Interview with Melissa Errico

Melissa Errico: Actress, Singer and Author

Melissa is best known for her starring roles on Broadway, but her career is characterized by diverse interests in many creative corners of show business. She has had a steady career in television, appeared in feature films, and performed in non-musical roles in Off-Broadway plays by Shaw, Wilde, and others. She has also explored music as both a recording artist and concert singer, releasing several music albums and working with some of the world’s best symphonies and jazz and cabaret spaces. More recently, she established herself as a writer, publishing essays in The New York Times and beyond. As a musical theater actress, she starred in the Broadway musicals Anna Karenina, My Fair Lady, High Society, Dracula, White Christmas, and Amour which won her a Tony Award nomination for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical and began a longtime association with its composer Michel Legrand. Melissa was recently honored with a caricature at Sardi’s in celebration of her Broadway starring theatrical performances, her concerts as well as her engaging essays for The New York Times on the actor’s art.

Her latest album Sondheim Sublime was released to critical acclaim, with The Wall Street Journal calling it, “The best all-Sondheim album ever recorded.” And throughout 2017, 2018, and 2019, Melissa performed successful and extended runs at Feinstein’s/54 Below of her solo concert “Melissa Sings Sondheim” celebrating the music of Stephen Sondheim and won raves when she brought it to London’s Live at Zédel for her sold-out UK concert debut co-written with Adam Gopnik in 2018. She also brought her Sondheim program to The Ravinia Festival in the fall of 2018 and appeared again at Feinstein’s/54 Below in for the new Sondheim CD release in November 2018. Her 2019 Sondheim performances include playing The Baker’s Wife in three concert performances of Into the Woods with Tony Award-winner Alice Ripley in March, the run of “Wordplay” at Lyrics & Lyricists produced by Ted Chapin for the 92nd Street Y in April, and being a featured performer on the forthcoming PBS Poetry in America portrait of Stephen Sondheim. Melissa also returned to London in May 2019 to Live at Zédel with her Sondheim concert after her sold-out run in 2018.

Melissa’s professional debut at age 18 was as Cosette in the premiere national tour of Les Misérables. Her Broadway credits include Anna Karenina, the revival of My Fair Lady in which she played Eliza Doolittle (The New York Times called her “beguiling”). She went on to star on Broadway in High Society, Amour (Tony Award nomination for Best Leading Actress in a Musical), Dracula the Musical, and Irving Berlin’s White Christmas. At The Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, she starred in The Sound of MusicMy Fair Lady (with John Lithgow), and Camelot (with Jeremy Irons). She has worked with Stephen Sondheim on the revival of Sunday In the Park with George (Dot/Marie at The Kennedy Center), followed by John Doyle’s production of Passion (Clara) for which she was nominated for a sixth Drama Desk Award, and most recently as Leona in the 2016 Encores! production of Do I Hear A Waltz? at City Center. In 2016 she also reprised the role of Sharon in the smash hit Off-Broadway revival of Finian’s Rainbow at Irish Repertory Theatre, which was extended three times, received rave reviews and was filmed in January 2017 for The Lincoln Center Library. She has also starred in plays by Shaw, Oscar Wilde and Wally Shawn and last year starred in another acclaimed Irish Repertory production of On A Clear Day You Can See Forever.

Her solo CDs include Blue Like That (EMI/Capitol Records), Lullabies & Wildflowers (Universal), Legrand Affair (Ghostlight/Sony), and What About Today? Melissa Errico Live at 54 Below (Broadway Records; CD & DVD). In December 2017, Melissa had a new single release (Ghostlight/Warner Music Group) “Hurry Home” written by multiple Oscar-winner Michel Legrand, made an accompanying music video with filmmaker Gary Gardner, and proudly sings it on the title credits of the film Max Rose.

Television roles include the series Central Park West by Darren Star, recurring roles on Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick (Catherine), and Showtime’s Billions (June). Melissa also recently finished shooting a role in The Magnificent Meyersons, an Eric Oppenheimer film with Kate Mulgrew (2019 release). Her other feature films include Frequency with Dennis Quaid and Life or Something Like It as Angelina Jolie’s character’s best friend.

Melissa has also served on The National Endowment for the Arts, and has published essays for The New York Times, and is a contributing essayist in Cristina Cuomo’s The Purist and other magazinesShe is married to tennis player and sports commentator, Patrick McEnroe, and they have three young daughters and a Yorkie named Pepper.

(From Melissa Errico’s website – https://melissaerrico.com)

Melissa just recently had a FIAF concert event with Adam Gopnik: https://fiaf.org/event/2020-10-errico-gopnik. Two more dates will be added soon!

