GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Lisa Gajda of 'Pal Joey'
Earlier in her career, Lisa Gajda may have been more mindful of whether she’s the right type for a role. But now that she’s been in 12 Broadway musicals set in virtually every decade of the 20th century, in various cities and countries, even in a circus and a mythical kingdom, she’s not so concerned. For one thing, she learned that “you think you’re right or not right, and it’s not really up to you.”
She’s also learned how to make herself into whatever type is needed. Which is how Gajda—with her small frame, quirky hairdo and slightly tomboyish demeanor offstage—got cast as one of the flirty 1930s showgirls in the Roundabout revival of Pal Joey, which takes place in an era when showgirls were fuller-figured. “My look is pretty contemporary,” Gajda says, “so I went to the audition with big fake boobs and tried to make myself look soft.”
When she was just starting out, type was important to Gajda (pronounced “Guy-da”) because in those years she was based in L.A., where dance work is heavily “type-based,” she says. Today, however, she doesn’t even bother with appearance and personality when asked what type she is. “If you need somebody to work hard, I’m going to get hired,” she says, describing herself as “a real dancer’s dancer—not necessarily the most incredible dancer, but I love to dance and people know that. I will dance hard and I’m pretty sturdy.”
In Pal Joey, the dance numbers showcase the women, since they’re playing the chorines who perform in the clubs with Joey. “Having the lion’s share of the responsibility as a female dancer is not common; usually it’s the men,” Gajda says. “It’s a treat to take that on.” She’s one of the two ladies who dance with Joey (Matthew Risch) in the opening ballet, and she’s the lilac in the comic Act 2 song “The Flower Garden of My Heart.”
Pal Joey would have been Gajda’s fourth time receiving the Gypsy Robe—presented on opening night to the ensemble member with the most Broadway credits—but she decided to forgo the honor so it could go to her friend Eric Sciotto, who’d never received it in his previous seven shows. Gajda received the robe for her last two shows, Cry-Baby (which Sciotto was also in) and The Times They Are A-Changin’, as well as for 2003’s Taboo.
All three of those musicals were short-lived, and they’re not Gajda’s only experience with flops: She was also in Sweet Smell of Success and Urban Cowboy. But she’s also been in such long-running Tony winners as Spamalot, Movin’ Out and Fosse and the hit revivals of Kiss Me, Kate and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. (She is sometimes billed as Felice Gajda, which is the name her parents gave her but never called her.)
Despite her long résumé and work for leading choreographers, Gajda expects no special consideration for roles. “I have no sense of entitlement or pride,” she says, “and all jobs are good enough for me. Last year at my age—39 years old—I went to an open call for Brigadoon. A lot of my friends had gotten direct offers from Rob Ashford [who was to direct and choreograph the revival, which has now been shelved]. I’m happy to try and try and try in whatever way I can. Half the shows on my résumé I got from going to an audition, getting cut, going back, going to jobs none of my friends would go to. I think working is really fun and really awesome, so I do whatever it takes to work and I’m not afraid of anything.”
Well, maybe the one thing she fears is not working. She went nearly a year and a half between Broadway appearances after Times They Are A-Changin’ closed in November 2006 and grew a little panicky as the drought dragged on. She’d never been off stage more than six months or so, and 2007 became the first calendar year in a decade that she didn’t perform on Broadway. “As you get older, these dry spells get scary,” she remarks. “You expend a tremendous amount of energy surviving financially and piecing together one, two, three days of work. I’m so used to performing, I just want to do it.”
The people who hired her during that time “saved my life,” Gajda hyperbolizes. They include choreographer Tyce Diorio, whom she assisted on a McDonald’s commercial and So You Think You Can Dance; Kathleen Marshall, who gave her a part in Applause at City Center Encores! and the Steve Martin tribute at the 2007 Kennedy Center Honors; and Rob Ashford, who ultimately put her back on the Great White Way in Cry-Baby. Gajda also performed in her first regional production in over 15 years: the musical stage adaptation of Happy Days, at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse in fall 2007.
