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InDepth InterView: Mary Testa Talks New Album HAVE FAITH, Upcoming Concerts & Reflects On Theatre Career


Today we are talking to an instantly recognizable stage stalwart who has lit up Broadway and beyond for more than three decades since her debut in William Finn's IN TROUSERS in 1979 - the one and only Mary Testa. Discussing all aspects of her exemplary new music project created in collaboration with acclaimed orchestrator Michael Starobin, HAVE FAITH, Testa imparts the impetus behind the concept album and outlines what motivated the wildly eclectic song choices included on the release - ranging from the Beach Boys, Prince and Aerosmith to Michael John LaChiusa, Jill Sobule, Alanis Morissette, Annie Lennox and many more. Furthermore, Testa eloquently describes the fascinating and compelling theme upon which the album is based - the journey of a soul through life; ostensibly a search for faith - and relates the sonic experience to her own spiritual pursuits in her own life. Additionally, Testa clues us in on what we can expect from her upcoming promotional concert appearances alongside Starobin in support of the album, as well, kicking off with a concert at Barnes & Noble next week along with a series of shows at the West Bank Cafe's Laurie Beechman Theater. Reflecting on the various ways in which she has seen the theatre industry transform over the course of her career thus far, Testa also sheds some light on many of her most celebrated roles to date, including IN TROUSERS, THE RINK, XANADU, MARIE CHRISTINE, SEE WHAT I WANNA SEE, QUEEN OF THE MIST, A NEW BRAIN, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, LUCKY STIFF, CHICAGO, WICKED and more. All of that, playing Barbara Bush in FIRST DAUGHTER SUITE and much, much more with one of Broadway's most reliably entertaining, wildly talented and endlessly inventive regulars.

More information on Mary Testa's HAVE FAITH is available at the official site here. Additional information on her concert engagement at the Laurie Beechman Theater at the West Bank Cafe January 4-5 and 11-12 is available at the official site here.
Also, Testa and Starobin will perform at the Barnes & Noble on 150 East 86th Street, between Lexington and Third Avenues on the Upper East Side on January 6. Fans who purchase the CD at the store will be offered priority seating. Call (212) 369-2180 for details.

God Only Knows

PC: "Set Those Sails" is one of my favorite songs of all time. What is your very first memory of hearing that IN TROUSERS tune?

MT: Well, we were working on it - IN TROUSERS - and "Set Those Sails" was just one of those songs that we were working on. You know, we were all working on it independently - I met Bill [Finn] when I was a student at the University Of Rhode Island; Alison [Fraser] met him back in Natick, Massachusetts; and, then, this woman named Kate who is no longer in the business, also met Bill at a time when she was young and starting out. So, when we all moved to New York - and we all moved around the same time - Bill said, "Let's just start working!" And, so, we all showed up at his apartment and we instantly started singing in three-part harmony.

PC: It was fate!

MT: It was, I guess! Those numbers just developed from there with all of us. "Set Those Sails" was one of those numbers that we were working on that eventually became part of IN TROUSERS.

PC: Given the riffs and bluesy feel of it, I have to assume you had a hand in shaping the vocal arrangement.

MT: [Laughs.] Yes, that was all me!

PC: Finn has said that the Beatles is the biggest influence on IN TROUSERS. Are they influential to you, as well?

MT: A little bit. I was more influenced by Leon Russell and Joe Cocker, though - those are kind of my musical awakening guys.

PC: Did you consider any other William Finn songs for HAVE FAITH besides "Change"? You have done several unrecorded ones over the years, including a few from JOCKS.

MT: No, I never considered any of those other songs because they are kind of hard taken out of context - there are not really any total, whole songs from JOCKS that are useful, I don't think. Michael and I did use a piece in one of our prior shows that I believe might have been from JOCKS, actually - "There's No Grand Reprieve"; we used a piece of that.

PC: How fascinating.

MT: It's hard with these things, though, especially in the case of HAVE FAITH, to make songs fit what we want to say. So, the other stuff, while great, it just didn't have a particular place in this show/album.

