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Spitfire Girl

Liz Callaway sparks the Playwrights Horizons production of The Spitfire Grill. logo
Liz Callaway in The Spitfire Grill
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Like many New York theater performers, Liz Callaway faced a huge challenge in resuming her "normal" life after the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center. "I wanted just to stay home and watch CNN like everyone else," says Callaway, who lives in Westchester with her husband, Dan Foster, and their 10-year-old son, Nicholas. But, two nights later, she returned to her role of Shelby Thorpe in the Playwrights Horizons production of the new musical The Spitfire Grill. "At first, it felt almost immoral to be up there," she says. "But we soon realized it was the right thing for everyone--the actors and the audience."

For Callaway, that performance was particularly daunting. In her first solo, "When Hope Goes," Shelby--the outwardly meek niece of the Spitfire Grill's crusty owner, Hannah (played by the brilliant Phyllis Somerville)--recalls the devastation that the town of Gilead suffered after Hannah's son was lost during the Vietnam War. "It was so hard to get through it that first night," Callaway tells me. "But ultimately, it's such a wonderful song to invest in. It's actually been cathartic to sing it every night."

Based on the 1996 movie of the same title, the James Valcq/Fred Alley musical tells how Gilead is rejuvenated by the presence of Percy Talbott (Garrett Long), a young, female ex-con with a heart of gold and a terrible secret. Because the show is ultimately about the importance of community, redemption, and hope, Callaway feels that it's striking a particularly strong chord with audiences in the wake of the World Trade Center tragedy. "It allows you to laugh and to cry," she says, "and that's what we all need to do right now."

Although The Spitfire Grill had a critically acclaimed run last year at the George Street Playhouse in New Jersey, the project wasn't on Callaway's radar until producers called her to take part in this production. "You know what? I said yes without even hearing the music," she tells me. "And once I heard it, I loved it. So may people who've seen the show come up to me and say, 'You've got to record it.' I totally agree." But the show's country-inflected score wasn't the only reason Callaway agreed to the part. "I really like Shelby a lot because there's real growth there," she says of her character, who eventually learns to stand up to her overbearing husband, Caleb. And yet, there is a downside to the role: "It's not the most glamorous part I've ever done," laughs Callaway. "With other shows, on my day off, I wore sweats and no makeup. But now I think I should really dress up a bit on Mondays!"

Above all, Callaway is thrilled to be back in the theater after a two-year-hiatus. "I was very burnt out after Miss Saigon [she originated the role of Ellen in the Broadway production] and eight years of Cats [as Grizabella]," she says. "They were great jobs for me, though. I got to be almost a stay-at-home mom--except that, at the end of each day, I went and did a big Broadway show! I really enjoyed the freelance life for a while," she says of her time off after Cats. "But, in the last six months, I've been itching to do a show again--especially a new show. When I first came to New York, that's all I did." Among other shows, Callaway appeared in Stephen Sondheim's ill fated Merrily We Roll Along and in Maltby and Shire's Baby, for which she earned a Tony nomination.

Liz Callaway and Garrett Long in The Spitfire Grill
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
"Spitfire reminds me a lot of the experience I had with Baby in that it's about a small group of people," says Callaway. "I've realized what I really love about theater is being part of an ensemble. That feeling of collaboration is much more satisfying to me than An Evening with Liz Callaway." (Those who caught her act her this spring at Joe's Pub might not agree; Callaway's program featured many cuts from her third solo album, The Beat Goes On, a superb collection of 1960s covers from Fynsworth Alley.) "I'm really pleased with the response that album has gotten," she continues, "but I'm glad I am not doing those shows anymore. Some of those songs will be hard to sing after what's happened: 'Where Have All The Flowers Gone?' and 'Leavin' On A Jet Plane.' And 'Downtown.' They all have new meanings now."

But Callaway isn't completely abandoning the cabaret/concert life. She will appear in a star-studded World Trade Center rescue fund benefit at the Bottom Line on October 8 with her equally talented sister, Ann Hampton Callaway. In November, she'll join singer/songwriters Jimmy Webb and Paul Williams at Feinstein's. And she'll be traveling the country with cabaret artist Scott Coulter over the next few months, performing the music of Stephen Schwartz.

"I've only recorded one of his songs: 'Meadowlark' [featured on her CD The Story Goes On]. And I did 'Lion Tamer' about 20 years ago," Callaway recalls. "I'm singing both of those in the concert. It's been a bit tricky learning the music to Spitfire and Stephen's songs at the same time...but it's amazing what the brain can handle."

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