Fynsworth Alley: Liz Larsen

Originally published on Fynsworth Alley.


Liz Larsen

Liz Larsen

Liz Larsen is perhaps best known for her role as the forensics specialist on TV’s Law and Order, or perhaps for her role as Cleo in the acclaimed Broadway revival of The Most Happy Fella. She has also appeared on Broadway in Starmites, Damn Yankees, and Fiddler on the Roof, off-Broadway in A New Brain, Little By Little, and The New Yorkers, as well as in regional theaters across the country. She has appeared on several Fynsworth Alley releases, including Lost in Boston The Ultimate Collection and Prime Time Musicals, on which she sings a duet with her husband, Sal Viviano.

DL: How did you get your start in show business?

LL: I grew up in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and in those days there was the Bucks County playhouse was sometimes used as a Broadway tryout house, but it was a really summer stock place to work. Also, across the river was the Lambertsville Music Circus – it was a really big tent that played musicals during the summer. My mother was press agent on and off for both of those theatres. So, my first show was The King and I at the Music Circus when I was three. I was the youngest kid, and Elaine Stritch played Anna. She gave me a kick one night – during the death scene. Anna wears those big hoop skirts, and I decided on opening night that it would be really funny to see if I could beat my sister to get my entire body underneath the skirt. I guess I got there faster than my sister and said, “Ha ha, Karen,” (that’s my sister’s name), and I got a big kick in the ass from Elaine Stritch. That was my introduction to show business. Other than that, you know, I would be a kid in a lot of their shows, but mostly I saw all of these shows twenty or thirty times. My mother would just sit me in the balcony and I’d watch these plays over and over. I remember when I was six watching The Lion in Winter over and over with George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst. I don’t remember it at all, except he was really intense. And I remember seeing James Earl Jones do The Emperor Jones. All I remember from that was “The drums, the drums.” I think I was four. So I saw all these things, and even as I grew older, after school I would go to the Playhouse, and I remember seeing Cuckoo’s Nest twenty-four times, and 1776 over thirty times, and Tea and Sympathy… Just a lot of great plays with a lot of really great people in them.

DL: So was it a foregone conclusion that that’s what you wanted to do when you grew up?

LL: I guess it was, but I wasn’t aware of it at the time. I just knew I loved to watch it and to be there. I guess I just kind of went into it without thinking about it. It wasn’t really a decision.

DL: Did you go to school for theatre?

LL: Yeah, I went to SUNY Purchase, but I didn’t graduate. I left right before my senior year, because I was extremely anxious to become a star. I decided to move to New York in August, and a couple days after I moved there I got a tour of Swiss Family Robinson. It was a TYA contract – Fran and Barry Weissler used to run a children’s theatre, called The National Theatre Company, and they put out these tours. So I got my Equity Card a couple days after I moved to New York doing one of their tours. And then I left that and almost immediately got a tour of Fiddler on the Roof. That’s kind of how I started professionally.

DL: Do you have a moment you consider your “big break”?

LL: There’s a bunch of little breaks along the way. Fiddler was huge because I had basically just gotten my Equity card, and I could have hung around for years not working. But it was the right part at the right time. I looked really young, I was still kind of chubby, I looked like a kid. So to get a national tour and play Chava, it was really all I could have played at the time, so it was a good thing. Then along the way, in small increments, I kept getting better gigs with more reputable people. After Fiddler, I didn’t have any good jobs for about two years, until I got Annie. But then the biggest break I got was doing The Most Happy Fella because once that happened, I started to be seen for television and get more television work and branch out from just doing musicals.

DL: That was after Starmites

LL: Oh, yeah. Starmites was ’89 and Happy Fella was ’92.

DL: Was Starmites your first leading role? Was it your first role on Broadway?

LL: Well, we had taken Fiddler to the New York State Theatre, so I had technically been on Broadway before that, but that was the first time I had been on Broadway.

