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BWW Interview: The Very Busy Melissa Errico Talks WHAT ABOUT TODAY?

Missed Melissa Errico's last two cabaret engagements? No problem. In March she will reprise Sing the Silence, the autobiographical show she recently premiered at Joe's Pub, at Brooklyn's National Sawdust performance venue. And her 2014 show at 54 Below, What About Today?, was released on DVD just before Christmas and is now available from Amazon and Broadway Records. Both the DVD and the What About Today? CD--which came out earlier last year--will be for sale at BroadwayCon this month, with Errico present to sign copies in the Broadway Records booth on January 22.

Errico's show was the first at 54 Below to be recorded for DVD release. In an homage to the club's disco past, she wore hotpants and sang Chaka Khan and Donna Summer. More than half the numbers featured on the DVD were new for Errico, including the first Burt Bacharach song she'd ever sung in public, "The April Fools," from the 1969 Jack Lemmon/Catherine Deneuve film of the same name. It was sandwiched between two songs by Michel Legrand, a composer with whom she's strongly associated (they collaborated on the 2011 album Legrand Affair, and she starred in his musical Amour on Broadway). What About Today? also offers songs from shows Errico's done in New York--My Fair Lady, Finian's Rainbow, Dracula--as well as her own composition, "Gentle Child," and a pair of Stephen Schwartz numbers. The Sondheim section includes Company's "Getting Married Today," for which Errico wears her own wedding veil and sings not only Amy's patter but also the operatic verse intros usually sung by someone else.

For Sing the Silence--subtitled Songs of Women's Secret Lives and inspired by a 2013 throat ailment that caused Errico to lose her voice for more than three months--the setlist encompasses show tunes, music from pop artists such as Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, the Beatles and Kate Bush, and original songs by Jeanine Tesori, Georgia Stitt, Scott Frankel, Peter Mills and David Shire. The Sawdust performance is scheduled for March 18.

Before then, Errico has a full day of activities slated at BroadwayCon, the theater-geek convention holding its inaugural gathering January 22-24 in midtown Manhattan. On January 22, in addition to DVD and CD signing, she will discuss her life and career in "Real Talk with Melissa Errico," hold an autograph session and participate in a program titled "I Was a Teenage Diva" that involves old videos and performance reenactments. Outside NYC, Errico has several concert dates lined up this winter, including performances with Hugh Panaro and the Utah Symphony, a benefit with the Long Bay Symphony in Myrtle Beach, and a Rodgers and Hammerstein tribute with the Cleveland Pops. You can also just stay home and see Errico: She has a recurring roles on both Billions, the new Showtime series starring Paul Giamatti, Damian Lewis and Malin Akerman, and The Knick, which wrapped its second season on Cinemax last month.

Errico in disco pants for her 54 Below show
[photo by Stephen Sorokoff]

On New Year's Day, with the What About Today? DVD out just two weeks and Billions nearing its premiere, BroadwayWorld spoke with Errico, who is married to former tennis pro Patrick McEnroe and the mother of three girls: Victoria, 9, and twins Diana and Juliette, 7.

How were the holidays in your busy household?
Well, we did a staycation for the first time ever. Normally we ski, but there's no skiing [because of the warm weather]. My little snow bunnies--we like to go to some of the Massachusetts mountains, nothing too far away. We stayed in the city and did everything New York that you could imagine. We did The Nutcracker and the Rockettes. I'm taking the girls to the Big Apple Circus today.

Had you taken them to the Radio City Christmas show before?
No. I hadn't gone since my own childhood. Charles--who plays Santa--and I have the same agent, so we went and visited him backstage. He has this whole shtick where he knows their names as they enter. Then, when he was performing, he incorporated their names into his big song. So in front of 5,000 people he's singing, "Victoria, Diana...dun dun dun...Juliette..." I found out that one of my best friends in the business, Malcolm Gets--my Yorkie's name is Pepper Malcolm--I went to see him in Steve, and he told me that way back he began his career in that [Radio City Christmas] show. A little-known Broadway fact. He was a part of the ensemble of the singing and dancing people of Manhattan--that are still up there.

Were you able to squeeze in any date nights?
My husband and I were married at Christmastime 17 years ago. I met my husband when I was 5 years old, we grew up together, so around Christmas it's not just 17 years--it's a lifetime, really, together. We chose to celebrate by going to the Blue Note to Chris Botti's holiday show. It was amazing. He had guests like John Mayer come up on the stage; one night Sting went up, I heard. He puts on quite a show. We went backstage and hung out with Katie Couric, so it was a real starry night. And then we saw Michael Feinstein finish his debut run at 54 Below--his late show, the very last of the run.

