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Interviews

Eight Questions with Native American Broadway Playwright, Larissa FastHorse

In honor of National Native American Heritage Day, we asked The Thanksgiving Play writer about the show’s rebirth coming to Broadway this spring, making greater Indigenous strides from Hollywood to the theatre, and how she uses yoga (and much more) to help her through it all.

By Jim Glaub

A member of the Sicangu Lakota nation of South Dakota, Larissa FastHorse is the first known, female Native American playwright produced on Broadway. Her show, The Thanksgiving Play, was a 2018 hit and was apart of the Broadway’s Best Show’s award-winning series Spotlight on Plays and will return to the stage, this time at the Helen Hayes Theater in the spring of 2023, and will be directed by Rachel Chavkin, who won a Tony for Hadestown. 

In honor of National Native American Heritage Day on November 26, we asked FastHorse a number of questions we had for the history-making playwright. Read on for her witty answers. 

Where did The Thanksgiving Play come from? 

Larissa FastHorse: For starters, it wasn’t easy locking down non-white actors for my shows. It was early in my career and Broadway producers were more timid about casting too far outside of traditional norms in order to draw demand. But what I mostly wanted to accomplish with this play is what it’s like to be me in the room—a contemporary Indigenous person—and where the pitfalls are to the best-meaning folks in the theatre industry who, if not for lack of trying and sometimes to their own detriment, do want to make sincere cultural strides. 

Now that The Thanksgiving Play is something that people really love to see and that it’s such a fun production, and I was able to keep the things I wanted to say in it, I was really excited to have this as my first real Broadway play. 

That fact that the show is so funny, and has such an approachableness to the otherwise difficult conversation on American colonialism, really sets it apart from other comedy. Do you find comedy a lot easier to do? 

FastHorse: Oh yes. Comedy and satire is what I do. I don’t love going to the theatre and being hit over the head. Plenty of people do and that’s great for them! I go to the theatre to engage with those around me in a fun and silly way. That’s my gift to the audience. You’re going to show up to my show and laugh and have a great time and be able to engage your friends afterwards. I like to make you think and contemplate things, but I want you to have fun with it too. 

Do you imagine yourself stepping off the stage and into film and TV? 

FastHorse: I have several in development right now, actually. They’re comedies, of course, and I’m doing a lot of animation. Suddenly, here I am with Dreamworks and Netflix, working on movies. When they gave me Peter Pan to work with, you’ve never seen funnier pirates. I’m the girl writing fart jokes and getting carried away with the silliness before I tone it down and make sure it’s also intelligent enough for adults. 

How do you approach a story as big as Peter Pan and make it your own? 

FastHorse: I’ll be honest—it’s hard. As someone who wasn’t a Peter Rooter or a watcher growing up, I had no clue how to approach it, which was probably a good thing. By having some conversations about it, I began to realize that so many people love this title and have unique and differing experiences watching it with their parents and grandparents. So I asked folks what they loved most about the story because all I could see were the problems. It’s been a great time listening and starting to write based on these personal stories. 

How did you find your way to doing theatre?

FastHorse: Long story short, I was a young ballerina finding my creative way before someone suggested I start writing. Back then I wasn’t seeing a lot of Native representation in Hollywood. I’d sold a few TV shows but felt really frustrated with the watered down nativism so I then found my way to the theatre. I got commissioned to do my first play at Children’s Theater Company in Minneapolis. And that was the first place where I was told, okay, you tell us how best to do this. From there we hired Native American consultants in every area, including elders, and we simply wanted everything done correctly. It was incredible getting to do all the things that Hollywood wasn’t doing yet. From the caterer on opening night to the commissioned art in the lobby—it was all Native talent. 

So that’s how Indigenous Directions came to be? 

FastHorse: To be more accurately Native American, yes. At least to fight for that accuracy. We’ve gotten to do some good things. We’ve even been working with Macy’s for the annual Thanksgiving Day Parade to make floats and balloons a more appropriate. These are subtle changes slowly happening over the last three years and this project is weirdly one of our favorites. For example, the Tom Turkey is no longer a pilgrim but a Show Turkey, complete with top hat and bowtie. He’s very New York now!

The theatre is an institution that has existed for a very long time. So it’s hard to come in and shake things up. But you’ve got to know the rules in order to break the rules, right? 

FastHorse: Oh yeah. I’ve known Rachel Chavkin, the new director of the upcoming version of The Thanksgiving Play, for a long time now, but this is our first time working together. It’s great because she really knows the rules of Broadway from all sides of the stage and inner production. She’s helped me understand a lot of things that are newer to me. It’s important to have good partners to help guide you, especially as a Native American newcomer who didn’t have the same access to such folks and resources as I do now. 

Okay, last question. You’re in the “explosive” stage of your rising career. What are you doing to nurture yourself and stay safe? 

FastHorse: It’s definitely a challenge. Just as suddenly as it hit us, COVID protocols ended and then everything came flooding in at once. I now have five shows in a row next year. It’s your best and worst nightmare at once. From Broadway to film, every production is challenging in its own way but also hugely exciting. I’ll be honest, I’m nervous about it all because it’s a lot and a lot of pressure. And with a Broadway show also comes all the other Broadway stuff, like the Tony’s and press and so forth. So I’m currently trying out a million things to relax and steady myself, too. Haha. 

I’m trying new types of yoga and meditation and self-care things to try and figure out what’s best for me and which practice to add to my toolkit. I’m also working to stay conscious and focused on what’s ahead. 

It’s going to be an incredible year for Larissa FastHorse so be sure and see and experience any production she’s behind as it will be unlike anything else on the stage or screen. 

Wishing everyone a happy Thanksgiving and hope that you join us in celebrating National Native American Heritage day for all days to come. 

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Interviews

Q&A with Tony Nominated Lighting Designer Allen Lee Hughes

By Maia Glasman


We did a Q&A with Ohio State Murders Tony nominated lighting designer, Allen Lee Hughes (four times for K2, Strange Interlude, Once on This Island, A Soldier’s Play) and here’s what he has in store for us.

Q: What drew you to this play?

A: I was drawn to the play by the great director Kenny Leon.  I did not know the play.  Now that I know it, I can see why it is so respected. I have also admired Audra McDonald’s work and I’m looking forward to lighting her. 

Q: What is your process like?  

A: Of course, I read the script two or three times.  I do a scene breakdown and meet with the director. Usually the light plot (drawing of where to place the lights) is due around or before first rehearsal.  I have to take an educated guess about what I will need when we go into technical rehearsals. I then attend rehearsals, where I get a sense of what the show really needs.  

Q: Who in the theater world has been an inspiration to you? 

A: Lighting Designers; Jennifer Tipton, Tharon Musser, Arden Fingerhut.  Notice that I picked all women.

Q: What’s your favorite restaurant in the Theater District? 

A: It used to be a Sushi place on 45 or 46th and 8th avenue.  Alas, they did not survive the pandemic.

Q: What do you like to do when you’re not at the theater?  

A: I like to hang out and eat with friends and watch the news.

Q: What other projects are you working on this season? 

A: I designed the lighting for Topdog/Underdog and later I will design the tour for A Soldier’s Play the tour.

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Interviews

Seven Questions with Tony-Nominated Sound Designer Justin Ellington

by Maia Glasman

This week, I got the change to do a Q&A with Ohio State Murders Tony nominated sound designer, Justin Ellington (For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When The Rainbow Is Enuf) and here’s what he had to say:

Q: What drew you to this play?