DL: What was the process of that show like? Had you been involved in any kind of development with it?

LL: Starmites had been in development for about eleven years, including the Broadway run. I joined it after about six of those years. So they had done it in readings and workshops way before I got involved. The first time I was involved in it was when it was down at Musical Theatre Works. It was at CSC at the time, they were using that space, and it was a black box. I thought it was magic there. There was no set, no real band, and it was all in the imagination of the people in the room, and they were on top of us. It’s that old thing about taking away all the stuff and move closer to the audience and they become a piece of the theatre. It was beautiful in that space, and everyone got all excited. They wanted to move it off-Broadway, but somehow, somebody got involved with some guy who owned the Criterion Center. I think he was part of a family that owned all these movie theatres, and he wanted to turn this movie theatre into a legitimate stage house. So I guess he was saying “Put it in my theatre and it will be BROADWAY, not Off-Broadway!” And everyone was saying, “Wow, that’s great… I think. I don’t know… Okay…” So with a lot of hesitation, we planted ourselves in this place, and then it was pure disaster. The theatre literally fell apart on us. The fire curtain came down at one performance and drenched all the band’s music, and we had to cancel the show for four days. We all go incredibly injured – people were breaking their feet, I tore my hip – because it was an extremely raked stage. There were technical things going on like flashpots that had never really been installed – the theatre wasn’t used to this kind of thing. In fact at one point, I think it was the direction who was convinced there was evil Feng Shui in the building, so he hired an Indian prayer person to try to smoke out the bad spirits. So we all came to a rehearsal one day and sat on the stage, and the guy moved through us with all kinds of smoke. We had to pretend we were animals and exorcise these bad demons or something. We were all so tired we figured, hey man, if this works, let’s go for it, because we didn’t know what else to do. It was a really sweet piece and it was just too much for the piece, all that crap.

DL: And when Tony time came around and the show still managed to get recognized…

LL: Except for me!

DL: …except for you… what was that like?

LL: It was interesting because… Because I was playing two roles, I was either hysterically doing a quick change off-stage and running on to do the other part, or I was on stage singing, actually performing – I felt as though I was strapping this musical on to my back and walking up a hill with it. A lot of the other people in the show had supporting characters and they had fun numbers and they had breaks off stage, so they had easier shows. I think in that year, I got put in the lead category, or the supporting category, I can’t remember, but that category was really thick with all the Jerome Robbins’ Broadway people. I can’t even remember how it worked. But somehow I got ousted and not nominated, and I could have not been that good, who knows? But in a year when they were stopping people on the street saying, “You know, there’s no one to nominate, how about you?” it was pretty upsetting not to be nominated after all the work I had done. But the good thing was that I got to sing a little big on the Tonys, and it was very exciting to be there at all. I was excited to be involved.

DL: The cast recording of that show wasn’t released until just a couple of years ago. Why the wait?

LL: That was really interesting. Before we moved to Broadway, we recorded a few cuts to help sell the pieces to producers. We did them in Diane Adams’ studio – actually, it was in her home. We stood at mics in her living room and recorded a demo. After we closed, we added a few songs to that – five or six more – in a regular studio. They didn’t have money to fly Sharon McKnight in, so Gwen Stewart sang her part, which is interesting because she just played the part in a little revival they just did. So altogether, we were missing about nine songs. Ten years later, I got a call, “Let’s finish this album off.” It was really bizarre to try to remember what I sounded like and what was going on in the play, in order to fit in these songs among the other songs I had recorded ten years prior. But it was fun, it was sweet. I cried seeing those people again. We had a blast! It was really great, because it was one of those things where we were all war buddies. We had lived through so many strange incarnations – and wonderful ones! The production at CSC was beautiful. Then we did another one in New Hampshire that was great fun too, so we had gotten to know each other pretty well at that point.

DL: I’m sure after that experience it was a relief to do something like Most Happy Fella which was more of a sure thing, at least in terms of the material.