Melissa the Mom: with her three daughters

You also contributed to New York's holiday entertainment this year.
I did a holiday musical, called Evergreen. It was a short run, leading up to Christmas. It was written by Peter Mills, a wonderful composer. I owed him one, because he wrote some special material for the Joe's Pub concert. It was nice because it was for kids--there were 20 kids in that.

Have your girls started performing?
I have one tennis player, and she's out of town right now on a USTA tournament. One twin is a dancer at the School of American Ballet, Lincoln Center, and the other twin, Juliette, says she hates musicals but she sang with me recently on Seth Rudetsky's radio show--I'm trying to corrupt her. She says she wants to be a dog walker, though.

Let's talk about the new DVD. It's a first for 54 Below--how'd it come about?
Like all Broadway fans, I go into these wormholes on YouTube. I can literally get into one hour, two hours [watching clips]... It's such a great place to learn about performers or songs--the history of a performer--it's so exciting and so interesting, and it's just one of my hobbies. I think it's become a real popular thing for people to do. The only problem with that is that everything is in little pieces. You never really get the overall arc of, like, one show. I always want to see that whole evening. What does a night, straight through, with one of my favorite performers feel like? What's the whole ride? And when we were looking at the footage of my show, I thought, well, I could put this on YouTube in pieces, but there was some sort of magic that got captured on it. It was the most dynamic singing I'd every done and setlist I'd ever had, and I just thought releasing it as a whole would be a better experience than presenting all these little YouTube videos. The record label had done the CD and they put it together as a film, and they agreed--there's something there. So now it's like YouTube Deluxe. The DVD has absolutely no audio mixing or engineering. We wanted it totally natural. It's real and raw, as a night at 54 ought to be!

You mentioned your YouTube "hobby" on stage at 54 Below, specifically in regard to Eydie Gorme, whom you salute with "What Did I Have That I Don't Have?"
I'm supercrazy into the late, great Eydie Gorme. On a Clear Day--that's a character I'd love to play someday.

Performing What About Today? [photo by Gary Gardner]

What about some of the other material in the show?
I love theater music, but when you're in popular clothing and a contemporary space, you can't entirely take people into [a musical]. It's really hard to create entire scenes of plays. You're kind of given the task as a cabaret artist to both do the scenes or the stories of a song but also reinvent them musically so they just happen right there. As the music is being made, they have their own life. There's kind of a combination of the theater or movie roots and also just what makes for a great listen--pop rhythms, a master jazz pianist. What did someone call me the other day? I was at Chris Boti's show, and one of his fans called it "caba-jazz."
When I realized the show was in April, the Bacharach song is so good. I love to do a section that goes in and out of the movies. I always pull from Michel Legrand. I love his music--it does really walk that line between jazz and pop and story. That's just the heart stuff for me; it's like my pulse. I head right from there into Stephen Schwartz. I thought to myself, Where am I? I'm not only in a nightclub, but it really is Broadway's nightclub. You want to honor what people come for. Stephen Schwartz is one of the kings of Broadway, and a song like "It's an Art" [from Schwartz's Working] appeals to me [because] I love books, I love reading, and the idea of these Studs Terkel interviews with real people--those were essays, as they were. I love sharing some of that, just so people know these shows existed, even though they were failures.
And then "Meadowlark" is just a challenge for someone like me. I'm a soprano; the soprano sound can so often have a romance and a lightness, kind of wistful, ethereal, but there's nothing like mixed belting to really show your soul. I'm really trying to come into new voice, and I've worked hard on the more powerful side of my voice. My director directs all Streisand's concerts, and he's tough--he really wants variety in the voice. So something like "Meadowlark" is an exciting undertaking for me, both vocally and as a piece of drama. Really a whole lifetime goes by in that song--about all the choices you've made, and it's not too late to be happy, to live boldly or bravely, to renew. A wonderful song--and a woman's song. And that's where I go into Sondheim. Sondheim is becoming, more and more and more, my life's work. Which doesn't mean I've mastered it. But I love the ambiguities, I love the philosophies, I love the ambivalence of it. I love singing one thing and possibly feeling the opposite while you're singing it.
"Getting Married Today" for me is the ultimate party song. I play all the characters, so I get to use my soprano but I also get to be absolutely neurotic. I love the high pressure of it. I have no problem taking it on--it doesn't intimidate me--but I botch it probably 50 percent of the time. I've messed it up so many times, I can usually catch up quickly. It's like skiing on a really hard mountain: If you're all in one piece when it's over, it's worth the run. It is a double black diamond. That's my skiing analogy. "Small World" from Gypsy I love because, again, another moment where show business and motherhood is in crazy tangle.

