Friday, October 9, 2009

Alison Fraser Comes Back, Comes Back

Alison recently spoke to about her return to George Street Playhouse and had such nice things to say about her experience working here, we're happy to share it. Alison Fraser, who recently brought much warmth and humor to the role of stripper Tessie Tura in the Patti LuPone revival of Gypsy, is that rare theatrical creature who moves easily between musical comedy and drama. Although her Broadway outings have mostly been in musicals — including Tony-nominated turns in Romance/Romance and The Secret Garden — her work at regional theatres around the country has included many dramatic turns. Luckily, audiences now have the pleasure of catching both the actress and the singer in the George Street Playhouse's production of Arthur Laurents' Come Back, Come Back, Wherever You Are, which is playing a limited engagement at the New Jersey venue through Nov. 1. The world premiere, which also features Tony Award winner Shirley Knight, casts Fraser as a nightclub singer coping with the loss of her husband and allows the gifted artist the chance to wrap her voice around a few standards. Last week I had the pleasure of chatting with Fraser about her newest role, her return to the classroom and her plans for the future; that interview follows.

Question: How did this role in Come Back, Come Back, Wherever You Are come about?
Alison Fraser: You know, it was amazing. I was on the Cape, and I was busy feeling sorry for myself, thinking, "Ah well, that was it. That was my career. I'll never get another job again." [Laughs.] And, [George Street Playhouse artistic director] David Saint called me and said that a role had become available in Arthur Laurents' new piece and would I like to have at it? I'm like, "Oh, my God!" Sometimes, ever so wonderfully, there is spring. All of a sudden I had this beautiful artistic opportunity ahead of me working with basically my favorite people in show business. I love the George Street Playhouse. I definitely regard it as my artistic home, and I'm crazy about David Saint. And, of course, Arthur is a huge influence on me in my life and in my career.

Question: I know you worked with Laurents in Gypsy. Had you worked with him before that?
Fraser: No, Gypsy was the first time. We had known each other before that, though, because he is very good friends with David Saint. He had come to see me, I believe, in Gunmetal Blues, the last show I did at the George Street Playhouse a few years ago. He came to see me, and we started having dinner together and one day he said, "Would you like to be my Tessie Tura?" You don't really think twice about that. You go, "Well this is a show that's out there somewhere in the ether," little realizing that this is Arthur Laurents, and he gets things done! So lo and behold I got the call for the show, and we were blessed enough to turn it into a Broadway run, and I got to work with Patti LuPone, Boyd Gaines, Laura Benanti.

Question: Looking back on the Gypsy experience, does anything stand out in your mind?
Fraser: Well, Patti's a goddess. Her work ethic is absolutely superb. She absolutely raised the bar for everybody in that company. Watching the two of them, Arthur and Patti, work together was a great joy. You just saw these amazing minds melding and coming up with fabulous fireworks in the theatre. And watching Laura and Boyd… everybody was good. I'm working with Jim Bracchitta again, and Jim was in [Gypsy], too. And, I think the first time we were in the Broadway theatre looking around and hearing for how many kids it was their first Broadway experience. Oddly enough, it was Bill Raymond's first Broadway experience, too, and of course he's been a stalwart on the Off-Broadway scene for years with Mabou Mines, and he's big on TV and movies, but it was his Broadway debut. So it was thrilling to see how many indelible memories Arthur gave to me with this wonderful crew of singer/dancer/actors.

Fraser: Obviously, it's much more concentrated. My part is very large — I'm in every scene but one. In Gypsy you just have that fabulous 20-minute chunk and the rest of the time Marilyn Caskey and I would be reading "The Aeneid" out loud to each other in the dressing room. I don't know if you know this, but I go to Fordham University. I was having trouble concentrating backstage. I think I was taking a classics course, and I was having trouble reading "The Iliad." And then my sister Laurie, who basically knows everything, said, "Try reading it out loud." And I said, "Okay great." So I started reading it very, very softly to myself in the dressing room, and Marilyn said, "Let's just read it to each other." It was like the Aging Strippers Reading Club. [Laughs.] We wound up going through about 15 books in the year that we were on Broadway. We did "Anna Karenina," "Tale of Two Cities," "Great Expectations," we did "The Iliad," "The Odyssey," "The Aeneid," "Jason and the Search of the Golden Fleece." It was really astonishing how much literature you can get through if you have an houreveryday. The point is I wasn't needed onstage a hell of a lot. What was there was choice, as Spencer Tracy said to Katharine Hepburn, but [it was] sparse.

