Grab a Dream and Sing Out
Hearing From the Women Who Made the Year’s Musicals Sing
“You’re not going to get us to pull each other’s hair,” Kelli O’Hara said as she and her four fellow Tony Award nominees for best actress in a musical — one of this year’s most competitive races — met recently to discuss life in the theater. But as warm as they were to one another, their words carried some bite about the business.
In a coincidence of timing, the five women gathered just two hours before the producers of Ms. O’Hara’s musical, “The Bridges of Madison County,” announced that the show will close on May 18 because of poor ticket sales. Ms. O’Hara, now a five-time Tony nominee, spoke with the insight and occasional bluntness of a survivor of flops past and present. So, too, did the other seen-it-all members of the group, the two-time Tony winner Sutton Foster (nominated for “Violet”) and the Tony winner Idina Menzel (“If/Then”), though their current shows are selling well.
Then there were the two relative newcomers: the best actress nominees Mary Bridget Davies (“A Night With Janis Joplin,” a flop) and Jessie Mueller (“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” a hit). They arrived first for the gathering, and still seemed in the thrall of Broadway. No matter their levels of experience, though, all five spoke with wonder about their careers: None had expected to make it big when they were belting in their bedrooms as teenagers. These are excerpts from the conversation.
Q: If you could go back and say something to your teenage self, what would it be?
Sutton Foster I was very overeager and chatty, so I would tell her to shut up and listen. Slow down. Watch.
Kelli O’Hara That you’ll have a place as long as you know what your place is and do that. Find out what you sell.
Foster Don’t try to be us.
O’Hara Though there was a time when I thought, ‘If only I could sing like Sutton.’
Jessie Mueller It’s harder to be yourself, though. There’s much more a chance of failure if you come across as unique, new. And it’s hard to be confident as a woman. The day we shot our photo together, I kept thinking: “What’s Kelli going to wear? What’s Sutton going to wear?”
O’Hara But, Jessie, you’re the most individual person who has showed up in this town in a long time.
Mueller Directors didn’t know what to do with me in college. I didn’t really sound like a belter. I didn’t look like a soprano. But in New York, I was in the right place at the right time, where my unusualness fit the bill.
Mary Bridget Davies My first performance is on VHS. A dance recital in a basement. I’m 3. My bun is the sloppiest. My little undies are sticking out underneath my tights. I can’t keep my arms up. I touch my feet and fall. People didn’t know what to make of me. I would go back and tell myself: Don’t let other voices get you down.
How much of your character this season is you?
Davies Janis is me. She was an outcast growing up. I was always talented enough to hang with the cool kids, but they didn’t accept me. I was better than them, technically, but they were prettier than me, so they couldn’t understand how I could be given attention.
Mueller Growing up, I never felt like the pretty girl. Carole King felt that.
Idina Menzel In “If/Then,” art’s imitating my life a little too much for me. Balancing kids, career, self, family. Starting over and taking risks, whether you like it or not. My character lets me get out onstage and work through my own stuff. I feel like every experience I’m having right now is preparing me for the next man I might meet, the next conflict I have with my son.
Sutton, you’re known for jubilant, glamorous roles in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “Anything Goes.” The character of Violet is anything but. Are you more in sync with one of those types?
Foster Violet’s from the South. I’m from the South. I used to be very religious. We used to watch televangelists growing up, so I understand her passion for true healing. I can’t relate to her having a physical scar, but I can relate to her having emotional scars, especially from my childhood, from my parents. But that’s a bottle of bourbon and a whole other day. I feel like the show is a gift — I get to conjure a parent and face them every night and forgive them and love them. That is, is, uh ——
Foster Very useful. But also very hard. And it’s probably the most vulnerable and exposed I’ve ever been onstage.
Menzel It’s interesting, pouring emotion into the singing. It’s actually very hard.
Foster I’m just blubbering and useless.
O’Hara I cry here. [Points to her nose]
Foster I’m leaking on Joshua Henry every night, and I’m like, “I’m so sorry!”
