BWW Interviews: Kathy Voytko Brings Fannie Home
"Some see her as an instigator and a handful, and others think she was ahead of her time. She was smart, well-read, appreciated literature and poetry, and was a strong woman - not a good thing for the time!" Actress Kathy Voytko is speaking about the latest role which has brought her from Broadway to Brunswick, Maine, where she will portray Fannie Chamberlain in Maine State Music Theatre's second season production of Sarah Knapp and Steven M. Alper's musical, Chamberlain: A Civil War Romance. Voytko is clearly intrigued by the challenge of portraying this fascinating Civil War character whose life and that of her husband, legendary soldier, governor, and Bowdoin president, Joshua L. Chamberlain, was inextricably bound to this coastal Maine town.
There has always been some controversy surrounding Fannie and her relationship to her husband, but Voytko says she believes "they were a deeply committed couple," and she feels that some of Fannie's crankiness (which some scholars have attributed to bipolar disorder) was "caused by the serious neuralgia she suffered and the terror of impending blindness," and exacerbated by Chamberlain's frequent absences and his own mood issues arising from unhealed wartime injuries. "You always run the risk of some Civil War buffs disagreeing with what they see," she says, "but that's the beauty of the show. I like it when everybody has his own strong opinion. Marc Robin, our director, who has a great way of streamlining storytelling, wants the audience to decide if the "romance" of the subtitle is between Fannie and Joshua or between Chamberlain and his love of honor and duty."
Voytko is not only relishing the collaboration with Robin, with whom she has worked since the inception of her career in Chicago in 1998, but also with the composer Steven M. Alper and lyricist/nook writer Sarah Knapp, who have been on site in Maine consulting with the cast. Knapp had played Fannie in the world premiere of the musical in 1996 at MSMT, and Voytko loves having their "live input. They give us impetus for tempo and motivation - where the characters are coming from, and the whole process has been very collaborative."
In addition to contact with the creators, Voytko has delved into Fannie's letters and with the rest of the cast will visit some of the Brunswick locations associated with Joshua Chamberlain, including his home on Maine Street, his grave, and the First Parish Church where Fannie was the organist when the pair met. And she is excited that her husband, actor John Cudria, and their two children "will be able to come up from the New York metropolitan area to enjoy the show after it opens later this week."
Raised in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Kathy Voytko danced ballet for ten years, rising to "soloist" designation, but a knee injury brought the pursuit of that passion to an end. She fell in love with musical theatre, however, when she was a teenager and her parents took her to see LES MISERABLES. "I sat there sobbing, and in Act II, I turned to my Mom and I said, 'I want to do THAT!' I was a late bloomer because some of my friends had been singing and acting for years. I had sung in church choir, but I didn't catch the theatre bug until I saw that show. I have subsequently worked with Boubil and Schönberg (on The Pirate Queen and in symphonic programs entitled Do I Hear the People Sing?), and I have thanked them for showing me my career path."
Voytko studied musical theatre at Shenandoah College and won a fellowship to study in New York after graduation. After six months, she took a gig at the Fireside Theatre in Atkinson, WI, where Marc Robin was choreographer. It was Robin who suggested Voytko audition for a production of Crazy for You, which he would be doing in Chicago. Voytko got the role - which won her a 1998 Jeff award - acquired her Equity card, and launched her professional career. She stayed in Chicago for three years "because the work just kept coming," and then she was cast in the national tour of Phantom of the Opera.
The role of Christine in Lloyd Webber's musical proved to be a watershed for the actress. Not only did it showcase her lovely soprano and her expressive acting, but she also met her future husband, John Cudria, who played opposite her as Raoul.
When the couple returned to New York, Voytko was cast in the Trevor Nunn-Susan Stroman revival of Oklahoma as Sylvie and understudy for Ado Annie. Working with Nunn and Stroman was an exhilarating experience. "At first I was a little afraid of Trevor Nunn," Voytko recalls, "but he is so kind and soft spoken, and so smart that you cannot help falling in love with him. He has a dreamy, gentle way of directing. Coming to a musical from the [straight] stage he wanted to motivate every bit of dialogue," an approach Voytko found sympathetic. "In college we were taught that if it's too emotional to speak it, sing it, and if it's too emotional to sing, then you have to dance." Susan Stroman also impressed Voytko with "her preparedness. I feel pretty confident in saying that her preparation and homework are second to none, and that has been a huge lesson for me."
Once ensconced on Broadway, many plum roles followed, including the Tony-award-winning revival of Nine, the revival-rewrite of Stephen Sondheim's Frogs at Lincoln Center, The Pirate Queen, and the Hal Prince directed road company of Evita. Of Prince, Voytko says, " one might think he would be intimidating, but he is such a kind, forward, no nonsense guy, and that makes for a pleasant work experience, because you are not trying to guess what he wants."
Voytko also loved working with Sondheim on the Aristophanes-based musical in which she played Ariadne, Bacchus' wife. "It was an exhausting experience, but so much fun! I remember kidding around in college by saying, 'it's not like I am ever going to have to sight read Sondheim, and then, cut to ten years later, and here I was sight reading Sondheim n front of Sondheim!" The show which was undergoing a makeover during the rehearsal process, kept the actors on their toes, but Voytko felt especially privileged to play opposite Nathan Lane, "who is such a giving actor on stage."
These experiences working with new material surely helped Voytko when she was served as Stephanie J. Block's understudy in The Pirate Queen and was called at the very last minute during previews to fill in for the ill Block on Broadway. "It was an enormous role with lots of sword fighting and daily line and blocking changes," Voytko recalls. "Because the material was in transition and because I had had no stage rehearsal in New York, it was very scary. I was in my car in the Lincoln Tunnel when I got the call, and the stage manager asked me what I needed to feel safe in going on. I asked him if we could run the sword fights and the parts where the set was moving. My costumes hadn't been finished yet, so I had to wear Stephanie's, and I felt as if I were tripping on my skirt. But that fantastic company of actors made it as easy as it could be for me. Everyone lived; the show went on, and what a rush! It's a feeling that is hard to duplicate."
Voytko admits that managing her busy career - " I am so blessed to be working regularly" - and juggling her performances with her husband's schedule so they can parent their three-year-old and five-year-old "is a bit of a jigsaw puzzle." But, she observes, "actors' schedules actually let us spend more quality time with our children during the day. We both have been doing a great deal of symphony work, which helps, and sometimes we do have to turn down opportunities we would enjoy. I think we're just faking it like most parents," she laughs. "It's just a different set of challenges. But when the children are older, we will be able to do more of the artsy things that fill our hearts. That's why I am so thrilled to be here," she says of MSMT and Brunswick.
Though this is her first visit to Maine, she says she loves doing regional theatre as well as Broadway, because regional audiences "are really with us. They are rooting for you, and that can be so much fun." Moreover, Kathy Voytko feels honored to be able "to portray a slice of Brunswick's history" - to bring Fannie Chamberlain home - and "to be part of this beautiful staged, gloriously written musical with such fantastic singers, actors, and creative colleagues."
Headshot Courtesy of Kathy Voytko
Photo/Chamberlain Courtesy of Maine State Music Theatre, photographer Mike Hadley