A Conversation with Susan Egan
Craig: Can you tell us how you got bitten by the acting bug?
Susan: That would be my parent's fault. I was always taken to theater I was very fortunate. They took us to a lot of films. And not necessarily mainstream films but the art films and I went to them on school nights with my dad. He's a huge film buff So I don't know HOW they could be surprised (but they were) when I said "mom and dad I want to be an actor"
CB: Why? Did they want you to be something else?
SE: Well yeah, I was brought up to go to
CB: So what was their original plan for you career wise?
SE: You know, my Dad's a doctor and he failed miserably on three fronts with my brother, sister and I to get any of us to be a doctor although it's his own fault. He would bring Polaroid's home and show them at dinner of surgery. And he wondered! I remember I cracked my head open when I was 10 and my dad took me to the hospital and he walked me around on my way to get stitches trying to sell me on the idea of being a doctor because he knew he had failed with my brother and sister. And here I am thinking my head is cracked open and I'm about to be in pain with stitches it just was never going to work I do think he is glad I didn't become an attorney.
CB: Well I think there are a lot of people that are glad you didn't become an attorney
SE: Well that was sweet of you. I would have been a good attorney!
CB: Do you like to argue?
SE: I do. I love to argue. I can argue any point I don't even care which side.
CB: Does performing run in your family?
SE: No.. it really doesn't. My mom is completely tone deaf. How excellent it that? I have no pressure when she comes to the shows. She just thinks everything is great.
CB: So no performing relatives?
SE: Well this is kind of a cool story My middle name is Farrell and I was named after my grandmother who I happen to also look just like. I don't look like my parents. I look like my paternal grandmother. She was really talented musically. She was a terrific pianist and she had this teacher who wanted to make her a concert pianist. But her mother said that women just don't do that sort of thing. Because it was in "that day and age". But she always played. She and her husband had a little pub up in
CB: Who were your role models growing up both professionally and personally?
SE: If we're talking about musical theater, it would be Bernadette Peters. I listened to Sunday in The Park with George until the TAPE broke! That's how long ago that was. I was always a huge Sondheim fan. My parents were always a little confused by me. They would take me to Annie but I would respond more to Man of La Mancha and A little Night Music. I never wanted to be Annie I wanted to be Frederica
CB: What was your first role/show?
SE: In the fifth grade I was the narrator for A Christmas Carol we performed it in the library.
CB: Was that the musical version of A Christmas Carol?
SE: No, it was a straight play! You know I started out as a straight play actress..
CB: OK! You mean you were a "legit" actress
SE: A "legit" actress, that's right you know, and then Beauty and the Beast, you do a musical in
CB: Tell us a little bit about your journey to Broadway. Were there any pitfalls/obstacles?
SE: I was very lucky. I chalk it up to the right opportunities came by I was not a "natural" at this by any means. I was not the star of my school. My best friend was and she wanted voice lessons and basically needed a car pool partner and that's how I fell into this. It's the "
CB: And probably thinking "Maybe I should have been a lawyer after all!"
SE: Right.. AHHH! But it wasn't like that. He was testing the show out to see if it was a good vehicle for him - and it was. It was the perfect vehicle for him. It was such a natural choice to have him sign Put on a Happy Face and do a tap number. So the next year with Fran and Barry Weissler, he created a tour of that and I was brought back after having met with him. So I felt incredibly lucky to be there and under his wing and I toured for a year and it was the most ideal situation in that I had this opportunity at a young age to see if I liked the business. I knew I liked performing. Oh, Gene Saks was the director and it was incredible like getting an education from the consummate director of comedy and the most amazing musical theater director, star, producer who also happens to incredibly genuine and gregarious soul. He was the one that told me to leave LA. He said "Susan They're not going to know what to do with you here but
CB: What was the audition process like for originating the role of Belle in Beauty and the Beast?
