Fynsworth Alley: Interview with Emily Skinner

Originally published on Fynsworth Alley.

emily skinnerEmily Skinner needs no introduction. Currently wowing audiences nightly in The Full Monty on Broadway and with her eponymous solo album, Emily is an entertainment powerhouse. Of course, she’s also known for her Tony-nominated performance in Side Show, her memorable roles in A Christmas Carol and James Joyce’s The Dead, and her two CDs with Side Show pal Alice Ripley, Duets and Unsuspecting Hearts.

DL: I’m sure everyone’s curious to hear about the new album, so let’s start there and work backwards through your career. Why is this one an “Emily Skinner” album instead of a Duets album?

ES: You’d have to ask Bruce about that. He approached me back in the spring about a solo album. I think the original concept was to do my album and Alice’s album, and have each of us sing on the other’s solo album. And I don’t know if Alice is eventually going to do one – I know she’s sort of insane right now, working on her own pop album. But I think that’s the plan. My schedule just allowed the time to do it this summer, so I thought, “let’s go ahead.”

DL: Did you let Alice help pick the duets?

ES: Actually, Bruce picked a lot of the duets. He picked “You’ll Never Get Away From Me,” and he suggested that we should do something from The Dead, so we picked “Ballyshannon.” Alice and I picked the one from Personals because we had actually done that one before.  

DL: Now, the song that Todd Ellison and Stephen Cole wrote for you, “The Long Way”… is that from a show they’re writing?

ES: I think that they’re in the process of writing a musical right now. And I know that early in the summer, they had written two songs, and that was one of them. The other one was a slower ballad. And they’re terrific, so I’m really excited for Todd.

DL: You know Guy Haines is doing one of their songs on his album.

ES: I know, he told me! I’m glad.

DL: Did you know Todd before “Duets”?

ES: No, I didn’t. It was sort of fortuitous that we met on Duets, because now he’s one of my favorite people.

DL: The bonus track is a song from The Full Monty, but not one you sang in the show. What’s the story behind that?

ES: It’s sort of hard to explain unless you see the show, but once you see the show you’ll understand what it’s saying. The protagonist, Jerry, is divorced from his wife, Pam. The whole show is spurred on by Jerry trying to get money to keep from getting his kid taken away from him. His wife’s trying to get sole custody because he can’t pay his share of support, so that’s why he decides to do the Full Monty. This is a song Pam sang in an earlier incarnation of this show, in one of the readings we did early in the year. Pam, the wife, sings this song after Jerry’s left the stage, after they’ve had a fight at the beginning of the second act. I think they ended up taking it out simply because they realized the song said what the fight had just been about. You got all this information already from the scene they just had, so she didn’t actually need a song about it. But I always liked the song, it’s a nice folksy song.

DL: It’s not the kind of song you expect from a big Broadway show.

ES: It’s very cool. The thing that’s sort of groovy about the show is that every song is different from the next song. He writes in a lot of genres, which is amazing. Usually composers can only write one type of music, but he can write in every style, he’s really fantastic.

DL: You’ve been with The Full Monty for a big chunk of its development. At what point did you get involved?

ES: I know that last fall they had their very, very first reading of it, and I wasn’t involved in that early reading. And then in February they had another reading, and that’s when I got on board. They had started casting the show in December and January for the Broadway production, and then they had this reading in February for all the people they were going to have in the show.

DL: Was there a point when you just knew the whole thing would click?

ES: You know what? From the first time we read it in February, I thought “this is going to be a huge, huge thing. This is going to be something that’s going to appeal to everybody.” It’s just one of those… it’s like Guys and Dolls, in a way. It’s sort of a throwback show, just a good, funny show with good scenes and good songs and everybody can appreciate it. And it’s just a blast. It’s a blast to do.

DL: This is the first time you’ve been in a real, bona fide hit. Does that change the energy of doing the show?

ES: It’s nice to be well-received on a nightly basis. It’s a cool thing to go out and see a packed house with standing room every night. So that’s sort of a neat thing. And it’s neat to know you’re going to have a job for a while. I mean, most of the shows I’ve done in New York, we’d trek to the theatre every day to see if the closing notice was going to be up, so it’s nice not to have to worry about that.

