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Q&A with Musical Leading Lady Donna English

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Donna English has been a familiar presence on regional and off-Broadway stages for nearly 25 years, and this summer she's back on the stage where it all began. In the Goodspeed revival of Half a Sixpence (through Sept. 19), English has the supporting role of haughty Mrs. Walsingham, mother of Kipps' upper-crust fiancee. It's a homecoming for English, who made her professional acting debut at Goodspeed fresh out of Northwestern University in the summer of 1984, starring as a young golf champ in Follow Thru.

Goodspeed audiences also know her as a more mature leading lady: She's starred as Lily Garland in On the Twentieth Century (1999); Claire, the anthropologist, in On the Town (1993); and Eileen Evergreen in They All Laughed (a 2001 revamp of the Gershwins' Oh, Kay!) at the East Haddam, Conn., theater. English has also appeared at the Norma Terris Theatre in nearby Chester, where Goodspeed develops new musicals, in Princesses and The Gig.

Another regional theater where English has become an audience favorite is Paper Mill Playhouse. She portrayed Mrs. Chasen, Harold's mother, in the Harold and Maude musical there in 2005, then returned last fall as Mrs. Smith in Meet Me in St. Louis. She's also been seen there as Elsa in The Sound of Music. And beginning Nov. 5, she'll be back at Paper Mill, playing the drama teacher in High School Musical. The Millburn, N.J., theater has become a favorite for English since she lives in New Jersey, with her young daughter, Lila, and husband of 18 years, Jonathan Bolt, a playwright, former actor and now company director for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

In New York, English received a 1993 Drama Desk nomination for her performance in the off-Broadway musical Ruthless! and later costarred in several editions of Forbidden Broadway. She played April in York Theatre's 1987 revival of Company and was one in the cast of four of York's 2000 John Latouche revue Taking a Chance on Love. Her sole Broadway credit is Broadway, the 1987 revival--which lasted only four performances--of a 1926 musical by George Abbott (who directed the revival when he was 100 years old).

When I interviewEd English at Goodspeed, it was another sort of homecoming, as we were students at Northwestern around the same time. We'd never met before, but I surprisEd English by telling her I remembered her in Northwestern Productions of Pippin and The Importance of Being Earnest (I was away on a newspaper internship when she played Maria in West Side Story).

Is it true that playwright Alfred Uhry originally brought you to Goodspeed 24 years ago?
Yeah. Alfred Uhry, Bob Waldman--who he wrote Robber Bridegroom with--and John Weidman had written a show called America's Sweetheart, about Al Capone, and Gerry Freedman was directing it. Gerry had gone to Northwestern, so that's how they ended up coming to workshop it at Northwestern the last quarter of my senior year. I got cast in it, so I got to know Alfred and we hit it off really well. At the time he said, "Oh, it's too bad you're graduating late in June, because I'm helping to rewrite this show for Goodspeed"--it was this old Henderson/Brown/DeSylva show called Follow Thru, and he was reworking the book--"and you'd be really right for the ingénue." I was like, "Yeah, that's too bad," didn't think anymore about it. Then, [while] I was in Senior Week--I had finished my coursework, but I hadn't graduated yet--I'd been out partying (not that I was a big party girl but, you know, your senior year!) and Sunday morning I get this call from Alfred in Connecticut. They were, like, two weeks into rehearsals, and he said, "Donna, can you get on a plane and come to New York and audition tomorrow? We're going to fire the ingénue."
So I went to my parents and they said okay and flew me to New York, which I'm sure must have cost a fortune, and I arrived and put on my "ingénue outfit"--all white from head to toe. I looked like a nurse. And I went down to casting director Warren Pincus' apartment in the Village and sat in his kitchen and waited to go into an audition. That was not where they normally held auditions, but this was for a last-minute replacement. Alfred was in there, and the director, and I auditioned and they said, "Can you go wait on the stoop?" So I went down and sat in my all-white outfit on the stoop, waiting to hear. Everyone else was released, and they came down to tell me to come upstairs: "Will you come do this part at Goodspeed?" So I literally went from the plane to the audition, then got in a cab, went back on a plane to Northwestern and packed up all my stuff and flew here the next day and started rehearsals. It was my first professional show, and I was doing the lead. I got my Equity card, and Alfred was very kind, and later I went on to do the professional production of America's Sweetheart at Hartford Stage, and then at Coconut Grove.

