Interview: Mary Beth Peil Takes a Trip to Cornelia Street

The veteran actor discusses the new Simon Stephens/Mark Eitzel musical at the Atlantic.

The way Mary Beth Peil describes the casting process for the new musical Cornelia Street sounds idyllic: She spent an afternoon chatting with creators Simon Stephens and Mark Eitzel over a roaring fire and a bottle of scotch.

Six years later, Peil is helping bring this production at the Atlantic Theater Company to life, taking on the role of failed opera singer Sarah, a part loosely inspired by stories she told the writers as they developed this tapestry of New York City characters.

Here, Peil describes the unconventional creative process, and how satisfying it really was.

Mary Beth Peil
Mary Beth Peil
(© David Gordon)

I know so little about Cornelia Street, which is rare in an age where musicals are mostly inspired by pre-existing works. What interested you in the project?
Well, first of all, I'm an ensemble member at the Atlantic, and I'm pretty sure I'm the oldest woman in the ensemble, so I usually get the first shot at the old lady roles. But I'm also a great fan and admirer of Simon Stephens, so that was the first attraction. The Atlantic had two very successful experiences with him, one of which I was in, Harper Reagan. For the commission, Simon decided he wanted to do a musical, so he got in touch with his friend Mark Eitzel, who's a really interesting jazz/rock/new age — I can't really categorize it — kind of musician.

The first thing that let me know they were taking this commission seriously was that they asked six of the ensemble members at the Atlantic to spend three hours with the two of them. We filled out a really long, in-depth questionnaire about our philosophy of life, with questions like "Do you believe in ghosts?" Questions that weren't the normal, run-of-the-mill style.

So then we spent three hours with them, and our assignment was to take them to the most meaningful places in New York City to us. I had my three hours on a really cold, blustery February day six years ago. We started at the Rubin Museum, going through the replica of the Buddhist temple, and then we had tea in the little coffee shop. My next goal was to take them on one of my walks through Riverside Park, but it started to sleet, so we went up to my apartment, which is actually my third favorite place in New York City.

I put a fire in, got out a bottle of scotch, and the three of us sat around talking. I think we started around one o'clock and by now it was probably 3:30, and we were there until about 7:30, just drinking scotch and talking. It was like sitting at a bar; you don't necessarily remember what you're talking about, but you do tend to tell stories to people you don't know. So that cemented my commitment to the piece.

How has your character evolved over that time?
At first, Sarah was more of a floozy. She was a failed opera singer and she talked a lot about all her old lovers and there were a lot of funny lines. It was fun. And then they did a total rewrite and I'm much more interesting now. In some ways, she's much more like myself now. It's fabulous because I get to feel comfortable in the body of an older woman who is still juicy.

They've built a quilt of diehard New Yorkers, and the cafe itself is based on the old Cornelia Street Café, where the regulars come and go and interact with each other. It's very New York and I think it's safe to say it's pretty unusual. I mean, the orchestration alone. Have you heard about it?

Oh, OK. This is breaking news. There are six players: harp, guitar, percussion, a reed player who probably plays at least five instruments including clarinet and saxophone, and then there are two brass players, one playing trombone and euphonium and the other playing trombone and tuba. No keyboard. It really captures the sounds of New York City. It's still mysterious to us, but that's the musical process. And this takes process to a whole new level in my life. And it's thrilling. It could be a disaster, but that's part of it too. I mean, you never want it to be, but I guess that's part of the fun: trying to figure out if it will fly or not.

I want to ask you about the speech Michelle Williams gave at the Gotham Awards in November, where she pays such beautiful tribute to you. Did you know that was going to happen?
Well, first of all, I was supposed to be there; she had invited me weeks earlier, and I thought that was extremely generous and really meaningful to me. As it happened, I got terribly ill with a really bad stomach and there was no way I could have even gotten dressed. I had no idea what she was going to say until the next morning, when I woke up and there was a text from Michelle saying, "Check YouTube."

When I watched it, I was shocked. What a way to start the day. And then people started sending me clips from all over the place. In a way, I'm grateful I wasn't there. I would've missed it. I would've been so out of my body, like "What the hell is she doing!?" I wouldn't have absorbed what she was saying.

She and I both know how important those six years of Dawson's Creek were for us. Ironically, those kids, including Michelle, maybe even especially Michelle, had so much more on-camera experience than I had. I had done one Law and Order, but I was the elder, so everyone thought I knew something. I learned so much from her, and she's just a beautiful human being.

But my mouth is still open. There really are no words.

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Cornelia Street

Closed: February 26, 2023