Joanna Gleason: Then and Now
It is always an honor to sit down and chat with Broadway’s finest talent, but it is especially exciting when the opportunity to interview the performer you have most admired over the years, presents itself. Last week, I had the career-high of spending some time with Joanna Gleason, Tony winner for her turn as The Baker’s Wife in the original Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim’s and James Lapine’s Into the Woods. I have always admired Ms. Gleason’s ability to mine her roles for humor and heart, bringing unexpected surprises to each character she develops.
Mark: I have to tell you that it is an absolute honor to sit down and interview you. I have admired your work ever since I saw Into the Woods on PBS when I was a teenager.
Joanna: Why thank you. You know, it was amazing that it was filmed back in those days.
Mark: To get started, I’d like to ask you what you look for in a theatre role. What about a character appeals to you.
Joanna: Well, it has changed over the years. When you are young, you look for opportunities. You don’t have the luxury of your druthers. You just try to get yourself in front of people. After Into the Woods, I found myself interested in roles that were original, from pieces that hadn’t been done before. And, of course, there are also people I wanted to work with and chose my projects accordingly.
Mark: Is there a role you’ve always wanted to tackle? What appeals to you about that role?
Joanna: I have always said that I’d like to play Madame Armfeldt in A Little Night Music. You get to sit in a chair all night, sing “Liaisons” and die.
Mark: Funny you should mention A Little Night Music. A friend and I used to play “dream cast your favorite musicals” and we always used to say how much we’d love to see your play Countess Charlotte Malcolm in that show.
Joanna: That would have been fun.
Mark: Tell us about your Broadway debut. Wat did you take away from that experience?
Joanna: My Broadway debut was in 1977 in a Cy Coleman/Michael Stewart musical called I Love My Wife. It was a fantastic part, playing with James Naughton, Ilene Graff, and Lenny Baker. I was totally welcomes by the New York theatre community. I had spent much of my life on the West Coast, but I soon found that I am an East Coast person at heart.
Mark: One of my favorite songs from that show is “Someone Wonderful I Missed”
Joanna: You know, Ilene and I still sing that song in concerts and benefits. During the show’s run, my grandfather came to see me at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. While I was singing that song, I looked out into the crowd and saw a little halo of light over him. Whenever I perform and look into the audience and see that halo of light over someone, I feel like I’m getting a visit from him.
Mark: That is a lovely way to look at it. Shifting gears, obviously Into the Woods has become an iconic musical and you keep being brought back to it with anniversary concerts and discussion groups. How did the show impact you? How have your feelings about the show changed over the years?
Joanna: When I first did the show, it meant something to me about being a parent. I was raising a child at the time, and the show spoke to that responsibility and experience. Now, I think it speaks to me about community and working together.
Mark: You won the Tony Award for playing the Baker’s Wife. Were you surprised that you won?
Joanna: I was. If you watch when they announce my name, I throw my head back in surprise. I had whiplash for two weeks.
Mark: It was a brilliant performance, full of nuance and a delicious mining of wit. Your performance of the song “Moments in the Woods” is one of the original production’s standouts. How did you approach that song, which, like other Sondheim songs such as “The Ladies Who Lunch” and the aforementioned “Liaisons”, is a mini-play unto itself?
Joanna: The song is a monologue that needed to be musicalized. It is essentially a woman having a complete mid-life crisis within the course of a song. It starts with “What was that?” and by the end of the song, she has worked through it. The Baker’s Wife is also one of the few characters that was not an iconic fairy tale character, so I that gave me some space to bring more of myself to her development.
Mark: Why do you think Into the Woods has such personal meaning to so many people?
Joanna: It moved them. The show is full of great humor and many memorable lines, but thereason people love it is because it moved them. Everyone knows a witch who is hurting on the inside. Everyone has known a giant, or a Cinderella. It appeals to kids because of the message. “No One is Alone” – they unite in that feeling. This is a team world.
Mark: Is there one special memory you have from the show about its evolution or the run?
Joanna: While we were rehearsing at the Old Globe theatre [out of town], Steve [Sondheim] had just written a new song for the show and I stayed after rehearsal to hear it. In a tiny rehearsal room with Chip [Zien], Kim [Crosby], and a few others, Steve played “No One is Alone” for us. He had just finished writing it. It was utterly moving hearing him sing it in his own voice, knowing how much it was going to mean to the piece.
Mark: One of your funniest performances was in the musical Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. What about playing Muriel Eubanks of Omaha, Nebraska stands out in your memory?
Joanna: The cast was amazing. Jeffrey Lane, who wrote the musical’s book, is very funny. He created the part with me in mind. David Yazbek is a genius and so funny.
Mark: I would agree.
Joanna: Have you seen The Band’s Visit yet?
Mark: No, I haven’t. I hope to next month.
Joanna: It’s the most remarkable thing I’ve seen in a long time.
Mark: I love the score.
Joanna: But Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was a great deal of fun. A real musical comedy.
Mark: So, this might be a sore spot, but I have to bring it up: Nick & Nora. Has time offered a new perspective on the show? Can you find humor looking back on it?
Joanna: No, it’s not a sore spot. The show was a disaster. The creative people could not find unanimity on any thought. The book was problematic and needed to be changed. There were also so many characters that needed to be focused. 54 Below did an abridged version of Nick & Nora and many of the people who were in it came back for it. It was nice to see everyone again and to have some fun with the piece.
Mark: I’ve always enjoyed the score.
Joanna: Just listen to Chris Sarandon sing “Class”
Mark: Ah, your husband. Did you two meet doing Nick & Nora?
Joanna: We had met a few times socially before, but Nick & Nora was when we really got together.
Mark: That’s always been my favorite part of the Nick & Nora story.
Joanna: Mine, too.
Mark: Do you have any favorite showtunes?
Joanna: You know, we really don’t listen to showtunes around the house, but I grew up with them. My parents played them all the time. Songs from Gypsy, Fiorello!, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. Many Sondheim songs move me. When I was nine, ten, eleven years old, “I Believe in You” from How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying was a song I used to sing in the mirror. It spoke to how I felt at that time in my life.
Mark: Well, I have really enjoyed the opportunity to chat with you and must, once again, state what an honor it has been. I have one final question before we part. Have you any projects in the works that you can tell us about?
Joanna: I do. I’ve written a screenplay that is going to be produced and I am going to direct it.
Mark: Can you tell us anything more?
Joanna: It’s too soon, but there will be news to come.
Mark: I am excited to see it come to fruition.
Joanna: So am I.
Mark: My best wishes to you on it and thank you for joining me.
Joanna: Thank you, Mark.