TSM: Melissa, thank you so much for making time to do this interview. It’s truly an honor to have you in the magazine. 
 
ME: Wonderful to speak with you again. All my moments these days are stolen moments – I’m raising three girls, fourteen and twins of eleven, right through the pandemic  – so any time I can stop to reflect rather than react feels like a gift.

TSM: What inspired you to get into acting and singing? Are there other performers in your family?
 
ME: I grew up with many creative people around. My father is a classical pianist, and my mother is a very exciting, fun person; as well as a sculptor and painter. She loves theatre, costumes and all things a bit “heightened” like beautiful modern dance or opera. She was simply thrilled when I’d do a school play – she would lend me her clothes, nightgowns and jewelry. She just loved all the “hooplah” as well as the emotions of the stories. My father always loved the ballads and the touching, sad songs. I think he was always drawn to the one incredible love song or something reflective like “Simple” from Nine, or “Glad To Be Unhappy” from On Your Toes. So, in a way, I may have both of my parents all the time – a bit of a zany, neurotic comedian and a TOTAL romantic.

TSM: Tell us about the new music you recently released?

ME: I wanted to make music that spoke to this moment in history without being swamped by this moment in history. Something soulful, but not entirely sad. I realized that summer in 2020 was coming upon us like no other summer in memory, without preparation or even anticipation, just landing on us, and so I had the idea of recording ‘spring songs for summer’ – two pensive classics of the season of new beginnings that would somehow carry over into the usual summer season of carefree pleasure. There was the great Michel Legrand song, with the Bergmans’ finest lyric, “You Must Believe In Spring” and a quietly heartbreaking song by Alec Wilder, “Blackberry Winter’, that fans have been pressing on me for years.  A ‘blackberry winter’ is Southern slang for a sudden frost in the middle of a warm spring. I thought that kind of abruptly, altering emotion was one we would all respond to right now. I recorded them remotely with my beloved accompanist, Tedd Firth physically far away – so it’s very much music of this moment in that sense, too.
https://melissaerrico.com/portfolio/two-spring-songs-for-summer

TSM: You act on stage, TV and film. However, with your long resume of theatrical shows, would you say that performing on stage is your first love? And is there one role in particular that stands out as a favorite for you? Finally, what was one of your most memorable moments on stage?
 
ME: Yes, theatre is my life. When I walk into a theatre, my body breathes differently. I feel reverence. I feel it is an important place. I am starting to feel that way about a piano. Anywhere there is a piano is a special place. I feel that making music is life-saving for me. The role that will always stand out for me is Eliza Doolittle. I was twenty two years old, and it was a great challenge and honor to play that role on Broadway. I loved her and I had a “take” on her which I think was my own. One of the most memorable moments of my life was re-visiting Eliza for a short weekend of performances in Los Angeles in 2003 at The Hollywood Bowl, and doing the Ascot scene with Higgins played by John Lithgow. I had never heard an audience laugh that hard. There were 20,000 people in stitches. Something extremely silly and inspired overtook John and me that night and we enjoyed doing My Fair Lady so much. I can also say that in the Summer of 2010… I did a one-night-only concert of Brigadoon on Broadway which was absolutely magical. I actually think that whole company forgot about reality for two hrs. We were in a fairy dream. (The cast included: Jason Danieley, Christine Ebersole, Len Cariou). Oh dear, I have a third favorite!!!…One Touch of Venus by Kurt Weill!

TSM: You starred opposite Jeremy Irons in Camelot, and with Alec Baldwin in Gift of the Gordon. Personally, I’m a huge admirer of both their work. What was it like working with them?

ME: They are both very different (mostly just because one is so very English), but they both work harder than anyone in the room, and work from a place of such personal freedom and truth. Jeremy and I have been friends since we did Camelot in LA together in 2006, which I did pregnant (it was very early on so I wasn’t showing). We had an incredible experience with it and were happy to be asked to reprise it. Jeremy is always the first to rehearsal, and works hard to highlight his lines and pays close attention to all his fellow actors and bonds with everyone. He takes a motorcycle to work and rides himself around Manhattan. He is a rock star. He always seems to have endless focus and time. He doesn’t like to be rushed, and rehearses carefully and thoughtfully. His King Arthur was so charming and profound, and Jeremy has a terrific musicality and a warm caressing voice.

Alec Baldwin and I co-starred in Gift of The Gorgon, the US premier of Peter Schaffer’s play, for a one-night only occasion at Guild Hall in East Hampton. It was a harrowing experience – the characters are insanely in love, but tear at each other, and have a rugged intellectual and ultimately very destructive life story. As it turns out, Alec and I dove into the performance, and it was almost wild. It took me a week to recover. Alec is a very passionate, brilliant man; and this role gave him a chance to be funny (of course), but also heartbreakingly angry  and ruthless. I am always wishing to work with either of them again. I can’t say enough good words.

