InDepth InterView: Alison Fraser Talks LOVE THERAPY, Plus FALSETTOS, SECRET GARDEN, GYPSY, Web Series, Upcoming Solo Shows & More
Today we are talking to a versatile stage and screen actress who has scored in a number of unique roles on Broadway and around the country in addition to making a recent mark with her work on the Broadway-themed web series IT COULD BE WORSE - the passionate and compelling Alison Fraser. Discussing her vast resume and some of her most fondly remembered performances to date, Fraser opens up about her remarkable career thus far - including her work originating parts in IN TROUSERS, MARCH OF THE FALSETTOS, THE SECRET GARDEN, ROMANCE/ROMANCE, GUNMETAL BLUES, THE DIVINE SISTER and more - and looks ahead to her most recent projects, current, upcoming and beyond. Most importantly, Fraser details the finer points of LOVE THERAPY, the new Wendy Beckett play she stars in Off-Broadway and outlines her continuing collaboration onstage with the playwright, having previously starred in CHARITY CASE, as well as what we can expect from the realistic new drama, opening April 29. Additionally, Fraser sheds some light on her recent work in the world premiere of the Tennessee Williams play IN MASKS OUTRAGEOUS AND AUSTERE and how that led to her new solo revue, THE Tennessee Williams SONGBOOK. Plus, memories of appearing in GYPSY on Broadway with Patti LuPone and working with Arthur Laurents on that as well as his own final play, cameoing on SMASH, reflections on her memorable musical partnerships with husband Rusty Magee and noted FALSETTOS songwriter William Finn, as well as thoughts on the Contemporary Theatre scene and her various theatre-related web projects, teaching classes at Fordham, favorite recent shows - and much, much more!
More information on LOVE THERAPY is available at the official site here.
Even more information on Alison Fraser is available at her official site here. Also, check out Alison Fraser in IT COULD BE WORSE here.
PC: What's the schedule planned for LOVE THERAPY?
AF: We are previewing now and we are set to open on April 29. The theater is so in demand that I am sure people are champing at the bit to get in there, so, you know what? We'll do our run and then we'll see what happens - of course, everybody wants to move [to Broadway], but I think we are going to have a beautiful run here, with an original piece written by an original voice. I am so excited to be a part of it. It's an incredible play.
PC: How do you see your character in LOVE THERAPY?
AF: Well, as you know, in my career I have played a lot of villains and villainous characters, but this character Wendy has so generously not written as the villain! [Laughs.]
PC: A departure from your work with her in CHARITY CASE, then!
AF: Definitely! Even though I don't really see myself as the villain in that, I did drink and smoke and sleep with inappropriate men and hit the kid and everything - I tried to make the audience understand my actions, though, of course. I've played the villain recently, though - in THE DIVINE SISTER Charles Busch gave me one of the most divine villains of all time to play! David Ives, too - oh, my God, to have been able to originate my fabulous, fabulous character in Walter Bobbie's production of his play SCHOOL FOR LIES at Classic Stage Company was one of the greatest thrills of my life. David Ives just walks on water for me. That was a villain. And, now, Wesley [Taylor] has written a pretty villainous role on his web show, IT COULD BE WORSE - I mean, in her mind she probably isn't the villain, but c'mon! Actually, Wesley just sent me this text today that was so hilarious about seeing someone who looked like me - as my character - on the street and being scared of her and I said, "Oh, great! Now I'm never going to get a date again!" [Laughs.] But, back to LOVE THERAPY...
PC: Who do you play in LOVE THERAPY?
AF: I have to say, Wendy Beckett has written me something I've never played before. I suppose you'd say she's just this sort of older Irish waitress, because Wendy has an Irish background and I think because I am Irish by extraction she sort of glommed onto that in me and made my character Irish - and, also, I get to wear one of those horrible, horrible waitress uniforms! [Laughs.]
PC: A pretty good gig!
AF: I'll tell you a story that will answer your question: when we were in rehearsals, the director, the brilliant Evan Bergman, said to me, "Let's give this woman a past." And, so we did. He asked me, you know, "What were you like when you first came to New York?" And I told him about how I was kind of a clubgoer and I just had a great time. And, so, he said to me, "There are all of these waitresses - these women - who have the tattoos and sort of act like they still just came out of the club and have that whole attitude;" you know, they just saw Elvis Costello do a set at some nightclub," which once upon a time I think I actually did. He said, "So, what if it is a woman who doesn't live in her past but still has a vestige of it in her physicality?" And, so I said, "Sure! But, can I still keep my short platinum hair?" [Laughs.]
PC: Appearances are important to creating a character, after all.