Sing the Silence at Joe's Pub [photo by Sam Morris]

That's one of the subjects you deal with in your latest show, Sing the Silence.
That show was inspired by Elaine Stritch, her At Liberty. She was somewhat towards the end of her career when she had the idea to collaborate with a New Yorker magazine writer, John Lahr, to write a piece about what it was like to be Elaine Stritch for 50-something years in the theater, and her alcoholism and her ups and downs, the cost to her life, the choices she made, the no children, the boyfriends, the growing up in convent schools, the role of Sondheim in her life... I've been so entranced by the idea of a play written by an essayist in the cabaret genre, with a real actress--a nervy, thinking, philosophical actress. So I just thought, Maybe when I'm dead, or dying, I'll do my own someday. I was talking to Adam Gopnik from The New Yorker; I said, "Oh, someday I would love to do something like that. Maybe you'll be my John Lahr when I'm in my 70s." And he said, "Well, maybe we could do it sooner." So we wrote a play with music. The same guys that played on my DVD did something totally different. It's sort of a midlife look at the choices I've made, the conflicts of motherhood and performing, and it goes to another place: my Italian history, all the women in my family who wanted to be artists--my mother was a sculptor; her mother was an opera singer, and my grandfather forbade her to sing [publicly] when she started to succeed; her sister became a silent-movie actress, and the more successful she got, her very jealous husband ruined her career. My play is about women being heard. I think it's very popular right now for women to wonder about ways in which they are silenced; every woman has some time where they feel they weren't heard.

Another moment during Errico's November show
at Joe's Pub [photo by Sam Morris]

The women you've played lately on TV have other issues, though, right?
In both The Knick and Billions, I play a widow--a widow who's up to no good. That seems to be my new thing. The husband is gone, and she's a bit of a loose cannon. Although one is set in 1901, and one is set in this day and age. It's very interesting, the widow in drama. Someone said to me, "Widows are sexy, widows are dangerous." I was like, "O-kay..."

Have you been leaning toward TV and concert projects rather than Broadway since you had kids?
It is more convenient, honestly. When you have small children, to consistently not be able to put them to bed... It might be different if you have one child, but when you have three little girls--it's hard enough when I'm actually home. All three feel they don't get enough kisses. I go up to one bunkbed...from the other bunkbed: "Mommy, I want another kiss!" I can't even accomplish it in person, never mind if I was on FaceTime at the Shubert.
I think they're just at the point where they want to see me get back to what I do the most. It would be tough for them, but they would be excited. I think they can go to bed without me now--they would be okay if I did a year or six months in a musical.

Your journey to motherhood is a story in itself, no?
We bought an apartment in L.A., and I kid you not, within a week of buying it I got offered Sunday in the Park With George at the Kennedy Center. Which was immediately followed by James Lapine and Michel Legrand offering me Amour on Broadway. So I'd never lived in my house in L.A. Then, within a year or two I starred in Dracula [on Broadway], and then I was 34, turning 35, and my doctor said, "You're married 10 years, you have a great marriage. Do you ever want to be a mother?" The life of an actress, there's always the promise of "This could be it, this could be the defining role."
After I had my first daughter, I wanted to give her a sibling, and I conceived twins, so within two years I had three kids. My mother says I never do anything halfway. So I was very blessed, but it's been a bit of a storm. The pregnancies were hard; I got very sick, and that had its own revelation about--I mean, you just give over completely, really. I started a mothers support group in my neighborhood called the Bowery Babes. It's 10 years now, a not-for-profit. It's a 501(c)(3)--we had to become incorporated for legal reasons, safety, insurance. We do support groups for postpartum depression, for fertility, all kinds of issues, there's all kinds of counseling needed. And a lot of fun is needed too: When you become a parent, sometimes you feel like you dropped out of your life. A lot of women who come to New York have all these great abilities, and parenting...someone has to be watched and fed and taken care of, and suddenly you're not your fabulous New York self. The group is like, "You didn't drop out of anything, you joined the Bowery Babes!" It's free to join, it's an Internet group, and there are thousands of people on it now.

See Melissa's photos from last week's Billions premiere in New York on her Instagram and check her website for info on all her latest projects. Just announced: She'll be performing the music of Judy Garland and Rosemary Clooney with Michael Feinstein and the Pasadena Symphony on June 18 in southern California.

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