Interview – Melissa Errico
Bruce Kimmel: Hello, Melissa Errico and welcome to haineshisway.com, home of the cheese slice and the ham chunk and various and sundried other sparkling things. We are so pleased you’re here. So, let’s get right down to brass tacks or, at the very least, aluminum tacks. Tell us where you’re from and how you first got interested in the theater.
Melissa Errico: I was born in Manhattan and then grew up from age 5-18 on Long Island on a street called Brookside Drive. I loved the brook outside my house, in the woods, but if you walked too many steps away from the brook, there were the train tracks and you could get run over by the Long Island Railroad. The train came every 45 minutes, and became like an old friend. I was a dreamer and spent a lot of time outside. I started gymnastics and dance at age 5 and by the time I was about 8, I got my first chance to do a show. The Girl Scout’s (actually called Brownies when you are that young) had an international day, and all the troupes had a country. We had Mexico, and our show was called La Cucharacha. We were all Mexican dancers choreographed to chase the roach, and try to stomp on it. My best friend was the star, but got scared at the last minute and I was asked to step in, put on the antennae and brown wings, and be the cockroach. All I had to do was run around and try not to get stepped on. Good training for the professional stage! ha.
BK: I’ll bet you were quite a lovely cockroach, too. What was the first show you ever saw in New York and what kind of an impact did it have on you?
ME: I saw On Your Toes, and it was 11, it was my birthday and I cried my eyes out. I literally fell in love with Natalia’s legs, and her upside down steps. Christine Andreas was delicious. I cried so hard because I didn’t know how all those people did all that. I wanted to be a part of it, figure out a way to sign up! I just was so moved. It was like a religion to me immediately. Some find Buddha, I found Lara Teeter.
BK: Now, at a very young age you danced with the marvelous Lee Theodore’s American Dance Machine. Tell our dear readers how that came to be, what the Dance Machine was, and what the experience was like.
ME: I joined the American Dance Machine because they had their training facility in Long Island, and held master classes at Hofstra University. I took classes, and met the professionals there (all of them were teachers there then) and after a while they caught on about my voice. It was an archival dance company, re-creating old dances from famous shows, like Pajama Game and West Side Story. It was the internet of dance style history. Live on stage! I started singing for the dances– mostly the ones set in the 1920s and 1940s. My voice loved jazz back then (and now too!) and I could sing the charlston songs like no other kid. Dance-wise, I was never Lee Theodore’s favorite. She never let me do anything publically other than The Lindy. Because I had a large round ass, she said I reminded her of a Solid Gold dancer (from the TV show). She was cruel to me, and nicknamed me “Solid Gold.” She caused me a lot of tears, and sort of ruined my body image for life! Other than that, she was great! Why do we put up with it all? I could have been a veterinarian but no.
BK: So, from the Dance Machine where did you go? I hear you went to Yale, is this information true?
ME: I went to Yale. Your information is correct. Don’t hold it against me. I did it in 2 1/2 years. I “accelerated” through a year of credits and spent a summer in Italy studying very weird mausoleums and religious art. I have a medieval side to my soul. I studied 12th century nuns and the sexy letters they wrote to the abbots. I read the sexy stories of Baroque artists, who got raped, who was homosexual, who had the Pope’s commissions, who ruled Florence… you name it. From the years 1200-1550 in Europe, I was hooked.
BK: So, Melissa Errico, there you are, a Yalie – but along comes Les Miz – tell us about how you got the job playing Cosette in the first national tour of the show, and did you play it here in Los Angeles, California at the Shubert with my pal Michelle Nicastro? How long were you out with the tour? How was that experience?
ME: I was 18 and had just started my freshman year at Yale. Looking ahead at the summer, I auditioned for Rhode Island Theater by the Sea’s summer production of GEORGE M. I got a callback. I was in little shorts (since Lee, I always wore shorts to dance in, like tap pants to make my figure look cute, since I knew I didn’t look like a legs-for-days gosh-darnit bun-head) and a leotard and tap shoes — I was dancing and singing. I had THE biggest hair, like Roberta Flack from the 1970s. Vinnie Liff was auditioning LES MIZ next door. He saw me through the window and peeked in, and asked if I could come into his room when I was done. I came in, with tap shoes on and pink hot pants, and met Bob Billig and all the producers of LES MIZ. My teacher had taught me Cosette’s stuff. I pretended to learn it on the spot, and then sang it. My high C was horrid, or at least Bad. They said “can you start in 10 days?” WHAT!!?? I said “But my high C wasn’t even good!” and Bob said, jokingly, “you should hear some of the things we’ve cast!” They laughed and assured me I would be perfect for Cosette and I signed up! I raced to a payphone and FREAKED out on the phone, so so happy. It was a dream. My parents were at least glad it wasn’t the circus, because I had threatened to run off with Ringling Brothers a few times. So, I went on the road for a year and a half (never played in California). I learned a lot of dirty words from an actor named Bob Dusold (do you know him? He taught me some things I can’t say outloud…no really, I just won’t say it, but believe me I was corrupted on the road). I was a kid, closer in age to Gavroche than any other member of the cast. I couldn’t go out and drink with anyone. I was not 21 yet. I stayed home a lot, wanting to be responsible…. getting sad sometimes. I ate a lot of crackers and pounds of pasta. (didn’t someone once say that pasta gave you energy? where are they, I wanna kill ’em ) I got really fat, and then after a year of being fat, I started going to the Diet Center in every town, and started with the whole regime of Wasa Bread and egg whites. Being weighed in by strange middle-aged ladies in Baltimore… ah, the glitz, the glamour. By the time I went to college, I was a stick. I used to go running through the (very dangerous) neighborhoods of New Haven in skimpy outfits. Yale women don’t believe in anything like nudity so I had to start wearing sweats if I wanted to have friends.
