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Broadway Vet Joan Barber on Saving the Day as a Performer

The accomplished actress discusses Neil Simon, John W. Engeman Theater's Plaza Suite, and the unique career she has built.

Joan Barber
(© courtesy of the production)

You may not know Joan Barber by name, but there is a good chance you have seen or heard her steal a show. She may not wear a cape, but she is an expert at swooping in and saving the day, whether as a last-minute replacement, an understudy, or an ensemble member. As an understudy she has performed as Aldonza opposite both Richard Kiley and Raúl Julia in the 1977 and 1992 revivals of Man of La Mancha (and has the distinction of being the only actress ever to do so). She has also gone on for Judith Ivey in Follies and Maureen McGovern in Dear World. Despite her countless performances in Broadway productions such as Beauty and the Beast and The Sound of Music, she has always managed to continue her profession as a teacher. The vocal coach spoke to TheaterMania about the complicated task of portraying both Karen and Norma in John W. Engeman Theater's current production of Neil Simon's Plaza Suite, and the ways in which a theatrical career spanning decades has helped to inform the performer she is today.

You take on two very different characters in Plaza Suite: Karen, a woman who is desperately trying to bring love back into her marriage, and Norma, the mother of a bride who has locked herself in the bathroom. Which is the more challenging to play?

Karen was the most challenging because we weren't quite sure what direction we were going to go in with her. We explored a very deep and dark emotional center of what's going on in this woman's life. We had to go there first before we could find the comedy because we were very intent on finding the reality. I got very emotionally moved by the whole thing. Then we realized, Oh, wait a minute. This is not a tragedy, it's a comedy. Then we had to find the laughs and what is Neil Simon about all of this. They do banter with each other and they do amuse each other, but it was a painful journey in many ways because it is a story about a couple potentially breaking up. And then in Act Three I have so much fun playing Norma, who is a version of my own mother.

Why do you think Plaza Suite is still relevant and fun after having been on Broadway 45 years ago?

The relationships. Neil Simon is eternal. Central Park is eternal. Friendship is eternal. I think Neil Simon gets to the heart of what makes people tick. He understands the way people feel and the way relationships work. It's very interesting to hear the reactions of the younger people in the audience. They laugh and they feel for us. Anyone who has ever been in any kind of relationship can understand these people. Similarly to Shakespeare, just because some of the references are dated doesn't mean that the essential relationships are dated.

When you recall working with Raúl Julia, what are the first memories that come to mind?

I adored him so much. Raúl was gifted with one of the most beautiful, natural singing voices ever. I'm saying this as a voice teacher. He refused to study. I wanted to smack him. We would have these big fights. "Raúl, let me help you get better!" He was so good, but he'd go, "Oh yes, I want to study with you." And then he'd never study with me. He was glorious, and he was also a kidder. One of the best times I ever had with Raúl was actually offstage. We went to some after-show thing, and he and a couple of other guys who were also from a Hispanic background sat together, and they started drinking and doing these ethnic dances. It was the most erotic and beautiful thing I'd ever seen. Raúl loved life, and he was the most generous person I've ever met. He would give money to anybody on the street. He was so easy to play with onstage.

What have you learned from being the go-to person for a show when its creative team is in a pinch?

I've made my livelihood about saving the show. I did it for La Mancha, Follies, and Boynton Beach Club just recently in Florida. I also did it for Plaza Suite when I came in at the last minute. It's my fate. I just kind of accepted that it wasn't going to be stardom for me, that what I was going to do was help other people, and "save the show." That sounds kind of arrogant, but it's not meant to be. I come in and be Johnny-on-the-spot, know what I'm doing, and really help people. People who can do that are important in the world of the theater, and our colleagues really appreciate it. The night before the opening of Boynton Beach Club they asked me to do it because the lead lost her voice! Being the kind of person that takes the time to learn everybody's role even though you're not asked to do it, it takes a special kind of mind. It's what we call the swing brain. I don't know that I have it anymore, but I had it when I was younger and it served me to success.

Joan Barber stars in Plaza Suite at Long Island's John W. Engeman Theater.
(© courtesy of the production)