Imagine achieving the level of success on Broadway that most people only dream about: originating roles in two Broadway shows, for which you receive great praise and award nominations. Add to that being the first American actress to play the lead in what has become the most successful musical of all time. Now imagine giving all that up and moving to the Northwest. Patti Cohenour, who possesses one of the most thrilling voices in Musical Theatre, seemingly did all that. After appearing on Broadway in A Doll's Life, Big River (for which she received a Drama Desk Nomination), The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Tony and Drama Desk Nomination) and The Phantom of the Opera, she moved to the Seattle area, returning to New York to play the Mother Abbess in last year's revival of The Sound of Music. I interviewed Patti during her run as Lily in The Secret Garden, a part she originated in the pre-Broadway workshop.
Jonathan: Welcome to Talkin' Broadway, Patti! Glad to see you got through WTO unscathed.
Patti: Me too! It was horrible because we had to cancel so many performances and kept rehearsing instead. It made me laugh a bit ... here we are, truckin' to the theatre through the National Guard and riot police ... the whole place is completely shut down, but you know us theatricals; the show must go on!
J: Well, it was wonderful to see you finally perform Lily in The Secret Garden, a part you originated in the workshop.
P: Yeah. It's a blessing, because it was such a difficult decision to pass up playing Lily on Broadway. When I wrote my letters to Marsha Norman, Susan Schulman and Lucy Simon, I basically said that I wanted to be able to afford real gardens, as opposed to singing about them. Because now I know what I am talking about when I'm singing about 'clusters of crocus,' since I just planted a whole bunch. One of the cast members gave us crocus bulbs for opening, and everybody gave them to me because I have a garden to put them in! (laughs) Which is something that I never would have gotten had I done the show on Broadway. I was made an offer I could not refuse to do Phantom.
J: How long did you tour with Phantom of the Opera in Canada?
P: Eighteen months, with about four months in each city. Then I was brought into Toronto for six more months with Colm as my Phantom, plus I had played it on Broadway. Ultimately, Phantom was a very rewarding, extraordinary experience.
J: Did you see the Broadway production of The Secret Garden?
P: I did. And it was wonderful, but ... there are no wrong decisions ... it was just not meant to be.
Ultimately, Secret Garden has always been a gift. Lucy Simon and I are very much bonded. I called her when I started working on the music for this production, and I was sitting on the couch crying like a baby. Her husband answered and said that I had just missed her, that she had just left for London with Marsha Norman. They are going to be doing a production there, apparently, and they are re-addressing the piece.
J: Is there a chance of your doing Lily in London?
P: I don't know. (knocks wood)
J: I heard that the part of Archie was written with Mark Jacoby in mind. What's the story there?
P: Lucy always wanted Mark as Archie; she always loved his work and she was thrilled that we were going to play together here. He was one of her first choices for the role, but he was doing Phantom, and budget-wise, there's no comparison between Phantom and Secret Garden. Actors have bills and families, so it's hard to leave a good contract, especially when you have a wonderful role. I was excited to work with Mark here. The two of us have worked with everybody but each other, especially since we both did Showboat and Phantom!
J: Since you originated the part, I figure you would be the one to know ... what the hell was Lily doing climbing a tree at 8 or 9 months pregnant???
P: (laughs) It's funny ... Laura Griffith who plays Rose and Jonathan Hadley who plays Neville are just evil. They told me that the two of them went out one night and sawed through the tree branch, because they knew that we always sat there together and they were tired of Archibald ... but I wrecked things by going up by myself! They didn't mean to kill me, but that's the way it was!
J: (laughing) Ah, the behind the scenes black-humor! When I did the show, I played the soldier who finds Mary, and then inexplicably becomes one of the dreamers. So I told Mary that she was 'Cholera Mary' ... that she infected me, went on to Misselthwaite Manor to infect everyone there, and that she will inherit everything once they die.
Has the show changed much since you did it?
P: "How Could I Ever Know" was just a solo when we did it, but I'm glad it's a duet now. There were lots of verses that were cut from songs that went on too long, but it's pretty much intact from when we did it. The music was extraordinary from the beginning; it was just beautiful. It's got that legit rock and roll quality, even, with "Wick;" I love that song! I'm up there, sittin' in the portrait rocking away! (laughing) That's how Lily fell from the tree; she was rockin' in the tree branch! It's Dickon's fault!
