An Interview with
by Nancy Rosati
Tony nominee Barbara Walsh will be giving her first formal concert at the Lucille Lortel Theatre on Monday, December 2nd (see our free ticket contest). I spoke with her recently about her career and this upcoming event
Nancy Rosati: Barbara, where did you grow up?
Barbara Walsh: In Chevy Chase, Maryland, outside of DC. I did shows in high school and then went on to the drama and music program in college. I like to say my grad work was three years in dinner theatre. (laughs) Then I went right into summer stock in Warsaw, Indiana. Faith Prince and I worked in a place called Wagon Wheel, even cleaning out the men's urinals at strike after one of the shows.
NR: Ah, the glamour of showbiz ...
BW: Yeah, we paid our dues. I did a number of shows and got my union card at the Marriott Lincolnshire Theatre in Illinois. Then I moved to New York in the fall of 1980. My first job was the national tour of Oklahoma!. I played "Girl #3."
Yes ... (teasing) I was thrown into the chorus, much to my chagrin, even though I had played leading roles. After being the big fish in a little pond, my world was turned upside down. (serious again) But I had a tremendous experience in seeing the country for the first time and making lots of money - and also spending it, unfortunately. I had a great time. It was a wonderful experience.
NR: I remember seeing Oklahoma! on Broadway with Christine Andreas right around that time. Was this the same production?
BW: Yes. It was the first national tour from that production.
NR: Did you always want to be an actress?
BW: I always sang. I grew up in a very big house. I have seven siblings, so the cacophony was always present in our household. I would sing and harmonize with my three sisters. We sang as Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins and all the girls from the 70s. I took piano lessons. There was always music of some sort around the house.
I was very shy, but in high school I came out of my shell when I discovered I could mimic all of my classmates. I could copy their walks and their mannerisms and I said, "Ok, I know how to get a laugh. All right - I like this!" That extended into doing musicals and comic roles in college. In dinner theater, I did very different roles like Fiona in Brigadoon and Winifred in Once Upon a Mattress. I did Aldonza in Man of La Mancha and then Bonnie in Anything Goes. It was a great variety. I could really use my muscles as a very green, raw actress. It was like a playground.
NR: And then you discovered you weren't right yet for any of those roles in the "real world"?
BW: Well, you're young, and people are telling you that you can do anything. Boy, can things change! I think my first break was Forbidden Broadway. It was '86, '87. I did Streisand one of the first Streisand routines he wrote "Somewhere there's a show for me." I had a great time for about a year and a half doing that. While I was doing Forbidden Broadway, I had an interview with Enid Nemy (of the New York Times) and I also had a Hirschfeld.
NR: Did you find Forbidden Broadway to be very challenging?
BW: Oh, no. It was fun. We just laughed and carried on in a very small dressing room. Since I'm good with mimicry, I had a terrific time doing Streisand - and Julie Andrews, Bernadette Peters, Mary Martin and Ethel Merman. It was FUN.
Then I did some other Off Broadway work. I did Birds of Paradise with Arthur Laurents as director. It closed after about three weeks, but we had such a good time.
NR: What was your first Broadway show?
BW: While I was doing Forbidden Broadway I went to a cattle call for Nine and they kept calling me back. I was actually seen for Nine nine times, if you can believe it. In the years that it ran on Broadway, people kept leaving and they knew that they wanted me somewhere, but it took them nine times. I finally took over Kim Criswell's part. I played Francesca and sang "Some Italian." I wore a beautiful costume and a fabulous wig.
When it closed on Broadway, I did it on the road for five months and had a wonderful time ... wait, I'm wrong. Nine was not my first Broadway show ... Rock n Roll: the First 5,000 Years was!
NR: That was a short run, wasn't it?
BW: We call it Rock n Roll: the Last Two Weeks. I did an impression of Joan Baez and Grace Slick in that. That was 1982, before Forbidden Broadway.
Then after Nine, the next thing was Falsettos.
NR: ... for which you got a Tony nomination. What was that like?
BW: It was huge! It was amazing. I first did the role at Hartford Stage with Graciela Daniele and a whole other cast. That production was supposed to go to Lincoln Center but it didn't work out because of a scheduling snafu. I was devastated. Then they said, "James Lapine is going to direct it on Broadway and the Weisslers are going to produce it." I assumed they would use Alison Fraser or Faith Prince, who had played the role Off Broadway, but I surprisingly got a call from Fran Weissler saying, "Would you like to be in our show?"
I was incredibly fortunate that I had the experience of Hartford Stage and that I got to do it on Broadway with the original cast, the Off Broadway guys that Bill Finn wrote it for: Steve Bogardus, Chip Zien and Michael Rupert. It was enormous. I was wonderfully supported by James Lapine. He let me do my thing. He was very encouraging and he had respect for me and trusted that I knew what I was doing. It was a true high point and a very magical time for me. It was wonderful being nominated.
NR: How do you come down after something like that?