DL: Pretty much every show you’ve done in NY city has been a new, original musical, which is rare for an actress of your generation.

ES: It’s an absolute dream. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do, to be involved in creating new pieces. I was never somebody who wanted to do revivals. I love revivals and I love going to see them, but I feel like the role has been done. It’s already been created, and no matter how you reconceived the role, you’re always going to be compared to the person who did it originally. And I want to be the person who did it originally!

DL: Despite that, are there any roles you would jump at the chance to do?

ES: I’d love to do 110 in the Shade. I’d love to do that. I did it in Pittsburgh a couple of years ago, and I had more fun in that show than in anything I’ve ever done. And I’m easing on up to the right age to actually be “right” for the part, so hopefully someone will do a revival in the next ten years, and I can be in that.

DL: The Full Monty, The Dead, and Side Show all had pretty different development processes. How involved were you as an actress in shaping these shows?

ES: I was involved in both Jekyll and Hyde and Side Show’s workshops. The Dead was a freaky thing. The Dead didn’t do a workshop. They didn’t even do a reading. The playwright hadn’t ever heard his show read before we did it. He never even sat down with the play and a bunch of people around a table to hear it out loud. That’s amazing. I used to say to Richard Nelson, “how did you know this was going to work?” He just has fantastic instincts.

They were all pretty different. The only thing I was really in from the very earliest incarnation of it was Side Show. That was sort of cool. I was in ALL of the readings of Side Show, and the workshop. What was weird is that I did it with five different Violets. I did the show with a number of different actresses before we got to Alice. They were all fantastic in their own ways. All phenomenal singers – all much, much better singers than I could ever hope to be. I think that the reason they cast Alice, though, was because when they got us in the same room together and we sang together, all heads turned around and everyone said “Whoa, that’s right.” Whatever that connection is, that’s right. Our voices aren’t alike, and we don’t look alike, but when we stood up there together and moved together and sang together, it was right, which is sort of amazing.

DL: You’re performing in a benefit in Richmond, VA the day after Christmas. What’s that about?

ES: This is for a theatre, The Barksdale Theatre, that I grew up with in my hometown. I was a kid who always did theatre in my hometown. The high school that I went to didn’t have a theatre program, so I was forced to go and get my act together and audition outside of school at a lot of local theatres. Since I’ve moved away and been outside of town and in New York, all the people from that theatre have been so wonderful and supportive of me, and I’m doing this concert to help them fundraise for the theatre. And just like any non-profit theatre, it has a hard time to keep going, so I said I would do this concert. And I’m going to do a lot of stuff from the CD there, and a lot of holiday stuff.

DL: So is it just you and a piano? Do you ever perform like that, in cabaret or wherever?

ES: It’s just me and a piano! And I don’t do cabaret acts. I feel like the thing I like to do the most is to be in a story, involved in a story on a stage. I’m going to get so much flak for saying this, I know, but I tend to not like a lot of cabaret, because it tends to come across as a little self-involved. You know what I mean? Often there are a lot of people getting up there and singing a bunch of ballads in a row, telling their life stories. You know, after seeing ten of those, you just go “oh God, I can’t do this anymore.”

DL: Get me to a musical!

ES: Yeah, something with a story! And not so much narcissism. So I sort of shy away from cabaret, except for the really, really terrific cabaret people like Barbara Cook, Karen Mason… really terrific people who have themes to their shows. I don’t see myself as a cabaret person. This concert is a rare thing for me.

DL: But what about concerts? You just performed at Carnegie Hall with the New York Pops. How did you feel about that?

ES: The last couple of years I’ve done quite a few concerts, which is sort of bizarre. People just keep calling me up and asking me. I didn’t go out searching to do concerts, but people have gotten my name from somewhere.

DL: This recent concert was interesting, because it was celebrating… whatever you want to call them… the “new composer” types. It’s not a group I associate you with. You sing a lot of music by a lot of active writers, and you’ve been in a lot of new Broadway shows, but for whatever reason the composers you’ve worked with aren’t the ones being grouped into this category.

