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Why Tony nominee Nancy Opel is so excited about portraying a Curvy Widow
Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing series on actors and how they create their roles
Before preview performances of Curvy Widow, which recently opened at the Westside Theater Off-Broadway, the musical's book writer and real-life inspiration, Bobby Goldman, frequently chatted up audiences. The longtime wife of the late Oscar-winning writer James Goldman, she based the show on her dating experiences after she was suddenly widowed at age 55. "This is a musical about my sluttiness!" she cracked in the lobby the night I attended.
That comically blunt statement is indicative of the humor Goldman and her collaborator, songwriter Drew Brody, use in Curvy Widow to tackle such weighty topics as grief, online dating in middle age, and postmenopausal sexual dysfunction. But though it's consistently bold, star Nancy Opel believes it never crosses over into crass.
"I think I help to make sure that we remain within the bounds of decency -- that's part of my job!" says the fifty-something actress who's well-known for her Broadway work, especially her Tony-nominated turn in Urinetown. "There is also a sort of sweetness about the show -- a woman of a certain age beginning to date again and all of the exploits and foibles and feelings she has about it. I don't think that is generally portrayed in the theatre, and certainly not in a musical. So to be the protagonist over 50 talking about my sex life -- come on, you just don't see that every day!"
Opel has been with Curvy Widow since the beginning. She originally did a reading of the show when it was a non-musical solo play. Years passed and then out of the blue she was asked to record some demos for a musical version. Opel then headlined the tuner's world premiere last fall at North Carolina Stage Company in Asheville, and starred in its subsequent mounting at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, NJ before bringing it to NYC.
Portraying a real person on stage can be challenging, but playing a real person who also wrote the show? That sounds nerve-racking. But Opel says in this case it wasn't an issue. "I'm certainly not trying to do an imitation of Bobby in any way," she says. "It's not like I'm doing Hillary Clinton or someone everyone knows where you would expect some kind of imitation."
That said, Opel does wear a few items from Goldman's wardrobe, and the set was modeled on the writer's apartment. "Everything that's cute on stage is Bobby's," Opel insists. "I really mean that." The two have become friends and spend a lot of time together. "We watch the news and eat sushi and laugh and scream and cry at the state of our government," Opel says.
In addition to loving takeout and TV, the women have something else in common: online dating. "I am single and I also did a little bit of looking around online," Opel says. "I very quickly determined that none of that was for me. It's supposed to be fun…I think. But it just filled me with anxiety. I didn't have any bad dates to the comic extent that Bobby did. But I never went on a second date with any of them."
Opel admits that friends frequently try to fix her up with potential partners. Even her 27-year-old daughter has expressed concern about her mom's potential loneliness! But at the moment Opel is embracing her single status and encourages her peers to do the same -- an empowering message that mirrors Curvy Widow's just love yourself moral.
"I have discovered that I like being on my own," Opel says. "I am really, really cool with it. I don't feel like I'm missing something, I don't feel like I have a hole in my life. I'm good the way I am. I can get up and go travel if I feel like it. Being footloose and fancy free is not so bad."
Nancy Opel in Curvy Widow. Photos by Matthew Murphy.