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BWW Interviews: The Stars and Creative Forces of MASTER CLASS

The Manhattan Theatre Club's new Broadway production of MASTER CLASS by Terrence McNally, directed by Stephen Wadsworth, opened July 7 to trumedous praise at MTC's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. On the celebratory night, Richard Ridge caught up with the stars and creative forces of what many are calling a masterpiece, all of whom spoke candidly about the process of remounting the production and recreating the fascinating figures of the opera world of old.

Terrence McNally's play about Maria Callas takes us to one of her famous master classes, where, late in her own career, she dares the next generation to make the same sacrifices and rise to the same heights that made her the most celebrated, the most reviled and the most controversial singer of her time.

MASTER CLASS stars Tony and Emmy Award winner Tyne Daly, Olivier Award nominee Sierra Boggess, Drama Desk Award winner Alexandra Silber, Clinton Brandhagen, Jeremy Cohen, and Garrett Sorenson Tony.

Read on to hear from stars Tyne Daly, Sierra Boggess, and Alexandra Silber, creator Terrence McNally and director Stephen Wadsworth on their special opening night!

Tyne Daly (Maria Callas)

Welcome home to Broadway with this piece! Tell us what you love about this play?

When Terrence first called me, my response was "Are you crazy? I don't know any Italian, I don't know anything about the opera, I'm too old, and I have no look." It's so beautifully made, the play. The play has a construction that you have to pay very close attention to. When you're hearing it for the first time as an audience member, it just goes past you. You get it, but you don't know why you get it. When you study it, and look at it over and over, you find the logic and you go 'Ah. This is a very smart writer. A very smart, passionate writer.'

And what role did you play in bringing Stephen Wadsworth into the picture?

He's another one. Very smart and passionate. He works with students and professionals at Julliard and the Met. He knows so much about this world. So when Terrence called me I told him that I think I knew the guy I needed to work with in order to make this happen. We had just finished doing The AGAMEMNON in LA and it was the first time I tried something classic and big. I think Master Class is a classic play. It can withstand a lot of interpretations and I think the interpretation we have is a fine one. 

How to did you prep for this role. Talk a bit about the research you did on Maria Callas.

Well, that's on of the great thrills of being an actor. When they tell you you are a Russian princess or a doctor, you get to look at everything involved in the world. You get to literally walk a mile in the other person's shoes. The research on Callas was fascinating. She had a fascinating life. And, it's ongoing. I keep getting photographs and recordings and books I wasn't aware of. I read 11 biographies, but there are more. She was so studied. So you sponge it in as best you can.

In all of this research and rehearsal, at what point did you feel you really grasped her?

In my research I came across footage where she was being hounded at the airport by a bunch of interviewers and she kept saying "I'm not doing any interviews, I'm not doing any interviews - don't push me, don't push me." There was something in there for me that was tragic really, about how life was for her extra to the work, extra to her just being a singer and opera star. 

Talk about tonight. What is the most exciting part for you.

Well, we had five Broadway debuts tonight. It excites me so much! I remember my Broadway debut in a play that lasted only 10 days. It's a rite of passage that can't be explained and I love it that all of my colleagues had a good time tonight and are being appreciated.

But, I am feeling a lot of mixed up with a lot of emotions. You start thinking about who you would like to be here and of those who aren't anymore. Since last year when we did this in Washington D.C. there was a lot of loss. There was June Havoc, my darling mother-in-law Josephine, my mama, Hope, and three days ago was the anniversary of my dad's death. But at the same time, I went into the family business so I feel like I'm honoring them by doing the job that I'm supposed to do...that I'm trained to do. Many of the things that Maria Callas says through the words of Terrence McNally I find true and are what I believe. And after half a century of being an actor, I still believe that what we do is important and worthwhile, and it is a privilege to be able to say that every night from the stage.

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Sierra Boggess (Sharon Graham)

What has this show been like to work on?

It is amazing. It is so different than anything I've ever done before. And the things that I go through emotionally and psychologically in this piece are so cool, and that has made me grow. Working with Tyne Daly makes me grow, singing a Verdi aria is making me grow. Every time I walk on stage I am proving to myself that I can do this if I put my mind to it and work really, really hard!

It is such a beautifully written role that Terrence has given you. Talk about what you love about the play and your character.

I think Terrence is a genius and the words that he has written are so dead on. Especially with Tyne delivering them, you really do think that Maria Callas is alive and well. And I love what he has done with my character, Sharon, and the massive transition that she has. She gets beaten up, basically, and then makes a true comeback. She goes through this incredible transformation after being confronted with that "fight or flight" moment. It's a great thing to go through 8 times a week. 

Talk about the dynamic between you and Tyne and how you worked together to find your characters.

Where we started in rehearsal on day one and where we've come to is incredible, especially for me because I was a new player. They had all done this out of town in Washington DC and I didn't know that production, so I was really starting from scratch. As soon as I was able to let go of what I thought Sharon was supposed to be based on what I was hearing, and do her as I saw her, Tyne and I really started to develop our dynamic and bond. 

What has been the best part of this experience for you?

I'd have to say working with Tyne Daly, but maybe not for the reasons that people think. She's extraordinary on stage and what she does can't be touched. But it's who she is off stage and the kind of leading lady that she is that I'm trying to soak up. I got thrown into the leading lady thing pretty quickly, and I've been guessing how to best lead a company, but she leads a company in a way that is so inspiring. I hope that I can continue my career and take a little something from her example. She's the real deal.

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Alexandra Silber (Sophie De Palma)

Tell me about your character. Who is Sophie?

