BWW Interviews: Ana Gasteyer on SNL, WICKED, Sondheim, and Her Upcoming Show with Seth Rudetsky
Some of Broadway's most acclaimed musical theater actresses will be in San Antonio over the coming months in the Broadway @ Woodlawn Theatre Celebrity Series with host Seth Rudetsky. Starring as host, interviewer and pianist, Rudetsky is a Broadway accompanist, Sirius XM radio host, comedian, and musical theatre expert. In each show, Seth Rudetsky mixes songs with a live interview of a guest Broadway star's life and career. Insider stories are also revealed from the friendship of Seth and each Broadway star.
The Broadway @ Woodlawn Theatre Celebrity Series kicks off on November 8, 2014 at 7:30 p.m. with Seth Rudetsky and Ana Gasteyer. Ana Gasteyer is well-known for her six season stint on TV's "Saturday Night Live" as well as her work on ABC's "Suburgatory." Her Broadway credits include "Wicked" and "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."
BroadwayWorld-San Antonio's Jeff Davis recently spoke with Ms. Gasteyer about her upcoming show at the Woodlawn, her work on SNL, her debut album, and her work on Broadway. Here's what she had to say about her career...
JD: Thank you so much for doing this interview with BroadwayWorld-San Antonio. I was so excited when the Woodlawn asked me to do this because I'm a huge fan of your work.
AG: Oh my gosh! Thank you so much.
JD: Yeah, so I'm very excited to speak with you, and I wanted to start off by talking about the cabaret that you're coming to town to do at the Woodlawn Theatre. I know that a lot of people in San Antonio are very excited to see you perform there. What can audiences expect to see in that show with you and Seth Rudetsky?
AG: What's so nice about it is I have my own act, and Seth does his own thing, but when we come together, it becomes an uncharacteristically intimate and familiar evening in a really fun and irreverent way. He usually gets me to say things I wouldn't say in an interview. We have known one another since I was on Saturday Night Live and he worked at The Rosie O'Donnell Show. We became friends in the gym at the NBC building.
JD: Oh, how cool!
AG: It's so crazy. He used to write a lot of [Rosie O'Donnell's] musical arrangements. Of course, being Seth, he was also very savvy about my vocal abilities in a way that, at that time in my life, was so hilariously uncharacteristic to have someone say, "Hey! You can belt a high G. Did you know that?" He was always giving me the inside scoop on what was happening with my voice, and we became really good friends. He's hilarious and super knowledgeable, and I was in this comedy world where no one really cared about anything musical. After I left the show, Seth was incredibly helpful and supportive to me. I kind of have two careers. Broadway people and SNL people are usually pretty far apart on the theatrical spectrum, and Seth immediately understood what I was interested in and what I wanted to do and facilitated a lot for me, introduced me to a lot of people on Broadway, coached me, and included me in his Actor's Fund Concerts which was a great way for me to get to know people in the community.
JD: Oh right! I totally forgot that you did those. I remember hearing your song on the Hair album, and I was like, "Who is that?" and I was shocked when I read that it was you. I didn't know you could sing that well.
AG: Yeah, I think that was generally [the reaction]. They're becoming closer and closer, the two disparate pieces of my career, the Broadway piece and the comedienne piece. It's just kind of the sign of the times that people want you to live in one little box, and I don't. And [Seth's] also a rare bird. He's the Grand Master of Broadway. He's hilarious and funny and connected to a lot of people in a way that's very old-fashioned. He's literally the Master of Ceremonies of Broadway. He knows everyone, and once he started going on the road, he started inviting me along. It's always an easy "Yes" for me because when ordinarily I would have my band and I would be putting it all out there in a front and center kind of way and having to be in charge, this is a much more intimate kind of an evening with someone who has a rare sense of humor. It just ends up being really fun and really entertaining.
JD: I'm assuming it's got to be a different show every time because the two of you are hilarious.
AG: Yeah. He always makes me tell stories I don't want to tell, but he's hilarious and the evening is hilarious. We have a good time with the comedic aspects of some of the songs in my act that are on my album, I'm Hip. Some of those are super fun and playful, and Seth's great at playing with those, obviously, but he's also great at getting me to sing the straight-up Broadway stuff that I would never dream of singing in a jazz club. It's nice that his audience is so knowledgeable and very easygoing.
JD: Yes. Seth actually did a show at the Woodlawn several months ago, and I was surprised at how savvy his audience is.
AG: Well, they tend to be Sirius Radio aficionados, so they know vocalists in a way that strangely other audiences don't know.
JD: Well I'm very excited to hear the two of you perform together because I admire both of you so much. I'm sure it will be an excellent show and a great pairing. I can totally see how the two of you would work together well onstage.
AG: It's a fun, fun night, and we're very close friends, which always makes it 100 times easier. It's kind of like going out to dinner with a friend on stage.
