It's that time of year when we at TheaterMania like to check in with some of our favorite stars and see what they have planned for the holidays. We begin with the sublime Barbara Cook, a Tony Award winner (1958, The Music Man) whose Mostly Sondheim show was a 2002 nominee for Best Special Theatrical Event. That show allowed the singer to combine her Broadway-honed talent with the concert and cabaret artistry she's demonstrated in collaboration with Wally Harper over the past 30 years.
For those of us whose CD collection can never have too many Cooks, the star has a new DRG Christmas album, Count Your Blessings. Its 15 tracks include "White Christmas," "The Christmas Song," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," and "Silent Night." Her favorite number on the CD is "Breath of Heaven," by Amy Grant. "I really didn't know that one and I fell in love with it," says Cook. Among her stage roles, her favorite remains Mrs. Anna in The King and I, which she played opposite Farley Granger at City Center in 1960.
"I love the holidays!" says the Atlanta native. "A long, long time ago, I decided that if I made a nice Christmas for myself and for my son and invited people, that would be something to do -- instead of waiting for somebody to do something for me. It's turned out to be a nice, traditional thing. This year, I think there will be 12 [guests]; I've had as many as 21."
Upcoming for Cook is a New Year's Eve appearance at the Metropolitan Opera. "I'll be a guest within their production of The Merry Widow," she explains. "It's a party scene and I'll be singing some of my songs. And in late winter or spring, Wally and I are supposed to go back into the Vivian Beaumont -- but we have to get a show together." Looking ahead to 2004, Cook would like "the same thing I want all the time, not just on New Year's Day: to stay open to new experiences, meet new people and bring them into my life. My wish for the theatrical community is that we all work just as much as we want to!"
Douglas Sills has been a delight to interview ever since I first had the opportunity to do so when he played a dual role in The Scarlet Pimpernel, his Tony-nominated Broadway debut. Now he's portraying eight characters in Little Shop of Horrors. I ask him what's next -- I Am My Own Wife: The Musical? "Great idea!" he says with a laugh. "You don't have money to put that up, do you, Michael?"
Sills is very happy to be playing so many different parts at the Virginia but says "The greatest joy is that the cast is so simpatico. And because it's not quite as taxing an evening as Pimpernel, I can have a phone conversation like this during the day or see friends after the show. It's joyous to have a Broadway job and not feel that you're under the gun every minute of the day. What's next? As an actor, you train yourself not to have too much expectation. There already have been plenty of auditions for next season, and other projects have been suggested. I hope the Cyrano musical, written for me by Mr. [Leslie] Bricusse and Mr. [Frank] Wildhorn, comes to be. And I'd really love to do a straight play."
His favorite holiday memory is "doing a lot of sledding, then walking down my little dead-end street in the suburbs of Detroit. I remember heading home and seeing the lights come on -- some were Christmas lights, some were Hanukkah menorahs. The sense of unity reflected the harmony of that time of year. We celebrated Hanukkah; I always grew up being aware that we were members of a minority. But the world seemed an easier place to live during the holidays; that was a really special feeling for me."
This year, Sills plans to spend the holidays "in the wilds of Pennsylvania with members of my extended family, who celebrate Christmas. I'm going there the night before Christmas Eve and I don't have to be back until the show on Christmas night. Those Pennsylvania people eat really well -- it's a completely non-Atkins diet! I look forward to breaking out of the Atkins rut and having a lot of starch, a lot of cookies."
His wish for the theatrical community "is for the healthy co-mingling of art and commerce. Actors should be able to commit to projects that might be difficult to sell -- rather than television or film, where money is dangled in front of them." For 2004, Douglas Sills hopes "to see more Democrats in office. [Laughs]"
Delta Burke is making her Broadway debut in Thoroughly Modern Millie at the Marquis Theatre. She appears as Mrs. Meers, a Designing Woman with an interest in flappers who are all alone in the world. "I love playing the role," says Burke. "She's a fun character; it's not like work. Francis Jue, who plays Bun Foo, cracks me up. We have a hard time keeping straight faces onstage.
"After drama school in London -- I went to LAMDA -- I was supposed to come to New York but I didn't have an Equity card," Burke relates. "I had my SAG card and I knew they liked them young in Hollywood, so I went to L.A. I thought I'd be [on Broadway] about 10 years ago, but you get seduced by the money and swept along by what you're doing. This offer came out of the blue. It scared me but I've survived."
Her favorite holiday memories are associated with her mother: "She was very creative. At Christmas [in Orlando, Florida], we'd leave a bowl of sugar for the reindeer. My mother would have my dog lick the bowl. Then, Mom would climb up to the roof and place it outside my window along with presents that had 'fallen out of Santa's sleigh.'" This year, Burke's holiday "will be quiet -- just my husband [Gerald McRaney] and me. We've wanted to have a New York Christmas; I was really excited by the snow the other day! I made snowballs and stuck them in the freezer."