It is so wonderful to be making my broadway debut in this show with this company. I love this character, Sophie De Palma, more than anyone else I've ever played. She is "that" girl in every drama school, opera program, voice class, who just gets in her own way. She has heaps of talent, but it is her own fears, her own insecurities and her own self doubts that prevent her from becoming all that she is and fulfilling all of her potential. I'm so happy to be able to portray her because in a way she is the most identifiable. We all get in our own way sometimes and prevent ourselves from being all that we can be, so I love her.

Talk about working with Tyne Daly. Most of your scenes are with her.

It's amazing. We're out there for 45 minutes foddering and dueling with each other. But it's mostly play. When you use a word like legendary, you do think of actors like Tyne...but I think Tyne exceeds it. She delivers every time, she's principled, she's kind, she's playful, she's an amazing company leader, and she respects all of us as much as she respects herself.

What do you love best about the play?

The words were first and I really believe that Terrence McNally has written a classic. It would not speak to so many people on so profound oa level if it wasn't a work of genius. And what an amazing opportunity to have people of this level raising it up and lifting it to the heights that it goes to in this particular production.

What goes through your mind when you walk by that theater and see your name on the marquee?

'There's no place like home.' I love the career that I've had in London and I am so grateful for it, but there really is no place like home. When I was a little tiny girl I dreamed of being on Broadway. And one can only dream of being in a company this wonderful, with a play this beautiful, and in a role I love as much as I do.

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Terrence McNally (Playwright)

Tell me how you feel on this opening night?

I feel fabulous because this is an opening we approached with confidence and joy. The previews had gone so well and we were just excited to share it with New York. I prefer this to the usual nerves!

Tell me how this production came about. You always wanted Tyne Daly, correct?

Yes I did. I just kept thinking..."who is a force of nature who is also a creature of the theater. I'm so blessed to have two great actresses do this play in New York.
 
When you called her, what did Tyne say to you?

She said, "you're nuts! I can't possibly do that! But let me read it" [laughs]. So she called the next day and said "I'm nuts, but yes." Immediately she started working on her Italian, she started losing weight...she has worked like an athlete for this. And this is almost a year before we went into rehearsal for the Kennedy Center.

Talk about rehearsals and watching these actors create these roles with you.

It was very exciting because they all bring themselves to it. The cast loves the play. They want to do well and be open and it means a lot to them as actors. It is very personal for everybody. So really, being in rehearsal was a very privileged position for me to have. They showed me how much more complicated the relationship between Maria and the students was than I realized when I wrote it. So I salute them and our director Stephen Wadsworth for showing me new corners and facets in the play. As a playwright I hear the line read one way. And you learn in your career that that line will never be said that way. The success comes in finding someone to say it better and in a more interesting way.

Talk a little bit more about your collaboration with Stephen Wadsworth.

He was brilliant. He not only knows theater, he knows opera and he knows students because he teaches acting to opera students at Julliard. So this is absolutely his world and he was a perfect choice for this play.

How did you assemble the rest of this amazing company?

Alexandra came in at an audition and sang two notes of 'What's the Use of Wondering' and we fell in love with her. Sierra on her day off from Love Never Dies in London flew herself to New York, auditioned and went right back to JFK airport. I've been a fan of hers since Broadway Backwards. And Garret, the Tenor, is from the Met. He's the real deal.

When you were watching tonight, what went through your mind, seeing your baby come to life again?

I got a little overwhelmed. MTC is my home. When Lynn [Meadow] got up and said that they've done 12 of my plays, which they have, it shocked me a little emotionally which I don't do very easily. I've had a wonderful and pretty interesting life. I love my life and I'm very happy. I'm personally happy and professionally happy and that's finally what it's all about.

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Stephen Wadsworth (Director)

Talk about your initial connection to this project and working with Tyne to find Maria Callas.

Well, at Julliard, I run the same department that furnished the singers for Callas' class there in 1971. So it seemed like a logical project to take on. And working with Tyne is thrilling. We're very close friends and we've been through a lot together. We have a lot of fun. The discovery of Callas was interesting. With Tyne, there is never a question of her emotional availability and power. At any time she can turn a corner and go there. The biggest challenge was how to get her to become this woman in the stylistic ways - the voice, the body, the body language, the look. We worked a lot on dialect, the sound of the voice, the accent that was always a little bit Greek, a little bit Italian, and a little bit of New York all at the same time. So the mountain of affectations that was Callas was what we worked on a lot, especially in the beginning. And to do that, we stopped thinking about the icon that Tyne is.

What do you love best about this play?

Well it's interesting because it's a play about an icon that needs an iconic actor. So there is this wonderful moment in the beginning where we are responding to Tyne, but Tyne turns it around so fast and before long we're not thinking about the Tyne we saw on Judging Amy or Gypsy or any of the fantastic things she's done.

Talk about you collaboration with Terrence McNally.

It was thrilling. He is such a gentleman and so brave. To have new artists come in who are inevitably going to be bringing their own interpretation to the play can be tough and he was so cool about it. And he was so helpful in getting us to better understand certain rythms that were essential. We often get to reinterpret works of playwrights who are no longer alive, so it's an amazing opportunity to get to work with a living playwright who is right there telling you what he heard when he wrote the words and where to find the life.

Tickets for MASTER CLASS are available by calling Telecharge at 212-239-6200, online by visiting www.Telecharge.com, or by visiting the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre Box Office 261 West 47th Street. Ticket prices are $57 - $116.

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Richard Ridge: Richard fell in love with the theatre at the age of five when he went through his parents record cabinet and stumbled upon their original cast album collection and the rest is history.He has toured the world as a performer and for the past twenty years he has been the host of the television program Broadway Beat and the soon to launch Backstage with Richard Ridge

 


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