BW: Well, yeah ... it's just an award. It's a tool for careers but afterwards you've got to keep living, and do your laundry and take the dog out. You look for work and you have to call your agent and all those things continue. That's what I learned from it.
After Falsettos I went directly into Blood Brothers, which was a completely different experience for personal and professional reasons. My father was dying at the time. I took Blood Brothers because the character (Mrs. Lyons) was such a different kind of mother. It was dramatic. I didn't have a lot of singing; it was mostly dialogue. After a year and a half of playing Trina in Falsettos, I wanted to do something different. It was an interesting time, fantastic in so many ways. The cast was amazing . I felt very fortunate to continue working but I had lost my dad, literally, between productions. The shows were back to back. There was this week where I went home to bury my dad and then I had to come back to open a Broadway show ... there was no down time, so I asked to get out of my contract after six months, which they allowed me to do. They were wonderful about it.
Then, after Blood Brothers was Big. That was originally going up in the summer of '95 but it was postponed seven months. I auditioned for summer stock up in the Berkshires at Barrington Stage and I got it. I had never been in the Berkshires. It wasn't a lot of money but my good friend Heather Mac Rae had accepted it so I thought, "Why not? Let's do it. We'll have a nice summer." It was a little revue and on that show, I met my husband, Jack Cummings. He was the assistant director, and he and I connected. We were engaged four months later.
A little bit after that, rehearsals for Big started and I went to Detroit. Then I came back to New York and did Big on Broadway. We opened it and we planned our wedding for the six month mark, which would be the vacation time so we could have a honeymoon. I bought an apartment right before we got married and things were really great. It had its problems but I had a fabulous song. It was a lovely company and a lovely creative team. It was wonderful in many ways. The role wasn't so large, so I had time to plan my wedding and buy my apartment.
NR: Did it close before you got married?
BW: A week before we got married.
NR: Ouch. I guess you had plenty of time for a honeymoon!
BW: Yes, time for a honeymoon, and then we settled into our amazing life together. I went out to L.A. for a pilot season which didn't go so well. I did some regional theater here and there, some great roles Rosabella in Most Happy Fella, Blanche Du Bois in Streetcar with my husband, which was an amazing experience. The next large role I did was in '99 Mother in Ragtime in Chicago. Everything about that role was so wonderful. I did some other regional roles but now it seems to be about readings and workshops.
NR: You were in The Rhythm Club at the Signature Theater ... I know everybody asks this, but is that show going anywhere?
BW: I don't know what's going on with it. I hear rumblings that it's reemerging at some point. I don't believe anything until I have it on the dotted line. It's a quixotic and random business that we deal with day in and day out. We'll see what happens.
NR: Jack has directed you in a few things and will again in the upcoming Requiem for William. Is it difficult being directed by your husband?
BW: I adore being directed by my husband. We come from the same sensibility, though we have different experiences. He's 12 years younger but we're headed down the same path artistically, there's no question about it. We speak the same dialogue. It doesn't mean we don't fight. We'll butt heads on certain things artistically but I have an enormous belief and respect for him, as he does for me. It's kind of amazing what we have, actually. There's a different dynamic because we're married, but we remove ourselves from that relationship and go into "business mode." It's more beneficial for everybody and I love it. He's one of my favorite directors.
NR: Let's talk about your concert.
BW: I'm really excited about it. I haven't done a show of my own in New York City since the 80s, when I did a some original material in a cabaret kind of a format. I don't want to go that route again, hence the concert title for the evening. Also, the fact that it's in a theater makes it more theatrical and classes it up a bit.
NR: What kind of musical accompaniment are you using?
BW: I have violin, a fabulous bass player who can also double as cello, and the unbelievable Mary-Mitchell Campbell, my musical director and pianist, who is one of a kind. She's a dear friend of ours. I will always have her play for me.
NR: What type of music are you singing?
BW: It's very eclectic. There are songs that will be familiar to people and songs they've never heard of. There aren't a lot of theatre songs, but some will be in there. There will be some Paul McCartney that everybody knows, some Joni Mitchell, and some original stuff that I don't want to talk about. (laughs) I'm looking forward to it, especially because it's in that theater. I did a benefit for the Drama Dept. at the Lucille Lortel, and I just loved it.
NR: This is very different from being in a show ...
BW: Yeah, it is. The idea came up about 7 or 8 months ago.
It's sort of a labor
of love. The concert is a benefit for Jack's theatre company. He and
Robyn Hussa are co-founders of Transport Group. They're in their first
year of production and they're in an embryonic stage of development. They
have a very specific voice of artistry very unique. I believe in what
they do so deeply and I know it's just a matter of time before people get
wind of it and experience their work. I'm actually surprised that I didn't think of it sooner. We made
plans to put it together and it's been really exciting to work on it.
What is the name of the song that Barbara sang in Big that was cut during the Detroit tryout prior to the Broadway opening?
Email your answer to firstname.lastname@example.org. Winner will be announced on November 27.
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