Burke will continue in Millie through February 15. Her wish for the theatrical community "is that everyone thrives. When I go to see openings, I see so many talented people and, in the rest of the country, nobody's aware of them. Joe Schmo eats a worm on TV and becomes famous; here, we have extremely talented people who are known by too few." Her resolution for 2004 "is the same as it is every year: to get myself organized, and to get rid of my 20 storage spaces. I almost made it this year but not quite!"
One of the true highlights of the season is Avenue Q at the Golden. Among its many pleasures is the performance of John Tartaglia, who's making his Broadway debut along with Princeton and Rod, the puppets that he brings to life for each performance. Last week, the actor/puppeteer lost his voice and Princeton and Rod were temporarily speechless, but Tartaglia tells me that "Jodi [Eichelberger], my understudy, went on and did a great, great job."
Tartaglia's involvement with the show "came about by chance. The composers were looking for actors who could sing and dance and had puppeteering ability. I was one of the few puppeteers they knew who had a musical theater background." An eight-year veteran of Sesame Street (he started at 16), Tartaglia still works on that famed children's TV series; he says he has to keep reminding himself that "in Avenue Q, it's not a big deal for puppets to say dirty things, but you can't do that on Sesame Street."
He's unable to choose a favorite between Princeton and Rod. "It's kind of like children," he remarks. "You love them both differently. And I have favorite moments with each. With Princeton, it's [the song] 'Purpose,' and with Rod, it's his coming-out scene." When pressed, Tartaglia admits that the puppets can be difficult: "They demand their own rack [backstage] and very plush transportation devices. But they're learning the ways of Broadway!" He denies that Princeton gave a New York Times interview in which he knocked his co-stars and that Rod sent a nasty letter to Mary Tyler Moore. "But Rod did offer to step in for Jasmine Guy," Tartaglia tells me, "and he's got chops."
A favorite holiday memory for Tartaglia "is my parents taking me to see Santa Claus at the mall in Maple Shade, New Jersey. I could talk to Rudolph! Now, it's all changed for kids. Santa's plopped in a chair, drinking a cup of coffee." This year, he says, "is the first Christmas I won't be able to spend with my mother [actress Angie Radosh]. Because of the show, I can't go to Florida." Instead, Tartaglia plans to celebrate "either with my father [music director Bob Tartaglia] in New Jersey or here with friends who can't travel. We'll have a little orphans' Christmas."
His hope for 2004 "is that there's more peace in the world." His New Year's resolution "is to be better about calling people back." And his wish for the theatrical community "is that there continues to be diversity on Broadway, that we look past just doing revivals or shows adapted from movies. I hope that straight plays do better. Open Broadway up to everything!"
Now playing Bob Baker, in Wonderful Town at the Hirschfeld, Gregg Edelman has a dozen Broadway credits evenly divided between new shows and revivals. Naturally, he's delighted by the strong reviews for his current performance. "I'm a little surprised that people are enjoying what I'm doing," he says, "but it's a wonderful surprise.
"I've played this kind of leading men before," Edelman notes. "This is a lot of fun -- but folks still need to buy tickets!" The role Edelman prefers to Baker is that of Daddy: "I'm very proud of my children -- eight-year-old Zoe and two-year-old Ethan -- and of my wife [Carolee Carmello] being such a great mother." Mr. and Mrs. Edelman have appeared together on Broadway in City of Angels, Falsettos, and 1776. The opening night of Gregg's current show was the second -- following Into the Woods -- that was attended by Zoe. "We invited 10 people and I rented a stretch limo because I knew my daughter would love it," he says. "For Zoe, that was the highlight of the opening."
As for favorite holiday memories, Edelman (whom Zoe helped with his answers) has two: "It was a Christmas night when Ethan began to walk. We had just given him a walker, which he used for about 90 seconds. Something clicked, he pushed it aside and started walking. We felt it was a Christmas miracle! And I remember baking cookies with my mother, who was a single mom in Chicago in the '60s. It was very hard raising two sons. At holiday time, cookies would be our gifts to people; Mom would bake them and I'd lick the bowl."
This year, Papa Edelman's celebration plans include "getting through Christmas Eve without having my children con me into opening too many of their presents. Christmas morning, it'll just be the four of us with wrapping paper all over the floor and Daddy trying to put things together." For 2004, the four-time Tony nominee hopes that "world leaders find peace, Democrats get along with Republicans, and everyone finds a way to communicate." And Edelman's wish for the theatrical community "is for everyone to know the joy of playing a wonderful part in a wonderful show like Wonderful Town. I want everyone to realize their theatrical dreams."
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Barbara Cook (Photo detail from the CD booklet of the new DRG recording Barbara Cook: Count Your Blessings)