Spotlight On

Update Interview with
Donna Lynne Champlin & Alexander Gemignani

by Nancy Rosati   

See original Spotlight interviews with
Donna Lynne Champlin (2002) and Alexander Gemignani (2003)

Donna Lynne Champlin and Alexander Gemignani are currently appearing in Sweeney Todd on Broadway (Donna Lynne - Pirelli, Accordion, Keyboard, Flute and Alex - The Beadle, Keyboard, Trumpet). The three of us got together recently to discuss the show and what they've been doing during the past few years.

Nancy Rosati:  Donna Lynne, we did your interview three years ago. You were starting Hollywood Arms, which unfortunately didn't turn out exactly as you had hoped.

Donna Lynne ChamplinDonna Lynne Champlin:  No, it didn't. It was fantastic as far as experiences go artistically. The cast of Linda (Lavin), Frank (Wood) and Michele (Pawk) were wonderful. So were Hal (Prince) and Carol (Burnett). If we had closed on opening night, it still would have been one of the most fantastic theatrical experiences I've ever had.

We just didn't hit our stride. We kept thinking word of mouth would help. People still come up to me and say, "I really loved Hollywood Arms" and they're not casual about it. They start to tear up, and I have to resist the urge to say, "Oh, you're the one." But there was a good message in it for me to learn. There was talk about it being my big break-out. I was told, "This is going to make you a star," and "This is going to move you into whatever territory Kristin Chenoweth is in," but it didn't happen. In the beginning, I fended off those comments, which were coming from a lot of people, but toward the end, I kind of let myself go there and it was stupid. I should never have done that.

Alexander  GemignaniAlexander Gemignani:  You don't know when you're in a situation like that.

Donna Lynne:  Your world becomes so small.

Alex:  And nobody's telling you anything else.

Donna Lynne:  Do you know what's really funny? To this day, so many people think that I was nominated for a Tony. It's strange in hindsight how people put things together in their mind. I'm the luckiest girl in the world to have played that part and to work with those people.

Alex:  I'm sorry I missed it.

Donna Lynne:  It was really special, but clearly not for everyone. Then I did My Life with Albertine, Monica the Musical, Harold and Maude, Flight of the Lawnchair Man, and a lot of workshops. I was the "workshop queen" for awhile. I also did First Ladies Suite and The Audience.

I got engaged and my fabulous fiancé is so wonderful. We were supposed to get married October 15th, which was the second week of previews for Sweeney. I told David I had to make a choice, and that I chose the wedding. I chose my personal life over my career. He looked at me and laughed. He gave me maybe two seconds of respect, and then laughed in my face. He said, "Yeah, like I would let you turn down a chance to work with Stephen Sondheim. You're insane. We'll postpone the wedding and it will be fine." Of course deep in my heart I was banking on him saying that. I'm a lucky girl! It was interesting when October 15th came and went.

Alex:  You got to go away.

Donna Lynne:  We did. John Doyle, our director, was very lovely and gave us an extra day and we went away for the weekend. We're going to set a new date soon.

Nancy:  Alex, you were about to start rehearsals for Assassins when we last spoke two years ago. We had no idea then how New York was going to react to it.

Alex:  They loved it. Unfortunately it closed really quickly. We started previews March 31st. We opened April 22nd and we closed July 18th. There were about 8 billion rumors about why we closed.

Nancy:  People were saying it had something to do with the Republican Convention coming to town.

Alex:  That was one of the rumors. Another was that they wanted to put in real theater seating, which they didn't do until after us. They said they weren't selling tickets, but ... I don't know. I really don't.

Donna Lynne:  Actors rarely know the truth.

Alex:  We're the last people to know. We were all really, really bummed. We had been told that we were extending through the fall. Then, twenty days after winning six Tonys, we were told we were closing. It was very weird.

But, I wouldn't give it up for anything because it was an amazing Broadway debut. There were wonderful actors and it was a great production. I worked with Joe Mantello and my dad (Musical Director Paul Gemignani). There were a lot of landmarks for me.

After that I went back to my part time job in New Jersey at the UPS Store. I also work in a gift shop on the east side.

