Interview: Vicki Lewis Takes a Break From Musicals to Star as Maria Callas in Master Class

Lewis plays the role for a second time at Long Island’s Bay Street Theater.

Vicki Lewis stars as Maria Callas in Terrence McNally’s Master Class, directed by Lisa Peterson, at Bay Street Theater.
(© Lenny Stucker)

Vicki Lewis has been delighting audiences for nearly 40 years in roles like Beth in the NBC sitcom News Radio and Gloria in the TV film version of Bye, Bye Birdie, and in stage appearances for such shows as City of Angels, Damn Yankees, Chicago, Anastasia, and Between the Lines.

Earlier this year, Lewis shifted gears when she took on the dramatic role of opera diva Maria Callas in Terrence McNally’s play Master Class at Arizona Theatre Company. Now, she’s reprising the role — in a different production — at Long Island’s Bay Street Theater.

TheaterMania spoke to Lewis about taking on such a daunting part, what she has learned about Callas as both a performer and a person, and which classic musical is still on her bucket list.

828f1a8f 4075 d8a1 9f61 0e6609a734fb
Brett Ryback, Olivia Hernandez, and Vicki Lewis appear in Terrence McNally’s Master Class, directed by Lisa Peterson, at Bay Street Theater.
(© Lenny Stucker)

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Master Class is a big departure from what fans best you know from comedy and musicals. Have you been wanting to do a serious drama like this for a while?

It’s funny; a while ago I was talking to friend of mine and I said to him, “I don’t know how many more productions of Hello, Dolly or Gypsy I have left in me.” And he says, “Stop doing musicals and do plays.” Not long after that, I got this offer to do Master Class in Arizona, and I have never been happier to get any piece of material. It has this depth that I feel I have earned as a woman of a certain age. I put my heart and soul into doing it. It was something of a tightrope, especially since it was scary learning so many words in a short time, but I am thrilled I pulled it off.

So, I assume it’s been easier the second time around?

Yes and no. Our director Lisa Peterson is very smart, and I feel like I can trust her implicitly. But what’s hard is that she is directing a different play than the one I did at ACT. She keeps pulling the words apart, finding new layers, and making different choices than we did before. Fortunately, I feel like I am learning from someone who is in a top-tier league. Rehearsing this version is now all-consuming, but I am so grateful for this opportunity.

What was your familiarity with Maria Callas before doing the play?

Not much. I had a distant impression of her, since I am not an opera person. I have been friends with Nathan Lane since coming to New York, so most of what I knew about Callas, I learned from seeing him in The Lisbon Traviata. Once I got the role, though, I watched everything I could, and I read everything about her and listened to her constantly. I found such appreciation for what she did with opera. Now, I have to listen to her famous aria “La Sonnambula” over and over during rehearsals, because it’s part of the play. With anyone else, that could drive me mad, but Callas had such a glorious instrument that I would run over to see her in a second if she was still alive.

What are your impressions now of Callas?

She was such a tormented person. You know she even tried to commit suicide. And over the years, she was treated so badly by the press. I think she was a broken person, and these students in the play are pushing her buttons without realizing it, and that’s why she acts she why does. In the end, I think the play is about what it costs us as artists to do what we do, and it is a lot. It’s really a terrible business.

Rodney Ingram and Vicki Lewis appear in Terrence McNally’s Master Class, directed by Lisa Peterson, at Bay Street Theater.
(© Lenny Stucker)

Did you ever have acting teachers who were like Callas in the play?

When I was at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, I had this teacher, Worth Gardner, who basically created the theater program. He was both intimidating and transformative. Like Callas, he could be cruel, and I was often in tears, but I learned more from him in two years than anyone else in my whole career.

Callas is always telling the performers they “need a look.” Do you have a look?

I think I have a look. I’ve had this red hair since 1990, and I kind of dress like Diane Keaton. Maybe I need a new look, I don’t know.

Did you get to see the late Zoe Caldwell, who originally played Callas on Broadway?

No, but I have watched tapes of Zoe, and honestly, I can’t do what she does! I am not that slow a talker or walker. I think I’ve taken 15 minutes off the play. But let’s face it, Zoe lived in another stratosphere.

So, are you really done with musicals?

No. I just did a workshop of this wonderful new show Austenland, which is from the same team with which I did Between the Lines. As far as classic roles are concerned, I would say Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd is the last one on my bucket list. That would be such fun!

Featured In This Story

Master Class

Final performance: July 20, 2024