A: Adrienne Kennedy, Kenny Leon and Audra McDonald for starters. I have been a fan of Ms. Kennedy’s writing and had the opportunity to compose and sound design for her most recent play, He Brought Her Heart Back In A Box (2018). Her writing, rich imagination and particular construction of story is intriguing, bold and delicate and offers a welcomed challenge for me. 

Q: What is the most exciting part about working with Audra McDonald? 

A: First time working with Mrs. McDonald actually. I am excited to tell this story with a truly superb group of people. Having the pleasure to share space and collaborate with Audra McDonald, Kenny Leon and this creative team will forever be cherished.

Q: What is your process like?

A: Before I start making any sound, I do a lot of listening. I listen to the cast and their collective rhythm, I listen to the descriptive words and phrases used by my director and collaborators. I take all of that information along with my own life experiences and start building the sonic world of the play. I tend to make more than enough material so that my director can have options to choose from. Once we find “it”, the work because implementing these ideas into storytelling. It should be stated that most theaters DO NOT have a sound system in house, so a huge part of the process is designing a speaker system that can support the sonic storytelling needs.  

Q: Who in the theater world has been an inspiration to you?

A: Freddie Hendricks, Kenny Leon, Kent Gash, Dwight Andrews. I can name so many others because I am inspired by each new group of people I work with, but these four gentleman have showed me some of the possibilities this theater world has to offer and how my talents can work within this arena.

Q: What’s your favorite restaurant in the Theater District? 

A: Ohh this is not an easy question, but if I had to pick one, I am a big fan of Hummus Kitchen on 9th Ave between 51st and 52nd.

Q: What do you like to do when you’re not at the theater?

A: I have really fallen in love with photography over the years and when I am not in tech or preparing for a show, I like to get out of the city and access some of the amazing offerings mother nature has for my camera to capture. Also, I am always writing music and spending time in the music industry working with various artist and producers.

Q: What other projects are you working on this season? 

A: Soon after Ohio State Murders opens, I will be in La Jolla working on a premiere production of The Outsiders which has been made into a musical.

Congratulations to the cast and crew who go into their first preview on Friday 11/10! 

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Interviews

A Tribute to Angela Lansbury

All week long, we celebrate the life and legacy of Angela Lansbury. Here are tributes, stories, memories and the love we remember.

Today: Jefferson Mays, Phylicia Rashad, Jeffrey Richards, Molly Ringwald, Michael Rupert, Matthew Byam Shaw, Phillipa Soo, Richard Thomas


JEFFERSON MAYS


“I performed with her in Jeffrey Richards’s 2012 revival of Gore Vidal’s THE BEST MAN at the Schoenfeld.  Even though the combined ages of everyone above the title was around 500 years she was always, somehow, the youngest person in the rehearsal room and on stage —it was like performing with a 14 year old with the acting chops of an 87 year old.  Play was always the thing with Angela.  I remember hiding from her backstage during performances and she’d always hunt me down and hit me with her cane. 
I was first mesmerized by her in BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS, (which she graciously condescended to discuss with me as a child in my 50’s), but my favorite role of hers was Mrs Lovett in SWEENY TODD — In the early 80’s, I  checked the album out of my hometown public library every two weeks for the better part of a year. 
And, of course, my favorite photo is of her, resplendent in medieval dress, tucking into a big hamburger with Basil Rathbone at the Paramount commissary while filming THE COURT JESTER.  Pure Angela!”


PHYLICIA RASHAD

I was privileged to work with Angela Lansbury in “Murder She Wrote.”  She was wonderful!  Warm and personable, professional, and oh so kind.  Her eyes were filled with light.  She was filled with light and love.  I treasure her memory.


JEFFREY RICHARDS

“For my memories all are exciting
My memories all are enchanted
My memories burn in my head with a steady glow”…those are the lyrics from the hauntingly beautiful Jerry Herman song which Dame Angie (as I called her) sang so memorably in “Dear World”  I had the privilege of presenting her in “Blithe Spirit” and “Gore Vidal’s The Best Man”…one word captures what she meant to me and to so many of us  Class.


MOLLY RINGWALD

What a legend. I don’t believe we ever met. I think I would’ve remembered, and I wasn’t lucky enough to have seen her onstage since I grew up a California kid, but of course I know her film career. Let me think about it. I have many connections TO her (I did a film with Len Cariou who was in Sweeney Todd on Broadway) and She was the great aunt of my friend Ally Sheedy’s son. Off the top of my head, I would have to say the Manchurian Candidate always blows me away. Especially the fact that she was playing Laurence Harvey’s mother when they were almost the same age.


MICHAEL RUPERT

Angela Lansbury, in all the times I saw her on stage, made me want to constantly work to be better, to be truly committed to the work at hand and to be a real professional. She made the theater an amazing profession by example.  My favorite performance of hers   Mrs.Lovett in Sweeney Todd. Though, Elvis Presley’s doting mother in Blue Hawaii is a close second.

When I was a young teenager, I moved to NYC from California to be in a Broadway show, The Happy Time.  For my performance, I got a Tony nomination. The day of the Tony Awards show, we gathered for rehearsal and camera blocking at The Shubert Theater, where the televised awards were to be presented that year. At some point in the afternoon, I was sitting alone in the house, watching everything that was happening, when Audrey Hepburn (who was a presenter that year) came and sat beside me and started quietly chatting, asking to know all about me, my career and what show I was in, etc.. Then Angela joined us. And she seemed to be as genuinely interested in my young life in the theater as Ms. Hepburn. They both made a 16-year-old making his Broadway debut feel like a true member of the theater and acting community. And made him feel very special that day. 


MATTHEW BYAM SHAW

Angela Lansbury had the grace, intelligence and enormous talent which made her a true star and a joy to work with. She had an unstoppable mix of charisma and empathy which made her beloved by the public and colleagues alike. Her family political history in the British Labour movement rooted her in the proper principles of decency, respect and fellowship which shone through in her work and elevated her further.

MY favorite Angela performance from stage (and/or screen)?   As a small boy I was besotted with Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

After her triumph on Broadway she enjoyed the same great success with Blithe Spirit here in London at the Gielgud with such humility and delight. It was intoxicating and made the company and all of us at Playful Productions determined to have the best time possible with a great legend in our midst.


PHILLIPA SOO

Though I never met Angela Lansbury, her portrayal as the voice of Mrs. Potts  in Beauty and the Beast is one of most distinct voices I can recall from my childhood. It was familiar, like a warm hug. What an icon. She has lived the exemplary life of an artist. 


RICHARD THOMAS

I believe she had the perfect career.  Long and varied in all mediums.  Success both artistic and commercial.  Delicious performances laced with wit, warmth and occasional creepiness.  And an unswerving loyalty to the theater.  

I can never get Mrs. Lovett out of my mind.  She’s always there, inviting me to have a pie.

We shared the same neighborhood and enjoyed many conversations in that orbit.  I never played with her, but knew her and revered her as a colleague.  And she was a truly lovely person.   Here’s to Angie!

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Interviews

A Tribute to Angela Lansbury

All week long, we celebrate the life and legacy of Angela Lansbury. Here are tributes, stories, memories and the love we remember.

