15 Minutes with Melissa Errico
Currently starring in Irish Repertory Theatre’s production of Finian’s Rainbow (extended until January 29, 2017), Melissa Errico is re-defining the ingénue. Her self-written feature in The New York Times was a hallmark moment for the 46-year-old actress, who refuses to play to age-based limitations, writing:
The ingénue police are knocking, but I’m not letting them in. They know the great Mary Martin was 46 when she played the young postulant Maria Von Trapp in the original The Sound of Music. (They probably knocked on her door, too.)
And Finian’s Rainbow is a fable always worth retelling, with an absurd plot that is really not absurd at all. It’s about equality, peace, racism and tolerance. It is about a more hopeful America where each person might see beneath the surface of another, and find within oneself a tolerance toward oneself — even a celebration — as we allow our own surfaces to change.
The Broadway Blog had a chance to catch up with the Tony Award-nominated actress in between shows and an overflowing life with her husband, three daughters, and Yorkshire terrier.
Why do you think Finian’s Rainbow resonates with today’s audiences?
I’ve done the show over the course over 15 years. Concerts then a full production, then a concert at Town Hall. We opened Oct 25 but by the time we had the election the show was very different.
It’s hitting a nerve, offering a possibly reassuring voice. A model of liberal racial politics — somewhat antiquated — but still a model. Yip (E.R. Harburg, the show’s lyricist and book writer) was a great humanitarian and liberal activist. Finian’s Rainbow is about inclusion and we’re living in a time that many people feel threatened.
At first, I didn’t think that the musical was current. In my dream world I thought we were past that. There’s a terrific dialogue exchange that could come out of today’s headlines:
Senator Billboard Rawkins: Of course it’s legal! I don’t know where you immigrants get these radical, foreign ideas!
Sharon McLonergan: From a wee book the immigration officer handed us. It’s called ‘The United States Constitution.’
Finian McLonergan: Haven’t you read it?
Senator Billboard Rawkins: I don’t have time to read it, I’m too busy defending it!
In particular, what do you think makes this production special in Irish Rep’s intimate space?
Irish Rep’s space has become larger and much more playable since it’s recent renovation. There are still those onstage columns, which are incorporated so beautifully into the set design by James Morgan to create this sort of dreamy plantation or rural forest.
From the actor’s standpoint, it’s tight quarters backstage. There’s no chance of warming up and you can plan on brushing your teeth with someone else. There’s this unspoken agreement to be communal and work together, and the only way to succeed is to be that kind of person. Charlotte Moore (Irish Rep’s artistic director) is a genius to find those kinds of people to cast.
In terms of performance, it’s not a Broadway show where you’re ushered along. You’ll notice that there are no microphones — there’s not a speaker in the building. It’s the audience and the actors. And then this all-female Celtic jazz orchestra sits down and forget about it! There’s a lot of color coming out of those four girls. You’ll never have that kind of experience on Broadway.
This is story theater. There’s no ability for the show to get fake or pretentious. We’re constantly looking for the substance, and to tell that story you have to put your heart out there. And then there’s the technical side of things. If I want to crescendo with everything else happening around me I have to walk toward the audience for my voice to rise above the others. There are a million different levels. It’s hard stuff!
The New York Times piece put a spotlight on women of a certain age in the theater. Do you think there’s a double standard?
The theater community wants women to age and wisen and teach and connect and be sensual. But there aren’t a lot of roles out there. But there’s another culture — the world of concerts — where we can create a strong experience and women are not impotent in that domain.
There are also a million catch-22’s. In my 30’s, while my career was soaring, my doctor said, “Are you ever going to have children?” It’s tricky to be a gal but we wanted to have a family.
Being in our 40s is an interesting time. It’s not that long ago that we felt young, but then we realize that we’re really adults now. I’m certainly not moaning. We each have to work it out in our own way. Lead the way in your wanting.
I want to be an adult in the business, so that’s what’s coming. I have a family. I have things to do on the off weeks. I have three amazing daughters. And yes, I’m also desperate to play certain roles.
Do you feel there a special skill set for those actors, like yourself, who seem to embrace the classics, like Finian’s Rainbow?
Some people are just born very modern. They’re not given ballet lessons! I had that sort of training and what I call “pretty” lessons, but with an element of trapping a person as a “good girl”— lots of qualities that you find in characters like Leona in Do I Hear a Waltz? or Gwendolyn in The Importance of Being Earnest.
I love all the ideas behind these works, too. There’s a bookishness about me. My first big job was Cosette in the first national tour of Les Misérables and you could find me backstage reading the Victor Hugo novel. I’ve always been fascinated by the source material of so many of these great shows.
You recently sang “The National Anthem” at a New York Rangers game at Madison Square Garden, what was that like?
I wanted people to remember the country is still there. Hey, I threw in a high “C”!
I was put on the ice in front of 65,000 people to touch their spirit, and for a moment, to lift up that room. It was a chance for that energy to pass through me to the crowd, hoping to bring out the best in everyone for one night. And as performers, we hope they carry a little bit of that out the door.