SHOW FOLK: Nancy Opel Goes Walking In “Memphis”
Once a month, a member of the theater community will pull up a chair to our cyber table and join us for a little conversation. I’ll edit the transcripts (removing the truly libelous parts) and post the results here every second Wednesday. For June…
Nancy Opel is the real deal, an actor/singer with fearless comedic instincts and a resume that can’t be contained by a mere 100-word program bio. (She was the matinee “Eva” in the original Broadway Evita for goodness sake!) She’s got an Obie–as well as Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics, Lucille Lortell nominations–and a whip smart theatrical mind that makes her a writer’s best friend. Case in point: by some miracle, she agreed to be the titular lead in a Fringe Festival show I co-wrote called For the Love of Tiffany: A Wifetime Original Musical, about a washed-up TV diva angling for a comeback amidst her soap-operatic life. With little to no budget, we had been lamenting how we’d love to have publicity shots from some of “Tiffany’s” TV movies. At the next rehearsal, Nancy marched in and announced she had gone out on her own, found the perfect Meredith Baxter-Birney wig and posed for a series of photos “in character”. Not only were the pictures hysterical (“gauzy” doesn’t even begin to do them justice), they were a testament to Nancy’s absolute immersion in her work. Funny and fiercely committed, she’s the performer you want on your team.
We caught up recently, battling allergy symptoms and recording difficulties, to discuss her current role in Broadway’s Memphis, uvulas and some composer guy named Steve.
You’re appearing in Memphis now as “Mama”, a role that was originated by Cass Morgan. Is it daunting to step into a role after someone else?
I didn’t feel like the creators were asking me to copy Cass’ show exactly. I’d worked with these writers before [Joe DiPietro and David Bryan, who also wrote Toxic Avenger] and had done several readings for the director, Christopher Ashley. I was quite delighted that they called me and asked me to join the company. They know what I can do and trusted me to bring that certain something to the role.
That must have given you a great sense of freedom.
I didn’t change the timing of the show or anything. But little things. I felt that I had a lot of freedom to try what worked for me. Plus I only had two weeks of rehearsal.
I watched the show and took notes. I had a blocking rehearsal and two music rehearsals. They put me in the show at the understudy rehearsals, and then I got to run through my scenes with the other principals. That’s it. I’d never put on the clothes except in the wardrobe room. I never saw the lights or used the microphone or worked on the set until I was onstage my first performance. My dress rehearsal was in front of 1500 people.
How’d that go?
It went well. But if you look at my script, you’d see lines and arrows telling me where to stand so I wouldn’t get hit by these huge moving sets. I didn’t want to be killed. That’s what I cared about that night. I just wanted to say my lines believably and not get crunched by giant rolling set pieces. It was an admirable goal, I think. [laughter]
What’s it like getting to sing your big second act song [“Change Don’t Come Easy”]? When I saw it the audience went crazy; the response just built and built.
It’s a moment of transformation. I really think that’s what people are responding to. At the beginning of the show she’s so racist and such a naysayer and then, in this moment, you see her change. She decides to go with the times and understands that it’s RIGHT. She’s transformed. Yes, there are elements of gospel and it’s funny but you don’t want to overplay it. You don’t want to parody that. You have to play the moment, because it’s a key element in the play.
Memphis talks about music being the catalyst for rebellion, particularly for teenagers. What did you listen to when you were a kid?
The music I listened to? When I was 16, I worked at a theater in Kansas City and they would bring in actors from New York. It was amazing. These sophisticated New Yorkers would tell me what to listen to, a list of musicals, and that’s what I’d play. You know the first Sondheim album? The one with the Scrabble tiles?
Yes! [Sondheim Evening: A Musical Tribute] I played that until the grooves disappeared. That was back when there were LP’s. [laughter]
I’ll add a footnote to explain what those are.
That was my music.
You listened to Sondheim and then you got to work with him.
You know what I would do? I said this when I was 16. I was so earnest and Kansas and I would say to myself, “I’m going to do musical theater and I’m going to work with Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince.” And, what, six months after I graduated, after Juilliard, I was cast in Evita [directed by Hal Prince]. “Well, that’s half at least.”
And then my second job was Sunday in the Park with George [she originated the role of Frieda].