LL: I didn’t want to do Happy Fella, though, either, which is really funny. Gifts come in the strangest packages.

DL: Why did you end up doing it?

LL: What happened was I was out of town doing another show, and they called me to audition and I didn’t want to go. Susan Johnson [who played Cleo in the original Broadway cast] is fantastic, she’s perfect. I don’t desire to play this role, I’m not right for this role, I don’t want to go to Goodspeed for four months to play this role I’m not right for. They had trouble finding the person to play it, so they called me again. I guess on better judgment I went in to audition for it. Then when I got it, I was like “Oh no!” And then I really looked at my finances, and I needed employment weeks, so I ended up doing it. At first, it was like, “Okay, this is a gig.” I had fun and people were nice. But then after about the third week, we all started realizing how brilliant [director] Gerry [Gutierrez] is, and how in touch with the material he was, and how creatively he had cast it, and how deeply felt everybody was in their interpretation of these people, that we all started sitting up a little straighter thinking, “Okay, this is maybe gonna be kind of good.” But nobody ever mentioned Broadway, nobody ever mentioned moving. It was just about the only thing that had ever been produced at Goodspeed that wasn’t supposed to move. So we were putting up the show, having a good time, and then… Oh, at one point, I asked Gerry, “I’m not even right for this role, why did you give me this part?” He said, “Because you’re a Cadillac.” I thought that was really sweet.

So then we’re doing it, and Frank Rich was about to get married, so he was feeling romantic at that time. And I think he’s said that The Most Happy Fella is his favorite musical. So right before he got married, he came up to Goodspeed to just see it. He wasn’t supposed to review it or anything, but I guess he decided to, and he gave it such a good review that the next day we got fifteen hundred calls from producers. And then it was just like Boom! It was gone! It was the biggest shock! When I showed up at tech week and walked into the Booth stage door, I thought, “Oh my God! This is amazing! I never auditioned for a Broadway show!” I auditioned for some summer stock thing for no money, and I can’t believe I got here from there.

DL: Comparing The Most Happy Fella, which was a revival that started out for artistic purposes, to Damn Yankees, which was revived with the sole purpose of doing a big, commercial revival of the show – were the experiences different?

LL: Damn Yankees was the most fun I’ve ever had. I didn’t originate the part, which I would liked to have done, but it was great. There was no pressure on me, I just showed up and danced around with all of these guys. I jumped off the dugout and they caught me. I didn’t have to worry about my voice and taking care of myself because it wasn’t very demanding. It was a blast, beginning to end. I loved everybody. I loved Victor [Garber], I loved Jared [Emmock], I loved Charlotte [D’Amboise] – Charlotte and I became very, very close… we joined the show together – and then I loved Jerry Lewis when he came in! It was just fun from beginning to end.

DL: More recently you’ve been doing a lot of off-Broadway stuff. Generally speaking, how does working off-Broadway compare to working on Broadway?

LL: Honestly, I wish it were more money. But because it’s not as much money, there’s a little more freedom in terms of taking risks, so that’s much more of a comfortable feeling. That’s why Happy Fella was such a great experience, because we took all the risks without people watching us, and then it turned out okay, and then we could move. There just seems to be slightly less fear off-Broadway than there is on, because there’s less at stake.

DL: Do you feel like there’s pressure for off-Broadway shows to move? It seems like now all eyes are on off-Broadway as a feeder for Broadway – is that palpable from within the productions?

LL: You know, that didn’t occur to me in any of the things I’ve done. I’m trying to remember how I was feeling when I did A New Brain. We were hoping it would move along, but I don’t think we expected it to move along to Broadway. I think we were hoping it would move along in the same kind of venue. Little By Little, it never occurred to me that it might move on because it wasn’t a piece that could get any bigger, it was just a teeny little piece. The New Yorkers [the show Liz just finished] is similar to Little By Little in that it’s a small piece, and it needs that intimacy. I wish this one had moved on, it was a great job. I loved doing it.

