Of all the little things making Donna Migliaccio merry on this rainy afternoon in her dressing room, she might be enjoying the bruise kit the most. The compact of glum-colored greasepaint could have wound up on the face of a suburban trick-or-treater. Instead, it is transforming this pleasant-faced redhead into Mrs. Lovett, the gleeful but haggard butcher of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd."
And it was cheap!
"I picked it up at Cosmetic Center. They're going out of business, lucky for me," explains Migliaccio, as she deftly dabs flat olive color under her eyes. Signature Theatre has revived "Sweeney Todd" this season to celebrate its 10th anniversary and to showcase Migliaccio, its signature musical theater actress. But that doesn't mean the acclaimed Shirlington company can afford a makeup artist for its star.
So here she sits, putting on her face, ever the practical professional. She peers at the newly created hollows under her eyes. "I have to keep reminding myself," says Migliaccio, "it doesn't matter if I look good. You know, it was fun to do this in your thirties. Now, it takes so long to be presentable just to go out on the street."
This is supposed to be a throwaway line, a bit of self-deprecation, delivered with the tiniest pout, but her laugh gives it the lie. It's a rich, throaty, pleased-with-itself laugh, full of confidence. At 43, Migliaccio has developed an assurance about who she is, onstage and off. Years after she burst away from a pack of community theater players and earned a 1992 Helen Hayes Award as outstanding actress for Mrs. Lovett, she is heavier, but happier, too. The chance for ingenue parts may be gone, but that's good. She likes being older. "There are fewer of me who are out there now," says Migliaccio. "People develop other priorities" than acting.
The day job as a legal secretary is gone, retired on a string of generally glowing reviews and almost annual nominations for the Helen Hayes Awards, the honor given each year for the best work on Washington's stages. She's a full-time actress now. Her self-trained voice, big and enveloping and complex, is better than ever. Her comedic timing is excellent. But more than anything else, she's lived more--and used her experiences to inform her work.
"Donna has great instincts," says Eric Schaeffer, who founded Signature with Migliaccio. "That is the driving force of what she's done. The smarter she becomes, the smarter she is as an actress. She has a whole different sense of maturity than she had before."
Set in 19th-century London, "Sweeney Todd" is the grisly tale of a barber bent on revenge. A crooked judge has used his authority to send Sweeney away, so as to have at the barber's comely wife. When Sweeney returns, Mrs. Lovett, a pragmatic woman with a flinty knowledge of her own shortcomings, tells him that his wife has gone insane from her abuse by the judge, who has taken Todd's daughter and is raising her as his own.
Matter-of-factly, Mrs. Lovett allows that she has problems, too: She bakes the worst meat pies in London, and business is rotten. She agrees to rent Todd her upstairs for his barbershop, where he decides to practice on a few throats before slicing up the judge. Mrs. Lovett, as cheerful as Sweeney is twisted, tries to solve everything by turning the barber's victims into pounds of spiced pie filling.
On Broadway, Angela Lansbury played the part for laughs. The first time around, Migliaccio did, too, when Signature presented the show in 1991. In its review, The Washington Post wrote: "A real sparkplug of an actress (and a wonderful singer to boot), she imbues this immoral lady with bushels of warmth, craftiness and energy."
In this staging, which runs through Oct. 31, the shading is vastly different. "Last time, it was the melodrama," Migliaccio says. "This is the psychodrama version. Eric doesn't want to do it easy. He never wants to do it easy."
This time, Migliaccio brings a wistfulness, an almost aching yearning, to Mrs. Lovett, who longs in vain for Sweeney to love her. It's still darkly funny, but deeply sad, too.
"She has very little pedestrian dreams," says Migliaccio of her character. "She wants a respectable life. She wants a little money. Of course, she doesn't care how she gets it." Married for six years, Migliaccio now has a deeper appreciation for Mrs. Lovett's loneliness as a widow. Says Schaeffer: "She has a richer understanding of the love relationship and the stakes. She has that commitment in her own life, so the emotional ties are much stronger between her and Sweeney. She is not just this buffoon woman."
Played this way, it's a shattering role. "Oh, I have had some times in rehearsals when I go [offstage] and have myself a little moment," says Migliaccio. "Because if you don't invest yourself in this stuff you might as well stay home. You have to stay centered. I go home to my husband and my house on my quiet cul-de-sac in Vienna and my great back yard, with the wind chimes and all those things you are supposed to have in your back yard."
Defiantly proud of her lack of formal training, Migliaccio doesn't go see many other shows. "I'm naughty. I don't. Part of it is selfish--I don't want to be in a theater on my day off," she says. "And part of it is I think it can limit you, if all you do and see and breathe and live is theater. You have to expose yourself to other things and other people."
Theatrical producer John Moran, whom Migliaccio calls her professional mentor, says: "There are people who are born into this planet who are naturally gifted, and she was given the skills. She has the voice, the presence, the intelligence and the desire. When those elements are combined, you have a winner.
"And, she is meticulous, and she will work at it until she gets it right. She always wants to work with someone better than her."
And maybe, it's just in the genes.
Before Donna Migliaccio, there was the high-kicking Margie Marlowe and her Dancing Debutantes. Donna's mother, Margie Lillard, is 78 now, but she hung up her tap shoes just two years ago. Before that last performance, near her home in Clarksville, Tenn., "I told them I wouldn't die during the show," she says tartly.
Lillard's tour as a big-time professional dancer before World War II ended when she was about 20, and she married a career Army man. She moved around the world with him 26 times. They had seven children and lived through his three tours in Vietnam. Donna was born in Germany. She is smack in the middle.
