BWW Interview: The Yodel, the Cry, the Catch, the Growl - Christine Mild Brings Patsy Cline to Life
"It's all in the way she placed her voice. I like to call it the Kermit the Frog place - the soft palate at the back of the throat, and that's what activates the yodel, the catch, the cry, the growl which are the iconic hallmarks of her singing. Patsy Cline wasn't really a technical singer; this all just came naturally to her, but for me as an actress and technical singer who has to do the show eight times a week, I have to make sure I am singing in a healthy, safe way and understand how to make that happen. So if I place the voice right - if I place it in the 'Patsy place'- it all happens without trying."
Chicago-based singer and actress Christine Mild is discussing what will be her ninth production in the title role of the Ted Swindley musical, Always, Patsy Cline which will open Maine State Music Theatre's 59th season on June 7th. Mild who has a distinguished resume as a musical theatre performer and as a solo vocalist blessed with a powerhouse voice of singular intensity, feels a special affinity for the musical character as well as the historical Patsy Cline. She describes the process of preparing and performing the role of the country music legend.
"I have spent a great deal of time listening and watching everything on disc or video. [In addition to placing the voice], to get into the character, I take on her physical stance and the way she used her hands, and when I do, there is a very special feeling that comes over me, and I ride that in some way. Even though her singing style is different from the way I sing as Christine Mild, there is a common vocabulary that provides touch points. It's like a jazz dancer who has to put on tap shoes for a number and perform in a different style."
She almost feels as if she is channeling Patsy Cline. "You do feel a sort of responsibility to her memory and her legacy. You are not Patsy, but if you do your job right, people will believe you. When I perform the role, there is a sensation that comes over me. I choose to believe that it is some piece of her that I get to share and to help make her come alive again."
For Mild, Patsy Cline's story is a riveting one. Not only did her life come tragically to a premature close at thirty-one in a plane crash, but from her youth it was a journey filled with struggles and the courage to overcome them. Yet Mild says that while there were many sad moments in the singer's life, she, herself, prefers not to focus on those as much as on her accomplishments. "One beautiful thing in her biography is that her mom was fourteen when she had her, so they were more like sisters and best friends. When they both figured out Patsy could sing, they became a team. Her mom would pretend to be her manager and they would walk into radio stations and say 'I'm going to sing on your program today,' and they would let her. But then because she was so good, they would ask her back. It wasn't an easy path for either Patsy or her mom. To be a single mother in the 1940s in Virginia at that time was hard, and the pair were looked down on as 'low class." I think when Patsy did get to come back to her hometown after she had become a star, there was a certain vindication in that."
Mild also cites Patsy Cline's many firsts as a singer. "She was a trailblazer in so many ways, and she did it all by the time she was thirty! She was the first female country artist to cross over and have hits on the pop charts and country charts at the same time; she had a unique, inimitable sound; and she even made bold, personal statements such as wearing pants on the cover of an album - something unheard of then."
But it is the music - her songs - which have secured a lasting legacy for Patsy Cline. "People of all ages recognize this is good music," Mild explains. "Her music was, and still is, very accessible, and her songs remain fresh and undated in subject matter. We did a student matinee in Lancaster [at the Fulton Theatre] for junior high and high school kids, and they recognized how cool her music was. Often after a show, people will comment, 'I'm not into country music, but I like this music.' And that's because it's music first and country music second."
Mild enumerates the many familiar hits she loves to sing - Walkin' After Midnight, Sweet Dreams, I Fall to Pieces...but she also cites among her favorite musical moments in the show less familiar songs like Stupid Cupid or Leavin' On Your Mind - a cover of which she put on her new solo album. "They all have something unique to offer," Mild says. "And there is this incredible variety that is very special."
Contributing to the appeal of the Always, Patsy Cline's score, according to Mild, is the well-constructed book. "This show is really a very special theatre piece - so much more so than most juke box musicals which either simply tell a biographical story or create a different story around a song catalog. This show focuses on the last three years [1961-1963] of Patsy Cline's life and on her friendship with her fan Louise Seger. The story is told entirely through Louise's eyes, and Louise's admiration for and devotion to Patsy give us a way into the story and an insight into the person Patsy Cline really was. In this production Charis [Leos] is so adorable and engaging that the audience says to itself, 'If this lady is excited about Patsy Cline, then I am too.' Louise is really key to the piece in that as long as she believes in Patsy, the audience does too. It's a brilliant device that gives us a more focused, more intimate story about the friendship of two women rather than a history lesson."
In addition to having Charis Leos as her co-star, Mild says MSMT's production is also special because of the band and Music Director Patrick Fanning and because of the unique staging and décor. "The band is really tremendous. We have piano, bass, drums, guitar, fiddle, and pedal steel guitar on stage so the audience gets to watch as well as listen to them play. Having pedal steel guitar is something of a novelty; you don't hear that much except in Nashville, and the musicians are exceptional! And then Patrick [Fanning] is a phenom! Here is this musical theatre kid who is not necessarily a country music aficionado, but he GETS IT. He is not faking the music or the style, as I have sometimes heard. He is amazing!"