PC: It's thrilling to hear both you and Michael revisit "Change" from A NEW BRAIN more than 15 years later on HAVE FAITH. He was the original orchestrator, after all.

MT: Yes, I think "Change" made absolute sense in the scheme of what we were trying to say on HAVE FAITH.

PC: Have you discussed the upcoming Encores! A NEW BRAIN with Bill yet? Would you consider playing the Bag Lady again?

MT: I just heard about that myself! I haven't heard a thing about it, so... I doubt they'll ask me, though. I think if they are going to do something, they will probably use all-new people. I have to say, this has been the year of things I've done being revived!

PC: Why so?

MT: A NEW BRAIN. And, they were talking about A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM coming back, too, but I guess that fell through. There's also the LUCKY STIFF movie, and other things. It will be interesting to see them revive things that I've done.

PC: MARIE CHRISTINE was actually the final original musical to open on Broadway in the 20th century. CONTACT came right after.

MT: Is it, really?! I didn't know that. That's a fun fact!

PC: Looking back 15 years later, how do you see that show? Do you see it being done more in opera companies than theaters in the future?

MT: Oh, well, I think it's brilliant. I also was just going to tell you that while we were in tech rehearsals for MARIE CHRISTINE at Lincoln Center - tech rehearsals - they said, "We are going to move CONTACT up here." [Pause.] So, you know, we didn't even get the opportunity - they cut us right off at the knees before we even started. It was really very disappointing.

PC: Could you even imagine MARIE CHRISTINE on Broadway today given how dark and daring it is?

MT: I don't know - I mean, I don't know. I just remember it being really disappointing that they didn't even believe in it - obviously, they believed in CONTACT more. So, it's unfortunate - I think MARIE CHRISTINE is a stunning piece of theatre and I think what Graciela [Daniele] did with it was even more stunning. She's another one who never gets her due. When something flies and it's art it's always great to see.

PC: SEE WHAT I WANNA SEE is one of Michael John LaChiusa's most compelling and perhaps most commercial pieces that you did a few year later. Were your roles in that written specifically for you?

MT: I don't know. I know that he wrote QUEEN OF THE MIST for me, but I don't know about SEE WHAT I WANNA SEE. Ted Sperling was working on that for a long time and I remember they asked me to do some recordings for that very early on and I was unavailable. Then, I became available and I am thrilled that I worked on it. I love working on anything Michael John writes - I think he is just spectacular.

PC: You can say that again.

MT: To answer your question, I think SEE WHAT I WANNA SEE is a very beautiful piece, though - very spare; very Japanese. I really do like it a lot. And, again, they closed us - I think that that show could have run and could have been very successful in a longer run, but they got nervous around the holidays, I think, and closed us before Christmas. It's disappointing when the powers that be don't believe in, you know, genius. [Laughs.]

PC: Idina Menzel was stupendous in the show, as well. Did you assume she would break through to the mainstream like she has in such a big way?

MT: Oh, Idina has always had that. I remember when we did that show there would always be at least 30 girls in the audience there just to see her - and, it was very incongruous because you would leave the theater and there would be 30 teenage girls waiting with flowers for Idina; you didn't see that at the Public a lot, it's a different kind of venue. Honestly, she was getting stacks of mail at least a foot high at the theater every single day, too, even back then. WICKED had already established her as a star - I think that's what really did it, WICKED.

PC: "There Will Be A Miracle" seems like it could fit the theme of HAVE FAITH, but a cut song from Michael John's THE WILD PARTY is even better.

MT: Yes! Yes. "Heaven" is from THE WILD PARTY.

PC: Had you seen the song in the show while it was still a part of it in previews?

MT: No, I hadn't, but I did it at an evening at Joe's Pub called LALALACHIUSA - me and Matt Bogart, Judy Blazer, Nathan Lee Graham; it was quite a while ago.

PC: You did something from THE ROSE TATTOO musical Michael John was once developing in that, did you not?

MT: Yes! I did. I did.

