Fynsworth Alley: Interview with Susan Egan

Originally published on Fynsworth Alley.

Susan Egan

When you look up the word “multitalented” in the dictionary, you might just find Susan Egan’s picture. Sure, she sings, she dances, she acts, but in addition to her work on Broadway (which includes her Tony-nominated debut as Belle in Beauty and the Beast, the starring role of Princess Leonid in Triumph of Love, and a year-long stint as Sally Bowles in Cabaret), Susan has appeared in film, television, books-on-tape, cabaret, and symphony concerts, and she’s even been known to take on the role of producer every now and then. You can currently catch Susan every Sunday night at 9:00 on the WB on Nikki, and you can find her in cyberspace at http://www.SusanEgan.net.
DL:You’ve made the leap from musical theatre into just about every medium possible, including film, TV, books on tape, concerts… Is musical theatre still your favorite?

SE: No. I don’t really have a favorite. I knew musical theatre would be my foot in the door in the industry, because it was something that came really naturally to me. But it’s a bit of a smaller world, and I have a unique take on it, and I knew a lot of people aren’t going to hire me because I make ingénues very funny and a little off-center. I’m not your typical ingénue, I’m generally quirky. But I knew the people that liked that would get it and hire me. I still think I got Belle because I made them laugh, and I don’t think they knew Belle could be funny. I mean, I just think I had a different take on it that didn’t betray what people think of as Belle, it just added another dimension to her. And I think it’s because the ingénue roles never really interested me when I was growing up listening to musical theatre. You know, I would fast forward through those songs; I couldn’t wait to get to Miss Adelaide! Sarah Brown was boring, but then I grew up looking like Sarah Brown. To make it interesting for me, I really make them off-the-wall, and I started working a lot with that, from the moment I was sixteen. I figured out for myself that’s what I can do that’s different and unique. Not a lot of people do that, and that’s what gave me the clue. I knew I would go to New York, I knew I would work in New York, and that would be my foot in the door in the industry. And then from there I could do other things, and that’s precisely what happened.

DL: How does the life of a TV actress compare to the eight-shows-a-week Broadway schedule?

SE: Oh my God! Television, especially sitcom television, is a very cushy job, which is sort of what I needed right now. I love musicals, and I love doing theatre, but it is exhausting. And when you do it in any sort of long run, it’s impossible to do anything else – not just career-wise, I mean in your life. I pretty much would just do the show and sleep, do the show and sleep, do the show and sleep… You have one day off a week and you’re just trying to catch up on errands and things; it’s really not a rest day. With television sitcoms, you work maybe six hours a day Monday through Friday. I’ve never really had evenings and weekends, so it was really, really weird. I would be okay on Saturday, and then about half-way through Saturday I would realize “Oh my God, I still have all day tomorrow!” So, I would have one day to catch up and one day to rest. So, I’m not exhausted. The thing is too, ironically, that television will move my theatre career forward. If I become a little bit more of a TV name, I have a little bit more of a value in theatre because maybe I’ll sell a few more tickets. So then I would have a bigger choice of calling my own shots. I’ve gotten about as far as you can go in theatre without being a star name. I mean, I’ve been really lucky that Cabaret wanted me. I got the job and producers wanted me even though I don’t have marquee value, they went and put my name on the marquee.

DL: Were you the first Sally Bowles in this production who wasn’t a star name? You were certainly the first singer in the role. Why do you think they decided to go that route?

SE: I think they had a luxury on Broadway that the show was a hit, so they didn’t need to sell tickets with a name. And Sam Mendes wanted me.

DL: Did they ask you to not sing so well, or did they let you just do your thing?