J: Did Daisy Eagan play Mary in the workshop?
P: Yes. When we did the reading with Daisy, I went home that night and said "Daisy Eagan will win the Tony." There was no doubt in my mind. She's one of the most gifted and talented people.
J: Was Mandy Patinkin Archie in the workshop?
P: No. David Dunbar was the original Archie. He's a Toronto actor and extraordinary. David Carroll was Neville, and every time I hear "Lily's Eyes" I'm backstage weeping like a baby because I love him so much. There's a part of the song which Archie sings now, but David as Neville sang originally; near the end where it soars with "She has my Lily's hazel eyes ... " I can still hear him singing it, and I miss him. He was one of the finest musical theater performers and so much fun ... he was my Rudolfo in La Boheme. There were a lot of wonderful people involved in the workshop. I think it was just the two Davids and myself that didn't go on to Broadway.
J: You left Broadway just as you were really getting on the 'diva track' careerwise. Was that a difficult decision? Why did you do it?
P: Well, I'm not a real 'east-coaster.' I never really felt like I fit in; I felt like I was always just visiting. My husband and I are very much 'self-made' and we didn't have anybody who could help us make a down payment on an apartment in New York. And we wanted a real yard and house, and unless we lived in Westchester and commuted every day ...
And I've never been comfortable with the concept of 'celebrity;' I like to go where the good work is. I didn't set out to be ...
J: A Broadway star ...
P: Yeah. I've just always flown by instinct. I never had a plan. I don't think you really can have one in this life. Life has an extraordinary way of putting you in a different direction right when you've thought you had it all figured out. So when it comes to my career, I've done everything 'bass-ackwards' since I never had a plan.
I also knew that I was leaving the 'ingenue' stage and had to make a leap into another direction. I think my strength is that I have stretch and I didn't want to be typed into 1800's ethereal characters ... I was falling into that niche.
Broadway will always be there; it's one of those extraordinary places ... you always think it's going to die but it never will. And when you're right for a role, especially with the internet, there's no reason not to be available. Casting people know where to find the actors that they think are right for something, and if it's an extraordinary role, you get on that plane and audition. But in the meantime, I didn't want to give up my quality of life. I just can't do it; I think that life's too short.
J: Although your career has had many hit shows, you have had one notable flop, A Doll's Life.
P: My Broadway debut! I understudied Nora, and did go on both in New York and LA. Betsy Joslyn and I are about the only women who have performed that role ... and that role ... boy, it really was extraordinary. It required you to have a voice that could do everything. You went from the basement to the higher tiers, while running around carrying the whole show. There were 12 costume changes, 11 wig changes ... some of which took place in 30 seconds ... it made Christine Daae look like a walk in the park!
It was an incredible experience working with those people for my Broadway debut ... Larry Grossman wrote such a wonderful score, and Comden and Green wrote the book and lyrics ... I would sit there in rehearsal just stunned! And Hal Prince used a lot of the same stage pictures that he created for Doll's Life in Phantom.
I was in the worst position because I was understudying a role that changed every day, and I was in the show at the same time! I remember when I went on for the first time in New York ... I went to brunch on a Sunday, and I told my friend at the table that if I had to go on that day I couldn't, because there were so many changes; scenes cut, lines inserted, verses changed ... and I had to keep tabs on all this without being intrusive. In those days, you didn't get to work on the set or with the props at understudy rehearsals. We wandered to the theatre around 1:20, 1:30 and as we're walking past the box office, a friend of hers said "I'm so excited I get to see you today!" And I looked up, and there was the posting "Patti Cohenour as Nora!" They had been trying to reach me for hours!
J: And this was before pagers ...
P: Oh yeah! Pre-pager, pre-cell phone! So I dashed from the box office to the stage doors in about a second! I should have won an Olympic medal for that dash! And the stage manager was having a conniption fit! I hadn't done the role since LA; my costumes were still in crates! So they slapped on all these dark wigs on me, the stage manager is trying to feed me the lines, and I didn't remember them at all. So I told everybody I needed 10 minutes completely to myself, and I didn't want to talk to anybody. I had to flush everything out of my brain, clean it out, and focus. That's what you have to do ... take it one moment at a time. At five minutes, there was this knock at the door ... Hal Prince has this habit of knocking and coming right on in with those glasses on his head. And he poked his head in and said "I heard so much about this performance that I can hardly wait" and slammed the door. And I'm just like "AHHHHH!" Then George Hearn came when they called 'places' and said "Come on Patti! Let's go play!" and I said "Go play with yourself, I'm not coming!" And they're dragging me out to do the show.
