BRIDGING TV & THEATRE: Faith Prince & DROP DEAD DIVA - Plus Laurents, Robbins, MAME, GYPSY & More!
Today we continue our series of conversations with the stars of DROP DEAD DIVA with a special guest on all three seasons of the show, portraying the essential character of Jane's biological mother, Elaine Bingum, and a Tony-winning Broadway leading lady in her own right - the hilarious and accomplished stage and screen veteran, Faith Prince. In addition to filling us in all about Elaine's arc on the show over the last three seasons and recounting working with Sharon Lawrence and the rest of the cast and crew on her return visit last week - as well as how Ms. Prince herself feels about the show, its cast, creator and the message it proudly carries - we also talk about recording "Lean On Me" with Brooke Elliott and Sharon Lawrence for last week's show. Because no chat with a Broadway baby like Faith would be complete without a thorough rundown of her decades spent on the Great White Way, we also have a complete look back at her varied and impressive career onstage - working with top-tier directors like Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, Joe Mantello, Rob Marshall, Jerry Zaks, Stephen Daldry and Tina Landau; many of the finest directors of our age. Plus, news on Ms. Prince's forthcoming inspirational book, TINKER BELL DVD release and, of course, starring in the current BILLY ELLIOT sit-down production in San Francisco all summer and much, much more!
Over the course of the next several weeks, we are going to be taking an extensive look at the sights and sounds both onscreen and onset of the hit TV dramedy series DROP DEAD DIVA - new episodes airing Sunday nights at 9 PM on Lifetime - featuring exclusive interviews with the leading lady divas and dashing supporting men on the LA-based supernatural legal series. Featuring a memorable collection of musical performances and Broadway guest stars over the years - Paula Abdul, Rosie O‘Donnell, Delta Burke and many more included - DROP DEAD DIVA is the quintessential TV series for Broadway babies looking for some laughs and levity - the latter available in many more ways than one, given the show's heavenly aspirations. DROP DEAD DIVA centers on a legal eagle named Jane whose body acts as the means for the indomitable spirit of a model, Deb, who loses her life, to make a second chance and how the girl inside must learn to adjust to looking like the woman on the outside that she is now. In other words, a model finds out what it means to look like everyone else, in a delightfully quirky twist of fate - and learns to be a lawyer, too. Season Three picks up with the cliffhanger car crash that closed last season in a dark and shocking way. What will Grayson remember of the conversation he had with Jane pre-crash? What will Jane do to save him? What about his engagement (to somebody else)? What will happen back at the office with Teri, Kim and Parker? What about Stacy and Fred? All these questions and many more will most assuredly be answered come Sunday night! Plus, there's always a musical number or two not too far off like we saw last week with Ms. Prince, Sharon Lawrence and Brooke Elliott taking on "Lean On Me" - a clip that had its world premiere in this very column! Who knows what new surprises are in store coming up!
Also, be sure to check back often because next up we will be featuring conversations with the leading men of DROP DEAD DIVA - Josh Henderson, Jackson Hurst and Ben Feldman!
Faith, By Leaps & Bounds
PC: Did you enjoy your time on the DROP DEAD DIVA set in Georgia earlier this year? It's such a wonderful place.
FP: Well, I was born in Augusta and my aunt is from Atlanta, so I feel really comfortable with the surroundings and everything to begin with down there.
PC: Oh, I didn't know you were from Georgia!
FP: I always thought it was so funny that that set is like an airplane hanger - you know, on set I joke about getting a really good take and right when it's almost done, oh no, there's an airplane to ruin the take! (Laughs.) Zoom!
PC: I saw Kate and Margaret have to do a scene over and over again for the same reason! Too close to the airport.
FP: Like the trains in Brooklyn! You know, people laugh, but it's not funny when it's happening to you.
PC: Had you seen Brooke onstage before you did DIVA with her?
FP: No. Never - I was actually doing a show myself at the same time as her, I think.
PC: TABOO was a fantastic show.
FP: Rosie produced it, right? She's really great.