SE: I auditioned the last day they were holding auditions and I remember I didn't want to go to the audition. I thought it was a rotten idea. I hadn't seen the movie but I thought "a cartoon? No.." but you have to remember I was such a theater snob and there were a lot of things happening that season. There was My Fair Lady, Carousel and Grease and I was putting all my eggs in the Grease basket because it was being done by Tommy (Tune) and Fran and Barry Weissler it's a 1950s musical I was just FINISHED with one so that's what I thought that's what I'll do, I'll do Grease. Um No. But I auditioned for all those shows and I thought I would just go to Beauty and the Beast because "that's my job. I go to auditions." I had auditioned for the movie of Beauty and the Beast when I was like 18 I was a huge fan of Little Mermaid and had mistaken Jodi Benson's voice I thought it was Liz Callaway. Anyway, I thought for the next one, their not going to want someone who sounds like that, they're going to want something different because they just did that. So I sang a little more legit and didn't get it. And then I heard Paige O'Hara on a recording of it and I thought "No, they DID want someone who sounds like Liz Callaway" Ok, so I learned my lesson so at my audition for Beauty I sang "The Story Goes On" from Baby and they responded to it. They gave me a bunch of sides and said "Ok come back whenever you are ready, take several hours if you want". So I read the sides and I found them to be very funny. But I had never seen the film so I just thought they were funny and I guess I made them laugh, I don't know, but anyway..
CB: Now that's interesting, you saw The Little Mermaid but not Beauty and The Beast
SE: Well maybe I was resentful because I didn't get the job?
SE: Hmmm. I don't know. Huh! I never thought of that!
CB: Don't worry, the therapy here is free
SE: Good the therapy's free. I'm like, uh Craig, I'm getting in touch with my demons! (laughs) So anyway I was called back and the call back was stressful because it was three days in a row and I wasn't told it was three days in a row and I thought "Who has three good days in a row?" And I had this ONE dress that I wanted to wear that I had worn to the original call. At the time I had short spiky hair but I still had my Kim McAfee long haired wig so I wore that. I wasn't going to go dressed as Belle because I figured everyone was going to be dressed like Belle, but I am going to go dressed very Disney. So I was dressed more "
The first day was a coaching session with the musical director and the director. The second day was singing for Alan Menken and that was the day I was most nervous for because I KNEW who Alan Menken. And then the third day was for all the Disney executives. I was there at 11am and there were a bunch of girls there I was nervous so I read my book because it kept me from freaking out. And in the room was Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, but I didn't know who they were, so it was kind of OK because I'm just ignorant (laughs) and I had "passed" Alan Menken who I had been worried about. But I do remember, after Alan, I panicked. I asked if I should go rent the movie and they said "No. Don't mess with what you are doing." Because I think what I was doing was different and that could have worked to my disadvantage but I guess they had seen a lot of people mimic Paige (O'Hara) - I don't know. Maybe what I was doing was "true enough" to the essence of what Paige did but also a little different. I don't know. What was interesting is that on the last day, I did my thing and I was weird and funny and then I think it was Rob (the director) panicked a little maybe it was Disney that panicked a little and Rob came up to me on the stage and said "Ok, can you just do it totally straight. Totally Ingénue. Just show us that you're able to do that"
And I was actually relieved to have the opportunity because I really thought they were taking a risk going with me because I am very strange and while Belle is odd I don't know..
CB: Not that odd?
SE: Yes.. right not that odd. So I did have the opportunity to play it very soft very sweet. So I think they went "Ok. If we panic at all throughout the rehearsal process, we can at least come back and have her do it that way. So I was there from 11am to 5pm. I was exhausted. I think out of mercy, that night, Jay Binder called and they said I had it. I was SO excited that I went out with my dog and bought some Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream and I rented the movie! So I finally saw the movie!
CB: Can you share any funny or touching backstage stories from your experience with BatB?
SE: There are so many, I was in it for a long time. It was a lot of fun with the kids who would talk to you while you were on stage. But I think my favorite moment but not in the moment it wasn't but retrospectively it was definitely the day that Terry (Mann) pulled my wig off on stage. I ran off stage thinking I just sent 900 children into therapy.
Also Eisner called me the bag lady because whenever somebody dropped a prop or whatever, since really none of the other characters could bend over you know, Mrs. Potts, Lumiere and Cogsworth they don't have hands either, so I would just pick everything up and put it in my basket during the entire play. Michael (Eisner) saw the play so many times that he would notice each time what I had picked up
CB: Your solo CD "So Far..." debuted a little over a year ago. Can you tell us a little bit more about that project, how you selected the songs and the entire process.
