A Date with Kate - An Interview with Kate Baldwin
The first time I heard the voice of Kate Baldwin was while I was living in Omaha, Nebraska and the new cast recording of Finian’s Rainbow arrived to me in the mail. Finian’s Rainbow is my favorite musical and “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” my favorite show tune, and I was so far removed from New York that it was killing me that I couldn’t see the production. As soon as I heard Ms. Baldwin lend her vocal cords to my favorite song, I felt like I was transported there. She inhabits a song, finessing every nuance of the melodies and lyrics, infusing it with character and emotional. She vocally paints pictures. Pick up any of her wonderful solo albums, or listen to her on the recordings of Finian’s Rainbow, Giant, Big Fish, or Life Begins at 8:40 and you will feel it too!
I have never had an opportunity in my writing career to interview someone quite as lovely as Kate Baldwin. She approaches the answers to your questions with a deeply heartfelt answers that radiate her true love of theatre. There is a genuine enthusiasm and sincerity in what she has to say. Currently, she is starring in an Off-Broadway revival of John & Jen. Read on and learn some exciting things about this wonderful lady, her thoughts on theatre, and her feelings about being in this exciting new production.
MR: Give us some general background about yourself. Where you are from. Likes/Dislikes.
KB: I was born in Evanston, IL and moved to Shorewood, WI when I was seven years old. I went to Northwestern University and studied Theatre. I came to New York in 1999 and have been in five Broadway shows. I've lived in New York City longer than anywhere else and am asked for directions by visitors to the city once a week and I'm proud of that. Does that make me a New Yorker? Pretty please?
I love funny people, especially funny women and pop music, especially when sung by dudes. Yes, I'm talking about Bruno Mars/Ben Folds/Stevie Wonder. One of them please write a musical.
I like learning new things and having my friends over for dinner. I like dessert and if there's no chocolate in it, it doesn't qualify as such.
I dislike ignorance and assumptions and entitlement. I dislike being misunderstood when I'm trying to be funny. I admire social grace. I often play the game "what would (insert name of appropriately socially graceful person - usually Stephanie March) do in this situation?"
I dislike it when people come backstage and don't say anything nice. I don't understand it. Why come backstage at all? We all just want to go home. We all want to be appreciated for trying. Don't we?
MR: Tell us about your training as a performer. What have been the most valuable experiences in your training and what advice would you offer a teen who is aspiring to explore musical theatre as a career.
KB: The most valuable experiences I've had in my theater education are these:
At NU, I studied plays. We learned about elements of characterization and style through working on Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, the Greeks, Wilde, Coward, Shepard and Williams. I think this foundation in classic plays helps immensely when students want to deepen their work in musical theater. Read plays!
When I moved to New York, I went to see everything I could. Students who wish to study theater should think of being in the audience as part of their education. I also made friends with people who were ten to fifteen years older than me who had a different perspective and more experience in the business of show business. I took my audition book to a trusted music director friend and had him revise it, adding new songs and subtracting the ones that no one wants to hear anymore. Song choice makes a huge first impression. Make sure it's a good one.
I also advise students to think of each audition as an experiment if that helps to free them and make them more present in the room. There's a powerful idea that anything can happen, all you have to do is let it. And everyone behind the table wants you to succeed and be the answer to their problem. Charm them and make them laugh. Look for moments of beauty and surprise. No one wants to be screamed at. Enough with the screlting. (Except if you're funny. Then screlt away.)
MR: John & Jen - what about this particular musical spoke to you? What challenges has it presented that have stretched you as a performer? What new things have you learned about yourself working on this piece?
KB: There are two parallels between my life so far and Jen's story in John & Jen. I have a younger brother who served in the Navy for six years. Jen's brother John joins the Navy and she struggles with accepting his choice. I have a four year old son who's life and development I think about every hour of every day. Jen also has a son who she seeks to guide through life.
I admire the musical's honesty and guilelessness. It requires me to give over to the vulnerability and go deeply into the painful moments that we do our best to cover up in real life. It's an emotional workout each night and one that I'm not always excited to do. It's exhausting. I read once that the amount of adrenaline that enters an actor's system during an emotionally charged performance is equal to that of a car crash. I'm not sure if it's true, but it certainly feels that way with "John & Jen." I'm wrecked afterward.
