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Interview

Labor Pains

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Labor Pains
Photo Source: Francine Daveta
Giving birth to a character in a new show has long been one of Alice Ripley's ambitions. She's done it before—most notably playing one half of the Hilton sisters, real-life Siamese twins, in Side Show in 1997. But now she is taking it a step further. In Next to Normal, she created the role of Diana, the bipolar mother, during the show's Off-Broadway run last season at Second Stage, then played it at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., where it was rewritten, and now she's re-creating the part for the Broadway run at the Booth Theatre. Each time she has performed in a role she created, she's struck by her obsessive need to "fix something." She notes, "The more I discover the character, the more I feel there's something that has to be fixed. And that's because I'm originating a role. If I did Evita, the first thing I'd do is steal from Patti LuPone. Hers is the definitive performance. It would be different because it's coming out of me. But it would be easier for me to be satisfied with what I'm doing if it's a role that has been played before."

The joy—and challenge—of taking on Diana is not just creating a character from scratch but forging a type that has never been seen in a Broadway musical, says Ripley. In Next to Normal, with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, Diana is disintegrating emotionally. She has not come to terms with the death of her son 18 years earlier. She has a medicine cabinet full of psychotropic drugs and is shuttled from therapist to therapist, ultimately landing in a psychiatric ward where she undergoes electric shock treatment. The unconventional musical explores her journey and her impact on her troubled family.

"Diana is the most complicated female character I've ever encountered in musical theatre," Ripley says. "She's like all these women trying to deal with their demons and juggle everything and be superwomen. And they can't. This show acknowledges that, and you see the audiences transformed. Diana is a good fit for me as an actor. I'm challenging myself in ways I never have before. I'm finding parts of myself revealed on stage through Diana that I was not aware of before."

One of Ripley's greatest challenges is that "I'm living Diana all the time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week," the actor says. "Offstage I'm still Alice, but I find I'm adopting some of her behaviors and attitudes. I'm focused on the show all the time. I like that feeling, but it's also very isolating."

Ripley is keenly aware that Normal is not for all tastes, but she doesn't feel that's an issue she has to address. Questions such as "What will this role mean to my career?"—"Will I lose roles or suffer from typecasting?"—are "obstacles to be gotten over," she says. "It's important to grow beyond that. If you depend on audiences or critics for adoration, that's a weak place to come from." She insists she tries to take nothing for granted, deliberately "staying ignorant beyond the immediate reaction I get from the audience in front of me."

Ripley's other challenges in the show are musical, she admits: "It goes all over the place, and it's a pastiche of different melodies. The second act has operatic qualities, and the first act is rock. The emotion and ferocity of delivery is more important than the melodic line, but we're Broadway, so I'm careful about delivering the melodic line. In the first production, I had problems with my voice. I was in physical pain and terrified. I'm more at home now, and I'm glad we didn't transfer earlier."

What most prepared her for this arduous role? "Everything," she says. "I couldn't have done this role five years ago." Ripley knows, for good or bad, that Diana will forever be identified with her spin. Actors who play the role in later productions will be checking out tapes of her performance for clues.

No Jane Stand-In

Now co-starring in 9 to 5: The Musical at the Marquis Theatre, Stephanie J. Block says the fundamental difference between originating a role and performing in a revival is that with the latter, "you have a little grounding, a game plan, a format. You know what songs the audiences are going to love and where they're going to laugh. When you create something new—and that's the fear and joy of it—you have no idea, not even in rehearsals. You don't know until you get it in front of an audience. It's a huge pressure."

Some might argue that unlike Ripley, Block is not quite originating the meek Judy Bernly. After all, the character was previously played by Jane Fonda in the 1980 film 9 to 5, about three beleaguered female office workers who've taken all they can take from their sexist boss—played by Dabney Coleman in the movie and Marc Kudisch on stage—and finally exact their fiendish revenge. Similarly, Block's co-stars Allison Janney and Megan Hilty are playing roles identified with Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton.

While acknowledging that many theatregoers are coming to the musical to see a re-creation of Fonda—a central challenge—Block insists that re-creation is not her goal. "Though Jane Fonda made Judy Bernly iconic, Judy is still a [fictional] character," she says. "And now that 9 to 5 is a musical [with a score by Parton and book by Patricia Resnick], it becomes a spanking-brand-new project. It is no longer tied to Dolly or Lily or Jane. And that gives us leeway and grace and allows us to introduce an audience to new characters. We have our own chemistry, and it's a whole new energy."

Rather than a retread of the movie, Block suggests, audiences want to hear the lines they love, the show's zaniness, and the camaraderie among the three women. "People respond to the naiveté and wide-eyed frantic energy, and that's still there."

