BRIDGING TV & THEATRE: Sharon Lawrence & DROP DEAD DIVA
Today we are talking to DROP DEAD DIVA guest star Sharon Lawrence and discussing her long-awaited return to the series as Bobbie Dobkins in Sunday's "Mother's Day" episode as well as taking a look at her long and varied film and theater career with thoughts on everything from CABARET and CHICAGO onstage to DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, LAW & ORDER: SVU and CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM on the small screen and the new Theresa Rebeck play she stars in opening next month at the Mark Taper Forum in LA, POOR BEHAVIOR, as well as 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 if you stay tuned - such as this week's BroadwayWorld exclusive world premiere of "Lean On Me" available here!
Be sure to check back often because in the following weeks we will also feature conversations with DROP DEAD DIVA stars Josh Henderson, Jackson Hurst, Ben Feldman and definitely stay tuned for next week's exclusive chat with featured guest star and Tony-winner, the one and only Faith Prince!
Continuing the BRIDGING TV & THEATRE: DROP DEAD DIVA series, here is my extended conversation with DROP DEAD DIVA guest star Sharon Lawrence in which we discuss her many Broadway credits - CABARET, CHICAGO, ZORBA and FIDDLER ON THE ROOF included - as well as her extensive and varied theater career and acting alongside the likes of Cherry Jones, Marian Seldes and DROP DEAD DIVA guest star and fellow Broadway baby Faith Prince. Additionally, Ms. Lawrence shares her fascinating insights into the art of acting and the role of the actor in society as well as provides a detailed play-by-play of her own process and the juxtaposition of musical theatre versus straight drama - plus, comments on SMASH, GLEE, Weill, Brecht, feminism, and much, much more!
Flying In The Face Of Fear
PC: I adore your recording of "Don't Look Now" on the Kurt Weill CENTENNIAL recording. Do you remember recording that?
SL: That was a long time ago!
PC: Yes - a live concert.
SL: I remember it was in LA at Don't Tell Mama.
PC: What do you think of Kurt Weill's music in general?
SL: Well, there is a complexity and a sophistication and a reaching for something deeper in the human psyche - pulling no punches. I think that was an interesting aspect of our culture at the time - as our world become more connected in some ways with our technology, the struggles of other people became more evident and it showed up in our art. I think that's true now, too.
PC: Totally. Plus, Brecht and Weill contributed so much to modern culture if only for the alienation effect - reality TV comes out of that tradition, at the very least.
SL: Yeah, and I think that what humans have always done is to, for lack of a better word, rubber-neck. (Laughs.)
PC: I completely agree.
SL: We watch when people are reflecting our shadows. Back in the 1930s, it was an important time to reveal those shadows. That, then gave rise to our better natures - stepping up and working for justice.
PC: Working for justice - what a lead-in to NYPD BLUE!
PC: Before we get to that, though, let's talk about a fellow participant in this column, Hal Prince, who was your director in CABARET.
SL: Well, he's such a legend for his imaginative, progressive, challenging, but very inclusive approach to storytelling. Something that people who hadn't worked with him personally may have not known is that this man - who is such a great leader and, again, willing to push The Shadows - had such a nurturing, warm, kind, gentle aspect to the way he works. I found that very encouraging - obviously, as someone under his tutelage at the time - but, also, that there is a standard at the top that can be expected.
SL: There is a kind way to be effective. To create something astounding does not have to be done in a way that is… destructive.
PC: Not everyone has to be a Fosse-esque taskmaster, right?
SL: Well, I think that it is true in any profession that there are people who are confident enough to use their encouragement and support as opposed to a dominating tact. That's true with any profession.
PC: Totally. John Kander has also done this column, and I have to ask: was doing Velma in CHICAGO on Broadway the thrill of a lifetime for you?
SL: It was. (Pause.) It was. It was - for me - a culmination of so many things, because I had worked with them before - in CABARET, of course - and, that was a dream long in coming true for me because when I was in college at UNC Chapel Hill, although they had a theater department, my major was journalism. They really didn't do musicals, but I had grown up in church choirs and listening to all of the great musicals because, you know, my parents had them.
PC: Of course. Was everything heading in that direction for you?
