Kate Baldwin's porcelain skin, flaming red hair, and silvery soprano have all helped make her a much-sought-after leading lady, having appeared in four Broadway shows in the past decade. So it's hardly surprising that she's landed the pivotal lead role of fiery Leslie Lynnton in the long-awaited musical Giant, which begins previews on October 26 at the Public Theater.
Baldwin recently shared her thoughts about working on this groundbreaking adaptation of Edna Ferber's sprawling novel about a rich Texas couple, oil, racism, and down-and-dirty love.
How did you first get involved with this project?
Michael John LaChiusa first approached me about doing a reading in 2011. I had always been a huge fan of his work – I think I wore out my Hello Again CD when I first heard it – so just to be asked to sing his music was thrilling.
And now that's you've been singing it for over a year, has it lived up to your expectations?
Absolutely! Michael John's music is soul-stirring. It gets inside the deepest part of you; it's almost a chemical reaction. It appears technically difficult on the page --you look at it and think you'll never get it. And learning it was tough – pure repetition. But once you can inhabit it, his music feels personal and natural, like there's no other way for the character to sing.
I can see why he thought of you for Leslie. She's a bit like some of your recent roles, like Marian in The Music Man or Sharon in Finian's Rainbow, isn't she?
There are definitely similarities. I certainly have played women who have a pioneer spirit and longing for adventure. And like them, Leslie is somebody who is firm and deeply rooted in what she knows and has a strong moral compass. During the course of the show, she navigates some pretty seismic shifts in consciousness. Thankfully, I find her actions admirable at every turn. I have great respect for who she is.
Are you intimidated at all by playing the same role Elizabeth Taylor played in the movie?
Actually, I've never seen the film. Before we started, I asked our director, Michael Greif, if I should watch the movie, and he said it would be important only to see what Texas looks like. But since half my family is from Texas, I figured I didn't need to bother.
And then you first did the show earlier this year in Texas. What was that like?
When we were in Dallas, everyone in the audience knew the film so well all they wanted to talk about after the performance was the movie and Elizabeth. But it all just landed with a thud with me. I just kept saying "that's nice."
There has been a lot of recasting since the Dallas production, but perhaps the most significant one is that Brian d'Arcy James is now playing your husband, Bick, rather than Aaron Lazar. How do you feel about that change?
Brian is one of the finest actors I've ever had the chance to play opposite. And the word for him in this role is explosive. He just ignites the whole story. He's so passionate. It's really been thrilling to see, especially since Bick was a part I thought I knew. We don't have a lot to sing together – we trade off more in our songs – but I do think we sound great together. And yes, there's lots of screaming and crying between us, but we're both okay with it!
Do you two have a long history?
We've worked together on some readings and benefits. And we were supposed to do the musical Harmony about 10 years ago, but the production shut down two days before we were going out of town -- sort of what happened to the cast of Rebecca. I really feel for those people.
Your character ages over 25 years during the show. How are you accomplishing that?
I think the clothes dictate a spine and carriage and sensibility that beautifully mirrors what happens with Leslie over the course of the show. In the 1920s, she's curious and wants to see the world and her clothes reflect that. By the time she's in her 50s, I am in higher collars, tight sleeves, painful shoes, so I can't do much physically. Personally, it's wonderful to feel physically confined and then sing a song about feeling trapped. But we're not adding lines to my face or adding gray into my hair. But I do change my wigs often, and I let those do some of the work for me. Ask any woman, the hair is very important.
After working on so many revivals, is it exciting to finally do a new show?
To create something new is both thrilling and excruciating at the same time. It's great to have all these choices in front of you, and to have the writers in the room so you know exactly what they meant. But the downside is you want so badly not to screw it up!
Would you like to see to see this show on Broadway?
I want as many people to see the show as possible, but I consider it a rare opportunity to work at a place like the Public for the first time. It's all I've ever wanted to do my entire life.
Don't show this again.