AF: It is so important, at least to me. So, it was like, "Can I keep my platinum blonde hair?" "Sure!" "Can I have a Celtic tattoo on my arm?" "Sure!" "Oh, my God, can I wear distressed jeans and Doc Martins?" And then he said, "I think you see where this is going," and suddenly this entire woman came to me, fully formed - and then it merged with what Wendy had written on the page. I thought, "Oh, this is so great - this is something I can really get behind! This is a fantastic history to have for this character - she was living fast and loose in the late '80s and now she's still working this job and dressing vaguely like she did in the '80s. She's not necessarily unhappy, but thirty years have gone by." [Pause.] That's exciting - that's a character to play.
PC: A rich history.
AF: And, the other thing is: there's this thing hairstylists always say, "Women tend to hang on to the best hairstyle of their youth," and, I think that this is what this woman has done and that's who she is. I feel so privileged that they gave me that freedom to find her and help create her the way that Wendy and Evan did. Also, there's this fantastic Irish restaurant on the Upper West Side called The Emerald Inn with these unbelievably fantastic waitresses that all have their own back-stories - right there, in real life - and so Evan said one night, "Let's go to The Emerald Inn!" And, now, I just heard that Kate Spade is going to have a shop where that restaurant has been for forty years...
PC: What a shame.
AF: It really is. [Sighs.] C'mon, we need our neighborhood joints! I mean, to me, one of the great tragedies is what has been happening on the Upper West Side and us losing so many of those mom and pop sort of landmarks...
PC: On that note, how do you view Broadway now versus when you arrived in New York - and when your character in LOVE THERAPY did? It doesn't have quite the same creative spark that it had in the '70s and before.
AF: It's not the same, but Broadway will always be great. It has changed so much, but I still feel like there are all of these unbelievably exciting things going on and to be seen still. I have to say, though, that people summarily dismiss shows now without giving them a chance - look at PASSING STRANGE, one of the most original pieces that I have ever seen anywhere; I saw it at the Public and then again on Broadway. It was fabulous. It's like: give these things a chance, people! I was a champion of WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN as well - was it perfect? No. But, it was pretty damn great! Give it a chance - give original musicals a chance! So, yeah, you're right - with the way things are now, that's why you don't see me in a lot of Broadway shows. I mean, I audition really, really poorly, too, but...
PC: Auditions aren't everything.
AF: I am terrible. [Laughs.] It's like, "Can't I just show you I can do this? I can be really good, but I have to make ten mistakes before I can get it right," I always say. It just takes me that long. I mean, if you aren't allowed the opportunity to make your mistakes you never, ever will have that moment of, "Oh, my God, I just discovered something fantastic!" One of those mistakes might be your brilliant mistake that is actually the answer. But, we aren't allowed to do that anymore - you have to be brilliant in the audition. I feel like, "Talk to me! Work with me! I'm nervous!" I don't know, I just feel like auditioning is an entirely different skill than actually being great in a show.
PC: A fascinating differentiation to make.
AF: For me, it's about the relationship with the playwright and my director - like the amazing relationship I am so honored to have with Wendy Beckett and Evan Bergman on LOVE THERAPY right now - and with the other actors, myself and the audience, as well. When those five entities come together... something really exciting can happen.
PC: Your new platinum blonde look is so flattering - you look fantastic. Was there an impetus behind the new look? Was LOVE THERAPY anything to do with it?
AF: Aww, thank you so much for saying that! The blonde hair is all for THE Tennessee Williams SONGBOOK, actually. For some reason, though, I guess it's working for me! You aren't the first to say you like it. Also, I have to say, I feel like it has liberated me in a way. It's like, once they cut my hair and completely bleached it out my life changed! It really did. You know, I remember once, during SECRET GARDEN, I went through an angry punk phase and odd things were happening in my life at the time - but, honestly, I do not ever remember having a look like this since '91. I am loving it, though. Platinum blonde isn't blonde, either - platinum blonde is platinum blonde and people look at you differently.
PC: How so?
AF: They say, "Oh, you are extreme - you are an extreme actress," and I think that liberates you as an actor, or it can - it has for me. You know, I've gotten a lot of movies in the past year and I've had two great leads on web series and a great recurring role on JACK IN A BOX, too - even though I didn't have the platinum hair for that, I know they would love it! [Laughs.] I have just gotten so many amazing opportunities.
PC: Could you tell me about your various co-stars and how you all interact within the piece?
AF: Of course! Where do I start? As the only cast member that eschews the world of therapy, I am not allowed into the set's inner pink circle therapy sanctum. In rehearsal, when my foot would cross the line unintentionally, I would pretend I had been tasered. I have been trained into avoiding it even during the curtain call. My place - my only place, my rightful place - is in the cafe, and, there, I play out my relationship with Margot White - who, as Colleen, is the therapist and the character at the center of the piece.
PC: How would you describe Colleen?
