Megan Lawrence: On Top of Her 'Game'

Megan Lawrence has gotten so adept at scene-stealing, she now can do it even when there's no show on. One Saturday in late February, music arranger David Chase was discussing The Pajama Game's score during a postshow session with the audience. All of a sudden, Lawrence—still in makeup—scampered across the stage behind him, apparently to bypass the longer route through the theater corridors. A few minutes later, she scurried back in the other direction, this time with her three children—ages 1, 2 and 4—in tow. Giggles and awwws from the audience ensued.

She had taken off the red wig she wears as Gladys in The Pajama Game, but at least some audience members realized this was the same woman who had cracked them up earlier with her drunken flirtation with Harry Connick Jr. during "Hernando's Hideaway" and other shenanigans as the boss' secretary. Although Carol Haney too was said to steal the show when she played Gladys on Broadway and film in the 1950s, Lawrence has reinvented the role: She's not merely the sexy younger girlfriend of factory efficiency expert Hines that Haney was but a comic foil to Hines (Michael McKean), Sid (Connick) and pretty much anyone else who crosses her path—and tries to get that precious key to the boss' ledger from her. And while this new Gladys doesn't dance as much as Fosse protégée Haney did in the role, Lawrence's hijinks at the piano with Connick are a choreographic highlight of the show.

The performance may earn Lawrence a Tony nod. It's already led to meetings with "a bunch of TV people," she says. And, following her rib-tickling turn last summer as Rosario Dawson's maid in Two Gentlemen of Verona (directed, like Pajama Game, by Kathleen Marshall), it has established her as one of the stage's premier comic actresses.

Her scene-stealing is not news to theatergoers in the Washington, D.C., area. At the Signature Theatre in the mid '90s, Lawrence emerged from the ensemble casts of Company (she played Marta) and Into the Woods (Little Red Riding Hood) to score Helen Hayes Award nominations. She won for Into the Woods and was nominated again for her portrayal of Sally Bowles in Signature's Cabaret. She found her way to New York via the Grease national tour, where she played Frenchy, and made her Broadway debut in Les Misérables.

Subsequent roles have included a caricatured Hillary Clinton in Monica! The Musical at the New York Musical Theatre Festival; one of the title characters in O. Henry's Lovers at Goodspeed; the daughter in Over and Over, Kander and Ebb's musicalization of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth (done at Signature); and an occasional appearance as ADA Hughes' ditzy secretary Joyce on the TV soap One Life to Live. Lawrence was in Urinetown off-Broadway but not in its opening-night cast on Broadway because she had just given birth to her first child. But she got her old role, Little Becky Two Shoes, back when she returned from maternity leave and later replaced Spencer Kayden as Little Sally.

Lawrence, 34, grew up in the Baltimore suburbs surrounded by music—her father was a music professor, her mother a grade-school music teacher who also gave piano lessons; her father was the church organist, her mother a soloist in the church choir. Now she's half of a musical couple: Her husband is Kevin Kern, formerly of Altar Boyz and currently a swing in The Wedding Singer. Between Wednesday performances earlier this month, Lawrence chatted with BWW about her showbiz marriage, her road to Gladys and balancing career and motherhood.

How does it feel to hear "Megan Lawrence" and "Tony Award" in the same sentence?
Have you been reading e-mails from my family? It's such a compliment to be thought of like that. There's so much great stuff opening, and so many great performances going on. That would be icing for all of this, 'cause it's been such a good experience already. That would be another fun thing…that my dad can show off.

How did you go about changing the interpretation of Gladys?
I wasn't familiar with Pajama Game before the audition, so I rented the movie and I was like, "Oh, they must have told me the wrong name. They must have meant another character, 'cause I can't play Gladys!" I just did it the way I did it, because that's how my instincts went. I knew that there were too many sexy dancer people who would do it that [Haney's] way and do it right that way, as opposed to me trying to be that way. I went to where I was most comfortable. It worked in this case—doesn't always. That was Kathleen's doing. Because if somebody didn't know me or have the idea that they wanted to work with me, I don't think they would have rewritten that. I know she was trying to put her own spin on it. The "Steam Heat" question—it doesn't really make a lot of sense that Gladys is at a union meeting, so for Kathleen and David Chase, it was very easy to make that decision [for someone else to dance it]. It was convincing [songwriter] Richard Adler that was difficult. I don't know [how they ultimately convinced him], but Kathleen puts up a good fight. And it's so nice having someone fight for you that wins, 'cause a lot of times I have people: "I fought for you on that show, but I lost to blah blah blah…" I don't, in a nice way, ever have to feel compared to Carol Haney because we're approaching it from such different ways.