Today: Eric McCormack, Ian McShane, Jessie Mueller, Casey Nicholaw, Kelli O’Hara, Steven Pasquale, Austin Pendleton, Neil Pepe, Kenneth Posner, Zachary Quinto and Ann Roth


ERIC McCORMACK

I fell in love with Angela the first time I heard Sweeney Todd. I was seventeen. While I came to realize, years later, how many iconic roles she’d originated, and how incredibly versatile she was, I was blown away. But Mrs Lovett will always be my favorite hilarious at first, then sweet as pie when she fantasizes about living with Sweeney; heartbreakingly maternal with Toby, and finally downright vicious with Lucy… Angela was such a treasure because she brought so much depth and range to a character. Her dedication to coming back to the theatre year after year, despite such an incredible run in film and on TV, has always been inspirational to me. Her career just screams, “You can have it all, but you gotta WORK for it, constantly. And you gotta LOVE it.” There was nothing cynical in Angela; the work mattered, right up till the end.

I got to share the stage with Angie for six months, during Gore Vidal’s The Best Man. Still vital at 86, funny and chatty. My son was 10 at the time, and stood backstage during curtain call for a whole week once; and every night, as she exited the stage, she and James Earl Jones would high five my boy as they passed him. He knew who Darth Vader was; I hope one day he comes to appreciate the other giant of the theatre who greeted him all that week. 


IAN McSHANE

On stage, screen and Life …….

She was fabulous 

One of the GOATs, and sexy .


JESSIE MUELLER

I grew up with Angela Lansbury in two of my favorite childhood films, The Court Jester and Bedknobs and Broomsticks.  There was something about her voice, her cheeky sense of humor; she could do it all.  In later years, I realized she was Mame, a Sondheim darling and of course the star of Murder She Wrote. She’s one of those great dames of the theatre that I’m not sure we’ll ever see the like of again. May she rest in peace!  What a legend.


CASEY NICHOLAW

Angela Lansbury was an icon to me growing up – the elegance, the voice, the comedy.  She was musical theater personified – truthful, yet heightened.  My family didn’t have any money when I was a kid in San Diego so my entertainment was checking out albums from the library and learning about all of the Broadway musicals.  I loved Sweeney Todd and Mame and also Anyone Can Whistle – especially her songs.  My favorite Angela performance (from stage or screen)  The Manchurian Candidate. I only got to meet her once – and it was such a thrill – she sat directly in front of me when she came to see Anyone Can Whistle at Encores and it was so much fun to watch her watch it – and she was also so complimentary afterward.  It was a dream come true for my teen aged self.


KELLI O’HARA

She was the sort of star I admire the most. She never had to tell the world she was a star.  It was just undeniable because of her work.   I loved her gentle kindness.   

I grew up watching her on television, so it wasn’t until I heard her recording of Sweeney Todd that I truly understood just how versatile she was, just how brilliant.  One of a kind sound, one of a kind look, unmatched ability.  I was often at different events or galas performing somewhere in the same line-up (Jerry Herman’s Kennedy Center Honor, etc.) so it was the personal interaction back stage or just off the stage when i could really see her true colors…a moment under pressure and yet her warmth and generosity to take a moment of her own time to acknowledge the gawking admirer.  She would beat me to a compliment or a word of encouragement rather than let me shower her.  That sort of star, who eases the air for a younger admirer, holds a special place in my heart. 


STEVEN PASQUALE


Angela Lansbury is the shining example of a theater artist. Despite lots of success in tv and film she always always returned to the stage. A great example for those of us addicted to a life in the theater.

Without question my favorite Angela Lansbury performance…Bedknobs and Broomsticks.  I have no idea if that movie even holds up but I have incredible memories of seeing it for the first time as a small child. 

I’ve done a handful of concerts/benefits with her and found her to be utterly charming and aware of how impactful interacting with us would be for us. 


AUSTIN PENDLETON

What she meant — and means — to me is that, as an actor, you can just keep on stretching.  You can be adventurous.  Continually.

I think, if I had to choose, that Sweeney Todd is my favorite of her performances.

I knew her slightly.  I worked with her once, on an episode of “Murder, She Wrote.”

She was DEMANDING.  Excitingly so.  I’d love to have worked with her again and again.


NEIL PEPE

To me, Angela Lansbury has always been an inspiration for the incredible range of her roles and her extraordinary work ethic. From theater to film to TV, she consistently delivered surprising and rich performances in everything she did.  Angela performances that jump out to me when I think of her are Gaslight, The Manchurian Candidate and Bedknobs and Broomsticks.   I never met Angela Lansbury but she continues to give me hope for longevity in this business.


KENNETH POSNER   

I had the good fortune to design the lighting for one of Angela Lansbury’s last Broadway shows, Gore Vidal’s The Best Man.  She was a kind force and I remember her being very gracious to all of us on the other side of the foot lights.  Her range and diversity as an artist was an inspiration to anyone who cherishes making theatre.


ZACHARY QUINTO

Angela – to me – represented longevity via authenticity and good old fashioned talent. She was eloquent and tenacious and nuanced and always understood the assignment. The theater is a more vivid community because of her performances and the excellence of her craft. She was an anchor of the art form – and her absence will be felt deeply by anyone lucky enough to have seen her on stage. 

My favorite Angela performance is hands down Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd. I never got to see it live – but watched the recording dozens of times. She brings that character to life with equal parts humor heart desperation and devotion to dizzying effect. It is in my estimation peak Angela Lansbury.

Sadly I never got to meet her. A fact which I find particularly lamentable now that she’s gone. May she rest well in the knowledge that she shaped and inspired the lives of generations of young performers and delighted audiences the world over.


ANN ROTH

Angela has always meant the gold standard. You knew from the minute you began to work with her that you had to raise yourself up to her standard as best you could. That is what she has meant to me and I believe to the theatre at large. Her presence and work was an example to everyone who worked with her. 

Everyone says Manchurian Candidate is their favorite performance of hers and I would like to watch that every year. But Ms. Lansbury was in my first picture The World of Henry Orient and I was introduced to her ethic and her humor then and so it has a forever spot in my heart. She was also so very brilliant as Mama Rose in Arthur Laurents’ Gypsy. What an actress! 

Let it be known that, when I was living in Dorothy Jerkins’ garage in the late fifties, Dorothy arranged for me to babysit Angela’s children. This consisted of me putting the, then maybe six and seven year olds, into the roof well of my MG  convertible and driving them around. But,  in the last play we did together, Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, we had the most giggles ever working on the fabulous wig that Paul Huntley made for her. Not every actress, in fact practically none of them, can work a wig like that, let me just say. 

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Interviews

A Tribute to Angela Lansbury

All week long, we celebrate the life and legacy of Angela Lansbury. Here are tributes, stories, memories and the love we remember.

Today: Marin Ireland, Cherry Jones, Adam Kantor, Stacy Keach, John Larroquette, Kenny Leon, Patti LuPone, Joe Mantello and Michael Mayer.


MARIN IRELAND

One of the things I’m proudest of in my life is losing a Tony Award to Angela Lansbury. 

I first became aware of the breadth of her career when I watched the movie Gaslight to prepare for a summer stock production of Angel Street the year I turned 21. She knocked my socks off. Her self-assured charm and comedic vitriol seemed otherworldly, I couldn’t believe she had done that a few years younger than I was. I had only known of her as Jessica Fletcher and heard tell of her Broadway career, the stuff of legend. 

Then it was 2009 and I was on Broadway for the first time. And she was there too, making a triumphant return in Blithe Spirit. I was lucky enough to witness her performance. Once again, I could not believe my eyes. How was she moving like that? Those high kicks? Getting those laughs upon laughs? She was pure magic. The epitome of ease and grace. 

