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STEPHEN SONDHEIM
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This is Our Beloved: Sharing Laughs with Marin Mazzie

A visitor walking into the Avatar recording studio in New York City last May was greeted with the most stirring rendition of Stephen Sondheim's "Too Many Mornings". The voices of Marin Mazzie and her husband, Jason Danieley, were so exceptionally suited to the music that a new dimension was added to the material. Everyone in the control booth became rapt as the two singers made the musical theater chestnut sound as though it had been written only yesterday. What's more, there was an immediacy to their rendition that many other versions lacked. In a word, it was spellbinding. Yet the magic didn't end there, for the duo continued their way through a Sondheim medley where each tune seemed to top the other. This was to be one of the final tracks for a CD entitled "Opposite You", which would be released later in the year. Lyricist Lynn Ahrens was present and when the album was finished, she remarked that the recording was "glorious". Listening to the completed recording proved Ms Ahrens to be absolutely correct. "Opposite You" is truly glorious and a must-have for lovers of theater music.

What was so impressive during the session was the professionalism of Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley. They exhibited enormous patience as various segments had to be re-recorded or technical reasons and were overheard helping each other with phrasing and tempo. At the end of the session they seemed to be as fresh and as alert as they might have been when the recording began that morning. Ms Mazzie, in particular appeared to be filled with enough energy to record another complete disc; although she claimed to feel otherwise.

An abundance of energy seems to be a requisite for one of Broadway's most sought-after leading ladies. There have been personal appearances to promote the recording, a recurring role in TV's "Still Standing", and concerts around the country--to say nothing of a one night appearance in the concert version of ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, in which she gave an acclaimed performance as Lily Garland. The past few months have been extremely hectic for this critically acclaimed actress.

Before beginning rehearsals for The City Center's Encores! Production of KISMET, Ms Mazzie took the time for a lengthy telephone chat. It turned out to be a comfortable colloquy which covered a variety of topics ranging from Stephen Sondheim to Brian Stokes Mitchell, to Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops. Throughout the talk, Ms Mazzie punctuated her comments with hearty laughter that made her an endearing conversationalist.

Born in Rockford, Illinois, Marin Mazzie attended high school with Joe Mantello, Jody Benson and Robert Greenblatt--the current president of Showtime. Her parents played a variety of music in their home and were great fans of musical theater. The home was filled with the sound of show tunes and original cast recordings. "I sort of gravitated to it. Our little town has a lot of theater in it. I was listening to the albums and wanted to act. I joined this little theater group at the "Y" when I was about 8 and sang in church choirs. I started taking voice lessons when I was 12 and did high school shows as well as summertime productions and community theater--all that whole shebang. From there is was college, summer stock and the move to New York; all that sort of thing."

One of Ms Mazzie's greatest recollections of theater in Rockford was seeing a touring production of CAROUSEL starring Broadway legend John Raitt when she was about 8 years old. "In the middle of the second act our entire town blacked-out. We had a complete loss of electricity and people ran down the aisles with flashlights. They finished the show with flashlights. At the end John Raitt came out and said that the whole town was blacked out and they didn't want people to go anywhere. He then sang for about 45 minutes and I can remember thinking, 'This is so unique and that's what you love about live theater because it's never the same every night.' That's what's so amazing about theater, it lives every night and then it's gone."

Exactly how did she meet her husband? She laughs when she says, "I moved to New York in 1982 and I met Jason in 1996, so I had a lot of life 'B.D.' [Before Danieley]" The couple met while performing with the now-defunct theater company known as En Garde Arts that was run by a woman named Annie Hamburger. "It was a very interesting company because it was 'site specific' and so every production had a different site around the city. We met doing an adaptation of THE TROJAN WOMEN: A LOVE STORY. The first act was "The Trojan Woman" and the second act was "Dido And Aeneas ". Tina Landau directed it and that's where we met. I had a crush on Jason the whole time. In the first act I was playing Helen of Troy and he was Aeneas and his was the only character that carried through to the second act.. There was a woman who was playing Dido and she was actually let go in previews, so I wound up replacing her and I had to learn the part in one day. It was during that rehearsal that I had to kiss Jason and I really did it. He 'popped up' and couldn't remember his lines." There's another hearty laugh before she continues, "Yeah, we fell in love really fast! We both kind of knew it was the right thing. That was almost ten years ago."

