A Conversation with Klea Blackhurst & Andrea Prestinario
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Written by Kelly Wallace
Art by Michelle Tse
Photography by Emma Pratte
August 3, 2016
Andrea Prestinario and Klea Blackhurst are a musical theater family. Even their dog, Sprout, will sing along to Book of Mormon on command. But musical theater hasn’t been particularly kind to the lesbian community in return. The first lesbian kiss to appear on Broadway came early, in 1923, in God of Vengeance at the Apollo Theatre. That may seem progressive…until you read that the entire cast was arrested on obscenity charges for it. Lesbians have made appearances on Broadway since then, to be sure, but not quite in the way the community would hope. Legally Blonde turned a gay lawyer attending Harvard Law School into a running gag that even the New York Times called, “the object of the show’s most unsavory jokes.” Hairspray trades on the tired stereotype of lesbianism in prison, offering “extra credit” to shower with the female prison guard. Shows like Aspects of Love, Falsettos, and Rent fare a bit better in comparison, but the queer female characters are still there only in supporting roles, to further the plot for other characters, or simply as the butt of an ongoing joke. Fun Home brought the first lesbian protagonist on a Broadway stage, but saying that in 2016 feels less like a victory and more like a long overdue representation of an entire community, both in and out of the theatrical world.
We sat down with Andrea and Klea in what Andrea affectionately refers to as their “brownstone of dreams” to talk about their experiences as a queer couple trying to find a home in an industry that has, thus far, failed to tell their stories.
Kelly Wallace: So let’s start with some basics. Where are you from, how did you end up in Chicago and then in New York?
Klea Blackhurst: Well, I’m from Salt Lake City, Utah. And I came to New York…and I came here because this is where they kept Broadway. That’s what I wanted to do, my whole mission was to do Broadway shows…so I got a musical theater degree; my mom was a performer in musicals. She did “Bells Are Ringing” with Hal Linden and Betty Garrett and old school kind of people would come in and work in Utah. So I always knew those people’s names and had an awareness of what that was. I followed that, moved to New York right after college (a billion years ago), and I’ve been here ever since, just following that dream. That’s how I ended up here.
Andrea Prestinario: I grew up in the South suburbs of Chicago; since I was 11, I always wanted to do musical theatre. I was in a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat with Donny Osmond, our children’s choir, so that is what made me decide at 11 – bam, this is what I’m doing for the rest of my life. And it has dictated most of the choices of my life. I then went to Ball State University in Indiana for musical theater, I had professors encourage me to go back to Chicago first before coming to New York. They said, “Get your card in Chicago, start there.” And I liked Chicago so much that I stayed for eight years before I got here. I left because I had gone through a breakup and I was kind of at this point in my life of…if I’m gonna do New York, I need to not be afraid and just go. So yeah, I’m very glad I’m here. I don’t regret that choice.
KW: Where did you two meet?
KB: We met doing a show…
AP: The last show I did in Chicago before I moved was Gypsy and I was considering moving to New York and I played Louise and she played my mother…
KB: That’s a good meet-cute. We shared a dressing room, with Sprout, Sprout played Chowsie. And it was a beautiful production. I’ve done another Gypsy since and I didn’t end up falling in love with Louise, so I don’t think that’s the thing.
AP: Well, we didn’t fall in love then…
KB: No, no, but since I was living with my Louise, I was looking at the new Louise and thought…I would never live with you. A soprano…I don’t know. It was a slow burn, this relationship. I’m not really…first of all, I’ve never dated anybody in the arts. That was not a dream of mine. It’s just too much up and down and too much neediness. For both of you to have that component…it’s actually working out great. It’s not as bad as I thought. It was nothing I sought out.
AP: It kind of became of thing of…we were friends for a while, she was a mentor of mine, and she went through a breakup and was newly single and needed a roommate. She had been with her ex for many years and was going into the rental market kind of scandalized by the rent prices. I actually needed a roommate too at the time. We just had a moment where we were like…we can’t be roommates.
