Christine Ebersole :: Breaking the Fourth Wall
When Ben Brantley, the New York Times theater critic, reviewed an enigmatic new musical after its opening night in 2006, he gushed for the first three paragraphs over the leading lady’s nuanced handling of a single line from her big musical number, then closed the review by claiming that this same leading lady’s performance "is the best argument I can think of for the survival of the American musical."
The musical was "Grey Gardens," the role was Little Edie Beale, and the actress was Christine Ebersole, who won a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her performance, her second. The first came after her star turn as Dorothy Brock in the 2001 revival of "42nd Street." Ebersole has before and since won every other theater award you can name (Obie, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and Drama League), playing opposite such theater and film icons as Angela Lansbury, Richard Burton, and Marsha Mason, for starters.
But after doing four Broadway shows back in the early 1980’s, including the original production of "On The Twentieth Century," and leading roles in revivals of "Oklahoma," and "Camelot," Ebersole left New York and the stage for California and television and film, starring in the 1981/82 season of "Saturday Night Live" opposite Gilda Radner, Jane Curtain and Bill Murray, as a variety of characters, but most memorably as the clueless Weekend Update Anchorwoman and Weather Reporter, followed by some work in daytime soap operas, short-lived sitcoms, and some small roles in such big films as "Tootsie" and "Amadeus," after which she learned from her agent that she was over the hill.
Not being one to take this lying down, she up and left California and returned to New York with no prospects, but some personal contacts, from which she resumed her stage career, starring in eight more Broadway shows, to abundant accolades and awards. Local audiences might remember her from her dazzling performances as Desiree Armfeldt in a concert production of Sondheim’s "A Little Night Music" presented at Tanglewood and at Boston’s Symphony Hall in 2008.
As if that weren’t enough, Ebersole launched a cabaret, concert, and recording career, trying out a range of musical styles that she didn’t often get to sing on the Broadway stage, from jazz to folk and pop, in addition to American Standards and musical theater fare. Her cabaret shows have been presented at every major venue in the US, including Manhattan’s Café Carlyle, Birdland, and Feinstein’s at the Lowes Regency, and Los Angeles’ Cinegrille.
Is there nothing this woman won’t attempt? You can find this out very soon, as the Celebrity Series of Boston will present Ebersole in her cabaret show "An Evening with Christine Ebersole" on Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013 at Sanders Theatre.
In 2011, Brantley gushed (once again) over Ebersole’s cabaret outing at Café Carlyle, "Ever since last Saturday night ... I’ve been hearing voices. One of them is a clear, righteous soprano that recalls Joan Baez, the balladeer of my childhood; another is a lilting, silvery curlicue like that of the soubrette in an operetta from the gaslight era; then there’s the sassy ’Hello, boys’ trumpet of a girl singer with a big band; and, most hauntingly, there’s the glasslike voice that seems to exist expressly as a container for the shimmering pain within. All those voices belong to Christine Ebersole." Edge had a chance to talk with Ebersole from her Maplewood, NJ home to hear about her whirlwind early career, her first club gig with ’Hairspray’s’ Marc Shaiman, long before either of their stars had risen, and her upcoming show:
EDGE: Immediately following the 1979 revival of ’Oklahoma,’ you starred in the 1980 revival of ’Camelot,’ as Guenevere, opposite Richard Burton’s King Arthur. What was that early part of your career like?
Ebersole: I was doing Ado Annie at the Palace Theater and I had just given my notice to take the summer off, when I got a call to come and audition [for ’Camelot,’ whose leading lady was sacked during the final week of rehearsals]. It was going up quickly, and I had to learn the role in 3 days. I got the job on a Monday, I flew to Toronto on Tuesday, and then 3 days of tech, leading to the dress rehearsal without Richard Burton, who bowed out, so we blocked it with his understudy, and Friday we opened at [Toronto’s 3,500-seat] O’Keefe Theatre where I performed with Richard Burton for the first time. It was like one of those Hollywood movies, where they say, ’Hey kid, can you learn the part by Friday?’ (Laughs).
EDGE: And very much like the plot of ’42nd Street,’ which you starred in on Broadway.
Ebersole: Yes, that’s right!
EDGE: Something very similar happened with another actress in the 2008 concert production of ’A Little Night Music’ at Boston Symphony Hall, where you played Desiree Armfeldt. Local Boston actress, Bobbie Steinbach took over the role of Madame Armfeldt when your ’Grey Gardens’ co-star, Mary Louise Wilson, dropped out at the last minute. How did that work out?
