Melissa Errico talks to Jim Caruso about her full plate of scheduled appearances in New York, in D.C., on film, and on TV.
THEATERMANIA: Melissa, I feel like I know you because I've just spent hours looking at your website, www.melissaerrico.com. It's fantastic!
MELISSA ERRICO: Thank you. It's been a great tool for me, and through it I've had the opportunity to meet so many wonderful kids. I find myself really staying in touch with some of them as they go through school. A few of them really got the theater bug and they tell me that I was kind of the reason. It's just like when I met Dorothy Loudon and Marian Seldes when I was 12. Marian and I are really friendly now and it flips her out that we met so long ago. If I do have an appeal for young girls, though, I'd love the site to be semi-educational for them. They can read about the roles I've done and learn about shows! If you click each play I've been in, there's a plot summary. You can learn about the characters Major Barbara, Eliza Doolittle, and all the rest. I didn't just want to print a list of the roles I've done because that seems a bit self-aggrandizing.
TM: Aren't most websites are all about self-aggrandizement?
ME: I saw one where the performer called himself "a triple threat." You just wanna scream "shut up" and slap the computer!
TM: I can't wait to see your show at the Carlyle. Is this gig happening partly to publicize your upcoming CD?
ME: No, the CD isn't even finished yet. It's a little like going on a book tour without the book: The Carlyle is another chance for me to find my voice. I could have finished an album years ago if I would have been content to do a collection of theater songs or a rehash of myself in character. I've never sung from my own perspective.
TM: Was your show at Joe's Pub your first cabaret experience?
ME: My first cabaret experience was when I was eight, with something called "The Cabaret Troupe." I'm surprised you didn't see it! I did it with Jason Robert Brown; we were babies! We performed at Port Authority--did you know there was a stage there? Awful! My mother was terrified and brought some police to watch over us. So I have quite the cabaret background! Seriously, I did an evening last year at Yale Rep that the Cole Porter Foundation produced for its graduation and reunion weekend. My father used to be a concert pianist and graduated from there in '61. He eventually gave up the piano and went into medicine, but he went back to Julliard when he was in his late 50s and started training again. He's now in the advanced concert school. He's insanely good, so Yale produced a night of my dad and me. It was a big deal and it helped give me the confidence to do the Carlyle. In that concert, I got to be really kooky and sing some of my Broadway stuff; but my dad is a very melancholy guy who loves Michel Legrand and moody things like that, so it wasn't all cutesy father/daughter stuff. Then I did Joe's Pub last year and Jason Robert Brown once again held my hand all through the experience. It was thrilling. I love singing in clubs: It just feels so dirty and cool, with people smoking and drinking all around you!
TM: What's happening with the Legrand musical you've been working on?
ME: Well, if you think The Goat is weird... [laughs] It's about a man who walks through walls! You just have to go with that. The wall becomes a metaphor for the infinite possibilities of his life; he falls in love with my character, who is in a barren marriage and lives behind her own walls. It's about the relationship between two very vulnerable and trapped people. In the end, he literally gets caught in the wall and she has to say goodbye, but at least they've known a freedom in their love. It's like The Fantasticks because it's so abstract. There will be no dancing carpets, forks, or knives in it.
TM: Isn't the story based on a famous myth?
ME: Yes. It started in Paris, on the Rue Novin, where people claim they can hear a man weeping inside a wall. Local sculptors have done works of art where there is a wall with a leg or a head coming through it.
TM: Who's playing the guy in the wall?
ME: Malcolm Gets, who is so perfect. He's so interesting, brooding, and intense that I look sunny and saintly in comparison!
TM: Knowing Legrand's music, I'm sure the score must be very romantic.
ME: The yearning of the piece is absolutely beautiful. The workshop was wonderful, so it looks as if it's moving ahead. Time will tell.
ME: I'm doing songs by the Brazilian composer Dori Caymmi, along with stuff by Randy Newman and a Rickie Lee Jones song called "Company." The CD has a very lonely, bluesy feel to it. I was looking for a way to incorporate my training and the attempted elegance of my singing with stories that were a little more accessible. It's taking forever but I'm trying to keep the standards high.
TM: That should be the name of the album: "High Standards."
ME: Or maybe "Pardon Me for Being Slow, by Melissa Errico." I leap into everything else in my life feet first. Think about it! I just decided to give the Carlyle a whirl. I jumped into High Society. I did My Fair Lady out of the blue with no analyzing. The only thing I've been aloof about is recording, probably because I come from a family where music is such a precious thing. Besides my dad, there's music everywhere. My grandmother came over from Italy to be an opera singer, but after she met my grandfather she was pretty much forbidden to sing. My Aunt Rose was a Ziegfeld girl and had a hundred husbands. My brother Mike is an unbelievable singer-songwriter-guitarist who sold out the Bowery Ballroom a few weeks go. So it just wouldn't go over so well if I did a mediocre CD. I'm not Jennifer Lopez and the kind of music I love ages well, thank goodness. There's no hurry.
JC: Has it been hard to find your voice for the CD and your cabaret act?
ME: I started singing theater roles when I was really young, so I have to backtrack to find myself. I haven't put my schtick out there because I wasn't sure what my schtick was. I'm not a feather boa-wearing firecracker. I didn't have that period of wandering, making mistakes, and walking into walls. I have to catch up to myself and figure out who I want to be.
JC: Well, your fans are eagerly awaiting the CD.
ME: You know, the Anna Karenina CD just came out, and I'm thrilled with that; we nailed the singing and the feel of the time. And I'm recording the '40s Vernon Duke musical, Sadie Thompson for Bruce Yeko's label, which will be the first time it's ever been recorded. I got a really big fashion photographer to take pictures of me as Sadie Thompson on the beach in Malibu, so it looks like Fiji. I like to give good CD cover. So many great Broadway singers have crap CD covers--what is that?
TM: I know! The covers are the most important part! My whole life, I wanted to make a CD cover--not a CD so much, just the cover.
ME: I totally understand! That may be why I never did a CD before. So many of the brilliant theater girls just have queer looking CD's. I'm sorry! What happened to the days of those beautiful Shirley Horn and Phyllis Hyman album covers? Or Oleta Adams' "Circle of One" CD cover--I loved that. I actually want to sing her composition "You've Got To Give Me Room." The title suggests a big, Betty Buckley "get out of my way, world, I'm coming through" song but it's all about needing a little space and feeling guilty for asking.
TM: Are you excited about doing Sunday in the Park With George at the Kennedy Center?
ME: I'm so terrified, I can't even tell you! I just got a stomach ache the second you mentioned it. James Lapine directed the Michel Legrand workshop I did; Sondheim came to see it and then I got the Sunday offer. I thought they had me in mind for Clara in Passion, which I wasn't interested in because of the nudie scene. Now I hear that Rebecca Luker, who was cast, isn't doing the nudie thing anyway. Good for her! But I'm so thrilled to do Sunday. I worship that score! The message of the play is so important, too: Everyone is critiquing their choice to make art and the possibilities of having a life, too. I think about that constantly. I'll be singing "Move On" from Sunday in the Park at the Carlyle. It's all about being an artist, where you're going, what you're supposed to be. I want to make it clear that I'm trying to figure that out too, along with everyone else.