ES: That’s right. It’s sort of interesting, and great for me because I got to meet all them. I knew Jason [Robert Brown] before, but I didn’t know any of the others – Ricky Ian Gordon, Adam Guettel, or Michael John LaChiusa.

DL: For a concert like this, do they call you up and say “what songs would you like to sing?”

ES: They basically just called me up and said we’d like you to sing this in this concert. It was really neat to be there at Carnegie Hall.

DL: A lot of performers talk about their “Carnegie Hall” debut… Did it feel like a momentous occasion for you?

ES: I don’t know. It was pretty neat. It felt like I was making my “Carnegie Hall debut,” but I don’t know what that’s supposed to feel like. I was singing at Carnegie Hall. It was definitely special.

DL: Time to talk about Side Show. Are you sick of talking about Side Show?

ES: I’ll be talking about Side Show until I’m dead. I’m used to it.

DL: The Tony nomination. Whose idea was that, to submit you two as one? Were you consulted? What did you think of it?

ES: It was Manny Azenberg’s idea, the producer’s idea. We were consulted, and we thought it was a great idea. We really gave a conjoined performance. We couldn’t have given the performances we gave without each other – very specifically, me without Alice, and Alice without me. I think that made total sense.

DL: What went on with the closing and reopening?

ES: Well, we closed having been told we were going to reopen in March, and then for very complicated reasons, that didn’t happen. But we were told very succinctly we were going to reopen, so it didn’t feel like we were closing permanently. Although we did close permanently.

DL: Did you and Alice really go march around the TKTS booth?

ES: Well, we didn’t march around it. We went out there a couple of nights in a row to get people who were buying tickets from TKTS to come see our show.

DL: Did it work?

ES: Yeah, we actually had a lot of people out there with us, which was sort of cool. I can’t imagine any other leads of Broadway shows have ever done that before. We probably set a precedent. We were trying our hardest to keep it going.

DL: So the show ended up feeling like a big family, with all of your bonding together to try to keep it open. Where did that extra attachment come from?

ES: I think everybody thought it was an important piece of musical theatre that should be kept alive and seen by as many people as possible, because of the themes of the piece. I think a lot of people connected with the show. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get bodies into the seats in the theatre, but the people who actually did see the show loved it, and were moved by it, and really connected to it, and stop me to this day to tell me about Side Show. That doesn’t happen in shows.

DL: Side Show was right after Jekyll and Hyde for you, so you went from one show with crazy devoted fans to another show with crazy devoted fans. Do you have any crazy fan stories? What’s it like to be part of a cult phenomenon.

ES: No crazy fan stories. Nobody crazy, thank God. Just a lot of people who really connected with the shows. I actually found the Side Show people to be really smart and well spoken. Frankly, much more so than your die hard fan of Charlie Brown or Beauty and the Beast, because it’s a show that makes you think about things. I think the people whom Side Show spoke to were thoughtful people to begin with. You had to be to get the show.

DL: I don’t know if everyone realizes you did Jekyll and Hyde. You were the understudy for both Linda Eder and Christiane Noll, right? Did you get to perform both roles?

ES: That’s right, and no! I never went on for Christiane. I was only with the show for the first four months of the run before I left to do Side Show. She was never out during the first four months. I did, however… oh, God. When Linda got sick, I sang off stage for her on a mic. This was a couple of shows during previews. I hadn’t had any understudy rehearsal, so I couldn’t go on and actually do the role. We had a lot of fog in the show, so I think we were all scared of me falling off the stage. She has scenes where she’s running around through the fog, and I didn’t know where she’s supposed to go. So, we had this system where I did my show, and then I would run around back stage during my costume changes and sing off-stage for her on a microphone while she was on-stage lip-syncing, which was hysterical. Somebody told me afterwards that that’s only happened once before on Broadway when Joel Grey did George M!

DL: I know a lot of our readers will ask this, so what’s the difference between an understudy and a standby?

ES: An understudy is in the show, she’s an ensemble person who has her own track in the show. The standby does nothing but stand by for the leads, off-stage in the green room or on a buzzer on call, just waiting around for that person to get sick.

DL: So what decided whether you went on or the standby went on?

