Interview – Alison Fraser
Bruce Kimmel: Hello, Alison Fraser, we’re so happy to have you doing an Unseemly Interview here at haineshisway.com. Before we get to anything else I have to ask you about the profile you did in TimeOut magazine of a haineshisway favorite, Anthony Newley. How did that come about and tell us a bit about the article itself.
Alison Fraser: Well, fellow Newleyphile, at heart I am still a fifteen year old star struck neurotic drama nerd, so when I sashayed ever so confidently into an audition years ago only to be blindsided by the presence of my personal Showbiz God, I was basically stripped of all pretense of dignity and aplomb and confessed passionately and tearfully my intense teenage ardor. “Oh Mr. Newley! I can’t believe you’re actually here! You’re the reason I went into this business! I regard you as The Charlie Chaplin of Musical Theatre! I think “Can Heironymous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe And Find True Happiness” is one of the truly underrated Felliniesque auteur masterpieces of our time….” The casting director still shakes his head in disbelief and pity when he sees me. The Charlie Chaplin of Musical Theatre was amused and gracious, and of course did not give this wacko the job, TimeOut favorably reviewed my first solo CD “New York Romance” which has a track called “Anthony Newley and Me” relating the above incident, so when they needed someone to do an interview with the (did I say this before?) Charlie Chaplin of Musical Theatre they thought it would be droll to have Alison Fraser Blithering Idiot fly out to California and do the deed. Again, the “C.C.o.M.T.” was unbelievably dashing, and the article turned out so fawning we maintained a sweet friendship until his untimely demise. And he signed my copy of “Once In A Lifetime”. Sigh. His eyebrows were amazing, and I will never ever forgive Joan Collins.
BK: Yes, I heard there was a family living in his eyebrows for several years. You recently did a show at the York Theater (with Kerry Butler, our first interviewee) called Prodigal. Tell us a bit about that show and the upcoming recording you’re doing for Jay Records.
AF: Wait a second-Kerry Butler was your first interview? I thought…Never mind. “Prodigal” is a wonderful little coming -out -of-age chamber musical set in Australia, and the York Theatre was clever enough to give it an American premiere. And clever enough to hire Kerry and me (and Josh Park, Christian Borle and David Hess too of course.) Kerry was a tiptop dressing roommate, and very cute naked. Dean and Mattie (the writers) are absolutely adorable (as are most Australians–is there something in the water?) and talented to boot, and we are all thrilled that we’ll be doing the original cast recording for Jay in the fall. Chookahs!
BK: Alison Fraser, you have done some interesting shows with some amazing people. Let’s talk about a few. First off, you, Alison Fraser, have been nominated for two count them two Tony Awards, for The Secret Garden and Romance/Romance. How does it feel when you get the news of the nomination? Do you, for example, celebrate by putting on a pointy party hat and dancing the Hora or, at the very least, the Mashed Potato? Or are you calm? Tell us your reaction to each nomination.
AF: Unlike Kerry Butler, I dance the Hora gorgeously, but I save it for bar mitzvahs and the occasional subway platform not Tony nominations. “Romance/Romance” was such a whirlwind I didn’t have time to catch my breath. Our expectations of this show were so over exceeded so fast. We were doing this beautiful little production in a hole of a theatre for a hundred dollars a week, and all of a sudden a fairy godmother named Dasha Epstein came in, pumped a million bucks into it and we were all offered Broadway contracts. Dennis Parlato chose to go with “Chess” instead even though I offered him my vintage MG Midget (which he had wildly coveted) if he’d stay, but I got Scott Bakula in his place so I couldn’t complain too much. Within two months we had a Broadway opening complete with David Bowie at the party, a glorious Tom Shepherd produced cast album in the can, and a superb Times review. The nomination was sweet sweet icing on a delicious mouthwatering cake and the really lovely thing was that both Scott and I were nominated, so we didn’t have to innerly seethe on stage. Our show beat out a few shoo-ins for nominations, so there was a great aspect of “The Little Engine That Could ” about us. I still think we should have won everything to give our fairy tale the de riguer happy ending but “it was an honor just to be nominated…” The “Secret Garden” nomination was very flattering and gratifying, but once I heard that Daisy had been nominated in the supporting category instead of leading actress I didn’t even bother to buy a new dress because I knew I didn’t have a chance.
