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Jane Krakowski Takes Manhattan

The Tony Award winner talks with Michael Portantiere about her theater career and her breathtaking Anti-Gravity stunt in Nine.

Aunt Jane Wants You!
Jane Krakowski at the U.S. Armed Services
recruiting center in Times Square
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
"Boy, am I glad this wasn't a beauty contest," Harvey Fierstein rasped in accepting a 2003 Tony Award for his performance in Hairspray. The truth is that, if the Tonys were indeed a beauty contest, at least one of this year's honorees might have won anyway: Jane Krakowski, known to the world as Elaine on TV's Ally McBeal, is as celebrated for her stunning looks as for the talent she has displayed on Broadway in shows as varied as Grand Hotel, Tartuffe, Starlight Express, Once Upon a Mattress, and the musical for which she received the Tony as well as a Drama Desk Award this year: Nine, the smash-hit revival of the 1982 Maury Yeston-Arthur Kopit tuner based on Federico Fellini's film .

As one of a bevy of fabulous women who share the stage with star Antonio Banderas, Krakowski has one of the most thrilling entrances -- and exits! -- in Broadway history, an aerial maneuver that must be seen to be believed. (She recently recreated the stunt for this year's Broadway Bares event at Roseland.) I chatted with the delightful Miss Jane a mere 48 hours before her Tony win for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical.


THEATERMANIA: Nine is such a fantastic show. Is it still as much fun as it was when it opened?

JANE KRAKOWSKI: Oh gosh, yes. It's so well written that I don't think it'll get tiresome soon, and it's been directed in such a way that it really goes to the core of so many emotions. That keeps it real and fresh for us every night.

TM: I saw the original production and, back then, I really didn't care for the show itself. But I loved it this time around. Maybe it's partly that I'm older now and the show speaks more powerfully to older people. But also, I felt that the character work and the interactions onstage were extraordinary.

JK: I saw the original production as well. I was, like, 12 years old and I didn't get it. I mean, I loved all the show-stoppers and I remember the pageantry and the beauty of it, the style of it, but I didn't recall the depth that it goes into in Act II. I guess it wasn't relevant to my life then, but it certainly has become relevant now that I'm an adult. Carla is really quite fleshed out for a musical theater character; you get to see many sides of her, and I think that's rare. I feel so lucky to have gotten to play her, especially under the direction of David Leveaux. His vision from day one was so extremely different than the original that he kind of took away the fear of taking on a part that was done so brilliantly the first time by Anita Morris. I felt like I had a bit more leeway because I knew that, from the very first note of the show, the audience would realize they were entering a completely different world.

TM: It's a perfect example of how a show can be done very differently in revival but, on its own terms, be just as valid as the original.

JK: Yes. It's a real testament to David, because the whole rethinking of it and doing it so Fellini-esque was his idea. Even my flying. If you watch closely in , there is a woman swinging on a bed sheet in one of the scenes. I just love it that David picked things that were relevant from the movie and incorporated them in our show in musical theater style.

TM: I don't know how much you want to get into this, but people are still marveling at your entrance and exit for "A Call From the Vatican." I have a friend who saw the show recently from the second row; he was able to watch you go all the way up and he said it was very frightening.

Krakowski making "A Call From the Vatican"
as Carla Albanese in Nine
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
JK: I know, I know. People are scared for me! All I can do is reassure your readers that I feel completely safe or I never would have done it.

TM: Maybe we should leave it at that so as not to spoil the stage magic.

JK: Well, it's been written about so much by now. Initially, before we opened, we weren't allowed to say anything and they weren't showing any clips of it, but now it's sort of out there in the world. There's really no trickery to it: It's a certain sort of fabric, circus material, and it's really just physics. Gravity is pulling my body down while the sheet is being pulled up, so it creates a lock situation. The thing is, we got all the equipment and the idea was solidified after the set was built; they hadn't made any flyaway walls or whatever to fit me through, so I have to go above the set. I'm literally at the ceiling of the theater. Initially, 25 feet is what we were estimating, but I've come to find out it's about 55 feet -- which I'm not telling my parents, because my dad is afraid of heights!

TM: An incredible stunt like that could overshadow a performance, but your performance of the number is so great that the whole thing seems organic.

