BWW Interview: Emily Skinner of COME TO THE MOON at 42nd Street Moon Tells Tales of Working with Hal Prince, Cher and More
The inimitable Emily Skinner will be headlining 42nd Street Moon's gala fundraiser "Come to the Moon" on Tuesday, February 4th at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. After bursting onto the scene with her Tony-nominated performance in "Side Show," Ms. Skinner has gone on to star in several more Broadway shows, most recently "The Cher Show" in 2018-19, and performed at top regional theater companies and done innumerable concerts throughout the country. Ms. Skinner's trademarks are a spectacular voice that can move seamlessly from a luscious lower register to a thrilling high belt, an irreverent sense of humor and a deep passion for the classic American musical. She is the type of performer who can dazzle you with her vocal prowess one moment, then make you laugh out loud with a perfectly-timed bon mot, then break your heart with a tender ballad.
BroadwayWorld spoke recently by phone with Ms. Skinner from her home base in Manhattan. In conversation, Ms. Skinner is delightfully chatty, smart and warm, sort of a mashup of a gimlet-eyed leading lady from a bygone era, a brainiac specializing in Broadway arcania, and your best friend from high school. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Greg MacKellan was running Moon at the time and contacted me about coming out to do an annual salon for a couple of years in a row, but I wasn't available. Then he asked me to do one early in 2014 and I was available so I came out there and had such a nice time with everybody. He said "I've always wanted to do 'Do I Hear a Waltz?' Is there any chance you'd be interested in doing that?" and I said "I'd love to do that. Nobody ever does that show." That show is so arcane and problematic that people stay away from it; it's got such a complicated history. There are parts of it that work wonderfully and parts of it that don't work at all, but I was so excited just to get to put my little toes into the material. It gets really dark and Leona's a complicated character. What I liked about Greg's take on it was that he wanted when it got ugly to really get ugly, to not shy away from it because that's the story - of someone who wants love so much, is deathly afraid of it, and then when it does show up in her life, she sort of can't accept it at all, can't deal with it, can't process it, and when the first thing that even smells awry to her, she just loses it. But, you know, we've all been there! [laughs]
Can you give us a little teaser about the material you'll be performing at the gala?
Oh, gosh, they've asked me to do a lot of Broadway stuff, so I was just gonna do a motley assortment of Broadway things that people know and love. I like variety and I think that audiences generally do as well. Definitely some Sondheim, probably some Gershwin, probably some Kander & Ebb.
One of the things I love about your recordings and live performances is that you consistently surprise me by including at least one little-known song that I've always been secretly obsessed with, like Kander and Ebb's "The Money Tree" from "The Act."
It's so funny because I'm doing a concert with the San Diego Symphony on Valentines Day with Norm Lewis. We were just talking through what we want to include in the set list because it's all "love stuff" and we're trying to think thematically, trying to create a little arc, a story line - people meeting and falling in love, then the love kind of goes awry and they get scared, but then they come back together, but then it goes awry again. We were plotting this concert from a theatrical bent and talking about "What would the song be when love goes awry?" And I was like "Well, I know one! There's one called 'The Money Tree' that nobody ever does." So I'm gonna do that, and it's so funny that you bring it up because I literally haven't sung it in years and just looked at it again this week. It's a good one! I'm tellin' ya - Kander & Ebb! With those wry, wry, markedly funny lyrics, bitter and sweet at the same time.
I've heard you talk about what a musical theater geek you were as a child, like listening to cast albums at your local library, which I assume did not make you one of the cool kids.
No, but I don't think I cared! [laughs] When you're really into something, I don't know that you have an awareness of whether it's cool or not, you know? And I just got really into this, particularly into older music from the 20's, 30's, 40's, 50's. I grew up with all of that stuff. I have a very complicated relationship with contemporary musical theater, which is interesting because I make my living doing contemporary musical theater. I do a lot of that here in the city, a lot of developmental work on new musicals, but my heart lives with an older canon of music for sure.
You were in the final Broadway show that Hal Prince ever directed, "The Prince of Broadway." What was it like to work with him? Any lessons learned from him?
Oh, gosh, I could write a book! It was the honor of my career being selected by Hal and getting to work with him on that show for a long time. He called me in 2011 and offered me the show. I didn't have to audition for him. He just called me up and said "Skinner, I've got this show and want you to do it, and here's what I want you to do in it." And over the course of the 6-7 years that we gestated the show, did readings of the show, took it out of town, whatever, it changed so much. So it was fun to sort of take a real ride with the show. Cause he was constantly re-looking at his career with that show, deciding what he wanted to revisit and what he didn't feel like revisiting, what he thought would be interesting for an audience. He ended up selecting performers he really liked and then crafting the show around them, which I think was a big takeaway. Because if you make the performers look good, your show's gonna look good. That's sort of Directing 101.