The first part that Ms Mazzie ever originated was in the Broadway production of PASSION. "Being a Stephen Sondheim show, a lot of dreams came true," recollected the actress. "I loved that show. There's so much that's appealing about Sondheim. He writes so amazingly for character. As an actor singing one of his songs, you have so much depth. His lyrics are very specific and in that sense, I feel they are very universal. That's what makes his stuff very powerful. As an actor, that's the kind of stuff you want to sink into. Also, the characters he writes are very fascinating. They have a lot of depth and there are a lot of places to go with them. Plus, there's the pure fact that it's some of the most beautiful music ever written. Also, his music and lyrics mesh to create the kind of material I really want to sink my teeth into as a performer. His material speaks from the character and even if you're just singing it as a song, you can always put a story behind it, which I think is great."

As impressive as her experience in PASSION was, Ms Mazzie is quick to recall an episode on stage that still burns in her memory. "Jere Shea has a bad back and used lots of Ben Gay. At one performance he didn't get it off his hands and it got to some other places on his body that I sat on. I was completely naked . Without being crass, I was on fire! I loved doing PASSION. That anecdote isn't very representative but it was one of those crazy things that happen."

The actress won critical aclaim in 1998 for her performance in the musical RAGTIME. What was the creative process like for that show? "RAGTIME, as any new musical, developed over a number of years--both in workshops and productions." When the discussion turned toward the musicals stunning opening number Msd Mazzie explained, "I think the idea for the opening number came to Terrence McNally, Producer Garth Drabinsky brought together the creative team of Lynn Ahrens and Steve Flaherty, who wrote the score, then Graciela Daniele and Frank Galati, who staged it, was the source material of Doctorow's book. It had three correlating stories and it needed to be seen right at the beginning; the audience had to know these characters and what was so brilliant is what the creative team came up with. I think it's one of the most brilliant opening numbers if not THE most ever staged. It immediately brings you into that world and where you're going. You've met the people so now the story can just start. I was very proud to be a part of that whole process." It may have been Drabinsky's finest moment as a producer. Ms Mazzie did the workshop for RAGTIME and then played in it for a year in Toronto, as well as playing in the Broadway production for a year. "It was a very long association with a role," she added with a chuckle. Getting serious she commented, "I think RAGTIME is the greatest musical of the last twenty years."

"That show created a lot of wonderful friendships in my life and I feel very lucky to have that," added the actress. Not the least among these friends are the composing team of Lynn Ahrens and Steve Flaherty, who wrote the title song for Mazzie's and Danieley's album.

After discussing a sublime work of art like RAGTIME, the conversation veered toward the raunchy aspects of playing Aldonza in the most recent revival of MAN OF LA MANCHA. It wasn't a role that Ms Mazzie played for very long. "I replaced Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, so I kind of just did the summer. It was great fun. I had never played that role; I certainly had known that show because it was one of the recording my parents had that I listened to a lot when I was a kid. To really dig into that woman was really great. It would have been good to have had the rehearsal process but it was fun to be thrown into something almost literally and I hadn?t done that in a long time. It was definitely a challenge."

Speaking of the physicality of Aldonza/Dulcinea, Ms Mazzie wasn't phased. "I'm a sturdy girl," she remarked with another great laugh. "I understand the body and how it works and we had great guys playing the muleteers. They were all very capable and were strong physically and wonderful dancers. They truly understood how to throw around a woman-- that's what they do! That's just one aspect of a dancer's career. I felt very secure with all that. That made the job much easier."

Aldonza wasn't the only character which saw Marin Mazzie getting tossed around and abused. She also created the role of Lili Vanessi in the 2000 revival of Cole Porter's KISS ME, KATE. In that show she played opposite Brian Stokes Mitchell and at one point she was hoisted on his shoulder. "Oh yeah, I was hoisted, I was thrown over his knee, I was spanked, I had a fight with him with lots of kicking and screaming; all the while hauling around those big dresses. It's fun, though," she exclaimed. "It's great doing something like that. I love doing physical work and comedy it was all great fun."

Ms Mazzie repeated her role in the London production of KISS ME, KATE in 2001 and found an enormous difference in the British audiences as opposed to their American counterparts. "It's a sterotype, but it's true and they're the first to admit it: They're quiet. They're not really demonstrative. They don't laugh that much, yet they're very appreciative at the end. Still, they're very reserved while they're watching the show. It's just how they are."

Backstage, there were many rules and regulations for British performers that differed greatly from what actors performing on Broadway are used to. "They're not as unionized as we are and I think, actually, that it's a problem. The ensemble members are paid very little and many of them don't even belong to British Equity because it doesn't really do much for them. A lot of them have other jobs and that's something that we Americans are protected from. American Equity assures that even the ensemble makes enough money so they can live off it. They make a living. In England the ensemble does not. In London, every theater has its own crew--and these crews aren't unionized. That means that each house pays differently. Frankly, it's not the same high standards that we have here in the States." This is not to say that Ms Mazzie didn't enjoy her experience on the London stage. "I met many wonderful people and enjoyed living in London. It was a weird time to be there, though, because the second day of rehearsal was 9/11. It started the whole thing off in a devastating manner. The British, though, were extremely supportive of us. I will always remember that and appreciate it completely."