"Fort Benning, Fort Bragg, Fort Leavenworth, Fort Campbell," says Lillard, over the telephone. Like her daughter, she has a lovely dusky voice and nearly sings out the words. One of the ways she provided stability for her brood was to get them onstage at nearly every post or town. Make-believe alongside war apparatus. She did the choreography, and her kids filled out the chorus.
Donna "just loved it," Lillard recalls. "She was never afraid to be the first one up to read, [but] her hands would be shaking like a leaf, and I would think, 'Oh, she will never do it.' But then she would be completely composed and do beautifully. She got rejected a lot. She would know she wasn't going to get the lead, and she would weep a bit over it, and then go back and try to get what she could out of it."
"Oh, yes, I always wanted to be the star," agrees Migliaccio.
The sturdy emotional health she projects comes from those years as an Army brat. "We moved so much, that's how I learned to roll with it. It takes a lot to flap me. You can't just moan and say"--she throws her hand to her forehead and affects her best fragile Southern belle drawl--"Oh, ah jess cain't go on."
Indeed, after getting a degree at the University of Hawaii in journalism, Migliaccio set aside the theater life as too flimsy. She moved to Virginia and got a job in publications at the Labor Department. "I just worked. I figured, now I'm a grown-up, so I have to work and go home," she said.
But at 27, she up and cut her hair and pierced her ears, put on a leotard and a kerchief and auditioned for the part of Rizzo, the gum-cracking wise-mouth in a local community theater production of "Grease." The director told her later that as soon as she walked in the door, he said to himself: "That's her."
The next year, she played Nancy in "Oliver!" at a community theater and met a young, blond set painter, fresh out of college. Eric Schaeffer had moved to Virginia to take a job at an ad agency, but in his spare time he was hanging around backstage. They worked a few shows together.
"I really liked him," she says. "He had this real charisma. And we had this similar shared vision--that there was enough talent in Northern Virginia for a small professional theater to be supported."
When the pair founded Signature in 1989, The Post panned their first production and sneered at their lofty aims to present contemporary plays, reinvigorate American musical theater and restage classics. Now Signature is widely considered a dazzling regional theater, known for its chancy, inventive stagings in its intimate space, hard by the auto-body shops of Shirlington. Schaeffer is much in demand, headed to Broadway next month to direct Sondheim's "Putting It Together" and to London in the spring to direct Cameron Mackintosh's new musical, "The Witches of Eastwick."
Migliaccio stepped aside from her role as managing director at Signature in 1995, after the theater's board voted to reduce her salary. "I cried off and on for about six months," she says frankly. "I was so adrift. But it was all for the best. I want to practice my craft, not wake up in the middle of the night and worry about whether I have done the taxes right."
She says she never considered not working again with Schaeffer, who has showcased her in "The Fix" and Sondheim's "Into the Woods" and "A Little Night Music."
"How could I not? He is one of the hottest directors going, and he is a lot of fun to work with. I would have turned into a bitter bitch," she says. The ever-smooth Schaeffer describes this period of strain between them as "unfortunate growing pains."
"We have grown from it and become better friends," he says. "We both have a really high mutual respect for each other's work. She is so talented. People come up to me and say, 'Why isn't she in New York?' "
But the former Army brat now would prefer to stay put. She's appeared at other local theaters--Arena Stage, Olney, Ford's. She would like to break out of musical theater and do some straight plays, certainly, but "I've been very lucky. I can stay home in my garden and do some pretty challenging roles." She bakes bread. She watches birds. She grows tomatoes and puts them up. Her Italian in-laws have entrusted her with the family sausage recipe, although, she wryly admits, while inhabiting the persona of Mrs. Lovett she has little appetite for meat.
She has always read like a demon, lots of true stories about serial killers. "I am fascinated by them," Migliaccio says. "What makes them disconnect? I don't understand them, and one day, I am going to figure them out."
Husband John Migliaccio, 36, is not in show business.
"No no no no no! Polar opposite," says Donna. "He's an engineer. He's a touchstone for me. This is a great business to be in, but it's not real."
They met when she was performing in a political revue called "Mrs. Foggybottom and Friends" a decade ago, and he asked for an introduction.
They have made their sacrifices for her life onstage.
In the dressing room, she explains why she has no children, without being asked. "We got married on my 37th birthday, and my husband didn't want them. And," she adds lightly, "I was not going through puberty and menopause at the same time." Later, over a beer, she acknowledges the occasional twinge of regret.
"There is no way I could have a family," she says. "For me, that is something you do without. For me, I would have to stay with my kids. When you have a job, you have to work the job--New Year's, my in-laws' 50th anniversary. . . ."
And the pay isn't great, either--less than $250 a week. Asked about the money, Migliaccio just throws back her head and laughs.
"It's spotty," she says. "Let's put it this way. I have a very tolerant husband."
He does have his "grumbly days," she says, like when he has to go to the Helen Hayes Awards. He finds them "boring as hell," Migliaccio says, "but he looks so good in a tuxedo."
Weekends, when she is off, the couple goes to shooting competitions. "I put on these earmuffs and watch him compete, you know, for accuracy. It's very interesting, very different from the theater crowd. It's a right-wing, left-wing kind of thing," and it gives her a chance to listen--to dialect, to timing, to passion.
The listening is why she's stayed away from television and movies. "I need the give and take of the audience," Migliaccio says. "The most valuable thing is learning to listen. It's an imperative for comedy. You need to get permission. I need approval before I make my move--is this okay? Am I okay? We're really sad, us actors. We're so insecure.
"It's fascinating to hear an audience's silence," she says, and leans forward to enunciate each word: "Hearing them waiting is the coolest thing in the world."