BWW Interviews: Joanna Gleason Talks Cabaret Debut at 54 Below

Joanna Gleason is perhaps most well known for her Tony Award winning portrayal of the Baker's Wife in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's beloved Into The Woods. Good news! Ms. Gleason will be back on stage later this month in her NYC cabaret debut at 54 Below. Though busy preparing for the show, she took the time to chat with BroadwayWorld about her upcoming cabaret performance, other future projects, and her surprise dancing abilities.

How does it feel to be back on stage in New York?

Awesome. Awesome, but in a totally different way. I mean the way I've always been the most comfortable is being in a play, being in a character. You know, when they say, "Would you do this benefit, would you come sing, I just can't. I mean obviously I did the Sondheim birthday concert, which was one of the high points of my life, I'm so glad I did. But I've never been comfortable there. And I did two nights in Provincetown of a kind of funny, short evening with Seth Rudetsky and some great musicians, with a gay, string quartet called Well Strung, which are these four fantastic guys who play classical music and pop. And so when 54 Below called me and asked, would you do three nights in October, I thought oh my god, uh. All right, let me write something! I had to write myself a show. I'm just I'm not a-I'm not one of those cabaret artists, one of those fabulous people who sing like that and have a songbook full of stuff that they do. So I wrote a show and I've got Well Strung with me, and a guitarist and a music director on piano and some fantastic surprises and I just said yes. I don't even know what possessed me to say yes, except that it was kind of time to stop ducking it, you know. Time to stop being afraid of anything.

Have you approached the cabaret performance differently than you have other theater roles?

I thought I had to at first, and then I realized no, it's really the same. It's the same; you get up and tell a story. And the songs that you choose will underscore the story you're telling.

The show is described as the place where your "fantasy and real lives intersect". How much of yourself did you put into this performance and how much is a persona?

Entirely. It's entirely autobiographical. But as a kid I had a very rich fantasy life, for a bunch of reasons, and it led to some kind of, you know, half living in one world and half the other. And then life got very complicated, which I will go into [in the show]. And so, it was always a question of, where do I belong? You know, where am I supposed to be? And it ends up being a kind of journey. Not a long one, but a journey through my life: how I got to where I am right now, and not just in the show business way.

Can you tell us about the process of putting together a Cabaret show and if you found anything to be particularly challenging?

It's challenging if you have a lot of moving parts, and I do. I'm not just alone there with a piano. So it's just a lot of schedules-this came upon me really quickly; I was asked to do it in July. And so I needed to write something. The challenge was: what can I get up there and do that is me, that is the reason to come see me, you know? There has to be a reason that I'm up there. These are the songs that I've gravitated to my whole life, most of which, almost entirely all of them, are not from the musical theater. Of course I am doing songs from shows I've been in, but in the context of the story I'm telling.

You are performing with the hilariously named Well Strung, an all-male string quartet. I've seen some of their performances on YouTube and they're amazing-

They're amazing. They're fabulous; I love them.

How did this collaboration come about and what has it been like working with them?

They're adorable, and brilliant. And it came about in Provincetown when their manager, who also runs the Art House in Provincetown, told me about them and I said, gee! Because he asked me will you do two nights at The Art House and I said, hey, wait a minute you've got this string quartet, hmmm, this could be interesting. And so, I started to construct something that not only used them as musicians but as singers too. And in a way, even as characters, in my show for 54 below. It's not a play, it's an evening of songs and me talking, but they show up in various ways.

You have directed a couple episodes of television and in 2001 you directed the one-woman show, Call Waiting in LA. Do you feel having been behind the scenes influenced how you approached this cabaret performance?

Yeah, I really do have a kind of director's head, much of the time. I'm more the observer than the participant very often. I like to do that. I also got to a moment in my life where I decided to tell the stories I wanted to tell, so I wrote a screenplay, which I'll be directing. And I've written a novel and this act is part of that whole thing of being the one to construct the evening, instead of just a piece of it, you know what I mean? But being a director was great because you get to work with good material and great actors but you kind of construct how the evening or TV show will go; I like that.

Let's talk set list. How did you decide which songs to sing and will you be singing primarily musical theater songs or are different genres on the table?

It's very eclectic. Of course there's Sondheim in there but it's all within the context of the story I'm telling about my life. But there's Sondheim in there, there's Charles Strouse and Richard Maltby. There's a Johnny Mathis song, I don't know who wrote it. There's some Billy Joel and James Taylor. There's a funny version of a Peggy Lee song. And it just all had to be the stuff that I gravitated to, songs that mean something to me, but also were appropriate underscoring for where I am in the story.

What are you hoping the audience goes home with from this performance?

I hope that they came to find out something more about me and I hope that they leave satisfied that they did. And that somehow, my story will have some sort of resonance. And that they will have enjoyed the tunes [Laughs].

Can you tell us about any upcoming projects you have after the cabaret show-I know you mentioned a screenplay?

Well after the cabaret show, we're actually in the process of casting this movie that I wrote, which I hope to direct next year. I also study ballroom dancing. I compete in these ballroom competitions in argentine tango. I was at a competition on Friday. And so I danced all week, a lifelong dream. It's pretty late to take up dancing but I did it, and I love it. Basically it's about quality of life right now; how do you want to spend this time? But if there were another great show to do that came along, I would do it.

So will you be incorporating any of your dance moves into the performance?

I don't know! Maybe. It's a really tiny stage [Laughs].

Photo Credit: Michael Crook

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