BK: Next up was the musical of Anna Karenina – tell us a bit about that experience. It was finally recorded, wasn’t it, years later?
ME: I was in it. I recall John Simon saying that Anna is run over by the train at the end and that he would have liked to throw the whole cast in after her. It was not quite a hit show that year, but have you ever heard the score? Its GORGEOUS. I just made the album this year and its coming out soon. Its going to be lovely. I want to be Anna next time. I did it in the initial readings, while I was at Yale. Then when it went to Broadway, I had to be Kitty cause they felt I was too young. Ah, well that ends– and now, Mr.Kimmel, I am ready for my suicide.
BK: Now, Melissa Errico, you suddenly find yourself cast in a great big revival of a great big musical, My Fair Lady – and not only cast but cast as the Fair Lady herself, Eliza Doolittle. Tell us about the auditioning process and how long it took for you to be cast. The show toured for a bit and then came to Broadway with you and Mr. Richard Chamberlin. I saw it and I must say I thought you were wonderful in it. How was it being on Broadway in a big old show. Any good stories? Tell us everything, hold nothing back.
ME: I had 11 auditions. It was hell on wheels. I had to prove myself so many times that I almost felt like I had already done the long run. Just kidding. No, I was really honored to be in the running, but just couldn’t quite get them to believe that I wasn’t too young (21). I had meetings with the conductor, the director, the producer, Richard, the choreographer, and many combinations of those folks. I had to do it all with so many sets of girls, as they compared me to them. Like a dog show. I got better each time and took private coachings with Austin Pendleton through it all. He used to scamper across the park and give me lessons, and I studied my tapes and sang all the time. I wanted to be Eliza so badly. It was a passion. The producer David Stone was really my biggest ally and he helped them to believe in me. David and I had gone to camp together as kids, we played husband and wife in BARNUM. I have juggled while he walked a tight rope. Looking back on it all now, I can’t remember any good stories about MY FAIR LADY except that my ENTIRE life imitated art. I was Eliza, I lived in my little apartment and tended violets. I fell in love with the director of the show and had the hottest 5 year romantic affair of my life.
naughty naughty naughty. I know you know about it. Also, I struggled with my voice (I was asked to scream in a sound studio, to record Eliza in the bath tub, and hurt my voice) and ended up having voice therapy– like my own personal Linguistics tutorials. I was totally recreated by a voice specialist. So, to sum it all up: I was in love and a mess, and then grew up and was something of a woman when it all ended.
It was a spectacular whirlwind of drama. The book deal is pending.
BK: Wow, you held nothing back and we are the better for it. Your next big Broadway musical was High Society. It was a bit of a rocky road but did you have fun doing it? Of course, you got to sing some pretty incredible Cole Porter songs and that’s always a good thing. How were the audiences? The show got lukewarm reviews – do you read them? Do they bother you?
ME: I always loved High Society. I always will. I loved my lemon-yellow opening night gown with butterfly shawl. Oh, poor High Society!! I was so proud of our show. Everyone in it knows that it was good and just didn’t have the opening week it deserved. As for reviews, I learned from this experience not to read them. I felt so sad for the show, so upset for the cast and so unsure how to make it all better. I also learned that no one actor is responsible for the whole thang. I loved doing the role, I loved our initial director Chris Renshaw. I loved our smash hit run in San Francisco, that is how I am going to remember it! When Chris was replaced during NYC previews, it was a terrible shock. The show was COMPLETELY re-shaped and cut down in 6 short days before press night. The Tony deadline made us have to crush so much work into a week, it is devastating to recall. We worked so hard. Des MacAnuff who is a genius just didn’t have enough time. Several nights, I was rehearsing new material at intermission! That started to look like “available rehearsal time”– we were desperate to keep up with the changes. One night, I did a strip tease by the pool and ended up in little shorts, another night they said Tracy wasn’t a pin-up girl and should be in a slip. One night I sang “I am loved” to Dexter, as a sort of fight song, another night that idea was cut. Everyone’s performances were totally re-organized.