AF: Colleen is young, beautiful, very passionate about her work, and very, very vulnerable. She falls into an inappropriate relationship with a male client, and havoc is wreaked. I had known Janet Zarish - who, by the way, plays two demanding roles in this piece with breathtaking skill - for years, and I was understandably excited to finally be performing with her onstage, now. Margot was new to me, though, and I have to say that, like Colleen's patient - played by the dashing David Bishins - I have fallen under Margot's unique spell. She is a lovely actress, and an even lovelier person, and my affection for her personally mirrors Madge's affection for Colleen, I think. Also, I would be remiss to not mention the sterling Christopher Burns, who bears the brunt of a madwoman's wrath with great aplomb. You know, I wish I could be in the pink circle with him, but alas, that is not to be. Who knows, maybe in the sequel!
AF: Oh, my God - I love that woman. And, in speaking of GYPSY and COME BACK, COME BACK WHEREVER YOU ARE with Arthur [Laurents] and working with Wendy Beckett and Evan on LOVE THERAPY, I have to say that I have never been involved with shows where the talkbacks were so personal and emotional - and it's a tribute to both of them and their genius as playwrights and directors.
PC: You are a fan of Miss LuPone, then, I take it?
AF: Oh, God, yes. Working with her was just spectacular - we all spoke the same language.
PC: Arthur Laurents was known as being a tough taskmaster, to say the least...
AF: Oh, yeah. A lot of people say that Arthur was an as*hole - that he could be difficult - but, that's who he was, though! We all know that - he was also absolutely brilliant and an artist, too. He was all of those things.
PC: People can be more than one thing, for sure.
AF: Since you asked, I will say that I count myself lucky to be able to call myself his friend - and I do - and I can tell you that he was irascible with me sometimes, but I always, always respected his ultimate artistry and the lessons he taught. Always. You know, he demanded authenticity and he demanded absolute commitment and he demanded originality - always; that's what Arthur did. I mean, honestly, the first play I did with Arthur, COME BACK, COME BACK, WHEREVER YOU ARE, with Shirley Knight at the George Street Playhouse, was the first time I really ever learned how to act again, since I began - it's really true. Everything I learned on that experience has served me really well since then, I think, too.
PC: What was so instructive?
AF: Just working with the two of them. Arthur, who demanded complete honesty at all times - especially because in that show I was basically playing him - and Shirley, who can't register when another actor is being false; it's like, "What are you?!" So, between the two of them, I have these masters of their craft absolutely making me strip myself of every trick I ever, ever had - and it was absolutely thrilling! [Laughs.]
PC: No tricks!
AF: It was the best thing in the world! I was stripped naked by the two of them doing that play and I am a better actress for it.
PC: Did he ever give you one of his famous on-the-nail insights? Did you audition?
AF: Well, I'll tell you, I never auditioned for Tessie Tura in GYPSY - he had seen me in another show, GUNMETAL BLUES, that David Saint directed at the George Street Playhouse. He just decided after he saw me in that that I was his Tessie Tura, I guess. And, so, you know, I had never really longed to do the role or anything - it's like, "Yeah, they're funny; they're strippers; whatever," - but he wanted me to do it. He really did. So, I felt like, "Well, this is Arthur Laurents offering me the part," and, so, I said to him, "Sure, Arthur, if it ever happens I'll do it." And, then, sure enough, it happened!
PC: First at Encores!
AF: Right. And, then, it was like, for the first three days he really liked what I was doing - I had tried to do something different with Tessie Tura; I had this Texan accent and everything. And, so, I thought, "Well, this will be fun," and then on the fourth day he said, "I hate it." And, from then on, he proceeded to not like me for a while. He was pretty damn tough on me. But, you know, we got through it. [Sighs.] I remember the very, very first night of previews he just sort of realized that it was working because everyone was laughing... And, I mean, once I saw what the brilliant Marty Pakledinaz had come up with for Tessie Tura's costume, then it all made sense. [Laughs.]
PC: You were quite a sight!
AF: Ugh, he's such a master, Marty is. As soon as I saw it, I said, "Now I get it!" Paul Huntley had such horrible, great wigs for us, too - they were so ugly and they were just so perfect! She was just so sad - so pathetic, my Tessie Tura. So, anyway, once I lost the Texan accent and Arthur started trusting me again, it all started coming together and it was great. After that, I got to really explore an extremely sad creature - this aging woman who, especially during the Depression, has no conceivable future; for two reasons: first, because vaudeville is dead and burlesque is over and also because she is just getting too old to strip. I think once we focused in on that aspect of her, we both were ultimately quite happy with the Tessie Tura that we created together.
PC: Were you happy to move with the show to Broadway?
AF: Oh, I was thrilled! Honestly, I thought, "Oh, well, maybe this is it and they will get somebody else to play Tessie Tura on Broadway." Seriously! We had had such problems...