Nancy:  It's common to think when you get a Broadway job, that you're set and it's going to be easy from then on.

Donna Lynne:  Oh yeah. My fiancé David is a marketing executive and in his job, there are incentives and bonuses. You never move backwards unless you're really awful. It took him a long time to get used to the fact that every time a show closes, I start over. He's horrified by that.

Nancy:  And you can win a Tony and start over.

Donna Lynne:  Exactly. My friends who have won Tonys sometimes can't even get into an audition. People assume they know who they are or what they do.

Alex:  Or assume they are working. I did all these odd jobs, but then when '05 hit, things started picking up. This year has been a really good work year for me. I'm very lucky. I started with the Passion that was on TV, with Patti (Lupone) and Michael (Cerveris) at Lincoln Center. I went back into Avenue Q on Broadway for a week. I did The Producers movie.

Nancy:  What was that like?

Alex:  I was a "Prisoner of Love." That was a blast. I just went to the screening Sunday night.

Nancy:  Getting back to Sweeney ... you are both tremendous musicians, but what a daunting task it must be to do this show.

Alex:  It is very daunting.

Nancy:  I remember when they were casting it, there were so many actors who didn't want to be called in.

Donna Lynne:  I have a lot of friends who were called in and said, "Absolutely not," and I respect them for it.

Nancy:  But you were both brave enough to say yes.

Alex:  When you're living on ramen noodles, you're willing to do anything.

Donna Lynne:  (laughing) Yeah, that can make you quite brave. And having a wedding to pay for can make you really brave!

Alex:  When you go to a regular audition, there's so much weight and pressure put on the one thing that you're coming in to do. For this, the piano and trumpet were out of the ordinary for an audition, so when I got to the acting and singing, they were the easy parts. That's how the show feels. By the time I get up to act, I get to relax.

Nancy:  It must be exhausting because nobody is off stage through the entire production. There's no time to sit backstage; there's no time to go to the bathroom.

Donna Lynne:  Patti made a point about that. She said that it's sometimes more exhausting when you go off and go on because you have to rev yourself up to come on. Once you get out there, it goes by really quickly. Of course I say that now because we've only been running two months, but it really flies by.

Alex:  You don't even think about it.

Donna Lynne:  I've done three different productions of Sweeney Todd and, depending upon what I'm doing in that show, it can be a long night.

Alex:  You're worrying about everybody else and what they're doing, so you're your own last priority.

Nancy:  You're playing the piano through most of the show. Does that give you more of a feeling of responsibility for the entire performance?

Alex:  I really think that the level of responsibility we all bring to it is important. Sometimes, yes, I have a lot of responsibility, but so do the others. If Michael forgets to put a chair somewhere, then later when someone else is dying, if the chair's not there, you have a problem. There are all these little things. It's just as important that I’m playing the right tempo as it is for Michael to open the ladder at the right time.

Donna Lynne:  You forget how sparse these orchestrations are because they sound so full. They're so brilliantly done, and it's easy to think that I'm not that important musically. As head of the asylum, I'm the problem-solver. If anything happens - if something breaks, if a chair's in the wrong place, it is my job to fix it. I think at one point I had to drop out of something I was playing to address whatever needed my attention, and I felt the whole music line drop.

Alex:  Exactly, and she was only doing underscoring at the time.

Donna Lynne:  There was this gaping hole. I sort of get lulled into thinking that I'm only part of an orchestra but it's like a house of cards and if you drop one thing, all of a sudden....

Alex: comes crashing down.

Donna Lynne:  Right.

Nancy:  Orchestrating this must have been so complex. You have to figure out what instrument each character plays, and eliminate it from their song if it's something they can't play while they're singing. For example, Donna Lynne, you can't play flute and sing at the same time, so the flute can't be written into your songs.

Alex:  "Possible tacet for buckets."

Nancy:  Say that again?

Donna Lynne:  We had t-shirts made.

Alex:  Before you start that story, can I say this? Sondheim once said in an interview, "The greatest thing about orchestration is the atmosphere that it creates." That's the perfect word to describe these orchestrations - they provide the atmosphere.

Nancy:  Like a horror movie without the soundtrack. It wouldn't be scary.

