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What Mazzie Knows

Marin Mazzie has dazzled New York and London audiences in everything from Sondheim to Cole Porter. BRIAN KELLOW talked with the actress during her run in Bullets over Broadway.

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Photographed by Dario Acosta in New York
Dress by Aidan Mattox; jewelry by Laruicci / Makeup and hair by Richard Keogh for Cloutier Remix / Clothing styled by Carlton Jones with Katie Fedi
© Dario Acosta 2014
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Mazzie's curtain call as diva Helen Sinclair in Bullets over Broadway, 2014
© Walter McBride/Getty Images 2014
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Lilli Vanessi to Brian Stokes Mitchell’s Fred Graham in Kiss Me, Kate, 1999
© Joan Marcus 2014

On September 26, 2005, in a one-night staged concert performance to benefit the Actors Fund of America, Marin Mazzie gave the greatest single performance I have experienced in the musical theater. The show was On the Twentieth Century, music by Cy Coleman, book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, which had enjoyed a successful Broadway run in 1978. As Lily Garland, the hotheaded stage star played originally by Madeline Kahn (and later by Judy Kaye), Mazzie sang the operetta-spiked score magnificently, making use of both her growling chest tones and her gleaming, classically-trained upper register, while nailing every one of the role's comic high points. "Babette," in which Lily flips manically back and forth between the two stage roles she has been offered — the bored socialite Babette and that miracle of salvation Mary Magdalene — announced itself as one of the great eleven o'clock numbers of the late twentieth century. In Mazzie's hands, Lily's narcissism suddenly seemed like the most desirable commodity in the world.

Some actors who possess Mazzie's gift for being uncannily present onstage can be strangely remote in an interview. It's easy to detect them performing the persona of a funny person, or a thoughtful person, or a person who is most concerned about the good of the show, not simply their own part in it. They have lived so long inside their theatrical skins that they're watching themselves every second. What strikes you about Mazzie is that she is utterly present in life. She answers your questions directly, and she laughs easily, in a low, rumbling chuckle. If she agrees with you on a politically awkward point, she asks that her comments be off the record, and then she speaks honestly. She seems to possess a remarkable capacity for being herself.

We meet for the first time in February, at a Pain Quotidien on Manhattan's West Side, during one of the winter of 2014's serial blizzards. In two days, she is to begin rehearsals for Bullets over Broadway, the new Woody Allen–Susan Stroman musical based on Allen's 1994 film. Mazzie has been cast as the imperious stage star Helen "Don't Speak" Sinclair, played onscreen by Dianne Wiest. Although she had had her eye on playing Helen for some time, Mazzie was passed over at the show's initial reading in December 2012. It then swung back in her direction, and after a second reading and a workshop, the part was hers. 

Bullets over Broadway does not have an original score. Instead, Allen and Stroman assembled a pastiche of jazz, pop and novelty songs from the 1920s. "There's been some tweaking and rewriting on lyrics so they're more character-specific, as it sounds more like a cohesive score," Mazzie says. "We've been laughing and laughing, and hoping that the audience thinks it's as funny as we do." 

In a sense, Mazzie has been preparing to play Helen Sinclair for years — by watching the old-time glamour comediennes on Turner Classic Movies. "One of my favorite movies is The Women," she says. "You get the spark of them all. There's every kind of archetype there." (She pauses to wail Mary Boland's classic lament, "La publicité!") She's also partial to Carole Lombard ("speaking of Twentieth Century") and Irene Dunne. ("Brilliant comedienne. I love watching her.") 

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As Diana in Next to Normal, 2010, with Louis Hobson and Kyle
Dean Massey

© Joan Marcus 2014
 

Although Mazzie possesses a thrilling powerhouse belt voice, her training has a classical foundation. For years, she has exercised the "legit" part of her voice, and her singing has retained a sensuous gleam alien to many of her contemporaries, who have belted themselves out of vocal alignment. She began her studies at age twelve in Rockford, Illinois, whose other claims to entertainment fame include Aidan Quinn, Susan Saint James and Barbara Hale. "I had a wonderful voice teacher, Stella Rankin," she says. "She was fantastic. Those basics were ingrained in me, and they were very much about the legit voice. That's the healthy voice, the voice that all other things come from — belting and everything. When I started studying, all I wanted to sing were Broadway tunes, and Stella had me singing arias. I had that Italian Aria book. I did the jewel song. I was a very high coloratura, but now that I've had a lot of red wine in my life, the lower notes are much better." 

