always have my finger in something. I audition for stuff in New York every once in a while. I just did a small role in a movie with Meryl Streep and William Hurt. So I'm working. I spend a lot of time teaching kids.
What do you teach?
Theater and singing and I really love it. Right now I'm directing Babes in Arms with high school kids and I direct Shakespeare with them. I love it.
Here's you chance, someone's going to read this on the net. What role do you die for? Anything that you really want to play that if someone offered it to you you'd jump on?
I really want to do Sally in Follies. I told Steve, "You gotta let me audition for Sally." And he said, "Oh it's too expensive, we'll never do it again." I played it in college, LA City College, it was an incredible school and we got the rights and we were the first college to do Follies. Gene Nelson came to see it, which was pretty thrilling and that was a huge thrill for me because I was playing Sally and I was 19. So I told him, "You know Steve, I did it when I was nineteen, I'd really like to do it when I'm really old enough to play the part." So that's the part I would kill for. She's a lot like Jenny too. She's like Jenny grown up, in a way. There's that innocence about both of them. It's what I loved about Jenny.
Anything else I need to know from you?
Just that dreams come true. This was a complete dream of mine. I always wanted to do a Sondheim show. I auditioned for Into the Woods and I got very close to replacing Joanna Gleeson. It was one of those things where I was apparently very close. I had gone back and Steve had me learn the whole score and I went back and worked with Chip Zien and I didn't get it and I would have loved to have done it but this made up for everything. And even if I don't do another Sondheim show it doesn't matter because I have this and I will never, ever forget how wonderful it was.
It was a great production and those of us who saw it are grateful to have had the chance to see it.
I'm glad that I could be of service.