BWW Interview: Haley Swindal And Will Nunziata of SING HAPPY: THE SONGS OF LIZA MINNELLI at 54 Below
Every performing artist has favorites - a favorite actor, favorite singer, favorite diva, favorite music theater songwriting team. Haley Swindal's favorites all converge at the same intersection in her heart because she has long been devoted to Liza Minnelli, and the composers whose work speaks to her the strongest are Kander & Ebb. The question was never whether Haley Swindal would do an evening of Liza Minnelli music, but, rather, what was she waiting for?
She was waiting for Will Nunziata.
During the long tenure of their friendship, Swindal and Nunziata discovered strong shared artistic proclivities. Chats about their tastes and sensibilities included frequent wishes for work they could do together. Those talks led to the creation of Sing Happy: The Songs of Liza Minnelli, a one-woman concert created and directed by Nunziata and performed by Swindal. The show debuted at Feinstein's/54 Below in July to a sold-out house and a response of such enormity that an encore performance was, clearly, a necessity. Nunziata, a director with a gift for guiding women, and Swindal, an actor filled with fire and ferocity, are the perfect pair to bring to life a theatrical event dedicated to the artistry and the artist hailed by all as an original, the Lady, the Legend that is Liza.
You know, with a Z.
Before Sing Happy has its' encore at 54 Below on September 17th, I caught up with Haley and Will in different phone conversations.
This interview has been edited for space and content.
Hi Haley Swindal. You know that six degrees of separation thing?
I have one degree of separation from you.
How?! Tell me!!
My best girlfriend from college performed your wedding ceremony.
Marci Reid!! Oh my god, I love Marci! We did Cabaret together when I was right out of school. She's so good, I love her.
Marci actually performed one of my weddings.
Oh my gosh!
She's a good wedding officiant.
She was great. She was absolutely great.
Haley, was there any show music played or sung at your wedding?
OOH! Show music played at my wedding... YES! In fact, Come to My Garden was played as the flower girls came down the aisle because my husband was one of the creative producers on The Secret Garden, and when I was pregnant I was in Secret Garden at Lincoln Center. Also, my daughter is named Lily George - Lily because of Secret Garden and George because of my Grandfather. I danced with my father to Sunrise Sunset, which was very emotional - I've seen (the Yiddish) Fiddler on the Roof ten times and every I hear that song I start crying because it reminds me of dancing with my daddy at the wedding. And my first dance song was to I Will Never Leave You. And David Yazbek sang from The Band's Visit, before Band's Visit came out! We had a lot of Broadway at my wedding!
Speaking of Broadway, you're about to do an encore of Sing Happy.
I was unable to attend your first show in July and I've been wondering what it felt like, getting to spend an hour singing the songs of Liza Minnelli.
Oh my god, incredible! When I was growing up, all the girls my age (I grew up in a Southern town) they all wanted to be Cinderella and debutantes. I just wanted to be Liza Minnelli in a sequined Halston pantsuit. That's all I ever wanted when I was a kid. I just loved everything from her unabashed strength to her vulnerability ... this cool combination of strength and vulnerability when she performs. I've always loved her. It's thrilling to get to sing her music -- I do it my way but it's her songbook. I just think she has really good taste for the music that she picks. Of course, you have Kander and Ebb, who have always been brilliant, and I love singing them for the same reason. The strength and vulnerability. They write for strong women, unapologetically strong women. I don't feel like... in that day and age when they were first writing there weren't a lot of composers who were writing that. I love their characters, she loves their characters. I think she's incredible. She gave me her blessing to do this, which was amazing. It's a really special night for me.
I noticed that your outfit for the show has a classic Minnelli look to it.
YES! Actually I'm wearing a different one this time. It's funny our looks are not all that ... my style... I'm not really a dress girl. I do wear dresses but I love the whole pantsuit thing, it's a cool balance of feminine and masculine. You have the jacket from Mein Herr but you're showing off your legs and you feel sexy and strong and that's how I feel when I wear those kinds of things. I'm wearing a different one this time but it will be similar. I love that stuff. It's such a fun excuse to wear a red sequined pantsuit, I can't even tell you how thrilled I was.
What kind of thoughts were going through your head that night as you prepared to go out and do that show?
HA! WELL! Just how excited I was! I was thinking about the first performance I ever saw of Liza Minnelli -- it was not in person, it was a clip of something that she did at Studio 54, I want to say it was "Some People"...but there I was, getting ready to sing her songbook AT 54 Below and it was this really cool immersion of events. Here I am at 54 Below doing the music I've always wanted to do while simultaneously starring as Mama Morton in Chicago, starring in a Kander and Ebb Show! It was thrilling! I love doing these shows. I don't do them constantly, I do them whenever I feel like I have something new to say, something new to share.
Have you been able to experience all of the Liza Minnelli performances that have been documented? All the movies, all the records?