KB: Yeah, she came with me to look at a place in Brooklyn, for me, and we were supposed to go for dinner. So we just went and I saw this place and I thought I would rather die than live in this commute. Nothing against Brooklyn, but it was tough. And then I was like…should we just address the obvious? Like, we shouldn’t be roommates, right? …I actually think you’re pretty cute…and it would just wreck everything. So we finally confessed the feelings and didn’t become roommates. Because I was like, “Nothing gets you in the wrong place faster than real estate in Manhattan.” People get into things they shouldn’t, they stay in things they shouldn’t. So I at least had that awareness.
AP: It’s funny, because now we are roommates. But it was the conversation that was the catalyst. Like, we have this sexual tension, we need to address it.
KW: Growing up in Utah…did you have a lot of exposure to gay culture, to even lesbianism as a broader concept?
KB: No. I was twisted up in Mormonism. I was taught it was a grievous sin, second only to murder. I ultimately felt grateful that I was gay because if I wasn’t gay, I think I would’ve stayed there. Being gay was what drove me to feel like I had to get thousands of miles away from this to figure out if I am, what it is, and I see that as a good thing.
AP: I’ve read so many articles about how people flock to cities and urban areas because of sexuality, feeling like, “I need to get out of this place.” So it’s interesting to think of what the future holds for that. As more places become accepting, how does the landscape change? Will there not be as much of a huge concentration of the gay population in large cities?
KW: Now we have the internet, which makes access to information about different cultures and experiences so much more accessible. Even when I was growing up, which wasn’t so terribly long ago but it was before social media, before the internet was a thing everyone had…you just didn’t have the same tools to figure it all out.
AP: I’m so jealous of the kids now! You have so many resources at your fingertips.
Michelle Tse: But it does increase the amount of bullying.
AP: That’s true, maybe I shouldn’t be so envious.
KB: I find that’s what’s challenging about all that access. I run into a lot of younger people who aren’t curious about anything, because you can go right to Google at the dinner table. Somebody asks, “Oh, who got the Academy Award that year?” and then there’s three people on the phone, and I would get insulted, until I realized they were looking up who won.
AP: As opposed to talking about it?
KB: Oh no, I just mean that you used to just have to wait or go figure it out from a book or something. It wasn’t instantaneous. I did this show about Ethel Merman; it’s kind of my calling card.
AP: It’s not just a little show; it’s a huge deal.You’ve made a living off that show for the last 14 years. Not solely, but…
KB: My research on Merman was thrilling. It all came from used bookstores and the Strand and going to the index and seeing if there was a listing for Merman. It was like actual research. Now, everything I found could probably be looked up on the internet. I’m not sure if that’s true; I still hope I have some corner on the market. But researching something is no longer this giant mountain to climb. When I teach a master class with young people, I get so delighted when they know who Jerry Herman is. And it’s like…well, they googled him last night. And that’s good, but they weren’t curious until I said one of the requirements was that you had to sing a Jerry Herman song, you know what I mean? I’m sure the future is going to be never-endingly fascinating.
MT: I’m starting to notice – I finished my masters not long ago – the difference of us looking stuff up and how it’s hurting our memory. I talk to my 80-year-old mentor and he’s like a dictionary or an encyclopedia, because he’s used to the first 60 years of his life having to memorize everything. You couldn’t look stuff up, so you have to remember everything. So you ask a question, and get like a 15-year timeline of the entire thing you asked about. I don’t have to retain information that way. I remember my house phone number from when I was five, but that’s about it.
KB: I have no idea what your phone number is.
AP: Honey! Learn it!
KB: I know my phone number.
KW: So, you would go to the Strand and look up all this stuff on Ethel Merman…
KB: The Strand Annex was down on Fulton Street. Now I own all the books. That’s what survived the move. We’ve got the feminism and every theater book…I got rid of things, because in this big move, I had to get rid of stuff. If you are a novel and I love you and I’ve read you…you’re now going away. Because I’m probably not going to read you again. And if I decide to, I will go buy you.
