Apparently, spending six days a week at the Ford Center on 42nd Street in 42nd Street wasn’t enough for Christine Ebersole. The Tony Award-winning actress is also busy on Monday nights through December 17, working across town: Ebersole is singing her heart out at Arci’s Place on Park Avenue South at 30th Street. (This soigné cabaret has become a second home for many of New York’s leading ladies.)
Cabaret isn’t a totally new experience for Ebersole; she did a version of this show in L.A. in 1997. But her engagement at Arci’s marks her first New York stab at the art form in over two decades. “I wanted to do this show when I first came back to New York from California, but it’s taken me the last two years to put it together,” says Ebersole in her Ford Center dressing room. “Of all the things I’ve done, cabaret appeals to me the most. There’s an intimacy you just can’t get anywhere else.”
But why pile on more work, given that her plate is already so full? Aside from her role of diva Dorothy Brock in 42nd Street, Ebersole plays mother in real life to a New Jersey household of one husband, three kids, three dogs, and three cats. “It is a lot to take on, but I think the visibility I now have makes this the right time to take the opportunity,” she says of her Arci’s show, which is titled Christine Ebersole: Live in New York. The program is mostly autobiographical in nature, featuring stories and songs on themes that are close to her heart (e.g., parenthood and divorce) and dealing with what she terms “some of life’s bigger questions.”
What patrons should not expect the show to be is an evening of “Christine Ebersole’s Greatest Hits.” She does include “My Ship” from Lady in the Dark (she played Liza Elliott in the first season of City Center Encores!) but not, for example, “To Keep My Love Alive,” which brought down the house in this year’s Encores! presentation of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Nor does the Arci’s act include selections from Oklahoma! and Camelot, those musical warhorses that introduced Ebersole to New York theatergoers in a pair of well-received 1979 Broadway revivals.
“I loved doing Oklahoma!” enthuses Ebersole “What a great show. There is nothing like that score. The producers wanted me to audition for Laurey but I told them I wanted to do Ado Annie, and then I showed them I was right,” she recalls with the laugh. “Who knew that I would go from doing Ado Annie to Guenevere in the same week,” she says, referring to the fabled occasion when she stepped into the Camelot lead– opposite Richard Burton!–with just three days’ rehearsal.
After Camelot, Ebersole concentrated on film and television, doing everything from One Life to Live (she was nominated for a daytime Emmy) to one ill-fated season of Saturday Night Live. There were three primetime series, most notably The Cavanaughs, which ran three years on CBS; the film version of Amadeus (she played an opera singer); and the Bette Midler TV movie of Gypsy, in which Ebersole shone as the “demure” stripper Tessie Tura.
“I guess you can say my career has really been kaleidoscopic,” Ebersole muses. “The only thing I haven’t done is ballet–thank God!” But she never forgot about Broadway. Two years ago, after nearly 15 years in California, she decided to uproot her family and return East, hoping that the theater would once again beckon. “I came back without a job, with only the dream of getting some work on Broadway,” she says. “And that was a really hard decision. It wasn’t like I had an offer of a tenured professorship in some university.”
While her roots are firmly in musical theater, her Broadway return came last season in the revival of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, in which she played the power-hungry Southern wife of a Kennedy-like presidential candidate. “I had the best time doing that show, working opposite Chris Noth,” she says. “If it had still been playing in the spring, I think I would have been in two Tony-winning revivals.” (The show did win the Drama Desk Award for Best Revival, Drama.)
Speaking of Tonys, Ebersole is quite modest about her win as Best Actress in a Musical this year. “It was a pretty special moment for me,” she says. “I think it just made all the hardships I’ve had in my career seem really sweet. But I didn’t think about winning it when I got the part; I was just happy to be in a Broadway musical after 16 years. And, today, I don’t think people come to see 42nd Street because I won the Tony.” Ebersole admits that she and the show’s cast have been blessed, with business remaining steady even after September 11, no pay cuts, and standing ovations every night. “The audiences have been fantastic,” she says. “I think we’re lucky in that we’re a new show. Unlike some of the older ones, we haven’t exhausted the supply of theatergoers in the tri-state area.”
On a personal level, Ebersole has had her ups and downs over the past two and a half months. But one recent experience transformed her. “I was asked to sing at the funeral of Billy Burke, one of the fire captains who died at the Trade Center,” she relates. “He went in and saved his whole squad, but he didn’t get out. He was a true hero. The funeral was at St. Patrick’s and there was this outpouring of thousands of people. Being there, I felt like I was a part of history. I realized we’re in a fight against fear. It doesn’t mean we’re not afraid, but we mustn’t be paralyzed by our fear, because then they win the game. We have to live life at its absolute fullest.”