BWW Interviews: MEGAN MULLALLY Talks Broadway, TV, Music & More
When you hear Megan Mullally speak—that is, as herself, outside of the many roles she's portrayed over a rich, varied career—you immediately realize what a chameleon she is as a performer. Most who will see or meet her in person will likely expect her to be much like the character she's best known for: the vivacious, gin-and-regret-soaked gazillionaire Karen Walker on NBC's groundbreaking hit sitcom Will & Grace, the superb, scene-stealing role she played for eight seasons that also won her two Emmy Awards. No, she's quite different from her persona as Jack McFarlane's BFF. In fact, during this interview, she was gracious, adorably tongue-tied, and even wistfully thoughtful.
But before she found success on Must-See-TV, she gained notice on the Broadway stage, starring in the 1994 revival of Grease alongside Rosie O'Donnell, then in the revival of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying co-starring Matthew Broderick and Lillias White a year later. She has also appeared in several stage productions in Chicago and Los Angeles, not to mention loads of pre-Broadway appearances on television and in the movies (yes, that's her playing a hooker in Tom Cruise's Risky Business).
Since departing from Will & Grace, Mullally had a go at her own daytime talk show, starred once again on Broadway in Mel Brooks' musical comedy Young Frankenstein, and just last year co-starred in the updated remake of the film musical Fame. Earlier this year, she appeared in the most recent season of Party Down, and now stars in the quirky Adult Swim series Children's Hospital. She also recently won a second BackStage West Garland Award for Best Performance in a Play for her work in the West Coast debut of The Receptionist at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles.
But the biggest surprise for those who only exclusively know her from her work on TV, film and the occasional Broadway role is that she fronts her own eclectic, multi-genre band (they have already released three albums, the latter two available online). Mullally, together with her curiously-named band Supreme Music Program, will be returning to the Orange County Performing Arts Center on October 7-10 as the opening featured act of the Center's 2010-2011 Cabaret Season at the Samueli Theater. Before setting up shop back in the O.C., Mullally spoke with BroadwayWorld's Michael Lawrence Quintos about her band's return to OCPAC, her early stage career, and being a part of the Will & Grace legacy.
BWW: Hi, Megan! Wow, you have no idea... this is such an honor and a thrill for me to be talking to you!
Mullally: Oh, that's so nice of you, thanks!
I'm so glad that you're bringing back your show with your band to Orange County because, sadly, I missed it the first time you were here at OCPAC. Will the show be significantly different from your last sold-out set at the Center two years ago?
Oh, you know... I know [OCPAC] calls it the "Cabaret Series" but we're sooo not a Cabaret group! It's just our band that plays a set of music. We do have a different set list from last time. There's no patter or, you know, glittery outfits... I just come out and... well, okay, I do talk in between songs, but it's kind of more spontaneous... That's what makes it different from a cabaret. Unfortunately, we're not very glitzy. [Laughs]
I'm curious, where does the name of the band Supreme Music Program come from?
We named it a long time ago. The way the band started was.. we did this crazy performance art piece at a little theater here in Los Angeles, with me and three of the band members: the tuba player, the guitar player, and the drummer. And, we did this crazy show where it was all music and no dialogue, and you sorta have to have some acting involved. The ideas for the name of the band was that there was some kind of proletarian list—some kind of master list—of songs that aren't allowed to be played in the world, and it's called the Supreme Music Program. It was so esoteric... [Laughs] You know, I dare you to print that, because somewhere someone's just going to read that and go "What?!" So, yeah, that's where the name came from... [Laughs]
Interesting! So, for those who are unfamiliar with your band, can you describe what kind of music you guys perform?
Oh, it's a super-eclectic mix of stuff from, like, pretty much every genre of music under the sun. That's what we've always done. We've been playing together for, oh, gosh... I think it's been almost about 12 years now! I know, it's nuts! We always just pick songs that speak a certain way. A lot of the songs are "story" songs. We try to create our own little world with each song. We will sometimes do certain songs pretty straight up, and then we'll really deconstruct other songs. We do blues, jazz, country, pop, rock... a lot of different genres. But we don't do a lot of showtunes, though, or standards... only every once in a while. We may do "Don't Explain" this time, but it's kind of rare for us to do those sort of songs.