But you weren't able to attend your college graduation.
I didn't; I missed it all. They did a lovely thing between shows on the day of my graduation. They gave me a little graduation cap and a cake and presented me with a scroll saying that I had survived my trial by fire, congratulations. Out of that experience at Goodspeed, I got my agent. I hadn't even moved to New York. So I kind of skipped over doing ensemble work, which is how most people begin. I had an agent and a great credit on my résumé, and I moved to New York thinking this is how it's all going to be!

You have worked quite regularly throughout your career. What's been your longest period of unemployment?
Maybe six months. There was a time when I was doing regional theater that I always had stuff lined up--I'd come home for a month and then go right back out. But now I'm a mom and I don't do as much regional theater.

So, let's hear about Lila.
She's 6 this month, and she has been bitten by the theater bug--but backstage. I do not want her to perform as a child. This production has been the first time she's been able to come backstage with me. I'm up here by myself with her Monday through Friday, and then my husband comes up on the weekends. So she's got to come and hang out in the green room during the matinees. The show is on a big-screen monitor down in the green room--it's a live feed--and John Riccucci, the wardrobe master, gives her cookies all afternoon. So, in her mind, she's like: I get to watch TV and eat cookies, what could be better?! In my dressing room, there's a little cubby where they hang the clothes, and she gets in there, under my skirts, with her Barbies and plays. She hasn't actually seen the show from the front of the house yet, but she knows it all. We play Name That Tune in the car, and she sings all Half a Sixpence songs to me. She saw Meet Me in St. Louis only twice, and for six months after that show closed we had to play Meet Me in St. Louis with her My Little Ponys every day. We did the whole show, all the characters and songs. I always had to play Katie the maid, the mother and the father, and she got to play all the kids.

Why haven't we seen you more on Broadway?
That's a good question! I don't really know. I have had opportunities to understudy on Broadway and I chose not to do that because I was doing leading roles in regional theater, and really the roles were what I wanted to do. Now I'm settling down more, and I've been very fortunate to work off-Broadway some. I've been involved with The Breakup Notebook: The Lesbian Musical, which was at the NAMT festival last fall, and we're hopeful that it will have a production. It's funny and heartwarming and a terrific pop/rock score.
I do audition for Broadway, but who knows? That used to be, like, your stamp of approval. And I look at the people I have worked with during the course of my career, and the directors I have worked with, and I feel there is fabulous work everywhere. You make more money on Broadway, but I don't really think that it's necessarily true that the caliber of acting work, even of directing work, is necessarily better on Broadway. So I feel really, really fortunate to have the career I've had and to do the roles I've done. And I've gotten to develop a lot of roles.
I've done a ton of shows where, "Oh, this is going to transfer. This is going to Broadway." I can't tell you how many times I've heard that! After a while, you just go: I'm not going to do it because it will transfer. I'm going to do it because I like the piece, and the role, and I enjoy the people I'm working with. You know that "Where's the beef?" lady from the Wendy's commercial? Who knows? Maybe when I'm 80, I'll get that big Broadway role! 

