Talkin' with Rachel York
Also see Nancy's review of Linda Eder Sings the Songs of Judy Garland
Ms. York is best known for her critically acclaimed Broadway performances in City of Angels (debut), Les Miserables, Victor, Victoria (Drama Desk Award), The Scarlet Pimpernel, Sly Fox and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. She has toured nationally in Kiss Me, Kate and Camelot, and earned a Drama Desk nomination for Dessa Rose at New York City's Lincoln Center Theater. Most recently, Ms. York starred in the world premiere of the new Marshall Brickman/Rick Elice musical Turn of the Century directed by Tommy Tune at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. We spoke by telephone after she arrived in town for rehearsals early in June.
Nancy Grossman: Rachel, thanks for taking the time to talk with me for Talkin' Broadway. Is this your first Jerry Herman show?
Rachel York: It is.
NG: Have you ever met him?
RY: I haven't.
NG: He had nice things to say about you in an online interview.
RY: That was very nice, and when I read the interview, I thought some people are going to misunderstand him when he says she (Dolly) just has to be older than Streisand. What he meant was Streisand was 29 when she played the role. I got what he was saying, but other people probably might not.
NG: It brings up a good point, when you think of all the iconic people who have played Dolly. What's it like for you to follow in those big footsteps?
RY: Well, it's a big role, that's for sure. When I got the scriptI had never seen a stage productionthe only reference I had was the Barbra Streisand Hello, Dolly! I saw when I was a kid. And I couldn't remember how big the role was; I knew it was a big role, but when I got the script, it was monologue after monologue after monologue! So, yes, it's a big undertaking, but a great honor and just one of the best musicals ever. It's amazing to listen to the music, how every single song is a hit, with a beautiful melody and wonderful lyrics.
NG: Do you have any favorites on the song list?
RY: Oh, goshIt Only Takes a Moment, I've always loved that song; Put on Your Sunday Clothesall of them are so beautiful. Now that I'm getting to learn the role, I'm learning some of the songs that weren't necessarily pop hits, like So Long, Dearie. I love those kinds of songs, full of energy and passion.
NG: How do you make Dolly, to use another line of Jerry Herman, "your own special creation?"
RY: Well, you know, something that Blake Edwards used to say, "Art is just letting it all unfold," and so I'm in the process. I have my experience, my interpretation of the role. I haven't seen a lot of different people play the role. I've heard different recordings of the role. I did finally see Carol Channing in the 1994 production. None of them are really what I'm going to do, but they probably all influenced me on some level. It's really about taking my own experience as an actress and a person and coloring this canvas of Dolly. She's really a rich character. There are so many sides to her. We see her as a social butterfly when, actually, she's just come out of being a reclusive person because she's lost her husband and has had a lot of heartbreak and sort of closed herself away. So, there are two sides to Dolly and we only see one at first. Then she shows us her relationship to Ephraim Levi, her late husband, and we see that there's a lot more to Dolly than meets the eye.
NG: How will you use your comparative youthfulness to advantage in your creation?
RY: Well, here's the thing: Carol Channing was 45 when she originated the role and I'm actually not that far away. I'm getting close to that age so it's not really that big of a stretch. Again, Streisand played it at age 29. Now, a lot of people think she was too young to play the role, although I know a lot of people who disagree with that because she had her interpretation. She did Barbra Streisand and it worked. I thought it was a beautiful movie. The only sad thing was that they changed a lot of the songs for Barbra Streisand and they changed a lot of the dialogue and I don't really understand why that is because the musical is just so perfect the way it is.
I saw Carol Channing's version in 1994 and I love Carol Channing. I think she's amazing, oh my God, what a character. I personally think the role works a little bit better a little younger. I think she's (Dolly) really a contemporary of "Miss" Molloy who is also a widow. I believe that at some point, as Dolly is setting her up with Horace, she realizes, "Hey, I should be getting a husband, I'm just like Miss Molloy!" I don't think she should be too much older than Miss Molloy.
NG: You talked about them having made some changes for the movie, which brings up the changes that were made when Ethel Merman did the show. I understand they're putting back in one or both songs that they had put in for Merman.
RY: Well, we are toying with that. It's a wonderful song that Jerry Herman wrote, a ballad. We have to figure out a place where a ballad would go. This musical needs its pace and it's an uplifting musical. The song "Love, Look in My Window" is a bit of a sad, longing song, so you have to be careful not to bring the energy down, so we'll see.
NG: I know you're so good at voices; do you do Channing or Merman?
RY: You know, I suppose I could sing a little bit like Merman. I haven't really worked on Channing. I'll have to start doing that, I guess. I think Channing is easier for men to do because she's a tenor. She has quite a low voice. I'm already a couple of octaves higher than her. I'll work on it. It probably won't be in my interpretation of Dolly, that's for sure.
NG: When you and your mother used to sing when you were a kid, among the things you sang was "Hello, Dolly!" and I wonder if it felt like you were destined to play the character at some point?
