BWW Interview: Donna Vivino Talks New Album BEAUTIFUL DREAMER, Off-Broadway's STARS OF DAVID and More!
Donna Vivino, who starred for two years as 'Elphaba' in the First National Tour of WICKED and also in the role on Broadway, just released a jazzy new album called "Beautiful Dreamer" via Ghostlight Records.
This is Donna's first album, which came about in a spur-of-the-moment collaboration with her father, Jerry Vivino, who is part of Conan's Basic Cable Band on the host's late night show on TBS.
"Beautiful Dreamer" reinvents Broadway tunes and selections from the Great American Songbook while weaving together improvisations from Jerry's all-star jazz quartet and inspirations from Donna's childhood.
Donna is also currently performing off-Broadway in the song cycle STARS OF DAVID, in which she portrays Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Gwyneth Paltrow and Fran Drescher. Plus, she plays 'Serena' on the popular web series "Submissions Only".
Donna recently spoke with BWW about recording with her father, her off-Broadway run, and the upcoming third season of "Submissions Only".
I wanted to ask you first about your process and how the album came about. I know you worked with your father on it.
My father has been a professional musician since as long as I've known him, and he's a wonderful jazz and blues musician -- he's in the Basic Cable Band with Conan O'Brien, and he lives out in Los Angeles now. And he and I had actually never collaborated together. And I went to Los Angeles in April to visit my family and my grandmother -- his mother -- who was living out there. She passed away kind of unexpectedly while I was there, and my father and I were there with her. We had talked in the past about going to the studio to record a couple of songs sometime. And I was singing to her, as she was so ill, and we just sort of decided a day or two later to go into a studio in the Los Angeles area and put down some songs with a few of his friends -- Mitchel Forman, Ray Brinker and Kevin Axt, who are part of the jazz quartet on the album.
It was sort of this catharsis, this grieving process, and we put the songs down in one day. At that point, it was really just for us. We thought, "Why don't we do some of her favorite tunes?". "Beautiful Dreamer" is a song from the 1800s that she sang to me when I was a child -- it's an old lullaby. So we definitely wanted to put that down. But we weren't even talking about an album yet.
And I had to go back to New York and back to work, and my father called and said, "There's a lot of good stuff in here, and you sound great, and I think you have an album." And I was like, "What?" It just kind of happened. So I flew back on a Sunday night, recorded on a Monday and flew back that evening. We did five more songs. It all happened really fast, and it was just one of those things where it chose us. I don't really know how else to say it. It really is a love letter to not only my grandmother but also to family and history.
That's amazing, I would have had no idea! I was listening to some of the tracks before our chat, and you've got some Randy Newman on there -- the song from Toy Story 2 that always makes me cry.
It makes me cry, too. And that's definitely about my grandmother. And there are some tracks that seem morose, but there's a lot of celebration in there as well. It's funny, I'll listen and remember, "Oh gosh, I was crying when I sang that." It's one of those things where we did capture that experience.
And working with my dad was just unbelievable. My father didn't really know "When She Loved Me" that well, and the magic of the Internet is that you can download sheet music right away from the studio. And the bass player, Kevin Axt was like, "I love that song so much, let's do it. Just follow us." [Laughs] That's definitely one of my favorite tracks on the album for sure.
Do you have any other favorite tracks?
That and "Over the Rainbow". "When She Loved Me" I just think is gorgeous, and I love Randy Newman. It's simple and beautiful. Vocally speaking, I'm really proud of that one. And on "Over the Rainbow" -- those guys, they're unbelievable musicians. What happened was very improvisational with all of us. And I just think that's such a unique track in that regard. It's not this showy-belty thing -- well, the guys are definitely showing off -- but we're all just sort of improvising there.
I actually really like "When Day Is Done", too. I just love the throwback to the earlier eras. I made a joke the other day where I said something like, "Loving big band and jazz is not me being hipstery, it's literally my DNA." And it's true! I grew up with jazz and big band and a lot of early '40s stuff, and it's just what I love.
Can you talk about "Castle On A Cloud" and revisiting the song you performed in LES MIS when you were 8?
My dad knew the song, of course, but these guys, they don't know the Broadway world unless it's like a Gershwin standard. We did not have them listen to me do it as a little girl, but I played it and sang it and put it down as a very sweet ballad and said, "Can we rearrange this? What are you feeling?" And Mitch Forman started playing something with this vibe, and I thought it was hilarious because it reminded me of MAD MEN. It's such a groovy, jazzy version of it now. So that's actually a pretty fun one, too. I tend to forget about that one. I've never heard it done that way. That was my little nod to my history on Broadway.