I've watched them all! I love doing research. My favorite quote of Judy Garland is "Be a first-rate version of yourself, not a second-rate version of somebody else." My show is not me copying Liza because I'm me, and I could never be Liza. But I think it's important to understand the performer that you're doing the music of, to understand the world in which those performances happened. I did my research, I watched everything! And the more I watched the more I respected her because she's SO versatile. Everything from a disco version of Losing My Mind to Arthur in the Afternoon to singing I'll Be Seeing You acapella, and I'm crying in the first three seconds. She leads with her heart, and I've always done that, so the music that she chooses, I get it.
What do you think is the most sleeper Liza Minnelli performance, the one that people need to be made aware of?
OOH! That's a really good question! Some of the Aznavour stuff that she sang is pretty incredible, and I think people don't know it as well. A song I love that I don't know people.. She sang this song called "I Thank You" to her father, Vincente Minnelli, it has me in tears every time I hear it. It's just a beautiful song, simple and vulnerable. Those, because they show a softer, quieter, vulnerable side.
Is there a Liza Minnelli song that you found too intimidating to sing?
NO! I'm not intimidated by anything! (Laughing) As long as I can find a way in, I'm going to sing it, I'm not afraid of it. If an audience sees me connected in my own way, then they will hopefully be on that journey as well. There's a couple of songs I love, the really dancey numbers that wouldn't fit on the stage of 54 Below, they're just too dancey. If I were on a big stage I would love to do them and be able to dance them. Stepping Out, for example. She is such a great dancer, a real triple threat. I've always admired that she dances her ass off, I'm not sure if everybody knows that about her.
Tell me about working with your writer/director Will Nunziata, tell me as if he's never going to read this interview and know what you said.
(Laughing) I adore Will. Will's The Diva Whisperer. Not that I'm a diva... He has a way to craft a theater piece or a cabaret, although I don't really use the word cabaret for this, because I look at it as a theater piece 'cause I'm an actor first.. to help me own what I'm doing, to help me weave the material that I'm doing. I love being directed. I love working with people who know more than me - I'm a sponge, I like soaking up information, and he knows so much. He has such a great eye. Things like the power of stillness, which, when I first started working with Will, did not always come naturally to me, it's something, as I've gotten older, as a performer of course, that is a part of me now. He's brilliant and we have a language that when we do something together, it's transported to a whole new level for both of us. We've grown together. We met ten years ago and ever since then he and I have been close and wanted to find ways to work together. He approached me right after I had a baby, three months after I had a baby, and I was not back on stage yet. He said "We're going to do this show", I was like "We are?" and he said "Yup! Here's what we're doing!". I just love the way he thinks, he's into devastation in a good way, and making big choices and making waves and creating beautiful theater. I have tremendous respect for him as a human being.
If I were a person who had never heard of Liza Minnelli and you wanted to get me hooked, what one youtube video would you sit me down to watch?
OH MY GOD!! That's really hard! I would probably say Cabaret. I would watch her do it when she did it in the movie, and watch her do it when she does it now live. It's so cool to see the Liza of then and the Liza of now, and how they're both brilliant, but how, as she's become older, the wisdom behind herself. She's a genius.
Haley, I saw you play Sally Bowles.
Oh my gosh, I was right out of school. I was so green but I loved it.
What kind of acting challenge was that for a Liza devotee?
Well, I was thrilled. I felt ... Kander and Ebb have always been... I gravitate to them, I get them. There are just certain composers you gravitate to and you get them - and Kander and Ebb are one of those. I was lucky to get to do it. I don't get scared of challenges, I turn it into excitement and fuel it into working really hard, all that much harder to make it good - knowing that there's a level of excellence that's been done before, finding within myself what's true to me, creating that character. I get intimidated when I get something, but by the time I'm in the rehearsal process, I'm over it because I've got work to do. I get excited by the greatness that came before me and a tremendous respect for the role itself and the duty to carry the torch.
Another Day and Time:
Will, you wrote and directed Sing Happy. Did you create the show specifically for Haley?
I know Haley has been a longtime fan of Liza Minnelli's - did she bring this idea to you, or did you look at her one day and have a flash of inspiration that she should do this?
It's hard for me sometimes to remember where things germinate from. I know for a fact that there had been conversations about us creating a piece with her celebrating a certain artist. I know that when we landed on Liza we didn't want to do any sort of "cabaret tribute". When Haley and I get in a room we always think of a theatrical piece. So in creating a show, it was very important that it would be songs that happened to be known as iconic Liza songs, but we also went into the more esoteric songs that Liza sang. The way that I like to work is if we're able to put the songs on paper as if they're part of a libretto, then we have something good. When we did the show the first time people felt like they were at a one-woman theater show. Haley was up there putting her own stamp on it.
Prior to working on Sing Happy, did you have a relationship with Liza Minnelli's canon of work?