AP: She’s a theater historian. She really should be classified that way. She has an encyclopedic amount of knowledge.
KB: I love that part of it. I love our history.
AP: It really is impressive. She’s actually doing Lyrics & Lyricists at the 92nd Street Y.
KB: Deborah Grace Winer is the artistic director of the overall Lyrics & Lyricists programming. She invited me to join Robert Kimball and Vince Giordano to curate a show about Harold Arlen before the Wizard of Oz. It’s such a huge honor. It validates the historian in me.
AP: I’m excited for the future to see her do more of that kind of thing because people should take advantage of you as a resource…
KB: Yes, take advantage of me!
KW: Andrea, you’re a bit of a music historian too. You recently did a Smokeytown cabaret…
AP: That show was inspired by her show, very much so. So I have to give credit where credit is due; she was one of the influences, in that I had done cabaret shows in Chicago but I was inspired to do my Smokey Robinson show…
KB: Look, I’m a big fan of not waiting for permission. So, y’know, when you come to New York, or anywhere, there’s a lot of power, in particular we’ve been lamenting the power of casting directors, you have to get an agent, who will put you on a list to send you in to have the casting director say yes or no. And if for some reason you get on the list and get into the room, probably nobody who can make final decisions is there so you come back again, so you go through all this to actually be in the room with the person who can say no.
KW: I interned in casting for a little while and it was very much like that. You come back and you come back and come back; it’s such an ordeal.
AP: It’s an ordeal just to get an audition, just to get in the room.
KB: I wrote my show eventually just because I wanted to be busy. I wasn’t ready to quit yet but nobody saw me as what I saw myself as, casting-wise. And it just seemed like…well, I basically just wrote something and cast myself in it. I’m not famous or powerful, but you can rent a cabaret room, and go in there and do it. The whole thing took off out of necessity and drive. I think that’s part of what you were attracted to…
AP: And it’s a big transition. When I got here, it’s a brand new marketplace and there are a lot of casting directors to meet and learn and build relationships with. It was jarring to be at a place in Chicago where I was making a living as an actor – I didn’t even have a day job for the last three years of my life in Chicago – to then go here where I was not seeing results immediately. I don’t think I thought it would happen right away; I don’t know what I thought. I didn’t think it would take as long – relationship-building takes a long time. I can’t not have something artistically to dig my teeth into and that’s kind of how that show came about.
KW: What’s it like switching from playing a character to actually being Andrea onstage?
AP: It’s a very different medium. We talk about that a lot too. Producing your own work is really scary and producing my Smokey Robinson show is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It isn’t validated in accolades or any of that, but personally it really fulfilled me. I want to keep doing it, and I’m still working on it, and it’s so great because it’s this full show that I have in my back pocket that I can pull out.
KW: Obviously you did Gypsy…do you two want to do another show together?
AP: It’s interesting, we kind of laugh about doing a cabaret show together but we would just fight the whole time I think. She’s so not disciplined.
KB: That’s true. But it would get done, thanks to you.
AP: We’re polar opposites in the way we come about our work. I’m warming up to just practice in our bedroom and she doesn’t ever warm up.
KB: I’m just one of those performers that I feel like I might need those notes later.
AP: That’s such an Ethel Merman quote.
KB: I don’t do it. I’ll do a side run and stretch and bend, but I don’t need to practice the notes. Because I might actually need them later. I find them to be a semi-finite resource.
AP: She also has an old-school belt, and I’m a soprano. She’s a comedian; I’m academic and cerebral. I have a Moleskine that I use for every character I build and I furiously write notes about.
KW: It’s interesting to me, you both came to do cabaret work out of a want for artistic fulfillment and something to sink your teeth into. You almost can’t do a show together…how many shows even are there with two strong female leading roles? If you wanted to play romantic opposites, how many shows are there about lesbians?
AP: Right, exactly. That’s why Fun Home resonated so strongly with me.
KB: I think it might be the only one.