TSM: With all your stage experiences, I imagine you must have had some embarrassing and/or funny moments on stage. Can you share one with us?
 
ME: In Anna Karenina on Broadway, I was singing a song while getting dressed (on stage), and I was supposed to dive into an enormous 19th-century hoop skirt. The waistline hook got badly stuck on my wig and I was stuck underneath the skirt for the entire song. I actually sang a good deal of the song under the skirt, and peeked out for a few lines and then finished underneath while making a very awkward comic exit. I was mortified.

TSM: How do you prepare for a role?
 
ME: I read the script. I listen to the songs (if there are recordings). I let it seep in. I dream about it. I go to rehearsal, and look at the faces around me and try to work with everything I can see in front of me. I try not to have plans. I don’t believe you can work on your own. I believe its all about interaction.
 
TSM: Is there a role that you would love to play that you haven’t yet?
 
ME: There are so many! Desiree in “Night Music” and, to take a left turn, Mame. And to take an even wilder left turn, I’d love someday to do my own sympathetic reading, as a mother who’s raised three young performers, of Mama Rose. Just as important, I’m trying my hand at writing material about women’s lives that I shape myself from history.
 
TSM: Your previous solo recordings are Blue Like That, Lullabies and Wildflowers, Legrand Affair, More Lullabies and Wildflowers, What About Today? – Live at 54 Below, and your 7th solo recording was Sondheim Sublime. You received rave reviews for the Sondheim Sublime album. The Wall Street Journal calling it “The best all-Sondheim album ever recorded.” That is high praise, and must have touched you in a profound way. Is there one song in particular that stands out as a favourite for you and why? 
 
ME: I loved them all, but “Not While I’m Around” was particularly dear to me. It comes from the strangest situation in “Sweeney Todd,” a love song offered  to a woman engaged in artisanal cannibalism, but I tried to turn it into a song of protection for all the endangered children of the world – my own included.

TSM: What was special about working with multi-Oscar winning composer Michel Legrand?
 
ME: Michel! I had the great honor of writing his elegy for the New York Times, and I tried to organize my memories there – I suppose the thing that I value most about our collaborations, in retrospect, was how unimpeded he was creatively. Music just flowed out of him like water from a fountain—a beautiful baroque French fountain. He didn’t waste time worrying or self-negating – he just made music. He was ‘in the flow’ more of the time than any artist I’ve known. 

TSM: Who are some of your performing artist influences?
 
ME: My favorites that just spring to mind are gals like: Rosemary Clooney, Oleta Adams, Sarah Vaughn, Judy Garland, Juliette Binoche, Bernadette Peters, Emma Thompson, Roberta Flack and Barbra Streisand. I also grew up loving Cyndi Lauper. I was also very influenced by the musical A Chorus Line.
 
TSM: If you had the power to do something in the world today, what would it be and why?
 
ME: I run a non-profit called Bowery Babes, founded in 2005. And it has touched my heart in countless ways. If I had the brains and influence, I’d love to do more of the same: bring women together, empowering them during their pregnancies and their experience of motherhood, and having resources to support parenting as children age. I think it’s really important, for example, that parents learn effective ways to talk to kids, to support them and acknowledge them. I’d love to see more systems supporting families and strengthening attitudes. http://www.bowerybabes.com
 
TSM: What is one of your favorite quotes (or lines) that inspires you?
 
ME: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent” (Eleanor Roosevelt)
 
TSM: Anything else you’d like to share? And where can readers find out more about you and your work?
 
ME: One of the great joys of the past five years is that I’ve begun to pursue a life as a writer as well as my familiar life as a performer. I’ve written a series of essays for the TIMES about what it feels like to actually do these strange things we do on stage, covering everything from being a’ terminal ingenue’ to making furtive audition tapes in my Bronxville basement. My ‘quarantine’ work, in addition to the Spring Songs, was a long personal essay about how my life with my daughters and husband in isolation got entangled with Louisa May Alcott and “Little Women.” If I’m lucky and persistent, I hope to get a book, adapted from those essays, completed and published, this year or next. https://melissaerrico.com/blog
 
TSM: Thanks again for doing this interview and wish you continued success with all you do in the future. 
 
ME: Thanks! You know, as I grow and get more confident as a woman and artist, the idea of ‘success’ – and of its continuation — becomes more self-defined. I’m singing my own songs now, for my own ends: it’s a wonderful feeling.

FIAF concert October 2020

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