Did you work with Britney Spears in Ruthless!?
I did! My memory is that she never went on. Laura Bell Bundy was the little girl--she was amazing at 10, natural comic timing. And I believe Britney Spears was her first understudy. She had a big voice, I remember that. I might have rehearsed with her once or something. Natalie Portman was the second understudy, and she was lovely--just beautiful, smart, an interesting, inquisitive child. I don't think I ever heard her sing, because she never went on either. Laura didn't miss. It was funny, because I didn't know Britney Spears had become a pop star. When she became big, I was totally out of touch with pop culture--still am, pretty much. She had appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone and her face was plastered all over the place, and I'm oblivious. I get this phone call out of the blue from this woman, and she goes: "I understand you worked with Britney Spears." I was thinking 10-year-old Britney Spears. And she said, "I'm writing a book about her, and I was wondering if I might interview you." I went, "Why are you writing a book about Britney Spears?" I had no clue! And she's like, "Well, she's kind of become famous." "Really? Oh!" And I had to make up something: "Yeah, I remember her..." I kind of remember what she looked like, I remember she had a big voice. The whole run of the show was 10 months, and we had three different understudies for Laura during that time. She was an understudy for maybe three months. But I've noticed they talk about that in magazines: "She did Ruthless! off-Broadway." I'm like, "That's interesting...because I don't remember her ever actually doing it." I may be wrong. Maybe she did; maybe I was on vacation.

Do any of the new musicals you've done hold an extra special place in your heart?
Ruthless! was a fabulous role, at a great time in my career. I got involved in the show when there was really only the first-act character--Judy Denmark, this kind of ditzy housewife. And then they wrote the second act [where Judy becomes famous as stage diva Ginger Del Marco], never having really seen me do this kind of character. I had only played ingénues to that point. And they wrote this second act, and [the author] Joel Paley said, "I think you can do this. Go watch some Bette Davis movies!" And I discovered this whole other strength in myself as an actress. So that was a really pivotal role for me in my career because it helped me understand that I had a wider range than I thought I did. That was the great thing about that role: It went from [gesturing] here to...here. It had quite an arc.
But recently, I'd say Princesses--David Zippel's piece that he wrote with Bill and Cheri Steinkellner--which developed here at Chester [and was later produced by Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre]. We have high hopes that it will be produced again. It was sort of a similar thing to Ruthless!, where I was the meek music teacher at the boarding school in the first half and then I want them to do a musical production of A Little Princess and I end up having to take over the role of Miss Minchin and I discover my inner meanie. It's a really fun show. Brent Barrett ended up doing it with me out in Seattle. And Sierra Boggess was in that, who's now the Little Mermaid. There was a trio that were more featured, best friends with Jenny Fellner, who was playing the lead. Sierra was one of those girls. She had this amazing voice, and she was the sweetest thing. And Mary Faber was in it--she's been in Avenue Q. It was fun to see all "my girls" who went on. That was the first show where I became aware of my getting the status of the veteran. You get to a certain age and suddenly you turn around and you're like, "Wait, I'm the oldest person in this cast. How did that happen?!" I take it as a bit of a responsibility. I realized that those girls were looking to me. It was maybe their first or second professional show, and they were looking up to somebody who's been in the business for a while. 

Have you been getting cast as mothers a lot recently?
I have! In the last five years, I'm suddenly playing mothers. I have grown children--it's shocking! I'm like: Wait a minute! I have a 5-year-old, I can't be the mother of grown children. But actually, technically I could be. In Meet Me in St. Louis--the mother of five! And I play a mother in The Lesbian Musical.

Do you prefer playing the nice mothers, like Meet Me in St. Louis', or the mean ones, as in Half a Sixpence?
They're both fun, but I do enjoy the meanies. Harold and Maude, of course, that was a very mean mother--self-involved. Somehow I end up playing these self-involved rich ladies. People are always shocked when they find out that I'm from Oklahoma.

Was there a phase in your career between ingénue and mother?
Oh, sure. I was doing leading lady stuff--roles I can still do. I did Anna in The King of I, at Music Theatre of Wichita and also at Casa Mañana down in Texas. And Charlotte in A Little Night Music at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. And Victor/Victoria at North Shore. Which I had made fun of--I had sung parody lyrics to those songs in Forbidden Broadway. It was hard for me learning it, 'cause there were just like two weeks of rehearsal and I had to get that other stuff out of my head.