He also was really, really great with morale, treated the cast like his family, talked to them like a family. Hal definitely had that skill with everybody, making them feel fully valued and embraced. If you talk to anybody who worked with Hal in any show - maybe not Patti LuPone because they had a more complicated relationship - but pretty much anybody else. That's why he was so beloved by our theater community. He really was a tremendously good human being and a knockout director. And he told me so many amazing stories. At some point in the 1960's, Barbara Baxley asked him to be the head of The Actors Studio, and he said [to Baxley] "I'm incredibly flattered that you would like me for that. I can't accept it because I don't know anything at all about acting. I love actors; I think they're magical human beings. But what I do is I create shows; I'm a visionary of shows. And what I do is I cast actors who can direct themselves so I can direct the show." And for a director to say that out loud - I can't think of any director that I know who would be as humble, quite honestly. Most directors that I know would be like "Well, of course I'll do that!" Hal came up under George Abbott whose style of directing was "Say your line like this. Hold your pinkie when you say a line like this." Hal wasn't that, he was somewhere in between that and method. He really was a big appreciator of actors and what actors could do. And you know that's a wonderful thing, to feel appreciated by a director.
And an interesting thing being directed by an 89-year-old is they can't really remember necessarily what they did. [laughs] With all of us, he would say "I am revisiting this material as freshly as you guys are. I don't remember exactly what I did in 1973. I could go back and look at it in the archives, but I don't want to because I want to experience this freshly and I want to see what I can find that I didn't find then." He was quite extraordinary and if you look at his body of work - I mean, he took risks! He was bold, and he was interested in everything, he wanted to explore everything under the sun. All of his shows were so different, he never repeated himself. He was really curious and used the theater to be imaginative and explore things. A very inspiring person.
In "Prince of Broadway," you performed a kickass rendition of the iconic "The Ladies Who Lunch" -
Oh, thank you!
- and I've heard a lot of women kind of crash and burn on that song. So - there you are performing a song inextricably linked with the inimitable Elaine Stritch, and you're taking direction from Hal Prince and Susan Stroman. No pressure, right?! How did you even get started on that song, how did you find your way in?
Well, like I said, at the beginning back in 2011, he called me and said "This is what the show is, and in the show you'll be doing this, this, this and this." And what I ended up doing in the show was completely different in 2017 from what I'd been told in 2011. In 2011, I was gonna be Sally Bowles in "Cabaret" for instance, I was gonna do something from "Tenderloin" - it was like a whole other thing than what I actually ended up doing. So the "Ladies Who Lunch" thing didn't even come in until 2015. We did a whole workshop in 2013 that wasn't even in. It had a longer section of "Company," but they didn't touch that one. And I remember in 2015 him walking into rehearsal and handing me this music and saying "I want you to try this out." I went "Really? Really?! Are you f***ing kidding me?" He's like, "C'mon! Yes! Of course, you can do it." And that was the thing about him, he always had so much more faith in me than I ever had in myself, you know? He had enormous faith in people, and because he had it, you had it. I would never have dared to even attempt that song. [Stritch's] stamp on that, her legacy on that, is so present in our mass consciousness. Hal was like "I want to see your take on it. I don't want to see you imitate her; I want to see what you do with it."
You were most recently on Broadway in "The Cher Show" where you were such a delight playing both Cher's mom and comedy legend Lucille Ball. Did you learn anything about Lucy from playing her?
Well, Cher was one of the executive producers on that show. The first time she came to see the show was in Chicago, and she got very emotional watching it. I mean - imagine seeing your life regurgitated onstage in front of thousands of people as a musical entertainment. It would be weird! To have to sit in an audience and watch that, I can't even imagine what that would be like. At that point, there was a line in that little Lucy section where she said to Cher (and this was something in fact that - [book writer] Rick Elice told me when he first interviewed Cher; she said this was verbatim what Lucy said) "Cher, you know, you're the one with the talent." And that was in the show in Chicago, but Cher said "We can't say that onstage. Even though it's true that that's what she [Ball] said. It looks too mean." So, she has a complicated history with Sonny, but she really does sort of credit him with her career. And there is a huge love there, I think, and always will be. She has complicated feelings about him and was very protective about him in this show, which is interesting. But she was great, she was lovely to all of us, couldn't have been more wonderful and is exactly who you think she is.
"Side Show" is now considered an all-time classic by musical theater fans, but it was something of a dodgy proposition at the time. When you first went in to audition for that show, what did you honestly make of the idea that it was a musical about conjoined twins?
Well, it just sounded really, really weird and interesting, and I like weird and interesting. It sounded exploratory and strange, and they were still shaping it, too. I auditioned for the very first reading they ever did of the show. I was attached to that show from the very, very beginning and I ended up doing three readings of it with three different girls who played Violet to my Daisy, and then for the workshop they found Alice. It was interesting to watch them figure the show out - [director] Bobby Longbottom and [composer] Henry Krieger and [book writer/lyricist] Bill Russell.