To prepare for her role, Block admits, she watched the movie once—not to imitate Fonda, she reiterates, but "to see the tempo, the pace, and Jane's choices." Interestingly, early on in the show's journey, the three actors were in costumes and wigs identical to those sported by their counterparts in the film. As Block tells it, the creative team quickly changed its mind, deciding that impersonations on stage did not service the new show. But at the production's premiere at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, the three original stars surfaced and, according to Block, were very happy with the new version. Thumbs up from Fonda was as good as it gets, Block says. Perhaps she shouldn't speak so soon: Block was recently nominated for a Drama Desk Award for her Broadway performance.

Block has originated roles in the past on Broadway, first in the short-lived The Pirate Queen followed by the long-running The Boy From Oz, in which she played the iconic Liza Minnelli, generating a lot of ink for her uncanny evocation of the singer. Block recalls that role as far more challenging than her current stint because she was re-creating a living legend. "It was a delicate balance," she says. "I had to be respectful of her voice and inflection and mannerisms but without doing an imitation."

The particular acting challenge in playing Judy is that the character is a departure from the type Block usually plays. "On Broadway, I'm the strong, powerful, grounded woman," she says. "Judy is not that at all. It's her first day of work, she has no office skills, and she is recently divorced. She is nervous and fearful and vulnerable, which is new for me in originating a role."

One element that took the pressure off is that the three actors are equals—sharing the songs, the stage time, and the audience's emotional investment. "It is evenly divided, and it was decided we'd all bow together," says Block, adding that she might have felt intimidated sharing the stage with Janney—whom she has admired for years—if Block had not co-starred with another well-known actor, Hugh Jackman, who played Minnelli's ex-husband Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz.

Asked what she hopes 9 to 5: The Musical leads to, Block quips, "A well-received long run. And beyond that, I'm grateful to be a working actor."

Booked for 'Happiness'

Miguel Cervantes is also grateful to be a working actor. But he hopes originating the role of Miguel, the bicycle messenger and comic relief, in the new musical Happiness Off-Broadway at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater will be the calling card that propels his career. "I'm getting married this summer, I want a family, and I want a level of success to support that life," Cervantes says. "If playing this part gives me street credit so that I can go to auditions and people will say, 'Oh, that's the guy who did Miguel,' and then that leads to bigger and better things—I want to be like [co-star] Hunter Foster, who moves from job to job, one successful thing to another."

With book by John Weidman (Pacific Overtures, Assassins), music by Scott Frankel, and lyrics by Michael Korie (the songwriting team behind Grey Gardens), Happiness centers on a diverse group of New Yorkers stuck on an unusual subway train. Their unexpected journey is full of confrontation, revelation, and catharsis. The piece is directed and choreographed by the Tony-winning Susan Stroman.

What makes Cervantes' current gig especially noteworthy is that the role was written for him. He originally auditioned for an ensemble role that would also understudy a much older maintenance worker named Miguel. Four callbacks later, the character of Miguel had become a younger man, modeled after Cervantes. "I brought to the table me: who I am, the way I move, the way I speak, my physicality," he says. "It was a customized role, so it would seem not all that challenging, but then when we went into rehearsal, I became insecure. I was no longer sure I was doing 'me' right. I kept wondering, 'Am I still doing what they saw in me when they created the role?' "

Cervantes concedes his biggest challenge was the status of the creative team and cast. "When I saw the list of people who were going to be in it, I was shocked," says the actor, whose co-stars include Tony winner Joanna Gleason (Into the Woods), Ken Page (Ain't Misbehavin'), Phyllis Somerville (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), and Fred Applegate (Young Frankenstein, The Producers). "I said, 'What am I doing here?'"

He says what most prepared him for working with his high-profile colleagues was previously participating in a Michael John LaChiusa workshop of a musical version of Giant. "It was the first time I worked with a notable team on a new project," Cervantes recalls. "It gave me the rhythm of working on a new piece with high-profile people. So I was more at ease when I got involved in Happiness." Still, because of the names involved in this show, his biggest challenge was "bringing to the stage the same level of talent and professionalism as everyone else, always being on par and not standing out in any way."

Predominantly a singer, Cervantes says he found the acting demands a bit of a challenge. "I was told, 'You're the funny guy. You're there to ease the tension without being a big old goofball. You have to balance the real person with the funny guy.' Being funny is hard. There's timing and rhythm and dealing with eight other actors on stage and re-creating the moment from last week that was funny then but is not funny now."

Perhaps he sums it up best for all the actors when he says he is constantly concerned with disappointing the other actors as well as the creative team, all of whom also face high stakes in forging a new, untried show. The risk is great, but so is the potential pay off.   

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