O’Hara I kiss Steven Pasquale and a snot hits his face, and he pulls apart from me, and it’s like ——
Davies Like a Toll House cookie.
O’Hara Thick and gross.
Have you played a role that left you feeling lousy afterward?
O’Hara The hardest role that I’ve ever tried to play was Clara Johnson in “Light in the Piazza” at Lincoln Center. It was the least fun I’ve ever had, but the most beautiful experience I’ve ever had. I could not understand her. I could not put my feet in her shoes. I came home every night, and I was depressed.
Menzel I felt very insecure through the whole rehearsal process of “Wicked.” I just didn’t feel powerful the way that Elphaba did. I’ll admit, there was one night when the director was giving me a lot of notes, and I felt like I wasn’t taking them in. I felt small. He said: “Get up there and take the stage. The thing is called ‘Wicked,’ so be a witch. Be a strong powerful sorceress.’ So I decided I would act as if Glenn Close was playing this role. [Laughter.] I took moments, I ate up time, I let the audience applaud more, because I wasn’t afraid to just stand there and take it in.
Foster I use Toni Collette. What would Toni Collette do?
Let’s talk about music. Four of your musicals have pop-inflected songs; Kelli’s score in “Bridges” comes closest to a classic Broadway sound. Is that sound disappearing?
Mueller Hopefully, it’s good for the theater if there’s a whole lot of music out there for people to choose from.
Menzel Exactly. A little bit of everything.
O’Hara My positive side wants to believe there’s room for all kinds of music, but we’re not — maybe there’s not anymore.
What do you mean?
O’Hara We’re not going to make it. My show. The score is acclaimed, but it’s not commercial enough. It’s not the thing that is exciting and really in people’s heads. Back when all the classics were written, people had a different mind-set of sitting still and listening to something and learning it. Nowadays, people want to love the music right now.
Mueller The other day, someone pointed out the lack of overtures now. That’s what an overture used to do: People would come in, sit down, get acquainted with a little bit of each melody, so when they heard the melody again, they were engaged.
O’Hara When we did “South Pacific,” they did eight minutes of overture with 40 pieces, and people loved it. No one will pay for that anymore.
Mueller But look at how we all relate to our roles. If you give people something honest, they will see that, too — maybe enjoy it or connect to it.
O’Hara But how do we get them in the seats?
Menzel My whole life, everyone’s told me I needed a certain kind of song if I wanted to crossover and get played on the radio. Something that sounds like Sheryl Crow or Alanis Morissette. Then I go do this Disney movie and get on the radio with “Let It Go,” and you know what? It has the lyric “frozen fractals” in it! [Laughter.] But I’m old enough to realize you can’t keep chasing that perfect song.
Do you take it personally when your shows don’t get big audiences?
Foster Of course!
Davies I thought “Janis” was really good, with a lot of hard work in it by everyone. But enough people didn’t come. Empty seats. That hurts.
O’Hara It’s a different world now. When I came back to Broadway after having my kid, it had been two years away, and I did “Nice Work If You Can Get It.” They were suddenly all about social media. They kept pushing it: “We’re going to record the rehearsals.” “You should tweet.” And I was like, “I’m sorry, I’m going to rehearse seven days a week, and I’m going to do eight shows a week.” But “Bridges” is the first time in my life where I opened a Twitter account. Because they basically forced me to. And I’m like, “Come see ‘Bridges’!” “Here’s a picture of me with Sutton Foster!” “Come see ‘Bridges’!” And they were like: “There’s too much stuff about ‘Bridges’ on your Twitter account. Can you change it to be real cool?” So then I just stopped. Because you start thinking, “I’m not a star, because I can’t sell tickets via my Twitter followers.” But you know, gosh, I rehearse, I do eight shows a week.
Foster I just tweet about food. Food and cookies and my dog.
Menzel I’m a reluctant tweeter. You know, I had this wonderful recognition from John Travolta messing up my name at the Oscars. But I don’t need that talked about or tweeted about. I want people tweeting about “If/Then,” the quality of the work.
