This blog is a part of The Directory of Contemporary Musical Theatre Writers, found online at www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com.
When I first moved to New York City, I got a ticket to this “random” musical theatre piece I had heard about called First Lady Suite, written by someone named Michael John LaChiusa. I wish I could say I was a more literate musical theatre writer back then, but… I wasn’t. I headed to an unlikely theatre in the East Village for the show and was transfixed by it. Who was this writer? And who was Mary Testa, one of the show’s stars? Why did I not know her and how could I be made aware of everything she was going to do in the future?
Actually, I did know who she was. By that time I had already become an ardent fan of William Finn’s A New Brain, in which Ms. Testa played a street urchin asking for loose “Change.” I just hadn’t made the connection between the amazing singer I heard through my too-big Sennheiser headphones on my morning commutes from Astoria to my temp gigs and the dynamo I saw on stage. Connection made, ne’er to be forgotten.
Since then I have enjoyed her many varied performances, including my personal favorites, See What I Wanna See and Queen of the Mist, also LaChiusa shows.
I recently sat down with Mary Testa and talked to her about developing new works and characters.
What is it about developing new work that excites you?
Not all new work excites me, but working with people I truly admirer, like Michael John [LaChiusa] and Bill Finn and others that are progressive… that excites me. I also feel part of the collaboration, so I sometimes make suggestions. I’ve said to writers before, “If you want me, you’re going to get an opinion.” I like being part of the process – being able to say, “This doesn’t feel right.” or, “This is too many words.” Of course, it’s great to be the first person to put your stamp on something by creating a new role.
Can you tell us a bit about your history with Queen of the Mist.
It was Jack Cummings’ (Artistic Director of the Transport Group) idea for Michael John to write it – Jack commissioned him and Michael John wrote it for me. There’s a book about Anna Edson Taylor that’s written all in poetry form. Jack actually gave to me many years ago when we were at Williamstown Theatre Festival doing what would become See What I Wanna See. I cried the moment I read the book – I cried for three days. Anna Edson Taylor was a misfit: a woman who had an intelligence beyond what was socially acceptable for her time. She was just forgotten. So there was a visceral kinship I felt with her. I felt out of place as a young kid and where I went to school people’s interests weren’t the same as mine. There were a lot ways I felt connected to her. I cry every time I hear or think about the show.
How did you develop the stamina to perform such a big vocal and dramatic role?
Michael John wrote for the absolute highs and lows of my voice, so it was a compete challenge. And I did fifty of those shows. I was very proud of myself – it was a lot to do. I was tired. I was vocally tired as well. There’s a long held note in the opening number that I had to sustain in my mix while crossing the length of the playing area with a fairly heavy suitcase. By the end of the run, I had to have Michael John change it for me because I was so tired. I had enough rest before the recording, though, to be able to perform it as written.
I’m not a person who generally warms up – I usually just sing my show. But Julia Murney gave me a warm-up tape that a voice teacher gave her and I did it every night. I found it very helpful because I was singing in every register of my voice.
You tend to do most of your work off-Broadway. Is that a deliberate choice?
I do off-Broadway because it’s much more interesting. It doesn’t always pay well, but it’s nine times more interesting.
Do you have any words for contemporary writers?
I think writers need to just keep writing and not be afraid of dark or challenging subjects. How many “safe” movie adaptations are we going to see (unless it’s a really interesting movie with something to say)? I know it’s tough for new works to get done, but new works have to be written and new voices have to be heard. Just don’t settle for silly little things you think are going to sell. It’s hard, because you want to be produced and make money, but very often the stuff that gets produced is the stuff that appeals to the masses. And very rarely is that the best stuff. Still, you have to keep at it: writing, challenging and changing the form.
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