Was the "Hernando's Hideaway" routine entirely planned by Kathleen Marshall, or did you and Harry Connick help create some of it?
I had worked up some shtick for my audition that made its way into the first verse that I do. Kathleen is really great at letting you do stuff. She always has a basic outline of what she wants it to be. She knew I was going to do some of the stuff on the piano, we were going to go over and have this tête-à-tête at the piano, but what that was going to be wasn't mapped out. You have to see Harry playing the piano—you have to incorporate it somewhere, and that was the perfect place to do it. And then we could do some physical comedy on the piano. Kathleen always wanted me to fall off the piano. In the drunk scene, I was just supposed to pass out on the table, but I wanted to fall out of the booth.

Are you padded to prevent injury from those falls?
I'm not! Just my boobs. I'm not as well-endowed as the Gladys you see on stage. I'm actually wearing a fake butt too. The way the '50s body is… I've always had a tiny butt; they kept looking at me in these outfits and they were like, "You need some rear." So I wear these little pads that make me look proportioned. But I don't land on any of those places, my boobs or my butt, so that doesn't really help much. Once we got onto the set, the booth was on a platform and it was higher than I'd thought, so I was falling [out of it] and for probably the first month of the show, I was getting giant bruises up and down my arm. I was landing very incorrectly. One day I woke up and couldn't move my arm because I had pinched something. So we needed to rework it. It needed choreography. You can't just throw yourself out of something, which is what I was doing. Now it's sort of sliding [from the seat to the floor]. My whole thing is "Is it still funny?" I kept bruising myself because it was funny.

Some Pajama Game reviews have compared you to Lucille Ball, Judy Holliday, Faith Prince... Were they models for your performance?
Not at all. But I remember watching I Love Lucy. So whether you mean to do it, I think she is instinctually in you because you watch so much of her comedy. She's queen of that: getting herself into messes and acting like a crazy person. She always looked great on the show, sort of put-together, but always was in such predicaments. My mother was very funny, so I think I get a lot of that from her too—sort of that zaniness.

Did you watch Laverne & Shirley when you were growing up?
I did.
So, it must be kind of strange to now be playing Michael "Lenny" McKean's girlfriend.
Oh, yeah. I think of him as part of when I was younger, watching him on TV. He doesn't look any different to me now. It's not like all of a sudden I'm older and he looks older. He looks like I've always envisioned him. And—oh, my gosh—he's like the greatest guy. Salt of the earth. He's so funny, so intelligent. And he's the same way from the day you meet him. We did a talkback with the audience, they wanted to know about Laverne & Shirley. He handles it with such grace. Some people don't want to talk about certain things in their life, or they're done talking about them, and he never feels that way. When we come out for our curtain call, we do this move [she bends forward slightly and snaps her fingers] and it's like Laverne & Shirley, and I said to him [laughing], "Is that too close to home?" The guy who played Squiggy, David Lander, came to the show the other day. I didn't realize that these characters were already formed, Lenny and Squiggy [before the sitcom was created]. They had been doing these characters in their comedy troupe and stuff like that.

You've played characters named Little Becky, Little Sally and Little Red Riding Hood, and Eponine, who's usually little. Do you feel like a "type"?
I don't know. My husband has been calling me Tiny for many years. I guess I am a type. Gladys, for me, is definitely more of a woman than I'm used to doing. You do get sort of pigeonholed in the business. I've been doing a lot of comedy recently, and it would be nice to do something really different next, some dramatic work.