RY: There's sort of a full circle feeling about the whole thing, because it's true. I do remember when we had friends over, when I was nine, Mom would play "Hello, Dolly!" and, of all songs for a little kid to sing ... So it is kind of funny that I play Dolly right now. I was joking with some people in the cast how recently there are a few roles that people have said, "Oh, she's too old for the role," so when Dolly came my way, I was like, "Yeah, bring it on, bring it on!"
NG: Is there a certain kind of role that grabs you? Do you like these big, broad colorful people, or do you like people with a little more nuance?
RY: I've got this question before and it all depends on the mood I'm in, what occurred in my life recently, and I have a knack for attracting the perfect role for me at that time in my life, for what I need to express in my heart. It's uncanny sometimes. I remember before I played Ruth in Dessa Rose, I remember thinking I wanted to play a "salt of the earth" character, a normal woman dealing with normal problems, dealing with the regular difficulties of life ... and that role came my way and that's just where I was. Recently, I've experienced some loss and I'm ready to put that behind me and move on and really celebrate life. Then, along comes Dolly at exactly where she is in her life. Now I'm at a turning point where I'm just ready to live life again. Life's too short.
NG: It seems like a real gift to have the kind of work where you can work out your stuff in what you're doing everyday and, at the same time, bring those lessons to the audience.
RY: Absolutely, I find acting to be a very cathartic experience. I absolutely believe that.
NG: You have a great ability to tell a story with your face and your voice, even in a stand alone song. To me, that is one of your greatest assets and I wonder where that comes from.
RY: That's the way I look at music. I sort of started my career as an actressthat was my passion, acting, and I look at every song as a monologue. So, I approach every song the way I would approach a monologue. It's not just about singing a song and the lyrics. It's that each song is a story and has to be interpreted; for it to really touch anybody, you have to have your heart in what you're singing.
NG: You sometimes seem to really blow yourself away, like when you do "I Dreamed a Dream," for instance. I've seen you do that and you need some time at the end of the song before you move on.
RY: Well-l-l, that could be true.
NG: Have you worked with any of the people in Dolly before?
RY: No, not a one. But, they're a wonderful cast. Some of these people have played these roles beforeJamie Ross has played Horace Vandergelder, Rick Hilsabeck played Cornelius Hacklso they got a head start on me. They're all lovely to work with, they all have wonderful voices. It's a very, very talented company. Worth Howe has directed Hello, Dolly! before, so he comes with a lot of wisdom and experience. As far as staging and blocking, it makes it a lot easier, but then we all have to fill in everything with our own personality, our own interpretation of the character.
NG: You've had a couple of major iconic kinds of roles where you've had huge amounts of dialogue. What comes to mind are Kate and Guenevere, and then your own origination of Ruth. Does it make it easier, having those in your background, to pick up somebody who's as big as Dolly?
RY: It all helps, you know, all the experience along the way, my life experience. All of it helps to color my interpretation of Dolly. I guess the fact that I have played other roles like Kate and Ruth that were big mouthfuls, it doesn't intimidate me quite as much. But when you only have ten days to learn a part, I'm definitely putting all of my time into learning Dolly and creating Dolly right now.
NG: Do you have any plans for another CD on the drawing board?
RY: I would love to do another CD. You know, we're workin' on it.
NG: Would you consider a compilation of all your great show tunes from the roles you've played?
RY: Some of them. As with my relationships, it's also true for the songs I sing, I don't like to go back. If I've done it, been there, done that, typically I don't go back. I want to try something new. So, a new album would probably be some of the old and a little bit of the new. I like to keep it fresh.
NG: Speaking of old becoming new, Turn of the Century uses all that old, great American music. It's been referred to as a "Broadway-bound" musical. Can you comment on its status?
RY: Well, right now, I will tell you that the writers are tied up and putting all of their energy into The Addams Family. And times are tough right now with the economy, so it's difficult getting any Broadway show put up. We have a wonderful pedigree in the show; it's just that it's going to be delayed a little bit. We hope it will eventually come to Broadway. It's a wonderful concept for a show, so we hope that it gets there.
NG: Even though you're based in Los Angeles now, you're willing to return to Broadway?
RY: Yeah, the right role in the right vehicle, the right show, absolutely. I'm living in L.A., I love the sun. I'm originally from Orlando, Florida, so I love waking up and seeing the sun. So, I made my residence in L.A., but I love New York as well and I love the theatre and I love performing, so if it's the right thing, I'm there in a heartbeat.
NG: You've performed in a variety of settings: theatre, big and small screen, cabaret, concerts, cruise shipswhere is your true heart, if you had to choose?
RY: Oh, well, I think Broadway, theatre. There's nothing more wonderful than creating a role in a great musical or play; you know, just going through the whole process, the growing process and putting it up, the excitement of putting up a new show and it hopefully being a success. There's nothing better than that. There's that instant gratification, it's right there, it's a high like no other that you can't get from film and TV. There's nothing to compare to live theatre and working with a talented family, a company of actors and artists.
NG: Are you going to have any time to explore and enjoy Boston?
RY: I have been to Boston before and I love Boston. I love all of Boston, it's a really beautiful city and, for being on the east coast, it has pretty nice weather.
NG: Thank you so much for your time, you've been very generous. I really look forward to seeing you at the opening (on June 19th).