PC: Another DIVA's diva of a recurring guest star! What was your first meeting with Brooke like?
FP: When I met Brooke, it was like we had that moment where we both acknowledged we had been through similar experiences and it bonded us for life in a way. It's like we know each other. I mean, when we sing together, even on camera - like we just did - it's like mother/daughter. It's really weird.
PC: What do you think of Brooke as a performer on the show?
FP: Oh, I think she's not only a terrific talent, but a terrific human being! It's just so, so great being her mom and being down there in Atlanta with her.
PC: Your affection for each other comes through onscreen.
FP: I just love her. I think [creator] Josh Berman, too, is just an incredible writer. When I first read the character I was just like, "Oh, my God!" This season I called him and said, "Am I Elaine or is Elaine now me?" (Laughs.)
PC: That's so funny. Elaine always ends up in precarious situations - to say the very, very least!
FP: Oh, my God! The things that happen to Elaine are the things that I think all of us in our minds would like to act out and something keeps us from going that one step beyond. And, she doesn't have a filter.
PC: She's filter-less.
PC: But definitely not decaf!
FP: Exactly! (Laughs.)
PC: You are so perfect in the role. It's like it was tailor-made.
FP: Oh, thank you! To be honest, it just enlightens me to play her. I just feel like, "Yeah! God, that felt good!"
PC: Did you get to share some war stories with Brooke about Broadway and what you have been through in your careers?
FP: Oh, yeah. Definitely. And, she also wanted to know about my TV experience - you know, I've done a couple of pilots in LA and done a lot of television. So, we'd sit around and pow-wow and share some trade stories and the "how you go abouts". It's not quite camp, but because it is so separate down there, you feel like you are on retreat somehow.
PC: What about Sharon Lawrence?
FP: Oh, Sharon is just great, too!
PC: What was it like recording "Lean On Me" with her and Brooke? Were you a Bill Withers fan?
FP: Oh, definitely! Actually, (Laughs.) the first time I ever did karaoke - when I lost my karaoke virginity - was I sang "Ain't No Sunshine"!
PC: No way! So, it's full-circle, then!
FP: I am a huge fan. You know, I usually sing on the show when I do it, but this time we actually recorded it. Usually it's acapella.
PC: It sounded great! Was it fun recording together?
FP: Yeah. Brooke laid down her track first, then Sharon and I went in and we discussed what we could do and then we did it. I think it turned out great.
PC: It's such a fantastic musical moment - and Josh wrote it so well in the first place with Jane having two mothers, you and Sharon.
FP: Exactly. Exactly. I'm telling you, Josh Berman is really bright! And, you know, he went to Princeton, too! (Laughs.)
PC: Speaking of the best, I'd love to ask you about some of the great directors that you've worked with over the years.
FP: Oh, absolutely! Shoot.
PC: Arthur Laurents, who recently passed away.
FP: Well, NICK & NORA was a very interesting experience because he was both the writer and director of that show.
PC: Of course. What was it like working with him on it?
FP: I remember doing the workshop with him and, boy, he really called me out on the table one time. I kept asking questions because I sort of thought we were there to work on the piece, you know?
PC: Of course.
FP: So, I sort of had a list of questions for him. He brought me right out on the table one day and said, (Loud Voice.) "Faith, quit asking all those questions! Do you see Deb Monk asking all those questions? Joanna Gleason? Huh?"
FP: I was thinking, "OK. OK." (Deep Breath.) It was a backer's audition and they were trying to raise money.
PC: So, you sort of did your own thing from them on?
FP: I thought, "I'm gonna really prepare myself for this man." And, I remember going back into therapy for three months before I worked with him - and I was the only one standing who had not been hit by the end. He had - and it is a work ethic - but, I think, he thought that art was about going to the mat with somebody. It was about, for him, seeing how far he could sort of pierce them and what they would do and what he would do to get what he needed in his work. I think that I just found a way to dodge that cage - once I had been hit like that in the workshop, I became really prepared.
PC: What a fascinating theory.