The answer is yes. When I went into my directing, years ago, one of the pieces I first went after, because I really wanted to reconceive it, was John Kander and Fred Ebb's The Act. I had some gumption within me to get in touch with John to get his blessing, and I not only got his blessing but also he gave some songs from The Act that never made it from out of town to Broadway. On top of that, there were two shows that helped me to see what it is to create one woman theatrical concerts: Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music and Liza With a Z which, obviously, was created for LIza by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse. So Liza's always sort of been in my DNA in terms of the types of pieces that I create.
Like Liza, Haley has an unapologetic skillset about her that comes naturally. Liza was and still is a force of nature but it's because it's something that she was born with it. Haley was born with an IT factor that you can't place on anyone. What's great in working with Haley is that like Liza when she worked with some of the best directors of our time, Haley is very moldable. When I say that, I mean she jumps into the sandbox with open arms and an open heart. She treats each song as if it's its own life or death stakes three-act play. Beyond Liza, Haley and I have some exciting theater pieces we're working on as well. We have a lot of fun in a room together, but there's also a lot of truth and guts and vulnerability that are laid on the line.
What was it like for you, as a friend, not a director, seeing Haley live out her Liza dream when the show had its debut earlier this summer?
It was thrilling. I think as a friend you always root for those people in your life - so to be able to kind of help her get to the starting line, to see her complete it with strength, courage, and grace, it was thrilling. We love the opportunity that we get a second shot at it, to continue to sandpaper and finesse this next version of the show.
Is it more common for you to have an idea for a certain artist and take it to them, or for you and the artist to create them as they bubble up?
It's a very interesting question. I've been fortunate that in my directing career I've only done things that have usually come to me in either a dream or a gut feeling. For Peggy Lee, about a year and a half ago, I literally woke up (I wish I were making this up) with the feeling and the question: "What would happen if Peggy Lee came back in 2019? What would she have to say, and why?" And I had this overwhelming feeling, without really knowing that much about Peggy Lee, that she would want to come back and talk about, and with her talking about it, show people that they too can find it within themselves, that notion of forgiveness. And in my head, I saw Cady Huffman. Now, Cady is a very good friend of mine, and one of the first women I ever directed, in theater and in concerts... when I approached Cady about it, that I saw her in this vision, I had no idea that she has a poster of Peggy Lee in her apartment. That's how things kind of work. With Haley it was very similar, I built a show for her a few years ago and it was one of those things... I'd heard from mutual friends that we should get together. We both gel in a cool way, we know what each other, at times, is thinking without saying much. She's very open to pushing the envelope. I think that's very cool. She's pushing herself and it's really cool to watch.
What was the impetus for your branching out from your life as a performer into one as a director?
It's interesting, I've been performing professionally with my brother since I was ten years old. We were doing jingles and, after college, concerts... and I remember, as a kid, when I saw the revival of Hal Prince's Show Boat at the Gershwin Theater, I remember talking with my family, not so much about the performers, but I was talking with them about the staging. I remember the way that he staged Old Man River - he created a triangle of the man who sings the solo versus the other actors. I was obsessed with the staging and how technically the show flowed and moved. And at Boston College, I majored in theater - once I took directing it was like all these feelings that I had beyond being a performer...I was like "Oh my god, wait, there's a thing you can do that fulfills all these needs?" As a performer, I was at thirty thousand feet my whole life, but then in college realized "I know why I was obsessed with the Show Boat and the staging: I guess this is what a director talks about."
Do you direct Anthony?
We don't want to give away all the secrets! (Laughing) It's funny, I've always been naturally the one who was... I love talking to the tech director, I love talking to the lighting and the sound people, I love talking with the house managers. I love talking to the conductors. I love all of it. It was cool to realize that, when I went after my directing five years ago, I'd always been naturally thinking like a director. I'm grateful that I get to make my living as both a director and a performer. As a performer, there is such a beauty in sharing what you have as talent. But there's another skill set that I feel so grateful to be able to utilize as a director, because I have this paternal quality about me that I feel like I'm able to use, making sure everything is taken care of, and also being able to work with every department, including the actors, bringing them to their nth degree. There's no better feeling than seeing people be their best selves. I'm grateful that I get to do it.
Will, because of the magic of social media, family, friends, and fans all got to witness something gorgeous in your life this year on March 23rd...
How's newlywed life treating you?
It's great. It's great. I'm incredibly fortunate to have met another human being who complements me, who supports me, and who is the most caring, down to earth, smartest person in the room. Beyond being a great husband, he's my sounding board. He loves the arts, he's got great taste - it's fun to have someone who I can go to at the end of the day if I do have questions within my career... I know I'm talking a lot today about gratitude but more so than ever in my life, that's what I've been feeling. It's due in large part to him.
So, this is the only repeat question between Haley's interview and yours... was there any show music played or sung at your wedding?
YES! We had some show music played when all the family and friends go to the dancefloor and dance, and our singer, Nicole Henry, sang some show music during the reception. How could you not?! Any celebration deserves some show music, am I right?!
Follow Haley Swindal on Twitter @swindah and Instagram @haleyswindal