BK: That must be hard, figuring out what to wear to the ceremony? When you do buy a new dress, do you have someone design something for you? Given the blandness of the Tony Awards these days, was it exciting and fun back then? Did you perform a number from either nominated show?
AF: Cool, I anticipated that question didn’t I? But honestly now, didn’t I expect this synchronicity from a fellow Newleyphile? Kind hearted publicity conscious designers often approach nominees and offer dresses, but aside from a vaguely medieval Mary McFadden number I borrowed for some benefit, there were alas no other freebies por moi. My first Tony dress was a lovely lavender Lanvin with an eight foot stole and matching gloves, and I felt like a walking dream in it. Pictures however tell a different story.. What was I thinking? It looked like giant Barbie outfit. And it cost more than the MG! And like I say, the only new item for “The Secret Garden” Tony year was a Cruella DeVille type white streak in my hair, because I had to do something. As for the blandness of the Tonys, no no no! I am always thrilled to watch them to see what Bernadette is wearing. I love her gowns, even though in my heart I know she would not be caught dead in my lovely lavender Lanvin. I did indeed perform on both shows. I stood right next to Julie Andrews before my “Secret Garden’ performance entrance, and she might be my female Anthony Newley. Mary Poppins, man! But at least I did not blither this time.
The “Romance/Romance” Tony tape has something kinda cute on it. Watch Scott Bakula’s eyes toward the end of his solo portion of “It’s Not Too Late”- there’s the tiniest bit of darting panic there. That’s because I’m several measures late for my entrance and since the orchestra has been pre-recorded there’s no room for error. Why is Alison so late? She’s having her dress ripped off by stagehands because the goddamn zipper got stuck and totally messed up the fast change. I think I covered OK, but again, look closely and you’ll see a slightly glazed look on my face as I enter. I’m sweating just thinking about it. Thanks a lot, Bruce.
BK: Well, we are fans of both glazed looks and glazed donuts here at haineshisway.com. You were the original Trina in March of the Falsettos and In Trousers by Bill Finn. Tell us a bit about the gestation of those shows and how it was to work with Finn.
AF: My radar veers toward very talented, very smart people. (See above.) Bill (a fellow enthusiastic Newleyphile by the way) plucked me out of a high school show in Natick, Massachusetts and I was forever lost to him. I used to do anything for him-clean his apartment, go to his house when he’d call at midnight to give him a back rub, eschew most other auditions because I had such faith in my future with this maddening genius. I went out with his best friend for years, but looking back I think perhaps that was partly because I was so hopelessly and head bangingly in love with the talent of this exasperating, exhilarating gay man. He still melts me, and his music is why I sing. This is almost as fawning as the TimeOut interview but it’s all true.
The inception? Mary Testa, Bill and I had been singing a bunch of his songs together, and we decided to present them to would be producers. Mary and I scrubbed the bathroom, pooled our pennies for grapes and jug white wine, borrowed seventeen chairs from a synagogue, and because the visionary Ira Weitzman happened to be there “In Trousers” was born. We rehearsed at Playwrights Horizons in the midnight to four am slot on scary ungentrified transvestite hooker paradise Forty Second Street, and at one point Bill asked the stage manager (who has since become a pretty famous director so shall remain nameless) for some coke, and the guy came back a couple of hours later saying he tried really hard but he couldn’t score any. Maybe tomorrow? Bill said “What are you talking about-there’s a soda machine downstairs.” Again, all true.