AP: Well, it’s certainly one of the first real lesbian protagonists.
KW: That’s the dangerous thing. We talk about diversity and wanting opportunity, and it feels like some people say… well, we gave them Fun Home, or, we have Hamilton, now we’re diverse, let’s move on.
KB: It’s gonna be really interesting to see how it plays out. Hamilton has really put musical theater in the national conversation and that’s exciting.
MT: I’m so happy people are talking about theater, and it is exciting, but at the same time the audiences are very white because they’re who can afford to see the show…
KB: And the new block of tickets came out and the top ticket is $850! I mean, come on.
KW: It’s a fantastic show but there’s no show I could spend that much money on.
KB: Exactly. That’s exactly to your point.
MT: I feel like because Hamilton has become what it is…there are so many shows that are deserving of attention this year, like Waitress, Shuffle Along, The Color Purple…
KW: I think I was worried this season might be sparse because people would be afraid of competing with Hamilton, but it turned out that this season was actually really rich and diverse.
KW: Obviously it wasn’t a huge presence in your early life, but did you have any queer books, music, TV…for me it was Annie on My Mind…
KB: I don’t think I know it.
KW: It’s an older book about a girl in New York who’s at this private school and figuring out her sexuality, and she meets this girl Annie and it’s just a sweet, lovely book. That was one of the first for me. I highly recommend it.
AP: I definitely had Indigo Girls. I was in college and listening to that and quite literally went to the library on campus, and would just look up the homosexuality section. I would just sit in that section on the floor and hope nobody was around…
KW: I would just go to the LGBT section, grab a book and run, and hope it was something I was interested in reading so no one would see me in that section.
KB: Thank God, that’s something that’s changed.
KW: It used to be like, half of one shelf. It wasn’t even it’s own section, it was just this label in the middle of a wooden shelf that said like, “Gay and Lesbian.” I would always sneak downtown when I was younger and they used to have this great bookshop, the Oscar Wilde bookshop…
KB: I know!! Oh, that’s the first one I went to. I loved it; I just loved it. It was great. That was a real loss. It was very special.
AP: Was it just a gay and lesbian bookstore?
KW: Yeah, it was all LGBT-centric.
AP: I had a moment walking on campus and being like…I can’t be, I don’t want to cut my hair like Ellen, I can’t be. All I knew was Ellen and Rosie O’Donnell.
KW: The gay community definitely has an interesting relationship with portraying gay women. I always think of The Heidi Chronicles line, “You either shave your legs or you don’t.” And I feel like sometimes that stereotypical image lesbianism hurts people.
AP: I definitely felt that coming out at first.
KW: How old were you?
AP: It was 2003, I think that’s important given the cultural relevancy. It was awhile ago, it was in college. I was twenty-one.
KW: Ellen Page said recently that ever since she came out, she gets offered mostly gay roles. Were you concerned as an actress about how it would affect your career?
AP: Oh, absolutely. That was part of my neurosis about it, because my career has always just come first and it’s what’s most important to me but I didn’t want to sacrifice who I really was. There was this inner turmoil about how I could have both. How could I be myself and still be taken seriously in musical theater? And playing ingenues! I’m a soprano; I play ingenues. I’m a wildcard – there’s really none of that. That’s what’s so weird to about when we met in Gypsy. In Chicago, there were no lesbian, queer women in musical theater. Then I met her and I was like, “Woah, you’re gay? I don’t know anyone else that’s gay!”
KW: And Klea, when did you come out? How did that process work for you?
KB: I was about thirty. Late.
AP: But you had relationships with women.
KB: Yes, very closeted. But I found, I was coming of age in a time where you could sleep with anybody you wanted to. But like, don’t acknowledge it. Don’t say it in public, don’t say it at work. It has changed so fast, for me, from my perspective. I know we still have a long way go, but I remember when there were no gay people on TV. And now, you gotta have the gay friend! That whole phenomenon. And Ellen coming out…right on the cover of Time Magazine. I remember that summer. Ellen really risked everything.
