BWW Interview: A World Full of Wonderful Things: Lauren Blackman
"My favorite line in musical theatre history is the one where Irene says, 'Dolly, the world is full of wonderful things!' When I said it in rehearsal the first time to Charis [Leos], I broke down in tears. It's a thought I repeat to myself if I am down. Irene is saying, 'Take risks, go enjoy this wonderful world!'"
Actress Lauren Blackman is talking enthusiastically about her upcoming portrayal of Irene Malloy in Maine State Music Theatre's new production of HELLO, DOLLY!, which runs July 17 - August 3, 2019, at the Pickard Theater in Brunswick. Blackman returns not only to a beloved role, but also to friends and a theatre company and community she calls "home." Last season, she appeared briefly in the gala 60thAnniversary Concert, but it has been almost four years since she graced the stage in a major role - last in 2015 as Marion in THE MUSIC MAN and before that in 2013 in MARY POPPINS. Those intervening years have, indeed, been fruitful ones for Blackman - filled with all kinds of wonderful things!
"The last three years have been especially exciting for me," she confides. Not only did Blackman make her Broadway debut as the Tsarina in ANASTASIA in 2017 after undertaking the role at the out-of-town tryout in Hartford, but she also appeared in another major new work with Broadway hopes, MARIE DANCING STILL, at the Kennedy Center, and made her role debut as Tanya in MAMMA MIA! at Connecticut Repertory Company.
Blackman recounts how ANASTASIA came about. "At that point, I had done what was called THE LITTLE DANCER by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, and the director Susan Stroman, was doing a workshop off ANASTASIA. At first they said I wasn't correct for the Tsarina. But by the time they got to the Hartford Stage tryout, they [the creative team] were taking the character in a different direction." Blackman asserted herself and managed to get an audition with Ahrens and Flaherty there. "It was the most nerve wracking audition of my life. I felt as if everyone had gone out of their way for me to be there, and I was so nervous about messing up. They wanted something from a contemporary musical, so I sang a song from NINE and read a scene, and Lynn said, "So good to see you again,' but I didn't think I did all that well. It turns out though that when they brought me in, they already knew they wanted me, and soon after without a callback, I got the offer. I was the first new performer to be cast because they needed to start building that amazing dress. Rumor has it that afterwards they cast according to my height, so the men had to be six-foot and over and the girls who played my daughters five-foot-three and under." Between the Hartford Stage production and her time on Broadway, Blackman spent almost three years with the show.
Blackman has worked frequently with Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. "They have been kind to me since the day we met. I still pinch myself to know that they are such supporters," she says fondly. "They continue to put me in concerts and call me 'their soprano.' I just worked with them again recently. I took a two-month leave of absence from ANASTASIA to be in the ensemble of their new show, MARIE DANCING STILL at the Kennedy Center. Just as that ended and I was getting ready to go back to Broadway, we got news that ANASTASIA was closing. I didn't get to say goodbye in person, but I was working with the same family. It felt as if I were ripping the band aid off more gently."
The Ahrens-Flaherty connection also afforded Blackman the opportunity to play her first Tanya in MAMMA MIA! The gig came about because Terence Mann, the Artistic Director of Connecticut Repertory, had been cast in MARIE DANCING STILL, and when that closed at the Kennedy Center, he offered Blackman the role. "It is such a fun show to do! We would laugh and laugh, and he would say 'That's good, keep it!'
Blackman says her last few years spent primarily in and around New York City have been crammed with activities from stage performances to concerts, classes, readings, and social time with friends. She has even fulfilled a longtime dream and acquired a dog. "When I knew I had the time to raise a doggie, I got myself an Australian Labradoodle Mini. She's actually kind of tall and medium sized, and she goes everywhere with me," Blackman says of Miss Banks, whom she's named for MARY POPPINS.
Blackman and Miss Banks are now happily ensconced in Brunswick, preparing for this week's opening of HELLO, DOLLY!, to be followed by her first Glinda in THE WIZARD OF OZ. "This show represents a lot of reunions for me," Blackman says. I am coming home to MSMT which has done so much for me personally and career wise, then to this show, and to Charis and David [Girolmo]. I have never done an MSMT or Fulton show without Charis; she is a bit of a good luck charm for me, and she is a natural as Dolly. And I am so excited to get to play with David onstage. Being able to bring some of your relationships in real life onstage and playing for the truth in sincere moments makes this work so well."
Blackman, who played Irene Malloy to Sally Struthers' Dolly on the national tour five years ago, describes how she sees the character. "I really want Irene to be a complement to Dolly and not look like a Dolly to-be. I don't want them to be two similar characters on stage. Irene is a proper lady, and she wants desperately to fall in love. The surprise for Irene is not that Cornelius falls in love with her, but that she falls in love with Cornelius. She knows he doesn't have any money, and she loves playing the game, but it really clicks for her when Cornelius repeats the line about all the wonderful things in the world."
"I sing Irene a little differently, too, from what people might expect from a soprano. The last line she says before 'Ribbons Down Your Back' is provocative. Maybe that is what she wants to be. Rumors are being spread about her for no reason so she decides she wants to give people a reason to talk about her. I feel she is in this guttural moment where things have to come from a deep place inside. I take the songs from this more earthy perspective, rather than floaty and light. I think it is fun meeting a character who is ready to do something risky."
Blackman says the rehearsal process with her friends, colleagues, and Director Donna Drake and Choreographer Rhonda Miller has been a delightful one. "Donna is going classic with it. She is honoring the original production idea. She gives us the structure and lets us fill in the dots; she guides us when she thinks we need a cleaner direction or more focus, but also lets us play and find things to keep. We have a lot of freedom. It is a very happy room, and that feeling starts at the top with Curt [Dale Clark], Donna and Rhonda."
Of Miller's choreography in this complex dance show, Blackman says, "Rhonda is also sticking to a very period, classic approach and using all these dancers' talents to the nth degree. She has created a nice balance between classic dancing and storytelling."
Blackman also praises the "exquisite costumes" by designer Ryan J. Moller. "They have pattern on pattern, planned textures and colors, lots of weight, and it feels divine to wear them. When the girls who are in 'Put On Your Sunday Clothes' put theirs on their jaws dropped!"
As she describes the creative work of the team, she conveys the sense of impending anticipation and excitement for opening. Not only does HELLO, DOLLY! promise to be a feel good experience for the actors and audience, but Blackman believes the takeaway message is a beautiful and lasting one. "At the end of the show, Dolly has this wonderful speech about how money, itself, doesn't mean anything unless it is spread around like manure. The show really ends by saying 'support your neighbor,' 'take care of each other,' and 'pay it forward.' All this is more important even than falling in love."
Clearly for Lauren Blackman, this role, this show, and this MSMT production experience are some of the wonderful things in her life."
Photos courtesy MSMT
HELLO, DOLLY! runs from July 17- August3, 2019 at MSMT's Pickard theater, 1 Bath Rd., Brunswick, ME 207-725-8769 www.msmt.org