JK: Thank you so much. I learned a lot from a wonderful woman named Mam Smith; she's part of the Anti-Gravity troupe that created the tricks. I would go after rehearsal and we'd spend hours learning many different kinds of things that you can do with a bed sheet. Ultimately, some of them were too tricky or it looked like I was trying too hard. I think what we came up with is sort of spectacular yet simple. Originally, David Leveaux had contacted Foy, but they wouldn't do the stunt unless I was wearing a harness; that's just their policy and their tradition. So we actually threw away the idea of my flying for a couple of weeks. But I was, like, "We've got to find someone else who will show me how to do this without all the wires and the harness!" Then I remembered the aerial numbers I'd seen at Broadway Bares. I called around and asked people, "Hey, who used to do those numbers at Broadway Bares where people were so sexy on those strips of fabric?" That's how we got in contact with Anti-Gravity.

TM: Well, it's an unforgettable moment in a terrific production. Maybe you can just talk to me a little bit about Antonio and the women.

JK: I have to say, I had just come off Ally McBeal, which had about seven women as regulars, and I really was nervous about going into another show with so many women. I thought, "Maybe I should be in a baseball play or something, where it's all men and me!" But I can't tell you how well it's worked out. I truly love and respect each and every one of the women in the show. You know, David Leveaux has said that it took him 18 months to cast Nine; not only did he want to find the right people for the parts, I think he also was looking for people who are very ensemble oriented. Each one of these women brings something so unique to the party, to the show; when one of them misses a performance and their vibe is no longer there, we really notice it. It's a unique situation and a lot of it probably has to do with Antonio, because when you're the star of a show, there's no way for your attitude not to infuse the whole production. Antonio is so generous. He loves what he's doing and he's confident enough that his insecurities aren't ripping through the show, yet he's not egotistical. It's a wonderful balance. And he's so charismatic and sexy! I remember the first day of rehearsal; our mouths were on the floor when he started singing. We could not believe it. He really is a Broadway star -- it's just that nobody had ever seen it before. I watch him every night doing that tango with Chita Rivera, and I'm like, "You can really dance, too!" I don't think he's ever had dance training; he's just naturally good at everything.

TM: When people become famous for their work in film or on TV, audiences tend to assume that they're not stage performers -- even when they regularly return to the theater. I'll bet that, at one point or another, you were on stage in New York at the same time as [Ally McBeal star] Calista Flockhart.

JK: I was, definitely. We worked together at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, too.

TM: The point is that you've done a lot more theater than fans of Ally McBeal probably realize. I was lucky enough to get to see you in Mack & Mabel in L.A., with Douglas Sills.

JK: Really? It was such a short-lived project, I don't know who got to see it and who didn't. It's a great part. I would love to do it again but I think they need to rethink the show, to go to the darker side of the story. When it originally came out, they shied away from that, but musical theater has really changed. These days, with all of the E! True Hollywoood Stories and everything, we love that kind of stuff.

TM: It would make a great movie, wouldn't it?

JK: God, I hadn't even thought about that! But yes, it would be a great movie musical.

TM: You've been in hits before -- Grand Hotel, for example. Nine is a huge hit. And then you were in Mattress.

Krakowski at the opening night
party for Nine
(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
Krakowski at the opening night
party for Nine
(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
JK: [laughs] "And then you were in Mattress." That's so funny! It was not a hit. You sign on to these projects and then you hope for the best. I don't think there's any way to predict whether something is going to be a hit or not. On paper, Once Upon a Mattress looked good. Sarah Jessica Parker and the director and the designers -- everyone involved was reputable and had had huge successes in the past. What's odd to me is that I could tell from the first day of rehearsal that it was not going to be right; I hoped it would find its way, but I don't think it ever really did. Nine looked great on paper, too, and it did culminate in something that I think is really special. But you never know for sure when you sign up. With Mattress, maybe the chemistry was slightly off or the vision didn't quite gel. I've been in other productions that were hits and misses; it's the gamble you take, and that's part of what's exciting about it all. It's so thrilling when it does come together.

TM: As it did with Nine.

JK: Yes. I don't know if you know this story, but the first night that we had an audience was the day that the sheet and the flying equipment arrived. We had planned weeks of technical rehearsals with this effect, and then it showed up literally three hours before the first preview, so the second time I ever did it was in front of an audience! There was no looking back at that point. I've never felt anything so exciting as when this unanimous gasp came from the audience. That's why I love doing live theater more than anything: You get an immediate reaction, whether it's good or bad. It was thrilling, and also a relief: I knew I had to do something special because Anita Morris had put such a stamp on the number. I was so thankful to the audience for coming along with us on our new journey.