DL: What made The New Yorkers special?

LL: I’m a little bit in love with [director] Chris Ashley. I think he’s just the bee’s knees. He’s got impeccable taste. He makes everybody feel important and talented, and he makes everybody feel like you’re working on something exciting and new, all the time. He’s a really good captain of the ship. And everybody was really game to do anything. We started previews with a completely different show than we ended up with. We dropped five numbers, we added five more, we were going on stage with pages every night – and it was fine with everybody! No one was kicking and screaming and saying “I can’t go on like this.” People were just diving in. The group dynamic was great, and it was a very loving group. The show was an hour and a half in and out, it would have been a great mommy job – I’d be home before ten.

DL: Since you’ve become a mother, has that affected the way you look at your jobs?

LL: Yeah, in a lot of ways. First of all, no more out of town, unless it’s a big Broadway show tryout that I have to just hunker down and just do it. But in general, no national tours. And I say no a lot more to things that I normally would. I said no to a few things that maybe I shouldn’t have said no to because they moved and now they’re very successful. It’s tricky. A lot of these things move from workshops and readings, so when I get offered one I have to say, “Let’s look at the people involved… Yeah. Let’s look at the part… Well… Let’s look at will it move, what’s the money…” So I try to make intelligent decisions so I don’t do a lot of readings and workshops so I don’t spend thousands of dollars in nanny care for nothing. But my taste and my opinion isn’t always correct. Unfortunately.

DL: Do you find that being married to another performer [Sal Viviano] makes it easier because you both understand what the other’s dealing with or harder because you’re juggling the same things…?

LL: Well, I think it’s both. Most importantly, we both understand that for reasons that are inexplicable, we have to do this. Changing jobs for us isn’t just changing jobs, it’s changing our identities in a way. So he never asks me to stop and I never ask him to stop, even when it feels irresponsible, even when we feel that it’s never going to be what we want it to be. We don’t feel as though we can do that to each other. That’s the good thing; we can stay supportive. The hard thing is the schedule. Every day is different, so scheduling who has which kid at which time and who’s going to be here and when, and no you can’t do that out of town because I’m in tech week then… that kind of stuff. And someone’s always saying no because the other person is making money in something else and we have to take the money. That kind of thing.

DL: Let’s go back a second. When did you guys meet?

LL: We met doing a production of Romance/Romance. How corny, right? We played opposite each other, but we had met years before. I had seen him in stuff, I knew who he was, but we were put together in this production. I had no interest in him, and he thought I was going to have a big crush on him. I didn’t, and then suddenly I did. I don’t know what happened. He was everything I didn’t want: he was really good looking, he was an actor… but I guess I fell in love with him anyway.

DL: I know you guys have played opposite each other at least a few times. What’s that like for you?

LL: We really love it. It’s best when we’re not romantically involved in the show. Evita was fantastic because we were adversaries. The reason it’s so great is we can actually help each other. When he’s onstage and I’m offstage, I can actually watch and we can talk about what’s going on. We function best that way. Sunday in the Park was the same. It was an amazing experience. We were adversaries in that, they [George and Dot] never really have love scenes. That was very successful for us.

DL: When you started getting calls for TV, how did that change your career? When you set out to become and actress, did you always want to be a musical comedy actress, or was TV always part of the plan?

LL: I always wanted to be a musical comedy person when I was a kid, but when I went to Purchase, we did some stuff in front of a camera and I was like, oh my God, I feel so comfortable! So I really liked that. But it was really hard, before I did Happy Fella, to be seen for anything. And then I guess once I did that, film and television people actually came and saw me, so doors opened better, and my agents helped. It’s been pretty good. Not as great as I’d like it to be, but certainly I’m working more.

DL: How long have you been doing Law and Order?

LL: I’ve had a recurring part for three years now.

DL: Was the part written as a recurring part?

