Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Donna Migliaccio: Putting It Together
Donna Migliaccio has been a familiar face to Washington theater audiences for years. She is a celebrated actress who is the recipient of the 1992 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Musical for her performance in Sweeney Todd. She is also the co-founder of the renowned Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia. Ms. Migliaccio has played a variety of roles within the DC area and beyond.
Those roles include a number of characters created by Stephen Sondheim from Mrs. Lovett from Sweeney Todd to Nurse from Sunday In The Park With George. Now Ms. Migliaccio brings her considerable talents to the Sondheim Celebration, which is being presented by The Kennedy Center throughout the summer. She will be reprising her role of Nurse under the direction of Eric Schaeffer (Artistic Director, Sondheim Celebration and Artistic Director, Signature Theatre), her former director and co-founder of the Signature. With the Celebration in full gear, Ms. Migliaccio took a moment to share her experiences with the Talkin' Broadway readers.
Tracy Lyon: This is not your first time being involved with Sunday In The Park With George. Can you tell us a little about that infamous production in 1989?
Donna Migliaccio: Oh, it wasn't infamous at all! It was the first time it had been produced in the DC area and it was community theater. It was the Arlington Players, and a very young Eric Schaeffer was the director. He managed to get hold of the original Broadway set and the original Broadway costumes and props. It was quite something. It was done in a large theater so we were able to use the original stuff without any changes. He had been corresponding with Sondheim, who was very supportive about it, and it was actually quite good, particularly considering that it was a community theater production.
TL: It seems like that production was really what set you and Eric Schaeffer on the road to establishing Signature Theatre.
DM: That's correct. We had been friends for a couple of years prior to that and were working on the show. I think he was sitting on the board of directors for the Arlington Players at the time and I was sitting on the board of directors for a different community theater group. We had been talking about the fact that even though the community theaters were doing good work, we felt that there was a need and an opening for a professional theater in Northern Virginia, because at the time there was no professional resident theater in Northern Virginia. There was Metro Stage in Old Town Alexandria that was doing some stuff, but we felt there was a need for it in Arlington and there was enough talent at the non-equity level to at least get us started off. It was the next year that we started working on putting Signature together; we incorporated in 1990 and produced in '91.
TL: Can you tell us about the role you will be playing in Sunday?
DM: This is the same part I have done twice before. I have always done the Nurse for Eric. He directed a production of Sunday In The Park With George for Arena Stage five years ago. I did the Nurse for him in that production too. (laughs) So, this is like putting on old shoes. I am very comfortable with the music and I am very comfortable with the lines, and of course, it being an Eric Schaeffer production, there are new twists on it, which I will leave for people to find out once they come and see the show.
TL: It seems like the Signature, as well as you in particular, have done a lot of Sondheim. What is it about Sondheim that continues to draw you back?
DM: It's because it is never easy. There are other composers with which you can sing and you can relax, and you can have a good time. You can kind of do it with half a brain - and you just can't do that with Sondheim. I am fond of saying that if you relax when you are singing Sondheim, the next bar will bite you in the butt.
TL: It's very challenging.
DM: Yes, and that's what I like about it. I have a friend who is not a huge Sondheim fan who says, "Oh, you singers just like Sondheim because it makes you feel smart." He is exactly right because there is a sense of accomplishment when you get through a difficult Sondheim phrase - singing the notes correctly and doing the phrasing and the timing correctly. Sunday In The Park With George is full of that. We were working on "Putting It Together" today in rehearsal and it's just one of those numbers where you can just never relax.
TL: This is such an exciting time for DC. How do you think the Sondheim Celebration, as a whole, will impact Washington theater?
DM: I don't know that it is going to have an impact one way or another. The Washington theater scene is huge. It's the second biggest theater town after New York, which a lot of people don't realize. There is actually more professional theater in DC than there is in Chicago or L.A. It's a real thriving community. It ranges from the big theaters like Arena and the Shakespeare Theater to the small nomadic companies that are really doing some different things. I have been out of town for a year and I have been reading the newspaper, trying to catch up and see what's going on. There are some fascinating things. It's a very vital, thriving community. The Sondheim (Celebration) has been great because it has included a lot of local actors.