PC: Did you ever discuss understudying Rose yourself with Arthur? You certainly have everything it takes to bring to the role - and then some.
AF: Well, you know, it was something that I don't think we ever discussed, actually. [Pause.] I mean, I remember he wanted me to audition for Miss Cratchett and I said, "No," because at that point I honestly didn't want to give him any more fodder for disliking me... [Laughs.]
PC: No need to add to the already apparent aggression of the situation you were in at the time, right?
AF: Well, what had happened was that he ultimately really liked what I did at City Center and so they asked me to do the Broadway show. Nancy Opel, who was a wonderful Mazeppa, had to step out to do a show on the road and they asked the fabulous Lenora Nemetz to replace her - so, they asked all of us to come in to for Miss Cratchett and I just politely declined.
PC: What a gigantic shame that production wasn't filmed, isn't it?
AF: I agree - I know they were trying to get financing together for it, but it just didn't happen and it's a huge, huge shame that it was not filmed. Patti LuPone and Laura Benanti just totally going at in that dressing room - that was an astonishing thing to watch.
PC: So, you look back fondly on working with Arthur on GYPSY, then, all in all?
AF: I do. Absolutely. Arthur ultimately was quite fabulous to me - I really have to stress that. At the end of Arthur's life, the last two years, we were very, very close - we shared the death experience together. His longtime partner, Tom, had the same cancer doctor that my husband had. COME BACK, COME BACK, WHEREVER YOU ARE is an absolutely brilliant treatise on grief, I truly have to say. I wish that it was filmed because I think it would help people going through the grieving process. So, I will always treasure my relationship with him - I have nothing but the most sincere love, respect and admiration for Arthur. And, in his last book, he called me the best Tessie Tura he had ever seen and for me that was like winning an Academy Award! [Laughs.]
PC: High praise, indeed, considering the source!
AF: Totally! Also, I actually think that for a guy who was fairly set in his ways like he was that he was very amenable to changes in GYPSY...
PC: Such as?
AF: Well, one of the problems I always had with it was the presentational quality of "You Gotta Get A Gimmick" - so, I told him that, and, he said, "OK. Let's change it. Let's direct it toward Louise." And, so that's what we did - and suddenly it became a scene. It was like, "OK. Now I get it." So, yes, I was very, very happy with the final show and I made a lot of friends on it, too. And, Patti is just it - she is a goddess who walks on earth and as for understudying her? There is no way I could ever, ever even consider myself in the company with her. Why would I do that? [Laughs.]
PC: Why do you say that?
AF: I want to do things that I can be the best at, Pat! I can never be the best at Madame Rose - we have Patti and Bernadette and Tyne! They were all so great.
PC: I would love to see you do it someday myself.
AF: Well, you may actually get your wish, but it's not something I ever thought to do before very, very recently... [Laughs.]
PC: Are there any revival roles you yearn to play?
AF: Not really - I see myself as pretty much a round peg that does not fit into a square hole; or, a square peg that does not fit into a round hole, you know? I mean, I don't do a lot of revivals because I like originating parts more than anything - like I am doing right now with LOVE THERAPY and did last year in Wendy Beckett's CHARITY CASE.
PC: CHARITY CASE was your first collaboration with Wendy, correct?
AF: Yes. We did CHARITY CASE last year, after it had already been done in Australia, and I must say that it changed appreciably when it came to New York - it became a much, much darker piece. I think that it had more comedic moments when it was done in Australia. Also, I think that, ultimately, the play was a bigger success in New York than when it was done in Australia - it really clicked. It was a very, very provocative piece and I think Wendy enjoys being the provocateur - and I love that about her. You know, she does these abstract, minimalist pieces about these touchy, touchy subjects and I just find them all so utterly fascinating.
PC: What was CHARITY CASE about?
AF: CHARITY CASE was about this triangular relationship of a troubled teen, his mother and an adoptive mother - and, let me tell you, my character was just the worst! Like I said before, she drank a lot, she slept with inappropriate men, she had this daughter who cut herself - it was difficult to try to get a handle on how to get the audience to understand this troubled woman. But, I think we were pretty successful doing it, in the end. I mean, Wendy takes these pockets of life that we don't normally get to look at and explores them in a very nontraditional, non-narrative way - she writes the way we act in life, I think; she writes the way we think. We don't always connect the dots...
PC: Life is not presentational, after all.
AF: One of the things I love about her work is that you think, "Oh, I need to connect these dots in my head," and then you realize, "Oh, maybe I don't," because it's not what we do in real life. Do we? It's like how bad actors are always looking at each other in the eyes through all their dialogue scenes - that's not how people act! They don't look at each other all the time! So, it's really an exercise in distilled realism whenever I work on one of Wendy's plays - I guess distilled realism is my way of putting what Wendy presents.
PC: Hyper-reality, in a way, would you say?
