Spotlight On Liz Callaway

by Nancy Rosati       

Liz CallawayLiz Callaway has so many professional credits, itís difficult to list them all. She made her Broadway debut in Stephen Sondheimís Merrily We Roll Along, and two years later received a Tony nomination for her role as Lizzie in Baby. She played Ellen in the original Broadway production of Miss Saigon and Grizabella in Cats. Off Broadway, Liz appeared most recently in The Spitfire Grill. Sheís done voiceovers for several animated films, including the title role in Anastasia, can be heard on numerous recordings, and appears frequently on the concert stage. Liz won a MAC Award for Sibling Revelry, a joint effort with her older sister, Ann Hampton Callaway. She is married to director Dan Foster, and they have a 12 year old son, Nicholas.

Liz is currently in previews for her newest Broadway show, The Look of Love, at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. I caught up with her during a rare quiet moment after a Wednesday matinee.

Nancy Rosati:  Both you and your sister decided to go into show business. What was it like growing up in your house?

With Ann Hampton Callaway

Liz Callaway:  I didnít decide till much later than Ann. Ann knew from a very early age. Our momís a voice teacher and a singer, so we grew up with music in the house. There were parties where people would make music. I was incredibly shy and I didnít want to sing in front of people. I would finally say, ďOk - if you all turn around and donít look at me, Iíll do it.Ē Ann was the complete opposite. It wasnít until high school that I started performing.

NR:  How far apart in age are you?

LC:  Annís three years older.

NR:  Was it hard being in her shadow?

LC:  Absolutely. I didnít come into my own until later. She did the leads in school shows and I was just the ďlittle sister.Ē But weíre so different ... it was hard for me because I was a late bloomer in terms of knowing what I wanted to do. To me, Ann was perfect in everything. She could write, she could do art, she could do everything. Itís hard to live up to that. Now we know weíre different and weíre very close.

NR:  Are there other children in the family?

LC:  No, just the two of us. Our parents really instilled a sense in us that we could do whatever we wanted to do. They believed in us. If I wanted to be a truck driver, then I would have been encouraged to be the best truck driver in the world. It was great. I really appreciate how they raised us and I try to give my son confidence like that.

NR:  You call yourself a ďlate bloomer,Ē yet you were on Broadway very young.

LC:  I was. I was a late bloomer adolescent-wise, but I started working professionally really young. I moved to New York with Ann when I was 18.

NR:  You didnít go to college?

LC:  I went for one quarter to the University of Cincinnati (CCM). I was 17 and I got a job with the Musical Theatre Repertory Company, an Equity company in California. I moved out there and it fell through. (laughs) So I thought, ďOk, here I am. Iím out of college and Iím 17.Ē I stayed there a little while but then I moved here with Ann.

I was very lucky pretty early. I had a little plan - a goal of getting into the chorus of an Off Broadway show in three years, thinking I would start small and then move up. I thought I had potential but that I needed to work on it. (laughs) But I did better, quicker than I thought.

NR:  Did you get Merrily first, or did you do something before that?

LC:  I was taking classes. I was a singing waitress. I did a club act. Brian Lasser, whoís unfortunately no longer with us, came to see my club act and he told his agency that they should submit me as one of the kids for Merrily We Roll Along. I went to five auditions, and the day after I got it, I got my first Off Broadway show. Merrily had been postponed nine months, so during that period, because I was going to be in the new Sondheim show, an agent started working with me. I was seen for all this stuff and did a lot of work. Itís a good thing it was postponed, because afterwards it was, ďYou were in Merrily? So what!Ē (laughs) But at the time it was so anticipated that people would think, ďWow. She must be really good if sheís going to be in a Sondheim showĒ even though I was just a swing at first. A couple of weeks into it I went into the chorus and understudied Annie Morrison. We did a reunion concert recently and it was such an incredible experience.

NR:  Was Baby the next show you did?

LC:  That was the next Broadway show I did. I did a lot of little things before it but Baby was my first role.

NR:  And you got a Tony nomination for it.

It's All True
With Todd Graff in Baby
Photo: Martha Swope
LC:  Yeah, it was great. We did a workshop and it was a very long process with tons of backers' auditions. That was a real long journey, but it was so wonderful that it spoiled me a bit. It was easy to think that all shows would be that way.

NR:  You were in your early twenties, standing center stage, ending Act One with this gorgeous song. That must have been incredible.

LC:  It was. I didnít take it for granted and Iím glad I didnít. Iíve learned in this business that there are highs and lows. Itís just a continuing process and you have to enjoy all of it.

NR:  Did you expect the highs and lows, or did you think it was only going to go up from there?

LC:  I didnít think it would necessarily go up from there, but Lizzie was such an interesting role to play. How many times do you get a part that you get to experience nine months of pregnancy on stage, and all that goes with that, plus a relationship? It was such a brilliant show. I thought there would be other interesting roles and there really werenít. It was a particularly fantastic, interesting role with great songs. I met my husband during Baby so it will always be the greatest thing for me. That show touched a lot of people. It didnít really run all that long but the album got out there and everyone has so many wonderful stories about it.