Audiences? oh them! I think the audiences liked it. Many people continue to tell me they loved it. It wasn’t perfect, but it really was a good show– especially once we settled into the performances. It really was just a case of being rushed to fine-tune the show and having no time to make it sparkle enough for the press. Too bad because it should still be running.
These kinds of things make you stronger. Luckily people like Stephen Bogardus and Randy Graff were there. They were the wise ones, and I learned so much from them. They are the kinds of people who carry a show because they are so strong and smart and know the ropes. Survivors. I am so glad I had them to mentor me.
BK: You also did One Touch of Venus at Encores! a really well thought of concert and, sadly, one of the few that went unrecorded. Tell us about how Encores! works. How much rehearsal, how intense it is, the whole megila.
ME: The recording was done in London about 2 years ago, and is still on its way. John Yap is the producer– so we need to bombard him with emails and get it released. I think Brent Barrett hasn’t finished his singing on it. Isn’t Brent a hunk?
BK: Yes, we had lunch the other day and I remarked to him, “Brent, you are a hunk.” He took it well.
ME: Encores is a crash course in theater. You have 8 days to pull together a show. I had never heard of Kurt Weill. By the end of the week, I was written up in such a nice way that I have always been associated to that role since. I have become a real Weill fan, and really know his work now. Then, I was just busy trying to get Greek gowns, learn the lines, and bringing my own sassy take to the goddess. It was the role of my lifetime. I was NEVER EVER happier. It was so much fun and just felt so easy. Everything fell into place. I loved the sensuality, the intellectual writing and the ridiculousness of being Venus. All of it. I had my heart right in it and would do that role on anyone’s kitchen table at any party any day.
BK: You also began to branch out and do some “straight” classic theater, for example, Major Barbara and The Importance of Being Ernest (I think that’s right) – both of which were directed by our very close and wonderful friend Tony Walton (we call our dear readers here Kimlets, which, of course, is Tony’s name for me). I believe these were amongst his first directorial efforts – how was it to work with him? Do you enjoy doing the classics? Are you interested in doing new plays, too?
ME: I am VERY interested in plays. I have to warn you of a new playwright– his name is Jonathan Bernstein. You will hear of him soon enough. A brilliant young man who writes straight plays. straight plays with bent subjects.
I am also very close to Tony. He calls me Melisslet. Both shows were his first full directorial efforts and he was just a dream to work with. He liked to give backstage notes while you are partially undressed which makes for much giggling. He is also the most gifted, serious artist in the world. I cannot rave enough about his talent as a director. We are plotting a return to the Melisslet/Walton collaboration. I spent New Years Day with him, making mischief with his wife Gen and my beau Patrick, drinking lagers and shandies at an Irish Pub.
As for more plays, yes yes yes, would love to do Shakespeare in the Park. That is one my biggest dreams. Wherefore art that job?
BK: Stopping theater talk for a minute, you’re married to Patrick McEnroe. Haven’t you known him since you were a wee sprig of a twig of a lad of a youth? Did you have a crush on him way back when or did that only happen recently?
ME: I met him when I was 5. He is 4+ years older than me and was my brother’s inseparable best friend. He had the crush he says. I had it when I met him again, five years ago, wow wow wow, lightbulb over the head time.
BK: All right, Melissa Errico, we now get to talk about one of my favorite people in the whole entire world and environs – Mr. Michel Legrand. You just finished doing Amour. Tell us about that experience.
ME: AMOUR was a dream in every way. The only sad thing was that it didn’t run. The whole thing was so much fun, and very creative. James Lapine had his hands full working on the book, trying to help the translator, making it work for the New York stage. We rehearsed all through previews, but unlike High Society, the original team was always there, there was a tight sense of family and of total devotion to Michel. I am crushed it didn’t run, but totally invigorated by the fact that we all worked so hard and so lovingly. It was my perfect commune. Malcolm Gets and I are close friends, and the cast was perfection. We all were more than fellow actors, we really liked to be together. My hippie commune fantasies were all fulfilled.
And isn’t Michel just the KING? I spent many late afternoons in the basement of the Music Box with him, as he played me new songs and taught me the melodies. I am telling you, other than this summer with Sondheim doing SUNDAY IN THE PARK at The Kennedy Center, I have never been so honored and so overwhelmed. What makes Michel so cool? His bushy eyebrows? his jazz flavored piano style? I am with you Bruce, worship.