You and your husband, Kevin, were both in Les Misérables when you got married in 1999. Did you meet doing that show?
No. I met him doing the worst production of A Chorus Line ever put on a stage. And we actually have it on video to prove that it's the worst. It was in Newport, Kentucky, which is now cleaned up and they have an aquarium. But it was where all the strip clubs were—when you cross the bridge [from Cincinnati] to Kentucky, it was like the scary part of town. The woman who owned this bar let her son, who wanted to put on a show, put on a production of Chorus Line in the basement of this bar. It wasn't a real theater at all, the whole place smelled like beer. There was a sign: "Chorus Line Opens Tonight! Bar Opens 6 A.M." We were all mismatched. I was quite fat and I was playing that sexpot, Val. There were maybe two people who should have been in that show [including Andy Blankenbuehler, now a choreographer and veteran Broadway dancer]; none of the rest of us could dance.
But Kevin and I spent the whole summer together and became very good friends. He grew up in Kentucky, and I was going to the Cincinnati Conservatory and it was my summer off, so Kevin and I have known each other since he was 15 1/2 and I was 18. Then he went to NYU and my dad had moved to New York, and we'd hang out whenever I came up.

Your romance didn't bloom until several years later?
He got tickets to see me in Les Miz, and, like, two days before he was going to see it, he had an audition and got cast in the show. So then we started spending every second together at work. My friends in the show kept saying, "You should see the way he looks at you." I was like, "Kevin? That's crazy." I had known him forever but I never thought about it that way, you know what I mean? But I think it's a good way to do it. We had a giant wedding. We got married on a Monday, so everyone [in the Les Miz company] could come. It was such a neat event to have everyone there. We got married in Brooklyn, at the botanical gardens. All my relatives said it was so much fun, because watching theater people was like entertainment.

How did you come up with your kids' names: Gus, Sunny Jo and Magnolia?
It's like a little Grateful Dead tribe. Gus is actually August, which was Kevin's great-great-great-grandfather's name. Sunny Jo—Sunshine Josephine is her name. The name we had sort of picked out, we didn't love. [During labor] she never flipped back over, and when she came out the doctor said, "She's sunny-side up." She was born early in the morning, and I was in a room with a big window and I remember while I was in labor, the sun was coming up and it was beaming into my eyes. Jokingly our doctor said, "You should call her Sunny." And we were looking at her, and it sort of fit her. Magnolia Violet—Violet was Kevin's grandmother's name. She's just her own little girl, very feminine. Her name also fits her well.

How do you manage with three little children and a job that requires a lot of energy?
I'm exhausted. I'm exhausted when the week starts because having three kids all day and all night, there's no resting. When you have a day off, you're still up at 7 and you're dealing with them all day. And when they're sick or up at night, you're not getting a full night's sleep. Vocally it's really hard. There's no downtime to stop talking. It can be hard trying to find babysitting if you have, like, a last-minute audition. And it's expensive. My check completely goes to babysitting.
What's hard now is that we're not on the same schedule. Kevin's rehearsing all day because they're in previews, and he has off on Sundays. I have two shows on Sundays. Once they open, we both have off on Mondays. We'll get to spend more time together and actually accomplish things. When you're both home, you can tag-team: One takes a nap, the other one deals with the kids. He was in Seattle with Wedding Singer while we were teching Pajama Game, for six weeks. Which will never happen again.
It's just the challenge of having kids, because it's not about you but you still have to walk into an audition and compete when every girl sitting next to you has had a full night's sleep and maybe had time to coach. I was [recently] trying to read scenes with Kevin for an audition and the kids were screaming and grabbing the papers. There's always something like that: the challenges to be the best that you can be when you walk into an audition—or when you do a show. I still have to, somehow, at 10 o'clock at night do "Hernando's" when I feel like I'm going to fall over because I've been up all day. If I was home with the kids, I'd be in bed by then.
But it grounds me, because it's very easy to get lost in this world of show business—get wrapped up in it or get upset or let it bother you. I come home and if I've had a bad audition, there's no time for sulking. It's about them. They can take your mind off it whether you want to or not.

Why did you drop out of the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music after a year?
I was really miserable there. The conservatory program fits some people and some, not. I wanted to take other classes. There's no time in the curriculum for it. I don't do well being drowned in one thing; I do better when I have my hands all over places. I would have done better at a school that allowed me to study musical theater but also allowed me to explore other parts of my head.