KW: She was everybody’s best friend; she put everything on the line.
KB: She really lost her career for awhile.
AP: She really did.
KW: It took her so long to get back to what she was, but now she’s such an icon.
KB: It’s easy for successful comedians to cross a line between being funny and thinking that what they believe is more important than being funny. Bill Maher, Rosie O’Donnell, Lenny Bruce – their politics become more important than their comedy. Ellen has always stayed on the side of the line that says the reason you know me and love me is because I’m funny; that’s the reason you let me into your living room. I think that’s very unique and I love that about her.
KW: You as a comedienne wouldn’t want to lose the entertainment of what you do to put more political activist content in there.
KB: No. I don’t think I have an inner activist. I don’t think I’m a coward or I lay down though.
AP: She just isn’t political.
KB: It doesn’t drive me at the expense of other things, no.
KW: Andrea, you, to me, seem to be very political.
AP: Very much so. It’s how I see the world. I see the world through a feminist lens. It’s a curse and a blessing. Sometimes you want to not be able to see things so analytically and just relax. I have a gender studies and musical theater degree…
KB: That’s a rare combo, I think. I myself went for musical theater and geology. We’re very rare. I like to collect rocks and you like to introduce me to Dworkin.
AP: You do not collect rocks.
KB: I have a rock collection!
AP: Shut up.
KB: I do.
AP: She also has a rubber stamp collection.
KB: I love rubber stamps.
AP: I grew up in a house with just sisters and my parents are obsessed with fairness. So everything was always the same for all of us. If I got a phone in my bedroom when I was ten, I was the oldest, everyone else had everything else lined up that way. Then I went to an all-girls Catholic high school that was very progressive. There was even a sign in the hallway that said, “God is good, She is great.” It was very empowering. In my fourth year, you got to choose what theology class you wanted to take, there were options like God Talk or something else…I chose Women’s Contemporary Issues. That’s where my feminist seed was born.
KW: There was something on Facebook, I’ll probably misquote it, but it said something to the effect of, “God has to be a woman, why else would the Bible be a bunch of men explaining what she meant?”
AP: That class sort of illuminated everything. I grew up in this household, and your household sets your guidelines for what you understand in the world and I understood it to be very fair and I went out and suddenly you’re coming to maturity and I was so enraged when my eyes were opened to it. At the end of freshman year of college, I started taking classes in the women’s studies department and that’s how it all started.
KW: Both of you…when you came out, what was your family’s reaction like? Was it supportive? Was it a welcoming thing or…
KB: I think it was good? It wasn’t talked about for awhile, and then it just like…was fine. It felt like a big risk but it actually ended up being great, I think. My first partner died very suddenly. I was in the closet, I was 27.
AP: They lived together but no one knew they were together.
KB: I was so invested in nobody knowing and family and stuff. I look back on it now, because I went through that whole experience in the closet, and I’m like…what was I doing? There was an obituary for her, because we lived here but she had been an acting professor at the university where I’d gone to school…the person writing the article talked to me and was like, “Do you want to be listed as a survivor?” And I was like…yeah, but I was totally in the closet.
AP: So what did it say…like, “friend of”?
KB: Yeah, something like that. It was so weird. That was a long time coming. I think it was easier for girls. This might be political here, I might get political.
KB: It seems like boys were getting in more trouble because they’re actually like spilling seed and doing foul things…
AP: Spilling seed?
KB: That’s in the Bible! You know, you’re supposed to procreate, not just goof off. So they’re wasting it. I’m just talking like the Mormons. They weren’t enlightened, they were in hell on earth. The women it felt more like, “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Even if you had a suspicion, it was really like…they share expenses and snuggle. That’s what it felt like. In a way, if I had been the oldest son…
KW: Religion places such a high premium on masculinity and maleness…
KB: The patriarchy!