Whenever the five nominees were at an event, the other four of us would shyly gather and someone would say what we were all thinking “should we go say hello to Dame Angela?”

We were too starstruck individually. And none of us would have dared if we didn’t have the excuse of sharing a category. It was a little silly, the idea of being “up against” Dame Angela. But I was so grateful for the excuse to be near her. 

We would go and genuflect and she couldn’t have been kinder or more gracious, every time. We attempted small talk but mostly just fawned and tried to be cool. It was giddying, humbling, and inspiring to be in her presence. 

And I’ll never forget the rush of emotion—joy and awe and reverence—as I leapt to my feet to applaud her when she won, tears in my eyes. I turned to my mother and she had the same look on her face I did. “Look at her”, I said. “Wow.”


CHERRY JONES

In 1974 on my Thanksgiving break Freshman year at Carnegie Mellon I came to NY to visit a friend who surprised me with tickets to Gypsy.  I already worshiped Angela Lansbury. The previous Spring I’d played Mame in MAME at Henry County High School in Paris, Tennessee. I’d STUDIED the original Broadway cast album and every syllable, every note that came out of Ms Lansbury.    I’d never heard a speaking voice or singing voice like hers. As unique as any voice I’ve ever heard.  

What I remember most about her Gypsy was the force, the power the speed of her Rose.  Her energy level was through the roof.  She had no time to waste making her girls stars.  By the time she sang “Rose’s Turn”, arms stretched over her head, her force was so tremendous it was as though  she was  lifting the roof like a pot boiling over and lifting the lid.  At curtain call she seemed she seemed as though she could have asked the conductor to “hit it” and performed the entire show again from the top.

I saw the same tremendous burning captivating energy in her Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd.  I was on the last row in the theater for the first act and found an empty single seat in the middle of the front row for the second act.

I was feet away when she sang “Nothing’s gonna harm you…”.  Her  hands as she wrapped herself round the boy were so large, beautiful and eloquent.  I felt wrapped by her too.  

She was a Sequoia. 


ADAM KANTOR

Angela not only represented ferocious talent and commitment to character, but a rare generosity of spirit — an inimitable blend of warmth and grace.  She emanated humanity from every pore, and one could feel a sense of empathy that she carried — so evident in her work and how she approached her characters.  

I loved how she seemed to love and embrace what Mrs Potts meant to the world – particularly to younger generations.  It makes me think of her genuine care and interest in her own grandchildren, and my own relationship with my grandmother. 

I’ll never forget Angela visiting us backstage at FiddlerI had the pleasure of filming Alexandra Silber’s reaction to meeting her.  Angela was (and always will be) Al’s idol. Al wept upon meeting her.  Angela said to Al “If I was one small part of your success, I would be very happy.”  


STACY KEACH

She graced our lives with an elegance and a generosity of spirit that left a trail of love and inspiration for actors everywhere.  Regrettably, I never had the honor and privilege to work with her, but her presence among us, the gifts she bestowed on us with her iconic performances, matched only by her gracious warmth, places Angela Lansbury in a class all by herself.  Her legend will live in our hearts and minds forever. 


JOHN LARROQUETTE

Angela Lansbury was, to me, a beacon. A remarkable human and a towering talent. Working with her on Broadway was a privilege and a soul enriching experience I will never forget. She was kind, witty, charming and dedicated to our craft like no one I had met before. To stand on stage with her was a dream. Often I had to remind myself to keep acting and not just sit and admire her. 

I was able to do the latter a few years ago when my wife and I had the pleasure of seeing her in Blithe Spirit on stage. 

She will always be a giant of the theatre and a remarkable artist who will live on forever. 


KENNY LEON

I remember seeing Angela Lansbury in Sweeney Todd.  How could an actor engage me so deeply in a story? The performance was transformative and has lived within my artistic soul for so many years. It has inspired me to realize that if one tells a story, fully committed the audience is always ready to take the ride. Thank you Ms Lansbury for giving me the courage always needed to tell the stories that need to be told.  

My favorite Angela performance  Sweeney Todd. 

She spoke to me during Tony Awards week… She spoke to me… I’m a soldier in her army…she spoke to me. So grateful for her sharing her gift with us. 


PATTI LUPONE

Angela has always been a standard bearer, whether on stage or on film. She was an effortless actor, an intelligent, empathetic, technically dazzling actor. Her performances on stage were indelible. There may be other interpretations but Angela’s always leads. She was certainly never far from my mind when I played my first Sondheim role, Nellie Lovett in Sweeney Todd.

I can’t pinpoint one role of Angela’s. But Gaslight, The Manchurian Candidate and Sweeney Todd jump out at me.

Angela was a great lady. Kind, generous, supportive. When we did see each other there was such warmth. If she saw a performance of mine she let me know. She was always gracious when I visited her backstage. And I know from experience sometimes you just want to go home. Her last performance I believe was A Little Night Music. I visited her but was keenly aware of not keeping the Lady too long. But I had to pay my respect. She was a jewel. She was adored. She was an Artist of the highest caliber. 


JOE MANTELLO

The theatre definitely lost one of the greats this past week.  I was lucky enough to see Ms L give many remarkable performances over the years, starting with my very first Broadway show—SWEENEY TODD. I’m not sure I ever recovered. 


MICHAEL MAYER

AL was a consummate artist, and her dedication to the theatre was an ongoing source of inspiration for generations of theatre makers. She was a living reminder that generosity, kindness, and personal dignity were compatible with enormous talent and drive and the quest for excellence.) I saw the original cast of Sweeney Todd at the Uris Theatre and her Mrs. Lovett made an indelible impression. I also loved her Rose in Gypsy which I saw on tour.  My favorite screen performance is The Manchuria Candidate, but because she had scenes with Judy, I am a little obsessed with her in The Harvey Girls.  I had the great honor of directing the Drama League benefit honoring Angie, so I spent some real time with her, and to say that those moments were memorable would be a gigantic understatement. She also gave us our Best Musical Tony for Spring Awakening. #bucketlist

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Interviews

A Tribute to Angela Lansbury

All week long, we celebrate the life and legacy of Angela Lansbury. Here are tributes, stories, memories and the love we remember.

Today: Kerry Butler, Brian Cox, Bryan Cranston, Michael Feinstein, Santino Fontana and Julie Halston


KERRY BUTLER

Angela had the career we all dream of.    She crossed over into  theater, television and film and did it effortlessly.  She is a theater icon for roles like Mame and Mrs. Lovett.   My family and I loved to watch her on Murder She Wrote.   I am a huge Disney fan, so I’m partial to Beauty and the Beast and Bednobs and Broomsticks.   


Working with Angela Lansbury on The Best Man was an honor and privilege.    She has an unmatched career- what I didn’t know was how kind she was.     No one on that show could be a diva because Angela and James Earl Jones (I think both in their 80’s at the time) were so kind, down to earth and such hard workers.    Before one scene I got to sit on a couch with Candice Bergen and Angela, and Angela would tell us stories about growing up in the business.   She said her mother (also a performer)  would travel with her when she was a baby, and she would sleep in a dresser  drawer!   Working with her was a highlight of my career.   


BRIAN COX

Angela has to be admired and wondered at for the sheer extraordinary range of her work from Film, TV…Dramatic and  Musical Theatre …which is probably unequalled by any other actress..ever. 

She was such a tremendous,  benevolent and consistently  constant force in our business.

It’s extremely hard to imagine our game without Angela Lansbury.