SE: Well I met John Yap (the producer) when he produced the Triumph of Love album. I am so grateful to him for doing it because nobody was going to record it and I love the composer and lyricist so much and also the book writer and I though it's such a great play for regional theater but if there's no recording, nobody's going to do it. So I was really grateful to him. He was very kind and asked me if I ever thought of doing a solo CD and so I said "actually, yes.. I HAVE thought about it. And of course I wanted to do esoteric and original material and he said "No." (laughs) and that it wouldn't "sell" But he would release an album of esoteric and original material if I did a very commercial album first. So then we came up with concept which I thought was interesting. You know I had done some really cool things and for long periods of time in my life that I never recorded. And this was a chance to record things like Bye Bye Birdie which I did 500 times and Cabaret which I did 500 times and also a chance to record other musicals I did out in
CB: You have quite a theatrical resume (tours, regional and Broadway), what roles and shows have been your favorite and why?
SE: Always the one that I am playing at the moment.
CB: Fair enough. You're also featured on a plethora of compilation albums you were one of Bruce Kimmel's "Staple" performers. Do you have a favorite track from those and why?
SE: Bruce is a terrific producer. I went in to record for the Sondheim album and I was so excited to be on the "Sondheim at the Movies" album and Bruce gave me the song from The Bird Cage called Little Dream and I was SICK the day I was supposed to record it. I went into the studio and was like "Ugh! Bruce I am so sick I'm gonna be.." and he said "Don't worry about it. Just go in there and sing in incredibly light". I had no "chest" voice really. So I went in there and just thought it was going to be horrible. I can't believe it. I can't believe it! And for whatever reason, we couldn't reschedule either so I sang it really light and it was great. It's my favorite recording because it's just really casual and laid back and easy. While it's fun to belt and hit high notes, when I listen back to it I find that I sound very obnoxious (laughs). That's why I like Little Dream.
CB: You've also done the voices for a few animation projects. Can you tell us a little bit about how you landed the role of Meg in Disney's Hercules?
SE: Well I was doing Beauty and the Beast and so everybody thought that's how I got Meg. But the truth was they wouldn't even let me audition! Because I was playing Belle and Meg is very different. Meg was written in the style of Barbara Stanwyck in "The Lady Eve." Now I had this amazing dresser in Beauty and the Beast who had this incredible library of old movies. So I went through everybody Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and certainly Barbara Stanwyck and all those films, I was such a huge fan of those ladies and their roles were so great. But also the cadence of acting that mid Atlantic accent it was all so legato with the "bum..baddadada dada" you know with the "So.. come around and see me some time" It was like the 1930s "thing". And I loved that. Meg was incredibly well written but they wouldn't let me audition and they were auditioning EVERYBODY. Donna, Audra, everybody and I couldn't get an audition. And finally, I think to just shut me up they let me come in. Now these auditions are VERY strange. Because they were like "oh hey come in Susan, thanks for coming in blah blah blah" then they put you behind the microphone (and there's no callback because they record you and that's becomes your callback) and then they just put their heads down on the table or they're looking in their laps at a picture of Meg because they don't want to see you. They want to know if the voice matches the image. So here I am saying "So, did they give you a name with all those rippling pectorals" like this whole "thing" with this deep voice which is actually my speaking voice (the Belle voice is the acting) Meg isn't "acting" Meg is actually where I "live". So one by one, their heads popped up and it was Alan Menken and those guys and they were like "huh!" And the audition song that everyone had to sing was "Somewhere That's Green" so after that I didn't hear anything. It was about six months later that I heard I had made the cut, made the cut, made the cut you don't ever hear back because you never have a callback they just use the recording. Then they narrowed it down to the final three voices to animate to. They told me that sometimes their first choice doesn't work in animation for whatever reason it just doesn't fit the character. So after the animation test and final cut they called and told me I got the role. I was lucky because at that point they were really starting to go with big names they certainly had big names in all the other roles. I was also really lucky and excited because I got to be the speaking and singing voice which doesn't happen anymore..