Did you do impressions before you joined Forbidden Broadway?
No. I turned down the audition when they called me initially. I was like, "I don't do impersonations. That's not my thing." And then Phil George, who directs it--he knew me 'cause we had done a show together at Paper Mill--called my agent and he said, "Please tell her to just come in." And I came in and they said, "Do you do a Julie Andrews impersonation?" She was my idol growing up. Once I got the job, people were: "Oh, you used to do her all the time backstage." I didn't remember that. I used to go around, like just joking, talking like her. And then I found out I had a knack for it. I think if you're really musical, maybe, it helps, because you're attuned to the timbre of voice and all that. [The New York Times said her Julie Andrews impression was "in perfect near-perfect pitch."] I've done it like three times--three different versions: Forbidden Broadway Strikes Back!, the 20th anniversary version, and then I took over in the Special Victims Unit one. I did Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard; at one point I did Madonna--"Stand back, Buenos Aires!" with the cone bra; I did the Show Boat thing; and Daphne Rubin-Vega in Rent. That show was so much fun because I got to sing all this stuff I would never be cast in. In the 20th anniversary version, I did Bernadette Peters when she was doing Gypsy, and I got to sing "Rose's Turn." When will I ever in my life get to sing "Rose's Turn"? Or Rent! That was the most fun about it--to pretend I was, like, a rock star in Rent.

Which former Northwestern classmates have you worked with professionally?
Joe Thalken and I are really close friends from college. I think the only show of Joe's I've done is Harold and Maude, and I did all the readings of it before Paper Mill. I've done readings with Steve Routman, who I met the first day [of school]. Mark Hoebee, who runs Paper Mill, has directed me in Meet Me in St. Louis and Harold and Maude. He was ahead of me [in school] by a couple of years. And I got to do Meet Me in St. Louis with Gregg Edelman. I'd met him doing benefits and stuff, but I'd never worked with him on a show. We just missed each other [at NU]--there was a four-year gap, so he was gone before I got there, but I of course heard about him.

What's your story pre-Northwestern?
I'm a preacher's daughter from Oklahoma. He was a liberal, civil rights activist kind of preacher. I always say that, because you think Bible Belt, but we were not with the fundamentalist crowd. I grew up in Oklahoma City, living briefly in Antlers, Oklahoma. Which isn't quite as good as K.T. Sullivan, who's from Boggy Depot, Oklahoma!
I started out as a voice major, and after my freshman year I switched. By the end of the year I just wanted to be in the theater department, taking acting classes. I didn't feel like the opera people were "my people"; the theater people were my people. In opera it's all about the voice. The repertoire didn't excite me, opera history...it just wasn't my thing. I had a good soprano voice and had studied opera in high school, so I kind of thought that's what I wanted to do. But there's so much more freedom in performance in theater. You're very constrained in opera.
My aunt by marriage was a coloratura soprano and had studied at Oklahoma City University. She had not really performed ever--she got married--but she was a well-known opera teacher. I was begging to take lessons with her, and she made me wait until I was 13. From the time I was 13 to 18, I studied voice with her--the coloratura repertoire. So I had a lot of the technique. And once I switched from opera to theater at Northwestern, I stayed with the opera teachers, the voice teachers.

Photos of Donna, from top: as prospective mother-in-law Mrs. Walsingham in Half a Sixpence; on right, in her Goodspeed and professional debut in Follow Thru, with Nikki Sahagen; inside the historic Goodspeed Opera House earlier this month; with Brent Barrett in Princesses; spoofing Rent in Forbidden Broadway Strikes Back!, with Tim Plotkin; with fellow Northwestern alum Gregg Edelman, as husband and wife, in Paper Mill's Meet Me in St. Louis. [Photo credits: Diane Sobolewski; Wilson H. Brownell; Adrienne Onofri; Chris Bennion; Carol Rosegg; Paper Mill Playhouse].


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