TL: There has been some discussion about the fact that there are a lot of New York actors that were cast in the Celebration. How do think local actors feel about that?
DM: I know that there always is a certain amount of resentment, but at the same time, we are not stupid. We realize that they need to attract the national press - they watch for that kind of thing. They want it to succeed - they want big names they can market. I was asked, "How do you feel about Sweeney Todd? You have done Mrs. Lovett twice in DC and they brought in Christine Baranski." And I said, "More power to them!" That's a marketable name. Everybody certainly understands. There are times when we wish that they would consider us for the big roles but that's just not going to happen. It's just like in New York. There are plenty of reputable New York actors and some TV personality will come in and get the big role. It's about money and we all have to have money in order to make more theater.
TL: You were recently nominated for a Helen Hayes Award for playing Rose in Gypsy. Was that fun for you?
DM: No. (laughs) I would love to have a chance to do it again. I was not completely happy with that production and not happy ultimately with my performance. So, I would like to have another crack at it sometime. That's all I am going to say about that. (laughs) It's a role where you feel like you are throwing yourself head first into a brick wall every single night. Sometimes I would come up feeling okay from that and sometimes I would come up feeling like I had just smashed my head to a bloody pulp. I am sure I will get a chance to do it again one of these days but it wasn't exactly what I was hoping for.
TL: You played another very memorable woman in Dirty Blonde - Mae West.
DM: I loved that. I had great fun with that.
TL: How did you prepare to play her?
DM: Strangely enough, I was called in to audition for it when I was in the midst of the run of Gypsy and I was just exhausted. When they called me in to read for it, I didn't even have the sense like all the other women who were auditioning, to dress a la Mae West. There were a lot of big, buxom blonde women who were wearing spangles, sparkles and heeled boots. I had come in wearing my hair in a dark brown short crop al la Madam Rose. I had on a very somber outfit and I didn't even think about it. I was thinking about the fact that I had to be on the train for three hours looking neat at least. I was so tired and I thought, this is the worst audition of my life. Then they called me and asked me to understudy the part and then take over when Claudia leaves. So, I covered Claudia Shear, the originator of the role and the author of the play, for the first two months of the run in San Francisco, and then took it over for the final month.
TL: Did you find that San Francisco audiences were different than DC audiences?
DM: Not particularly. I found them very warm. I think it was interesting for the New York cast because they had to adjust their tempo for a west coast audience, particularly a San Francisco audience, which is fairly laid back. They were talking too fast. It came down to something that little - they were just talking too fast because they were accustomed to a New York tempo. But I really enjoyed the show. I had great fun with it and I found the San Francisco audiences to be very welcoming. I would get tickled because I would get recognized on the street by people who had seen me do the show. I would think, wow! That's really kind of cool! (laughs) I really liked San Francisco. It think it's a great town.
And I had such a good time with the show. It's such a well-written piece. It's a wonderful part. The sort of role, where you are actually going back and forth playing two different characters, is sort of my meat and potatoes. I love doing stuff like that, which is good because I am doing it in Sunday In The Park With George - I play both Nurse and Mrs. in the first act. So, that was great fun and the costumes were a riot. It was just so much fun to play Mae West.
TL: Did you have any favorite lines?
DM: Oh, there were so many! It's a brilliant script. There is a part when the older Mae is first introduced and she has a whole speech about enemas and high colonics that is just fall on the floor hysterical.
TL: Rehearsals must be keeping you really busy these days.
DM: This company for Sunday In The Park With George is one of the funniest groups of people I have ever worked with. We laugh nonstop. It's much more fun to work with a company that just starts to giggle when they get tired. They don't snap at each other. It's a much easier way to do a show.
Sunday in the Park with George will be presented May 31 - June 28 at the Eisenhower Theater for the Kennedy Center. Ms. Migliaccio fellow castmates include Melissa Errico (Dot) and Raul Esparza (George). More information on the Sondheim Celebration can be found at www.kennedy-center.org/programs/newseason/sondheim/