NR:  Youíve done Broadway, Off Broadway, animated films, concerts ... do you have a favorite?

LC:  I love recording a lot. I really love the process. Sometimes I have to smile at what I do for a living. Obviously Iíve gotten over a certain amount of my shyness about singing, but it still isnít easy. Itís still hard, particularly if Iím not playing another character. If itís me doing my own concert, or something like The Look of Love where I donít have an actual character, itís difficult because Iím still shy. When youíre in a recording studio, youíre in your own little booth. Itís almost like youíre singing in the shower. I like that.

I love being in shows. I love the collaborative effort and getting to know the cast. I think I got into theater more for the social aspects than because I have a need to sing and act. Itís the people on stage, the designers, the costume people - everyone is doing their jobs and weíre trying to do a show. Itís fun to be in a new Broadway show. Thereís nothing like it. Iíve been really fortunate that I did a lot of new stuff in a large part of my career. Miss Saigon doesnít totally count as a new piece because it was already done in London. That was a different experience also because I had my son during rehearsals. I did Cats for a long time. I always wanted to know what it was like to be in a long running show.

NR:  Was it hard stepping in after people like Betty Buckley had played the role?

LC:  It was weird. Iíd never replaced anyone before. It was bizarre my first night when I was so nervous and everybody was so calm. It was just another show for them, but I was a wreck. During that phase of my career, it was nice having job security and I really enjoyed doing that show. I was able to raise my son and take him to work with me. I honestly feel like I have all these different phases of my career, so now itís fun to be in something new again. I forgot how much I love the creation of something. Thereís good and bad in it. Itís exhausting and I havenít slept in weeks. Iím at my wits end right now, but itís all so wonderful.

NR:  Is it harder on you when a show closes, since you develop such close relationships during it?

Liz and the cast of Spitfire Grill
Photo: Aubrey Reuben

LC:  Itís not as hard anymore. Last year I did an Off Broadway show called The Spitfire Grill. That was the best role Iíve had in a while. It was really interesting to me and I loved it. That ran a ridiculously short period of time, but we also opened two days before 9/11. It was a fantastic experience and a show and role that I loved. Itís different for me now having a family. Before, when I wasnít married and I didnít have a child, the show was my life. Everything was heightened even more. Now I have more of a balance in my life, and as important as this is, I also have this other life. It still breaks my heart when something doesnít work, but itís much easier for me than it was.

NR:  How do you pull off being a working mom in this business? Your son is 12 now, so he gets home from school when youíre leaving for work.

LC:  Right now, during rehearsal, itís really hard because I barely see him. I rehearse 1:00 - 6:00 and then do the show. Heís on vacation next week and Monday is going to be the first day off that Iíve had in a month, and Iím so looking forward to that. Itís hard. When he was younger I took him to work with me. On weekends heíd be in my dressing room. I didnít have that ďworking mom guiltĒ as much because I was with him all day and then on weekends I would bring him with me. Itís always been a challenge. Itís exhausting, but itís fantastic.

My son wants to be a writer but heís started doing some theater. He just did Into the Woods at his middle school. Can you believe that? A middle school doing Into the Woods? I thought, ďThatís ambitious.Ē They did one act of it and they did a really good job. My son heard me practicing for the Merrily concert and heís a HUGE Sondheim fan now. Heíd be singing all these songs from Into the Woods while I was driving him and he said, ďMom, why do you always smile when I sing?Ē I said, ďSweetie, because youíre singing Sondheim. I never thought I would have a child who would sing Sondheim.Ē I wrote to Sondheim and I sent him a copy of ďAgonyĒ that Nicholas sang. I asked him to sign it and he did. I framed it and gave it to him as an opening night present. It was one of the few times that it paid to know somebody. He really loved it. I was tucking him in that night and he said, ďCan I ask you a question? Did you write that?Ē I said, ďNo, I didnít write it. I wouldnít forge something like that!Ē He said, ďI was 80% sure, but I just wanted to be 100% sure.Ē (big smile) It was very sweet.

Now that heís done a couple of shows ... I would be very happy if he doesnít want to do this. (laughs)

NR:  I was just going to ask you about that. Obviously heís had a very different childhood from most kids.

LC:  My husbandís a director. My son has no idea that people work in offices 9 to 5. He has no concept of that.

NR:  Do you think this is better for him, or do you wish that he had a ď9-5 mom?Ē

LC:  I think itís great. He has spent so much time with both his parents and heís had so many unusual experiences. I went to China for a concert and I took him out of school for a week so he could go with me. There have been fantastic experiences that he will probably appreciate more when heís older. Now that heís done a couple of shows himself, he has a better understanding of my hours and what itís like to do a show. Itís sweet to see the camaraderie of the people he works with and Iím happy that he can experience that. If he wants to go into theater, I will support him 100% - when heís older. (laughs) I would never let him audition for anything now because I donít believe in that. I know heíll do something creative, but itís hard. There are so many ups and downs and rejections in this business. You want to spare your child any pain, and there are such highs and lows in this business. You have to be a survivor to deal with everything. The highs are really high. I have no regrets. I am so fortunate to do what I do, and to have so many interesting experiences.

(continued ... The Look of Love)

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