SE: No, they never did ask me that. I started doing the show that way. I didn’t want to sound good – I wanted to be taken seriously as an actress, because I consider myself an actress first. An actor who learned to sing. I can hit the notes, but I don’t have a particularly interesting or unique voice, I don’t think. I think it’s my acting that makes me unique. So I was reveling in the opportunity to play somebody a little more complicated, a little more earthy and dirty and all of that. But also Sally’s never been trained. So I went in trying to be Janis Joplin eight shows a week, and I got in trouble because you can’t really do that and sing eight shows a week and have your voice stand up to it. What’s interesting is that once I realized I needed to get through the show eight times a week and not ruin my voice, I made the choice to sing correctly but try to sound untrained. I got rid of some of my vibrato. My choice was to never be off-pitch, but don’t sound “professional.” The moment I started singing “correctly” and stop trying to sound horrible, the musical director was relieved. He loved that. He loved that I could sing. The way he said it was that the other women didn’t have a choice – they sang the best they could. And they sounded terrific, by the way; Natasha sounded great. She didn’t sound trained, and that was totally right for the role. She never sang down. She was trying as hard as she could. I didn’t end up having that “studio sound” that I can do, but I also didn’t try and sound horrible either. And I think that was probably the best choice.

DL: When you decided to do Cabaret, Putting It Together was also going to Broadway, and everyone was watching you, wondering what your choice was going to be. Clearly, you were in Cabaret for a year when Putting It Together was not long for Broadway, so it had to be a good choice for you. But what were the decision-making factors there?

SE: I never really thought about not doing Putting It Together – that’s why I took the job in the first place. I was so excited to be working with Stephen Sondheim and Carol Burnett and Eric Schaeffer, three wonderfully creative people. It was a dream come true. I loved it. I also got to be a sexy vamp. I got to be the best of all the worlds: I got to be the sweet ingénue, the sexy thing… the way we made that work with the character is that was her game. She would play that because men liked it. But then when she was alone, or when she was with Carol’s character, it would come out that she was very manipulative and greedy. I loved doing it and I had every intention of doing New York. But Cameron Mackintosh made it really hard. He really lowballed the actors as far as salaries. And from day one, although Carol was never this way, Steve Sondheim was never this way, Eric Schaeffer was never this way… but Cameron… his negotiating tactic is to make you feel like you’re nothing. And it’s a game, and I don’t like it. I don’t like games at all. Just tell me what you’re going to pay me and I’ll either say yes or no. Disney’s not that difficult. So, to protect myself, I kept auditioning for things. All kinds of things. I was up for a TV show, I was up for a pilot and I couldn’t even get Cameron on the phone! And I told him that if he would just tell me I had a job, I wouldn’t go in for any of these auditions. That’s how much I wanted to do it. It certainly wasn’t the money or notoriety. So I kept on auditioning, and Cabaret was one of those things and I got it. And then Cameron got very angry, saying I was reneging on a deal, but I didn’t have a deal. Interestingly, he faxed me a contract the day I got Cabaret.

So then it became a matter of Cameron saying “we don’t need you” versus Todd Haimes at the Roundabout saying “we really like you, please come work for us,” so of course…

It was also a matter of Putting It Together was a revue, and Sally was going to break down walls for me in New York. I’m more Sally than I am probably any other character that I’ve ever played. I’m not a drug addict, and I’m not stupid, but I’m human. And Sally’s more human than anything I’ve ever played. She’s flawed, and she’s interesting, and really that show is a play that happens to have music. And I’d rather show up and do that eight times a week. And everyone thought I was crazy because it was already running and I wasn’t originating it, so I wouldn’t be eligible for Tonys. But I learned in 1994 that none of that matters. You can’t live results. You live the process, and the process is you’ve got to show up every day for work, and which would you rather show up for?

