Homeward Bound

BRIAN KELLOW chats with Tony Award-winner Katie Finneran, who this month makes her nightclub debut at 54 Below.

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Putting it together: Katie Finneran
Shervin Lainez

Two-time Tony Award-winner Katie Finneran (Noises Off, Promises, Promises), is a well-known face from films (You've Got Mail) and TV (The Michael J. Fox Show). From May 28 through May 31, she'll be making her nightclub debut at Manhattan's 54 Below, with a show called "It Might Be You: A Funny Lady's Search for Home." BRIAN KELLOW recently spoke with her as she was in the process of polishing her act. 

OPERA NEWS: Doing this club act is a real departure for you.

KATIE FINNERAN: I'm working feverishly trying to put it all together. I'm being more creative than I've been in a long time. You're so alone. It's truly my story, and nobody is going to take any responsibility for it but me. It's scary.

ON: Yet you have a deep background in musical theater.

KF: The thing about this that is scariest for me is that I am an actress first, and I always felt that my voice truly came second. I'm a pretty good musician, and I sang pretty well, but I never felt I was some great singer. People have been asking me for a couple of years to do cabaret, and I felt I wasn't worthy to be singing twelve songs in a row. But what I do realize is that in the shows I've seen, the things that stick with me are people's stories, and how they relate those stories to their song choices. I'm trying to do that.

ON: I think what's hardest for cabaret performers is to let down their guard and just show us who they are. That's why we're there, after all — because we want to know.

KF: I think so, too. If you try to be to who you're not, it's glaring, in a way. The hour becomes tiresome. But the more someone tells the truth.... I really learned that when I listened to Patti LuPone's interview before she did 54 Below. She said that it was creative for her because she was sort of writing the evening. I've never done that before. 

ON: Why is your show subtitled "A Funny Lady's Search for Home"? 

KF: I have always felt like my home was the theater and the group of people that I met and had intimacy with in the theater — well, every time you join a new show, that becomes your family. I have a wonderful mother and father and brother, but most artists don't really feel that they came from that clan. You don't feel you're where you're supposed to be. I love my family, but my true family is in the theater. I always knew that I wanted to have my own family, my own children, to add into that theater family. 

ON: Do you feel happy to have waited quite a while to have children?

KF: I do, because I think I'm a better mother, and I think I'm also more eagerly questioning my methods of raising the children because I am older. I think, maybe this isn't the best way, maybe I should try doing it like this — rather than being scared and headstrong. I also feel as an older mother, I've done all the fun stuff. Now I'm ready to devote my energy to my kids.

ON: I see that you're doing some Betty Hutton songs in your show. Let me just say, you already have my vote.

KF: Do you know her story? She really had a rough time, didn't she? She needed some psychiatric assistance at some point. She had a tough go. She was unique and such an extraordinary performer. It makes me sad to make me think about it. 

ON: And Frank Loesser and the others wrote such wonderful material for her. My favorite is "Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief," which I play on YouTube whenever I'm in a bad mood.

KF: Didn't they write the greatest songs for her? That's really writing for somebody's strength. She also contributed all that crazy energy. I try not to listen to her too much, because you want to do exactly what she does, because she's so great. A lot of people don't know who she is, which I think is so weird. She was one of the most famous movie stars in the 1940s. 

ON: Have you worked with your music director, Steve Marzullo, previously?

KF: I have not. Andréa Burns, who is directing my show, put me together with Steve, and we decided that in order to play this show we had to be lovers. Lovers in the creative sense, not in the physical sense. But we really were going over and over the music, and I said, "Don't let me waste your time, let me work on the music on my own and come back to you." He said, "No, we have to be together all the time." I said, "We have to be lovers?" And he said "Yes." I'm sure my husband is fine with it. But we have to go through the difficult creative moments together, as a couple. He has been an extraordinary partner in this thing. My husband, my real lover, has also been my partner in writing the patter. It takes a long time to whittle down the material — a lot of good fighting, and a lot of good fun. 

ON: I wanted to talk to you about your early days as a Broadway understudy. You were in the company of On Borrowed Time, starring George C. Scott and Teresa Wright.

KF: Oh, Teresa! She and her husband, Robert Anderson, used to come to all of my shows. They introduced me to Garson Kanin and Marian Seldes when I was doing You Never Can Tell. They brought them along to the performance. I said, "Who is waiting at the stage door?" On Borrowed Time was my first Broadway show, and it was perfect, because I had loved Patton and thought it was the greatest film ever. I had seen it eighteen times. I was so nervous and thrilled to have auditioned for George C. Scott, and it was extraordinary to be an understudy, because I got to watch how everyone behaved. All these wonderful people — Teresa, Conrad Bain, Nathan Lane. I got to see every rehearsal and every show. I got to see how he handled an audience. The first day I went in to rehearsal, they had already done the setup and were starting to work with this big tree that is a crucial part of the play. No one else was there. The only person I saw was George C. Scott. He was standing there, and the stage was lit up, and all I saw was the outline of his body, looking down. I went up and stood next to him and said, "Hi, Mr. Scott. Hello. I'm Katie Finneran, and I'm here for rehearsal." He said nothing. I said, "So what should I do?" He said, "We're not doing anything until we fix this fucking tree!" That was my introduction. He was glorious to me. 

ON: Have you known early on with some of the plays you did that they weren't going to go?

KF: The answer is that you always feel like the eggs aren't good, so maybe you shouldn't make the omelette. There might be a couple of fresh eggs, but there are bad ones, so if you make the omelette it won't be any good. But we all just want to work. Sometimes you know it's a piece of crap, but if it gives us our health insurance and paycheck — well, you're offered a Broadway show, and at least you get to work with extraordinary people. You're not producing it, so you might as well put your best effort forward. Sometimes we do know that it may not succeed, but we just want to work. That's the job that's available. spacer 

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