KW: So if it’s the person in the position of the most power disobeying this religious law or going against the faith…
KB: Exactly. That’s right. We’re just the sister wives. It was terrible. I was terrified to come out. I’m so glad I finally did. I remember the first interview I had, when I started giving interviews, when people cared…and this interviewer from Rehoboth Beach was like, “So, are you in-out or out-out?” And I was like…in-out? I think? By the end of the interview, I was like…I’m gonna be out-out. I was able to change that in the span of a conversation. I mean, I was going to Rehoboth Beach which is very gay-centric and your mom already knows, so what’re you saving it up for? But I did think, since I did a lot of solo performing, gay men like their women straight.
AP: That’s so true.
KB: They want you to suffer, like…over the man that got away. It is true.
AP: It’s so penis-heavy in musical theater, between all the gay men and all the straight women.
KB: And in Streisand and Garland, all the leading ladies, they flock to the one who is voicing what they’re voicing, which is always about a man. So I was reluctant. But then I was like, no, it’s okay. Nothing is really going to change.
AP: They also love a belter!
KB: I court that audience.
AP: Gay men love her.
KW: Andrea, when you first came to me about doing this, one of the phrases you used was “normalizing queer women in theater,” what do you feel like we can do? What do you want to see theater do?
AP: Exposure. Obviously you can’t recruit queer women to partake in musical theater. We are a minority, but I don’t know why…maybe the future holds the opportunity for that type of woman to be interested in theater. Right now, we’re not really telling those stories, so why would a young queer girl be drawn to it? I mean that in the sense of being an artist and an audience member, being a part of it in all aspects, arts administration, all of those components. I don’t know, do you have answers?
KB: No, I would never say something like that. I wouldn’t have been smart enough to even say that.
KW: Visibility is important; if you can’t see someone doing it…having the first black President, possibly the first female President, so young people can see…I can do that too.
KB: To me, that’s what Fun Home represented. We’ve heard gay male stories…
AP: So many times.
KB: It’s like everything else. The guys got there first. I was talking to a lesbian friend of mine about Fun Home, and she had decided she didn’t like it because she didn’t think we should know that the father kills himself from the beginning. And I was like.. anything else? She said no. And I said: okay, may I challenge you please to open your heart a bit bigger? That could be the artifact of the source material. You’re taking this one thing about the storytelling and have decided you don’t like this piece that is trailblazing like a giant comet through our lives. You’ve got to open your heart a little bigger.
AP: That’s a great example. I don’t think that queer women root for themselves in that sense the way that gay men do.
KB: Have you watched The Women? They’re so awful to each other and as I grew up, I was shocked to find out that’s how straight women relate to each other. They will take each other down.
KW: Women are pitted against each other so constantly, from a young age.
MT: People think there’s only one cake. So if you don’t get in there, you won’t get a piece. But it’s like actually there’s hundreds of cakes around you.
KB: That’s right.
AP: I think, in terms of normalizing and visibility, I think it irritates me that as a community, that men and women who are gay don’t come together more often. There are some gay men, I absolutely don’t want to generalize here, but there are some gay men that love their gay female friends. But there’s still that niche of gay men to whom we’re a bunch of jokes. You always say the example about when the AIDS crisis came, the lesbian community were the first to come to their side and take care of them. When your friends were dying…
KB: When it came down to it, yes, absolutely.
AP: And I would like to think gay men could support us in return.
KB: I know, I remember I introduced you at a party to a casting director and said, “This is my girlfriend, Andrea” and she’d been in for him before, and he did like a big cartoon eyes thing. Then later he comes over to me and says, “I’m sure she’s delighted that you told me she’s your girlfriend.” And I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “I’m sure she wants me to know she’s gay.” Meaning that I never should’ve done that because she’s an ingenue.
AP: And he’s gay!
KW: It’s within our community and these stereotypes – we should be the first to break them, and yet…
AP: I think it’s what makes me an interesting ingenue.
KW: Do you think your experience as a queer woman informs your acting?
KW: Some of the ingenue roles are just so thin. You’re a prop for something else or for the male lead so much of the time.
