Spotlight On

by Nancy Rosati   


photo: Denise Winters

It seems that Donna Lynne Champlin has been “ready for her close-up” for some time. She started taking tap classes at age 3 1/2 and never looked back. Her childhood was spent in Rochester, New York, where she competed nationally and internationally in voice, piano, flute, theatre and dance. She graduated with high honors from the prestigious Musical Theatre program at Carnegie Mellon University and, after a summer at Oxford and several seasons with the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, was able to leave college with her Equity Card in hand.

Donna Lynne has had the unique opportunity to originate a number of roles, including Honoria Glossop in Broadway’s By Jeeves and Older Helen in Hollywood Arms, currently in previews at the Cort Theatre. Hollywood Arms is her fourth show with Hal Prince and an opportunity to play a young version of one of her all-time idols, Carol Burnett.

I recently met with Donna Lynne during a lunch break from rehearsals.

Nancy Rosati:  Tell me about growing up in Rochester. When did you decide what you wanted to be when you grew up?

Donna Lynne Champlin:  I always knew that I wanted to perform. I wasn't sure in what way I would do that but I wasn't picky.

NR:  Is anyone in your family an actor?

DLC:  No. My dad's a scientist and my mom is a technical writer. The only music in my family is from grandfather on my mother's side. He was an Irish tenor. He didn't do it professionally - he was a traveling salesman but he had a nice voice.

NR:  So this came out of nowhere? Did you just decide one day that you wanted to act as a career?

DLC:  Not really. I knew I wanted to perform. My first memory ... it makes me laugh because I think it's just indicative of me as a grown-up, although hopefully I'm more chilled out now ... I was about 3 1/2 and I had a lot of energy. One of the neighbors recommended putting me in a dance class. My mother brought me to a tap class to audit. As an adult, I look back on this and I realize it was probably a bunch of 5-year-olds dancing and singing their song (singing) "And don't forget your tap shoes..." But as a 3-year-old, something visceral happened and I immediately had to be a part of it. I jumped up and I got so upset because the song said, "Don't forget your tap shoes" and I didn't have mine. All I could think of was, "How could my mother bring me to a tap class without my tap shoes?" I had this whole "actor-nightmare" at 3 1/2! My poor mother had no idea what was going on except she knew that I was hysterical. I had a huge fit and she had to drag me out of the studio. I finally calmed down enough to explain to her how incredibly incensed I was that she had put me in that awful situation!

Jolson
As Ruby Keeler with the ensemble
in the national tour of Jolson

NR:  (laughing) Then what happened?

DLC:  (laughs) Well, I started tapping, thank God, with my own pair of tap shoes. Tap lessons turned into piano lessons, and then flute lessons, and then to voice lessons. I was just hungry for all of it. All the while I competed in all these different things. By the time I was a junior in high school I was very scattered and unfocused. I think I applied to seven different colleges for seven different majors because I didn't know what I wanted to do. Every teacher gave me different advice. I decided to leave it up to fate and attend whichever college gave me the most money, which turned out to be Carnegie Mellon as a Musical Theatre major.

NR:  Excellent choice.

DLC:  Yes, it's a fantastic school. I recommend it to anybody, especially for Musical Theatre. At a lot of other schools, the Musical Theatre department gets cheated out of straight dramatic classes. With Carnegie Mellon, you're exhausted if you're a Musical Theatre major because you have the straight dramatic curriculum and on top of that you take voice and dance. You have eight extra hours a week. It's a marvelous school and I'm very happy I went. I didn't have to give up anything - I used my piano playing as work-study. I played for ballet classes and voice classes. Even when I moved here I accompanied people. I played at AMDA for awhile.

NR:  Did you come to New York right after college?

DLC:  No. I was lucky. I worked at Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera during my summers in college. The summer of my junior year I got a scholarship to Oxford so I skipped that season. Carnegie Mellon really hooked me up. I'd made so many contacts through Pittsburgh CLO that after I graduated, I had about six months of regional work already booked up. After that I came to New York.

It had been pretty easy up to that point. I had been lucky and I didn't realize how lucky I'd been. When I moved to New York I had a dry spell of about eight months. In retrospect, it was the best thing that could have happened to me because I was one of those people who was constantly doing projects and I had no core of friends that I hung out with unless I was doing a show with them. I had no other interests. I had a lot of interests in the arts but I had nothing else. In those eight months I was forced to sort out my life, which was the best thing I could have done as an artist.

