BWW Interviews: Alison Fraser, Belle of Off-Broadway
Alison Fraser was one of musical theater's breakout stars of the 1980s, following up parts in William Finn's off-Broadway hits In Trousers and March of the Falsettos with a Tony-nominated starring role on Broadway in Romance/Romance, and following that with a Tony nomination for her performance in The Secret Garden.
Fifteen years would pass, however, between The Secret Garden and Fraser's next Broadway musical, the 2008 revival of Gypsy, directed by Arthur Laurents and starring Patti LuPone. Rather than becoming a Broadway fixture, Fraser for the past two decades has been performing mostly off-Broadway and regionally, in both musicals and straight plays. They include Dedication, or The Stuff of Dreams at Primary Stages in New York; Tom Stoppard's Rough Crossing, costarring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, at Florida's Coconut Grove Playhouse; Lady in the Dark, with Andrea Marcovicci, in Philadelphia; and the 2009 world premiere of Arthur Laurents' Come Back, Come Back, Wherever You Are at New Jersey's George Street Playhouse, where Fraser has appeared frequently.
Currently, Fraser is acting in A Charity Case, a new play by Australian writer Wendy Beckett that's in previews off-Broadway at the Clurman on West 42nd St. (it opens Wednesday). Fraser moved over just one block from her last stage, the Westside Theatre on 43rd St., where she was in the cast of Love, Loss, and What I Wore during the summer. Next up, she'll be in the Theatre for a New Audience production of The Broken Heart, a 17th-century verse play by John Ford ('Tis Pity She's a Whore), in February. British director Selina Cartmell, who's worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Abbey Theatre and is making her American debut with Broken Heart, offered Fraser a part after seeing her last spring in The School for Lies, another period piece, at Classic Stage Company.
In addition to theater, Fraser lends her talents to videogames (doing both motion capture and voice work) and audiobooks. She read The Night Strangers, a novel by Chris Bohjalian that's just out on CD, and recently completed her first lead role in a movie, an indie named Commentary. Fraser is also the proud mother of Nat, a 21-year-old senior at Chapman University in southern California. She raised her son on her own after the death of her husband, composer/performer Rusty Magee, in 2003.
BWW caught up with Fraser over breakfast in a midtown diner while A Charity Case was in rehearsals. We talked about single motherhood on and off stage, the link between her current and past roles, and some of her famous theater friends, among other subjects.
A Charity Case is described as the story of an "adoption triangle." What side of the triangle are you?
I play Faith, the adoptive mother of a girl named Deidre—whom I call Dee, Deedee or Deidre, depending on how mad I am at her. I am the adoptive mother of this troubled 17-year-old girl, and I am also a single mom. This girl is searching for her identity and she definitely feels that something is missing in her life because she has not had this relationship with her birth mother, who was a troubled teen and is now a troubled adult.
Do you have any close connection to adoption in your real life?
Not really adoption, but there's a movie that just came out called Oranges and Sunshine. It's about this hidden horror in the British Empire, that a lot of children were sent out of the country into servitude. They were called "home children" and sent to Canada, South Africa, a lot to Australia. I found out recently, because my niece has been doing a lot of genealogical research, that my father's mother was a home child up in Canada. My grandmother was a very taciturn woman, with a very grim visage, and we always wondered what went on. She never talked about her upbringing. It's not the same as adoption, but it's people being wrenched from their natural environment, and I'm sure the natural environment she came out of was heinous. So it was displacement, and I think this show is about trying to mend that displacement.
What else can you tell us about the play?
It takes place in 1961, '62, which was a very male-oriented society. This is a woman that tries to please men—she has a lot of boyfriends. The reason she got into this adoptive situation was because the man she was married to insisted on having a child, and after they had the child, boom! he's gone. So all of a sudden this good-time gal who, for her time, is quite independent—she's a designer, she does make her own living—is saddled with a child that it was not her sole decision to bring into her household. And now her household has become a difficult one, because she's a single mother with a troubled child, and her livelihood is being threatened by chain stores, mass-produced clothing.
