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Interview: Donna Lynne Champlin Gets Ready to Take on a Holiday Classic

It's a Wonderful Life will play at The Sheen Center on December 12, 2022.

Interview: Donna Lynne Champlin Gets Ready to Take on a Holiday Classic Interview: Donna Lynne Champlin Gets Ready to Take on a Holiday Classic

If you were a New York theater fan in the aughts and on, you knew of Donna Lynne Champlin. She made her Broadway debut in James Joyce'S THE DEAD in 2000 and went on to become a consistent stage presence. On Broadway her credits include playing Helen (a character based on Carol Burnett) in HOLLYWOOD ARMS, Honoria Glossop in BY JEEVES and Pirelli (with an accordion!) in the acclaimed John Doyle SWEENEY TODD revival. She was also a fixture off-Broadway, making notable appearances in the Encores! mounting of BLOOMER GIRL, the world premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon and Richard Nelson's MY LIFE WITH ALBERTINE, the New York premiere of Bruce Norris' THE QUALMS and Transport Group productions of THE DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS (for which she received an Obie Award), SEE ROCK CITY & OTHER DESTINATIONS, FIRST LADY SUITE and ALMOST, MAINE.

Then Hollywood came calling. She landed a high-profile supporting role in The CW's critically acclaimed musical series CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND, earning raves for her performance as Paula Proctor. She has also been seen on the small screen enjoying substantial roles in Netflix's FEEL THE BEAT alongside Sophia Carson and Showtime's THE FIRST LADY, in which she played First Lady Michelle Obama's senior advisor Mel Winter.

After CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND began, she did return to New York stage once - in THE TAMING OF THE SHREW at the Delacorte. But she's been mostly absent from legit stages, appearing only in benefit concerts and a SWEENEY TODD in Ithaca (in which she played Mrs. Lovett, not Pirelli).

Theater fans will have a chance to see her sink her teeth into a real role onstage once again for one-night-only: On December 12 she will take to the stage at The Sheen Center, starring as George Bailey in a performance of IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE to benefit The Transport Group. And, yes, she is aware how odd that sounds. BroadwayWorld checked in with her to see just what brought her to the role and to get some CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND fan questions answered. Meanwhile, you can buy tickets here.


This is a return for the New York stage for you. I know you did a number of benefit concerts, but you haven't played a role since the pandemic, right?

I played Mel Winter in THE FIRST LADY for Showtime in the middle of Delta. I was down in Atlanta. It's amazing how we look back on our lives as to what the Covid wave name was. Omicron was last year at this time. And then it was Delta when I was filming THE FIRST LADY. And I did SWEENEY TODD in Ithaca, but, in New York, I've only done other benefits, park and barks. Come out, park and then bark and then go back. Two of which have been for Transport Group, ironically.

How did you getting cast as George Bailey come to be?

Jack Cummings III, who is the Artistic Director of Transport Group, is a dear friend and if there was a rep company of Transport Group, I would be in it. I have done many productions there and I am a huge fan of the stuff that Jack does, so anything that I can do to support him and the theater I will do. Jack just texted me he was watching it, I think on TV, and he just had sort of this epiphany. He thought: "Wouldn't it be great to do a reading of the screenplay as a benefit for Transport Group?" He said I was the first actor he thought of to play George Bailey. I didn't even ask him if there was a special slant to this. I didn't ask: "Are we saying anything unusual with this casting?" I don't even ask. I was just like 'yeah.'

It's a fantastic part and I trust Jack and Transport Group implicitly. Many times, he's asked me to do things where on paper they sound out of the ordinary, but I always put my trust in him and it always ends up being something I'm very, very glad that I did.

He has said to me on more than one occasion that he feels like I am George Bailey in my life, as far as overcoming personal obstacles and trying to find the best, most positive solution. Trying to bring everybody together is my role even in a cast. I'm always the one who's like: 'Okay, come on guys, we can do it. If we all pull together we can do it.' But then I go home and walk by the bridge from rehearsal and go: "Hmm. I wonder."

It's been a rough couple of years for everybody obviously, but, with my son, being diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes right in the middle of the pandemic, the past couple of years for me and my family just personally have been very challenging. And Jack is one of my dearest friends. He's lived through it with me.

So you didn't ask what being a woman in the role means?

We haven't been at a rehearsal, so I don't know how we're gonna play it. But my approach -- that makes the most sense to me -- is that we're a same-sex couple. My name happens to be George. I'm not going to play it like a man. Maybe my name is Georgia or Georgie and everyone calls me George. That's what I'm going in with is that it just happens to be a lesbian. We'll see if it matters. I don't think it will. I hope not.

Do you have a real affection for the movie?

I do. I assume we've all seen it at least once. It's one of those movies that if it's like on TV, I'll watch it. It's funny, having a kid the Christmas stuff is veered more toward ELF and RUDOLPH. I'm introducing it to my son who is 11, who has never seen it and he's also coming to the benefit too, which is kind of exciting. I think emotionally he's ready. He's ready to experience the nuance and the 'goodwill toward men' message. There's not much to not love about it and it is something that I will watch if I if I see that it's on.

You haven't started rehearsals yet, but is there anything you think is going to be different about going on stage now?

For me, obviously because I have a family member who is autoimmune, there is always that fear that I'm gonna go somewhere maskless in a big room and bring something home. But, we're all vaccinated. We're all boosted. So it's much less of a concern.

