BWW Interview: Heather Orth of THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD at Foothill Music Theatre Delights in Playing Eccentric Cockney Ladies and Also Digging Into Darker Roles
Heather Orth stars as mysterious opium den proprietress Princess Puffer in Foothill Music Theatre's new production of Rupert Holmes' rollicking musical comedy "The Mystery of Edwin Drood." A Tony Award winner for Best Musical, the show is based on an unfinished novel by Charles Dickens. As the novel was left incomplete, so is the show - up to a point. When the cast reaches the part in the story where Dickens left off, they put a vote to the audience at each performance as to how the show will end.
Ms. Orth has been gracing Bay Area stages with astonishing frequency as of late. She possesses a big, flexible voice and the ability to charm the pants off you or break your heart with her emotional transparency. BroadwayWorld caught up with her recently while she was still in the thick of rehearsals for "Drood." She has often played characters older than she is, and as she matures one gets the sense she may just be coming into her own as a musical theater performer and that even bigger opportunities may be on the horizon. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
"The Mystery of Edwin Drood" has that unique hook where the audience decides how it ends - who the murderer is, who the detective is and which pair they want to see end up as lovers. Whatever the audience decides is what the actors actually have to perform, complete with concluding musical numbers. How do you even begin to rehearse the multiplicity of options you need to have ready just in case?
First, a fun fact is that we did some math which, since we're theater people, took about 30 of us to figure out. [laughs] There are over 900 possible combinations of endings, which is just mind-boggling, and I didn't believe it at first. [That said] it's actually not as hard as you would think. There are five potential detective characters, so we just run through each of those, and then there's, I think, seven potential murderers. The lovers combinations are where it gets a little crazy.
That still sounds like a lot to me! I mean, rehearsing a normal show is hard enough.
It is, but the nice thing about the way this is written is that the parts that are variable are very standalone. When the detective tells you who they are, they're by themselves onstage and then the same thing with the murderer. When the murderer is revealed, they get a standalone number, essentially just their soliloquy song. So all you have to do is rehearse those individual elements. The part where it gets tricky is the lovers where there are combinations of pairs. I think we have four women and four men [principals] in the show, and it's [limited to] heterosexual couples because if we had made it all gender inclusive, everyone would have been there for nine hours right? [laughs] - I can't imagine how many endings you'd have to write - so we just cycled through, there's one song that the lovers get to sing and there's a male part and a female part, and so we rehearsed all that together as a group, and then the only thing that varies is two lines of dialog for each lover pair. So that was a good chunk of rehearsal just running through all these possible pairings so we each got to say all of our lines to all of our possible partners at least once. But then it'll always feel very fresh, whoever gets chosen as the lovers, not only for the audience, but for us. There's a lot of room for spontaneity, in terms of how we interact with the other person we're up there with, which really adds another layer of fun to it for everybody.
In the original Broadway production, it was reported that certain cast members started embellishing their performances with extra schtick to get their character more noticed and thus chosen as a key player in the ending. Has that been addressed at all with the Foothill cast?
It hasn't, but the way this show is built, there is room for that because it's a show within a show. We are the cast members of the Music Hall Royale in the 1890's and we're putting on "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" for you so there's a lot of fourth-wall breaking, going in and out of the story to comment on the action, and so within that there is room for a little bit of improv. We've now got the bones of the show in place and these next couple of weeks are really gonna be about refining everything. I think we're gonna start discovering more moments that we can play with the audience and with each other. For the principals, the show does become a bit of a competition cause everybody wants to do their murderer turn at the end - that's the real prize, to get your extra song. So I would not be surprised if some of us start to fight a little dirty! [laughs]
You're playing Princess Puffer, a somewhat mysterious, putative opium dealer created by the inimitable jazz singer Cleo Laine and played in the Broadway revival by the equally distinctive but very different Chita Rivera.
Is that at all intimidating or does it just give you freedom to create your own, unique Puffer?
It's not intimidating to me, actually. I was lucky enough to see the revival on Broadway with Chita Rivera, and I loved her. My Puffer is very different from her because she was [cast] against type, not really who you would think of as Puffer. But she's just one of those people whose stage presence alone, you're like "Well, you're a legend, so sure, you can do whatever you want!" [laughs] My Puffer I would say is more in the line of Cleo Laine, but not heavily tied to her. This kind of show is in my pocket, in terms of things that I love. I'm a big anglophile, I grew up on a steady diet of BBC and I love the concept of English music hall, I love that era in English history, I love murder mysteries. At this time last year, I was playing Mrs. Lovett in "Sweeney Todd" so this definitely is in my wheelhouse, these sort of eccentric Cockney ladies in the Victorian era. I'm just sort of trying to make a career on that and see how that goes! [laughs]
Yeah, and although Cleo Laine was known as a jazz singer, Puffer's big solo is not that jazzy.