Cool. Now, obviously there's a huge size difference between doing a show on a Broadway stage versus a smaller theater. Do you prefer performing in these smaller, more intimate concert venues or the huge house of a Broadway musical?
I don't think it really matters. I think it just depends on what you're doing. Our band probably works better in a little bit more intimate setting. And then, you know, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN works better in a giant, 1800-seat theater. [Laughs] So, it kind of depends. In this band, I don't really have to be belting out things like showtunes, so it's different, kind of. But I do love both... that'll be my short answer. [Laughs]
So, of course, now your former Will & Grace co-star continues to get raves on Broadway starring in PROMISES, PROMISES!
Oh, God, I know!
Were you able to offer him some advice... you know, from one Broadway veteran to a Broadway newbie?
You know, we did have a few talks about it. We're really good friends and we talk quite frequently. I think he was a little worried about the "eight shows-a-week, for a year" kind of thing because, when he did DAMN YANKEES [for Encores!] he called me after a performance and said, "oh, by, like, nine or ten [of them], I'm done!" Meanwhile, I'm on performance number 278 of YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN! [Laughs] But, you know, he got into the rhythm of it, and then everything was great! They had a very exciting opening, and then he hosted the Tonys... he had a lot of markers along the way that he just kept fulfilling, and so I really think he enjoyed that experience.
Sounds great! Okay, so I must admit that one of my current guilty pleasures is watching your commercial where you're singing "Turn The Tub Around!" How did that come about?
They offered it to me and I said yes. [Laughs] You know, I like to do a lot of different things. I don't know if you could find two more different things than that commercial and the series I'm on right now on Adult Swim called Children's Hospital. I think they're really fun! It's hilarious to me that both of those things co-exist!
Speaking of your TV shows, a lot of critics are upset that Party Down isn't coming back for a third season, but is it true that you are making a re-appearance on Parks and Recreation?
Yeah! We actually already shot the second episode of that. The first was called "Ron and Tammy." It's going to be pretty crazy.
What's it like working on the show with your husband [Nick Offerman]?
[Laughs] It's so much fun! We have worked together [on projects] for quite a while—and so it's not anything high-profile or juicy—but we met while doing a play back in 2000. We've done a couple of plays together and a few other things over the years. So, yeah, we love working together. The first episode we did [last season]... the first scene we shot, it was like 6 o'clock in the morning on a Monday. Ron [played by Nick] and Tammy [played by me] get to a parking lot of a motel... and we're, like, laughing... and I rip my top off! I didn't tell anybody I was going to do that, except for Nick. And so we just did it and... they left it in!
[Laughs] So, earlier this year, I had the opportunity to perform as a sort of musical "opening act" for your Will & Grace co-star Leslie Jordan [who played Karen's nemesis Beverly Leslie] at a fundraiser here in Orange County.
Oh, you're kidding! How fun!
Oh, gosh, yeah...he's so hilarious! In part of his act, he talked about the playful banter both of your characters had, and he talked a lot about his positive experience with the show overall. Can you describe your own overall experience with the show?
Well... Will & Grace, overall... there's just so many great things I could say about it! [Pauses] You know, I've just been basically a professional actor already for almost 20 years when I got Will & Grace. I've done a lot of pilots and things like that that didn't go anywhere. And so, when I got the Will & Grace pilot, I kind of thought, "Oh, well, I'm sure this is just another pilot that's either going to tank instantly or go for seven episodes or something."
Then to have it succeed... [Laughs] ...was just such a surprise! I think everybody in the cast felt like that. Debra Messing [who played Grace] had been on Ned & Stacey and that was the most successful that anyone of us had been [at the time]. And, also, Will & Grace became such a success as part of a period of shows like that. It's almost the last of that breed. So that was spooky... and just becoming recognizable became this whole other thing, in and of itself, that you sort of had to get used to.
And, of course, the show's impact on society and pop culture...
