Spotlight On

by Nancy Rosati   

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 LeAnn Rimes!

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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