BK: You’ve worked with some pretty amazing folks – Tony Randall, Jack Klugman, Mandy Patinkin, Scott Bakula, Elaine Stritch, George Rose (in Drood – stay tuned for our upcoming interview with Rupert Holmes) – did you ever want to kick any of them in the shins really hard, or were they all wonderful to work with. You can tell us the truth, we won’t tell anyone, we promise.
AF: Tony, Jack, Scott, George, and even Elaine were all dolls! Does that answer your question? Tony used to come into my dressing room at the Coconut Grove Theatre in his whitey tighties and crow gleefully “See what you’re missing!” Jack is salt of the earth total sweetie pie, and he knows just about everything there is to know about horse racing. Plus he was in my favorite “Twilight Zone”, so he’s bi-i-i-g in my book.The palpable love between those two is a great testament to human bonding. At a ceremony for a joint award they were getting I got to serenade them – “Each time I spy an older guy, of seventy six or seventy seven, I can’t resist the urge to sigh and smile and say Thank heavens for older men, for older men get better every day. Thank heavens for older men, without then I’d be sans my weekly pay…”
Scott was a dream leading man because aside from being a terrific and generous performer he would always knock on my dressing room door at curtain and escort me upstairs to the stage. And when we shared a cab occasionally after the show he would overshoot his apartment, drop me off twenty blocks further uptown, then head back down. Sigh.
George took me under his sweet fluffy curmudgeonly wing because I replaced someone whose stage antics severely annoyed him. If I couldn’t get a laugh I’d go to my personal theatre Yoda, and he said it all boiled down to clarity, diction, and not grabbing your crotch onstage. George taught me something else invaluable-he would always suck on a red lollipop before a show so his mouth would be nice and pink when he opened it to sing.
The only castmate I had a few problems with was Barry Williams, and we know what happened to him… As a staunch union gal all I can say is oh Barry how could you?
BK: Those are wonderful stories, especially the one about Tony Randall in his whitey tighties. I want to know about this children’s television program you were on, Between the Lions on PBS, on which you played Babs Caplan. Those shows are seen by so many children in so many places – did you get kids running up to you on the street? Any funny stories?
AF: I finally get a recurring part on a TV show and my costars are not Scott Bakula and the divine Howard McGillin but giant lion muppets. Who, by the way, would never go non-union. One funny thing about the show is that despite the fact I did maybe four or five episodes, tops, they rerun them so often you’d think I was on “Gilligan’s Island”. My apartment building is chockfull of kids, and I have to admit they are a little bit leery of getting in the elevator with Babs Caplan. She is a very flamboyant would be best selling authoress who can’t write her way out of a paper bag without lots of literary help from her feline pals. Babs is my homage to Marian Seldes— no one is or ever will be as deliciously grand. I had the honor of sharing a dressing room with her at Carnegie Hall when we did “Sail Away” together a few years back, and she’s a bona fide riot. And almost as cute naked as Kerry Butler.
BK: We’re going to make Kerry Butler and Marian Seldes the honorary Cute Naked Females of haineshisway.com. You appeared in a musical that has quite a few rabid fans, The Green Heart, by Charles Busch and Rusty Magee, who also happens to be your one and only husband. Tell us how that project came to be and tell us why it couldn’t seem to hang on, given the fact that people really liked it a lot. Is there any chance of it getting recorded (note: I tried to do it whilst at Varese, but the timing wasn’t right, unfortunately)?
AF: Ouchh! -You’ve touched a nerve. “The Green Heart” remains to this day one of the more bittersweet chapters in my theatrical life. It’s a wonderful show, based on fabulous source material, with a very funny touching book by Charles Busch. I bought the rights to the short story “The Green Heart” by Jack Ritchie, which the cult movie “A New Leaf” (starring Elaine May and Walter Matthau) was based on, because I was sick of mediocre musicals being made from movies I loved. Remember this was pre-“Producers”. I put together the creative team which included Charles, Rusty for the music and lyrics, and Ken Elliott as director, and together we got MTC to produce it via the great championing of the piece by Lee Johnson and Michael Bush. And Rusty’s score! It is indeed a tragedy that both recording deals we had fell through, because it’s a great loss to the archives of musical theatre. The problems with the production? Some misfortunate casting, too many cooks, hubris, personal agendas. Name it. It just was not in the stars for that beknighted production, but my dream is that someday soon someone very bright and talented will pick it up again and realize he could make a lot of money off it.
