What's New on the Rialto
Here's to the Ladies:
Conversations with More of the Great Women of Musical Theater
by Eddie Shapiro
Book Review by Wendy Caster
Most of the interviews in Here's to the Ladies were carried out in the early 2020s; interviews with Tonya Pinkins and Barbara Cook were carried out in the earlier 2000s. The book ends with a moving tribute to Marin Mazzie, done in oral history style. There is little in Here's to the Ladies that is new or surprising, but the personal stories and quotidian details turn black-and-white clichés into technicolor reality. The joy of rehearsals and the thrill of excited audiences come through vividly. Also vivid are the problems of obstructive coworkers, dangerous stages, producers and directors who are unsupportive (to put it mildly), and navigating sexism and condescension.
Some of the fabulous, articulate women in Here's to the Ladies are Tony nominees and winners; some are quite well-known and others aren't; some have been working for decades and others are relative newcomers. They have a lot in common, and a lot of differences. Most have experienced money struggles at one point or another. Disappointment is not rare: the early closing notice, the workshop that goes to Broadway without you, shows that never happen, shows that turn out to be grinding work with little reward. For those with children, the actor/mother balance battle is ongoing. Virtually all of the women have experienced feelings of not being "good enough," and these emotions do not vanish despite any number of rave reviews, awards and accolades. But the women also have that sense of their own worth that is required to survive.
The interviewees have tremendous love and respect for other performers. Bernadette Peters and Chita Rivera are frequent role models for their talent and hard work and also for their unassuming attitudes. Many of the women feel an ongoing sense of awe and good fortune at getting to be part of the small community of successful theatre actors.
The anecdotes range from hysterically funny to elucidating to infuriating. The gossip is fun if you have a taste for such things (I do). In some ways, the women's candor is astonishing. Criticizing coworkers and producers seems risky, to say the least. But their honesty adds to the power of the book.
Being nominated for a Tony, and winning or not, is discussed at length. Everyone acknowledges the honor, but they also talk about the exhaustion of doing press appearances, particularly if your show has only opened recently. Jessie Mueller says, "It's amazing anyone survives. People are on steroids ... I totally understand that it is part of our job to market the show, but if the marketing of the product is causing the actual product to suffer ... how could we make that better?" Kelli O'Hara explains that the day of the Tonys "is whack! You wake up at 6:00; you go to the dress rehearsal in full costume; you come back and try to get a little rest; you do a full matinee; you get into red carpet clothes; you go do the red carpet; you leave your seat and get back in costume; you do your number; you change back into red carpet; go back to your seat; lose; and then you're expected to go to the fancy parties and be gracious." She explains that she is not complaining, just saying. Faith Prince says that winning can change your life in challenging ways: "Because now, you're not just a character actress. Things have to be 'worthy' of you doing them ... I'm grateful for it, but I missed the days when I would look at things and think, 'that sounds like fun to do. That sounds like good work.'"
Some comments are unexpected. Barbara Cook defends miking: "There is something to be said for all of the miking that's done now." Carolee Carmello doesn't enjoy rehearsal: "I know it's blasphemy for an actress to say–but I don't like it ... I like it when it's all figured out." Alice Ripley says that people are wrong when they say she's like Diana in Next to Normal, but that "I'm more like Norma [in Sunset Boulevard], maybe, than any character that I've ever played." Melissa Errico says that performers are reluctant to admit that they injured their voices: "This is a common reason why people have a sprained ankle or a bad back. They actually had none of those things, they had a vocal injury."
The women have a lot to say on the topic of injuries in general. In more than a few cases, producers and other powers-that-be evince little concern for performers. Adrienne Warren was pushed to insane extremes in Tina: "During previews, we got to the mega-mix at the end and I would run offstage and throw up. The next day we'd try again and we'd cut back a verse. I would finish, come offstage and throw up. And then it would be like, 'Did you throw up this time?' We were literally cutting back just enough so that I didn't get sick." (This mega-mix occurred after Warren had danced for hours in heels on a raked stage.)
A lot of the women explain that they can't really evaluate the shows they were in. For example, Beth Leavel says about The Civil War, "I never saw the show, so I can't speak from an audience perspective." Interestingly, director Trevor Nunn was aware of this limitation, per Judy Kuhn: "When we were in Washington [with Les Misérables], he had every single person in the company sit out one night and watch the show ... [he] wanted every person in the company to understand what they were a part of."
Rejection is of course a terribly difficult part of being a performer, even if it's not about your performance. Stephanie J. Block was in Wicked as Elphaba for many months but didn't get to open the show on Broadway, because the producers wanted "a name" and cast Idina Menzel. Block stayed on as a standby for Menzel and eventually played the role on Broadway and on tour. However, Block says, "I'm still affected. Let's be honest. Wicked is still everywhere ... I can still walk through an airport and see somebody wearing a Wicked shirt and the 'what-could-have-beens' come flying at me." And it's not aways easy for the person who gets the role. Kelli O'Hara talks of trying to avoid taking over Clara in Light of the Piazza when it was taken from Celia Keenan-Bolger: "The personal nature of it all was catastrophic for Celia, for Vicki, and for me."
But of course there is much joy and satisfaction in these women's careers. Charlotte d'Amboise says, "I feel so lucky I got to do as much as I got to do. I'm amazed by it and thrilled and there's not an ego in me that feels a need to do more." When she was in the Sondheim celebration in Washington, DC, says Melissa Errico, "My soul was on its knees with gratitude." Tonya Pinkins explains, "[When] you're doing the work itself, it's like good sex. It's like an orgasm." Mary Beth Peil, speaking of her time as the Beggar Woman in Sweeney Todd, says, "It was heaven. It was like going to church every day. That's all we were doing–living, breathing, sleeping, eating, talking, singing Sondheim. We all felt anointed." Kerry Butler and Heather Headley express so much gratitude that it's impossible to just pick one quote from each of them!
I love this book. I do have a small complaint or two. For example, in each woman's list of credits, it would have been nice to know whether they were in the original cast. And sometimes Shapiro doesn't pursue something interesting an interviewee says. The most serious problem–which luckily doesn't occur frequently–is that it is not always 100% clear which person or show the interviewee is talking about. On the other hand, the book has some nice pictures and an excellent index, and the section honoring Marin Mazzie is just lovely.
I would be thrilled if Shapiro just kept producing these books. One of the most amazing things about musical theatre is how many brilliantly talented people keep showing up in New York to live out their dreams by entertaining us, the exceptionally fortunate audience. May Shapiro interview them all.
Here's to the Ladies: Conversations with More of the Great Women of Musical Theater