JD: So we kind of touched on this already, but I have to admit even though I've been a huge theater nerd my whole life and a big fan of your work on SNL--which you sang on quite a bit actually--I never thought of you as a musical theater performer.
AG: I understand it. My brand is confusing to people--
AG: But I was trained. I started as a voice major. That's actually how Seth and I became friends. Seth went to Oberlin College and I went to Northwestern, but we were both kind of like the strange step-children of music school. People in music school are very serious and earnest and tend to do their homework. Seth and I were both these weird, funny people stuck in this strange world which we loved and were passionate about, and we bonded a lot over that. So I did that, and since Northwestern is in Chicago which is sort of the birthplace of improvisational comedy, I quickly found these comedy people. Northwestern is a really big speech and drama school, and I ended up transferring over there and graduating. So I was this classically trained musician who then left and pursued the comedy thing really heavy duty. When I came to New York, I immediately saw that I could probably get in to do what I always wanted to do which was to sing on Broadway. It's a weird departure from SNL, but it wasn't weird to me because it was something I always wanted to do and had trained for.
JD: I really want to talk to you about your musical theater career, but I'd be completely remiss if I didn't ask about SNL. What would you consider to be the character that you performed on SNL that was your favorite?
AG: Well, most people don't realize that most everyone on SNL is writing their own original characters. Those original characters were always fun to be a part of the creative process on. I'm also a really collaborative person, so I liked the ones where I got to pair with other performers. I loved the obvious ones like Bobbie and Marty Culp the middle school music teachers, the NPR girls, Gemini's Twin. The things I did with other people were the ones I enjoyed the most because I really like performing with other people. It's fun for me. We also did some more esoteric musical things towards the end that I think Seth will talk about some of them in the show, like this character Sarah Blazen. She was kind of an Elaine Stritch, old Broadway pain in the ass in the funniest way. There was another one who was loosely based on the great divas of the 60s and 70s, Deandra Wells. She makes me so happy I can't even stand it. In fact, I'm going to try to get the footage of that and bring it out there for the show because that's always fun to share.
JD: Are there any characters that your fellow cast mates did that cracked you up?
AG: Oh yes! I don't even know where to begin. Kind of everybody. God, there are so many. We were a really character-heavy group.
JD: You were.
AG: That whole era, that was all that any of us did. I greatly admire everyone I worked with at that time. I know that's not a very good answer, but--
JD: No! I think that's a great answer.
AG: I mean, really it was like a master class.
JD: Yes, you had an incredible cast there in the late 90s.
AG: I was very fortunate to be there when I was.
JD: I find it really interesting that so many SNL alum go into other T.V. work or film work, which you did as well, but you really stepped into theater work quite a bit.
AG: Yes, I did that very aggressively. I'm actually a bit of a worker bee. I think you really have to apply yourself in earnest over a long period of time in order to get any sense of mastery over what you're doing, and I was behind. It's one thing to be a trained vocalist, which I was. I understood breath support and some of those basic techniques. But it's different to sing those major lead roles on Broadway without the pure experience of 8 shows a week. Physically, the drain is off the charts, and I had to really work long and hard and fast to catch up with my peers, and I did. I've done four Broadway roles. I did The Rocky Horror Show. I did Wicked in Chicago and Broadway. I did The Royal Family, I did The Threepenny Opera, and I did a bunch of Off-Broadway. I did Kimberly Akimbo and a play called Roulette. I also worked out of town. I did Passion in Chicago and Funny Girl and an insane number of new musical workshops which is a great way to get to know composers and the process and to get to sing eight hours a day where you really have to work your muscles up. I mean, Elphaba can destroy your voice, but I was lucky in that I had excellent coaching and I feel like it served me in the long run. Singing is like a sport. You have to put the hours in and the muscles will follow. You can't trash your voice.
JD: Tell me about your jazz album, I'm Hip. How did that come about?
AG: Well, I started doing a jazz cabaret act, and that's what the album was born of. The cabaret act is a lot looser and freer, and it's the first time I've ever really felt that the two Ana Gasteyers were coming together in the same place. It's really irreverent and really fun, and I love those hilarious old novelty songs pulled from the late 50s early 60s era. It's just fun and silly but musical at the same time.
JD: Yes, there are some incredible lost gems from that era. Are you bringing some of those to the Woodlawn?
AG: Yes. Seth loves them. I have some Broadway ones but I have some other ones that I sing on my record that Seth loves and knows, so I'll be doing some of those at the Woodlawn.
JD: Well since it's BroadwayWorld, I have to ask you about some of the musicals that you've done, and there are two that I really wanted to ask about. Those are Passion and Wicked--
AG: Oh! God, Passion is so beautiful!
JD: I love that show. I think it's Sondheim's best work and his most underrated work.