AF: Hyper-reality? I think maybe - yeah, I think so. Truthfully, as an actor, I am constantly searching for the inner core; you know, "What are these words on the page and what do they mean? Why am I repeating these certain words? Oh, that's why I am saying this," and, in doing that, I have to connect my own dots. I love that. That's exciting.
PC: The process is important to you.
AF: It is - and I love doing plays that expect the audience to do some thinking of its own and Wendy's plays always do that.
PC: How did you two meet in the first place?
AF: Oh, I was very lucky. I auditioned for CHARITY CASE and we hit it off right away.
PC: In addition to eight shows a week, you are teaching these days, as well, correct?
AF: Yes - I absolutely love teaching! I teach a class at Fordham right now called Song & Scene - I just came from the class, actually, and I just have to crow about them a little to you: oh, my God! [Big Laugh.]
PC: So you have a talented group this semester, I take it?
AF: Ugh, they are so good - so, so good. I have eleven students in this class and they have so much gumption and brio and heart and they just give it their all. It is my fourth year teaching at Fordham now and I just love it - it has become a huge part of my life.
PC: What's the class about?
AF: Well, it's like, basically, when I do musicals, I have to approach it like a narrative piece, even if it is just one song - I just don't like presentational musicals...
PC: "I'm Breaking Down" in IN TROUSERS is one of the best in-one sung scenes I can recall...
AF: Oh, God, I remember doing that at the IN TROUSERS reunion concert and it was just heartrending to do - it was a month before my husband, Rusy [Magee] died...
PC: What terrible timing.
AF: I know. They asked me to do it and I was like, "I'm at the hospital seven or eight hours a day and at any time I might have to bow out. I mean, I am totally honored that you would ask me to do this concert in this magnificent space at the new Playwright's Horizons, but you have to know that my priority is with my sick husband and my family." So, I talked to Billy [Finn] and I said, "Listen, here's the thing: my husband is dying of cancer and he is going down fast," and, you know what? God bless them, they took the chance and I did it and it turned out to be an amazing experience for me - and an amazing experience for Rusty.
PC: Was he able to attend or was he too ill?
AF: Sadly, the elevator wasn't working - my husband had lost use of his legs by that point - so they carried him up the stairs. He got to see that production. The reason this is important is because IN TROUSERS had always been one of his favorite pieces and he said, "Oh, God, I wish I had seen you in the original - I could have fallen in love with you sooner." So, the fact that he got to see it - and see me in it - before he died was a pretty remarkable event for us. I will never forget that night for the rest of my life.
PC: "New York Romance" is such an incredible song - and he wrote quite a few on that level. Did he ever write any for you?
AF: No. Oddly enough, my husband who wrote a thousand songs never wrote a song about me. And that's OK - it's OK.
PC: Why is that, do you think?
AF: I'll tell you: he said to me, "You know, Alison, I write these sad songs and you don't make me sad. You make me happy." That's why - that's the reason. But, that song you mentioned, "New York Romance" - that song is why I married my husband. I felt like, "I have to get him out of this horrible dating scene he is in!" [Laughs.]
PC: It's a rough song.
AF: When I came to Manhattan, we met at the Public and we fell in love right away he played me that song and we we were married two weeks later - and married for eighteen years! [Laughs.]
PC: IN TROUSERS is so unique - so ahead of its time. William Finn is such a genius.
AF: It really was - and it is. To me, it's Bill's masterpiece, actually - I really do feel that way. I think it's by far the best thing that he has ever written. I think, musically, it is astonishing and what I really love the most about IN TROUSERS was that it was abstract and that it took place in someone's mind - a very, very confused and very sort of sexually-oriented young man's mind. And, I mean, c'mon, "Whizzer Going Down"? Who the hell was doing that in 1978?!
PC: Who has done it as well since? "Love Me For What I Am" is a masterpiece in itself.
AF: It is, but what makes it that is the combination - it's "Nausea Before The Game" leading into "Love Me For What I Am". For me, that's Billy's best nine minutes in anything he's ever done.
PC: It's so character rich.
AF: That's my favorite scene, too. I mean, it's the juxtaposition of these two sentiments, it's like this man is saying, "Oh, my God, I am really questioning my sexuality right now," and you have this woman saying, "Oh, my God, I can't be what you want me to be." And, that show was the beginning of my longstanding and fabulous relationship with Chip Zien, who I just adore.
PC: He has done this column, as well - what a smart guy!
AF: He's so good - in everything he does, but especially right now in THE BIG KNIFE. One wants the play to be about him.
PC: That's high praise!
AF: He's so seriously good... I bow to him. We did a movie together last year, actually.
PC: COMMENTARY, right? Aaron Mark's movie.