In 2004, Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley starred in Los Angeles productions of BRIGADOON and a Pasadena production of 110 IN THE SHADE. "Jason and I had done a lot of concerts together, but we hadn't done a show-show since we met, so we got these two opportunities to do these two shows back-to-back, so we jumped on it. It was really fun." When it was suggested that a woman of Ms Mazzie's attractiveness was too pretty to play Lizzie, the actress replied, "You're an actor. Lizzie isn't necessarily an ugly woman. She FEELS unattractive and that's the most important thing. It's not as though she's this homely, horrifying witch-looking kind of a person. She's a woman who doesn't have confidence and that aspect of herself has never had the chance to blossom in he heart. It's more of an attitude than any other sort of physical thing" and there was no laughter in her voice when she said that,indicating the seriousness of her viewpoint.

"We wish we could have recorded 110 IN THE SHADE. They tried to do it and it became a money issue. As a result, it didn't happen. It's always about the money." While the conversation focused on recordings, an inquiry was made about the sales of "Opposite You". "I think they're going very well," she enthusiastically responded. "Jonathan Schwartz has been playing us every week; even before the CD was released, so I think it's going well. We're really happy. There will definitely be another such recording coming out, whether it's together of sperately."

Both Ms Mazzie and her husband have done considerable work with the Boston Pops Orchestra. "It's wonderful! I mean any time you get to stand on stage with a huge orchestra playing behind you--especially one that is really, really good is a great experience! Keith Lockhart is great fun to work with. He LOVES musical theater and knows more about it than anyone I know. He's a musical theater geek, and he would admit that. When he gets to work with us or any other people in musical theater--which he does, very often--it's really great. The Boston Pops has always been a great orchestra, but every conductor brings their own thing to an orchestra as well as a personality. Keith really energizes them in a great way."

All of this brings the talk around to Marin Mazzie's latest project: the concert version of KISMET.

"I think it's going to be a lot of fun," she laughed. "It's a very fun show with an absolutely beautiful score." Once again, Ms Mazzie finds herself playing opposite Brian Stokes Mitchell, who was also with her in RAGTIME, KISS ME, KATE and MAN OF LA MANCHA. What causes the special chemistry between these two performers? "Well, we laugh a lot. That's one of the big appeals. We have a fun time together and that sort of lends itself to a good chemistry. What's appealing about working with someone you know well is that you short-hand--especially when you're doing something this quickly. You know how each other works and you don't have to 'get comfortable' with them. It's great to have a working relationship with another actor. He's going to be great in this part and he's going to sing it beautifully." Besides Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie, this production of Kismet will feature Danny Gurwin as Caliph, Tom Aldredge as Jawan, Randall Duk Kim as Omar, Danny Rutigliano as Wazir and Marcy Harriell as Marsinah. This concert version of the show will be directed by Lonnie Price. Paul Gemignani will conduct. "It's going to be fun! That's my big expectation!" comments the actress. Adding to the fun of this production will be the inclusion of the song "Bored" which was written for the M-G-M film version of the show. As in the film, it will be performed by Lalume, the character Ms Mazzie plays.

Lovers of musical theater are aware that the first few words that the character of Lalume sings are, "Bagdhad! Don't underestimate Bagdhad!" How does Ms Mazzie anticipate the audiences reaction to such a lyric in 2006? "It's a fantastical, magical show. It could be anywhere; of course it just happens to be Bagdhad. I look at it and I don't see how anyone could be offended by this. We're talking about 1071 A.D. and it's a whole other world and life. It's very fantasy and fun. Lord knows that headlines every day are horrifying from there, so I hope that the reference doesn't get anyone upset."

After KISMET, Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley will appear at Feinstein's in New York City on May 1st and May 15th. On March 8th and 9th, they will be at the Carpenters Center in Long Beach (CA) and Ms Mazzie will continue appearing in TV?s "Still Standing". Jason Danieley is also working on a solo concert, but more details on that will be forthcoming.

When asked if there's a role that she's like to play in the future, Ms Mazzie quipped, "Yeah, one that hasn't been written yet!" and followed this with a laugh that was pretty much a guffaw. This is a lady who obviously enjoys her life and the career she has built for herself. However, her inestimable talents as a singer and actress are no laughing matter. To borrow a line from one of her husband's shows, Marin Mazzie "has got the goods!"

KISMET will be presented at the New York City Center on February 9, 10 and 11 at 8 PM. There's a matinee on February 11 at 2 PM and a performance at 6:30 on February 12. A talk-back follows the February 11th matinee. Tickets may be purchased at: http://www.citycenter.org

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