BK: Were you upset that the critics weren’t kinder or more supportive of the show? Certainly on the Internet the show had its staunch supporters. Do you feel it would have done better in an off-Broadway venue? Was Michel around a lot and did you love him to pieces? You also worked with my very close pal, Todd Ellison, with whom I’ve done perhaps twenty albums (and he’s about to musical direct the film I’m directing at the end of March). Tell our dear readers a bit about the relationship that cast has with the musical director.
ME: I wasn’t upset about the reviews. I loved Amour and nothing could upset me about it. I was sorry we didn’t fight and win. I send out kisses to those internet supporters. Vive L’Amour!
Wow, you have worked with Todd so much! He’s a honey. Ok about a musical director… As I see it, the musical director is the liason between the composer and the singer. He’s the guy who rehearses you, and then is your everyday friend as you start the 8 shows a week routine. A musical director (MD for short) has to find the keys for your voice, work on tempos that suit you, help you learn and make a song your own. Usually with new works, he has to help arrange the songs to suit dialogue and transitions. Todd did brilliant things. He wrote vocal arrangements, some jazz scatting that set up scenes… Todd also played the piano for the full 90 minutes EVERY day. He has the concentration of a jewel thief. And he plays so gorgeously. I want to work with him so badly! So, put me in your movie! PPPlllleaaase!
BK: Done, you are in it and we will be the better for it. You, Melissa Errico, have something very exciting happening. You have your very own CD coming out. Not only that, you worked with a legendary producer, Mr. Arif Mardin. Tell us all about how that project came about, what the album is – and just take us through the entire process, from meeting Arif, to choosing the material, the musical director, etc. When will it be available (we’ll link to the album on amazon) and are you happy with the result?
ME: I am thrilled with the result. I feel it points in a direction that I want to keep going in. I was signed to Capitol Records way back in High Society days. But it has taken me a long time to find a producer and a team that I believed in. I was spending time in LA, doing a little TV and a few films, and I started to collaborate with Alan Pasqua, who is a very esteemed jazz pianist. We spent over a year playing and having fun. We made demos and the record label was liking it. Eventually, the head of New York Capitol Records sent a demo to Arif Mardin who was working with Norah Jones. Arif and I started to meet, and he understood the smooth, calm, intimate sound I wanted. In fact, he gave Norah a very mellow start, and she is just divine and deserves all 6 of her Grammy nominations. Arif, who did the great albums of Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Judy Collins, Bette Midler, Chaka Kahn, and has worked with all my idols including Laura Nyro and Stevie Wonder… (you name it–) and I got along so well. He is truly my mentor now and we are flying high from this past weekend in Washington DC area… I played Wolftrap– did my first live album performance. I am so excited. We had a standing ovation! (spurred on by my encores where I sang with my Dad on piano– a little Sondheim and a little Adolph Green… Dad is so smooth at the piano, you gotta hear him! ). So, to go with the album, I now have a band and brought my brother too who played guitar and sang back-up, as well as sang a solo tune with me backing him. He is a rock-and-roller and there are elements of soft-rock (jazz/pop and blues too) in my cd. Mike wrote 2 songs on the cd, you can hear one online called “I Still Love You” (the link is on my site). Also Mike added 2 songs to my live show. I have a song by Mike that I want to give to the gay community– I feel the message is something we could all have fun with. Its called “KEEP IT TO MYSELF” and its all about freedom and being who you want to be. Its kooky and witty. Mike musicalized the poem “Warning” by Jenny Joseph (1961) which was about a woman thinking about the old woman whe wanted to become… wild and free, wearing a purple dress and a red hat, not caring about what people think. The poem says WHAT AM I WAITING FOR? Maybe I should be that old lady Now. Its about being FREE. I want to sing it to a room of men who would understand it and have fun with me.
As for the cd, it is really overall a gentle album, a smooth ride in the car. I hope you like it Bruce! It is a beginning and I know my best albums are ahead of me, but this one is a mission statement. I am ready to sing! The first album review came out this weekend in the Washington Post, check it out!
BK: So, what is coming up for you? I know you do concerts – do you travel a lot?
ME: I am hoping to go on tour with a band and have a bus that is painted with flowers. Ok, a bit Partridge family, but that’s what I want.
BK: Okay, Melissa Errico, a producer comes to you and says that he will revive any musical you want, for you to star in. What would it be and why?
ME: I am not telling. But it would be sexy and have dancing. I want to dance more.
BK: You’ve done some film and television – do you like that as much as the stage?
BK: Well, Melissa Errico, you have been an absolute delight and we thank you for doing an Unseemly Interview here at haineshisway.com. We’re really looking forward to your album and we toast you with the official beverage of haineshisway.com – Diet Coke. Any last thoughts for our dear readers?
ME: Happy new year. call your mother. Come to Joe’s Pub March 3, 10, 26, 31 for the New York cd release dates. see you there. wear a purple dress. xoxo
For more information about Melissa Errico, visit her online at www.melissaerrico.com.