AP: And we blame the actresses sometimes, but it’s the source material; it’s not heavy to begin with. Last summer the choreographer, and I love this quote, said, “You’re the anti-ingenue.” I love that. I should put that on my website as a pull-quote.
KW: Obviously the competition for female roles is steep and the roles that do exist can be pretty two-dimensional and sparse; have you ever gotten a show or an audition or an offer that you’ve turned down because you didn’t connect with it or were offended by it?
KB: My thing is always…there are three reasons to take a job. And one can trump the other two. Sorry, I said Trump. Personal satisfaction, prestige, and money. I’ve recently added health insurance, for real. I’m doing a job coming up and the deciding factor will be that I’d get the four weeks for health insurance, because it’s certainly not the money or prestige.
AP: There’s a lot of shows I’ve been in where I just disagree entirely with the plot. Like I was thinking, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers…
KB: Annie Get Your Gun!
AP: I did that show and I just hated it the whole time I was in it. I had the choice to not audition, ultimately I sometimes have to swallow my feminism a bit and choke it down in the sense…I just don’t understand why we’re still telling that story. Why are we still doing that?
KB: I’m not a fan of that show. I don’t know that it really has a place in 2016.
KW: I keep thinking about what you said about being in-out vs. being out-out, and I was rewatching Ellen Page’s coming out speech like a week ago…
AP: Ugh, it was so good.
KW: She said that she felt like she was lying by omission by not being out. Do you feel like people who aren’t out are lying by omission? Did you feel that way?
KB:I don’t think I did personally, because I was so wrapped up in religion and expectation and wading through all that, it felt like for the longest time just like bad news and how am I gonna break this to people? First, how am I gonna try to get rid of it? Then, how am I gonna embrace it? Then, how am I gonna show others it isn’t scary? I’m older, it’s a lot different.
AP: We’ve definitely had very different experiences.
KB: Now I can say, oh, that’s my girlfriend. Also, when you get to a certain age, towards your 50s, people ask are you married? No. Oh, um, do you have kids? No. If you’re being in, at 50, saying no to those questions, it’s a very different person. To me, the test of whether a girl was gay in high school and college…it was the girl who was with the gang, but kinda separate, an observer, she caught the comedy, she very often was a comedic person, and never talked about a boy.
AP: You use comedy as a vehicle.
KW: What about you?
AP: I waited until…I was telling friends and my sisters, but I was waiting to tell my parents until I was completely on my own financially. I was on my own as soon as I graduated college, so I was wanting to get that apartment and get out of their house as soon as I could. A couple months after graduating, I was dating my first girlfriend, and she broke up with me, and it was my first heartbreak. It was so overwhelming, they knew something was wrong. I told them, and it was a very emotional experience. My grandpa had just died, and my dad was in a very emotional place, and my mom, she can be very matter-of-fact, and she doesn’t cry, but my dad is way more theatrical and emotional. My dad just cried and my mom just sat there and listened and said, “We kinda had a feeling…”
KW: They always know before you do!
AP: Yes! I said, “I waited until I moved out because I was scared you were gonna disown me.” We can laugh about it now but I really did think…you expect the worst.
KW: Especially if you grow up in a family that is religious in any way at all, even if it’s in a small way.
AP: Catholicism has an effect. My dad just cried and said nothing would ever make me stop loving you. I still cry every time I say that.
KW: After all we’ve talked about…where do you see us in ten years? Where do you want theater to be?
AP: I want to see more gender-bending. I wanna see women playing Aaron Burr. I wanna see more of that. It’s funny to think about what we’re seeing illuminated by the activism in theatre right now. In the 60s, the Civil Rights Movement happened and there were these raising consciousness groups, and there were all these women’s groups that were like, we’re fighting about race but we’re also all still second class to these men. It’s that pecking order. Intersectionality, right? I want to see all of it at once in a way. I wanna see us work on all of them all the time and work on that in theater and tell those stories and have opportunities for women and men of color and minorities overall. There’s such a disparity of roles.