The Mazzie mix has been the musical engine driving her most memorable performances, including Mother in the 1998 Stephen Flaherty–Lynn Ahrens–Terrence McNally musical version of E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime, Lilli Vanessi in the 1999 revival of Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate and Lily Garland. She gives much credit for the current state of her vocal health to Arthur Levy, a New York teacher she began studying with midway through the run of Ragtime. "Marin had been using her chest voice mostly," says Levy, "belting 'Back to Before' in Ragtime eight times a week, and the head voice was starting to fade. We worked on bringing the head voice down into the chest and not taking away the guts in the sound. Marin has been vigilant about keeping the balance throughout the range. She can still do staccato up to a D-flat." 

For Mazzie and her teacher, Next to Normal, the searing Tom Kitt–Brian Yorkey Broadway musical drama about a married couple battling the wife's bipolar disorder, proved a staggering challenge. The troubled pair, Diana and Dan, were played by Mazzie and her real-life husband, Jason Danieley, expertly taking over from original star Alice Ripley and first replacement Brian d'Arcy James. Mazzie was required to sing at an emotional pitch that often shot outside the audience's comfort zone. She managed the trick of making certain moments, such as Diana's attempt to make lunch for her family, a jumble of pathos and humor that was deeply unnerving. "We worked on sections that were emotionally overwrought and found the right position for the voice so that there was always a home base. When she went a little too far, it's not like she was leaving it up to chance," says Levy. 

Both Mazzie and Danieley showed an astonishing knack for making the grueling situations and lines in Next to Normal seem made up on the spot. Even observers who had never seen Mazzie before would have been able to recognize her as the most fearless of actresses. Her preparation for the part included immersing herself in Andrew Solomon's Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression and William Styron's Darkness Visible, among others. "I walked around the city trying to be Diana," she recalls. "It was a hard way to prepare, because I was very sad all the time. And getting myself to the place every night to have to start the show and go through the rediscovery of loss, if you really thought about it, you would think, I can't do this! Thank God I had Jason."

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As Clara to Jere Shea's Giorgio in Stephen Sondheim's Passion (1994)
© Joan Marcus 2014
 

Mazzie had a happy upbringing in Rockford, where her father managed the local ABC affiliate and her mother selected the movies the station showed to fill up air time. "For our birthday parties we always got the Little Rascals," she recalls. "I would get a Shirley Temple, and my brother would get a horror movie, shown on a big reel-to-reel projector." After beginning vocal studies at twelve, she performed in summer theater and visited New York for only the second time in the spring of 1982. "I think I saw eight shows," she remembers. "They were having the big protest about tearing down the Morosco and the Helen Hayes. I remember walking by that and seeing Jason Robards and Christopher Reeve and Joe Papp — these people who were speaking. It was a very New York-y experience." She moved permanently to Manhattan on September 15, 1982 — the same day that her friend Stephen Flaherty, whose musical Ragtime would be one of her big personal successes, arrived. She landed a job two weeks later, in the chorus of the Elmsford (N.Y.) Dinner Theater production of Barnum. "I would go to open calls and sing the last thirty-two bars of 'Glitter and Be Gay,' and I would belt 'Keepin' Out of Mischief Now,'" says Mazzie. "I had white-blonde hair, literally down to my butt. Who was this freak?"

She did some regional theater and toured in the ill-fated Doonesbury. When that show died in Los Angeles, she heard that Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's 1981 Broadway flop Merrily We Roll Along was going to be revived at the La Jolla Playhouse. With her eye on the part of Beth, she auditioned for Furth and director James Lapine at the L.A. Friars Club, then for Lapine and Sondheim on the stage of the Shubert Theater in New York. When she had finished "Not a Day Goes By," which has become the show's best-known song, Sondheim walked down to the stage and said, "That was fine. But you sang 'And there's hell to pay.' It's 'So there's hell to pay.'" Mazzie remembers, "So I thought I did not get the job. But I did, and Steve taught me how to sing that song. When Beth is standing on the courthouse steps getting a divorce, and this man has betrayed her, he was singing it for me. When he got to the line 'Not a blessed day…,' he said, 'Not a fucking day.' And I thought, oh — yeah.

