BWW Interview: Haley Swindal Gets Ready to Sing Happy at Feinstein's/54 Below
Haley Swindal, the latest Mama Morton in Broadway's longest running American musical "Chicago" is returning to Feinstein's 54 Below with her brand new show ' Sing Happy: The Songs of Liza Minnelli' on July 26th and Broadway World's own Richard Ridge caught up with Haley to chat about living in the musical world of the legendary Liza.
Tell us about your new show 'Sing Happy: The Songs of Liza Minnelli' and how it came about?
I like to create art that allows people to go on a journey with me, that they can relate to in their own lives, and that they can leave the theatre a bit happier or better than when they first came. The person that did that the most for me growing up was the incomparable Liza Minnelli. I used to watch with wonder as she would transport the audience on a journey, and, in her unapologetic way, capture their hearts.
Another reason I feel so drawn to her is that, like me, she came from a famous family but she has chartered her own path and has left her own music, style, and voice on the world. This is something that is very important to me as an artist and as a human. However, also like her, she never forgot or hid from the legacy she came from, and always acknowledged her mother's role in her life.
My mother is also a pretty dynamic woman, and, her 60th has birthday is coming up this month. So, I thought, what better way to celebrate than to create a show about love, family, and life through the cannon of Liza's music. To pay tribute to both Liza and my mom through this cannon of music, but to do it my way.
So, "Sing Happy" for me is a celebration of life, love, and learning to embrace my own individuality as an artist, but also with great thanks to those who helped craft the person I've become. Under the guidance of the fabulous Will Nunziata, I think we have crafted a show that will hopefully leave those who see it happier or moved in some way. And the incredible Scott Cady- who is associate music director at "Chicago" with me- has created some incredible arrangements, and i'm over-the-moon-to be working with him.
Liza Minnelli is an international icon. What drew you personally to her material?
The songs she sings are undoubtedly for women who are simultateneously strong but incredibly vulnerable. It's a fascinating duality that has always drawn me to her and to her material, and it is also a duality I possess.
She is unabashedly herself, and unapologetically bold, and her music reflects that. Though I love all the big brassy numbers, it is often the quieter, introspective, pinspot type moments that draw me in more. A song like "My Own Space" and "A Quiet Thing", for example.
Was it your grandmother that took you to see Liza for the first time? How magical was that night?
Growing up, I used to sneak into cabaret shows at the "Feinstein's/Loew's Regency" with my grandparents and watch with wide eyes as many greats sang in front of me- Keely Smith, Babara Cook, Michael Feinstein and of course....the incredible Liza Minnelli. I believe the first time I saw her was when she was singing a song or two with Michael there when I was very, very young.
BUT, in college, my Christmas present was to see Liza Minnelli in concert in Tampa my hometown, with my mom and my grandma. I got to meet her afterwards, and, when I met her, I almost fainted. I didn't wash the hand I shook her hand with for a week.
Many of Liza's songs were created for her by one of the greatest songwriting teams- Kander & Ebb and you will be doing some of them. As a singer, what draws you to their songs?
They write for strong, complicated, powerful, and vulnerable women who are unafraid to be who they are. REAL women. Unapologetically strong and unapologetically fragile all at the same time and who are not afraid to dive in and say, as the song says, "YES!"
My Liza show will have some Kander and Ebb songs for sure...but it also has some pop music, a lot of Great American songbook, even a couple Stephen Sondheim songs. Some are done the way she did them, some are turning them upside down. All of them are my stamp on them. As Judy Garland said "it is better to be a first rate version of yourself than a second rate version of someone else." This show is using her cannon of music to tell my journey, my story.
What are some of the songs you knew you had to include right away?
Oh Boy...Well, of course, my favorite song I sing of hers is "Colored Lights" from The Rink, because it reflects so much of my journey to leaving home, coming back home, and accepting and embracing everything in between.
"New York, New York" because it has been such a part of my life and is always played at Yankee stadium. There is a funny story about that. My grandfather was George Steinbrenner, who owned the Yankees. He apparently did not realize the stadium was playing Liza's New York every time the Yankees would lose, and Frank when they would win. When he got wind of it, he sent Liza flowers as an apology, and she sent him back black roses (in jest of course). So, I do a version similar to Liza's version as a sort of homage to Liza.
There is also a song called "The Singer," which has always haunted me, and I knew it had to be in the show. It tells the story of a woman singing, and the lyric goes "and the song goes on about a love she knew, about a love so true that turned out wrong. And from the tears she shows nobody really knows, is she the singer or the song?". It's a brilliant lyric, in my opinion.
This new show is being put together by one of the most in-demand directors Will Nunziata. What has it been like collaborating with him?
Will is an absolute dream. He conceived and directed "Golden Girl" for me at 54 Below three years back. He has such a strong vision, concept, and passion for everything he does, and we both share an unrelenting yearning to create and discover meaningful art. He likes to say he is in the "business of devastation," which, like Liza and also like me, means he's unapologetic and unafraid to push boundaries and create something incredibly meaningful.
I am an actress first and Will knows that and everything we do comes with that understanding. This show is not an amalgamation of Liza's greatest hits back to back as a cabaret. This show tells a story. It is a living, breathing journey, like life.