The impact of the show... we couldn't kind of really take that in... that it was having that kind of an impact. But it was exciting to work on such quality, great material that was all just really fun and... really precious and rare. I think we all knew that. And getting to work with Jim Burrows as the director of all the episodes was fantastic. The cast was great and having incredible recurring characters like Leslie's character and Shelley Morrison as Rosario... it was just kind of a perfect storm, and that doesn't always happen. And, wow, just having a job for eight years! As an actor, it's unheard of... even if it's an ensemble show. So, for having the same job for eight straight years, there were just so many things about it that were great. We all kind of grew up together even though, you know, I was 10 years older than Debra... and 12... 13 years older than Sean.
Now, is there any truth to the rumors that you're working on a musical based on your character on the show?
Well... I loved working on it, and we were so excited about it... [Pauses] You'll notice that I was talking in the past tense.
Yeah, we're just so sad about it. We had Casey Nicholaw who was going to direct, Fox Theatricals was producing, and Jeff Blumenkratz was going to do the score. But... [Pauses] we had the rights, and everything was clicking along and going great, and Leslie Jordan and I were going to do it together... I asked Sean to do it too, but he doesn't want to go back and play Jack again. So, I get that. But, anyway, everything was going great and then all the rights got pulled.
Oh, gosh, that's too bad.
Switching gears for a bit. When you were growing up, did you always know you wanted to be a performer?
Uh, yes. I was an only child and I was always finding myself up in my bedroom dancing around in front of the mirror and making up disparate scenarios to different pieces of music.
Who were some of your musical influences growing up?
Well. Very gay. [Laughs] My parents had a lot of Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand records. I only had to choose from what they had in their collection, and it was mostly Babs.
Was listening to them the spark that led to your future on Broadway?
Growing up, my mom gave me ballet lessons and I was in a ballet company from the time I was 14 through my senior year in high school. So I had always had a dance background and in three different summers, I did summer stock at the local summer stock theater in Oklahoma City called the Lyric Theatre. So I kind of have a little taste of comedy from there, and I was always singing along to the radio. I quit the ballet company thinking that I would move to New York and I'd audition for Broadway musicals, but then my mom and I sort of made a deal that I would go to college for at least a little while. I went to Northwestern for two years, and then I dropped out of college to do plays and musicals in Chicago. I was doing a show, and I just couldn't [handle] doing eight shows-a-week and being in school at the same time. So yeah, I dropped out of school and did a bunch of theater in Chicago for several years, and then moved out to California with my boyfriend at the time and just started doing different parts and stuff.
Was there one particular musical that had a huge influence on you?
The first musical I saw on Broadway was the original cast production of CHICAGO, with Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera, and Jerry Orbach. So I was all over it... I was all about Bob Fosse.
Nice! So, I gotta tell you that I've been a huge fan of your work since HOW TO SUCCEED... and, of course, most recently YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. Can we look forward to more Broadway shows on the horizon for you?
Oh, gosh. You know, I've had so many things come up recently, like some really fun offers that I've had to turn down. My mom's health is not perfect right now, so I need to keep my schedule relatively free. Eight shows-a-week is tough. You could even have more leeway doing a TV series or a movie because at least you have [more days off]. But eight shows-a-week is pretty tough and I wouldn't want to commit to that right now. So, I've had to turn some things down, but, yeah, I'm sure I'll come and do something sooner or later.
Oh, and another thing, we do not live in New York, so that's one tiny blip in the works. [Laughs] We're based in Los Angeles, and with my husband now on Parks and Rec, it's not easy to just pick up and move. But I do want to do something down the road, but right now I'm just really... keeping it open, and I'm also excited about what's been happening in the last few months in Los Angeles right now. It's kind of centered in the comedy world, and it's a very exciting time right now. It's very alive, kind of like Chicago in the early 80's when Steppenwolf was at its apex. You just had this feeling of community—a creative community of people who were very supportive of each other.
With that said, any possibilities with you doing more theater here in the Los Angeles area?