SL: Yes, I always thought that was where my future lay. I was so inspired and driven and delighted in combining music and movement and storytelling… so I was asked to be part of a cabaret at a local restaurant in Chapel Hill. (Laughs.)
PC: No way! That's hilarious.
SL: That was the first production of a theater that, ultimately, Terry Mann and I helped start. Terry and I were the leads in the first production that the North Carolina Theater every did. That theater has now been running strong as a regional company for twenty-seven years. The first show they ever did was this Kander & Ebb revue.
PC: What was the production like?
SL: The three of us cast members had this bounty of material to sing - songs that I did know and songs that I had never heard. And, when you sit with all that material and get to kind of carry it with you because you are playing more than one role in a revue like that, it's like they were my musical theatre teachers just as I sang their material - so many years before I ever met them. So, doing CHICAGO and knowing the history behind it and what its concept was generated from - the idea of repression of society and, particularly, of women in the 20s…
PC: It's such a rich piece.
SL: I was also working with the Weisslers, as I had before on ZORBA with Anthony Quinn and CABARET and FIDDLER - I knew that that show was successful for so many reasons. But, for me, it was so satisfying because of some reasons that maybe weren't so obvious: my history with the creative team and the statement that CHICAGO makes about women and the box that women were put in in a culture that would not recognize the levels of abuse and how little recourse women had.
PC: Without a doubt.
SL: Oftentimes, the final pushback that a woman had did land her in jail because she didn't really have the process by which to protect herself in other ways.
PC: You really invested so much thought into your character.
SL: Well, it's also fun to crack jokes that are so well-crafted and, of course, to be somebody else on the other side of the law!
PC: You can say that again!
SL: It's always a delight to play with that team and the musical director - you know, they put me in that show in about two and a half weeks.
PC: Wow! Even with that choreography?
SL: It was just incredible, their ability to be so effective and efficient as they are changing cast members. One of the most thrilling moments of my life - not just my work, but my life - was that Ann Reinking was part of the process putting me in.
PC: What was that like, working with her?
SL: Well, she, of course, is just juggling so much in her life that she would come in when she could. I remember we were working on "My Own Best Friend" and she was there to watch and coach. Then, at one point, she was, you know, doing Roxie - because it is a duet. And, at some point in one of the times we were running it together - probably the last time - it was a fully-realized performance and we were really doing it.
PC: It came alive.
SL: Yeah, it was… it was at a rehearsal hall and it had mirror and a view of midtown…
PC: A magical moment.
SL: It was the culmination of something very special to me.
PC: I remember seeing you in it at the Shubert - it has moved since, of course.
SL: Yeah, yeah - I loved that theater.
PC: That was where so many great shows have been.
SL: Of course.
PC: So, is KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN next for you then since you've done four other Kander & Ebb shows?
SL: (Big Laugh.) Well, are they reviving that anywhere that you know of? That's a challenging show.
PC: Apparently there is a lot of interest. Would you consider a big stage role like that at this point?
SL: Well, I am doing Theresa Rebeck's new play right now!
PC: Oh, wow! Marsha Norman just did this column and we were talking about Theresa and SMASH - isn't it just incredible?
SL: I know - it's so fantastic! Where we have gotten technically, where we can do musical numbers faster - I did a musical number on this sitcom that I starred in years ago.
PC: FIRED UP! I loved that show. On Must See TV on NBC!
SL: Oh, thank you so much for remembering that show! We had a blast working on that. But, now, with digital technology, you can commit to the investment of what it means to do a couple of musical numbers in an eight-day schedule or however long they are taking to do an episode.
PC: Thank goodness.
SL: Yeah, this is really a heyday for Hollywood musicals and those of us who had such stars in our eyes about them - both with GLEE and, now, with SMASH.
PC: I completely agree. It's a revolution!
SL: There's so much talent out there that can do it all. I mean, Brian D'Arcy James is a good friend of mine and I'm delighted for him to work on a show that is about the world that he has committed his life to and to be able to do it in New York where his family is. This team that Theresa has behind this show - Craig [Zadan] and Neil [Meron], who I worked with on DROP DEAD DIVA and did such a great job with the film version of CHICAGO…
PC: What an amazing accomplishment that was!