PC: Have you done a full workshop of that? The rights have caused a lot of problems, unfortunately.

MT: Yeah, he couldn't get the rights so I think he pretty much abandoned it - which is a shame.

PC: You recently did a reading of a new musical by Michael John, yes?

MT: Yes. I have been working for a while now on FIRST DAUGHTER SUITE. He did a Sundance Lab this Summer that they wouldn't let me out of WICKED to do, though, so, hopefully I will be involved with it when they do it again.

PC: Who do you play in FIRST DAUGHTER SUITE?

MT: Barbara Bush.

PC: Will this be the first time you are playing a person still alive as far as you know?

MT: Hmm.... [Pause.] I guess!

PC: Is it a challenge?

MT: Well, the thing about Michael John's pieces is that, as an actor, everything you need is in the music, so you don't really have to bring anything from the outside in - it's always there in the script. Of course, for research, I have watched her and tried to get her cadence and all of that. But, it's a work in progress and I wasn't able to do the last workshop, so, you know, it's show business - ya never know! [Laughs.]

PC: "On The Other Side" makes an appearance on HAVE FAITH, too. Is QUEEN OF THE MIST a career high-point?

MT: Oh, yes - yes! Absolutely. It's probably the best thing I've ever done - the most exciting and the most visceral. It was the absolute high-point of my career so far.

PC: What can you tell me about Michael John's "What If" on HAVE FAITH?

MT: Michael John wrote that specifically for a show that Michael Starobin and I did called SLEEPLESS VARIATIONS - BROKEN SLEEP is actually what I think it was called.

PC: With news of a HELLO AGAIN film and the continued popularity of FIRST LADY SUITE, would you be receptive to appearing in a film adaptation of one of Michael John's works?

MT: I heard about the HELLO AGAIN film being announced with Audra, but I haven't heard anything about it since. Of course, though, I would be receptive to doing any Michael John piece - I'm sure. I don't know any particulars about any of it, but I would do it in a second if they asked.

PC: Working with Ryan Murphy on EAT, PRAY, LOVE, have you been contacted to appear on GLEE at any point?

MT: No! I have no idea why not. But, what can you say: it's show business; it's weird! I don't get seen for lots of things that I think I should be seen for, but what are you gonna do?!

PC: How do you see the Broadway landscape as having changed since your debut more than 30 years ago? It seems to be a marked return to the commercialized theater of the 1980s in many ways.

MT: Yeah, I know - I think people just get scared; all that money. Musicals are always a gamble - look at SIDE SHOW; they're going to lose all their money closing early. It's always a gamble - when something works and is able to push through and it's artistic and says something different and is a different voice, it's thrilling, but that's not always the case. That's why I think they keep going back to revival upon revival upon revival. This is what I have found in my experience: when you are working on a new show on Broadway and something is not working, they always try to fix what works already.

PC: What an insight.

MT: They focus on the stuff that is already working versus the stuff that isn't. [Laughs.] It's depressing - it really is. New shows just aren't embraced - producers aren't willing to take the gamble. To put on a new musical it costs like 10 million dollars - that's where they start now - and it's just a lot of money. It's unfortunate. I can understand them wanting to go with the tried and true, but I'm bored by it.

PC: Have you turned down anything that you have regretted? Have you sought out playing Rose in GYPSY yet? It seems like a perfect fit.

MT: I have never played it. And, I don't want to go to some regional theater to play it, either. It's funny - you know, people think that I am, like, offered things all the time, but that's not true; I have to go in and audition and generally I don't get anything. Or, I'm just not seen. But, yes, I do get offers from time to time - WICKED was an offer - and that's lovely. I'm not seen for lots of things that I think I should be seen for, though. I do turn down one-night benefits and things like that depending on what I am doing at the time.

PC: The idea of an album about faith by Mary Testa is not the first topic I would have assumed for your solo album debut. Could you explain why you chose this particular concept for the album?