Of course her greatest performance for me was…Eleanor Shaw in the Manchurian Candidate.

To think she was actually three years older than Laurence Harvey who played her son. A compelling study of Matriarchal Evil. And so much the antithesis of who she was as a kind an considerate person.  An awe inspiring acting achievement. I was 16 when I saw it… she completely scared the shit out of me.

Unforgettable.

One of my regrets, having been such a fan…is ..sadly I never met…but…What an actress!


BRYAN CRANSTON

Angela was an amazing actor.   A champion among us all.  Those of us who go to do a Murder, She Wrote (or three) and got to experience her craft that she handled with such grace.  On film she was treacherous in The Manchurian Candidate and delightful in Beauty and the Beast.  But it was on stage where she truly lived and I was marveled by her work in Blithe Spirit, Gore Vidal’s The Best Man and, of course, Sweeney Todd.  The curtain is lowered now, Ms. Lansbury…the show’s over, and you were splendid!


MICHAEL FEINSTEIN

One of the most powerful and inspiring things about Angela was her strong sense of self combined with true compassion and kindness towards all. Everyone was treated equally. She knew exactly who she was and what she could do, and her unwavering sense of that eventually resulted in achieving her goals when others might have given up earlier in the game.

My favorite performance of hers was the reunion with Len Cariou at the Hollywood Bowl for the Sondheim 80th Birthday Tribute when they recreated “A Little Priest”. It was a time capsule and we were all transported back to 1979. She was ageless.

Accompanying her at the piano (for a special event) was a wonderful experience, and I was taken by how insecure she felt when she wasn’t portraying a character and just being herself. She needn’t have been, for she sang wonderfully just as Angela Lansbury!

One time I went to see her in Blithe Spirit I noticed that the once fearsome critic John Simon was seated to my left and was out cold, snoring in his seat. When I went backstage and mentioned it to her, thinking she’d find it funny, she didn’t. She responded “Who does he write for?” and I said “Bloomberg”. She lightened up immediately, and laughingly said, “Oh, then it doesn’t matter”. 


SANTINO FONTANA

I’m thinking back to my childhood and remember seeing her in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, then hearing her singing the title song in Beauty and the Beast.  All while the adults in my family were watching Murder She Wrote.  Then I remember the older theater kids in my school passing me a top secret video tape of this adult show called Sweeney Todd.  Was that the same woman?  My high school did a production of this never done show, Anyone Can Whistle…”here Santino listen to the cast album, it’ll make more sense.” That’s the same woman again?  Then once I was old enough, my  grandfather recommended I watch The Manchurian Candidate.  That’s her too??? Years later, I was asked to sing at a benefit honoring Hal Prince.  Afterwards, a gentle, warm woman approached me.  “Hi, I’m Angela.  That was quite good.  Who are you?”  She could be considered a legend for the sheer volume of work she created.  She could be considered a legend for the expansive diversity of her work dramatic feature films, children’s animated films, musical dramas, musical comedies, television series and movies, Noel Coward plays, Terrence McNally plays…it goes on and on.  She was limitless. But what I think makes her truly legendary is how in all of her performances she somehow found her way into our hearts. She made us feel like we knew her and she loved us.  My favorite Angela performances   Sweeney Todd, Manchurian Candidate, Bedknobs and Broomsticks.


JULIE HALSTON

A few words regarding this simply legendary performer and person.

The quality of her work is known of course but the longevity of her career is what I find so amazing and frankly inspiring as an artist.  That this woman , whose charm and grace and professionalism was very well known could also keep reinventing herself with a variety of skills is what means so much to me as an artist. Film star, Broadway Star, Television Star, Animation Star -was there anything she couldn’t do?!  and all with the above mentioned charm and grace.

Her performance as Laurence Harvey’s ruthless mother, Eleanor  in the film The Manchurian Candidate still makes me shudder with her sly, flirtatious and utterly terrifying portrayal.  

And although I did not see her on Broadway in Mame , I remember very well the 1975 Tony Awards when she came down those stairs and ended up in the arms on Mayor John V. Lindsay -she was surprised and laughing ( it’s on YOUTUBE) I just thought this was the most glamour I’ve ever seen ! ( I had not met Charles Busch yet !)

Speaking of Charles Busch,  Angela was a great admirer of Charles’ work and we were all beside ourselves when she came ( with Ian McKellen !!) to the downtown Soho Playhouse to see The Divine Sister – She and Ian had a wonderful time and of course pictures were taken ! And then , a few years later I did a workshop with Angela of the Ahrens / Flaherty musical  Anastasia . The minute she saw me , she threw her arms around me and said “ Darling I’m still laughing about the nuns you and Charles played !”  She was so kind to me and everyone and I kept thinking “ Is this happening ?”

We were blessed to witness this extraordinary talent , this fabulous woman and this true legend. We were lucky – we may never see the likes of her again.

Categories
Interviews

A Tribute to Angela Lansbury

All week long, we celebrate the life and legacy of Angela Lansbury. Here are tributes, stories, memories and the indelible life we remember and will never forget.

Today: Jason Alexander, Debbie Allen, Annaleigh Ashford, Elizabeth Ashley, Candace Bergen, Andre Bishop and Danny Burstein.


Angela gave me a big, heartfelt hug and then put my face in her hands and said, “my darling boy, the papers never get it right.

JASON ALEXANDER

Let me just share a personal story.

It is fairly well known that I was reluctant to be in the cast of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway because when I was approached it was conceived as a giant dance review of Jerry’s best Broadway choreography. And clearly, I couldn’t dance it. But they kept saying that I was to be “the host” of the show. And that didn’t sound like much of a task for an actor so I kept passing.

Eventually I understood what the role could be and took it and eventually won a Tony for it. But during the early part of the run, the New York Times did an interview with me in which I was trying to explain my reluctance to be cast as I have done here for you. And I said to the interviewer, “they kept telling me I was going to be the host. The host? I mean, what is that? Angela Lansbury is the greatest host in Tony history but even she wouldn’t want to do that eight times a week”. 

Somehow, when the article came out, that quote was paraphrased by the author saying something like, “Jason feared he’d be stuck in a hosting role like Angela Lansbury”. So not what I said!!!!!! It felt so demeaning and dismissive of Angela. I was devastated. I wanted to reach out to her to explain but I didn’t know her and didn’t now how I could reach her. So, I just let it go and hoped she wouldn’t see it.

Months later she came to our show. And in true Great Lady of the Theater form, she came backstage to shower compliments on our company. But she specifically came to my dressing room and gushed over my performance for a solid five minutes with compliments so lush that I could barely stand. And all the while I was thinking, “should I say something? Should I mention the article?” I remained silent and after a thorough exhalting from Dame Angela, she began to walk away. And at that moment I broke.

I ran to her and said, “Ms. Lansbury, I have to tell you…I don’t know if you ever saw it or heard about it but I was so horribly mis-quoted in the Times. I was trying to explain that being a great host is not an easy task but that it is not something an actor would necessarily find challenging in a long run of a show and I referenced you lovingly but they got it all wrong and I have felt terrible ever since thinking you would think I would ever go anything but revere every moment of your work and I’m sorry I didn’t say this earlier but I’ve just been so embarrassed”. 

Angela gave me a big, heartfelt hug and then put my face in her hands and said, “my darling boy, the papers never get it right. I saw it. And I was delighted just to see that a young artist like yourself even knew who I was”. She had seen it. And despite what it sounded like, she came backstage and showered me with affection and praise, and then walked away. If I hadn’t said something, she would never have known if the paper was right or wrong. And it didn’t matter to her. She knew who she was. She knew her worth. She was a woman of the theater. 