DL: For Beauty and the Beast, even though you were originating the role, you weren’t originating the character. That was sort of a weird introduction to Broadway…

SE: I guess so. I never saw the movie, so I wasn’t doing anything based on that. I’ve seen it since, and I’m not like Paige [O’Hara, the voice of Belle in the film] at all. Paige is very Judy Garland. She sounds like Judy Garland to me in that movie. And I don’t. I’m very different. I think that’s why they ultimately hired me. It could have worked to my disadvantage, but I think by not trying to copy Paige, I was able to be fresh just like Paige was. Pagie’s interpretation was marvelous and beautiful, but if I had made those same choices to be like her, it would have come off stale, because I’m not like her. Another thing is that the show is twice as long in New York as it is on film. And there’s a lot of new material. And it was a character that a lot of people knew, but it’s like if someone is playing Dennis the Menace on Broadway, they’re still originating it even though it was a comic strip first. Because there was a lot left up to interpretation, and a lot of what the show ended up being is there because I raised my hand and asked questions, so things were changed.

DL: What was the development process for the show like?

SE: We were in Houston for three months before New York. It changed a lot, every day during rehearsals. I got to raise my hand and say things like “Belle’s supposed to be our hero, and she’s traded her life for her father’s, and within the day she reneges on her commitment and runs out of the castle. That somehow makes her less to me. What’s the deal?” And Linda Woolverton would say “Wow, cartoons never asked questions,” and they’d have to come up with an answer. So they’d say “Well, you were in the West Wing and he really scared you, he yelled at you.” And I’d say “Yeah, but he already yelled at me in the bedroom and I stood up to him and said ‘you’re being impolite, please leave the room, I’m not coming down to dinner.’ I’ve already done that, already stood up to him, so why would I feel the need to leave later?”

So getting to originate means you get to ask those questions, and the writers get to tell you why or come up with a better argument, make changes, and hopefully make the show better.

DL: So after working on a Disney stage project, you were the voice of Meg in Hercules. Was that a similar experience?

SE: No, totally different. They also asked you to improvise, but the difference is that one of them is my medium and one of them isn’t. Film is a director’s medium, stage is an actor’s medium. Also in animation, I’m the voice but this guy Ken Duncan is the character’s body. They film you while you record, so they’ll take mannerisms and gestures that you do and incorporate them. But a lot of the sense of humor that I found in the character, and that the directors and animators found in the character – well, I only get to do half the joke. You have to rely on the animator to get the joke and be able to physicalize it. It’s like tag-team acting. Also, you don’t have other actors there. You’re not in a costume, you’re not on a set; you’re in a recording booth. And you have two directors who are explaining to you “Okay, that’s the right sentiment, but the way we’re shooting it, it’s as if you’re down a long hall, so you need to increase your volume as though you’re speaking at a distance.” Things like that so your voice will match the picture. I mean, really, it’s like acting in a box. And someone else is your body and someone else is your eyes and somebody else provides all the other voices. I had several sessions with Tate Donovan and one session with James Woods, but basically, all of my sessions were alone.

DL: The last few weeks there have been a whole bunch of articles in the press about The Seussical and The Rhythm Club and how the internet has affected the development of new musicals because they can’t go out of town, they can’t have previews, because everyone is watching them. Triumph of Love had a fairly bumpy development path a couple of years ago; did you feel any of this at that time?

SE: It’s very interesting, and also very political. I think the internet’s fine. There was the internet then too – we had e-mail, and although maybe it wasn’t to the extent that it is now, we had no way of getting away from New York. Basically you have to trust the New York critics. They’re not interested in seeing the show before it’s finished either. They’re not going to pass any judgments before the show is finished. However it is also very political. And, I mean, it’s politically incorrect for me to say, but we pretty much knew the New York Times wasn’t going to support us two years before we opened on Broadway, when we were in Baltimore.

The thing about Triumph of Love is that we didn’t close because we were a flop, we closed because the theatre was promised to another show. So Jujamcyn closed Grease for us – we were going to move to the O’Neill before anyone realized that the move had not been built into the budget, so we couldn’t move.

DL: Now after the show closed, you came back to California and directed the show at your high school. How did that come about?