The revival of Merrily was a big success and brought Mazzie serious attention. "Marin was so young, and very like a girl," recalls Heather MacRae, who costarred in the production. "We thought we'd move to Broadway, and one night the powers-that-be came from the Shubert Organization. It was a benefit performance for the people on the board, and all the rich people, and you know what they're like. They just sat there. That was the end of it. We were all devastated." 

Mazzie was getting work, but her timing was off to a degree: on Broadway, the 1980s was the Age of Caterwauling: Andrew Lloyd Webber and Les Miz had arrived. Individuality was not a prized commodity, and so many new roles were not for Mazzie's type of voice. "I also was not a typical ingenue," she says. "Christine in Phantom wasn't for me. I always knew I was going to play more character-type roles, and I had to grow into that in a sense. It was a weird theater time, with the British Invasion, and everyone wanting you to be just like someone who had done something over there. And then Passion rolled around." 

Passion was Sondheim's quietly absorbing study of the strange and unlikely love between two solitary individuals in nineteenth-century Italy. Mazzie, who had been a replacement Rapunzel in Sondheim's Into the Woods, made the original cast this time, in the second-female lead of Clara, the married lover of the troubled Giorgio. "I knew it was different — and extraordinary," says Mazzie. "People got so impassioned — some left the theater weeping, and some were so angry they just couldn't figure it out. What else are we supposed to do in the theater? At least they weren't leaving and saying, 'Well, where are we going to eat?'" George Dvorsky, who appeared in the supporting cast, recalls Mazzie as a delightful colleague. "She had to exit stage right after reading one of her letters," he says, "where I was waiting to come on. Every night, I would compliment her with a d word — delicious, delectable, darling. In the six months I was there, it was tough to come up with new ones. When I left the show, she wrote me the most beautiful card with ninety-five percent d words." 

Passion didn't make a year's run, but it did bring Mazzie a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. Ragtime, in 1998, ran for 834 performances, earning her another Tony nomination — this time for Best Actress in a Musical. On the heels of that, the 1999 Broadway revival of Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate was an 881-performance smash. Getting the part of the tempestuous Lilli Vanessi was a tremendous victory for Mazzie and landed her a third Tony nomination. She recalls it as "one of those joyful theatrical experiences that people still talk about. The director, Michael Blakemore, was so brilliant in the shaping of that show. I remember when we really started to work 'I Hate Men.' We lowered it so that it was really growly and let me go to the screaming point. It was great to take it into the realm of broad comedy."

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Photo: Dario Acosta
dress: Cesar Galindo Collection; feather halter: Betsy Johnson
Archive; ring: Laruicci
© Dario Acosta 2014
 

Perhaps even Mazzie was surprised when, in the summer of 2009, she received an offer to play Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams's Streetcar Named Desire at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. "I think Marin loved getting away from 'eight counts, here's my cue,'" says the play's director, Julianne Boyd. "She was the anchor of the show. Often Stella is the anchor, and Blanche is in the dressing room by herself. But Marin is a very giving performer. She kept on working every moment, eight hours a day, connecting with everyone." Mazzie's friend, actress Barbara Marineau, saw her in the part. "You're so used to seeing Blanche as so vulnerable," says Marineau. "Marin came in so strong — and then you saw her disintegrate." 

Bullets over Broadway opened at the St. James Theater on April 10 of this year. It had been anticipated to be one of the major successes of the season, but the reviews were mixed, led by a thumbs-down notice by The New York Times's Ben Brantley; it was also overlooked in most of the major Tony categories, and ticket sales haven't reached expected levels. Still, it seems to be the kind of audience show that will have a good chance of playing through the calendar year, and possibly beyond. Mazzie excelled in her book scenes as Helen Sinclair, but somehow her musical numbers, including "They Go Wild, Simply Wild, Over Me" and "There's a Broken Heart for Every Light on Broadway" just miss showing her off at her magical best — and her magic isn't something to be hidden. 

Mazzie, however, loves being in the show. She's especially thrilled to be singing "Broken Heart," which she sees as "an homage to what we do in the theater. It's a tough life. And no matter where you get, no matter how far, your heart is going to break." But always she plays from strength. "I remember once," says Marineau, "when she was nominated for the Tony, I asked her, 'How do you do this? — the press conferences and all the pressure?' And Marin said, 'I'm just so happy to be invited to the party.'" spacer 

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Current Issue: August 2015 — VOL. 80, NO. 2