By PATRICK LEE
Melissa Errico has won acclaim as leading lady of musicals—her Broadway credits include Amour, Irving Berlin's White Christmas, and the 1993 revival of My Fair Lady—and of plays, such as Major Barbara and The Importance of Being Earnest at the Irish Repertory Theater. TDF recently spoke with the celebrated actress about her return to the theatre, her offstage role as a mother, and her star turn in the Irish Rep’s current revival of Candida, George Bernard Shaw’s comedy about a vivacious woman choosing between two men.
TDF: Did you miss performing while you were starting your family?
ME: If I missed anything, it was the familiarity with my life because I had reinforced the theatre as a big part of my identity. I had to give up a lot of my own stuff; when you’re a mother, all you want is that baby in your belly or in that crib to be okay. For someone like me, who was this Princess of Theatre….I couldn’t be that person anymore. That came to a crashing end. But I never felt, and I didn’t want to feel, like I had left something; it was that I was joining something else. I was going to pre-natal yoga and making new pregnant friends who didn’t care that I had been on Broadway. What eventually came of that was my non-profit group Bowery Babes, which connects neighborhood mothers both online and in person. I wasn’t sitting around thinking that I missed performing.
TDF: Would you say that Candida is a maternal character?
ME: How else can you play the part? Shaw’s writing about it is that everything is maternal indulgence. His note about playing her, and I know I am quoting this exactly, is: “Be entirely magnanimous and beautiful in your thoughts without regard to the success of the play or of yourself.” Nothing base. It’s not about a cougar or a gal trying to get a little something on the side because her husband can’t give it to her. She sees this boy, Eugene, who’s looking for something, and she wants to give him something sensual and beautiful; a spiritual orgasm, if you will. Then he can go out into the world believing in the best in women. What could be more maternal than that? I feel that motherhood is written there and that it’s described as one of her qualities.
TDF: You’ve had successes in Shaw before. Were his plays a big part of your training at Yale? [Errico received a Bachelor’s Degree from Yale and was briefly enrolled at Yale School of Drama, though she withdrew to accept a Broadway role. – Ed.]
ME: At 22 I starred in My Fair Lady for the first time, directed by Howard Davies, who was a great teacher to me. One of the characteristics of that edgy and very stylized production was his insistence on re-instating even more Shaw into the musical. [My Fair Lady is based on Shaw’s play Pygmalion. – Ed.]
I played Major Barbara here at Irish Rep in my late twenties. While I was at Yale, I took a summer workshop in Oxford with Brian Cox, who focused entirely on Shaw. But I didn’t have a constant theatre education at Yale; I was an art history and philosophy major. I was fascinated by a painter from the 1600’s named Artemisia Gentileschi who had been raped when she was seventeen. I got my hands on her original testimony, had it translated from Italian, and used that as my audition at Yale. The first characters I was involved with were ones from art; it’s how I learned about temperament. I’m very visual, which may be why I understand Tony Walton (Candida’s director and designer) so well.
TDF: Can you give an example of how he directs visually?
ME: Most of it has to do with staging. The one example that is coming to mind is a moment near the end of the play, when Candida asks a question first of Eugene and then of her husband. Tony asked Sam (Underwood, who plays Eugene) to take a step forward and for me to take a step back. Not a full step, almost like air. It was almost choreography. There are some actors who might be annoyed by that, who don’t want to be told to do a physical action without feeling it, but coming from musical theatre, I don’t have a problem with direction like that. For some reason Tony wants to see it, and I can interpret his visual information emotionally.
TDF: Is Candida a love story?
ME: I’m totally fascinated by it. I think it’s a love story, but sometimes I think it’s a very alternative play, and that by trying to achieve something with this boy, she’s letting a little weirdness pass through her house. Shaw writes that she is in a waking dream when she’s with Eugene, who’s always talking about moons and fairies and angels. Tony has imprinted me with just believing these beautiful things—she wants to give something beautiful to this boy and her husband should understand. Men have a hard time with that idea even today, don’t they?
Patrick Lee is a regular contributor to Theatermania and has written for various other theatre sites including BroadwaySpace. He blogs at Show Showdown, which he co-founded, as well as at his own site, Just Shows To Go You.