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. First up…
Singer/actress Kate Baldwin had a star-making year in 2010 with her Tony-nominated leading role in the acclaimed revival of Finian’s Rainbow, but she’d long been building an enviable reputation among music theater heavy-weights with her crystalline voice and her elegant beauty. Best known for portraying the poised and plucky heroines of classic music theater, in person she lets fly with an infectious, bawdy laugh that suggests there’s more than a bit of sassy dame brewing under those regal ingénues.
I caught up with Kate a few weeks ago at the Brooklyn apartment she shares with her husband, fellow actor Graham Rowat (White Christmas, The Boys in the Band). It had been less than a month since moving in and there was barely a box in sight; the girl doesn’t mess around. Glowing even more than usual, she was preparing for a week of performances at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency (showcasing the lyrics of Sheldon Harnick)–and the arrival of their first child in the Spring. After a quick tour of the new place, we staked out the kitchen table and chatted about her mission to bring new listeners to classic songs, the roller-coaster ride of the business and what it’s like to lock lips with a certain hunky co-star.
Tell me about your show at Feinstein’s, She Loves Him. What inspired you to do an evening devoted to the songs of Sheldon Harnick?
Last year was Sondheim-tastic. Sondheim mania. He had a theater named after him. He had birthday parties all over the place.
Sondheim ice cream treats.
And he should be celebrated. He is our premier composer-lyricst. He’s the father of modern musical theater. But I kind of thought that if it weren’t for him, Sheldon Harnick would be the lyricist of our times. Because of his work, because of his willingness to be a part of the scene now, and the fact that he’s still trying and still writing things.
And you have a special guest who’s going to be there with you…
Sheldon is going to be joining me. Because, as we know, he is out there, he is gregarious and he loves to tell stories. And he loves the spotlight. I know no better showman than Sheldon Harnick. He loves it.
Do you enjoy performing in a smaller room, something that’s more intimate?
It’s a completely different experience because I have control over all the content. So whether or not a joke lands or an arrangement is good, it’s my fault. I can’t hide behind anybody else. Finian’s Rainbow? Anything anyone didn’t like, I can say, “I didn’t have anything to do with that.” (laughter) It can feel a lot more personal and risky and scary because there’s more at stake.
You bring up Finian, so we have to talk—because you’ve done basically something all of us wish we could have done—you kissed Cheyenne.
I did. Yeah. I kissed Cheyenne Jackson [her co-star in the recent Broadway revival of Finian’s Rainbow].
(Very naughty laughter from Ms. Baldwin)
Was that dreamy…
I can appreciate him as a really handsome, strong, masculine man. And nobody—I don’t think anybody can turn that on on-stage the way that he can… (even more laughter) It’s pretty great.
And then the Tony nomination, how was that experience?
Oh, come on…
Completely surprising! Here…because the show was closed, I was in London, I was working on something new and the show was done. I didn’t think… When you look at the performances from last year, you’re like, I’m up against superstahhhs. Real big people who’ve won before, whom this community loves and embraces and who are in successful shows. And here I am, the new girl and my show only ran for four months and I’m thinking, fat chance. Really truly, fat chance.
But you were there that night [at the Tony’s]…
It was an odd night, compounded by the fact that I flew in from London that morning so I was five hours in advance so by the time it started at 7pm, it was midnight to me so I was a little bit already like, “Uuuhhhh.” And my dress was taped on and it was really hot and muggy, you know… (laughter)
Pleasant. That princess moment you were dreaming about.
Exactly. It’s hard to be a princess. (laughter) It’s so stupid that I’m complaining about things like that! (laughter) The evening wasn’t as elegant and serene as I imagined it would be. It’s much more chaotic and jumbled and fast and frenetic.
So now you watch the Oscars and you know what it’s really like.
Well, I would have been grateful if I’d put a Power Bar in my purse.
Were you in theater from the moment you were able to speak?
I think I was singing from the moment I was able to speak. I was always into music. And so for a long time growing up and even in college I was toying with a classical road. I thought I would be an opera singer.
What changed that?
I got to Northwestern and I saw all the opera students and I was like, “Whoa, they are way too serious and I don’t think I can do that.” So I went to the theater school and never left because, you know, it was more fun. Because, when I was 18, I had been such a good girl all through my life … and I got to college and was sort of like, “Uuuuggghhh, I want to break out.” My version of breaking out was being a theater major. (laughter) I mean that’s still pretty obedient.
You’re a crazy one!
Exactly. I’m joining a sorority! Whoa!
I think the big turning point for you was when you got South Pacific at Arena [Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.]…
…because I remember the review coming out in the Times.
And a picture of me in a bikini. Three ex-boyfriends called me. I’m not kidding. “Hey, I see you’re doing really well…” Whaaaat? (laughter) It just coincided with a huge turning point in my life as well… I asked the Millie people [Kate was in the ensemble of Thoroughly Modern Millie on Broadway] if I could have a leave of absence to do this South Pacific and come back and they said, “No. You either have to stay and understudy the role you’re understudying or you leave.” And I made a decision to leave and literally that night, during the show, I cried my eyelashes off.
… I saw this opportunity to work at Arena stage with one of the greatest theater professionals ever named Molly Smith … she made me feel like I knew what I was doing, like I could trust myself, that I deserved everything—you know, all those feelings. Up to that point I was doing an imitation, I was doing an idea of what I thought that they wanted and she was the one who said, “No, no, no, you do who you are. And by the way, we’re going to cut off your hair and make you dance in a bikini.” (laughter) How naked can you get?! It felt like a real wake up. That I’m going to be a new person.
Speaking of being a new person…
Yeah. (Huge laugh as she touches her stomach.)
So what happens to you after?
After this little person? I don’t know. I don’t know. I’ve been talking with a couple of people—directors, composers—about what’s happening next. I think I’ll be content to take May, June, July, August to get to know who this little guy is. And to get to know myself, too, with him. Take it as it comes. Because you can’t predict how it will affect you. Maybe I’ll be that Mom who never wants to do another thing again. Or maybe I’ll be that person who’s like, “Here’s my baby, I gotta go sing a song”. Or maybe a combo of the two. I don’t know yet.
And if that little boy comes to you at five years old and is singing around the house, will you encourage…
Of course. Sure. I would encourage him in any aspect. If a child show’s an enthusiasm or affinity for anything, even if they’re terrible at it (laughter), I’ll foster that.
How could this child not have a good voice. With these two parents!
Who knows… I was incredibly shy and sensitive as a child. He may not want to break out into song. He’s going to be totally himself. …And I feel so grateful that we’re in New York City and there are so many outlets and venues and if he’s interested in something as specific as—the harpsichord in 1872—I can find something that will cater to that! You know what I mean…
He may want to think about a back-up career.
Right. Right. (laughter)