FP: I have what I call "my sliding glass doors" - where I can see out, but I can protect myself, you know?
PC: A great way to put it.
FP: I just took his direction, did the show and got out. But, you know, that role is what got me GUYS & DOLLS.
PC: How so?
FP: Well, I played Lorraine Bixby and she was the murder victim - it was like the old Nick & Nora series. I found a way through the maze, because Jerry Zaks came to see me in that.
PC: Oh, no way! What a fantastic good to come from that bad experience, then.
FP: I look back at NICK & NORA and working with Arthur was sort of like living with a very difficult father. You had to negotiate your way around. You couldn't read him sometimes. You couldn't tell what he was going to pounce on. (Pause.) But, it really was something working with him!
PC: For better and worse.
FP: Yet, I had such respect for him... you know, I was watching THE WAY WE WERE the other day and it dawned on me that, oh my God, the Barbra Streisand role is Arthur!
PC: It is. No question.
FP: He wrote radio plays. He probably fell in love with a non-Jewish man. And, I bet they had such chemistry - just like in THE WAY WE WERE - but they just couldn't make it. Then, he found his shiksa - his blonde boy.
FP: Yeah. Exactly. So, those are my thoughts on him.
PC: Did you see him again after the NICK & NORA affair?
FP: He came to see me when I was in A CATERED AFFAIR and sat with me for a very long time and I could tell he was really, really knocked out. Just like with KING & I, too - I remember he told Mary Rodgers, (Loud Voice.) "She's not right for this role! I don't know why you hired her! She‘s not Anna!" And, Mary said, "You should go see her because she's delicious."
PC: Did he?
FP: Yeah, he did! He came to see me after the second act of KING & I and said, (Quietly.) "Well, I'm wrong."
PC: Wow! What edification for you, then.
FP: Yeah, we had a very special relationship. I felt like I had really negotiated the waters with him, you know?
FP: It's the same with Jerome Robbins.
PC: To talk about another great director! You have worked with so many of the best.
FP: I'll tell you something: my dad was a nuclear engineer and he was really bright and I've always said that because of negotiating at such a young age with my dad, it was really such a gift because I could then negotiate with very difficult personalities - and not end up being the scapegoat. I learned to really pick and choose my battles.
PC: Robbins was known as being the worst taskmaster of all.
FP: There was one time that I remember: first, you have to know that he loved when you could give him full attention and if anyone sort of waned from that he would get really mad. So, we had been in rehearsals almost six months for JEROME ROBBINS' BROADWAY - and that's just unheard of...
PC: With Robbins, no less! It must have been so grueling.
FP: This one time - one day, he was snapping his fingers for us to up the pace in the scene and I said, "I'm sorry, that needs a pause." I stopped the scene - which was unheard of. I said, "It's actually funny if you hold it for a little bit." And, he said, "You don't need the pause." And, I said, "Yes, sir - yes you do."
PC: Oh, wow.
FP: Then, I said, "Forgive me, but I am really starting to lose my own sense of timing. You are pushing it with the snap and I can't think. Really; I need to take this back now."
PC: I bet you could cut the tension with a knife.
FP: The whole room was full of everyone with their jaws on the floor! (Laughs.)
PC: I bet!
FP: Paul Gemignani came up to me and said, "You have the balls of a God."
PC: That's hilarious!
FP: I said, "No, I really don't! He needs to let us have some control. He's just freaking out now and trying to control everything because we have been doing this so long."
PC: No doubt.
FP: I remember there was a party that night at Debbie Gravitte's house and the first person I saw when I walked in was Jerome Robbins.
PC: Oh, no! What did he say?
FP: He looked at me and said, (Serious.) "Merry Christmas." And, I said, "Merry Christmas." Then, he said, "The next time we have a disagreement could we talk it out? Because I have been upset all day." And, I said, "Yes, sir, we can. Absolutely."
PC: So there is a happy ending after all!
FP: Yeah, and at the first run-though he came up to me, and he said, "Take the pause." And I knew it was going to be really funny there - and, it was. It stayed in.