A Doll's Life starts with the last scene of The Doll's House and it never stops! But I got a major standing ovation and Hal was thrilled. He came down the hall, swept me up into his arms, and ordered blonde wigs ... which arrived Thursday when we closed! The show got the worst notices that I have ever read.
J: Were they deserved?
P: No, I don't think so. I think Betsy was wonderful, as a performer and as a human being. And I really hate it when critics dig into physical aspects of an actor. They tore the show apart. I never read such hateful reviews.
The night after we opened, I was very sick with a kidney infection, and couldn't perform. Betsy told me that she would rather have been in my position than go on! I was backstage, going down the hall with my bag, and everybody was on deck getting ready for the show. There was Hal, clear down the hall backstage, in Michael Bennett's arms weeping. And to see two of the most incredible theatre talents of our century, one man holding the other man ... To see this great man who has won how many Tony's and accolades sobbing ... But it was an incredible way to make a debut with all those great, talented people. And Larry Grossman's songs were so incredible. I sing them in concert and people love them.
P: Very well. It's been a slow growth; it's going to have a long shelf life. I haven't focused on it, as far as doing it in concert form, but when we did live in Latvia it was extraordinary. We've sent some packages to symphonies, and now have to follow up. I did it with just piano/vocal for the Yeats society in New York and they just loved it.
J: How did you get hooked up with the composer?
P: I knew John Aschenbrenner since 1984. He composed an awesome musical that I did, Dracula, a Musical Nightmare, which has been done a lot regionally. At a cast party hosted by John and his now ex-wife, I heard this extraordinary music being played on the stereo. It was simply piano, but it just blew me away, and I found out it was John's. When I told him I loved it, he told me that it was based on Yeats poetry and he envisioned it for female voice. I asked if I could sing them, and he said he'd be honored. He had only written three of the songs at that point. While I was doing Phantom in New York, he created the rest of the piece and based it on my voice. I would work on it Monday and Wednesday nights at his studio, and he would bring me in with this book of poetry, put me on headset and teach me one or two phrases of the music, we'd discuss the poem, and I would do it two phrases at a time, then shut the book of poetry, and off I'd go! It was like I was living the story of Phantom with this mad composer who was creating this extraordinary piece for me ... at least he let me out of the lair! It was incredible to be living the story while I was playing it at the same time!
J: Are you thinking about recording another album? I'd love to hear you record "How Could I Ever Know," for instance or the songs from A Doll's Life.
P: I like recording new music ... I look at Ella Fitzgerald and Cleo Laine and how they performed standards and think "I am not worthy!" I would just rather put my stamp on something brand new and make it my own. I'm too afraid to take on "Jingle Bells" and do something new with it! Maybe I'm being silly ... but I really do like new music. I feel strongly about new talent and new composers.
I also love folk music. I came from guitar clubs. I performed folk, country, and soft rock for years with a friend of mine; we went to Nashville and everything. So I feel like I have to go back to my roots and my guitar.
J: That's funny! I swear every female performer I've been speaking to lately was a folk or protest singer at one time, usually with a guitar in hand!
P: Women with their guitars! That's us. We all came from that era. And if you can sing in a smoky bar, everything else is a piece of cake. Those crazed, drunken cowboys, let me tell you ... they are the ones that you've gotta convince! My favorite story is when I was a regular at this club, there was a guy who literally came off the range. He was about 6'7", as thin as a straw, and he stayed all night. He was just loving it and got incredibly drunk. And there were a lot of people at this club who would come every night; they loved us, but they would talk ... it was a bar! He just got more mad and drunk and finally stood up, this whole 6'7" of him and said "Shut up! I wanna hear the little lady sing!" And everybody did! So he said "Go ahead little lady," put his feet up, had a beer ... those smoky bars! That's why it's funny when people ask if I mind if they smoke around me, because it doesn't; it makes me feel at home! That blue haze! But I think for my next album I'll want to go back to my roots and work with acoustic instruments.
J: Well, I for one am looking forward to it. And to see you perform Lily again tonight!
Patti Cohenour is performing in Fifth Avenue Theatre's production of The Secret Garden through December 19th. For more information on Patti's CD, To an Isle in the Water, visit www.islecd.com.