Tonya Pinkins, photographed at Morrell's(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
Tonya Pinkins, photographed at Morrell's
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
One of the distinguished panelists at a recent Drama Desk luncheon on the topic of Star Quality, Tonya Pinkins defined a star as "a performer who dares you to stop looking at him or her on stage." That certainly defines La Pinkins, who has just returned to Broadway in The Public Theater production of Caroline, or Change, the new musical with a book and lyrics by Tony Kusher and music by Jeanine Tesori. Directed by George C. Wolfe and now in previews at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, the show is set to open there on May 2.

"I started out at the Goodman Theatre when I was just 16," Chicago native Pinkins told TheaterMania during an earlier lunch at Morrell's, while the show was still downtown at the Public. To paraphrase Stephen Sondheim, "Good times and bum times, she's seen them all and my dear, she's still here!" In the two decades since her professional debut, the vibrant diva has alternately been at the very top (five Broadway shows, including a Tony Award for Jelly's Last Jam and a nomination for Play On!) and the very bottom (she was an abused wife who lost custody of two of her four children).

"I learned about life the hard way and there is nothing I won't talk about," she says candidly. "Hell, I've even written a memoir [Trial of Faith] about my divorce and the never-ending custody battle. Everything I feared in my life has already happened to me: I've been broke, pregnant, and practically homeless. What I've learned is, when you can't change the circumstances, you can change yourself. Success is just a state of mind." Pinkins actually left the business for a while, moved to Mexico, had two more children -- all born at home -- and became a pre-kindergarten teacher when her daughter started school. So, in addition to Actors' Equity, AFTRA, and SAG, she's a member of the American Federation of Teachers and the United Teachers of Los Angeles.

But that's all in the past. It's May of 2004 and Pinkins is most definitely back on top again, literally: For the first time, her name is above the title. Prior to Caroline, or Change, she was best known for such glamorous roles as Sweet Anita in Jelly's Last Jam and Lady Liv in Play On; but she wowed most critics with her portrayal of Caroline, a drab, angry maid living and working in Louisiana in the 1960s. Caroline battles with a young Jewish boy for the change he leaves in his dirty laundry and harmonizes with the washing machine and the dryer while raising her own four children. "The fact that I have four children certainly helps my portrayal of Caroline," Pinkins says. "As for looking drab, I just don't wear any makeup! In that way, it's the easiest role I've ever played." TheaterMania's Brooke Pierce described Pinkins's performance as "brilliant" while Ben Brantley of The New York Times listed her as one of his "players of the year" -- and she just picked up an Outer Critics Circle nomination for her work in the Off-Broadway production.

Pinkins muses, "This is my second show with Jeanine [she played Muzzy in the world premiere of Thoroughly Modern Millie in La Jolla] and my fifth with George. We go way back. George likes to use his friends -- and he does have some friends to use! We have marvelous chemistry as collaborators. He and I first worked together at Sweetwater's in 1984. You know, I didn't do cabaret again for about 15 years because it scared me. It's so naked; there's nothing to hide behind! Then, in 2001, I did a show with no theme and no patter -- just songs I liked -- at Joe's Pub and we recorded it." After playing the Pearl Bailey role in the Encores! revival of House of Flowers last season, she returned to the Pub on Valentine's Day 2004 with My Shining Hour, a celebration of the love songs of Harold Arlen.

Change is good!(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
Change is good!
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
"I'm the most upbeat person there is," says Pinkins, "and so I decided to do [Arlen's] songs from my perspective. For me, 'The Man That Got Away' is about how 'I had a man and it was outstanding and I'd even love to get him back for just a couple of nights.'" For the finale of her show, she sang "Somewhere over the Rainbow," as an anthem. "Because," she explained, "That's how I live my whole life."

Aside from her great role in Caroline, or Change, Pinkins is back on the ABC daytime soap All My Children with a brand new multiple year contract; she's recreating the part of lawyer Livia Frye, which she first played from 1991 through 1995. ("They'll always need a lawyer on the show," she cracks.) Now, she brings to the character the reality of having served as her own lawyer during her child custody hearings. "If I could have had any other career, I might have been a lawyer," says Pinkins, noting that she took some law classes to help her in her real-life pro se experience.

So, did those classes come in handy during the highly publicized flap over contract negotiations for Caroline's move to Broadway? "I've been working on this show for three years and I always knew it would move," she responds with a smile. "I simply wanted what was appropriate to the situation. I would happily have taken what the press insisted I was asking for in what they called, my 'outrageous demands.' But the truth is, I was on vacation during that whole time and my agent, David Guc, handled it all." (Pinkins personifies what she calls the "actorpreneur attitude" in her motivational workshops for performers, which you can learn about by visiting www.tonyapinkins.com. Well, it is called show business, isn't it?)

"Change come fast, change come slow, but change come," the washer and dryer sing in Caroline, and this could be the theme song of Tonya Pinkins's life. "You know," she reflects, "George Wolfe said that, when he took over at the Public, he had the decision to grow himself into the size of the job or diminish the job to what he was already capable of. I feel I have to grow myself into this. 'To him who is given much, much is required.' For me the years that 'the locusts have taken away' have definitely been restored."

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[To access TheaterMania's video clips of the Drama Desk panel on "Star Quality" in which Tonya Pinkins participated, click here and scroll down.]