PC: What moment was this, exactly?
FP: It was the Tessie Tura scene right before "Gimmick". I just had a sense of myself and a sense of my own timing - I always did, even at a young age. I always just take and take and take - and, then, if I have to wear it, I wear it my way. I choose my battles. He deeply respected me because of that moment, I think. It was for the best of the show.
PC: Art is war, after all!
FP: It is! It is.
PC: Moving to a modern day master-director, you worked with him very early in his directing career and then later: Joe Mantello.
FP: Oh, Joe...
PC: First, you did WHAT'S WRONG WITH THE PICTURE?
FP: Yeah. That was a Donald Marguiles play that had been pulled out again. He was chosen for that play. We were in previews in New York and that particular piece just wasn't his cup of tea, I don't think. A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE was our show together that we really got to work a lot on.
PC: What is a moment that sticks out in your collaboration?
FP: Sitting there with him when he lights and sort of being in his presence and looking at the lighting of the scene that I am going to be in - and I feel like I know exactly what he is going for, tone-wise. He's a really interesting guy - the articulation of what he wants comes through different means than words.
PC: How illuminating. How would you describe that communication?
FP: His articulation comes from many other things... I always tell kids when I am doing a master class or whatever, "It is your job to figure out what they want."
PC: How insightful - and helpful; especially for young actors.
FP: Sometimes directors may not give you words, you know? They may not talk at all! You've just got to use your radar to figure out how you can get to the center and not lose yourself, but still be directed at the same time.
PC: Which is particularly hard to do in a musical. Was it different working with him on a small chamber play versus a big musical?
FP: I think he was the first one to say, "This isn't totally my thing, but we'll do the best that we can." on the play. But, with MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE, I was instantly just like, "Wow, I think I know the tone he is going for!" It's sort of like that with John Doyle, too.
PC: Doyle gets too many deriding comments about the actor- musician concept - as A CATERED AFFAIR and MAHOGANNY proved.
FP: Yeah, you know, that's something that somebody else put on him. He is the real deal. Honestly, John Doyle took me places I've never been able to go as an actor.
PC: And what a great role you had in A CATERED AFFAIR, too.
FP: Incredible. I really hope someday I get to do Tennessee Williams with John. I would go anywhere for that man. I love him so deeply and respect him so deeply.
PC: Wow! That's the seal of approval coming from someone who has worked with Jerome Robbins and Arthur Laurents and Joe Mantello and Stephen Daldry and Rob Marshall.
FP: Thank you. That's so kind of you.
PC: Speaking of whom: what was it like working with Rob Marshall on LITTLE ME?
FP: Well, he's a dream. I always say, he has this quality that it is somehow like he hypnotizes you. I don't know, when you get in a room with him it is hypnotic - that's the only word that comes to mind. He makes you feel like you can do anything. He makes you feel so great about yourself. Tina Landau is the same way [director of BELLS ARE RINGING]. I have felt so great about myself working with those two people.
PC: What about working with Jerry Zaks?
FP: Oh, I learned so much from Jerry Zaks on GUYS & DOLLS.
PC: What is the greatest advice you've ever received from a director?
FP: Well, I would say Robbins taught me a lot about focus. One of the things I loved about him was that your eye never went to a place that he didn't want you to see.
PC: How interesting and how true.
FP: He was an absolute maniac about where the eye was going for viewing the action - and nobody else onstage would move. I think those kinds of things you learn stay with you forever. You do it innately once you've been taught it. Zaks taught me so much about earning the moments. He really believes people talk in normal time. You don't wait before you talk - you talk!
PC: Comedy is all in the timing, on top of that.
FP: Absolutely. You just talk, talk, talk and the moments you hold have to really be earned. Zaks also said, "When you have the possibility of a positive or negative choice, always go with the positive - it is always inherently much more interesting."
PC: And that plays into comedies likes NOISES OFF, as well - isn't that whole play's humor pretty much built on timing?