SL: Yes. It was stellar - because they set it back in the 1920s and you saw the internal world and what was pushing these women. It was more than about just women getting revenge - it was about Prohibition and people in excess and being pushed up against many walls; metaphorically and literally. And, pushing back. (Pause.) But, SMASH - if I could program it on my Tivo now, I would!
PC: Me too! Tell me everything about the new Rebeck piece.
SL: It's called POOR BEHAVIOR - and, I think it says it all right there in the title. It's so thrilling because it's Doug Hughes directing, too.
PC: What is it about?
SL: It's about America - where we are now and how we see ourselves. It is told through the prism of two couples who spend an evening together that leads to this entanglement of suspicion and infidelity and the idea of loyalty and where we deceive ourselves and others.
PC: Sounds amazing.
SL: We are rehearsing it in New York because of SMASH, but we will be premiering it and performing it at the Taper - because, of course, the Taper is so committed to new plays.
PC: And it is such a beautiful space to play in, as well.
SL: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
PC: Haven't you done a number of shows there?
SL: My first was understudying Holly Near in THUNDER & RAIN.
PC: What did you have to do?
SL: I had to learn her show!
PC: Did you have to paint yourself in chocolate or anything?
SL: (Laughs.) No, no, no - it was far more gentle and accessible than that. It was her telling the story of her life - as a folk singer; as an activist; as an out lesbian. Her songs are very folk-based so they have a melodic ease about them that was a real delight for me to learn.
PC: I can imagine.
SL: It was, probably - besides the Kander & Ebb revue - the most amount of material that I ever had to, you know, input into myself.
PC: A whole one-woman-show.
SL: Yeah, but I never had to go on - which was the best news for the Holly Near fans coming near and far coming to see her! (Laughs.)
PC: I bet!
SL: Nobody would have been happy if Holly hadn't played - but I did get to do my understudy rehearsals and have the satisfaction of seeing what it was like to get on that train of a one-woman-show and riding it for two acts.
PC: What else have you done at the Taper that you particularly enjoyed?
PC: Those are three of the greatest actresses alive!
PC: What was that like acting with all three of them?
SL: It was like the graduate school that I didn't go to. I flew in the play because I played the apparition of Cherry's mother. Her character is a pilot who is staying with her eccentric grandmother at her childhood home. I flew and dressed as Amelia Earhart because I stood for freedom and inspiration for Cherry's character who is contemplating suicide. It was a very deep, rich, challenging, rewarding play - and, we did it at the Public after with Melissa Leo. It was one of the most exciting periods of my life.
PC: What was flying at the Taper like?
SL: Well, I flew in from the flies - probably seventy feet up. I would get there early just so I could watch them from that vantage point - and those harnesses are not comfortable! Those women were so brave. As women - and I sound like such a feminist today, but what's wrong with that? - it is rare to have roles in shows that really do explore the female psyche and these women were trying such brave things in previews at every single performance.
PC: What was that like to witness?
SL: It was very, very thrilling and a big growth spurt for me as an actor because I realized that only in risking something very big - meaning: failure - with your choices, will you find and tap the potential for something extraordinary.
PC: Have you had that experience yourself since?
SL: When I played Vivien Leigh at the Pasadena Playhouse, I knew I had to risk big because she had bipolar disorder. Austin Pendleton wrote this extravagant, but accurate description of what it is like to be in the throes of that disease. Those gals - Diane and Cherry and Marian - they gave me, and they were sort of my muses, to say, "You go - just throw yourself at it and land. You may have skid marks and scabs, but it is from there that you may get to something deeper." It was a great lesson.
PC: It must have been astounding to witness them in action.
SL: Yes, it was. No one was censoring what they were doing - they were flying beyond fear. You know, that's what stage does. It's great to be working with the people on DROP DEAD DIVA - like Faith Prince.
PC: A Tony-winner.
SL: Yes, she is on tour doing Billy Elliot now! We have had such affection for each other's work over the years and we spent a lot of time together because we are in the episodes together. We spent some time talking about what it is like to really feel seasoned and really understand what your toolset is as an actor - that's what I was witnessing with those women doing TONGUE OF A BIRD - and that's where Faith and I are at now in our professional lives and personal lives.