Ebersole: She was amazing. She stepped right in and no time was missed.
EDGE: Who in the cabaret and theater world do you most admire and/or have influenced you?
Ebersole:I think Michael Feinstein, and Elaine Stritch. I performed with Michael in the last show at Feinstein’s, at least at that location. We all hope it will reopen in a new venue.
EDGE: How did you first get started doing cabaret?
Ebersole: When I first came to NY, when I did ’Camelot,’ I did my first club act, and the musical director was Marc Shaiman, who later became the composer of ’Hairspray,’ the musical. He was 19-years old. I met him through a dear friend, Eddie Stone, and he directed the club act. He was incredibly talented, even then. He quit school at 16 to work with Bette Midler! It was through Marc, I later met Scott Wittman, lyricist of ’Hairspray,’ and who directed all my cabaret shows at the Café Carlyle and elsewhere. Scott and I have known each other for 40 years, and we have a similar sensibility.
EDGE: Will your show in Boston be as eclectic as some of your other shows, such as the one you recorded Live At the Cinegrill?
Ebersole: It is very eclectic, yes. From ’You Forgot Your Gloves,’ ’Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead,’ and ’How Can I Keep from Singing,’ to ’Keep Young and Beautiful’ (a film song), a new take on ’If I Were a Bell,’ and a jazz take on the ’Grey Gardens’ music.
EDGE: In Boston, you will be performing your cabaret show with longtime musical director, John Oddo. What does he bring to the collaboration?
Ebersole: John and I have worked in a very concentrated fashion for the last 5 years, and in 2007 for the first gig at the Carlyle. He’s my main man. He really has a classic sensibility. His artistry transcends the popular and is for all time.
EDGE: Has motherhood shaped your artistic choices and expression in any way?
Ebersole: I think everything else pales after motherhood. In a sense, it’s the hardest job and the most rewarding and fulfilling job you can have. It’s not an inanimate object. Career is an elusive thing, but a child is a relationship that is hopefully forever, that will live on past you. If there is some way you can positively influence their lives, then my life has not been in vain. I’m very grateful to have my 3 children. It’s really the greatest blessing. I always include a story about my children in the show. In this show, I sing two songs combined into one that expresses how I feel.
EDGE: You have a Noel Coward CD that has the familiar ’Mad About the Boy’ and ’If Love Were All,’ but then many obscure selections. How did you choose from among his enormous collection of songs?
Ebersole: A lot the material came out of [doing the 2009 Broadway revival of Coward’s ’Blithe Spirit’]. [Director] Michael Blakemore asked me to sing some short vignettes during the scene changes, and that music would tie in to the next scene. Larry Yurman, the musical director of Grey Gardens, collaborated on the CD with me. Larry brought a lot to the table. I didn’t know much about Coward before Blithe Spirit either. Just in general, it opened up my eyes to the world of Noel Coward’s songs. There is something very simple and moving about his songs. Particularly, like ’Sail Away’ and ’I’ll See You Again,’ and then the funs songs like ’Chase Me Charlie.’ I fell in love with his music.
EDGE: How does cabaret differ from theatre performing, and why do you find it to be an important art form, for you and for audiences?
Ebersole: It’s different from theatre, in the sense that when you are doing a play or musical, you are playing a character and wearing costumes and following the script of the story, but in cabaret, the story is emanating from myself, and I am playing myself. It is structured, however, like a Broadway show, because the story sets up the song, and there is an overall arc or theme for the evening. The intimacy and immediacy of cabaret is great. It is a satisfying and rewarding experience for performer and audience. It offers a transformative experience. That also happens in theatre, but in cabaret, you break the fourth wall, which totally changes the dynamic. It is that much closer.
Christine Ebersole will perform "An Evening with Christine Ebersole", presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston on Jan. 26, 2013, 8pm at Sanders Theatre, Memorial Hall, Harvard University, 45 Quincy Street, Cambridge, MA. Tickets: $40-$55. For reservations and more information, visit: http://www.celebrityseries.org/CS_performers_2012_2013/ebersole.htm
Watch Christine Ebersole sing "I Cain’t Say No" from the 1979 revival of "Oklahoma":
Watch Christine Ebersole sing "Another Winter in a Summer Town" from "Grey Gardens":