I met Angela several times over the years after that, even doing several benefits with her. We always shared a good laugh over that experience. She was grace and dignity and good fun and true professionalism through and through. She was a queen. And she left us with her amazing legacy of work and spirit. God bless her.


DEBBIE ALLEN   

I had the distinct pleasure of being in Angela’s company during her many appearances 

on THE ACADEMY AWARDS celebrations when Gil Cates was producing.  I think he was surely one of her greatest fans. She was beyond delightful and fun to be around. So funny, so many great stories and so gracious, while being very grounded by her personal life. Her son was her favorite and best companion. She was one of a kind, and will be remembered with tremendous respect and always a smile.


I want to be her when I grow up. Always have and always will.

ANNALEIGH ASHFORD

Angela Lansbury was one of the greats. A truly magical artist. She had the wonderful combination of craft and God given talent. Most of all, she was not only a great performer but she was a great human. There was clearly such a love and respect for the theatre as an artform and for the theatre community. She also showed those of us who are mothers in the theatre that it is possible to do eight shows a week and have a family. 

My favorite Angela performances  Mrs. Lovett, Mame, Mama Rose. The list goes on and on. But I will aways have a uniquely special place for Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

I met her three times. I cried every time. She is one person that I was truly unable to control my emotions in front of. I couldn’t talk and had to walk away. I had such a profound sense of gratitude for her as an artist. I have always felt connected to her body of work and her commitment to being a character actress. I want to be her when I grow up. Always have and always will.


ELIZABETH ASHLEY

Countless hearts were broken last week when beloved Angela Lansbury left us for that big ole dressing room in the sky. Where else would she go?

I know exactly where she is right this minute because –

it’s always ‘half hour’ somewhere.

She’s at her dressing table, staring in the mirror and putting herself through that ancient ritual actors have been doing since Euripides wrote the script.

First, pinning and securing her wig cap and starting her makeup. Then, Angela’ll take that little piece of sandpaper she always has tucked under her hairpin box and scratch the soles of the shoes she’ll be wearing when she makes her first entrance onstage. “Insurance against slippage,” Angela says.

“15 minutes please” will be heard over the dressing room intercom, until “five minutes please” blares everywhere backstage. Then comes the always slightly terrifying “places please, ladies and gentlemen. Places, please.” And off she goes, like the thoroughbred she is.

In the weeks, months, and years to come, every superlative in the dictionary will be used in remembrance of Angela Lansbury. All will be accurate and true. I racked what’s left of my brain to recapture my immediate visceral response when I first heard “Angela Lansbury died.” Two words blazed thru me –

1.)    Monumental – defined in Oxford Dictionary as ‘Great in importance, extent, or size.’

2.)    Champion. Bottom line, she is and will always be the Muhammad Ali of performing artists in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Her artistry, creative imagination, strength, generosity of spirit, perseverance, humility, determination, kindness, immeasurable talent, professionalism, and dedication set a bar so high it can never be attained – only aspired to.

I’ve known Angela since the early 1970’s. Later, I did a couple of guest shots on Murder, She Wrote, and we became friends. Once, I was being considered for a job that I desperately needed both financially and professionally but was told I was at the bottom of the list because much more famous actresses were being considered.  During the ‘waiting to hear’ period I ran into Angela on a film lot. She asked what I was doing, and I told her. I’ll never forget her response. She told me she’d never been first choice for any of the best parts she’d done in film or on stage! She said – “you walk into that room and just tell them they should know that part has your name all over it!”

One of the most daunting jobs I ever did was when Jeffrey Richards asked me to replace Angela when she was leaving The Best Man on Broadway. Angela would continue for a week while I rehearsed during the day. She not only insisted that I use her dressing room when I had a break in rehearsal, but she also helped clarify the blocking that was all new to me. She even gave me tips on how to navigate the sometimes-complicated scene changes.

It goes without saying I was always a super fan. Her range was unmatched and awesome. Her body of work is so vast it’s impossible to single out any one thing.

I’m always fascinated by the choices actors make in extremely difficult roles. Angela’s work in The Manchurian Candidate – She was terrifying, but at the same time you understood and empathized with her.

I’ll never forget the opening night of Sweeney Todd. You fell in love with her and just wanted more and more of her horrifying pies. Truly, we’ll not see her like again.

So, to the original genuine ‘wild Irish rose,’ – One last time, “Places, please.”

P.S.- Thanks for leaving that little scrap of sandpaper on the dressing room table – it’s my ‘Angie-treasure’ –

(“No slippage.”)


CANDICE BERGEN

Angela has been, to an actor, Eternal. Like the coastline or the Empire State Building. Always excellent and always with great range. She could sing, probably dance, and she won tons of awards for acting. 

One memory I have of her (which I was actually shocked by) was her doing leg lifts and tours jetes holding onto the podium backstage before the curtain went up. She’d had hundreds of surgeries hip and knee replacements and she was almost cocky about her flexibility. I got it. She was remarkable. Meticulous about her work on stage. A couple of times I tripped her up because I was late with a cue and afterwards she told me, “It all makes a difference. Every little thing triggers something else. I need it all to be exact.” She was right and I learned the importance of discipline in one’s work from her. Discipline and pride. 

She had enormous stamina, she was 86 when we worked together in THE BEST MAN and she never missed a performance, never arrived a minute late. She had a system and she kept to it and it paid off. I’ve never worked with anyone more professional . She was a pleasure and it was a privilege.


How lucky we all are to have shared the planet with a soul as transcendent as Angela Lansbury’s.

REED BIRNEY

In 1968, I was in ninth grade in Wilmington, Delaware. My mother had been so disappointed that she hadn’t seen Angela Lansbury in MAME, so when this incredible ad appeared in the Sunday Arts and Leisure section announcing DEAR WORLD, my father sent right off for ticket for the whole family to trek to NYC so we wouldn’t miss out again. 

I think it was a Saturday night in December, up to The Big City we came, all seven of us, full of anticipation. I, who had always wanted to be an actor, was out of my mind with excitement. We stayed in the Howard Johnson’s at 51st and Eight Avenue (now the Hampton Inn) right around the corner from The Mark Hellinger. We had dinner at Les Pyrénées, now long gone, next to the theater and my oldest brother who was 18, had his first legal drink, a daquiri. We arrived in our coats and ties at the gorgeous theater (still unchanged inside even though it has ceased to be a theater.) The lobby was out of control with excitement. They were handing out the souvenir programs for free (I still have it) because the creative team detailed inside had been replaced, the director Peter Glenville was out and Joe Layton had taken over. The play was supposed to have already opened by the time we were there but because of the switcheroo, changes were still being made, songs listed in the Playbill were gone and new ones not listed were sung. The show must’ve been in trouble because Peter Glenville hadn’t even been the first director, the ad had announced Lucia Victor. 

None of that mattered. The memory of sitting there at 14 is as vivid to me today as it was that cold and long ago Saturday night. Angela Lansbury’s iconic status even then– just within our family– was permanently sealed. Her performance that night was seared into my still plastic brain, and when she won the Tony the following spring, we were all as proud as if she’d been a member of our family.