ES: There wasn’t a standby. Generally speaking, there’s only a standby if the role is huge, if you’re on for the entire three hours without leaving the stage. Alice and I had standbys for Side Show. Patrick Wilson has a standby for The Full Monty because he’s in every scene. For roles that are lead roles with a break, that’s when you have an understudy. I know, it’s complex!

DL: It’s complex, but you did a good job explaining it. You know, now people can tell their children “I learned about understudies from Emily Skinner.” Because, you know, the web never goes away.

ES: Can I get that on a t-shirt?

DL: We can arrange that. After the interview. But for now, let’s get back to Jekyll and Hyde. Did you do the Houston run and the tour? At what point did you get involved in the show?

ES: I did the New York workshop, in ’92, which was the very first job I got when I came to the city. It was so long ago I can barely remember it. I remember it wasn’t well received. That’s what I remember most about it. They told us all afterwards that they’d call us in a couple of weeks, call our agents with offers for Broadway. Of course, a few months down the road we still hadn’t heard anything…

DL: Did you have any idea it would become what it has become?

ES: I didn’t really know about the cult of Jekyll and Hyde. There wasn’t one then. I think the cult came about with the release of the album and the tour. I had no idea all that would develop.

DL: So was Christmas Carol your “big break” job?

ES: I guess. I was certainly excited. It was my first big job in the city.

DL: What’s it like to be on that gigantic Madison Square Garden stage?

ES: It’s pretty big. And it was neat to be part of a brand new piece being created around you. And they do it every year.

DL: Do you ever go back to see it?

ES: I did it in ’94, ’95, and ’96, three years of it. And then I went back in ’97 and saw it, but I haven’t been back since. I usually don’t like to go back, because it spoils the fantasy illusion for me. When I’m up there, I have a fantastical illusion in my head of how people are perceiving it, which I like to hold on to.

DL: You went to Carnegie Mellon for college, after going to a high school with no theatre program. Was this your first real training?

ES: I had done lots and lots of theatre in Virginia since I was a kid. And Virginia is a right-to-work state, so a lot of commercials and films came down there to shoot, because it was cheap. So I had been doing professional theatre since I was a kid, so I got a lot of on-the-job training. And the best training for an actor is acting, not sitting in a classroom.

DL: So was your time at Carnegie Mellon well-spent?

ES: I fell like it was well-spent. I don’t feel like it made me into a fantastic actor. I feel like it was a good way to analyze the craft of acting, although in a lot of ways I was a better actor before I went to school because I was just doing it. I wasn’t watching myself act, I didn’t have a lot of inhibitions until I actually got to school and started to know what I was doing.

DL: At what point did singing enter the pictures?

ES: I’ve been doing musicals since I was a kid. It’s always been what I wanted to do. I always wanted to do Broadway musicals.

DL: Did you ever envision yourself as a singer, being someone with albums?

ES: No! I never dreamed of that! That’s new! That’s my new fantasy. It’s pretty cool. They didn’t have this when I was in school, there wasn’t a Fynsworth Alley equivalent, and the internet wasn’t what it is now.

DL: You’ve pretty much stuck to the stage, you haven’t done a lot of TV or film. Was that by choice?

ES: Absolutely. I never really had any desire to do that. I don’t feel like that’s my forte. And most actors I know do TV for the money. And I’m sort of okay and happy where I am financially doing theatre. I’ll be poor my whole life and that’s okay. Because I’m doing what I want to do.

DL: What about non-musical theatre?

ES: I love to do plays. I’ve done a few plays, and I’d like to do more. It’s hard once you get slated into the musical theatre world, they only see you in that. I love to do straight drama, I love a good comedy.

DL: One last question. Who’s the secret Emily Skinner that no one knows?

ES: I’m very shy. People are always e-mailing me “oh, I waited for you at the stage door and I didn’t see you,” and it’s usually because I run in and then I run out. I get embarrassed talking to people, and I don’t know what that is. It takes a long time for people to really get to know me. I don’t reveal myself very easily. I said this in my notes about the album – what I like about the album is that it’s so eclectic, it gives you a nice overview of who I am. It’s so diverse. All the songs are like little elements of my personality.

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