KB: Well, that’s why I was like…come on, Hazel. But that role doesn’t come along. It doesn’t exist.
KW: It’s a great part. You wish that there were ten parts like that.
KB: And it just doesn’t exist! Exactly. It could join the ranks of like, does Dolly get a guy? We don’t care. Does Rose get a guy? We don’t care.
KW: That’s part of what I loved about it. The love story was never the focus. The central question isn’t whether or not she’ll find a man.
KB: That’s what I think is actually Merman-esque about it, having nothing to do with Merman. But she was a star. She had thirteen Broadway hits. Thirteen! But none of them depended on the guy, nobody cared. Yeah, in Annie Get Your Gun, she throws the contest at the end so he can think he’s the big man so that one she ends up with him, but the other ones…it’s not the central thing. You didn’t need a guy’s name with her name. That’s all that anybody cared about, at a time when Broadway was a major growing concern. That’s what attracted me to Hazel, and is one of the things I think they need to do to it. Make it Hazel’s story. Focus that thing and just…people wanna know about Hazel, not because I’m Hazel, but the same thing happened with Hello Dolly! out of town. People didn’t want Act I to end with a song about how Horace became half a millionaire. We just wanna get back to Dolly.
KW: At least everyone I have heard talk about the show or what I’ve read, Hazel is what people are responding to. She’s the heart of the show.
AP: The work ahead is very exciting to think about.
KB: Taking that story, making it more. My questions became, if we’re going to encourage Mrs. Baxter to have it all, why can’t Hazel have it all? This millionaire guy dates her and it’s like, no, I’m gonna stay with the family…that I met last week. It doesn’t make sense. Those things could be more realistic and valid. And why can’t she date a millionaire and have a job? And why can’t Mrs. Baxter have a job?
KW: It’s very subtle, the way it’s done, but there’s a level of classism in the show as well. You do feel that she’s “working class,” that she’s the help.
KB: That’s right, absolutely. I think that should be fixed. Hazel has to come out on top on every question. And she should solve every problem. That’s what she does! To me, it’s so exciting, I hope they get it right, because I will play her forever. You would have to kick me out of my Broadway dressing room, you would have to ask me cordially to leave after like 30 years. I’d be like, nope, I like taking naps between shows on Wednesdays, I like having my soup sent in, I would not want to leave. It’s taken me so long to get to where I am. I was just thinking the other day, it’s kind of obnoxious to say, but lately I’ve done a string of roles where I get the last bow. And that’s just a fact; it’s how it is. It’s awesome, what an awesome thing! I’m hoping ten years from now that I look back and that I have opportunities to create things, do things, and that I stuck in this long.
KW: They say if you’re not a soprano, you won’t work steadily until your 40s…
KB: Yes, exactly! And I am hoping that’s true. ‘Cause once the Reno Sweeney years were over, the Gypsy years arrived, now that time has come. I hope it’s a long train. And a lot of stuff gets sent to me now, new stuff…Let’s see. One of them, there’s one called Vanishing Point, I love this piece so much… It’s about Aimee Semple McPherson, Agatha Christie, and Amelia Earhart, all of whom vanished. Aimee Semple McPherson who walked out of the dessert saying that she had no idea what happened to her, and then Agatha Christie disappeared for days and found her car wrecked by the side of the road, and she was registered at a nearby hotel under the name of her husband’s mistress. So three different experiences of women vanishing. It’s so smart. I did concept things and Agatha Christie was always Alison Frasier, I was Aimee, and Amelia has changed a couple times…you’d be a great Amelia Earhart.
AP: Cast me!
KW: There it is! There’s your show together.
KB: Yes!!! There it is!
AP: Oh, babe, we did it!
KB: That could actually be good. It’s been struggling, but stuff I get asked to do, I say yes yes yes unless there’s a reason to say no. They don’t want me for Seven Brides but let’s say no. If you can, just say yes. My whole career is a series of what happened because I said yes. Interesting combinations of things you could not have made up. So, I’m gonna do more of that.