CB: Right which I always thought was a little strange since sometimes they cast people that probably could get away with singing the songs
SE: Well I'll tell you if they could they DO record it. I'll tell you that much. And then if it doesn't cut it for them, they'll find a sound-alike. I have been called in to be the sound-alike for a couple of people. For example I was the sound-alike for someone, not because they couldn't sing (because she's actually quite a good singer but I think her recording label wouldn't let her do it) in Lady and the Tramp II it was Alyssa Milano who has a great singing voice but wasn't going to sing in that movie. So they got me.
CB: OK. So now let's talk about something which I know is near and dear to your heart. You recently held the position of Artistic Director for
SE: It made 8 shows a week look like a walk in the park! Oh my god I have never worked that so hard in my whole life and I have worked hard. The man who was that influential high school teacher of mine the one who made all the difference it was his music program that made me went "I want to do this," he runs that school. He had a couple of people leave the staff and it was an opportunity for him to make some really big changes. The music and theater department in particular hadn't really changed in 15-20 years and yet musical theater HAD changed so much since then. You know 1988 was the first year the school existed, so now we're talking 2002 RENT has happened and all these things. Musicals have transferred from little bohemian off-off-off Broadway funky little things, you know like Bat Boy: The Musical became big hits and the feeling at the school was still (Susan sings) "yadda yadda yadda yadda yadda yadda"
CB: a little dinner theaterish?
CB: Not to criticize dinner theater
SE: No, not to criticize dinner theater. I did dinner theater. I sang "Roll out the rolls". And it's not like it was a bad program it had good people. It was just an opportunity to update it. It was interesting, UCLA had called me in a few years ago because they were redoing their program just to ask me questions and pick my brain. They asked "what does a person need right now in the industry?" You have to be a triple threat now. You have to do it all. You can't just be an actor. You can't get away with just a good voice anymore, you really can't. You WANT to be good at all of it. It's also an industry where people are stepping from genre to genre from film and TV to do theater in a way that did not happen in the 70s and 80s at all. For a movie star, a commercial was the end of their movie career. Not the same anymore. So anyway I wanted to implement all of that so I took on the position of Artistic Director and hired a wonderful guy to run the music and theater department and with him we hired a staff and rewrote the program with them. But I also oversaw the other nine departments. And it was great a great opportunity to integrate all these departments all quite good but very separate. For example there is NOOOooo reason why anybody at that school should be doing a musical to tracks when we have an incredible and arguably one of the best musical departments. I've never sung with a track in my entire professional life only an orchestra and they should get used to looking at a conductor. And those students should get used to musical theater because even though they might be playing classical music in an orchestra, they might be supplementing their income by playing music in the pit. And these students should get to know each other because when I go to be inspired, I don't go and see musicals. I'm tired of musicals. I go to the ballet. I go to the museum. There needed to be a lot of integration of skills - so that's what I did. It's hard to change the direction like that and people are resistant to change although I have to say that the parents were amazing. A lot of parents were very angry at the beginning of the year with the change and whatever but I had to let that dissipate because it was held over from years past. By November, they all "got it" which was really incredible.
CB: Was it more or less of a problem the fact that you were a "known" actress. You know, "here's a Broadway actress coming into OUR high school.."
SE: Nahh people were grateful, actually. The weird thing is that I don't think and I don't think they thought I have a big career but it's because my interests are so diverse.
CB: Now wait you say you don't have a big career?
SE: No. I don't. I'm not the one I don't get invited to do the diva things at Carnegie Hall, you know. I'm not on the A list in
CB: Yeah. But you've done Film, TV, a ton of theater. You have the kind of a career that most people..
SE: I have the kind of career that I want. But it's not the kind of career that
CB: Well some might say that even today they aren't "popular" because of many reasons..