MT: I had somebody ask me the other day about the album, "Are you religious?" And, I said, "I am not religious, but I am spiritual," and I think that none of these songs on the album should be put in a spiritual/religious category - but, that's the thing about what Michael and I enjoy doing; putting together a group of songs that then elevates the meaning of all of them.

PC: How illuminating.

MT: I think it works perfectly as that. We are getting nothing but rave reviews on it, too - which is so wonderful and so satisfying.

PC: Techno to string quartet to solo cello and beyond - HAVE FAITH certainly runs the gamut of sound and emotion. It's a thematic concept album in the traditional sense, as well.

MT: Thank you for saying that. You know, Michael and I have put together four shows in our time - our first show was in 1982, it was called NO SHAME. I can tell you a story: a friend of mine who has since passed away named Fred Gorman directed NO SHAME and we liked to do stuff like this - we liked to make you laugh, laugh, laugh and then slam into something sad. I remember one of our pieces in the show was we did an old union workers' song that we dug out and found - "Look For The Union Label" - and then we did James Taylor's "Millworker". So, people would laugh and laugh and laugh and then would come this really moving song. And, I remember Ted Chapin - who is a dear friend of mine and has been for many, many years - came up to me after the show and said, "How do you do that?!" People were doing cabaret at that time, but it was song, song, song, song, and Ted was just nonplussed that we made him laugh and laugh and then made him cry unexpectedly. And that's how life is - life is not predictable in any way, shape or form.

PC: On that note, "Heroes" is such a hilarious song. Where did you find it?

MT: I was introduced to this performer and recording artist named Jill Sobule who has several albums out - somebody asked me, "Have you ever heard her?" and I hadn't, so I did and she was just fantastic! As a matter of fact, Oskar Eustis at the Public is friends with her and wants her to write a musical. "Heroes" and "Soldiers Of Christ" are both her songs on the album. Michael and I went to see her at Joe's Pub and she was just great - eccentric and quirky and really great. We were really happy to do two of her songs.

PC: Did you have any qualms with saying the word "f*ggot" in "Soldiers Of Christ"?

MT: No, because it is part of the thrust of the song. It's a satire - a black satire - and it is what is going on in the country these days. I had no problem singing it. It's not me saying "f*ggot," it's the song - it's the satire of the song.

PC: Are any of the songs ones that you wanted to include from the very beginning, knowing it was your first solo album?

MT: Well, honestly, all the songs are songs I wanted on here! But, yes, the whole album is a collaboration between Michael and I. This is a dark vision - but, this is our taste. It's our decision what is on this album and it is not anybody else's.

PC: I assume you are an Annie Lennox fan, as well?

MT: Oh, yes, I love Annie Lennox! I think she is just fantastic.

PC: If you were to release a single from HAVE FAITH, what would it be? "God Only Knows"?

MT: I think "God Only Knows" is too small - and we really use it as a bridge. I love "God Only Knows" and I love the Beach Boys, though - I think they've written some extraordinary stuff. A single? I don't know. [Pause.] I think "What If?" would be good. I like everything on the album - but "What If?" is new and nobody has really heard it before, so I would say that.

PC: What motivated your inclusion of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" on the album? It's ubiquitous.

MT: I just think it is a spectacular song. I love Leonard Cohen. I remember I heard Sheryl Crow sing it and I was just transfixed by the song and I remember she did a really simple version that was so beautiful. I just thought, "Oh, my God!" I just love the music and the lyrics, as well. And, I know that the song has been done a lot, but I think Michael and I found an interesting new way to do it. I just think it's perfect. In concert, when we put this show together, "Hallelujah" was always our encore.

PC: Are there any other songs that you do in concert that did not make the cut for the album?

MT: Well, as you know, we are going to do four shows at the West Bank on Sundays and Mondays in January and we are going to do a couple more concerts after that, so Michael and I might decide to add some new material - maybe not in the body of our shows, but maybe as an encore. We are also going to be doing a signing at Barnes & Noble on January 6, so we will be doing a few songs at that, too.

PC: How did doing the album come about in the first place?

