Following in past actors’ footsteps, more Broadway stars take to the road
By Peter Marks,
You’d think that Alice Ripley might have had it with Diana Goodman by now. They’ve been together for so long — longer, in fact, than some marriages — that she finds it hard remembering a time when their fates weren’t linked.
Yet, here she is, a few hours before the next installment of her nightly embrace of Diana — not to see her, but to play her, in “Next to Normal,” for something on the order of the thousandth time — and talking about the irresistibility of going on, and on, and on, as her.
“I know there’s life after Diana,” she says of the fictional character, on the day that the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical started a short stay here, prior to moving on to the Kennedy Center. “But I’m wondering what life was like before Diana.”
The 47-year-old Ripley won the Tony Award in 2009 for her portrayal of Diana, the unhappy suburban mom whose chronic mental illness intensifies over the course of “Next to Normal,” a serious-minded musical measuring the effect of Diana’s sickness and treatments on her and those in her orbit. In the common practice of Broadway these days, a star closes out the account with the character and moves on before the show regenerates itself for a national tour.
But as the musical made plans to end a run that would stretch to 733 Broadway performances, Ripley was persuaded to stay on for the tour, which began last November in Los Angeles and comes to Washington on Tuesday for a two-week stand. It was unorthodox, though not unprecedented: Once upon a time long ago, top-of-the-line Broadway stars such as Mary Martin and Carol Channing more regularly went out on the road with their shows, after Broadway. Ripley, less a throwback than a free spirit, was stimulated by the potential for dissolving again into Diana — even if meant undertaking the grueling “if-it’s-Tuesday-this-must-be-Omaha” cycle of touring.
“I wanted to continue the hunt for the perfect performance of her, because there are so many threads to that tapestry,” she says over soup and half a sandwich across the street from Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, her latest transient workplace. “The road’s a tough life, but I said ‘yes,’ because as a kid growing up in Ohio, I never had a chance to see a Tony-winning actress in a role she won the Tony for. I thought that was a great reason to come out here.”
The time commitment, fatigue factor and other physical hardships of the road — for a singer like Ripley, that even includes adjusting to the divergent altitudes of American cities — dissuade the vast majority of name actors from touring. Still, actors who are able to acclimate themselves to living out of rolling suitcases can find an appeal in the cachet they bring to a tour. David Stone, “Next to Normal’s” lead producer, says that having Ripley as an attraction “has been incredibly valuable” at the box office, as well as for the show’s powerful impact. (She’s the only member of the original six-person Broadway cast who’s still on board.)
“Local presenters are able to say to their audiences, ‘We say we bring you the best of Broadway, and we mean it,’ ” Stone says.
The list of players you might have heard of who’ve hit the road in recent years is short, although illustrious: Cherry Jones toured the country with “Doubt,” the John Patrick Shanley play that won her one of her Tonys. Laurence Fishburne brought his portrayal of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall to select cities beyond New York. Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp, too, traveled in a nostalgia-laden production of “Rent” in 2009, fully 13 years after they originated their parts on Broadway. And Gavin Lee, a Tony nominee for his portrayal of Bert the chimney sweep in “Mary Poppins,” appeared last summer at the Kennedy Center in Disney’s touring version.
The rationales for going out of town may differ in each case, and still, they may have something in common with the thinking of another of their rarefied breed, Constantine Maroulis, who just so happens to be coming to Washington next month in the ’80s tribute musical “Rock of Ages,” just after the departure of “Next to Normal.” Maroulis left his Tony-nominated perch last year in the Broadway production, and signed on for the national tour, which comes to the National Theatre July 12.
“At the end of the day, it was the best business decision to make,” Maroulis says, by phone from Houston, where “Rock of Ages,” based on the music of such ’80s groups as Journey, Bon Jovi, Styx and Pat Benatar, was for the moment ensconced. “All these amazing A-list cities, and the opportunity to be reviewed in all of them. I’m taking around a product that I have a huge stake in, a brand I’ve helped build. As far as a business decision goes, it’s been prosperous for me.”