SE: Yeah, but then every other producer on Broadway got the same deal that Eisner got with Giuliani so they're grateful because of that deal, all these theaters are being resurrected. Because of that deal, Roundabout can have the American Airlines theater. And it's all great. In any case, I feel like yes. I am at this point and I have done some great things and if I were to stop tomorrow I would have had a career that absolutely accomplished all my dreams. I was talking to Marty Bell (a great producer) about this very thing and he's always been a great supporter and I asked him "how come I find myself struggling?" And he said "Because your brain isn't satisfied doing just this." And that's true. My mom actually said last year that "Wow. This is the first job that you've probably ever had that actually takes every last one of your brain cells to click.. click.. like putting together a puzzle." And I LOVE working in these other disciplines. Interestingly, I wouldn't choose to administrate again. I also produced a video for children to benefit 9/11 and while I am glad we did it I wouldn't produce again either. I don't like being the person that everybody comes to, to complain about other people. And that's what it ends up being. And I didn't enjoy that part. But I did enjoy writing the programming. I did enjoy directing the plays. It was a novelty that I was someone who had starred on Broadway (they forgot about that pretty quick and I became just Susan pretty quickly) and I was not easy on them. I know that I angered a lot of people because I didn't know ANY of the kids walking into the position so I didn't have favorites. So the kids that had been favorites all of the sudden, I don't know, might not have gotten into the show. Kids who had never been in the show might have gotten the lead. I think my Eliza Doolittle had never done anything. And she was brilliant too. She was great. The kids, after initially getting over the idea that things were going to change, had a great time with the change because they didn't know that they didn't know. I wasn't bringing in things that were miraculous or original. I was bringing in the elements of the industry that I have been working in for the past 15 years. Like the idea of PRE-PRODUCTION for instance. How about that? (laughs). The idea of really researching your role and the politics of
CB: OK, so let's get a little current. You are back in Cabaret on Broadway. First tell us about getting that "call"
SE: First, I think people are surprised from my performance not that I think I am brilliant or anything like that. I just think people "know me" and they don't.
CB: Well Sally isn't Belle and she certainly isn't Kim McAfee
SE: Right. Belle's not me, it was acting. I'm an actress and I think people forget that and think they've pegged you as whatever role you were doing. Actually, Belle for me was more of a stretch in some ways. So anyway they had called a couple of times (for me to come back as Sally) when people have left they always had these spaces open and I've never been available. I was doing a TV show for a couple of years and then the school thing. So basically, when the school position ended, I was seriously considering coming back to
CB: So you said you know exactly who Sally is. Who is Sally to you and what motivates her?
SE: Aww. She's a very lost soul and not terribly bright. I sort have always imagined that she came from a very bright family and never understood what they were talking about at the dinner table. She was lost and couldn't get attention for who she was and so she started rebelling pretty early and ultimately took off and left home met this girl Elsie (of course) and happened to land in a place where she was special. Not because of intelligence or anything specifically, but because she had a British accent in
CB: What advice would Susan Egan give Sally, and what advice would she give to you?
SE: Oh. Well I think I would tell Sally to love herself. That's what I would say. And Sally? Sally's advice would probably be very surface like to name a new hair conditioner or nail polish. (laughs)
CB: Ok, so you have worked with so many different people during your career already. Are there any people that stand out?
SE: The people who I tend to love are the people who understand the balance of life because that is what I'm hoping to achieve. I'm having a difficult time career-wise to be honest, because I've grown as a human and balance is important to me and this is an industry where maybe I'm discovering you have to put everything into it to get something out. It's just that I realized I'm not happy with JUST that. And the people I admire are the people that have found balance and understand priorities. Very bright kind of people. I love Sam Mendes for his intellect and insights and for his demeanor as a director. Carol Burnett. She knew everybody's name the first day. That means she had to sit down and study a list. She understands the effect she has on people. I think there's this hierarchy of people who can have tremendous affect and Carol Burnett has this (and she knows it) the ability to make someone's day or to devastate someone's day but she actively CHOOSES to make someone's day. That takes energy above and beyond what is necessary and she does it. She's an incredible soul who has been through such heartache and survived it. She's an amazing woman and I've worked with a lot of divas and then I worked with Carol Burnett
CB: Who you would think would have every right to be a diva..
SE: Even MORE right. And she is so far from that. She's such an exemplary model like how and when to pick your battles. She picks them and they're very few but you know when she picks one, she's heard and she's listened to. I also love Michelle Pawk. I watched Michelle go through some very hard things in Triumph of Love and she was brilliant in that play. She won a TONY this year and I just thought "YES! Finally something good happened to a good person." She's really got it together. I saw her at the Roundabout a couple of weeks ago and she said she'd give it all away tomorrow for her baby boy. She "gets it". Again, it's about balance.