Prior to Happy Days, Gajda’s last regional work was in the mid-’90s, when she was in Me and My Girl and Evita at the Downtown Cabaret Theatre in Bridgeport, Conn. She would later appear in the Radio City Christmas show in Branson, Mo., and go on the road with Tommy and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying—both of which she also did on Broadway—but since being part of her first original Broadway cast, 1999’s Fosse, she’s been working continually in NYC.
Born in Queens, Gajda grew up on Long Island but didn’t come into the city much to see musicals. Though she began taking dance lessons when she was about 5, she wasn’t one of those kids bitten early by the theater bug. “I danced very unseriously till I was like 17,” she recalls. “I was passionate, but I wasn’t the kind of child that focused. And then when I was 17, I realized there was nothing else I could do; I’d failed everything in school.” She had a lot of catching up to do as far as technical training, so after high school she enrolled in Steps on scholarship and took three classes a day at the Manhattan studio.
When Gajda was 20 or 21, she and a friend took a road trip to southern California, and she ended up staying there for several years. She started getting work almost immediately and danced in awards shows and industrials quite regularly. At the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards, she danced with Paula Abdul to “Vibeology.” Gajda also did an occasional music video or commercial, as well as a couple of movies whose titles she barely remembers. A highlight of her L.A. years was performing at the 1990 and 1991 Academy Awards to the nominated-song medleys, choreographed by Debbie Allen. “She was super-old-school for L.A.,” says Gajda. “A very technique-based, ‘you better bleed for me’ kind of choreographer, and I respond to that.
“Dancewise, L.A. is very different,” Gajda continues. “Working hard is considered ‘uncool’—it’s a New York thing. I was a pretty technical dancer for L.A. For New York I don’t have a lot of technique, but for L.A. I was loaded with it.”
That New York/L.A. schism she could deal with. Other differences were less tolerable. “Everything that is hard about New York doesn’t bother me, and everything that’s great about it is what I need. Everything that’s great about L.A. I don’t need, and everything that’s hard about it I hate. I don’t need the beach, I don’t like to drive, I don’t need space. I need enormous amounts of stimulus, and nothing in L.A. stimulates me. I couldn’t bear being there going through a dry spot,” says Gajda, who left L.A. in the mid-’90s when she wasn’t getting as much work.
Within six months, she was cast in the tour of Tommy, playing the Nurse and other ensemble roles. In the spring of 1995, she made her Broadway debut as a swing in Tommy. The following year, she joined the Broadway cast of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying—choreographed, as Tommy was, by Wayne Cilento. One of her favorite things about dancing for Cilento is “I get to dance like a man,” Gajda says. “It’s more interesting, it moves through the space more, it’s more aggressive. There’s nothing about my personality that really wants to be too passive.”
Her next Broadway job also involved distinctive choreography, perhaps the most distinctive: Bob Fosse’s. “The guys that were putting Fosse together wanted to train our generation how to do Fosse,” explains Gajda. “So I participated in these terrifying classes where you would have to be asked back week to week. It was an incredible experience—really, really intense and exciting. I trained for about a year.”
She was cast in the Broadway production and even had a featured bit, as the lead dancer of Sweet Charity’s “Rich Man’s Frug,” but looks back at Fosse with a bit of a cringe. “I just did not have the right stuff at the right time for that show,” she says. “Fosse requires trust and simplicity, and young people tend not to trust. Trust that you’re enough and the movement’s enough and you don’t need to dump all kinds of energy on it and try to improve upon it. I misunderstood what the job entailed. I just kept pouring energy and intensity onto something that needed something different.” Gajda eventually heard enough negative comments about her Fosse performance to now proclaim “It’s official that I was bad.” She remembers, for example, when she was later working on an industrial and one of her castmates commented about Fosse: “Who was that girl who did the ‘Rich Man’s Frug’? She was terrible.’”
