Nancy Opel in ‘Curvy Widow.’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)
By Matthew Wexler
With more than a dozen Broadway shows to her credit (including stepping into Patti LuPone’s shoes as Eva Perón in the original production of Evita), Nancy Opel is no stranger to the stage. With a legendary belting voice that can effortlessly reach the back row of the balcony, Opel has seen more than her fair share of triumphs and tribulations during her theater career. Now appearing in the Off Broadway musical, Curvy Widow, which opens August 3 at the Westside Theatre (Upstairs), Opel chats with the Broadway Blog about the show’s fast track to success and how she’s managed to stay on top of her game in a fickle industry that’s always on the lookout for the next best thing.
Tell us a bit more about Curvy Widow beyond what the title suggests.
This has been a whirlwind—a lot faster than any project I can remember. I looked at the script last spring and listened to some of the songs. A script can change in so many ways, but when you have good music and lyrics, that’s a great start, and I was available to go to NC Stage Company for the first production last fall.
What struck me was that there are seven people in the show and all of them are over the age of 50, which is a rare thing to have a show about people of a certain age. It also tackles subjects that we don’t often see on stage—you don’t see things in musicals about the sex lives of middle-aged people, certainly not in a positive way.
When you get to my age the things that come across the professional threshold are wicked stepmothers, evil heads of corporations, or a granny that misses you back home. To get the opportunity to explore a character who is vital and alive and still looking for answers instead of the one with the answers is pretty incredible.
What sorts of things is she trying to figure out?
Part of it is talking about a woman having sex in her 50s and 60s. You always hear about old guys dumping their wives, but it’s rare to hear about women of that age who are looking for something more. Many women find themselves alone through widowhood or divorce. That’s the journey of this character and exploring the difference between alone and lonely and where those feelings come from.
Sometimes we don’t miss the guy, but just miss the habit of taking care of someone. This character’s journey is about getting out of the habit of caretaking, as she says to herself, “I don’t know what to do with myself when I’m not taking care of the needs of other people.”
How has the show evolved since the production last fall?
Like any show, it’s changed since we first started working on it in the studio. The changes have less to do with me and more with the willingness and capacity of the writers (book by Bobby Goldman, music and lyrics by Drew Brody). Both of them work in a relatively ego-free way and neither has been adamant about this is what it has to be. Everyone has been easy and rolling with the punches. Our director Peter Flynn is a really good director and excellent dramaturg, helping to guide the process of storytelling.
This show also fits so perfectly in the West Side Theatre, where seven people populate that stage. The set looks great, and we were lucky that we knew we were coming to this theatre before the second run at George Street Playhouse. I feel like the show lends itself to an intimate space.
You’ve been in the business a long time. As a performer, what sort of shifts have you seen on Broadway and beyond?
I teach a lot and have had three significant voice teachers in my life. None of them gave me everything I needed. I have stuff I still do from when I was a teenager. The most important thing is that it’s not about genetics or talent, it’s about practice.
Breath is where people fall apart because they don’t take enough breath when they sing. If you have a Maserati in the driveway but no gasoline, who cares? Then a singer tries to turbocharge from other spots, generally the throat. It’s not something you can do in a few weeks. You have to really practice, and then the tools come into play when you’re feeling under the weather or have an audition and the nerves kick in. I’ve worked with all manner of clients, beginners and those in shows. It’s also a learning experience for me, too. I learn more about the vocabulary that you need to teach.
The TV singing contests have changed the way young people approach singing. They filter that sound into musical theater, trying to add on pop stylings that they’ve practiced in the bathroom! It’s the idea that you’re going to go on television, become a star and then do musical theater—a shortcut to stardom.
When I was growing up, the way to learn about musical theater was to buy cast albums or take a trip to New York City to see a Broadway show. There was no Internet to hear clips of Dear Evan Hansen — you could only dream about it. Now there is so much to see and hear and try to emulate. Don’t get me wrong, I sang to cast albums like crazy. But these days, the originality of your own thing is even harder to bring out.
It sounds like even those young kids should come see Curvy Widow to see a pro in action!
There is definitely an audience for a show like ours. I feel good telling a story about people who shouldn’t be written off as being angry, mean or alcoholic. Especially women where it’s hard to find these kinds of protagonist roles. She’s having a good time and having sex! “Oh, that’s unseemly! You’re supposed to be knitting sweaters!” —There’s nothing wrong with knitting sweaters, but life isn’t over.
People are coming up to me after Curvy Widow, a show that at first I thought was cute and a little bit naughty, and saying, “You’ve given me hope.” It’s a reminder that there is life beyond that moment when you find yourself alone.
Westside Theatre (Upstairs)
407 West 43rd Street
Opening night: August 3
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on social media at @wexlerwrites.