This show I'm much more in demand as far as my time is concerned. I have very little downtime. And the downtime that I have is spent changing, because I have fabulous clothes! . . . It's also a very deep subject. It's about loss and life after loss and what you need to maintain a meaningful existence when the most important thing in your life has been taken away from you, and admitting to yourself that you do need human contact and you need help getting through devastating emotional loss. Both Arthur and I, of course, went through that. And Shirley, too, Shirley Knight — goddess! I can't believe I'm actually working with her. She's been like my favorite actress since — I think Kennedy's Children was the second Broadway show I ever saw in New York. When David [Saint] told me who I was working with I was like, "You're kidding! You are kidding!" She always has been one of my favorites, probably my favorite. She's just so smart and so lovely. She's really the Patti of this piece. She really raises the bar, and it's thrilling to be a witness to that clockwork mind. It's amazing. It's like, "Wow, that woman is really thinking about what she's doing."

Question: How have rehearsals been going so far?
Fraser: It's a joy. You wouldn't think it would be a joy to get on a train and go out to New Jersey, not that New Jersey isn't a lovely state! [Laughs.] But I so look forward to work everyday. What is more blessed than that? I love my job, and already I'm experiencing pangs of regret that it's going to be over. It's like having this fabulous love affair. It can't last, and it's like, "Damn!" This is the horrible part of the ephemeral nature of theatre. Every show closes, except Phantom of the Opera and, I guess, The Mousetrap? But most theatre does [close] and already I'm going, "Oh, my God, I'm going to be so sad when this isn't a part of my everyday experience." I really love it. I just think it's a beautiful play, perfectly cast. Leslie Lyles and John Carter, man. Oh, my God, he's just great. It's also so wonderful sitting and watching, say, John Carter, who is an older gentleman, and Shirley, who has been around awhile, and, of course, Arthur, who is 92… You sit around and you think, "Wow, this is where I want to be when I am their age. I want to be productive and excited to have new experiences and to bring my experience to the table but to be completely open to new experiences." I'm sitting at this table listening to Arthur and Shirley talking . . . and then John, who famously worked with Edward Albee. I feel so privileged to be listening to them. I want to learn as much as I can from them. I want their essence to rub off on me somehow. Each one of the three of them — they are very wise and people with huge hearts.

Question: Tell me a little bit more about Sara, the character you're playing.
Fraser: Sara is a singer. She's quite a successful cabaret singer. She had a wonderful marriage to an extraordinary man, and he died of cancer. Of course, it's very similar to my life. I was married to a marvelous man [composer Rusty Magee], who died of cancer. She is just coming out of that shell period where, like a turtle, you've retreated to your shell. She's poking her head out of that shell and going, "How am I going to live the rest of my life?" She really has to come to terms with not only herself but also her family and a new love or maybe I should call it a "new like." Jim Bracchitta plays my love interest, and of course that's lots of fun because he's been a friend for years and years and years. I think that some people might be shocked by some of the wisdom that is imparted in this play. People do move on. People do have sexual urges despite having had an incredible marriage. Oddly enough, the bereaved can be censured for those natural urges. It was quite shocking to me, after Rusty died, when I started dating again. I was looked askance on. It was like, "Oh, really? Walk a mile in my shoes! After three years of cancer, you definitely need a few good days."

Question: How difficult is it reliving your experience through the character?
Fraser: Every once in awhile it really hits me because Arthur's way with words is so pointed, so focused. And, Arthur knows my story. My story is similar to Arthur's. The great loves of our lives had the same cancer doctor. They were in the same neurology unit at Sloan-Kettering. We can swap war stories. I think, for the most part, I can be objective. Also, it's so intensely Arthur's story, of course filtered through these lovely fictional characters. I have to say I think that the Rusty experience only deepens it. I don't think it makes it harder. Read more here

No comments: