Interview: Mary Testa Talks About Her New Williamstown Show, Most Happy in Concert
A brilliant actress and singer, equally accomplished in dramatic and comic roles, Mary Testa is a three-time Tony Award nominee (for Oklahoma!, On the Town, and 42nd Street). She also received a Special Drama Desk Award in 2012 for her three decades of outstanding work, most notably her performance that year in Michael John LaChiusa's Queen of the Mist.
Now, she's back onstage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, reuniting with her Oklahoma! director Daniel Fish on Most Happy in Concert, a 70-minute presentation of music from Frank Loesser's legendary musical The Most Happy Fella.
TheaterMania recently spoke to Testa about the show, working again with Fish, a possible reunion with LaChiusa, and her outlook on her career and theatrical future.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Having done this show twice – you did it briefly last year at Bard SummerScape — how would you describe Most Happy in Concert?
I would say it's this delicate and weird piece. It's seven women of different ages and sexualities, all of whom are extraordinary, singing this gorgeous score, not playing specific roles, and expressing the music in a way that's organic to each of us. Frank Loesser wrote the show in an unusual way with a lot of different storylines, but when you remove the book, as we have, it becomes a whole different animal. In the end, I think this piece is very moving.
Are you only singing the women's songs from the show?
No, we're singing both the men and women's material. I am doing most of Tony's songs; I sing the entire version of "The Most Happy Fella" and "Rosabella." It's fun to sing something written for a different gender and be able to go deep on an emotional level.
Tell me about working with Daniel?
Daniel is a different animal than my other directors, and his process can be frustrating. You do scenes over and over until he sees what he wants — and he doesn't know what he wants until he sits there, or you sit there or stand there or cross the stage. But once it's right to his eye, it's right, and then you can feel it in the same way he does. The idea is always to make beautiful stage pictures. Daniel is very serious when he works, but he can also be fun. Sometimes, I yell at him and sometimes he yells back. But I would work with him on everything if I could.
Is it true that you had worked with Daniel even before Oklahoma!?
Yes, many years ago, I met Daniel doing a one-week reading of a Polly Pen piece about the Egyptian singer, Umm Kultum, and the Three Stooges. Apparently when he told Polly, "I am going to work with Mary Testa," she said, "Well, it can go either way." And you know it's true, I have very little patience for some things and some people.
Were you surprised by the success of Oklahoma!''?
No, because it was an honest, real, simple interpretation of a great show. I know it wasn't the way some people wanted to see it, but I believe if you're going to take on something that is 75 years old, you have to be creative and willing to look it at differently!
Going forward, is there a chance you will do another piece with Michael John LaChiusa?
I would do anything with him if he asked; when you find a collaboration that is so satisfying artistically and creatively, you don't say no. Not only has Michael John written the most extraordinary stuff for me — he also writes women's roles like no one else in the business. I hope we get to do something else.
At this point in your life and career, is there a larger game plan?
I like to say I've finally clawed my way to the middle. Honestly, I am not really an avant-garde performer, but I love to do left-of-center stuff like Most Happy. I just want to do shows that interest me as an expresser of emotion. I'm happy to do more classical musical theater, but, at my age, I just can't stress about not even having been seen for Into the Woods.