PC: How would you describe that feeling?
SL: Well, you always get things that teach you and steps to grow, but there is a confidence that is gained and a deep understanding of what it means to be supported by your knowledge - not by some team that is there to create confidence; it is there within you. That takes time. That takes teachers. That takes taking risks. That's one of the reasons I do a play every year, because nothing teaches you more.
PC: When does POOR BEHAVIOUR begin performances?
SL: We start previews September 7 and we open September 18.
PC: So, you are in the thick of it!
SL: Yes, I go to New York Friday and we start rehearsals Monday!
PC: Do you know it yet?
SL: (Big Laugh.) Do I know it? Well, I am familiar with it, but I don't know it yet. I can't yet - not until I meet the quartet and work with Doug. It needs to be adjusted and tested - the whole process is so thrilling.
PC: How do you attack memorizing lines for a big role like this?
SL: You know what? I tend to learn things physically - I guess it's my dance training. I never want to make too many choices too soon - so, while I am thinking about the character and thinking about her history, which is very vague in terms of what is given in the text, I am starting to have ideas about what her home is. That's how I am spending my time right now.
PC: That's the first step of the process.
SL: Yes, that's the work that I can do right now on my own. That's the work I should be doing right now on my own. But, no, I do not go in with it all memorized.
PC: Why is that?
SL: Well, my problem is: as a singer and a dancer, if I get it in my body one way, it is harder for me to be open to something new - to something else; to something that is really organically connected to the piece and not just to my perception of it.
PC: How insightful. That is particularly true of musical theatre performers.
PC: Do you see yourself as a dancer or a singer or an actress? A musical theatre performer or a straight actress?
SL: I… (Pause.) Well, you know… as a dancer, now? I was a dancer. I don't know if I can claim to be a dancer, because if you are not doing it eight times a week onstage or four times a week in class, it's not as if somebody is going to do Velma tomorrow, you know?
PC: Of course not.
SL: Why would I? It's not as if I am doing it everyday. You are an athlete if you are a dancer. Either you are in training for it… or you are a, you know, former. (Laughs.)
PC: Either in or out!
SL: I do love the fact that I know my body is physically strong enough that I can dance again. But, I do not make a distinction between whether I am an actress or a singer - I play different people; some of them sing and some of them don't. (Laughs.)
PC: Your malleability and changeability was amply evident in your awesome stint on DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES recently. It was a very different role - very weird and sort of strange, no?
SL: Thanks! I felt that, too. It was a surprise to other people, too. I mean, Velma might not have been surprised - I looked a lot different when I played Velma. But, playing that and coming from a darker place and a more manipulative place - the LAW & ORDER: SVU that I did where I played a psychopathic serial killer was a surprise to some people, too. (Laughs).
PC: That was sort of the start of your characterlogical downward spiral!
SL: I know! I seem to be specializing in them now. People know they can go to me for that now. I guess it used to be a surprise when I played a villain, but it isn't anymore.
PC: Dark days are coming!
PC: What is your role in A PERFECT FAMILY? Kathleen Turner told me all about the film when she did this column.
SL: I play her longtime competitor in every aspect of our Catholic upbringing and I have also been nominated for Catholic Woman Of The Year. We grew up together, so I am a contemporary of hers - our characters have both been up for the May Queen and the Confirmation class president and everything and I play just another obstacle for her, frankly. By all standards and checklists, my character looks good on paper, but we know that her impulses and where she comes from is much more self-motivated than it seems.
PC: Have you seen the finished film yet?
SL: It closed OutFest! It was a really fun night.
PC: What did you think?
SL: What I liked about the film was the interesting blend of humor and pathos. I was happy that the comedy we were going for with my character actually really comes through - because it's very hard to know when your comedy works in a single-camera. Whether it's a single-camera series or a single-camera film, you just don't know - you don't have the audience there like you do in a multi-camera situation.
PC: You proved you can throw down with the best in your absolutely hysterical CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM with Larry David. "Vehicular Fellatio" is now in the lexicon thanks to you and Larry!