Mild also is enjoying the lavish production MSMT [together with the Fulton] has mounted. Artistic Director Curt Dale Clark has explained that because Patsy Cline herself was such a monumental presence, the creative team decided to go big with the design concept. Mild says she has been in several productions where there has been a simple unit set that never changes, but that this one is far more complex - though she adds- the music is what matters - and this concept doesn't upstage the focus on the score.
Christine "America" Mild - (there is a story to the unofficial middle name which was born of what the actress calls "a silly game of greeting friends in college with the upbeat America Hurrah, later shortened to America") - has had a career that began in childhood. Raised in a close-knit Italian-American family in Pittsburgh, Las Vegas, and the suburbs of Chicago, she cannot remember a time when she wasn't singing. "Ever since I was seven, I have been performing [in clubs in Las Vegas], and it was always what I loved to do most. I didn't ever think this would not be my profession; at the same time I never chose it nor did it choose me. It just seemed a natural foregone conclusion. I sang all the time so I expected to become a music theatre major in college. When we moved to the Chicago area, I began to focus on theatre work, and I chose Northwestern because my voice teacher was there and because - with my brother already in the Naval Academy - I wanted to stay close to home. I had always been a good student," Mild continues, "and was even Illinois State Math Champion, but I never considered pursuing those skills professionally. Somehow that would have felt weird."
After graduating with a theatre/musical theatre degree, Mild got her Equity card the following year and moved to New York City where she spent six and a half years pursuing her career in the city and on the regional circuit before she decided to return to Chicago. She waxes eloquent about what she loves about the Windy City's theatre scene. "The Chicago theatre community is very special and compared to New York, which is very commercial, it has a different feeling." She agrees that it is s big city that feels small, but a very livable city with a close-knit core of theatre artists. "The hustle in Chicago is somehow a little easier. There is an amazing number of theatres, and great works being produced, and because it is a smaller community, you don't get categorized as much. You are cast from a smaller pool and you are able to explore your range more. An actor who had the lead in one show may later show up in the ensemble of the next - like Heidi [Kettenring]," she says alluding to her and Charis Leos' understudy for Always, Patsy Cline, who has a Jeff award winning, nationally acclaimed resume to her credit. "That's what we Chicago actors do," Mild says. "We do everything because we love the work! None of us is getting rich, but we make good livings and we can afford a family and a real life."
Among the shows in which she's appeared in Chicago or on tour and in regional theatre in recent years have been Company, Beaches, Evita, Godspell, Nine to Five, Beehive, Guys and Dolls, White Christmas, Nunsense - this last as Sister Robert Anne on stage and on the original cast recording.
Indeed, recording is a singular passion for Mild. She recently released her first solo album, Love Is Everything, on which she puts her own spin on eleven covers of well known songs in her own arrangements. The opportunity had been a life-long dream, but did not become a reality until a gentleman approached her after a show and asked where he could get her CD? When Mild explained she didn't have an album, he asked what it would take for her to make one and would she do it if he helped finance the project? Mild was able to match his generous donation with a Kickstarter campaign and spent a year crafting the CD. "It has been the most joyous experience of my life," she enthuses, "and I cannot wait to do another one!"
In addition to bucket list roles like Fanny Brice in Funny Girl or Carole King in Beautiful, Mild says that she has now formed her own vocal duo - Mild and Martin - with PatRick Martin, and she hopes to spend more time concertizing together. But for now, it's back to the musical theatre stage with her own legendary performance of the legend herself, Miss Patsy Cline. Mild who has only once before performed at MSMT - in 2005 as Grizabella in CATS - is looking forward to a return to the Pickard stage. Asked how MSMT and Brunswick seem to her now after a twelve-year absence, she replies, "Somehow it seems to me that everything is more developed. MSMT has a bigger presence in the community. The theatre is seen as the jewel of this community, and everyone here seems so proud to have such an amazing company in their midst. It's a sign of a fine community when the people value the arts and culture."
And what does she hope the Pickard audiences will take away from Always, Patsy Cline? Mild replies without hesitation: " I hope the show will make them remember the first time they heard Patsy or her music - that it will bring back memories. And I hope the show makes them happy or makes them think of someone they love or makes them go out and buy a Patsy Cline album."
For Christine Mild, it's all about making the music and memories live.
Photographs courtesy of the Fulton Theatre and MSMT
Always, Patsy Cline runs from June 7- June 24, 2017, at MSMT's Pickard Theatre on the Bowdoin College Campus, 1 Bath Rd., Brunswick ME 207-725-8769 www.msmt.org