LL: What happened was, I did a TV movie during the time I was in A New Brain. Dick Wolf produced it, so he was on the set a lot. I had a bunch of scenes in the TV movie, and I played this forensics specialist, so he said to me, “Let’s make you the head of the forensics department on Law and Order, that’d be fun.” And I was like, “YEAH, that’d be fun!” So that’s been happening for the last three years.

DL: Let’s talk about recordings for a little bit. How did you get to know Bruce Kimmel initially?

LL: I got this phone call out of the blue one day, and Bruce said he was doing this album called Unsung Musicals and he had this great song for me, so I said, great, where do I show up? He sent me the music, we had a rehearsal, and I showed up. I guess he had just seen me in a show or something and called me, it was very nice of him.

DL: You’ve probably been on more of the concept albums than most other singers. Why do you keep coming back? Why does Bruce keep calling?

LL: I think we’ve just become friends now, and it’s like any time I’m singing one of these songs for him, I get a chance to see him and hang out. Plus, he gives me good songs too.

DL: Do you have a favorite of all the songs you’ve recorded?

LL: I really enjoyed “Too Darn Hot” [on Shakespeare on Broadway]. I loved doing the Peter Pan album because my son actually really listened to that one, so that was really fun that he liked that and heard me sing. There are so many. I loved singing “I Took My Time,” the Michael Valenti tune from Honky Tonk Nights. There’s one that I did with Sal on Prime Time Musicals, “You’re So Right For Me,” that was a blast, we had fun doing that.

DL: Who appeared on a Bruce Kimmel album first, you or Sal?

LL: Me. So then I said to Bruce, you know my husband, he can really sing. And he said, Oh, great. And so he did.

DL: When you did Little By Little, I know that was sort of a scary week leading up to the recording, because you were really sick. What went on during the last week of the show?

LL: It was the middle of winter, and it was a really bad cold season, and there was a really bad flu that year. It was a sung through piece with just three people. There were no mics, and there were no understudies. So one by one, we all got this flu thing. Christiane got it first – opening night! That was terrible. At opening night of the show, with critics in the lobby, they had to go out at half hour and cancel it. It was horrible. She felt awful, but she kept thinking she’d be okay. She kept saying, “No, no, I’m okay, I’m okay, I can do it.” and we kept saying, “No, Christiane, you can’t.” But she insisted she could, and then finally, at about half hour, she said, “No, I don’t think I can do it.” And then Darren got it, and finally I ended up with it the last week of the show. So I had to be quiet. But I was fine by the album – I had eight or ten days of vocal rest. That was unbelievable. HIRE UNDERSTUDIES!

DL: Now that New Yorkers has ended its limited run, what’s next for you?

LL: I don’t know. I just finished another episode of Law and Order. I was supposed to do two shows in St. Louis at the MUNY, but I can’t go. I just didn’t have enough child care for it. Charlotte’s father, Jacques D’Amboise does this program for children in schools where he teaches the kids to dance – every year they do a big presentation at LaGuardia High School, and they hire Broadway people to sing for them or narrate the evening, so Sal and I and Terry Mann, who is his son-in-law, are doing that this year. That should be really fun. And our older son is also in it. He’s four and a half. They have a section of kids from four to seven who come on and kind of stand there. They play flowers and cupids and trumpeters. It’s great, because we can take him with us every day. He’s very excited to say, “I’m going to rehearsal too!” He can’t stand when we go to work without him.

DL: One final question. What do you make of the general climate of musical theatre today, from an actor’s perspective?

LL: Well, I feel better about it. Recently with Full Monty – I did a lot of the workshops and readings of Full Monty. David Yazbek is a good writer, and I was happy that he’s writing for musical theatre! People are trying to write for musical theatre. I feel a little better about it than I did seven years ago. I remember, when I moved to New York, there were thirty-two theatres full. Ten years ago, there were eleven. So I’m encouraged.

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