FP: Yes. I mean, imagine if someone like Robbins directed NOISES OFF! He wouldn't let anything happen until one thing finished.
PC: Moving to your current director Stephen Daldry: what's next for the BILLY ELLIOT tour?
FP: I was hoping you would tell me! (Laughs.)
PC: Is it still a six month sit-down?
FP: Yeah, but we are in a much different economy now...
PC: Especially since when the tour started out.
FP: We are definitely living in a different era now - even just recently. But, you know, it's like a chess game - you gotta play chess!
PC: Do you enjoy the road - specifically a longer sit-down like in San Francisco?
FP: Oh, God. Well, first of all, San Francisco audiences are extremely sophisticated.
PC: You can say that again.
FP: What I love the most: Max - our guy who plays the older Billy that does the ballet scene with the two chairs and the spinning and the flying - he always goes, "You know, it's so interesting in San Francisco, because when I walk out in tights they don't laugh!" You know, because they are used to it - they go to the ballet; they go to the opera. He always knows the lay of the land of the audience by that reaction.
PC: I bet it varies considerably depending on the stop!
FP: Yeah, places in the middle of the country find it a little funny.
PC: New York, too - at least when I saw it.
FP: Yeah, I bet! I just love being in the Pacific Northwest, though.
PC: So, what roles are next for you in a perfect world? GYPSY?
FP: Well, you know, I've never done GYPSY. I always thought I'd make an interesting Dolly in HELLO, DOLLY!
PC: That is finally coming back to Broadway, supposedly.
FP: I've been in San Francisco... is Patti doing it?
PC: It seems Jerry Herman wants Queen Latifah from what he's said, though.
FP: Yeah, I know. Queen Latifah. Jerry talked to me about it and we've talked about it for a long time. It would be a great role for me and I could see myself in that.
PC: You and me both!
FP: I could see myself in MAME, too, if they revived that. I'd be good for that. I'd love for someone to write me something delicious. Something Laurette Taylor did might be something I want to look at; maybe some Terrance McNally, too. I honestly think I am just getting started - I feel like I am at the age that I have meant to be my whole life; I am an old soul.
PC: I also know that you have a DVD coming out - the new TINKER BELL.
FP: (Big Laugh.) Yeah! I play the nanny.
PC: Kristin Chenoweth is in it, too.
FP: Yeah, I love her.
PC: You two would be great together in a show someday.
FP: We would be - and we've always said that when we've talked about it!
PC: What's next for you after BILLY?
FP: Well, I am writing book for young people - specifically those that may not have a voice in their life to tell them that the arts is a viable route for them to take.
PC: That's a really potent message right now with arts budgets being slashed across the country. You and GLEE.
FP: Yeah. Exactly. Plus, we are living in such a tough economy that parents just become fearful. But, when you have that special thing inside of you - as you know - it's just bigger than anything. I am just a person that believes once you see something you can go towards it.
PC: It will happen if you believe in it and work toward it.
FP: You know how many kids think it's untouchable and don't know that it‘s achievable? I think this book will be really helpful to them.
PC: That sounds so wonderful. When can we expect you back on DIVA?
FP: You know, I usually just do one per season, but I think it's time we dispel with that! Call up Josh! (Laughs.)
PC: You should come and live with Jane and Stacy!
FP: Absolutely! (Big Laughs.)
PC: Last question: define collaboration.
FP: It's imperative. When I talk to kids, I always say, "It's your responsibility to come to the table with your tools and your thoughts and then to listen to the director and what he sees. Then, the negotiation begins." I love getting into the head of what somebody sees and I really want to please them - but, within that, I have to please myself.
PC: You have to satisfy yourself before anyone else.
PC: Theatre is negotiation!
FP: It is! It's a dance - and sometimes they lead and sometimes you do.
PC: Happy early birthday and thank you so very much, Faith! This was so, so fabulous.
FP: Oh, you are such a bright young man and I just love your questions, Pat. Thank God we have you! Bye bye.
Photo Credit: Pablo Pimienta
From This Author Pat Cerasaro