I approached the show as a new piece. I didn't listen to the previous cast recording more than once and I didn't research past performances or reviews. I also allowed the rehearsal process to be a little messy. By that I mean, I made things up on the spot, was intentionally silly, and I tried the patience of my stage manager by paraphrasing a lot. I wanted to discover my own voice in the piece and forge my own connection to the story and character.
Jonathan Silverstein, Lily Ling and Conor Ryan were fantastically supportive, but I'm sure my messy process put us behind schedule by a few days. I thank them and our stage managers Kara Kaufman and Cressa Amundsen for letting me be as impulsive as I wanted to be. And for all the props. I love props! It was a completely different way for me to work, but one that I think my relationship to the piece demanded.
MR: What is your favorite song that you perform in John & Jen and why is that so? What do you hope people take away from seeing it?
KB: That's a hard question to answer. My favorite song shifts nightly. It has to do with where the audience is and how they are reacting. Sometimes it's "Hold Down the Fort" because they are enjoying the brother-sister relationship so much and unaware of what's coming. Sometimes it's "Just Like You" because they've seen the endearing and funny and heartbroken Jen and they are rooting for her and her struggle to make life better for herself and her son. The part I always look forward to in the show is the second Christmas scene. Maybe it's because I I get to sit back and watch Conor deliver the charming and the funny or maybe it's because I have a four year old son who loves Christmas. Either way, it's good for me.
I hope people who come to see it can call their parents or children afterward. (Thanks, JK Simmons) By her own admission, Jen has "grown up some and fell down some, learned to fly and fail" and I hope that audiences watching can recognize and embrace that struggle. I've noticed that the story seems to resonate with a lot of mothers (at least, they're the ones approaching me at the end) and they tell me their stories of loving and letting go. It's beautiful to me.
MR: Thinking back over the Broadway shows you have done, what has been the hardest thing to overcome? What is the most surprising thing you learned about yourself?
KB: The hardest thing to overcome is how we are perceived. We never truly know how others see us, do we? Most actors I know are interested in evolving and changing and learning about how to bring more to their work. Sometimes the work opportunities don't line up with the potential or desire of the actor.
I'm surprised by how deeply I care about creating new work. Michael John's Giant and Andrew's Big Fish meant more to me than anything I've ever done. Every criticism of those shows felt so personal to me and was surprisingly difficult to let go of. I was on my couch for about three months after Big Fish closed because I felt so blue. But, as Stro says, even in the rain, one must learn to dance. And when I find people who appreciate both of those musicals, I feel like I've met kindred spirits. It's so special. So there's a surprising silver lining in that I feel deeply invested in my community of fellow actors, writers, directors and audiences...perhaps more so than if those shows ran for years and made millions.
MR: What role (that you have performed) would you like to opportunity to revisit because you feel that life experience has deepened your understanding of that character? What role are you aching to sink your teeth into?
KB: I've had the great luck to play Countess Charlotte Malcolm (A Little Night Music) twice in my career at very different times in my life and it was a blast both times. The second time felt “more free”, as you'd expect, and I realized that she's really a gift that keeps on giving. It's a compact, deadly delicious portrait. I'd be happy (and also incredibly sad) to play her over and over again.
I dream of playing Dot in Sunday in the Park with George. Also, the Baker's Wife and/or Witch in Into the Woods. And someday Phyllis in Follies. And also Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd. All Sondheim, all glorious, all the time. Yes please. Or something new by Andrew or MJLC or Jeanine Tesori or Georgia Stitt.
MR: Any parting words that you might have about the business, musical theatre as a whole, or just something you would like people to know about you that has never come up in an interview.
KB: I believe there is room for everyone here in this crazy show business. I feel incredibly lucky to have the career and life I have and to be surrounded by the best community of colleagues, friends, family and fans anyone could ask for. Go see things! Support each other! Theater matters. It can help heal and draw us closer together as human beings. I believe in that.