No, it's a big music hall song. My thought is that in the context of the show, it's really there just because the character, the performer Angela Prysock who plays Princess Puffer, I think it's maybe just a slight reworking of the song that she always does in the music hall shows because it's "her number." It's just her at home in her element, talking to the patrons, singing for the audience, big old belty voice, having a great time, and so that's my favorite thing to do in the show. But I also love "Garden Path to Hell" which seems was put in much more for Cleo Laine. It has a different sound than anything else in the show, it does sound slightly jazzier. Clearly Rupert Holmes went "Well, you know we do have Cleo Laine so why don't we go ahead and put a little interpretive jazzy number in there for her?" It's a lovely, introspective song which gives you a lot to play with in terms of phrasing.
A key element of the Foothill Music Theatre program is its apprenticeship approach whereby students work alongside highly experienced performing arts professionals such as yourself. Can you talk a little about how that works in practice?
A good, solid chunk of our ensemble members are college-age students, most of whom attend Foothill in some capacity, which I actually also did. I did the Foothill Theatre Conservatory for a year right out of high school, so it's sort of like this déjà vu for me. And I've done a couple shows there in the intervening years. It's been really lovely just to be around the students, their energy, eagerness and excitement to be a part of this. And it's also really interesting to see how Milissa Carey, our director, is able to wear a couple different hats. She is directing a show that is populated at least halfway by people who have been doing this for a long time, and then people who are a little less experienced, who are here in an educational capacity. So for her to be able to bounce back and forth between the direction of the show itself and also create teaching moments for the students, and the way that she deftly is able to do that without interrupting the process in any way is really impressive.
And for you more experienced performers, she has to be careful not to just bore you to tears, either.
Right! Like she can't just stop and say "let's talk about the breakdown of what a scene is," ya know? But she finds time to step aside with some of the students and talk to them really quick. She knows them very well so she'll talk to them about how "Usually I see you play this type of character. Let's try and make your character in the ensemble more this type of character so we give you different challenges and new things to explore so you're not pigeon-holed." Having them stretch their muscles while also wrangling this entire show - I can't imagine it's easy, but she handles it beautifully.
Last summer, you gave a haunting performance in one of the most challenging roles in the musical theater canon, Fosca in Sondheim & Lapine's "Passion." That role is basically devoid of all the things musical theater performers usually rely on to entertain and build rapport with the audience - there's no charm song, no witty banter, no dancing, no flattering costumes. What was it like as an actor to play Fosca?
That was one of the most visceral, difficult experiences of my career, and I'm endlessly grateful that I got to do it. I mean, you just have to tear yourself open onstage and learn how to accept the audience's dislike of you. I don't know that anybody's "won over" by Fosca per se, but I think in the best-case scenarios, people start to feel for her and some people feel a kinship with her. I had to accept that there were always going to be people in the audience who were not going to like the story that we were telling, not going to like this character. For me, even as problematic she is as a human being, in order to play that role I have to identify with her in a lot of really personal ways. So it's very hard to not conflate yourself with her and then take the audience's response very personally.
It was going through the emotional wringer, for sure, but it's a show that I have loved for the bulk of my life. I mean, I was listening to "Passion" when it came out when I was 10, which is a weird thing for a 10-year-old to be listening to! [laughs] I was a weird, precocious little musical theater child with a lot of feelings. [laughs] But, yeah, it was a show and a score that I loved and that had always resonated really deeply with me. It's done so rarely because it is such a difficult and dangerous show to do. It's never going to be a blockbuster money-maker for any theater, and you're always gonna come away with patrons who are like "Well, that was just the most horrible thing I've ever seen!" But it was also beautifully cathartic in a lot of ways, spending time with that show and that beautiful cast. You have to really have a supportive group of people around you to kind of make it through that show intact, and a really good sense of humor too, because you need to be able to lighten the mood between scenes. So yeah, it was a beautiful show, it was incredibly difficult and I am endlessly proud of that whole piece and of the work I did and the work everyone did on that show.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, your most recent role was as Mrs. Bennet in the world premiere of Paul Gordon's musical adaptation of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" at TheatreWorks. This was such a different role from Fosca, all charm and warmth and good humor. Is that kind of role where you're "the fun one" who the audience is just waiting for to come back onstage more enjoyable for you to play?