SL: (Big Laugh.) Thank you so much for quoting that - "Vehicular Fellatio"!
PC: Everyone knows it now. Did you enjoy working with Larry?
SL: Oh, my God. Are you kidding? It was such a thrill - so thrilling. It was improv - and I love that. And, they were happy that, as an actor, I did do my homework - in that I knew how to pepper the dialogue with technical medical terms about treatment. My husband is a doctor, so we talked about how doctors talk and deliver information to patients.
PC: How fantastic!
SL: So, take after take after take, I kept delivering new stuff that really kept it real - and, then, the payoff comes when it took the turn and you see that person go so ballistic and do what we all have wanted to do to Larry. (Laughs.)
PC: That was one of his most unlikable moments, too - intentionally, of course!
SL: I know! It was so perfect.
PC: Tell me about your experiences working with the phenomenal cast and crew of DROP DEAD DIVA in Atlanta.
SL: Well, I've been on the show since the beginning…
PC: How have you seen everything change - or not?
SL: It's been such a great thing to watch Brooke [Elliott] - who had really not done a show, let alone carried a show - and see her skill and confidence and great preparation and dedication. Those of us that come from the musical theatre world - like Kate - could see her training and background show up in perfect take after perfect take. That's just what you do onstage - you know, you hit your mark and you deliver time after time after time.
PC: That's what makes Broadway the best.
SL: Not everybody on a television set does that - if they don't have that kind of training.
PC: Most don't.
SL: What we see now in Season Three is her contribution to what the message of the show continues to be and her real commitment and responsibility to the messages that are being sent to the audience. (Pause.) It is really very inspiring.
SL: I am grateful that I got a chance to be a part of it from the beginning with her. She is a delightful woman.
PC: You can say that again!
SL: I love watching Kate, too! We were actually in New York onstage at the same time a while back before the show.
PC: Have you traded any backstage Broadway war stories yet?
SL: Not yet, but we will have to do that now!
PC: What about the guys on the show?
SL: Josh [Stamberg] and I get very close in the upcoming episodes and I have been a fan of his for quite some time. I have seen him so much onstage at the Geffen.
PC: It's so wonderful to see you on TV again on DROP DEAD DIVA. Will you be back after next Sunday?
SL: Yes, I would come back anytime. It was so much fun because when I came back this time, they said, "Do you want to come back?" and I said, "Yep - and I want to work with Faith!" And they said, "OK, we can make that happen." And, I said, "I wanna sing with Faith!" And, so, Brooke, Faith and I all sing this Sunday on the show.
PC: "Lean On Me"
SL: A trio!
PC: I have to mention NYPD BLUE - Bill Clark and David Milch are such great guys. What was it like working with Bill?
SL: Oh, it was so nice working with him and, also, having his wife as part of the team. She and I had coffee a lot. I was so interested in what it was like from her perspective. I mean, it's not simple for anybody, but a female cop? We talked about what it was like coming up at the time. I give her a lot of credit. She was such a strong character.
PC: And New York was a much different place back then.
SL: Right. The 70s and 80s.
PC: What other series can we look out for you on coming up?
SL: NUCLEAR FAMILY, which is a web series. It's with Ray Wise.
PC: No way! Ray Wise from TWIN PEAKS?
SL: Yes! It's a post-apocalyptic, modern-day tale that is set in Los Angeles. It's great. Michael Eisner's company is distributing it and it got a great response at Comic Con. I was out in the woods in combat and survival gear shooting that…
PC: It's so fabulous that you are doing a new web series.
SL: It's just so much fun to go from this girlie girl on DROP DEAD DIVA to this leader in a new post-Utopian society in NUCLEAR FAMILY and, now, in POOR BEHAVIOUR, playing somebody who's facing what it's like to be in a complicated, modern day marriage.
PC: You do it all. Last question: the essence of theatre is collaboration, so, collaboration - what is its essence?
SL: (Long Pause.) Life.
PC: That is such a great answer! You are so thoughtful and intelligent, Sharon. This was so fascinating and fun.
SL: It was a pleasure. Thank you so much for your commitment and your passion, Pat! Have a great day. Bye bye.
Photo Credit: sharon-lawrence.com