Is it true your character in A Charity Case reminds you of your Gypsy character?
I liken her so much to Tessie Tura. Everybody thinks, "Tessie Tura—oh, she's the funny stripper." But Arthur Laurents let me find the really deep emotional core of this woman, who I did not see as funny at all. I found her very much a woman in tragic circumstances: She is aging in a business that does not look kindly on aging women; she is a woman in the Great Depression who has no schooling, and no training to do anything else. What she wound up doing in real life—because Tessie Tura was indeed a real person—was make dresses. She did make dresses for the real Gypsy Rose Lee. If you read Gypsy Rose Lee's biography, she said, "I regard Tessie Tura as more of a sister to me than my own sister." Tessie went on the road with Gypsy Rose Lee after she stopped being a burlesque performer and was basically her dresser. And here I am [in A Charity Case] playing a woman who is facing her own fading sexuality and trying to make her way in the world by doing exactly the same thing: She's making dresses. So there is an odd corollary there. I never thought of Tessie as that funny old broad. I always thought of her as a deeply troubled emotional character. We got the laughs, but I can't just go for laughs. I have to find what's underneath it.
Do you draw on your own experience as a single mother, albeit under much different circumstances, in your portrayal of Faith?
The dynamic in my household when Nat was entering adolescence was turbulent because my husband had been diagnosed with cancer. So from age 9 to 12, my son was living in a house with sickness, grief, loss. The troubles Nat had to live with were very different from the troubles that are more inwardly formed by the character of Deedee. But I can bring my experience dealing with a child who needs a certain kind of attention. I would like to think I am more patient than my character is. But I had an incredible support system, and Faith is really all alone.
This is the fourth show you've done in New York in 2011.
I've had a very, very busy year. The greatest thrill in my career has always been originating roles, and this is my third original play this year: The first was Charles Busch's The Divine Sister—a crack comic team—and then David Ives' brilliant adaptation of The Misanthrope called School for Lies. That's really one of the finest shows I've ever done, a real thrill to originate that role under the inspired direction of Walter Bobbie. Charity Case has been done in Australia, but Wendy is considering this a brand-new play because there's been so many changes.
Would you say you've been the heavy in all those plays?
I don't think Faith is the villain in this piece at all. I think that she could be perceived as such, because she can be very harsh. But I'm hoping I can make people understand her and the dire circumstances she is in socially and emotionally. She's trying to make it on her own, she's rapidly aging, she has a difficult kid.
Something that's very important when you're playing a villain is you can't think of yourself as a villain. Villains think of themselves as heroes. All of the great villains have a passion, have a need, have an urge to do something great; it just so happens that their idea of greatness is not what society thinks of as great. So that's how I try to approach my villains. Arsinoe in School for Lies—she thinks of herself as the moral arbiter of her society, she doesn't think she's the villain. My Sister Maria Walburga in Divine Sister...of course, in the eyes of the world, she's crazy. She's a religious fanatic. Does she think she's a villain? She does not. If we're going to label her as such, in the pantheon of villains [I've played], that would have to be top drawer.
One of my very, very favorite shows in the world was Lizzie Borden. I did that out in New Jersey, at the American Stage Company—which doesn't exist anymore. I played Lizzie Borden, and a lot of people would think Lizzie is a villain. It's pretty much assumed that she did indeed hack her parents to death. But what were the extenuating circumstances? Was there child abuse? There's nothing to back that up in the books, but it could have happened. Nobody talked about it. How do we know it didn't? Why else would she do it? She was also a woman in corsets—not only was her body corseted, her entire emotional being was corseted by the constraints at the time of what the feminine should be. And who knows, maybe she was a little crazy.
Last week you performed in Abingdon Theatre Company's benefit gala with The Book of Mormon star Andrew Rannells. How did that come about?