On the flip side of that, I feel like I've gone to a lot of theater. I've really enjoyed going back to the theater and supporting my friends and watching some amazing shows and introducing my son to shows. There's a feeling in the audience where I feel like everyone got so starved in the pandemic for one-on-one or live interaction that the feeling from the audience is excitement and gratitude. I'm going to see shows on like Tuesday nights or Thursday nights, which are generally not the biggest, rowdiest nights of the week. I've checked in with friends -- I have asked: "Is it like this all the time?" Because the audience reaction would be like a really good Friday or Saturday night. And they're like: "Yeah, it's like that even if the house isn't even full. It just feels like everyone is so excited and grateful to be back in one room together experiencing something live." I certainly feel that way as an audience member.

CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIED went off the air the year before the pandemic. And I know you did FEEL THE BEAT on Netflix. Are you still recognized?

I am. What's funny is there was a lot of being recognized during the run of the show and after--but then when we started wearing masks everywhere, it stopped because no one recognized anybody! I thought it was probably over because enough time has passed and nobody cares. But it started up again on the street, when we're not wearing masks. I love it.

The fans of the stuff that I've been in -- not even CRAZY but also FEEL THE BEAT -- that's a certain demographic of people that I dig generally. They're like people who have that sense of humor or they're a little quirky. It's people that I'm happy to chat with for a second. It's not like I did some weird murder show. It's a good vibe. I enjoy it immensely.

A lot of people are discovering that show now on Netflix. Or they have CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND questions from years ago. And I've received some, so I'm going to ask. These are crowd-sourced. The first is: Would they consider doing a reunion movie special?

I'm sure. That's obviously completely up to Rachel Bloom, but she's always thinking outside the box. We did that concert tour. We're still in a text thread all of us. We've been in a text thread since whenever we started. Every once in a while, somebody will pitch: "How long do we have to wait until we do it? Is it 10 years? Like when's the reboot?" So I would not be surprised if we did something like that if it's something that Rachel wanted to do. I think all of us would be game. We were like a family, and we really do kind of love each other, so any excuse we can use to get together and be silly, we'll take.

It seemed like for the first few episodes, your character Paula was set up as the moral center of the show, forced to tone down Rebecca's impulsiveness. Was that the initial plan or was she always going to end up being a co-conspirator instigator?

Having a female antihero, at least in 2015, when we were starting, was still dicey. Networks were not entirely comfortable with it. So, a lot of our first year was our creatives trying to get the network to trust them.

Paula and Rebecca were always going to be best friends. That was from the get-go. But the network got nervous that Rebecca was too crazy or too unlikable. So, if you notice around Episode 7 or 8 of Season 1, Paula starts to take on more crazy stuff. A lot of those things that Paula did originally were pitched for Rebecca, but the network got nervous because they were like: "We're all down for a female antihero, but she can't be that unlikable." They panicked and they gave Paula the more crazy stuff that was initially intended for Rebecca because they wanted to keep their female lead likeable.

So that's one of the reasons why Paula all of a sudden went kind of bananas. And I kept going to the writers asking: "Is Paula legit crazy? Like is she legit like a sociopath? How do you want me to play this? Do you want me to play this as somebody who's like gently flawed and a little quirky? Because the things you have me doing are illegal."

I was told there was a crazy reshuffling and it's going all to Paula, but they were working it out.

It was just the network didn't trust us yet. They didn't trust that we knew that no matter what Rebecca did, Rachel is such a funny likable person, she was gonna pull it off.So the first season there's a lot of push and pull behind the scenes between creative and network. In the other seasons, everyone started to trust each other.

What is your favorite episode?

My favorite episode was [the one from Season 2 where I sang] "Maybe This Dream." I just love that they gave Paula that whole arc about the abortion, and not one of the younger gals, because the data actually shows that the second highest percentage of women who have abortions are middle-aged moms. And it's a demographic that's ignored so much, in every way, sexually especially, that I just felt really honored that they gave Paula that storyline. And "Maybe This Dream" was just above and beyond a dream come true, no pun intended. I recorded it with a 40 piece orchestra at Colony Records, the costume was made for me, the hair extensions... It was hilarious, but it was also very poignant.

Was there anything you wish had/hadn't happened for the character or that you wish the character would have gotten to do/sing/experience?

In Season 4, I was really hoping that Paula would get a big tap number to celebrate that she passed the bar. I thought that was something Paula would scream from the rooftops in big Broadway musical number fashion. But Paula was also based on Aline Brosh McKenna who was one of the head writers and show runner, and Aline's personality is that she always downplays all her successes. So, the writers room decided that Paula would do what Aline would do, which was to not tell anybody. And I asked about it, when I read the script, but they came back to me with a: "This is why we did it this way." I didn't push back, because it made sense to me when they explained it.

So ideal world -- stage or film?

I love the stage. It's in my blood. That's how I started and that will always be my foundation, but, with all the viruses and Covid and my son being autoimmune, a film set is safer. Both a film set and a TV set are controlled environments. There's no variable of an audience coming in eight times a week from wherever, putting people at risk. I don't know if my son wasn't autoimmune if I would have a different answer for you. But my reality is we have to take extra precautions.

That's more of a logistical answer than an artistic one. Artistically, the difference between film and theater is night and day, but they're both equally satisfying and challenging.

This might be a rare opportunity to see you on stage then.

Yes. And Transport Group is a phenomenal theater company. Everything I've seen there and everything I've been in there have been my favorite experiences either as an audience member or as an actor. Jack [Cummings III] always does something that sounds unusual, but then when you experience it, it's something that you'll never forget. So I encourage everybody to come and share this experience with us. I'm sure it will be a memory for you. Bring your family. I'm bringing my kid. Who knows? Maybe it'll be a yearly tradition.


Tickets for the December 12 benefit performance of IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, starring Champlin, at The Sheen Center for Thought and Culture are available here.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Broski

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