Alex:  Totally.

Donna Lynne:  We had lots of days with Steve, but one day he was with us in the theater, and I never realized that he's really an actor until that moment. I always thought of him as a musician. Everything he writes comes from the character.

Alex:  He's way more concerned about his lyrics than his music.

Donna Lynne:  The day he first came to see a run-through, we were all freaked out. At the end of it, the only thing he said to us was, "I wish you were a little less respectful of my music. It sounds to me like you are all playing it note perfect. I'd rather you play a couple of wrong notes but get more of the emotion and the atmosphere." That was such a tremendous thing to say to all of us. That was the point where we all started acting with our instruments and stopped worrying about being note perfect for Sondheim, who we all worship.

Back to my story - We had t-shirts made saying, "Possible tacet for buckets - all will become clear." It started when I got my score for the first act, which was mostly accordion, which I played, but I needed to really play. I didn't want to go up there and just play the notes. I could play the notes the first day of rehearsal. That was not my concern. The goal was to be a musician - to play with feeling and nuance. I wanted to be able to emote like everyone else and to do that, you've got to know the instrument.

Anyway, I got my score, and in the middle, it gets to this point where it says in capital letters, "POSSIBLE TACET FOR BUCKETS - ALL WILL BECOME CLEAR." Tacet means "stop playing." I had no idea what that meant, but when we got to that point in the rehearsal, I told everyone what was in my score and they all had a huge laugh. I guess you had to be there.

Alex:  This is throughout the show. At any moment, there can be a possible tacet for buckets. [Note: buckets of blood are used throughout this production.]

Donna Lynne:  Everybody had something like that. Manoel (Felciano) had "possible tacet for gag."

Nancy:  I assume you're all used to it now, but what was this show like to do, at the beginning?

Donna Lynne:  I cried a lot during the first couple of weeks. The rehearsals were so intense. I think the majority of us are Type A perfectionist people and we all have that drive to do our best. It's really hard because you want to walk into the first day of rehearsal at a certain level of knowing what you're doing. I think this was the first time since elementary school where all of us felt we were in over our heads, and that's unfamiliar territory. If you're doing a play, you always feel like you're comfortable with most of it going in. With this, and especially for me, I was a woman playing a man, playing a new instrument - I was really asking for it. At the end of the day, I had to just go home and cry.

Alex:  You needed to decompress.

Nancy:  How long did that last?

Donna Lynne:  I would say probably four times a week for about three weeks.

Alex:  It demands such an intense and high level of listening and concentration that I've never experienced, and I don't think audiences have experienced going to the theater. You don't experience this in life, let alone in the theater. Nobody commands that kind of attention, so to do it for nine hours a day ... That's why doing the show is, in comparison, so much easier than the rehearsal process was.

Donna Lynne:  If you let your mind go for a second, you're in trouble. Usually when you're in a show and in a group number, there's a moment when you think, "Am I going to have time to do my laundry after the show?" It's human, it happens. If you do that in this show, you're in trouble. I think the hardest part was training our brains to not wander. Even now, if my brain goes somewhere else for a second, I'm lost.

Plus, my job is to have one eye on what's going on and make sure no one gets hurt. That was more important when we were rehearsing and it was a real possibility someone would be in the wrong place or forget to move a chair. Now it's almost like I have to heighten my energy to keep up that façade.

Alex:  You can sense it, because the minute one person relaxes, something goes wrong. It's inevitable. Something will be in the wrong place or someone will blow a lyric. You see it go. Somebody gets too relaxed in what they're doing and drops the ball, and instantly you know.

Donna Lynne:  The great thing about this group is that it's always an accident when that happens. The minute it happens, the other nine swoop in, pick it up, toss it around, and then it's somebody else's turn. It feels like a team sport. It's an extraordinary group of quality people.

Nancy:  What's Patti like to work with?

Donna Lynne:  Awesome. She's fabulous.

Alex:  She's a revelation in this part. She's a consummate actress. I'm not sure I've worked with anybody of her caliber in these kinds of roles that she's doing.