AF: Yes. Can we talk about Aaron Mark for a moment? I saw ANOTHER MEDEA twice - I mean, I see a lot of theatre and I try to keep up, I really do. These kids at Fordham kill me with, you know, "Oh, you gotta see this!" And it's a lot to keep up with, but I try to see a lot. So, I went to The Duplex, which is a lovely, inventive little space, but you don't necessarily think of high drama as taking place there - you think of brilliant cabaret shows like PATTI ISSUES that Ben Rimalower did with Aaron Mark there. Then, I saw one of the most shockingly spare, dramatically brilliant pieces I have ever seen on the stage - done by one man, Tom Hewitt. Like Chip, I bow to him - I really do. I mean, he made his name as a vampire in DRACULA and as a star of SPAMALOT and here he is in The Duplex doing this show where he probably has to, you know, buy his own drinks - though I don't know that part for sure! [Laughs.]
PC: It's a labor of love - and that comes through in his performance.
AF: Al Pacino should come and see this performance - it's that good. I am getting excited about it just thinking about Tom Hewitt's performance and Aaron Mark's writing and directing. I love glomming onto incredibly exciting new theatre talents, like Aaron, who respect the old guys like me and Chip Zien and Tom Hewitt - not that you guys are old; you're not old, you're young in spirit [Laughs.] - and say, you know, "Hey, I wrote this part in this play for you." Or, a great part in a movie like COMMENTARY that is just totally fabulous like Aaron did for me. It's like, "Really? You see something in me - in me - that other people haven't seen?" And, just like in my relationship with Shirley Knight in the things that we have done and just like my relationship with Wendy Beckett first on CHARITY CASE and now on LOVE THERAPY - this amazingly talented person who can maybe learn something from me and who I can learn so much from and we can have this whole amazing relationship built on that. That, to me, is what theatre should be about.
PC: It's about the craft and the art, not just the work. It's not "the show must go on."
AF: Exactly. Let me tell you a story: I recently did an episode of SMASH and we were all standing around for like eight hours, and there I am, next to Wesley Taylor - how fantastic is he? He can't be more than 28 and he asked me, "Do you want to be in my web series?" and I said, "Sure!" We do this not for money, but for love - love of the game; love of the art. When you do your art for love, that's when really exciting things happen, I think - and I know.
PC: I was curious if you could tell me about the Tennessee Williams play that you premiered last year, IN MASKS OUTRAGEOUS AND AUSTERE?
AF: Can you even believe it? Shirley Knight and I got to do the world premiere of Tennessee Williams's IN MASKS OUTRAGEOUS AND AUSTERE. Shirley was playing, basically, Tennessee at the end of his life. It's pretty amazing, I think, that Shirley and I played, in female form, these great theatre icons - I do believe that my part in COME BACK, COME BACK, WHEREVER YOU ARE was indeed based on Arthur [Laurents] and I know for a fact that the part that Shirley played in IN MASKS OUTRAGEOUS AND AUSTERE was based on Tennessee Williams at the end of his life. It was an absolutely, totally exhilarating experience to work on that piece and to be able to premiere it.
PC: You also appeared in LOVE, LOSS & WHAT I WORE by the late Nora Ephron, co-written with her sister, Delia, not too long ago. Did you and Nora Ephron ever meet before she passed away?
AF: Oh, sure! She was just lovely - I thought she was just amazing. I was just thrilled to be a part of that amazing play. I had a great time doing it and we had some fabulous ladies in it.
PC: On the topic of death, what are your thoughts on William Finn's ELEGIES? Would you be interested in doing that someday, particularly given your prior Finn association?
AF: Well, I saw ELEGIES and I think at the time, for me, it was just a little too close to home. I think I also sort of felt at the time like, "Where's Rusty? Why isn't Rusty in this?" So, again, I think it was one of those things where it was just a few months after Rusty died and I felt like, "Oh, God, this is really what I want to see right now!"
PC: I can't even imagine.
AF: It was rough. But, I thought it was a lovely piece of theatre and Christian Borle was just fabulous in it - Christian Borle who has since gone on to a great career with SMASH and Tony Awards and everything. I mean, Christian was the guy who went through Rusty's comic book collection after Rusty died and told me, "Oh, this is worth something," or, "This isn't worth anything." He catalogued everything. Can you believe Christian Borle came to my house - this was long before he was really famous - and catalogued my late husband's comic books for me in the spirit for just being nice and doing something for me? Unbelievable.
PC: How did you two know each other in the first place?
AF: Christian and I did PRODIGAL together and I thought he was just the most sensationally talented guy. So, I invited Billy Finn to see it - I said, "Oh, Billy, you really gotta see this dude!" and, boom, Billy writes ELEGIES and casts him in it.
PC: And now you were both just on an episode of SMASH.
AF: It's all full-circle, Pat, it's all full-circle! See?! [Laughs.]
