To regular New York theatergoers, Linda Emond's name is synonymous with heavy dramas. She set the scene ablaze with her Obie-winning performance in Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul, and later brought audiences to tears with her Tony-nominated Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman opposite the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.
But what everyone tends to forget — mainly because she doesn't do it very often — is that Emond can sing too. She's getting to show off her vocal chops as landlady Fraulein Schneider in Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Cabaret, a performance that earned Emond her third Tony nomination. After a recent matinee, TheaterMania chatted with the versatile performer about the differences between plays and musicals, her friendships with her costars, and the brutal effect of sustaining a long-run while doing gut-wrenching theater.
As a performer, you're not really associated with musical theater. Did that make getting to sing in Cabaret a draw for you?
It really was. People forget that I sing. My Broadway debut was in 1776, actually, playing Abigail. I haven't done it a lot here. I haven't done it a lot, period. I don't consider myself a singer-singer; I'm an actor-singer. For a lot of shows, it's not really going to be up my alley. This stuff, having been written for Lotte Lenya originally, does have a very Brechtian feel to it, and that is right up my alley. Combine that with the music by John Kander and Fred [Ebb], who I wish was here, and Joe [Masteroff], who has written a beautiful book.
Was it an instant yes on your part?
Believe it or not, I said no. It was a knee-jerk response — jerk is the operative word. I said no partly because when I thought about it, I thought I'd have a lot of opportunity to play that part, but I'm happy to say they came right back and said, "Wait, please talk to Sam." Of course, I should have talked to Sam [Mendes, the production's director] initially. I loved him right away and also found out that, number one, they wanted very specifically to go a little bit differently with Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. [Sam] and Alan [Cumming, who plays the Emcee] were very committed to not just redoing the show. After that conversation [with Mendes], I was ruminating a bit and was leaning toward it, and then Michelle Williams came on board. She is a really good friend of mine. That was the clincher for me.
I had heard you two were friends. How did you first meet?
We did The Cherry Orchard at Williamstown. Michael Greif directed it about ten years ago, with Jessica Chastain, Chris Messina, Reed Birney, Ritchie Coster…It was a great cast. I just fell in love with Michelle and we've been friends for the last ten years.
You and Danny Burstein, who plays Herr Schultz, are so heartbreaking to watch. I think that's particularly due to the fact that you're playing the characters so much younger than they're written to be.
They really wanted to go that way. We removed a few references so it wasn't just about a last shot at love, but really was a viable long-term possibility, which I do think makes it all the more heartbreaking. And I absolutely love Danny. We kind of fell for each other even before he started and I could just tell what a dear he is. You get lucky sometimes. It seemed from the very first day that this would be really good. I just love him, and I feel loved, and it's very joyful. (pause) And we get to dance with pineapples! [laughs]
The last time Roundabout presented Cabaret on Broadway, it ran for six years. As a theater person, was the prospect of a long run enticing?
The principals are all signed until January 5. This is the longest run I will ever do, I think. That was the other reason why I said no — I had never had a big desire to do that…I think it's partly because a lot of stuff I've done in the past has been extremely difficult. It's not that this is easy, but this has stuff that's very fun and delightful. And the show is paced beautifully. And it is so good and I'm so proud of it that a long run seems doable.
When you mention works that have been extremely difficult, I presume you're talking about all of the Tony Kushner plays you've done. And Death of a Salesman…
We went into Salesman knowing it was a limited run, and I don't think any of us would have accepted doing it longer. There was just no way. I knew when that was offered to me that the kind of show it was going to be, with Phil [Hoffman] at its center and Mike [Nichols] directing, was going to be no picnic. We only did seven shows a week. That was a pretty brutal one. And that's the last stage piece I did. Since then, I've been doing some film and television stuff purposefully to get a little air.
So doing a musical has reinvigorated you.
I really do love it. When you have an orchestra behind you, it really does feel a bit like flying to me. Unlike in a straight play, where you're just out there on your own. There's something so joyful about it, even if it's a very hard song, like "What Would You Do?" There's something that feels very soaring about it when you're out there doing it. I pinch myself every day.