Do casting directors regard you each very differently from the others, so you don’t end up being in competition?
Menzel You can’t try to be other people.
O’Hara You can’t.
Mueller But a lot of women don’t look at it that way, Kelli.
O’Hara That’s true. I’m in a good place to say that.
Mueller I think a lot of young women tear each other down for their difference. Or “Oh my God, why did she get that part?”
Davies I remember when we were rehearsing, there was a hallway full of girls auditioning for something else. They all looked the same, they’re all singing the same thing. You could just tell they were ready to kill each other.
Jessie and Mary are pretty new to the Broadway scene. Idina, Sutton, Kelli, do you have any ——
Foster We’re veterans!
O’Hara When did that happen?
Foster [sounding like an old man] Listen to us, girls.
Menzel We are relatively young.
Foster The biggest thing I’ve learned is priorities. When I was first starting out, it was like 98 percent “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and 2 percent the rest of my life. That’s not so good.
Menzel With eight shows a week, I only put my son to bed Sunday night and Monday night, and it’s killing me. I wake up at 7, I take him to school, I come home and nap, I pick him up at 3. What will happen is tonight, my voice is kind of raspy, so my expectation of myself is lowered. I’m sleep deprived. And when I have to go away for a concert, I want to take a red eye so I can read him a book at night. I never would have taken a red eye before a concert. But now I do, and I run onstage, and I’m not as prepared. But I’ll probably have a better show, because I’m more myself, my personality is alive, and I may hit some hard notes.
Is there a role you’d like to see each other do?
Foster Oh I just got so excited. [Looks at Ms. O’Hara] Guenevere!
O’Hara [To Ms. Foster] I think there should be another Carol Burnett variety show, and I want you to have that.
Menzel There are only two musical revivals that I’m kind of right for, but maybe I’m too old for. “Funny Girl” and “Evita.”
Menzel I’m too big.
Foster You’re not!
Menzel That’s why I cheat and get involved years early with new shows so everything is written with me in mind.
O’Hara [To Ms. Mueller] The Baker’s Wife.
Mueller I just want to work my way through that entire show. [To Ms. Menzel] You’d be an amazing Witch in “Into the Woods.”
Menzel I auditioned for the last revival, before “Wicked.” I learned “Last Midnight.” When I was done, James Lapine said, “Well, that was witchy.” I left crying. I thought, I can’t pull off Stephen Sondheim.
O’Hara [To Ms. Davies] I’m sorry I didn’t get to see your show, because I’m trying to think of parts. Do you like to sing other music than rock?
Davies Oh yes. My favorite would be Reno Sweeney [in “Anything Goes”]. I love tap.
Foster You’d be a great Reno.
Some of you have been nominated for best actress, but your show isn’t up for best musical. What’s that like?
O’Hara I’ve got to go.
O’Hara It hurts. Steven not being nominated hurts. I don’t read reviews, because if you believe the good ones, you have to believe the bad. So here’s the thing: If I don’t agree that nominators left people out, then why should I agree so much with their nomination of me? I didn’t build this alone.
Menzel We know the kind of work that goes into original musicals and what kind of risks these composers and writers and directors take. We have to do it, otherwise we wouldn’t have “West Side Story” and “Company.” Our director, Michael Greif, was like, “Yeah, 20 years from now, some British director will bring it back.”
Foster That’s what’s happening with “Violet.” It was underappreciated in 1997, and now people are like, “Oh wow, it’s really great.” It just took 17 years.
O’Hara You do start to feel badly when the show gets passed over. As much ego as we have, you do say to yourself: “Is it bad? Was it bad? Is what I’m doing bad?”
Mueller The whole idea of measuring art — how do you ever begin to say this is worthy and what isn’t? So many elements of my show were recognized, which makes it so much sweeter, because I don’t feel comfortable with a lot of this stuff.
O’Hara [To Ms. Mueller] But you know what, this is a finicky business. You embrace this time, and I will, too. Because the next day, it’s all different.