Gajda departed Fosse for the 2000 Tony winner for Best Revival, Kiss Me, Kate, choreographed by Kathleen Marshall. After that, Gajda was involved in a string of failures, but she speaks of them today without sadness or resentment. “Everybody that worked on Sweet Smell of Success was really smart and really talented, so the work I was doing, whether or not the show clicked, was really challenging and interesting,” she says. “And then Urban Cowboy was, like, not scary and fun. It was just a good time. Taboo was the roughest of the flops in terms of the experience because the process had a little less harmony—personality clashes and conflicts and stuff.” Still, she says, “I didn’t experience too much heartbreak with any of them. I was never devastated. Even the most obvious disasters I buy into so that I can enjoy my experience. You invest a tremendous amount of time and energy in something, and the hope is that there’s an eventual payoff.”
She reaped numerous payoffs with her next show, Movin’ Out, which she joined for about eight months in the middle of its 2002–05 run. First and foremost, it brought her together with Twyla Tharp, whose choreography for the 1979 movie Hair had made a big impression on Gajda when she was a child. After working with Tharp, she says, “Twyla’s like my hero. I will spend the rest of my life sort of unwrapping all the little gifts from her.”
Among the “many, many, many things” Gajda says she learned Tharp is “how to make a character. Nobody ever told me how to do that; for many years I had just been dancing on a stage. She taught me what my job is in a musical—what my responsibility is to the director and to the world we’re creating.”
In Movin’ Out—a danced-through musical set to Billy Joel songs—Gajda covered three performers as a swing, which was “like being on stage all the time as different people,” she says. “They’re rotating people out so they can survive, and I was on constantly. Because of the way Twyla works, each track is completely designed to the talent and the point of view of the person, so you get to do really varied work.” Gajda says of the show, “That was my favorite of all my jobs.”
She also gained something personal from Movin’ Out: a four-year relationship with leading man John Selya (which ended last year). They were dating when they both appeared in Tharp’s next show for Broadway, 2006’s Bob Dylan jukeboxer The Times They Are A-Changin’. Times got abysmal reviews and closed after three weeks. It was Gajda’s shortest run on Broadway, but she considers it “the richest” experience among her failed shows. “I was the only female in the ensemble, and Twyla rolled up her sleeves with me and made me a billion times better than I had been before. That was magnificent. The problems with it intensified the experience: Watching a genius try to work that out is kinda cool.”
Gajda’s ability to glean pleasure from difficult circumstances is something younger dancers would be wise to learn. She has some other advice to offer too. “Don’t be all goal-freaky,” she states. “Enjoy where you are and what’s going on right now.” Audition as much as you can, even if you don’t think you’re the right type. “Volume is key: If you do a lot of it, you’ll get better results than if you do a little of it. And it makes you tougher so that each audition isn’t that important,” says Gajda, adding: “Everything leads to everything else. I rarely get the job I think I’m supposed to get, I usually get the job I would never expect to get. Volume helps take the stakes out of it, and it makes me feel like I have control over my destiny.”
If that destiny does not include principal roles, Gajda doesn’t care. In Happy Days, she portrayed one of Pinky Tuscadero’s Pinkette sidekicks, Sally. “I had a little bit more responsibility than a typical chorus role,” she says, “which was just enough [that] it was comfortable for me, it wasn’t intimidating.” But she isn’t yearning for speaking parts. “I’m a real dancer. It’s not very interesting to me to pursue doing roles,” says Gajda, who understudies Martha Plimpton as Gladys in Pal Joey and went on in the role this past week. “I grew up loving to dance, so that doesn’t mean that I wanted to act and sing.” And therein lies her ultimate advice for other gypsies: “If you’re dancing in the chorus, don’t spend your entire life waiting to do something else, because it’s an honor and a great life to dance in the chorus.”
Photos of Lisa, from top: with Matthew Risch in Pal Joey; in her last Tony winner, Spamalot; as showgirl Cookie (center foreground) in another number from Pal Joey, with (from left) Martha Plimpton, Kathryn Mowat Murphy, Hayley Podschun and Daniel Marcus; posing last month in the Studio 54 lobby; dancing in Movin’ Out, choreographed by Twyla Tharp; with then boyfriend and castmate John Selya at the Gypsy Robe ceremony for The Times They Are A-Changin’. [Pal Joey photos by Joan Marcus; Gypsy Robe photo by Walter McBride/Retna Ltd.]