There’s an upside to this sad tale though. In about three weeks a CD will be released called “Sweet Appreciation-Rusty Magee Live At the West Bank Cafe” featuring Rebecca Luker, Mary Testa and me singing Rusty’s material, including the title song from “The Green Heart” (Becca) and “I Can’t Recall” (Mary), The songs as performed by these amazing women are testament to the fact the “The Green Heart” has one of the great undiscovered scores. But that’s just my humble musical theatre opinion. The CD also features comedian Lewis Black emceeing and a spectacular extemporaneous 30 minute set by Rusty. We know he couldn’t have prepared beforehand because it was a surprise party, and not one of the 250 guests spilled the beans. It’s an awesome CD and I’m not saying that just because he’s my husband. Once I figured out that pining for Bill F. was a lost cause I found myself another brilliant composer/performer/pianist and we’ll celebrate our 18th anniversary this summer. And by the way thank you for wanting to do the CD while you were at Varese – Maybe someday we’ll do an all star concept album a la Wildhorn…
BK: Speaking of recording, Alison Fraser, you have done two count them two solo CDs. Did you enjoy that experience? Did you find it difficult adjusting for the studio? Do you have another CD in the works and can you tell us a little about it?
AF: I love studio work. I am very much at home in front of a mike, and I have been told me voice is peculiarly suited to recording. Apparently I have “ping” (whatever that is) so I do lots of voiceover work – you can hear me on Lifetime and TLC and NBC along with radio and television ads. Doing my own CDs is one of the great joys of my life. Being a born control freak, it’s sensational to have to answer to no one, except maybe Chris McGovern who slaps me upside the haid if I get too uppity… I love to put together these CDs in as personal a way as possible. “New York Romance” was a direct reaction to a romance gone awry in my past, and of course “Men in My Life” is my tribute to men who have influenced me emotionally and professionally. To me it’s all about a vision, and the more personal and secure that vision is the better the CD is. I’m very proud of both CDs, and I hope to be collaborating with Chris McGovern ,the writer of one of my favorite musicals “Lizzie Borden” again in the fall on a new one.
BK: You’ve also just done an audio book – how did that happen and did you have fun doing it?
AF: Like I say, it’s all about “ping”. I’ve done lots and lots of audio books, the most recent being “The Buffalo Soldier”, “Blood Orchid”, and “From the Ashes” which is a very moving series of essays about September 11th. I’ve also done lots of romance novels with major gratuitous sex, and it seems like whenever someone is recording a book with seventeen different 15th century Scottish characters all at a party together I get a call.
BK: Isn’t that funny – I was going to record an audio book with seventeen different 15th century Scottish characters all at a party together, and you were the first person I thought of. There’s that Newleyesque synchronicity again. Are you planning to do any more writing, given the reaction to your Newley piece in TimeOut? Do you ever get confused with the other Alison Fraser, the romance novelist? Would you like to trade places with her for a day – like in Freaky Friday?
AF: As you can probably tell from the length of my interview answers I love writing. I’ve done a lot of monologue material for my concerts, and once when I was in the midst of reading romance novels for audio, I decided to try my hand at it. It was called “Under the Viking Moon” and it was set in 12th Century Ireland and Iceland, and had two virginal protagonists, Finula and Una, instead of merely one. Want to hear a racy part?