What did you do after leaving school?
I was so burnt out on theater. I was tired of singing and dancing. All this stuff that I used to enjoy doing for fun, I hated. I came back to Maryland. My dad worked at Towson State, and I went there for a little while and I worked in a coffee shop and completely shut myself off from theater. I was taking classes, I was still studying voice, but I was just so bad [about attending classes]. I stopped going. I didn't want to be in school at the moment. Both my parents were teachers, my dad has a Ph.D., so they did not want me to not be in school. We were at odds because I wanted to take a break to figure out what I wanted to do. After my mom passed, I was cleaning out her drawers and she had one of those books about things you learn in your life. There was a page that was dog-eared—we'd never talked about it—and it said: "I've learned that you never can tell your kids what you want them to be."

What eventually drew you back to performing?
I started doing a lot of children's theater at a place [Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia, Md.] that also did real theater at night. I filled in for someone doing Music Man, and next thing I know I was doing shows there. It just snowballed and I was performing all the time. That's how I got my Signature audition for Company. I still felt the whole time I was doing all this that I was still finding myself, like I was still in that place of "What do I really want to do?"
Working at the Signature opened doors to have me here. Stuart Howard, who does a lot of casting—his best friend had seen Cabaret and said, "You have to go meet my friend Stuart." And then Stuart got me an audition for Grease. And all of a sudden I was on the Grease tour, and then I'm in New York doing Les Miz. I never really meant to move here and be an actress on Broadway—it just sort of happened. I never planned on making this my life. I never had a plan. I never really imagined coming up here.

Unfortunately, you lost your mother just as your career was taking off.
She passed away right after I did Company and we were rehearsing Into the Woods. I remember the "No One Is Alone" song: [sings] "Mother cannot guide you…" Doing Into the Woods, for me, was really cathartic because it had so much to do with that. And I won a Helen Hayes Award for it. It just so happens my whole family was in town that weekend for a cousin's wedding, so every single person in my family came to the Helen Hayes Awards. Just on a fluke, like "We're already in town for the wedding." So those are moments when I know my mom is going [motions with her hands like she's arranging things], "Okay, I'm going to make sure everyone's here…" You know, moving stuff around and making sure everything's in place.

You recently moved from Manhattan out to the 'burbs, right?
We were in a very tiny apartment and we keep making babies. The last one pushed us—we had to get out. We just moved out to Maplewood, New Jersey. I'm out there with Michelle Pawk and Norbert Butz, and Christine Ebersole lives down the street. It doesn't feel like you're in a typical suburb, like where I grew up. The town is artsy, and it has sort of that New York feel.

Do you and Kevin drive to and from the city together?
When we can, and it's so nice because we have a half hour that we get to spend together, which with kids is impossible because you get to the house and life takes over. It's been so great to be like, "Hey, what's going on in your life?" "Oh, I know you. I like you, I like hanging out with you. I'd just forgotten because I don't ever spend time with you where it's not like an insane asylum."

And you've come up with a "ritual" when you commute by train too.
I love a cold beer. I treat myself to one every night. It's like my reward for getting through the day. Everybody drinks on the train. I didn't realize that was a thing on New Jersey Transit: Everybody gets a paper bag and you drink your beer. That's why when you go down to Penn Station, they have all those beers [for sale near the platforms]. You get a beer for a dollar, a soft pretzel, it's your unwinding time.

Is a sitcom in your future?
To do something on TV would be great because then I could get my kids to college and be able to do theater without having to worry about how I'm going to make ends meet. But theater is what I know; this is my world.

Photos of Megan, from top: outside the American Airlines Theatre, where The Pajama Game is playing; she and Connick (center) lead everyone to "Hernando's Hideaway"; with McKean as Hines and Gladys; with hubby Kevin Kern, also a Broadway performer; as Marta in Signature Theatre's 1993 production of Company; her award-winning performance in Into the Woods at Signature in 1994. [Photos by Adrienne Onofri; Joan Marcus (2); Linda Lenzi; Michael DeBlois; Jeff Franko]

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From This Author Adrienne Onofri

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