I had met Andrew socially through Zuzanna Szadkowski, his dear friend—who I had done Love, Loss, and What I Wore with—and I was utterly charmed by him. Then I went to see Book of Mormon and fell madly in love with him on stage. That was just a revivifying piece of theater to me...what musicals are supposed to be. They're supposed to be entertaining and smart and deep.
When I had met Andrew, he knew me from the early Finn stuff I had done—March of the Falsettos and In Trousers. He told me he warmed up to me sometimes, listening on his iPod. This brilliant performer warms up to me!
We were both asked to do this benefit [honoring] Charles Busch and Julie Halston that Abingdon Theatre was throwing; they asked us to sing together. It turns out that a lot of our musical sensibilities gel. When we were trying to figure out what to sing, I sent him a few things and he said, "I love this Elvis Costello song 'Everyday I Write the Book.'" It all comes full-circle, because I love Elvis Costello—whose most famous song is "Alison." It's ["Everyday I Write the Book"] on my second album, called Men in My Life, and Andrew's now a man in my life, because he's my new friend. About the full-circle thing...about a year ago I was supposed to do a cabaret with Michael Rupert, but that show never happened because Michael had to pull out to do another show. At that time I was working with Brian Lowdermilk, who wrote a great arrangement for the Elvis Costello song. With Andrew I am singing the Brian Lowdermilk arrangement, under the musical direction of Chris McGovern—who had done my arrangement on my album of the song!
While we're sitting here talking, I'm remembering how you were labeled "a young Angela Lansbury" when you were in Romance/Romance—because you still resemble her.
I think she's a spectacularly attractive woman, so whenever anybody says to me, "You look like Angela Lansbury," I'm like, "Oh, my God, I wish!" I regard it as a huge compliment. I can only hope that I have a quarter—an eighth—of the career that Angela Lansbury's had. What I love about Angela Lansbury is she does keep reinventing herself. I do so admire that she just dove into musicals after the first part of her career, and then she just dove into television and became the biggest star on TV. And then she becomes the biggest thing in animation with Beauty and the Beast!
I remember the scathing review I got from John Simon, who, funnily enough, is now my Facebook friend. He requested me to be friends on Facebook...which is a funny coda to that horrible review he gave me, in which he called me some sort of horrible combination of Angela Lansbury and Bernadette Peters, without any of the good qualities of either of them.
What do you remember most when you look back on Romance/Romance?
Heavenly, heavenly. Again, it's all about originating material. You're given this spectacular gift of a smart, funny, passionate, emotional, deep love story—a double love story—and you have a really smart guy directing it, Barry Harman, who happens to be the same guy who wrote it. And you're given this lush score by Keith Hermann. It's a gift, and you have to treat that gift with tender loving care. Every time I am handed an original script, it's like you're being handed a really, really precious object. You have to give everything you've got to it.
How does the career you've had compare to what you were expecting back then?
I have to say I regard myself as the classic overachiever. And I don't mean that I'm ambitious. I think I have achieved so much more than I thought I was ever capable of. There are hundreds of people out there that are incredibly talented that have not had the great good fortune that I've had. I do know I have an unusual voice, and I think that has worked in my favor. I think that's why Billy Finn said, "That's an interesting voice, let's sing with her." Romance/Romance, they cast me very fast. I know that's why I got cast in The Secret Garden, because Lucy [Simon, the composer] thought that my voice was quite right for the sort of folky thing that she was doing initially with The Secret Garden. I know that she saw something in the individuality of my voice. I don't sound like a lot of people. That's going to work not in my favor a lot—I'll go in for an audition, and it's like, "Yeah, buh-bye." But this is what I tell my students: Individuality has got to be embraced. It's all well and good to have your belted F's or the tap chops—which I don't have—but what you have to do is say, "This is me, and that's something that nobody else has." There's nobody that can be you.