Donna Lynne:  She's fearless. She stays within the parameters of what she's been directed to do, but she loves a good laugh more than anybody else. I've found myself taking mental notes watching her act. Two things I've learned from Patti already - if you start to lose a laugh, just drop it. Don't try harder, which is a common mistake. Another thing - when the audience is a little slow once in awhile, the golden rule in musical theater is "faster, funnier, louder." That would be my instinct, but I've watched her literally slow down and let them catch us. Her interpretation is not that they're bored, but that they're behind.

Alex:  Or that they're not listening and you have to make them listen. You don't go faster.

Donna Lynne:  Where I would have thought that they're bored and they're ahead of me and I would have picked it up, she slows down. In my mind, it's like she puts out her hand and they slowly crawl into it. It's fascinating to watch, because from what I've been taught and what I've seen other people do, she's doing exactly the opposite. To watch her do the flip side of that golden rule and have it work is fantastic.

Alex:  She trusts her audiences. That's a great lesson for any actor to learn. Even if they're not responding like you want them to, she trusts them. Instead of expecting less, she expects a lot more of them because she trusts them so much.

Donna Lynne:  I'm so grateful that I get to watch her and Michael. Mano and I are really the only ones who are allowed to watch.

Alex:  I watch it at first.

Nancy:  I can't believe you can watch and play piano at the same time.

Donna Lynne:  Alex won't tell you that he's a freak of nature and brilliantly talented. It's not like anybody can do it, but he can.

Nancy:  Are audiences responding?

Alex:  The real testament of this production is that John (Doyle) and all of us are demanding - we're not suggesting, we are demanding their attention.

Donna Lynne:  ... and their participation.

Alex:  The most dramatic part of it is the silence. It's not the laugh or the applause, it's the dead silence when Mano goes, "patty-cake, patty-cake" and you can hear an elf sneeze because nothing else is going on. It's that kind of demand that this show asks, and that's what makes it dramatic. That's what makes it exciting to watch.

Donna Lynne:  It's not to say that if people don't like the show, it's because they're not listening. I think liking it and not liking it are totally different than following it and not following it. Even after doing this show a bunch of times before, in this rehearsal process, I learned things that I had never heard before. I had sung lyrics before but it never really registered what they actually were. The people who come that have seen it already, they say the same thing, "I've seen this a million times but I totally understood it in a new way."

Alex:  It's revived.

Donna Lynne:  But there are some people who believe that if you do a revival, you owe it to the new generation to do it exactly the same way, including mistakes in the book. It's a different philosophy.

Alex:  It's the wrong philosophy.

Donna Lynne:  I don't have a problem with people not liking it. I have a problem with them not following it because they're not listening.

Alex:  People aren't trained to listen. John's goal is simple storytelling. That's his first priority. It's hardly a simple story, but this epic tale is told in a very simple way, without a lot of sets. You have to listen because there's nothing to distract you. It's efficient. That's not to take anything away from the original production, which is so masterful and brilliant. I am in love with that production.

Nancy:  You told me two years ago that it's your favorite show and Sweeney is your dream role. You haven't gotten to play Sweeney yet but you've got a long way to go till you're old enough.

Donna Lynne:  That will be the next major revival.

Alex:  Donna Lynne and I will do it. This has been a real meeting of the minds with us.

Nancy:  Assuming that this production runs for a long time ...

Donna Lynne:  That will be a big change for me!

Nancy:  What's next? Are you going to get married after that?

Donna Lynne:  We thought we'd wait until it opened because most of the shows I've done have opened in October and closed in December.

Alex:  We've got (Mark) Jacoby's long luck and Cerveris' sort of long luck.

Donna Lynne:  We were going to set a date after the reviews came out, and the reviews were stellar. It's probably the first show I've done that got universal critical acclaim. I think we'll probably go for October 15th a year from now.

Alex:  (laughing) She's actually hired out the cast to be the wedding band.

Nancy:  I'd buy tickets to that! Thank you so much, and I hope the show has a good healthy run.

Sweeney ToddSweeney Todd
Eugene O'Neill Theatre
230 West 49th Street.

The Sweeney Todd cast recording will be relased January 24, 2006.

Photos: Paul Kolnik

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