Sometimes it pays to not know any better. [laughter]
Sunday in the Park is so special to me. It’s one of the reasons I became a writer. I mean, the song “Sunday” is what I play to test out any new sound system I’ve had. What was it like to sing that the first time?
(she pauses, thinking for a long time) You know, it was a difficult time. I’d never originated material like that. Evita was new but it had been tested out in front of audiences in London already. Sunday [the show] didn’t come together for a long time. It was amorphous for so long. I learned a valuable lesson on that, that we weren’t doing brain surgery, to not take myself so seriously. Whatever they chose to put in or take out, it was going to be OK. One must learn not to take ego boundaries too seriously.
And that song, it’s beautiful. But my line was so strange. I was singing soprano and tenor and everything else. Wherever they needed to fill something in, they would just put me on it. So my musical line was all over the place. I’m sure they don’t teach it like that anymore, because it was sort of schizophrenic.
There was one moment in rehearsal. We were rehearsing on the stage. Yes, we were still at Playwright’s Horizon, on the stage. They pulled us all in to listen to “Finishing the Hat”. It was the first time; it had just been written. We all shuffled in and Mandy [Patinkin] stood there and sang it through. When he finished, we all were sort of quiet. We were wandering around dazed. I looked down at Steve [Sondheim], he was sitting in the second row, and I said, “I don’t think I can rehearse anymore. I think I need to go home.” And he said, “Are you OK? Are you sick?” And I said, “No. That was just the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard.” Steve looked up at me [she mimics the innocent, searching look on his face] and he said, “You really liked it?” It doesn’t matter how famous they are, they still like to be told they’re good. Probably more so if you’re famous because everyone assumes you know how great you are already. That’s why I always make a point to tell people when they’re doing something wonderful. It’s important. (she pauses again, clearly emotional) I’ll never forget that moment.
Now you teach, right? You coach singers as well?
I do. I love it. I’ve learned so much. Just trying to put into words a technique, so that anyone can understand, it helps. To try to find imagery. I mean, I don’t get into the plumbing. I don’t talk about your uvula.
I taught at Yale this last semester.
I did! Once a week. I taught Music Theater Performance 2.
Undergrad. It was amazing. We actually didn’t talk about songs a lot. I wanted to give them tools. You’re not going to get anywhere if you can only paint with one brush. Music theater changes. The styles change. The songs shift with the season so you need to have the tools, technique, to adapt.
It’s Tony time so I have to ask about your experience. What was it like to be nominated [Best Actress in Musical for Urinetown]?
I’m proud of that little piece of paper. That little piece of paper framed on my wall.
She says with a glint in her eye.
No, I’m serious. I’m proud of it. I never expected that to happen in my career. Really. I’m so glad I had that experience.
And Tony night?
You think it’s boring sometimes watching it on TV, right? It’s not so boring from the second row.
And I was wearing a quarter of a million dollars worth of Harry Winston jewels.
You’re kidding! How did that happen?
Publicist calls and they let you borrow them for the night. But you have a guard. This big man is following you around all night. I changed into my costume to perform on the show and he’s standing at the door. You hand him the jewels and he puts them in a bag. I didn’t want to take them off to put on my ratty old costume. They were niiiiiiiiiiiice.
Back to Cinderella again.
They let you wear them to the parties and everything but at the end of the night you drop them off at the store.
There’s a slot in the door?
Exactly. [laughter] Well, not exactly. But I probably shouldn’t say more.
So if you could play any role, what would it be?
I don’t know. I’m really happy with what I get to do. And talking about pre-existing roles- well, the thing is, someone’s already performed it. I love to originate things. I love that you can play around and someone says, “Let’s try it this way. This works better for you.” And the trick is, in the end, people think you’re so good… but it’s only because they tailored the role to what you do best.
I want to direct. I’ve directed some readings and things and I’m going to do more. I suppose I should say that I want to do more film and TV but I love theater. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed the things I’ve gotten to do on film but it’s so different. I don’t feel as comfortable there. I always feel like an interloper no matter how welcoming the cast and crew is. The bottom line is, I feel like I need the audience. The response. The immediacy. I love it. This is truly where I belong.