I discovered spirituality, friends that aren't in the business, politics, what's going on in the world. It's embarrassing to say that I was 21 years old and none of these things had ever been important to me. I didn't realize it at the time, and this is only looking back on it, but that time period made a huge difference. Now I'm a certified reflexologist. I have an avid interest in metaphysics, which I try to apply in my daily life. Like any spiritual philosophy, it's not easy, but it's the one that makes the most sense to me. It's the one that gives me the tools to be a better person.

NR:  You did a couple shows after that.

DLC:  I did. After that dry spell I've been lucky in that I haven't had much down time since. I attribute it to the other stuff I was doing. I had great family support and I'm glad I grew up doing competitions because it gave me a healthy attitude towards accepting criticism and not taking it personally. When you're competing, you're constantly criticized, and at Carnegie Mellon, if you have a thin skin, you can forget it. If you walk out of Carnegie Mellon University on two feet, you can pretty much take anything; you can read any review. That's why reviews don't bother me. I'm more worried about what I'm going to see about my friends. That's when I'll lose control.

NR:  Tell me about when you first started with Hollywood Arms.

Donna Lynne in 3hree
3hree
photo: Craig Schwartz
DLC:  That's an interesting story. I was doing 3hree with Hal (Prince). I was very nervous in early rehearsals. First of all, it's Hal Prince; that would make me nervous anyway. 3hree is a compilation of three one-acts. There's a company of nine actors and in every show you either have a lead, a supporting role, or an ensemble part. It just so happened that Hal was directing the one that I had a lead in - The Flight of the Lawnchair Man. It was the third and final one to rehearse. Not only did I feel totally paranoid, but I had watched the other two shows go up and they were phenomenal. Everybody was doing amazing work and I thought, "What if I'm a disappointment?" – you know, every actor’s nightmare.

It was the second day of rehearsal for Lawnchair and we'd done a little bit of work. I felt ok. During a break in rehearsal, Hal Prince came up to me and there was nobody else around. He put his arm around me and I immediately thought, “I’m fired. It’s pink slip for Donna Lynne.” He said, “Listen kid ... ” and already I was starting to well up. He said, (imitating Hal Prince) “So, listen - I’m working on this play. It’s called Hollywood Arms. It’s written by Carol Burnett. It’s based on her life. We need somebody to play her in her twenties and I think you’d be perfect for it. I called Carol last night. I told her about you. I hope you don’t mind. It won’t be till next year though. Are you interested in something like that?” I stood there dumbfounded, trying to adjust to the fact that I wasn’t being fired, and said “Am I hallucinating or did you just ask me to play Carol Burnett?” He said, “Yeah. Is that all right?” I said, “Um ... yeah... that’s all right.” (laughing) I wish I had been more effusive at the moment but I was so stunned.

Then, he didn’t mention it for another seven months, so I thought, “Ok, for the rest of my life, I can still live off the fact that at one moment in time, Hal Prince wanted me to play Carol Burnett.” That was totally fine with me. I was sure he’d found somebody else and that was fine. I had that one moment.

We did 3hree again in Los Angeles six months later. The night before we opened Hal came up to me at seven o’clock. After not mentioning it all this time, he said, “Ok, Carol’s here. All the producers from the Goodman are here and so is her husband. They’re going to see the show. I’ll bring them back after the show to meet you. That’s ok, right?” All I said was, “Oh my God! How long have you known? I couldn’t have worn a decent outfit? What are you doing to me?” He said, “It’s part of your charm, kid, don’t worry about it. You’ll be swell. Just don’t screw it up.”

Of course it was the worst audience we’d ever had and everything went wrong, because it always does when someone like Carol Burnett’s in the house, that’s just a given. Through the entire show I was thinking, “What witty and intelligent things can I say to Carol Burnett?” I was about to meet one of my biggest idols, so I knew I’d better come up with something interesting to say. After the show she came back to my dressing room and all that came out of my mouth was vowels – no consonants, just vowels. It was just so shocking to see her in person that I didn’t know what to say. I felt so bad.

They were all standing there, so I looked at Hal and said, “Dude, help me out.” He again said, “It’s part of your charm, kid. Don’t worry about it,” and to Carol, “Wasn’t she swell?” Carol said, “Oh yes, very nice.” Then I blurted out, “My mother loves you” which is such a weird random thing to say. She looked at me and said, “Well ... you tell your mother I love her too.” I was thinking (sarcastically), “Gee, this is going so well.” Somebody came in and saved me fortunately and that was it. All I could think was, “If I had any chance of getting the part, I’ve certainly done myself in now and I have no one to blame but myself.”