I think for all of us in the theater, we felt like she was a member of our family, a great aunt–is her name Mame?–who was always there full of joy and celebration. I saw her many times on stage after that, and it was always the same incredible jolt I felt at 14 to be in her presence and see her making magic. And my children saw her on stage. I certainly can think of no other actor, even legendary ones, who appealed to so many of us for so many reasons. She could do it all, and did, so the musical theater aficionados had that that Angela, straight play lovers had their Angela and movie buffs worshiped her for her gorgeous performances on film. Plus she was one classy classy lady, always carrying herself impeccably, even after the days when that was no longer in fashion. She set very high standards in every aspect of her life.

Forty years after I saw her in DEAR WORLD, I asked was to do a reading with her. It was a talented and seasoned group of actors but we were all flabberghasted that she, at that point in her astonishing career, would be into spending her day like so many of us do, in a conference room with a handful of fellow artists, exploring a new play. She was incredibly collegial, relaxed and generous and stayed after to discuss the flaws and strengths of the play, just like the rest of us. Still setting a standard of integrity and artistry. How to be an artist, on and off the stage. 

I, of course, couldn’t believe, that my journey had led me from that cold night at The Mark Hellinger Theater to sitting in a conference room with Angela Lansbury. Such was the miracle of her career, it just seemed that she was just always there, a beacon for generations, and we had no reason to think she wouldn’t continue to always be there.

But actually, she lived one of those lives that will always be there. Her work is incredibly well documented, and the fact that her first performances on film remain as fresh and alive today as when they were filmed lets us know her work will never go out of fashion or appear dated. Several of her film performances are touchstones and inspirations for me on how to be a great film actor THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, ALL FALL DOWN. She has a moment in THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT that continues to take my breath away, even thinking about it.  Such is the result of living an authentic and truthful life that she brought effortlessly to her work. And also being as talented as a person can be.

How lucky we all are to have shared the planet with a soul as transcendent as Angela Lansbury’s.

When we got home to Wilmington the next day after seeing DEAR WORLD, I went off to a Christmas party at a friend’s house. As I was leaving to go, my mother, seeing how hopped up I was from our excursion to The Big City and Broadway, said, “Now, don’t go to the party and brag about our trip to see Angela Lansbury.” I can’t remember if I bragged at the party that night, but I have been bragging about it ever since. And I imagine I will for the rest of my life.


ANDRE BISHOP

Angela Lansbury was a great artist, and she was impressive particularly because she kept reinventing herself. First she was a saucy young movie actor; then a musical comedy star, then a beloved television icon. She taught us that you could be talented and impressive and still be decent and nice. She was fun and smart and she was an example of excellence to those of us in show business.

My favorite performance of hers would have to have been – what else – Mame!

I knew her only slightly but I remember one day when she was doing a reading here of The Chalk Garden she suddenly turned and said to me “I’ve played everywhere but I have never played the Beaumont. Do you think you might have room for me someday?”


DANNY BURSTEIN

Angela Lansbury epitomized “class” in the Theater. She was kind. She was a true professional. She worked hard and showed up night after night. She was incredibly talented. She led by example. And she was always good. 

My favorite Angela Lansbury performance? How can I not say Mrs. Lovett? She was fierce, funny, sexy and brilliant. And, what the hell, The Manchruian Candidate wasn’t bad either.

I met Angela on several occasions throughout the years. But my favorite time was after an early preview of Fiddler on the Roof. She came backstage to say hello to me. About a year before I’d gone backstage to visit John Lithgow after a show and he asked me to sign his “remembrance book”. I thought to myself, I should do this for all the people who come backstage after Fiddler – it’ll be a wonderful way for me to remember that time. The first person who came back was Angela and I was a little nervous & embarrassed to ask her to sign the book. I explained to her that John had done this and I thought it “might be a nice keepsake”. In an instant she grabbed the book, held it close to her heart, closed her eyes and said, “Oh, Danny, I have always wanted to do this!!!” Immediately all my nerves about asking people were gone. I mean if Angela Lansbury loved the idea, then it was definitely okay! She signed her autograph with a huge flourish, gave me a hug and was on her way. I’ll never forget it. I’ll never forget her.

Categories
Interviews

Eight Questions with Pulitzer Prize Winning and Cost of Living Playwright, Martyna Majok

By Robyn Roberts

Poland born Martyna Majok—her last name pronounced like “my oak”, which is perfect, really, because her path to get here is like that of a stunning and mighty tree that keeps growing upward—won the Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for her original play, Cost of Living. The play is a story about the relationships between the disabled and the abled, and the exploration into the parallels between the haves and the have-nots. Without even stopping to catch her breath as the curtain lifted on debut night, Majok graciously answered our most pressing questions we had for the playwright. 

Read on to learn how Majok draws on inspiration for her characters, her first peek at theatre (thanks, mom!), and how grief and financial instability led to a Pulitzer. 

Cast of COST OF LIVING

1). Give us a brief synopsis of your background. What your hopes and dreams were as a child, and how you came to be the playwright you are today. 

I was born in Poland and came to America with my mom a few years after the fall of The Wall. We moved to working class North Jersey — right at the end of the PATH train — where my mom worked in factories and cleaned houses. I didn’t grow up with theatre. Then one day, while my mom was cleaning a house, she came across a pamphlet that had been set out for recycling. It was for “something called ‘Cabaret’.” And John Stamos was starring in it. So my mom brought it home for me, informing me that “Uncle Jessie was in NYC!”  Around that same time, I’d won $45 playing pool (at a pool hall ironically named ‘Guys & Dolls’), the most I’d ever won. And the cheapest tickets happened to be $45…

I knew nothing about the show going in. This, of course, turned out to be the iconic Sam Mendes’ production at Studio 54, originally starring Alan Cumming. I was shaken to be in a theatre, full of that much life. And I was moved to be experiencing a story that did not compromise the difficulties of the times — and that reality invited me into its world and storytelling. It communicated to me that both things could exist together — truth and generosity — that ultimately connected a group of strangers to each other and to their own lives. There were many steps and struggles along the way to becoming a playwright, but it was that experience that lit the fire in me. I wanted to devote my days to inspiring that much life in others. 

Ironbound (Round House Theatre) Josiah Bania (Maks) and Alexandra Henrikson (Darja). Photo: Cheyenne Michaels

2). Tell us a little about your first successful piece of work, when you knew that life and work would be a bit different thereafter. 

The most personally meaningful moment at one of my own plays was at the opening night performance of Ironbound in Round House Theatre in DC. The play is largely inspired by my mother’s life. Like many working class immigrants, she spent much of her life doing the physically demanding, undersung work that keeps this country running. I was sitting next to my mother in the theatre. And as the final lights went down on the show, and the audience leapt to their feet for a standing ovation, I felt like they were applauding my mother. Standing up for and seeing her life and her struggles.

3) What inspires you to write a new play or story? Is it the world around you, perhaps? Or, experiences taken from moments and people throughout your life? 

A combination. There’s usually something churning in my life that I’m having trouble looking at. Then, something external will unexpectedly hit against that and get my imagination going — a moment I’ve observed, an anecdote I’ve heard, something I’ve read. I start writing once I can hear dialogue. And I learn who my characters are as I go.

Many, though not all, of my characters are composites of people I know or have been. The humor of one person, a particular experience of another, the speaking rhythms of this one or that one, etc — I mix bits of myself and others, and situate them in worlds I’ve lived in. I write to find out what I feel.

4) For Cost of Living, what inspired you to write this story? 

Grief. Financial instability. And my experiences as a caregiver.