MT: Well, we did the show a few times at 54 Below and at a one night benefit for the Transport Group and that's actually how it all came about. I have a dear friend who is actually a playwright, too, named Cappy and she came to see the Transport Group show and said, "I would love to hear this as an album," and Michael and I said, "Yeah, we would, too, but it's very expensive and we can't do it ourselves." And, she said, "I would love to," and then proceeded to give us a budget and time - we had five days to record it, and the greatest producer, David Baron.

PC: It does not sound like a typical musical theatre album, that's for sure.

MT: We are not the usual suspects - we definitely are not. But, yeah - Cappy gave us the most divine gift she could have given us. When we were done, she said, "I always wanted a Mary Testa record and now I have one." It was like the Lord came down in the body of my friend Cappy and gave us the opportunity to do this album and we are all just beyond thrilled about it. And, we are so proud of it - every single note and every single chord and every single thing on this album is exactly what we want, so it is just fantastic. And, now, we are getting a fantastic reaction to it.

PC: "Pink" was a popular Aerosmith song many people in their 20s and 30s will fondly remember. What do you think the song is really about?

MT: For me, "Pink" is about looking for the positive. It's a rock n roll song, Steven Tyler - it can be sex; it can be all kinds of things - but the way that it fits in my mind is that it's about everything being fantastic, which is why it then slams into "Sometimes It Snows In April", which is about somebody losing their best friend. That song, for me, is dedicated to my dear friend Fred, who we were talking about before - who was my friend for many years and an agent at DGRW; he was the G. We shared an apartment for years and I've always had it in my mind to dedicate that song to him. I've been doing it for years. Everything is tied up on this album.

PC: "Thank U" was a huge hit for Alanis Morissette around that same time, as well. Why choose that?

MT: It just fit perfectly in. I love the music of "Thank U" and I love the feeling of it. Michael did a beautiful arrangement - just extraordinary. You said to me earlier, "Who expected a spiritual album from you?" and I have to say, that is the goal of my life - to do the unexpected and to really keep confounding people. In show business, everybody thinks they know what you do - you can do one thing and if that one thing is successful, people think, "OK, you can do that one thing and that's what you do." And, my goal is to not do what anybody expects! So, I am glad that the album took you off-guard for a second, Pat. [Laughs.]

PC: In the most wonderful way imaginable.

MT: I want my career to be like Bill Murray's...

PC: THE RINK to Sondheim to William Finn, Michael John, the revivals and beyond...

MT: Yeah, you know, I am probably never going to be a big star because I am not who people want as stars. You know, I think I am perfectly talented to be a big star, but that isn't what my journey is - I can tell; I know that. My journey is just to outlast everybody - and that's what I am going to do! [Laughs.]

PC: LUCKY STIFF is another show you famously originated that is now finding a new life with the movie musical coming up.

MT: I know! What's funny, though, with LUCKY STIFF, I can tell you that I was actually seen for it - not for my role, though.

PC: How did that come about?

MT: I happened to be in California when they were auditioning for LUCKY STIFF and I went in for the Landlady. I knew it was futile, I knew it was bullsh*t, but I went in anyway - Chris Ashley was directing the movie and I had done XANADU with Chris. So, I auditioned... and I didn't get it! [Big Laugh.]

PC: What a shame.

MT: What's funny is that they had both CDs on the audition table and they were like, "Oh, are you on this?" and I said, "Yeah, I am!" It was total bullsh*t, but that was totally fine. I think Michael actually did the orchestrations for the movie, too, funnily enough.

PC: When was the first time you and Michael worked together?


PC: So, since the beginning.

MT: Since the beginning. And, now it's our album - our album.

PC: Who came up with the concept for the cover?

MT: It was my idea. In Times Square. Believe me, I hate people and I hate crowds, but we did the picture in Times Square at 6 o'clock in June anyway. It was a nightmare - a nightmare!

PC: Why so?

MT: You can imagine! We were standing on 44th and Broadway and Michael suggested that we move up a little bit to where the TKTS booth is, so it was actually shot down on us from the TKTS stairs. That turned out to be the album cover.