He never mentioned it again of course. 3hree closed, I went to London to do some recording. I came back and did the whole By Jeeves saga ...

NR:  And got to work with Alan Ayckbourn. What was that like?

Donna Lynne in By Jeeves
With John Scherer
in By Jeeves

photo: Diane Sobolewski
DLC:  The best way to describe it is "very civilized." When I walked into the audition, I realized I was shaking hands with one of the most brilliant living English playwrights, but once that shock wore off, it was so simple. I sang and he asked me to sit across the table from him and read the scene - with him! It was so relaxed and comfortable that I couldn't believe I got the job. But I found out later, that's why I got it. Alan likes it simple. He was always telling us not to "fuss it up."

He taught me one of the greatest rules to successful comedy - the more serious it is for the character, the funnier it is. He used to say to me, "My dear, the text is funny. The story is funny. You do not have to make anything funny at all. I have done all the work for you. Trust me, have faith in the text, and for God's sake, take it seriously and get on with it!"

Another great thing about Alan is that he's been an actor himself, so he understands us and our natures. About three weeks into any run he would send us a fax and say simply, "Whatever you are doing now that you weren't doing when I was last there, please stop doing it immediately!" (laughs) He knows it's human nature to stretch scenes out of shape because we're getting new laughs here and there, but he wanted the laughs that he put in the scene and nothing more. He never wanted us to forsake the main "structure laugh" in a scene for a bunch of little actor ego-based laughs working up to it.

NR:  What's Andrew Lloyd Webber like?

DLC:  He's very shy. We had heard all these rumors and were all terrified to meet him. He came into Goodspeed on his helicopter and we expected him to be with this ridiculous entourage of people, but he showed up just with his family - his wife, Madeline, and his two children - just a family man checking in on his show.

He spent most of his time with the orchestra so we never really worked with him, certainly not as much as we did with Alan. He was always extremely kind and friendly to me.

I learned an amazing amount from the whole process and from their brilliance and experience. It was difficult and emotional and the best "comedy camp" I could have ever attended. Lessons I learned in that process I use in every other show I do. It was a priceless education.

NR:  Did Hal approach you again about Hollywood Arms after you got the closing notice for By Jeeves?

DLC:  Yes. He called me and said, “I want you to come in tomorrow for an audition.” I went in and did that, and again a week later, and another week later, and so on. I put it on tape for Carrie (Hamilton) because she was very ill at the time and couldn’t travel to New York. Finally, six months and four rounds of auditions later, I got the role.

Hollywood Arms
With Linda Lavin in Hollywood Arms
photo: Michael Brosilow

NR:  They’re calling it a play with music. Are you singing in it?

DLC:  Yes. Did you see “Broadway On Broadway?” The song Sara Niemitz and I sang ("I'm Always Chasing Rainbows") is the number I sing in the second act. Since we share the role (she plays Carol as a child) and we wanted to share the “Broadway On Broadway” experience, we shared the song. That girl has pipes! She’s like the future Lee Ann Rhimes!

Most of the singing is done in the same style as James Joyce’s The Dead - families sing in tunes. My big number is the only real fantastical “out of body moment.”

NR:  Are you changing a lot from the Chicago run?

DLC:  I wouldn’t say a lot. In my opinion, the changes we’re making are all extremely good. We’ve redone the entire beginning of act one and the act has been cut a little bit. Some things have been fleshed out, some things have been dropped. We got such a wonderful reaction in Chicago that we didn’t want to do too much to it because it was received very well. Some of the criticism that we got in the press made very good points and we learned a lot from that run. It’s very exciting to work with a group of people who are confident enough to say, “That’s a good point. Let’s see if that works.” We tried some changes that didn’t work so we dropped them. Hal came in today and he and Carol had rewritten the beginning of act one again; now it’s even better.

NR:  You’re still in rehearsal now so your schedule is pretty crazy.

DLC:  We don’t have a day off till the 13th of October, which is two weeks from now. Things are not going to be pretty. We’ve got five or six days of “10 out of 12s” and then we start previews.

NR:  Do you think you’ll still be making changes through previews?

With Carol Burnett
photo: Mike Champlin
DLC:  I think because Hal and Carol are so fearless and they’ve got so much experience, they aren’t afraid to use the rehearsal period to change stuff. By the time we get to previews, I don’t think much will change. This will be the fourth time I’ve worked with Hal and that’s usually the way he works. In my experience, sometimes people will wait until previews to see how the audience reacts, whereas these two know their stuff. They’ve been around. They don’t have to wait for an audience to tell them something’s not working.