“Finula’s dreams that night were very different from her friend Una’s. Instead of being frightened, she reveled in a feeling of sweet rising warmth. She dreamed of a great green meadow that was dotted with daisies and fragrant with lavender. The sky was midnight blue, glittering with stars, and the Viking moon-a moon that glowed red and half filled the sky-shone brilliantly. She lay on a scarlet velvet robe in the middle of the field but she wasn’t alone. Beside her was a magnificent specimen of a man, a blond, blue-eyed wonder of a man. Beside her was Captain Dag.
She breathed heavily as she waited for him to touch her. The wait was agonizing-all she wanted was to feel his magical hands caress her trembling young body. As if reading her mind, he suddenly rolled on top of her, and kissed her with a fierceness that belied his hitherto gentle nature. His warm wet mouth explored hers, and she felt as though he were entering her soul. The weight of his body on hers was sheer heaven, and as he reached tenderly for her swelling breast, she wished this moment could go on forever. Together in her world of dreams she and Captain Dag prepared to experience total bliss…”
So, is your pulse racing? Maybe you should serialize it on Haineshisway.com. I’d have to think of a new name though because of that other Alison Fraser. How about Mercy Humppe? I thought that AF was a guy though. Also, I snagged the domain name www.alisonfraser.com so I bet he/she is annoyed, and thus wouldn’t let me switch with him/her on Freaky Friday unless I gave it up.
BK: I’m just thinking about Captain Dag and his warm wet mouth exploring Finula’s and how he was reaching tenderly for her swelling breast. It’s funny, but I was entertaining a nice lady named Finula last night and I was exploring her swelling breast with the weight of my body while my warm wet mouth sang “Piddle, Twiddle and Resolve”. She was not amused and left in a huff. You’ve done so many things, Alison Fraser – movies, TV, theater, writing, solo CDs, audio books – if you had to choose one of those fields, could only be involved in one – which would it be and why?
AF: V.O. and audio book money is great, solo CDs rock my world, and when a theatre piece actually works nothing beats it, but those odds are so slim. You did leave out something I’m crazy about doing, and that’s solo concerts. Secretly I want to be Barbra Streisand without the stage fright. Give me a microphone, a kickass band, and fancy sparkly pants and I’m happy.
BK: What has been the most rewarding project you’ve worked on? What was the most fun project? Was there a project you wish you’d said “no” to? If so, what was it. We won’t tell anyone, we promise.
AF: Let’s break this into parts shall we? A) Most rewarding? I like originating roles, so the most rewarding experience would have to include that aspect. Since “Romance/Romance was in essence originating two great roles I’ll have to go with that. B) Most fun? “Lizzie Borden” because I got to play with Chris McGovern all day, every day. C) Project I wish I said no too? Definitely the workshop of “New Yorkers” at MTC. I just didn’t respond to the material, and I’m really not very good at all unless I can totally commit.
BK: A little birdie told me to ask about “paper dolls” and your sister. Then the birdie flew away – I, of course, said “Bye bye birdie.”
AF: Is Ann Margret divine at the beginning of that movie or what? Yes yes yes. I stole the hair mussing bit for my club act. Works like a charm! My sister Laurie Manifold is a paper doll collector in addition to being a marvelous artist. She does paper dolls of me in my different costumes for each show I do. The “Secret Garden” ones have Daisy too… It started with “Beehive”-all the girls got them and were they thrilled! I’m thinking of making them downloadable on my soon to be up website, but then I wonder if anyone would really be interested. Readers?
BK: What kinds of projects interest you and what kinds don’t?
AF: I like smart people with smart projects. I like pushing the envelope. I shy away from the bourgeois.
BK: I just pushed an envelope, and you’re right, I liked it very much, too. I will have to do that more often. You have been delightful and delovely, Alison Fraser, and we here at haineshisway.com adore you. Do you have any final words you’d like to say to our Dear Readers?
AF: Even though I wasn’t the first, it was very very special…
For more information about Alison Fraser, visit her online at www.alisonfraser.com.