I think Will has created a moving, exciting, devastating evening, and I'm excited to step up to the challenge.
As you mentioned, your grandfather is New York Yankees owner, George Steinbrenner. I knew him as one of Broadway's greatest producers. What influence has he had on you of how you handle your life and career?
My grandparents were my best friends. I am the oldest of thirteen grandchildren, and I was lucky enough to get twenty-five years with my grandfather before he passed away in 2010.
He, believe it or not, was a fabulous singer. He starred in the Glee Club at Williams College, and was in the same class as Stephen Sondheim! He could also play the piano very well. He loved music the way that I did.
Later on, he produced with the Nederlanders and became very close friends with Jimmy Sr. Together, they won a Tony award for "Applause" on Broadway, and produced "Seesaw" with Michele Lee and Tommy Tune, and Joel Grey in "George M." Ironically, I am an investor myself on Joel's stunning "Fiddler on the Roof" playing at Stage 42.
Essentially, my grandfather gave me my passion, my drive, my fire, and my fierce loyalty to my friends and family. He himself had tried to buy the Cleveland Indians long before the Yankees were for sale, and he was so disappointed when it fell through. However, he picked himself back up, and pretty soon, made the biggest career move of his life assembling investors and buying the Yankees...a move which never would have happened had he gotten what he thought he wanted the first time around.
I think about this a LOT in this business. Every job I don't get is leading me to something better. It's certainly been true for me in this business. Giving up is not an option.
When asked about what he would want written on his tombstone one day he said," I just want em to say, 'he never stopped trying'. That'd be good enough for me." Like him, I share this no-nonsense drive that demands excellence of myself, but I also have the empath part of me that feels and cares for things so deeply. It's a duality I share with him.
So in essence, he taught me family is everything, we are put here on this Earth to make a difference in whichever field we choose to pursue. The last words he ever said to me were "I love you Broadway." Even if I didn't know it myself at the time, he knew I would get there.
You have a wonderful career and family life. How has motherhood helped shape your career choices?
Early on in my career, I remember leaving the first preview of my first Broadway show in tears. I had gotten everything I had ever thought I wanted, but I had nothing in my life outside of it. I had blinders on and was career, career, career.
But, outside of that, who was I? What fulfilled me? What was I giving back to the world?
I started to open up my heart to something other than work. After a few heartbreaks and questionable choices, I met my husband, Jack Tantleff, with whom I created the greatest joy of my life, my three- year-old, Lily George Tantleff, and gained two wonderful step-children. Within a year, I had gone from doing a gig in Las Vegas on my own to becoming an instant mom of a newborn, a fourteen year old, and an eighteen year old. My children became my world. I learned the meaning of unconditional love when they placed Lily in my arms.
That's not to say career didn't matter. It's just I stopped putting so much value on whether I got a part, whether I got seen, whether people knew who I was. Having a partner, building a life, raising a family not only fulfilled me in amazing ways, but also made me a better artist. It brought me to a more authentic version of myself. And ironically, I started getting more work when I stopped focusing on what I didn't have, and stayed in the moment with where I was.
I feel guilt like every mother, but I think it is all a balance. Every family has what works for them, and I don't think there is one right answer. I have primarily stayed rooted in the city because I have been lucky enough to get work here. It's been so fun to see Lily's love for music grow, as she has been immersed in it since before she was born (she is named Lily because I did a production of "Secret Garden" at Lincoln Centerwhen I was seven months pregnant).
For the first time in a long time, I am back on an eight show week schedule for the summer. Not doing bedtime can be hard. I want my daughter to grow up and see that Mommy had a dream of being on Broadway and she achieved it, and that Lily can do whatever she wants to do. She told me yesterday she can't decide if she wants to be a Broadway dancer, bumblebee, or a fire hydrant, so she's well on her way.
You have recently stepped back into the role of Matron 'Mama' Morton in Broadway's longest running American musical, Chicago. What are you enjoying the most this time around?
It's my fourth time in this year, and I am LOVING IT. It is truly a dream come true for me. The cast, crew, and everyone at the theatre have been so warm and welcoming, and they are all a family. I can truly say that there is never a day I don't walk into the stage door with overwhelming gratitude to be there.
As for playing Mama, well, like my grandpa, I guess I'm good at being "The Boss." No, but seriously, I love the character, and I am learning more and more about her the longer I play her. She has fought tooth and nail to get to where she is, and learned how to survive. Yes, she's self-motivated, but she cares about and is invested in the girls in that prison.
I'm enjoying that I get two months in a row this time to really dive in and continue to explore the character, and to spend time with this incredible company.
Finally- What are you looking forward to the most on July 26th with Sing Happy: The Songs of Liza Minnelli?
I am looking forward to wearing a red sequin pantsuit and dancing with handsome younger men.
No, but really, I am excited because people are going to come in thinking they are going to see Haley belt Liza songs, but I hope and believe they are going to come out seeing something that is meaningful and that they can relate to on a fundamental human level. I think Will has created real art here, and I'm happy and honored to be the vessel to do that .
Oh yes, and sing my Mama happy birthday!