SE: The Orange County School of the Arts asked me if I wanted to do something like that. My mentor there, Dr. Ralph Opacic, was my high school music teacher and is now the head of the school. He saw Triumph of Love and loved it and thought “Wow, that was such a great show,” and it is such a great show for all different levels of theatre to produce. And the kids at the School of the Arts are fantastic, so I got to go there and direct it.

DL: While you’re out here doing Nikki, you’re also bringing your cabaret show back to the Cinegrill…

SE: Yes, but not until February now. I was going to do it in December, but I got a movie and the show conflicted with my shoot schedule. It’s called XCU which in a film script means “Extreme Close Up,” and it’s about a reality-based TV show that’s slipped in ratings, and I’m the hip young producer brought in to resurrect it. So we’re starting a new season with a new group of twentysomethings like Big Brother or The Real World, and people start dying, and you don’t know who’s doing it. I feel really bad but it makes for great TV, the ratings start going up. So maybe I’m doing it, maybe my boss is doing it, maybe one of the kids is doing it, maybe one of the techies is doing it. I’m sort of like the Courtney Cox character in Scream. I think it’s really timely and should be a lot of fun. It’s directed by Sean Cunningham who created Friday the 13th. I’m filming in November and December, so I expect it to come out about a year from now, around Halloween time.

DL: And then after that you’ll be doing your cabaret show again. Is this the same show you’ve done for the last year or so?

SE: Every time I do it, I’ll do a majority of what’s worked in the past and then I’ll throw in new material, so I’ll just keep refining it and refining it and refining it. So this time I’ll probably do about 85% of what I did in February of last year and then throw in some new tunes that I’ve learned since then.

SE: How did you make the leap from Broadway to the concert scene?

DL: I did a concert in ’96 at the Orange Country High School of the Arts as a learning process for me and a benefit for them. It was sort of “I’ll raise money for you while I learn how to do this.” A year later, the people at the Cinegrill said “You know, you should really do a concert.” I said “really, you think people would come?” And they said, “Yeah!” “Wow, okay.” So then in 1998, I did New Year’s Eve and the following week at the Cinegrill, and I learned a lot. And then a year later, which would be last February, I did a couple of big concerts at Universities and then a week of concerts down at the Orange Country Performing Arts Center, and that was the first one I actually liked, the first one that was half-way decent. I learned a lot from the Cinegrill gig, I learned really how little you need to do. Simpler is better. And I got a little too complicated for that one. And I also felt I was obligated to do the Disney material because that’s how people know me – and I think it was true at the time – but now I don’t have to do that any more.

I’ve always used four pieces – piano, bass, drums, and reeds. My friend will play flute or clarinet or oboe or sax on different songs, which I think sort of softens everything, which I like, and it brings a whole other element to it, which is great, although I think the next show I do at the Cinegrill will only use piano.

DL: One final topic, which is something I don’t think a lot of people know about, is your production company you run with Mike Rafael.

SE: Actually, we sort of ended it because it got so associated with this Billy Joel project that we sort of just folded it down. It’s really nonexistent now, because we closed that corporation down. But, Mike and I are best friends and if a project comes along, we’ll do it. I started the company with him sort of to get him to do things, because producing isn’t my first passion, and I don’t have time to do it. It’s a full time job, and it’s not my full time job. But I wanted to have that umbrella company and have this relationship with Mike because ultimately I want to produce independent film. And I’m talking to a friend, and maybe Mike would help us out, about maybe doing an Off-Broadway show for a couple of months next year. But I’m learning now at my age that I can’t do everything and do it well. So I’m trying to simplify and do one thing at a time. But the beauty of it is that Nikki is letting me have time to do other projects. Usually, when I’m employed, my job doesn’t allow me to do other things because usually it’s eight shows a week. So there are other things I’m planning on doing. I’d like to do more film. There’s a play Old Globe, there are straight plays I’d like to do. There’s also a musical in New York I’m talking about. So who knows?

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