Hal is just brilliant. He’s got the amazing perspective of being an artist and also being a smart businessman. When he made the change today, he said, “I don’t want them to be able to say they caught us being cute, or they caught us using a technique.” Usually he speaks in a manner that’s so artistic and it’s about motivation, but then every once in awhile he’ll come out with a “businessman big view” kind of comment. It’s part of his genius.

NR:  Do you think the fact that Carol is so high profile puts more pressure on the show or less? Will audiences and critics be more likely to give it the benefit of the doubt because of her and the tragic loss of her daughter?

DLC:  Carol has taken a backseat to a lot of the press. Only after we got the very positive New York Times review in Chicago did she agree to do 20/20. She did not want anyone to think that the show’s success rode on either a sympathy vote for her or an “in memoriam vote” for Carrie. She wanted to avoid anyone even remotely thinking that anyone was using that. She has only agreed to do four or five interviews because she wants to protect everything. She knows people want to talk about Carrie, but it hasn’t even been a year since her death.

NR:  Is this helping her get through some of the grief?

DLC:  Carol’s a phenomenal person. When you see the play and you see how she grew up and what she had to overcome, it’s not surprising that she continually rises above adversity. You look from afar and you think she’s lived a charmed life, but in reality, if you know anything about her personally, you realize that she’s paid very dearly emotionally. I think we all keep a close eye on her. We all check in with her and say, “How’re you doing?” She’ll say, “Today’s a good day” or “Today’s not such a good day.”

She’s a very spiritual person, and Carrie especially was a very spiritual person. There’s a wonderful story that Carol told us. She was on the plane coming to the first rehearsal in Chicago. She said to Carrie on the plane, “I know you’re with us but I just need to have a sign to know that.” She got to the hotel and there was a huge bouquet of Birds of Paradise flowers that Hal had sent. She called Hal immediately and said, “Did you know about the Birds of Paradise flowers?” He said, “No, I just told them to send something colorful.” Birds of Paradise were Carrie’s favorite flowers and she had one tattooed on her shoulder. Things like that have continued to happen and I think we all feel Carrie’s presence. I know it’s kind of a “crunchy granola thing” to say but it’s true.

NR:  When do you open?

DLC:  We start previews October 7th and we open Halloween. The poor kids. I feel bad for the kids in the cast. That’s my favorite holiday so I’ll take charge of Halloween. We’re going to have to do it on the 30th so it doesn’t conflict with the opening.

NR:  How many kids are in the show?

DLC:  We have two 10-year-olds and one 14-year-old. Then we have their covers so we have six kids. Also Michele (Pawk) has her little one.

NR:  What’s ahead for you? Do you have any plans?

DLC:  No, I’m just happy to be here. Hal has talked to me about something else but it’s just really in the early, early stages. I’ve realized in my life that the less I worry about what comes next, the quicker something comes. It took me a long time to learn that. The reviews have been very kind for me, and Hal and Carol totally hooked me up. They gave me this eight page monologue which is ridiculously fabulous. It’s so good that if I screw it up I don’t deserve to be in the business. Some of the press was very kind and said things like, “This is going to make a star of ... .” That has been very new for me. On one hand I thought that would have made me very confident, but actually if I listen to it, it makes me more nervous.

I’ve been really lucky. I don’t worry about not working anymore because I have all this other stuff that I really enjoy. I can make a living off of it so there’s less pressure on me. Emily Skinner said something to me once. I was worried about something somebody had said and she said, “Honey, it is just another show. Even if it is your big breakout, it’s just another show in a string of shows that you’ve done, and that’s it.” It’s become my mantra. You would think that with all the wonderful things that were said in the press, I would be thinking, “Ha, ha – no flies on me” but it actually raised the stakes. It’s made me feel I had much more to live up to. It’s hard enough trying to play the part that everybody knows is based on Carol Burnett! But that’s all right - it’s all good.

NR:  I’m so glad. Good luck to you and I’m looking forward to seeing the show.

It’s an understatement to describe Donna Lynne as passionate about her work. She’s well aware that Hollywood Arms is in the hands of consummate theatre professionals, and she’s excited to be a part of the process. Whether it will make her a star or not remains to be seen, but she clearly has her feet firmly on the ground and will be ready to meet whatever challenges come her way.

Also visit www.donnalynnechamplin.com for more about Donna Lynne.

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