PC: He would be great in a SECRET GARDEN revival, don't you think? In either male role, really. Would you like to see a revival occur sometime soon? It's time, I think.
AF: I would. I think SECRET GARDEN is one of the great, great, great underappreciated scores. I think Lucy Simon's music and Marsha Norman's lyrics are just astonishingly and incredibly beautiful. I think that it is one of the best theatre scores ever - I really do. I mean, I hear a lot of the kids sing those songs when they come in to audition for me now and it's a privilege - a privilege - to be able to say to them, "I was there. Oh, my God, I was there when we staged this scene. I can help you with 'Winter Is On The Wing'; yes, I can help you with 'Hold On'; I can help you with these things in a very special way, because I was there.
PC: What is the story behind your new solo show, THE Tennessee Williams SONGBOOK?
AF: Yes, my new show, THE Tennessee Williams SONGBOOK, is the biggest thrill I have had lately - at least until LOVE THERAPY. It's a one woman show about the songs that are in the plays of Tennessee Williams. By the way, it has been called that in the past, but I think we are going to change the name. But, anyway, I've done it in four different Tennessee Williams festivals now and we just did it down at one of the biggest ones, in New Orleans. Another big one is in Provincetown, with the great David Kaplan, who created it and put it together. So, recently, when we were down in New Orleans, I heard that Marsha Norman and John Patrick Shanley were on the panel and I said, "Wait a minute! I know Marsha - we did SECRET GARDEN together. And, I know John - my husband, Rusty, and he did a show together." So, I invited them to come see my show - and they both came! They were incredibly supportive and wonderful - it was such a thrill to be able to share this really, really beautiful piece with these people that I admire so tremendously.
PC: What's next for the show?
AF: We are hoping that THE Tennessee Williams SONGBOOK - or whatever we end up calling it - will come to New York in some way sometime soon. The last show we did was pretty damn splendid, if I do say! [Laughs.]
PC: Hopefully you will record it, as well. I absolutely love your previous solo albums, NEW YORK ROMANCE and MEN IN MY LIFE.
AF: Oh, that's so incredibly sweet of you to say, Pat! I can't believe you know MEN IN MY LIFE, too. That's awesome.
PC: To that point: what precisely is "The Passion Of Rhoda", your duet with Bill Finn, about or based upon? Do you know?
AF: Again, I don't want to be presumptuous, but I think it is about Billy's best friend from back when we were growing up in Natick [Massachusetts] - we are from the same hometown, so we knew each other way back when. Billy was a little bit older than I was, though, so he was out of high school by the time I went into high school. But, I think that that song is sort of about his friend Rhoda, and, if we look at IN TROUSERS, we sort of realize that, at the time, it was hard to come to terms with one's sexuality and I think he had feelings for Rhoda and I think that's what that's about. That's just my opinion.
PC: It's one of your best recordings, as well, I think. It's a remarkable duet.
AF: I think it's a fabulous song, too. The only thing about that recording is that we weren't in the same room singing together - he recorded first and then I put the other stuff on top of it.
PC: The "Row, row, row your boat" ending is absolutely exquisite.
AF: Oh, yeah - that was originally Mary Testa and I doing that. Can you imagine? I wish she had been able to be on that piece, since we're talking about it now. If I redid that album she would definitely be on it! The three of us doing that piece was really lovely, I think.
PC: Another IN TROUSERS reunion would be very welcome - or maybe you could do the entire FALSETTOS trilogy even at some point?
AF: Well, now there are so many people involved - just look at how many Trinas there are out there!
PC: Do you know anything about the film version of FALSETTOS?
AF: You know, I'm not really a part of that crowd anymore. I am very proud to have originated the role of Trina - I am thrilled to be on the original cast albums of IN TROUSERS and MARCH OF THE FALSETTOS and I am really honored that Billy thought my voice was worthy of his music, but I really haven't been part of his life for a long time.
PC: What a shame.
AF: No, it's not a shame, it's just what happens - you know, people evolve and find different directions. I mean, I'm with Wesley Taylor and Rob Hartmann and Wendy Beckett and whoever I am working with now. It's like, sometimes people get us at a particular time in our lives, and, at a particular time in my life, Billy Finn really got me and I really got him and I am very, very grateful for the time that we had that together.
PC: You really were his female voice in those early shows.
AF: You know, at one point he called me his muse. That's a moniker I will always treasure even though I am not his muse now - to have ever been Billy's muse is a great, great honor. He is one of our musical theatre treasures.
PC: Another collaborator of yours who you have re-teamed with throughout your career is John Cameron Mitchell, from your SECRET GARDEN days...
AF: Oh, I love John Cameron Mitchell! He is so fantastic. C'mon, HEDWIG is one of the most brilliant pieces of cinema I have ever seen in my life!
PC: It is one of the best movie musicals ever made.
AF: It is.