CB: What are your dream roles (whether or not they you are "type").
SE: I don't know if I have "dream" roles. I have roles I would like to play. I'd love to do Ariel in The Tempest. I'd love to do any of the "trouser" roles in Shakespeare. I did that in Triumph of Love and I've always enjoyed that. It killed me last year I was offered Beatrice and I couldn't do it because of the school so that was a little sad. I'd like to do some more straight theater. I'd also like to do some great films where I actually do something. I've done a lot of film where I am around the craft food service table a lot (laughs).
CB: What are some of your favorite musicals?
SE: Sweeney Todd. I think Guys and Dolls is a perfect show. I like so many.. but I think those are two good examples
CB: Who are your favorite composers/lyricists?
SE: I'm grown more "mature" in some of my tastes and interestingly it's taken me very commercial. I've learned to appreciate everybody for what they do well. I'm still a Sondheim fanatic. I will always be a Sondheim fanatic. Alan Menken writes the best music for women ever! Nobody can write a bridge like he can he's incredible. I recently did some concerts with Jerry Herman and I think he is able to turn a lyric, where the song is going somewhere and he will wrap it up in a couplet that makes you just go "oh" and make your heart just fall. I love Charlie Strouse and Susan Birkenhead. And Kander and Ebb just write music that we respond to on a visceral level. They're all brilliant at what they do. Now, out of new composers, I like Jason Robert Brown very much and his wife, Georgia Stitt who I happen to be singing a lot of her music in my set. Also Marci Heisler and Zina Goldrich (Taylor the Latte Boy), I think, are the new voice of musical theater because they capture women today. I liken them to what Nora Ephron does for film.
CB: What was the last show you saw and what shows are you looking forward to this season?
SE: The last show I saw was Eddie Izzard. It was BRILLIANT! I love his humor. He's incredibly bright. You almost need a history degree to get all of his jokes. He's just terrific and I adore him and that he'll get a laugh ten to fifteen seconds later after everybody's caught on very witty.
This season I am looking forward to ALL of it. Wicked I hope it's a huge huge success. I love Stephen Schwartz he's been away from Broadway for too long and Idina and Kristin are fantastic together and they have a great cast. I also like stories that are inside out where nothing is black or white or green and white. And of course Little Shop of Horrors. We needed to have a Broadway version of that..
CB: What's currently in your cd player?
SE: Well I am preparing for a concert on the 28th (I leave Cabaret on the 26th) It's a brand new club act for me so a lot of rehearsal music. I don't normally listen to a lot of music actually. I like quiet. I do like to listen to folk-rock. I don't listen to a lot of theater music anymore isn't that funny?
CB: So your new act, is it just theater songs, or do you sing other types of songs?
SE: I throw some things in there. I sang Billy Joel last time. I've got a Christine Lavin song, "You Look Pretty Good for Your Age" that I Sing. You know this new act is an experiment for stuff and totally coincidently as I have been putting the word out to get new music from different composers, the music I've really responded to has been primarily music from women. So I think that's what I am going to do (record it) and just do it and then I'll release it and know maybe it's not as commercial as the others.. but that's ok, it just needs to be out there.
CB: What was the last book you read?
SE: I am a voracious reader. I was up until 4 in the morning last night and the night before (I'm so mad at myself) reading The Other Boleyn Girl by Phillipa Gregory. Historical fiction about Anne Boleyn's sister. I love historical fiction but of course I love anything that's historical non-fiction as well. I read several books a week. Except last year I couldn't. But now I can because when I'm at the theater I have to be quiet a lot. I have a list of all the books I've read on my website. And I am always is search of a good book and almost always buy a book on recommendation.
CB: And finally, what's next for you?
SE: Well seriously.. I'm in this weird place in my career. In the immediate future I will be leaving Cabaret on the 26th because I have a bunch of concerts coming up that were scheduled beforehand. And then I think I am going to come back here in January. I feel that Tommy Tune and others were right - that I need to be in
For more information about Susan, visit her online at www.susanegan.net