PC: So, the cherries were real?

MT: Yes! I said that Michael should be carrying the tuba and he said that I should be holding something, too, so that's when we got the cherries. That was also a nightmare - me standing in Times Square holding a bowl of cherries; you should have heard the comments people were making! [Laughs.]

PC: I bet!

MT: It turned out to be a great picture and a great cover for the album.

PC: Indeed. I'm curious, have you ever revisited THE RINK in concert since your debut?

MT: I have, actually. We did this thing at 54 Below and I did "Colored Lights' in it and it kind of stopped the show, but I don't do it in concert a lot. It's a great song - that's actually a great score, for THE RINK.

PC: THE RINK is a show destined to be revived successfully someday soon - especially these days with the economy the way it is.

MT: Oh, I love that show - I think it is just beautiful. First of all, Chita [Rivera] was just spectacular - being onstage with Chita was just spectacular - but I have to say that Liza [Minnelli] was brilliant in it, too. It was erratic during that time for her, I guess, drug-wise, but when she went on she was just brilliant.

PC: Did you wear her exact costume as her understudy?

MT: No - the costume was just jeans and a shirt, so the costume department would just go out and buy lots of pairs of jeans and shirts and we tried them on and whatever fit you was yours.

PC: Would you turn the tables and play the mother role now if you were asked?

MT: [Pause.] Sure, why not! I don't know why anybody would want me to, but sure.

PC: Will you go back to CHICAGO at any point, do you think?

MT: I don't know. That is one of the easiest jobs in the world - the simplest, nicest. I did three months in CHICAGO right after my mom died - and, as you know, I usually don't replace in shows; CHICAGO and WICKED are the only two that I have done - but my mother had just died and they asked me to come in for three months right before SEE WHAT I WANNA SEE at the Public. So, I said, "That's perfect. It gives me three months to have something to do and something to focus on," so that was a blessing of a job to get at the time. I don't know if they would ever ask me back again - they tend to go with the three women who have played it the most, so I doubt that they would ask me again, but who knows? I wouldn't turn down that kind of work - you know, in established shows that pay and all of that stuff. I would go back to WICKED again, too, if they asked me - it's a great gig.

PC: Would you be open to doing the tours of either?

MT: No, no, no, no - I don't think so. They asked me if I would do the tour of WICKED and I said no - I am not a touring person. I have worked out of town, but mostly out of necessity. I don't like being out of my house - I'm funny that way.

PC: Lastly, was there a particular moment in your life that inspired you to pursue HAVE FAITH?

MT: Well, you know, I grew up Catholic, but I don't practice Catholic dogma in any way, shape or form. That said, I do appreciate a spirituality and a connection with a higher being - a higher influence. I think that in times like this, the world is so crazy and there are so many things every day that assault you and knock you off your feet and make you question why you are here that I think that there is a great comfort in knowing that there is something you can plug into and have faith in - I don't know, maybe it's a folly on my part - that can help to bring you through. I mean, it's really tough these days... [Pause.] look at me, I'm starting to cry!

PC: It's OK - let it out!

MT: It's tough - the news is just horrific. Everywhere you look around you, there is no fairness anymore - there is more wrong than right; or, at least it feels that way. To know - or to think - that there is some force of good just helps. So, that is what this album means to me - is to find the faith in life. It's like, you are going along and having a great time and then your friend dies. Or, the religious right attacks everything you know and love. There has to be a reason to keep going - and that is what the album means to me. It can be overwhelmingly scary - all of it.

PC: This was such an enjoyable and riveting chat, Mary. Thank you so much.

MT: Thank you so much for your support and praise for the album, Pat. It really means a lot. OK. Bye.

Photo Credits: Walter McBride, Jennifer Broski, etc.

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Pat Cerasaro contributes exclusive scholarly columns including InDepth InterViews, Sound Off, Theatrical Throwback Thursdays, Flash Friday and Flash Special as well as additional special features, (read more...)