PC: I would be remiss not to mention your appearance in his music video for Bright Eyes's "First Day Of My Life". How did you become involved with that beautiful video in the first place?
AF: You know, when John asked me to be in that video... obviously, I am the widow in the piece and John had known Rusty and it was really a beautiful tribute to Rusty that he asked me to be in that. So, he sent me the song and the song was intensely moving and it wasn't until I saw the video that I even knew how intensely moving that song really was. I mean, to be honest, I can't even watch that video - it kills me; it just kills me. [Pause. Sighs.]
PC: It's a great way to preserve a memory, for sure.
AF: The simple fact that John thought to put me in it was just... to this day, it is one of the things I am most proud of. I'm a lucky girl - incredible people come to me and say, "Hey, let's do this." It's about doing really, really great work - if you build it, they will come. You know, God... [Sighs.] I am so lucky to have worked with these amazing people that we are talking about - I feel like I am the luckiest person in the world. I have worked with so many wonderful people and right now I am working with the people I am supposed to be working with. I mean, to work with Michael Cyril Creighton? What a huge gift. And I can't tell you how thrilled I am to work with Wesley Taylor and Mitchell Jarvis on IT COULD BE WORSE. I'm on another web series, too, now...
PC: What is it called?
AF: It's called THE UNDERSTUDY and I play a sort of very reserved diva - maybe not a less understated one, though. One of the creators, Elisabeth Gray, is doing a show called SOUTHERN DISCOMFORT and it is a really, really astonishing evening of theatre. I loved it - she's a really, really splendid actress. You know, I really feel like the winning combo of doing GYPSY and COME BACK, COME BACK, WHEREVER YOU ARE with Arthur and then THE DIVINE SISTER with Charles Busch just set me on an incredibly different track in my career. Right now I just feel this unbelievable spurt of creativity.
PC: You recently participated in FAR FROM HEAVEN in Williamstown, too. Will you be reprising your role in New York?
AF: No I will not. It just wasn't the part for me, but it is going to be a great part for somebody else, I am sure, just not for me.
PC: Kelli O'Hara is a musical theatre treasure, is she not?
AF: Oh, I love Kelli. Kelli is astonishing. I loved being able to be in the show with her there, but it was just not the right part for me. It doesn't always work out.
PC: ROMANCE/ROMANCE was filmed for TV, but unfortunately not with you in it. Was that because you couldn't come back at that point in time due to other commitments?
AF: I have to say that I was very sad I could not participate in that, but, yes, it was because I was in SECRET GARDEN at the time. I could not get out of it. Of course, they wanted me and Scott [Bakula] to do it, but they got some wonderful people to do it instead since neither one of us ended up being available. I was doing SECRET GARDEN and at the time and I felt like, dare I say it, I could not be spared. I thought, "Do I want to leave this show to film this?" And I realized, "No. I'm going to let it go." And, you know what? Part of me thinks that it could never measure up to what it was onstage anyway. For me, that production was such a seminal moment for me - starring in a perfect show with Scott Bakula at the Helen Hayes Theatre. It was a perfect vehicle for me and I was working with a wonderful director, too. The oddest thing to me - and this is so odd - is that it was at the Helen Hayes and in the next week I am going to be filming an episode of IT COULD BE WORSE at the Helen Hayes.
PC: Another full-circle moment.
AF: It really is! You know, when I went back to school I had to do a lot of projects and one of them was called "the magical onion" and what it was about was how, especially in New York and in urban spaces, lives are heaped upon lives are heaped upon lives - and, so, for instance, you can go into the Helen Hayes and say, "Oh, not only was this Merv Griffin's studio, but Harvey Fierstein did TORCH SONG TRILOGY here and I did ROMANCE/ROMANCE here and ROCK OF AGES is here now and we are doing IT COULD BE WORSE here, too." It's the magical onion - there we all are together whenever we are in that magical space.
PC: It's a continuum.
AF: It is. I mean, I bring that up because, when Rusty died, I went back to Fordham and got a degree in English Literature and all of a sudden my mind was open to incredible stuff that I never even thought of before and I was turned on to this one incredible philosopher and he was very into this whole "city have layers" concept. It's like, when I went into the St. James Theatre for GYPSY, I said, "I've been here before," and I had - for SECRET GARDEN. All of these questions then come up: How did our lives change since we last were here? Is there a residue of our younger selves in this theatre? Can we feel it? Come to find out, twenty people in the GYPSY cast had worked there, too! A whole family in the crew had worked there - Laura Benanti had been there before, as well. I had so much fodder for this video that I made about it all. I mean, what's it like coming back to this ambient space that I've been in before? [Pause.] It's all the onion.
PC: A lot to contemplate! This was riveting, Alison. Thank you so much for this today.
AF: This was awesome - awesome, awesome - Pat! What a pleasure. Thank you so, so much!