listen read closely because Tony Award winner Joanna Gleason has given Broadway Master Chat one great interview! Through her career, Ms. Gleason has moved from a leading-lady to a full-fledged legend, originating iconic roles like: the Baker’s Wife in Into the Woods and Muriel Eubanks in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. The moments flew by while we spoke, as she offered great advice that only a seasoned Broadway vet could render. “I wish more than anything” that you enjoy this interview as much as I do.
MC: When did you catch the theater bug?
JG: I caught it because we lived in New Rochelle, New York when I was little. They took me to the theater and Broadway shows, [like] Bye Bye Birdie and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.I was young and I looked up to everybody in that world, [but] it’s not like I saw myself up there, it was just that I got so caught up in their story and it stayed with me when we left the theater. The music would also be in my head. My parents also played Broadway records on Sunday mornings in the house.
We moved a lot when I was a kid and one thing I came to discover was in the theater department you get to keep re-creating yourself in scenes with different roles—you’re part of a band of people who are all starting from the same place. The first day of rehearsal, no matter if they are the new kid in school or not, is everybody’s first day with the characters they’re supposed to play; they couldn’t come in as the most popular or the prettiest or the nerds, they’re coming into play the character they’re assigned—they have to start at the beginning and develop a person.
[The theater department] was a great ice-breaker socially and also a place of great acceptance. By the time I got to Beverly Hills High School they had the greatest drama department. We rocked. The drama department was held in high esteem and that was the “cool factor” for me. That and the madrigal singing group. I had two really cool groups that I could belong to and it was a great buffer during adolescence.
What training did you do in college to help set you up for a successful career?
The only thing you can be set up for is a successful life. In high school I had Mr. John Ingle who was the greatest drama teacher anyone could have…He wasn’t constantly feeding your ego.
By the time I got to college, there was Omar Paxson and Allen Freeman who ran the Occidental College drama department. There was a work ethic that was not to be beat—everyone put up and took down the sets [for the shows]. It was just that feeling of being part of a community and what it is to pull your weight in a community. Nobody stands to the side just waiting to go on to do their part. There was no star, no bit player, no caste system, no pecking order, we get just got things done for the joy of it. Being in service to something that maybe just doesn’t shine the light on you. I liked that growing up…You just think about other people. When you think about acting, if you really want to be good in a play, you have to think about other people in the play, not just as actors but also as their characters. Instead of thinking only about yourself and how you’re going to score with your role. I came from a background of really great listeners on the stage. That sense of community drew me to the theater, and that we have something to give as actors not just something to take for ourselves.
What was your first job after college and how did it come about?
The first big one was being an understudy in the production of Hamlet…in Los Angeles. The company had come in from New York and was starring Stacy Keach as Hamlet; I was a Lady in Waiting. Then, the Ophelia left before the run was over to go do a movie, and I got to play Ophelia for a week; it was awesome and scary because all these seasoned professionals were around me and I was twenty-three, I think. [Then], I knew what it felt like to be on a major stage in a major role in a major city.
You made your Broadway debut in I Love My Wife. Can you talk about how you booked the job? What was your audition song?
I auditioned in LA and sang “What Did I Have that I Don’t Have” from On A Clear Day You Can See Forever. I sang that song and then they said that the final callbacks were in New York. I auditioned on the stage with just the ghost light and sang “To Keep My Love Alive.” Then, midnight that night, I got a call that I got the part. I levitated!
Did you learn something during the run of that show that has stuck with you through the rest of you shows?
A bunch of things. I got incredibly close to the cast; I am a dear friend of Eileen Graff and Jimmy Naughton. ([Jimmy] played my husband and they live a couple miles up the road from me)…I learned how to do eight shows a week for fourteen months. I had never been in a run that long. I had never been in a run through a New York winter that included blizzards where we got to the theater in waist high snow and there were maybe twelve people in the audience. I had never been in a theater in the sweltering New York summer and climbing the stairs to your dressing room and keeping your body and soul together. And, I had never been in a show where you go out afterwards and you eat and you’re out to three in the morning and then you get up because you have auditions for other stuff. I had to keep myself together. I had never been in a show where there was a blackout and you’re on stage with nothing but flashlights—July 13, 1977. Mostly I learned at that time in my life, there was no place I’d rather be.
After that, you were in The Real Thing (a comedy) then A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (a drama). Can you talk about the differences in being in a dramatic play vs. a comedic play on Broadway?
There’s nothing different in the preparation. There’s nothing different in the doing it night after night… The difference happens afterwards. If you’re doing Joe Egg you want to go out and laugh; you don’t want to think about it, just set it aside. And when you do the shows that are funny and high energy, comedy or musical ones, I want to be very quiet afterwards because you put everything out there on stage. It takes no less effort to do a comedy than a drama but it takes more effort to do a musical. [After a musical] is a time for not going out and staying out late, it’s a time for being quiet and getting some sleep.
