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The Best of Cabaret 2000

Stouthearted Woman

Jane Eyre's Mary Stout chats with Raven Snook about flop musicals, swim class, and Cherry Jones.

By New York City
I am in awe of Mary Stout, the exuberant, comic character woman who has received raves for her portrayal of the housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax, in Broadway's Jane Eyre--The Musical. A seasoned singing actress, Stout is thrilled to be playing one of her most intricate roles to date, and many of those who've seen Jane Eyre feel that she may be in line for a Tony Award nomination. But Stout doesn't think about the future; she's too busy having fun in the present, as indicated by the animated way in which she chatted with me over the phone recently for our TheaterMania interview.

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TM: Is it true that you've never had a day job?

MS: It's true. I was about 21 when I left college because I was over it. I knew I really wanted to perform. I started in summer stock and dinner theater, and I always picked the job that paid less but let me do more roles. After my first audition, I was hired on the spot for a dinner theater circuit production of Neil Simon's The Good Doctor. Actually, I was hired as a replacement for a young actress named Cherry Jones who was leaving the tour! That's how I know her so well, from trailing her while learning the part. Today, I always joke to casting directors that if Cherry ever needs a replacement, they should call me in for the role.

TM: Jane Eyre is not your first Broadway show.

MS: No, I made my Broadway debut in 1981 as the nanny in a musical called Copperfield. The other Broadway shows I've done were mostly flops--as was Copperfield. The only hit I was in was Me and My Girl; I did that for almost a year, if you count my time on the road. I finally came to New York in it and closed the show. I covered Jane Connell, though I was entirely too young for the part. Well, that's what happens when you're a character actress!

TM: Do you have any fond flop memories?

MS: Of course I do. There was one show in particular, a 1982 road tour of a musical called Colette that stared Diana Rigg as the famous French author. The piece was written by Schmidt and Jones of The Fantasticks fame. It was definitely a good life experience, and I have lots of Diana Rigg stories. She was just marvelous! She played a lot of fun tricks on me, and I loved it. The show had a lot of potential, but we closed out of town. We only ended up playing two cities: Seattle and Denver. When we opened in Seattle, the director was let go, and they couldn't find anyone to replace him. Martin Charnin almost came on, but that didn't happen. We just tried to direct ourselves. It didn't work.

TM: Sounds like you've done a lot of work on the road. I know that Jane Eyre toured extensively before its Broadway run. Have you been with the show since the beginning?

MS: I am proud to say that I have been doing the show in one form or another since the reading back in May of 1995. Marla Schaffel [the current Jane Eyre] and I were both in it. Then the show went to Wichita in the fall of that year, but I was unable to go because I was on the road playing Madame de la Grande Bouche--the wardrobe--in Beauty and the Beast. I came back to Jane Eyre in 1996 when we took the show to Toronto, and then there were more readings and lots of changes. It got very complicated. In 1999, we went to La Jolla, and now we're on Broadway!

Marla Schaffel and Mary Stoutin Jane Eyre(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Marla Schaffel and Mary Stout
in Jane Eyre
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
TM: Has the part of Mrs. Fairfax changed drastically since that first reading in 1995?

MS: The two numbers I perform in the show are almost exactly the same as they were originally. They always worked. But the writers have fleshed out my character. Her reality level is much stronger now, and she gets to be there in a lot more of the dramatic scenes later in the show. I have to turn on a dime: I'm the comic relief but I also have to provide dramatic support. This role is really a dream come true for me.

TM: You know, you have a very old name. I put it into a search engine and most of the matches that turned up were genealogy pages for Mary Stouts from the 17th and 18th centuries. Have you ever traced your family tree?

MS: No, but I have searched for my name on E-bay to see what kinds of things people are selling with my name on it.

TM: Find anything interesting?

MS: There was a poster of the Broadway musical My Favorite Year. I was the aunt who wore the wedding dress--you know, she shows up at a fancy family dinner wearing the dress because it's the most formal attire she has. My big line was "You like it? I only wore it once." I loved playing that part.

TM: You are a true stage veteran. Have you done much film or TV work?

MS: I did a little work for Disney. Mary Wickes, who was the voice of the gargoyle Laverne in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, was ailing when Disney was doing some re-recording on the song "A Guy Like You." They brought me in to sub for her, but there's very little in the song that I actually sing. I also did some vocal work on Aladdin. As for TV, I played Eugenia Bremmer on Remember WENN on AMC for four seasons. It was so much fun--all these theater people on TV in a piece that had its roots in theater. Amazing!

TM: You seem able to remain very positive in a profession that often inspires bitterness.

MS: I have been blessed. I work at least half the year, every year. I fill my free time doing demo recordings and readings of new projects. I feel that, as an artist, you have to throw yourself into new things in order to help generate the future of theater as a whole. The year 2000 was particularly fruitful for me. Aside from Jane Eyre, I did a show at the McCarter Theatre called The Night Governess, by Polly Pen, set in the same period as Jane Eyre. It was very dark and very wonderful. I also did a show called Honk at The Northshore Music Theatre, based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Ugly Duckling. I played a drunken duck named Her Grace. During, the summer, I did a musical based on Arnold Lobel's children's books called A Year with Frog and Toad. It was adorable. I also did a reading of a new Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty musical.

TM: You sound like a very busy woman! Do you ever get time to relax?

MS: Every morning, I go to my swim class. I find that relaxing.

TM: What kinds of roles do you prefer: period or contemporary?

MS: No contest: Period. Character work lives much more in the past. Sometimes, I wish I lived in a different period.

TM: Which one?

MS: I would have liked to live in the late 1800s, at the turn of the century. I also like the 1930s.

TM: What kind of performer would you have been in the thirties?

MS: I would have been like Sophie Tucker! I adore her. In fact, I've been working on my Sophie Tucker characterization for years and have done several productions of a show about her life. One night, a woman came up to me after that show and said: "My husband was Sophie's publicist for 25 years, and you are her. You embody her." It was a great, great compliment.

TM: So, it's your dream to play Sophie Tucker on Broadway?

MS: Right now, to be honest, my dream is that the producers believe we can make a run of Jane Eyre, at least through the end of the season. This whole project has been about believing and trusting, both onstage and off. One of the big messages of the show is that you must never lose faith. I really love that.


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