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Monk Business

Date: Oct 18, 2007


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Debra Monk has become such a reliable New York theatre fixture, from Pump Boys and Dinettes to Redwood Curtain, Company to Steel Pier, that it's striking to be reminded that the currently running Curtains may be her first long run in a hit musical.

"My career mostly has been about shows that close in six weeks on Broadway," says Monk in her comfy dressing room before an evening performance. It's been a mixed blessing, she explains: "That has afforded me the opportunity to do lots of different things, but it has also meant a huge amount of traveling. So I'm thrilled to be able to stay in New York for a year, and know that I'm getting a paycheck every week."

Of course, no show opens without high expectations, but Monk, an Ohio native who's developed a knack for moving smoothly between musicals and straight plays, has been at the business long enough to know there are no guarantees.

"Nobody thought this would be a hit--in fact, a lot of people didn't think it would be," Monk says of Curtains, a project in which the original book writer, Peter Stone, and lyricist, Fred Ebb, died before the play made it to the stage. "I don't read reviews, but I know they weren't great, so coming out of that to such a great place that we're selling out and having great audiences--it's a big surprise for all of us.

"I don't think anybody ever knows when you're going into a show if it's going to run or not. I never did. If we could figure that out, we'd all be in hits."

Monk's initial Broadway splash was in 1981's Pump Boys and Dinettes, a country-and-western musical she co-wrote with a troupe of struggling actor/waiters. But other than garnering her a Tony nomination as a writer and some degree of financial independence, Pump Boys was not Monk's big break.

"Pump Boys came out of not having an agent, not being able to get work, working as a waitress--kind of a desperate situation where I couldn't even get an audition," Monk recalls. "But when Pump Boys closed on Broadway, I still did not have an agent."

Instead, she had to leave New York to gain legitimacy as an actress, doing three years of repertory work at Actors Theatre of Louisville before returning to New York to create another folksy musical, Oil City Symphony. On top of the perennial worry of musical theatre actors--that they won't be considered for non-musical roles--Monk had the concern that she'd be pigeonholed as a country singer.

That didn't last long, though. Monk went on to originate the role of Sara Jane Moore in Sondheim's Assassins and appeared as Joanne in the 1995 Broadway revival of Company, and created roles in the short-lived musicals Nick & Nora and Thou Shalt Not. And she kept racking up straight roles, too: Prelude to a Kiss, Picnic, Death Defying Acts, Ah, Wilderness, Reckless and Redwood Curtain, for which she won an acting Tony.

Along the way she landed a plum role in 1997's Steel Pier, a short-lived musical by the revered duo of Kander & Ebb. A few years later, when they began to write the backstage murder mystery Curtains with librettist Stone, they cast Monk as a hard-driving Broadway producer named Carmen Bernstein. The character, and the musical, outlived Ebb and Stone (with Rupert Holmes taking over book duties, and Kander and Holmes finishing Ebb's lyrics).

While Monk says she modeled Steel Pier's big number "Everybody's Girl" on Fred Ebb's rendition in rehearsals, by the time work on Curtains began, Ebb was too ill to sing the score for the company. But he and Kander did give Monk notes on Carmen's signature number "It's a Business."

"I never heard Fred sing 'It's a Business'--if I had, maybe I would have done it better," Monk says with unnecessary but unfeigned modesty. "But Freddy and John were very instrumental in telling me how to do it; they were very hands on. They said, 'There's nothing subtle about this song.' That's a huge amount of information. That song is not verse/chorus--it's just one chorus after another, it never stops.

"So your first inclination as an actor would be to maybe start it subtly and build it. And they said, 'No, it's just like this,' " Monk said, indicating a high level of intensity. "That was a great clue to who this woman is. And that's how they work: As with Sondheim, their notes about their music are always clues to the character for an actress."

What's more, for all the song's surface cynicism and proud philistinism--sample lyric: "Shaw and Ibsen, take 'em away/And don't bother me with Moliere/Those Russians never pay"--it is clearly the anthem of someone smitten with the stage and its creatures.

"I think the passion of this woman is inherent in that song," Monk says. "It's very clear how much she is devoted and loves the theatre. There's never just one layer."

That has certainly been true of Monk's richly multidimensional work.

For tickets to Curtains go here.