Opera and Broadway mesh this week when the Los Angeles Opera presents its first-ever summer event, A Little Night Music. It stars Zoe Caldwell as the grande dame Madame Armfeldt and Judith Ivey as her actress-daughter Desirée in one of Stephen Sondheim's best-known musicals.
Caldwell is a four-time Tony winner: for Slapstick Tragedy (1966), for her title roles in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1968) and Medea (1982), and in Master Class (1996). The Australian-born Caldwell began her professional career at age 9 in a production of Peter Pan, left school at 15, and made her living teaching speech and performing on a children's radio program. She was one of the original members of Melbourne's Union Theatre Repertory Company (1954–57) and appeared for two seasons with the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Company. In 1963 she helped launch the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre. On film she appeared in Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) and loaned her voice to Lilo & Stitch.
Ivey's many Broadway appearances include her Tony-winning turns in Hurlyburly and Steaming (both earning her Best Featured Actress awards) andher Tony-nominated performance in Park Your Car in Harvard Yard (Best Actress). Other awards include two Drama Desks and one Obie. Her film credits include Brighton Beach Memoirs, A Life Less Ordinary, Washington Square, and Mystery, Alaska. She also starred on television in Designing Women and The Critic.
The two are reuniting, having first worked together in 1991 when Caldwell directed Park Your Car in Harvard Yard, also starring Jason Robards, at the Music Box on Broadway.
Zoe Caldwell: I was aware of you for years. But the first time we met was during Park Your Car.... There was no need, really, for a director. It didn't need casting. You and Jason came to the office of my husband [Robert Whitehead]. You were absolutely right for these two people, so humanly right.
Judith Ivey: I had done a television film with Jason prior to that: The Long Hot Summer. He played my father. It was one of the best experiences of my career. The one thing you gave me that was so important was not to reveal so much in the beginning. In a way the play was a kind of mystery. I was revealing how angry she was in the beginning. By pulling it back and being mysterious, it began to work.
Gentlewomen and Scholars
Ivey: [To cast A Little Night Music] they called my agent. It was presented to me that there were two other actresses, and all three of us had conflicts. It was whoever could resolve their conflicts first. I had already said I was going to do The Cherry Orchard at Williamstown. How do you pick? It's so crass of me, but they pay more money here. And I always wanted to play Desirée. But I always wanted to play Lubov, too. Actually, Victor [Garber, who co-stars in Night Music] called me and left a message, saying, "I'm begging you to do this, darling." That's about all it took, because Victor and I for years had said, "Oh, I wish I could work with you."
Caldwell: I sit in on rehearsals. I love it.
Ivey: And I watch you, because I'm your daughter. I come from you. So I need to find those things—I have a button at home that says, "Stop me before I become my mother." That's why I speak the way I speak [in the production]. Because if I grew up with you and became an actress, I would have a dramatic flair.
Caldwell: I have taught and I like to teach. I was the "Eminent Shakespearean Scholar" at Florida Atlantic University. I have been around to universities and have given one- or two-day master classes. I really enjoy them. When they asked me to teach acting I said, "No, I won't teach acting." They said, "Then you won't come and be the eminent Shakespearean scholar?" I said, "Yes, but of Shakespeare. Because if we do Shakespeare, we'll do acting." When it's explained to [student actors] that if they use their own voices and their own accents, because the sound that Shakespeare wrote for was good American sounds—I always feel that when American actors "act themselves," with their own voices, that's when they have no trouble with Shakespeare.
Ivey: I've done the same thing. I go for a week and do master classes and maybe do a performance. But I'm not accomplished in Shakespeare, so I ask them to focus on some contemporary piece. I always feel that the one thing that happens in academia is: They create a persona and take away who they are. It always fascinates me when I go in and they do their monologues. I think, "You're not being you at all. There's no core. It all looks good, sounds good, tastes good, but I don't believe you." That's where I start. I enjoy teaching, because there's nothing like watching someone get it and transform. I'll never forget a beautiful African-American grad student. She was statuesque and had an incredible voice. She wrote a piece about being raped. She got up and did it in a rather Shakespearean voice. I kept trying to listen, but I couldn't listen to it. I said, "Could you do it again?" She did it again. I stopped her halfway through, went down, and talked to her. I said, "This is about you. You don't talk like this when you announce yourself. This is where you rely on yourself. Start over and just tell us your story." And she did, and the room was in tears. That's all it took was to say, "You have permission to be you." And that's why I like doing it, because I learn about acting.
Caldwell: No question. That's the "scholar" in the teacher. I had a great voice teacher in Melbourne. She wasn't just a voice teacher; she taught me to read, she put books into my hand. We were very poor, or my parents would have put the books into my hand. She gave me an education, from the age of 7 to 18, on scholarship. I'm very grateful. But the next best thing is to work, whatever it is. Take the job. Don't consider, "Is it the right part?" If you're lucky, do it in front of people who are paying, because they're the real audience. Your fellow students may laugh and clap, but it's better to have someone who's paid their money.
Ivey: The greatest thing in my training—I went to Illinois State University, which had a professional training school. A lot of the Steppenwolf actors came out of there; they're about a year or two younger than I am. The school demanded that you always give a different performance. We were criticized if we repeated something. It was a sign of failure. It was challenging. Now I know that that was a great gift. I didn't get it at the time. I just was terrified of getting bad marks. Now I realize it's given me a range as an actor.
Mother and Child Reunion
Caldwell: [When not working] I just hang out at Pound Ridge [New York], which is where I live, and enjoy the family.
Ivey: I hang out and enjoy my family. I have two children, 10 and 14 [with her husband, producer Tim Braine]. That's another bit of personal direction I got from the time we worked together. Your boys were 10 and 14. I did a play that Mr. Whitehead had produced, my first Broadway show; when I met [the boys] they must have been 4 and 7. So then when I worked with you later I saw them as teenagers. Jason and Lois Robards had their children who were about the same ages. I had my daughter right before I did the play, but I felt the example given to me of how important it was to go and have a life.
Caldwell: That's the biggest thing to remember. It's too much for any talent to support 24 hours a day needing involvement. I had learned it from Dame Judith Anderson. I realized how lonely she was. I watched her take her magnificent curtain calls, and I thought, "But after, there is nothing." Of course she had a whole lot of dachshunds. And that was good, I suppose. But I knew there had to be human contact. I made that judgment that whatever would happen, I must have a family. You made the same decision, didn't you?
Ivey: When I first met you it would have been 1979, and that's when your boys would have been tiny. Here was the great Zoe Caldwell; watching you be a mother was very impressive.
Caldwell: I took five years off. I was 36 when Sam was born, and nothing in the theatre seemed as exciting as being involved with a new citizen, to help guide the way in some way that a nanny can't—nor a stage manager. I took time off, and everybody said, "My gosh, what is this? Other actresses have had babies and worked. What's so special with you?" It wasn't that I was giving up my life to the babies; I just found it thrilling. And Robert was older, too, at their births; so we just hung out with the boys. There's a certain degree of energy that you have as an actor that has to be culled off or you become alcoholic. You need a lot of energy for little ones, so that did the culling. And a few drinks. BSW
"A Little Night Music" will be presented by Los Angeles Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. Wed.-Thu. 7:30 p.m., Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. (Sun. 8 p.m. July 25; and Wed. 2 p.m. July 28) July 7-31. $20-100. (213) 365-3500.