Little Sally: Happy at Last
Spencer Kayden rules in that most unlikely of Broadway musicals, Urinetown.
Kayden is the only cast member who has been with the show through its entire journey, from its auspicious downtown debut in the 1999 New York Fringe Festival through its critically acclaimed Off-Broadway run earlier this year to its impending Broadway opening at Henry Miller's Theater. Thanks to her performance in Urinetown, Kayden has landed an agent, garnered rave reviews, and was finally able to quit her day job. Her story is what showbiz legends are made of, and even she still can't believe it.
THEATERMANIA: It's been a long road to Urinetown. Can you recount your voyage?
SPENCER KAYDEN: I have known Greg [Kotis, Urinetown book writer and co-lyricist] for years. His wife Anne and I were friends in college. After graduating we formed a theatre company in Chicago called The Neo-Futurists. We did a show called Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, a collection of 30 plays in 60 minutes. Every week, we generated new material. It was a great exercise in trying new things.
TM: Did you always want to be a professional actress?
SK: In my mid-twenties, I said to myself: "I can't perform anymore!" I didn't know what I wanted to do. I didn't perform for a while, then ended up doing a one-woman show about Gilda Radner having cancer. It was called Gilda Defying Gravity, and I did it on the Lower East Side. It was great; people really came out and supported me.
TM: Was Radner an early influence on you?
SK: When I was growing up I had this fantasy that Gilda was my mom and Steve Martin was my dad! I responded to how unique and vulnerable she was.
TM: How did the show inspire you to perform again?
SK: I felt that, if I was going to continue to act, I needed to feel necessary or important rather than just being entertaining. I got involved volunteering for Gilda's Club [a New York-based cancer support center] and I met Gilda's therapist, Joanna Bull. She came and saw the show, which intimidated the hell out of me, but she was really supportive. Then a woman invited me up to Woodstock to do the show for her cancer support group, and that was one of the most incredible things I have ever done. I performed for doctors and people who had cancer. Hearing their responses made me feel theater could be important.
TM: So you started pursuing acting regularly?
SK: Yes, but with no real plan to "make it." I went to Amsterdam for the better part of a year to perform with an American theater company. Then I came back to New York City and performed improv with a group of guys called Burn Manhattan [now Centralia], which changed me a lot. The whole time, Greg was writing. Somewhere along the way he and Mark [Hollman, Urinetown composer and co-lyricist], whom he knew from Chicago, wrote a musical that turned out to be Urinetown.
TM: Do you know how Greg came up with the premise of Urinetown?
SK: Word is that he was in Paris and he was down to his last coins and he literally had to decide whether to pay to eat or to go to the bathroom. That sparked something in him; he couldn't stop thinking about that decision and the repercussions of it.
TM: I'm glad he had a plane ticket home! Can you tell me about Urinetown's progression?
SK: When they did the first reading in February 1999, Greg asked me to be in it. Then we did the Fringe Festival and had such a fun time. Everyone was incredible, so I wasn't surprised that the show did well. When industry people expressed an interest in transferring the show, I didn't think it would happen; I am a natural skeptic.
TM: But, this time, your pessimism was unfounded.
SK: Apparently! At first, it was sad to me that the producers wanted to recast the whole show. Greg and Mark really wanted to keep the Fringe cast together, but it was clear that it couldn't happen if we wanted to take the show to the next level. Since I don't consider myself a singer, I figured I would get cut. There was a reading scheduled for January 2000 with director John Rando. Everyone from the Fringe got an opportunity to audition. I feel really lucky that John trusted I could do the part after seeing my audition and that he felt my work in the reading was strong enough to warrant my being cast Off-Broadway. I do have survivor's guilt, though. I miss the original cast a lot, and I am still friends with many of them. It's a bittersweet experience in that way.
TM: Has it also been daunting?
SK: Strangely, no. I am confident about my ability and I have rehearsed the hell out of the part. It's just a different energy. I had never been in a room full of working actors, people for whom performing is their career. They don't run around working three different jobs struggling to stay alive.
TM: And now you're one of them.
SK: I still don't believe it. I spent all of last year not believing we would open Off-Broadway, and there's still a part of me that thinks we won't open on Broadway. I choose to live without hope to protect myself from disappointment. It's very effective! People are telling me that a show never gets plucked from the Fringe, transfers to Off-Broadway and ends up on Broadway. I am not used to performing for people with money. It has been interesting to watch the audience get older and older as the price of the tickets went up.
TM: What are your dreams for the future? Maybe a Tony?
SK: To be honest, I didn't even know what the Drama Desk Awards were until I was nominated. I didn't know about any of this. This is happening in such a sweet way. I'm with Greg and Mark. And, in spite of all of our hard work, there's something effortless about the way everything is falling into place. If I ever imagined anything happening for me, this is exactly how I wanted it to feel. I didn't beg anyone for the part; John and the producers recognized I should do it. And I love my agent. These are all people who get it.
TM: You're like a Judy Holliday to Greg and Mark's Comden and Green.
SK: It's funny you should make that comparison. When I won the Clarence Derwent Award [honoring the most promising performers on the New York scene], I checked out the list of previous recipients, and Judy Holliday was the first woman to win it.
TM: Do you plan to work with your brother [film director Michael Almereyda]?
SK: I feel like, when the time is right we will work together. He is so supportive of me and comes to everything I do. I am not necessarily his kind of actress--but that doesn't mean I never will be.
TM: It seems like your friendships have really helped to propel your career.