These past few years of my career, I've had the happiest time in the theater that I've ever had. The cluster of work that has come to me is very exciting. At a time when a lot of actresses are saying "I'm getting too old to get great parts," I'm not for some reason having this problem. I'm riding a really fantastic wave, and I'm also witnessing my great friends like Mary Testa and Julie Halston riding the same kind of wave. There's a great energy going on out there about women in our age group.
With The Secret Garden, Love, Loss, and What I Wore and now A Charity Case, you've done a number of shows with all or nearly all female casts and creative teams.
I think that whole female power thing can be very palpable. When you get a lot of strong, smart women in a room together, it can be a really creative and nurturing environment. In this past year, I have also been so lucky to work with Carl Andress and Walter Bobbie, and they are the most evolved type of director, in that they're secure. They're not threatened by powerful women. The first thing I look for in a good director is that he's secure, because if he's not secure enough to accept the fact that an actor has opinions and ideas and brings their own personal sensibility to their character—if you're dealing with a director that's threatened by the fact that an actor might know something—then you're in trouble.
Did you take a break from performing when your husband was ill?
No, I was still working. I did a lot of voiceover work, and that was how I made sure my [health] insurance was covered. That's something artists are always struggling with: How do I make my insurance? And because Rusty's sickness was a million-dollar sickness, I had to make sure I had my SAG coverage.
How did you recover from losing him?
After he died, I went back to college. I had quit when I was a kid. After he died, I thought, "What is the next phase of my life going to be?" I went to Fordham University and earned my degree in English, with a minor in theater. And then they asked me to start teaching there. So I am teaching a course called Song and Scene, which is bringing a dramatic sensibility to musical numbers. It's something that Arthur taught me a lot about—you know, walking out of the scene, into the song and then back into the scene. It's really the sum total of my career: This is what I've learned, and now I will impart it to you. That has been a big part of my grieving process, 'cause I knew once Nat went to school, I'd have empty nest syndrome. My nest has never felt more full.
I did a lot of work out at George Street Playhouse, and thank God for David Saint [George Street's artistic director], for keeping me busy and saying, "Yeah, you can learn these lines. You can do this, Alison." 'Cause I didn't think I would be able to learn lines anymore. I did Lips Together, Teeth Apart, Terrence McNally's great play. This was a daunting part. And it was a great success, and Terrence came to see it, and then he asked me to do Dedication... with Nathan Lane and Marian Seldes. David Saint is a huge theatrical and personal influence in my life, and of course we have Arthur Laurents in common. Arthur came out to see Gunmetal Blues at the George Street Playhouse, and that's how my friendship with Arthur started. Arthur's partner had also been diagnosed with cancer, and he had the same doctor that Rusty had had.
For many years, in concerts and cabarets you performed a song you wrote about being probably the only New York actor who was never on Law & Order. But then you finally were on an episode of Special Victims Unit.
I played a terrible, terrible homophobe on that—basically, endangered the loyalty of my fanbase! I did keep singing the song because, I said, SVU didn't count 'cause it wasn't the "mothership." It got to be embarrassing. I had auditioned, like, nine times. It was like, Donna Hanover Giuliani gets to be on and I don't?
You know what's hilarious about that song? I sang that song at Birdland, at Jim Caruso's show, and there was a guy there that was putting together a benefit honoring Dick Wolf and Sam Waterston [creator and star of L&O]. So I did this benefit, and I sang it. I do not want to be blamed for the loss of Law & Order for New York City, but that benefit was on a Monday or Tuesday and Law & Order was canceled on that Friday!
(Watch Alison perform her Law & Order song here.)
Photos of Alison, from top: her headshot; at right, with Alysia Reiner (left) and Jill Shackner in A Charity Case; as Faith in A Charity Case, with Jill Shackner (right); as Arsinoe in The School for Lies; with Andrew Rannells at the Abingdon Theatre Company gala on Oct. 25; with Anita Gillette (left) and Aisha de Haas in Love, Loss, and What I Wore. [Charity Case and Rannells photos by Kevin Thomas Garcia; Love, Loss photo by Carol Rosegg]