Martyna Majok accepts the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Drama from Columbia University President Lee Bollinger. (Photo: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University)

5) Incredible to have won a Pulitzer. What was that recognition and winning that award like for you? 

Absolutely incredible. An amazing, amazing honor. And a complete surprise. When my agent called to tell me, I didn’t believe him for a full ten minutes. I hope most of all that the award, as well as the play being on Broadway, amplifies this story — and its performers — and encourages theatres to more widely produce stories like it. And not just on its small stages.

6) Any particular moments from seeing Cost of Living live that stick with you most? 

There is a moment in the play that I don’t want to spoil…but it has to do with the vulnerability of the human body. And every night, the audience has such a strong, collective reaction. At one point, an audience member even got out of her seat and started going toward the stage to try to help what she thought was happening. To me, those audience reactions show me how much we actually care for one another, as humans in the world. How connected we actually are.

7) What do you hope the audience learns, feels, or takes with them, after seeing Cost of Living

I hope they see themselves and others — and feel more connected, less alone. I hope they find a home with these characters. I hope they yearn with them. I hope they laugh and I hope they cry (I say this as someone who loves crying in the theatre.) I hope they feel every feeling. 

When I was preparing to start rehearsals, I worried whether I would be ‘over’ the play. But that first read hit me so deeply. It seemed to hit everyone in that room deeply. I think after having experienced these past two years, after all this collective loss and struggle, Cost of Living and its themes speak to us in a much more impactful way. The play’s been good for my soul. I hope it is for others’ as well.

Florence Welch and Martyna Majok in studio for The Great Gatsby Musical

8) How’s it going so far with The Great Gatsby

Wonderfully. Florence [Welch, of Florence + the Machine] and Thomas’ [Bartlett, a.k.a. Doveman] music is beautiful and transcendent. All the collaborators have been a joy to work with. I can’t wait to share this piece with the world.

[end]

And we cannot wait to see it. Our sincere thanks to Martyna Majok for indulging us so vivaciously. How fortunate we are, to have her unique perspectives unfold in diverse storytelling to better our own theatre experiences. Get your tickets to Cost of Living on Broadway now, and stay tuned for her upcoming adaptation of Broadway’s The Great Gatsby coming soon! 

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Interviews

The Kite Runner, Ohio State Murders, and what inspires Broadway Producer extraordinaire, Jayne Baron Sherman

By Robyn Roberts

Jayne Baron Sherman has produced a wealth of Broadway shows and her IBDB reads like a laundry list of the theatre’s best hits since the early aughts. From 2004’s A Raisin in the Sun to the long-running Kinky Boots ten years later, Sherman seems to know good storytelling and what might resonate with a wide audience. So we wondered—what inspires Jayne Baron Sherman to want to be a part of a new production? Luckily for us, Sherman obliged. Read on for the producer’s reflections on seeing more headscarves in the audience on Broadway, and the timely stage debut of a 91 year old author.

On the phone with Sherman, we dove right in. What inspires this producer to take on a new Broadway production? Sherman didn’t hesitate to answer, telling us that a story must touch her in a personal way, that she must feel compelled to share these stories and experiences with others. “It must touch my heart and soul, yes, but it also needs to have some impact on the world,” Sherman says. “Therefore, no fluff, but a chance to see everyday lives differently, through a new window.” Keeping her producer’s hat firmly on, Sherman adds that a new production must be commercially viable too, and that her instinct for this isn’t always right, but admits to having a pretty decent track record commercially, and we’d agree to that.

For the current production of American novelist Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, adapted for the stage by Matthew Spangler, Sherman tells us that two things have stuck with her most each time she sees it live (which is frequently): The sincere diversity, for starters, does her heart good. “Seeing more women in the audience with headscarves, it sticks with you,” she says. “Witnessing the way the audience is touched by the performances of the actors, and the actors themselves, feels new each time. Each production brings out a new reaction. The majority of times, they jump to their feet and cheer when the lights go on, which is unique for a play—usually reserved for musicals—but it’s a story of redemption that ends on an uplifting redemptive note, which is rewarding in storytelling.” 

Sherman goes on to explain that certain scenes from The Kite Runner still bring her to tears after so many times, and seeing the audience react similarly to that is special. “This is a fully authentic cast of fine actors that are so happy to be a part of this production. They are not out of central casting. They have been refugees themselves, or have immigrant family members. They’ve lived the life to truly share this window with you. It’s an experience.” 
The Kite Runner on Broadway is a must-see experience indeed, and one that will close soon, at the end of this month.

Speaking of current productions, we were curious about what Sherman thought was inspiring Broadway of late, so we asked her. We especially wanted to know if the producer thought there were any current parallels to the shows, whether that be nostalgia exacerbated by the pandemic, politics or pop culture or all of the above. Turns out, nostalgia will always play a leading role in audience demand, but quality content comes to mind too. “Showgoers are simply thrilled to be back”, Sherman tells us. “Nostalgia is always a big deal for viewers, and maybe more so right now. Into The Woods has a host of celebrity actors, which is a draw for out of towners especially. The Kite Runner is probably more timely now than during its London run. Especially with Afghanistan today, Ukraine, and Iran, most notably recent. The Kite Runner has adopted four different non-profits helping Helping refugees and women to resettle, and aiding women with diminished rights in Afghanistan, and other essential, timely and localized needs. We put inserts in Playbills with QR codes to get involved, and we have them on signage in the lobbies as well. These are vetted organizations and we’re finding that more and more people today want to help beyond their own backyards.”

As for what’s currently inspiring Sherman? We wanted to know where she goes for inspiration, and how she stays creatively motivated to keep going. It’s the old art of people watching for this producer. “I’m always looking for ways to expand people’s horizons and views, to help them see things a bit differently. As an activist in the LGBTQ+ community for years, I’m constantly inspired by storytelling that touches people in unfound ways and opens their eyes a bit wider. The ‘touching’ doesn’t need to be a hammer, it can be a nudge which can actually be more effective.” Sign us up for people watching with Jayne, stat. 

Finally, we wanted to know if Sherman could share any small tidbits about her upcoming production of Ohio State Murders, which debuts on Broadway in December. Giving us just a taste in order to entice us into the theatre for more, Sherman exudes excitement that’s a bit harder to contain. “It will be a very interesting evening of theatre! Audra McDonald plays a novelist, and she also plays herself as a younger college student. This is a cast of five actors and it unravels as a mystery—a whodunit—so the audience will be thoroughly engaged! There’s an exploration of race dynamics and how that’s unfolded over the years, which plays into the mystery of the story. Seeing this production live will be a riveting evening of 75 or 80 minutes total but it’s a big one. And, another absolutely thrilling main dish of this show—it’s the author, Adrienne Kennedy’s Broadway debut at 91 years old. Her debut will open the new James Earl Jones Theatre, a gorgeous spectacle to witness on its own.” 

The newly restored Cort Theatre on Broadway has been renamed the James Earl Jones Theater, on Sept.12, 2022 in New York.

Another noteworthy honor from the incredible playwright Adrienne Kennedy—in 2022 she became the sixteenth recipient of the Gold Medal award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for Drama. Only two awards in the rotating categories have been given each year since 1909, and the Drama list includes such talent as Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Sam Shepard, to name a few. 

Many thanks to Jayne Baron Sherman for allowing us to pick her Broadway-loving brain. 

Be sure and see The Kite Runner before its New York close this month, and get your tickets for this December’s production of the must-see mystery, the Ohio State Murders.