Maroulis, 35, became something of a brand as a result of the petulant-guy image he cultivated on Season 4 of “American Idol,” during which he finished a high-visibility sixth place. While “Idol” has propelled many contestants onto Broadway, he is the only one to have garnered a Tony nod, and that validation has given credence to his assertion that his intention always was to make theater a big part of his career.
Doubtless, though, it’s the persona he says he crafted for “Idol” that intensifies the curiosity about his “Rock of Ages” performance. “People follow me to every city we go to,” he says, adding that a portion of the “Idol” audience that he labels “the Constantine haters” come to “Rock of Ages” expecting “me to be the over-the-top rock star.” For the actor, there’s pleasure in the audience’s surprise when his character, Drew, turns out to be a softy.
Ripley lacked that kind of national media springboard. (The closest she’d come to that, she says, was as one of the finalists for the certifiably-crazy-diva role that Jane Krakowski eventually landed on “30 Rock.”) Her reputation has largely been burnished on stage, in New York. A Kent State University musical theater major, she first appeared on Broadway in “The Who’s Tommy,” later would be a replacement in the long-running “Les Miserables,” and then originated the ingenue role in the Broadway incarnation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Boulevard.”
“Sunset” gave her prominent, if not stellar exposure: she was overlooked at awards time. “George Hearn taught me that you learn that there are roles that are Tony roles and roles that are not,” she says of the veteran actor, who played Max the butler in “Sunset.”
Her breakthrough was supposed to occur when she was cast in the 1997 musical “Side Show,” about the Siamese twins Violet and Daisy Hilton, played by Ripley and her conjoined co-star, Emily Skinner.
The show was admired by critics but its exotic themes stifled ticket sales, and it went kaput inside of four months. “It was devastating,” Ripley says. Although some interesting parts materialized, by the mid-2000s she sensed opportunities drying up and moved to Southern California. For Ripley, all Los Angeles proved to be was a sun-drenched waiting area; she was back in New York, rehearsing “Next to Normal,” well before the decade was out.
Washington is a full-circle city for Ripley and “Next to Normal,” with music by Tom Kitt, lyrics by Brian Yorkey and direction by Michael Greif. It was here, at Arena Stage in the fall of 2008, that the musical — after receiving so-so reviews in its off-Broadway premiere — came for a retooling. Upon the finish of a successful D.C. run, it made its way to Broadway, in the process endowing Ripley with the role and renown she’d always dreamed of.
In this regard, it’s entirely understandable, the desire not to part ways with a part. “She came to my office and when I told her I thought she should do this, her eyes widened and she said, ‘Tell me all the reasons,’ ” Stone says of their conversation about the tour. “I told her, ‘You’re from Cleveland, you’ve performed in Washington, you started your career in San Diego and you should play L.A.’ ” He reminded her that those stars of yore, like Martin, created followings by touring the country with their shows: “When they came to New York, they would come to see her in another show, they were so grateful she had come to them.”
Ripley, too, found facets of Diana she still wanted to explore, investigations that promised to keep the role from going stale. “I used to see her the way everybody else sees her — I bought the labels,” she says. “But now I see her the way she sees herself.” That degree of emotional synchronization can be a drug. Not to mention the applause.
People come up to her at the stage door, in the street, confiding intimate things, about their own struggles, or those of loved ones, with mental illness. She says she often doesn’t know what to say, except to thank them for talking and by extension, acknowledging the effect of her performance. From city to city, she’s learned, the reaction doesn’t change. And thus far, neither has her curiosity about her character.
“Every time I play Diana,” she says, “it feels complete.”
Next to Normal, music by Tom Kitt, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey. Directed by Michael Greif. Through July 10 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.
Rock of Ages, book by Chris D’Arienzo. Directed by Kristin Hanggi. July 12 through 24 at National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania NW. Visit www.telecharge.com.