Mrs. Bennet is just fun and easy and, again for me, in that sort of English musical pocket. I can come onstage and be British and delightful for days, you know? So yeah, in a very traditional sense that is definitely more fun, definitely less taxing. But I also love roles that I really have to dig into, the ones that have a lot of meat to them. It's like any balanced meal - it's nice to have a mix. I've been very fortunate that, especially in the last 3 or 4 years, I've been getting to do a lot of stuff that I've really always wanted to do, getting that nice balanced meal of roles where I get to dig in deep to some interesting stuff, and I also get to do some fun, ridiculous, silly things. I just like being onstage so whatever I get to do, I'm happy to do it.
You've stated that your favorite role has been Momma Rose in "Gypsy" which you first played at the tender age of 27. What is it about that particular role that resonates so deeply with you?
Rose is always gonna be my favorite. I was very lucky to get to play her when I was fairly young and that's kind of been the story of my whole career. When you're six feet tall and on the larger side, you just look older, ya know? I played Aunt Eller in "Oklahoma!" when I was twelve and that's kinda been my trajectory. [laughs] For me, [Rose] is unquestionably the best female role in musical theater in one of, if not the, best-written American musicals. I just think "Gypsy" as a piece of storytelling, as a treatise on fame and on life as a performer is unmatched. You get the music of Jule Styne with the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim. I can't imagine a more amazing combo, of the traditional Broadway sound with the sort of new Broadway sensibility in terms of the witticism of the lyrics.
Rose is such a complex character and for me, one of the things I gravitate towards, which makes sense why I gravitated towards Fosca, too, is that I really like taking characters that, if you just glance at them, people go "Oh, yeah, that horrible person. She's a monster." And I'm like "She's not, though. She's a person!" I think there's a lot to be pitied in Rose, but there are real things to love in her. She's obviously misguided and puts her energy perhaps in wrong places, but she's also driven. She's a woman constrained by the world around her and the times she lives in. That line where she talks about she was born too soon and started too late, just that sense of being trapped by the accident of when and where you were born and who you were born as, I think is so meaty and fascinating. I think I could play her for the rest of my life, happily. I feel really lucky that I got to play her starting as young as I did, and that I hopefully have the chance to play her again and again - until I'm in a walker and cannot be onstage at all. [laughs]
You've made something of a career playing characters who are older than you are. Were you ever the ingenue?
Kind of no. I have two examples: When I was like 12, my middle school did "Meet Me in St. Louis" and I got to be Judy Garland and that was really fun. Luckily my best friend who was a boy was as tall as me so he got to play opposite me. And then, god bless 42nd Street Moon, I did "Something for the Boys" which had starred Ethel Merman when she got to be the leading lady ingenue - a brassy version of it, but she still got to be the unequivocal love interest. I got to end up with the handsome army man at the end. That was really lovely and refreshing, cause I don't get to do that that often, both because of my physical type and my voice type. You don't get a lot of ingenue love interest roles who are throaty altos, and that's a failing on musical theater's part, I feel. [laughs]
Who are your own acting heroes, people whose artistry you admire and maybe steal a little from?
Oh, god, Angela Lansbury first and foremost. I love that woman! I just think she can do no wrong. May she live forever, that glorious, glorious woman. I love her style. She is a phenomenal musician and singer, but if you put her against someone like a Patti LuPone or a Donna Murphy, she isn't the world's greatest singer, but that woman is such a storyteller through song. To me personally as a performer, I find that more important than vocal pyrotechnics. Not that I don't love me some vocal pyrotechnics, but I always strive to make sure I am storytelling with my performance, that I am putting the story and emotion and human feelings first. So for me, Angela Lansbury is like the pinnacle. But then, you know, I love some good Ethel Merman brassiness, some Patti LuPone crazy, Donna Murphy bein' Donna Murphy, Betty Buckley being crazy Betty Buckley - ya know, all the great brassy gals.
You work a lot. Do you know yet what's up next for you after "Drood"?
I do, but I can't talk about it because it's not public yet. I have a show that is going to rehearse in November and be up in December. I accidentally ended up with a little bit of a break and then I decided to extend it and actually give myself a real break. I looked back and saw I've been working kind of nonstop since 2016. I took a second and went like "Oh, I'm tired!" So I'm actually gonna take about 8 months off it looks like. And it's hard cause I'm the kind of person who's afraid that everyone's gonna forget about me if I'm not working constantly. But I've been good, I've said no to some auditions, even some shows that I thought "That would be interesting, that would be cool to think about that!" But I'm gonna enforce a break on myself so I can remember how to be a person. I have a boyfriend who I hear is very nice, so I can maybe see him a little [laughs], go on some trips. But then, yeah, in December, I have a show that will be very exciting and hopefully will be announced in the next couple of months or so.
Foothill Music Theatre's production of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" runs February 27th through March 15th at the Foothill College Lohman Theatre, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills, CA 94022. Tickets and further information are available at https://foothill.edu/theatre/productions/Drood.html or by calling 650-949-7360.