The Glare interviewed former
In October you became the “Chicago” cast member with the most performances under her belt. How many are you up to now?
Marcia Lewis, the original Mama Morton logged in 223 weeks. I hit the record at 224. That was a month ago, so I’m at 228? 229?
Mama Morton is such a great character. She has this wonderful Sophie Tucker-style number, “When You’re Good to Mama,” that’s full of sex and flirting and double entendres. Each of the actresses that I’ve seen perform this has brought sort of a different style to the role. What have you done to make it your own?
Well, the one thing is that I am a nightclub singer from Detroit. I started singing in clubs when I was sixteen, so the privilege of breaking the fourth wall, I’m very much at home with it. One of the things that I do to make it my own, I know that some of the people who played her played her as a lesbian. Some people played her as just a hard woman. I play her as a hustler that will do just about anything to get money from anybody in the room, and she does not discriminate. Plus I play her as this lovable mama, so that everybody doesn’t mind giving her all their money, and all their jewelry, and everything they’ve got to get money for.
I love the fact that there are so many different sides to that character. One of the moments that I thought was just incredibly touching is when Mama makes the announcement about the Hungarian Rope Trick (showing Cook County’s first execution of a female prisoner) and your voice caught a little bit when you did that line. It was terrific to see that vulnerability from Mama.
[Producer] Fran Weissler came to me maybe ten or fifteen years ago in Pennsylvania and said, “I’ve never had a Mama that cared about the Hunyak [the character who gets hanged].” Here’s the thing, I don’t like for the audience to laugh when I say the Hungarian Rope Trick, so the pause and the sincerity in that is because this girl is really getting ready to hang. Usually when people say the line, they get a laugh. I just don’t want them to laugh, so I pull into my inner actress and try to get them to do something different, to be sure that they don’t laugh, that they really feel that moment, because she’s going to hang and it’s not funny.
I understand that you’re going to be going to Dubai to perform in a production of “Chicago.” Are you excited about bringing the show to an audience that may not have seen a live Broadway show before?
Well, “Chicago” has been there before and we have been to Abu Dhabi. I’m very excited. I happen to absolutely embrace that part of the world.
I’m in a packing dilemma as we speak!
I was surprised when we first went to Abu Dhabi that this show would go to that part of the world, until I got there and saw that they were trying to open up a bit from the tradition or the stigma that actually the rest of the world has about that part of the world. There are some opinions about those countries that are not factual and a lot of them are not accurate. I was treated like royalty – they spoiled us rotten. It was amazing.
And Dubai I know is an even more exciting place.
They want to open up, from what I’m seeing – and this is only my opinion because you get to talking about politics and, I mean, I get nervous. I talk about music. They want to open up the horizon of welcoming tourists and welcoming people to come and enjoy a beautiful country. It is beautiful.
You’re known for theatre, film, music and television, but I had not realized how much voiceover work you had done. How did you get involved with that?
I’m a cartoon! I was doing “Blues in the NIght” at the Pasadena Playhouse and they were getting ready to create “Hercules,” the animated feature. Alice Dewey, who was one of the producers, saw “Blues in the Night” and sent Ron Clements and John Musker, who were creating the characters for “Hercules.” They sent me to Alan Menken here in New York, and said if Alan liked me, I had the job. It was the same kind of Cinderella slipper that I got into theatre with.
I have an amazing career because these are things I never thought about doing, but these are things that I most enjoy. I just learned a long time ago that if you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans. I had no dream to come to Broadway. Vondie Curtis-Hall, my friend in Detroit, said “You need to go to New York!” I was singing in clubs and making money in Detroit full-time; I was very happy. I had no plans to come here, no plans to do movies, I didn’t even know I could act. I was a singer. But I realized later on, when people commented on it. Then when I got my first TV show with no music, I panicked. My mother said, “They see something you don’t see.” So I did it, and it’s like the most natural thing. And the cartoons… I love the fact that they kind of call me for me, for my personality. I went into one of my newest cartoons, “Teen Titans Go!,” I asked how old the character is – she was a grandmother – and the producer looked at me and said “It’s you, Roz,” and I was like, “Wow, really?” That’s kind of fascinating and very flattering.
I also heard that you’re going to be doing a musical in 2014 based on the life of Liberace?
Yes! “All That Glitters.” I’ve been working on that for seven years. I’ve done all the workshops and all the presentations and the fundraisers. It’s really been a labor of love. Alexander deJong wrote, directed and choreographed it, and you know that’s a heavy task for one person. But he’s got the stuff. He invited me into a workshops seven years ago, and every time he’s done it, to raise money or to show it off or to introduce it to people, he’s called on me and I’ve come in and been involved the whole time. We did a big workshop last year here at the Baryshnikov Center and the people came.
Bob Mackie is doing the costumes. We got the rhinestone piano from the museum. And it’s just turned into this big spectacular thing.
Do you get much opportunity to see other Broadway shows, and if so, are there any you would recommend to people?
Right now, “After Midnight” would be my absolute favorite one. I was actually in Atlanta filming, and I came here for a week just to see shows. Wendy Williams was about to do Mama in “Chicago,” and she caught a really bad cold. When the producers found out I was here, I wound up doing the first four shows, and then I never saw any other shows because I had to leave.
My contract’s up in mid-January and I plan on seeing “Motown,” “Kinky Boots,” and “Lady Day,” but I would highly recommend “After Midnight.” Wonderful piece.
What else do you have coming up in 2014 that you’d like to highlight?
Well, I’m going back home to LA to do pilot season and find out what they’ve got for me. I’m probably going to do voiceovers for a while and get some swimming in and relax. I’ve been home three weeks out of this entire year.
The good thing about voiceover is that you can get out of the pool, go to the studio in your swimsuit with a shirt over it, do the voiceover work and go back and get in the pool. You don’t have to dress up, don’t have to put on makeup, you can get in the car and drive there.
That sounds like a pretty good deal.
Yeah, it’s a great life.
Thank you for your time.
by Byrne Harrison