So Robert Longbottom was really a key player in creating the show?
Oh, god, it was Bobby's idea; it wasn't Henry & Bill's. He pitched the idea of the story about these real twins and their career in show business and their search for love. Because I guess he'd seen years ago that movie, "Freaks," that Todd Browning movie, and it haunted him and then he started to do research on those twins and thought "God, there's something here."
I feel like that show is always gonna be a hard sell, honestly. Because when you hear it's about Siamese twins, you think "Oh, what is that? Is it something exploitive?" And we had such a hard time just getting people into the theater to see the show. When they did, people loved it and were very moved and went bananas for it. My understanding was they had the same problem when they did the revival. I used to think, "Oh, they didn't quite figure out how to market the show correctly." Whether or not that's true, I think that ultimately, no matter if you have the most strategic, brilliant marketing campaign of all time, I still think it's going to be a hard sell, always. I was very grateful that we got to do a cast album because I think the fact it had a cast album is why it's had so many productions since that original Broadway run. People got to know it from that who had never really seen it. I always feel so badly when these shows come and go without getting a cast album because I think "Oh, that's your show's legacy!"
And you were also in "James Joyce's The Dead" which was never recorded. I would kill for a cast album of that show.
You and me both! There was beautiful music in that show and it makes me so sad to this day that there's no cast album of it. There's no cast album hearing Chris Walken sing! Too bad, you missed it! [laughs]
There are few things in life more exciting than hearing you and Alice Ripley sing together - the thrilling way your voices blend, shimmer and bounce off each other. Like in "I Will Never Leave You" you sing the chorus the first two times in a perfect, creamy unison and then, just when we think the song might be over, you kick it up a notch and just let it rip with a thrilling counterpoint and hair-raising harmonies. Is that unique sound the two of you have something you worked really hard on, or does it just naturally occurs when you sing together?
You know, that was just sort of natural. The great thing about Alice is that we have the ability to sound alike when we need to sound alike, but in truth our voices are nothing alike at all. So it's an interesting thing, what we end up having together. I think we "Yin and Yang" each other very nicely. Sometimes when you have two female singers who sound the same, it doesn't quite sound as interesting. So I think we really balance each other well, you know? I love it when people go "Oh, you're on the top; she's on the bottom" and I go "No, we spend a lot of time moving around, so you don't know where we are." People always think they can identify where we are in the harmonies, and most of the time, they're wrong. Which I think is really fun, and funny!
The first time I ever saw you perform live was actually in "Broadway Bares" -
Oh, my god! That was a really long time ago.
[And, just for the record, for anyone for reading this, Emily did NOT take her clothes off!] So - I've always wanted to know, what is the backstage atmosphere like at "Broadway Bares?"
Well, it's nuts. Naked people running around spray-painting their bodies with makeup. It's like a crazy sort of bacchanalian ... whatever you imagine it is, that's what it is! It's a bacchanalia onstage and then it's that offstage. Just people having a wonderful time for a really fantastic cause. I'm so damn proud of Jerry Mitchell for creating that, and that thing has made so much money and helped so many people. This thing we think is so silly and tawdry and whatever has done more good than you can ever imagine. I was thrilled, and I support it every year.
Since you'll be performing in San Francisco, I have to ask about a song that has long been part of your repertoire, "My Brother Lived In San Francisco," about those we've lost to AIDS. That song is almost unbearably poignant and leaves much of the audience in a puddle of tears. What is it like for you to perform that song, what goes through your own mind when you sing it?
I think of people that I've known who are not here anymore. When I first moved to the city in 1992, one of the first organizations that I got involved with was a really cool group that was a branch group from GHMC called Hearts and Voices. This was a group that would go to AIDS wards and sing for people. We would just go weekly and sing stuff we'd brought and take requests and whatever. I spent a couple of years early in my time in New York doing that. So mainly I think of some of the people that I met at St. Vincent's doing that.
As a San Franciscan, that song just speaks straight to my heart.
Yeah, it's a beautiful song and I think it's my favorite song Bill Russell's ever written. It always probably will be. I think it's a sublime lyric, ya know? That song is three pages long, it's a short little song, but it's a gem. And nowadays writers write 18-page songs about, you know, the lint in their navel and we're supposed to care? [laughs] We're living in a different time, but that song to me is an example of an absolutely perfect emotional gem.
(Photo provided by the artist.)
42nd Street Moon's gala "Come to the Moon" featuring Emily Skinner will be on Tuesday, February 4th at the Palace of Fine Arts, 3301 Lyon St., San Francisco, CA. Tickets may be purchased online at www.42ndstmoon.org or by calling the Box Office at (415) 255-8207.