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Miss Sharon Lawrence and Miss Velma Kelly

The Broadway-veteran-turned-TV-star comes back to New York in Chicago.

By New York City
Sharon Lawrence
Sharon Lawrence
Sharon Lawrence, best known to millions of television viewers as Sylvia Costas Sipowicz on NYPD Blue, has returned to her musical theater roots and is starring on Broadway as Velma Kelly in the long-running hit Chicago (through July 2).

Currently a co-star (with Alfred Molina) of the CBS-TV sitcom Ladies Man, Lawrence has appeared on Broadway in revivals of Zorba, Cabaret, and Fiddler on the Roof. I spoke with her on TheaterMania's behalf about what it's like to be back on the boards, her feelings toward New York audiences, and how her life has changed since she attained TV celebrity.

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TM: You were in Tongue of a Bird last year at the Public Theater with Cherry Jones, but it's been a while since you sang and danced on Broadway. What's it like to be back in a big, splashy musical?

SL: Well, this is actually a good way to do it! You know, I was offered the role of Bianca in Kiss Me, Kate.

TM: That was going to be my next question. Why did you turn it down?

SL: It would have been a year-long contract. More than that, there were certain issues that hadn't been settled in terms of whether or not Brian Stokes Mitchell was going to do it. That really meant a lot to me. And, at the same time, I had an offer to work [on television] with another brilliantly talented actor who comes from the theater: Alfred Molina. So it was the hardest decision I've ever made. I'm somebody who's been very fortunate in terms of timing, because here comes this offer to do a great role [Velma in Chicago] in a show that is so satisfying, and it's a short run. Also, it's a show that's up and running on all four cylinders, so you're not committing a year without knowing what the prognosis of the endeavor will be. I didn't really have to take a lot of chances, like I would have had I accepted the Kiss Me Kate offer. In terms of singing and dancing, I've stayed very physically active--whether or not I was actually in ballet class--so that's not the biggest question. It was more about, "Do I want to give up the time I have in the summer to do eight shows a week?" Because your life really does become dictated, not just by the time you spend in the theater, but by the time you have to spend on "maintenance." Whether it's Pilates class or something else.

TM: Did they give you a lot of rehearsal time for Velma?

SL: About three weeks. Five hours, five days a week for three weeks. And the dance captains were great! They really made all the difference in my confidence level, because you have NO real time on the stage before you actually perform that first night; you have a couple of hours the day you're in front of an audience for the first time. I've done this long enough to know that perfection isn't the goal the first couple of times you do it; it's about getting your bearings. Thank God for my dresser, who knows the show inside and out.

TM: Have New York audiences changed since you played here last? There's been a lot of press recently about how people automatically jump to their feet and applaud everything.

SL: (pause) Hmmm. Well, I think they're susceptible to hype. And a good, visually stimulating, television ad campaign can make a difference in how audiences feel about their level of participation in a big event, as it were. More than anything, I think what's affected Broadway is that we have an economy that's so strong now, and we have had a regentrification of the theater district. So you have people venturing into this world who wouldn't have been able to afford it, or wouldn't have been interested because they felt dubious about the area. They're excited to be there. And, when you're doing eight shows a week, excitement from the other side of the footlights feels nice! I see audiences being brought in by the busload. High-schoolers are coming to see shows that I don't think are necessarily great for kids. I'm somebody who felt that Rent, in a way, was irresponsible in how it glamorized heroin addiction and prostitution. But that show did create a mania. Whether that makes for an educated theatergoer 10 years after their Rent experience, I don't know. But as long as schools are shipping busloads of adolescents in, I think it's important to recognize what it is that we are feeding them.


Lawrence in Chicago
Lawrence in Chicago
TM: On television, you've gone from NYPD Blue to Fired Up to Ladies Man. Are people in New York coming up to you and recognizing you from those programs?

SL: Well, the funny thing is that they don't recognize me at the top of Chicago, because I wear a dark wig in the show. I can literally hear them talking, "Is it her? That can't be her. That's not her hair!" Eventually, they figure it out, which is sort of a fun process to be part of. I couldn't do Velma looking like I look in real life. I think she needs to have more of an edge to her.

TM: Has your life changed because of your TV work?

SL: Oh, absolutely. I'm more isolated now than I was before, because I don't want to be stared at. I mean, nobody really wants to be stared at. It's one thing to be watched when you're on stage; that's an agreed upon place and time and environment for it. But when you're just having your salad...that's not what you want. I won't shy away from one if somebody approaches me in a reasonable way, but often times it's not reasonable in how they want to talk and what they're interested in talking about. It's just not comfortable.

TM: Is Chicago a kind of a warm-up for you in preparation for more work on Broadway?

SL: It all depends on the timing. I'm under contract to Ladies Man, and we'll be back in mid-season. We'll be filming in August, so my availability is certainly an issue. There are plays I'm looking at and people I'm talking to. There's a hunger that I have to be doing this kind of work, and I've gotten back in touch with people I hadn't seen for awhile, such as Hal Prince and Kander & Ebb.

TM: I think a lot of New Yorkers are glad for theater people who make it big in Hollywood, but we always hope in our hearts that they'll come back to Broadway again.

SL: Well, some people leave so they can come back. That's what I did. I knew that there would be better opportunities if I had a different kind of visibility. When I did the show at the Public, it was because I wanted to work on the material. None of us got rich doing that show! You have to be able to afford those opportunities, and television put me in that position.

TM: Well, it's great to have you back on stage New York.

SL: Oh, I so appreciate the support. I know that I was always equipped for this on a certain, basic level. I recognize also that there are people who wish they had the opportunities to do what I've done. But some people don't have the nerve to pack up and leave for L.A. like I did. That was a much bigger risk than coming back here.

TM: Did you ever dream of the kind of critical acclaim you received for NYPD Blue? Your work with Dennis Franz was amazing. It was such a shock when you and your character left the show.

SL: Thank you so much. But it was time. They weren't writing nearly enough to keep me satisfied. It certainly was a great six years, and it gave me a wonderful launching pad. I was working with terrific people whom I trusted implicitly--but I had no idea that the show was going to happen for me, and I didn't have a whole lot of resources when I moved to L.A. I'm somebody who takes risks, for better or worse. Fortunately, most of them have been for the better!


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