Oh, yeah! I'm definitely going to be doing more theater here, for sure! Last summer, then into fall, I did a production of this play called The Receptionist at the Odyssey Theatre, and it went really well. It got some nice reviews and won some local theater awards. The guy who directed it [Bart DeLorenzo] is a guy that I've worked with a lot in the past. He actually directed the show that I was doing when I met [my husband] Nick! I just talked to him the other day and we're thinking about doing something in the next year. I love doing Equity-waiver, 99-seat theater because it's so... it's like the band! My band and a 99-seat theater are very similar in my mind because they're both so pure, and you're so into your own... like your own private Idaho. [Laughs] You can do whatever you want... because there's no money at stake. Nobody's investing in it, nobody's worried about whether it's gonna [make money]. You can kind of have... complete creative freedom because, you know, you're not trying to set the world on fire.
Well, I know from writing reviews of smaller shows around the area, there's plenty of smaller hidden gems around.
So, I wanted to ask you... earlier this year, you exited the show LIPS TOGETHER, TEETH APART. Can you talk briefly about that?
You know... I have to pass, because it's just too serious of a subject for me. In the middle of our, you know, fun interview about [my shows in] Orange County and this and that, I can't just, like, toss something off because it really is, um... [Pauses] it's not something that I could talk from lightly. I would have to sit down with you to say something about it.
No problem, I understand. Well, let's get back to the fun, then. This is actually my favorite part of these interviews. I'd like to now throw some rapid-fire questions at you, and if you could just tell me the first thing that pops into your head, that would be awesome! Cool?
Yay! So, what is your favorite musical of all time?
Oh. Um... LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA.
Great choice! Are there any other roles in other shows that are on your wishlist to perform someday?
I got offered Sally in FOLLIES recently in London, with Trevor Nunn directing, but I had to turn it down. Yeah, so I would love to play that part.
What's the one song you love belting in the shower or when you're all alone in the car?
[Laughs] It changes from day to day. Definitely.
Today, it's probably this old song from the 30's called "Tomorrow Night." Dylan's covered it. Patty Griffin has covered it.
Who's the one person you admire the most?
I don't really have one person, but there are a few people, if I can toss out a few names... Recently, I've felt like the universe was kind of pointing me in the right direction, because I ran into Meryl Streep, Carol Burnett, and then Yoko Ono... all within a two week period. I felt like the universe was trying to tell me something about this situation. Those are three people I really admire.
Great! What scares you the most?
I guess you can say...[Long Pause] It's when I'm not living in the moment, when I'm not living in the present. Because that's when you start spinning into trouble... worrying about the future or thinking about the past.
What do you prefer doing on your day off?
Well, I like just playing with our dogs, and we love to read. [Laughs]
What is your one guilty pleasure?
Oh. You know, The Bachelor. The Bachelorette. Any show that ends in "-or." [Laughs]
What or who irritates you the most?
Well, just not being in the right place. It goes back to what I said earlier... if I'm not in the right place... if I'm not living in the moment. Then I allow myself to worry.
What instantly puts a smile on your face?
If you weren't an actor, what other career do you picture yourself doing?
I would be... an interior designer... or a book editor... or a gallerist.
Cool. A lot of our readers are young students who hope to someday do exactly what you're doing. What is the one piece of advice you'd like to share with these young musical theater students?
Yeah, I would just say [to them], you know, develop your skills as much as you can, and... if you have an instinct to go down a certain road, then follow that. But develop your skills so that when the opportunity arrives, then you're ready. And, just have confidence and persevere and try not to listen to what anybody says. You will probably hear some people say, "oh, there's too much competition" and "it's a tough business." If you have the pure desire to do it and you have the talent, then you can make it happen! Don't push... Just Drive! Don't just allow it to come to you... seize the opportunity!
Great! One last question... what can audiences expect when your show comes back into Orange County this week?
You know, it's a nice night of very lovingly hand-picked songs with a great band and, you know, maybe even a few humorous asides from yours truly. [Laughs]
Megan Mullally and Supreme Music Program performs at Samueli Theater at the Orange County Performing Arts Center from October 7 - 10, with shows Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $72 and can be purchased online at OCPAC.org, by calling 714.556.2787, or by visiting the Box Office in person at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.
Student Rush tickets are available for $15, 1 hour before showtime, ID required, 1 ticket per ID, cash only.
The Samueli Theater is located at 615 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.
For more information, visit OCPAC.org.