To switch gears a little bit, you're in STARS OF David Off-Broadway. Talk about what it's like portraying some of these iconic Jewish personalities and what you've gotten out of it so far.
That's really cool. It's based on this book that Abigail Pogrebin wrote, so we're using words directly from the interviews. With portraying Jewish celebrities it's a fine line -- we're not impersonating, per se, although it's impossible to not sing a song about Fran Drescher as Fran Drescher and not have her iconic voice and laugh, and Amanda Green wrote that into the song. But we're also honoring their points of view more than anything.
What I find most exciting about the show, besides the fact that people who aren't Jewish see it and are crying and saying, "It's about faith, and I loved it, and I laughed!", is that every song is by a different composer-lyricist team. That's ultra cool. That's almost like doing an album in a sense --- doing a cover album -- because you have all these different styles and voices for each celebrity, which I think is highly successful because everybody has a different voice and a different opinion on what it means to be Jewish.
Some of the solos I sing, for example: Amanda Green does Fran Drescher, Tom Kitt does Ruth Bader Ginsberg -- which is so stunning -- and then Gaby Alter and Itamar Moses did this really funny song called "Who Knew Jew?" about Gwyneth Paltrow, which is fairly new. And Gaby has such a different sound than Tom or Sheldon Harnick. A lot of different styles of singing, which works for me.
That makes sense, and I like how you talked about it being like an album.
Because it is a song cycle, it would make a good album; I think people would really like it. But one thing at a time, right? [Laughs.]
So, you mentioned that you have shows coming up at 54 Below.
Yes, I did a show there in September called "It's Not Easy Being Green". It sold out. There just wasn't time for me to add dates then and there, but more people wanted to come. It was so flattering; I was so honored, and it was my cabaret debut, too. But we're going to do the show again on January 23 with the same title. I almost titled it "No More Brooms" because of WICKED and LES MIS -- I had brooms in both the shows -- but you know, that's sort of just an inside joke. [Laughs].
And I have to ask you about "Submissions Only".
Yeah! Isn't it great? That, I'm telling you, I cannot wait until that third season is out. I wish I had more information for you about exactly what the platform is, but I do know that I saw the first two episodes of season three. And it's good stuff; it's so good. The quality is unbelievable.
Kevin McCollum coming on board has been great. Serena is in the whole season. I'm just so honored that Kate Wetherhead and Andrew Keenan-Bolger had me come on board for just a couple episodes in season two, and then Kate has me on as a regular for season three.
It was one of the highlights of my year. Before I did the album I would say it was the highlight. It's a labor of love as well, sort of like my album. It was just one of those things like, "Let's do this! Let's just do what we love to do." And it's not about an end-game. I love the work, and I love creating and working with these people. And if something comes as a by-product, that's awesome. But I just want the world to see it. What Kate wrote for Serena is just quite an arc. It'll be unbelievable.
Well, now I'm even more excited! [Laughs]. So before we finish up, is there anything that we didn't get to touch on that you wanted to add about the album?
What I'm finding about the album is that it resonates with both younger and older crowds, even though much of the music is from an older generation. And I think that says a lot about the younger generation, too, and fans of Broadway and jazz. I'm just really excited that someone 17 years old is going to hear this worldclass jazz arrangement, as well as The Carpenters, and standards, and a lullaby from the 1800s. That's what I find really cool. I'm just happy to share the music that I love and that my family loves with people who might not have heard the songs before, as well as people who know them inside-out.
"BEAUTIFUL DREAMER" TRACK LIST:
4. When She Loved Me (Randy Newman)
6. Rainy Days and Mondays (Roger S. Nichols / Paul Williams)
7. How Insensitive (Antônio Carlos Jobim /Norman Gimbel / Vinicius De Moraes)
10. I Wish You Love (Charles Trenet)
11. Once You Lose Your Heart (Noel Gay)
13. Beautiful Dreamer (Stephen Foster)
"Beautiful Dreamer" is out now. STARS OF DAVID runs off-Broadway through December 15. For more about Donna, you can visit her online at www.DonnaVivino.com and follow her on Twitter @DonnaVivino.