What I learned very early on is: you don’t carry the characters around with you all day, but starting about four [o’clock], the character starts to find you—she comes and she attaches herself to you. Whether you’re stuck in traffic, or the subway has no air conditioning, or you didn’t get enough to eat, or you had a bad phone call with somebody, it’s all going to go into [the character], who’s going to show up on stage. It’s not really going to change your performance very much but it’s like if you were handed a black outline cartoon, the colors would be slightly different depending on how your day was.
The Baker’s Wife in Into The Woods is for sure one of your most well-known roles. What do you think made that show and your part in it work so well?
It’s just the fact that the writing was so good by James Lapine and [Stephen Sondheim’s] music was so amazing. We were so invested in the piece. We became this band of characters that got to become completely enchanted by the possibility of princes and Cinderella and fairy godmothers and then completely disenchanted with bad behavior, with the realities of life. We really played it straight with high stakes for simple people. What you found out with these simple people is that they each had something much more complex beneath their surface. That came out in both the book and the music. So, that’s a joy to play. You don’t get the chance to do that kind of stuff in your career a lot. I mean if you do, you’re incredibly lucky.
Do you have a most memorable performance from that run?
The very first lighted dress [rehearsal] the night before the previews. It was a pretty packed house and it was a wildly enthusiastic audience. We suddenly had a feeling that we knew what we had here. The response was overwhelming.
What are your thoughts on the Into The Woods movie? Are you going to see it?
Of course I’ll see it. I think the casting of Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife is terrific. I’m a big fan of hers. In fact the whole cast sounds wonderful. It’s going to be interesting to see it on a huge screen and what they do to it that can’t be done on a stage. I kind of know what to expect seeing it on a stage, but I have no idea what this will be and if it will feel like my show or a different show. So I’m curious to see what that will be.
Speaking of movies, among your impressive theater career, you have been able to have an equally impressive film and TV career. How do you balance the two?
What drove anything was the need to earn a living; television offers a way of earning a living. I did quite a lot of TV where I worked with terrific people and did well and then some of those people were responsible for my branching out in my life. Diane English, who created Love & War, was the one who made me a director, so I’ve directed in television. Jeffrey Lane, who wrote the book for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, had been the producer of The Bette Midler Show, which I did on TV, so he wrote that role for me in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. That brought me back to New York and so one thing leads to another.
The years in California were mostly about family and being with my son. And then it was time, when everyone was grown up, to come back to New York and settle on the East Coast. That’s where I really belong and love. Now I generate a lot of my own work. I’m writing and putting together a cabaret act. I’ve also got a screenplay that is moving forward. If another great play comes along, I’ll probably do it, but now I’m not that sort of actress, nor is it my temperament to need to keep working from job to job to job in the theater. It’s hard. It’s really, really hard, and life has shifted gears for me and I have other priorities.
At what point did you realize you could take a break?
When other things became more exciting: writing, teaching, and dancing the Tango. I dance about eight hours a week. I write. I’ve written a novel and I teach master classes. If this movie comes together, I’ll be directing it. These are the things now that excite me because they’re not waiting for the right role to come along and there’s a lot of waiting involved in our business or doing a role that really isn’t satisfying just to be in a show…It just shifted. I like to be in the center of the action. It doesn’t have to be the lead. I just like being in the center of what’s going on and writing and dancing does that for me. The cabaret act will feel scary and exciting.
Now that you have achieved so much in your career, what’s your criteria for picking roles?
The bar was set high for Into the Woods and Sons of the Prophet and it was a complete exercise of my abilities that [the role] would have to be something so well written. It doesn’t have to be the lead it would just have to have so much “good meat” on the bone, even if it’s just three scenes (like Sons of the Prophet). Yet it was a complete night for me—it took me places I wasn’t allowed to go in other roles. So if something came along, something you haven’t seen me do, that’s when I’d consider doing it. A bright voice on the page.
What’s your advice for aspiring stage and screen actors?
Get a life. A real life. A life that has friends in it. A life that has a learning curve in it. Be brave about relationships. Be kind. Above all, be kind: kind to each other, kind to your friends, kind to the people you’re in shows with, kind to your family. Feed yourself, take care of yourself. Know that you’re going to get some jobs and know that you are so not going to get some jobs from the minute you walk in the door—you’re not even going to be able to change anybody’s mind even if you’re spectacular because you’re not what’s in their mind, you can’t predict that. You just need to walk in the door. A fully-grown adult says, “This is what I can bring.” Sing your song, read your scene, put some thought into it, and take your time.
And also, take your time with your career. Sometimes something will come along that pushes you along really fast and you have to hang on. You see what happens in television and the movies when the machine gets hold of someone and then there’s really no way to grow when you’re surrounded like that and they’re telling you who they need you to be—you don’t know how to live a real life. The people who avoid it the most are the people who are in the theater and have to do eight shows a week and do show after show because they have to do their own grocery shopping and get to the theater by subway or bus. You have to figure out how to pay their bills and you have to live your life. ♦