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Cady Huffman on why she had to play the title character in Marguerite
Cady Huffman may be best known to theatre lovers for her work on Broadway, particularly her Tony-winning turn as the voluptuous Ulla in The Producers. But to her, all the city's a stage. She's done shows in Brooklyn; in the Bronx where she currently lives, she sometimes sings at a local bar, just for kicks. And this month she's making her Queens debut in Astoria Performing Art Center's mounting of Marguerite, a new one-woman musical about Marguerite Bourgeoys, a 17th-century French nun who was declared a saint by the Catholic Church in 1982.
With a book and lyrics by Anton Dudley, and music by Michael Cooper, Marguerite celebrates Bourgeoys, who traveled to New France (now Canada) and dedicated her life to educating the poor, young women and First Nations people in what became Montreal. Huffman, 54, did a reading of the musical, then titled Second to Nun, three years ago. APAC's artistic director Dev Bondarin was there, and when she decided to direct a full-fledged production at her theatre, Huffman was her top choice to star.
Huffman got the call on a Friday, and even though rehearsals were scheduled to start in less than a week, she couldn't say no to playing a figure she calls "the original feminist." Considering Huffman is known for portraying statuesque and outspoken vamps on Broadway -- in addition to Ulla, she was Ziegfeld's favorite showgirl in The Will Rogers Follies, one of Dame Edna's "Gorgeous Ednaettes" and a communist burlesque dancer in The Nance -- a sainted nun may seem like her playing against type. But Huffman sees Bourgeoys as a pioneer who pushed back against gender constraints. "Saints did some crazy stuff to become saints," she says. "Marguerite did everything in her power to not be restricted by the rules of her time."
The show is being performed, appropriately enough, in the Church of the Redeemer in Astoria. Although Huffman is the only performer on stage, which she describes as "torture," the way she addresses theatregoers directly makes it feel like a kind of dialogue. Through a series of spoken sections and a "very rangy" score, which includes classic musical theatre, contemporary pop and even klezmer-infused tunes, audiences are invited to reflect on Bourgeoys' humanistic teachings. Huffman mentions that nuns who saw a previous out-of-town production gave the musical their stamp of approval. "That was a relief," she says. "When you grow up Catholic like I did you want the nuns to like it!"
Huffman says her upbringing in a household full of brothers helped prepare her for the role of this woman who bucked convention. "They wanted me to shut up because I'm a woman," she recalls with a laugh. "But sorry, I've never known how to do that."
Bondarin decided to call APAC's 2019-2020 season "Without Walls" because the company is still without a permanent home, and all the shows explore that idea in different ways. As the founder of one of the first uncloistered religious communities, Bourgeoys and her story fit perfectly. In February, APAC will stage Charly Evon Simpson's JUMP, about an unexpected friendship between two strangers, followed by a revival of Man of La Mancha about an imprisoned dreamer. It's the first time under Bondarin's tenure that the company has mounted three productions in one season.
Of course in the age of Trump, "Without Walls" has other connotations, too, and that's not lost on Huffman. She believes Marguerite, with its "spiritual message about how to do our best to lead with love and kindness," is just what audiences need right now.
Knowing how diverse Astoria is, Huffman hopes community members will wander into the theatre and take in Marguerite's compassionate worldview. "As a middle-aged white woman, it's my responsibility to break down walls and invite people in," she says. "I'm tired of theatre and classical music being so walled off from the people. There is no love behind a wall."
Jose Solís is a NY-based writer and editor who's been covering theatre and film professionally since 2003. He is a member of the Drama Desk. Follow him at @josesolismayen. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Cady Huffman. Photo courtesy of Cady Huffman.
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