AG: I know! I think about it all the time. In fact, I was just talking about the show with somebody. It's such an incredibly beautiful piece. I've heard that it's his favorite piece, and it's structurally incredible. For example, Fosca's music goes from minor to major and Clara's goes from major to minor as their positions change.
JD: Ooh! Interesting!
AG: There are so many brilliant pieces of compositional genius in there. The production I did in Chicago was directed by Gary Griffin, and he has a reputation for excellence with Sondheim revivals. He honors the text, and it was a very empowering experience across the board for me. We did it in a tiny Black Box, and what he did, which was fantastic, was stage it with no amplification which was an amazing experience as a contemporary theater vocalist. It's ironic that we're trained to support and sing, and then we're miked, and the mics compress everyone's voice and makes them sound tinny and the same. It's really depressing. I think it's great if you have a pop sound.
JD: But for a show like Passion, mics do a disservice to the show.
AG: I could not agree more, and it was beautiful. I learned so much vocally, just by learning how to sing against an actual cello. It just changes the whole dynamic of your own resonance and control. I learned a lot from being in Wicked and being amplified and balanced against a huge orchestra in a 2,000 seat house, and I learned the opposite from Passion. It was me and a cello, or me and a viola. It was super minimalist and really beautiful.
JD: I love that show. It really is one of Sondheim's best. So we have to talk about Elphaba. Now, you were the first actress to do the role in a sit-down production outside of Broadway. What was that like? That had to have been intimidating.
AG: Well, it was and it wasn't. When you replace someone, you don't get a lot of direction. You go in with stage management and you rehearse fast, and you're getting lots of notes, but I was kind of spoiled because in doing a sit-down, there was more of a company spirit. Everybody was starting from scratch. We all started together, we did a table read, we rehearsed, we went through tech, we opened. There's a really nice thing that happens to a company in that evolutionary process. A lot of the cast came from Chicago, like Rondi Reed and Gene Weygandt. There were all of these people who were indigenous Chicago actors who are beloved and known there, so that immediately connected us with the community which was awesome and grounded it as a Chicago production. We also had the benefit of direction. We had a proper six week rehearsal process which was plenty of time, and we had [director] Joe Mantello involved and [orchestrator] Stephen Oremus was super involved, which was really great. To have those thoroughly engaged people come and give real notes was really great.
JD: I bet, because usually you're plunked in and have 2-3 weeks of rehearsal.
AG: Yeah, I've done three weeks. Actually, Rocky Horror was two. So it's fast. Replacing is fast and intense. You have a put-in rehearsal, and you're learning while doing, and it's scary, especially for a role as big as Elphaba where you have to carry everything with such confidence. I had such a really wonderful relationship with the girl who played Glinda with me, Kate Reinders. I was really spoiled in that we had a real strong dynamic going in. We were able to support each other through the process. It was amazing. It was a great experience, and again as I said about picking up speed and doing things well, the enormity of that role was super intimidating and terrifying, but when you take on something that big, it's like operating in a crisis. You can't stop and think about it. I actually had auditioned for Wicked early on--
JD: Oh really!
AG: I made the final three with Julia [Murney] and Idina [Menzel]. And then I auditioned to replace Idina and made it to the final three with me, Shoshana [Bean] and Julia, and then they called me about the sit-down in Chicago. I think in some ways, it would have been much scarier to step in to replace Idina or Eden [Espinoza] or one of those amazing Elphabas and have to make my own way as opposed to finding our own voice as a new company, you know?
JD: Yes, and I read some of the reviews that you got, and I wish I could have seen you do the show.
AG: One thing that was great because it was a Chicago production and how grounded Chicago actors are, people say it was the best acted production and really focused on the storytelling.
JD: That's what I've heard. Less about the spectacle and more about the characters.
AG: Yes, that was our emphasis.
JD: So what's next for you?
AG: Well, my first record just came out, and I'm really proud of it. I worked really hard, and we actually made #5 on the jazz charts, which was really exciting.
JD: Oh great! Congrats!
AG: Yeah, it was so cool. I never expected to chart, so I was very excited about that. And I've also got episodic stuff in the can. I'm on the Season Premiere of Girls, and I'm coming back to The Good Wife, so there's things coming which is great.
JD: That's fantastic. Well thank you so much for your time. It's been an absolute pleasure, and I look forward to meeting you in person at the Woodlawn!
AG: Me too! Thanks so much for your time as well.
Season subscriptions for the BROADWAY @ WOODLAWN THEATRE CELEBRITY SERIES, which include a ticket to all four shows, are now available for purchase online at woodlawntheatre.org/2015-season-subscriptions, or by calling the box office at 210-267-8388. Prices are $375 for VIP subscriptions, and $280 for regular subscriptions. Individual ticket purchases are also available priced at $100 for VIP and $75 regular admission. For tickets and information, please visit www.woodlawntheatre.org