Speaking up for the character: The Actor

In this series of blog entries, I’m having conversations with people who are part of the creation of original musicals. This week I caught up with Alison Fraser, who has created iconic roles in musicals such as March of the Falsettos and The Secret Garden, which brought her a Tony nomination. I have had the pleasure of working with Ms. Fraser in my musical Vanishing Point, in which she brings her particular wit and emotional depth to the character of Agatha Christie. You can find her online as diva Veronica Bailey in the Mitchell Jarvis/Wesley Taylor comedy web series It Could Be Worse. Currently she is starring as Madame Morrible in the national tour of Wicked.

Rob Hartmann: What do you love most about working on original musicals?

Alison Fraser: My personal vision is very satisfied when I’m doing an original piece. This is not to take away from being a replacement in an incredible show like Wicked – which is thrilling – but generally it’s hard for me to step into somebody else’s shoes. It’s hard for me to do somebody else’s bits. Fortunately in Wicked they don’t make you do that. You get your own shoes. (laughs)

I’ve been very lucky with the new shows that I’ve done, and I’d like to think that I had a hand in their success – original musicals like Romance/Romance, The Secret Garden, March of the Falsettos, and Lizzie Borden – and plays like School for Lies and The Divine Sister. When you’re there at the inception of a piece, you have not only the opportunity but I think the responsibility to speak up for your character and say, “Can we talk about this moment, because I don’t think it’s quite working.” And sometimes, that might ruffle feathers, but when I’m originating the piece, I’m very, very protective of my character – of course, within the context of the piece. If I hear a song that I don’t think is particularly good, I have to tell you. I have no compunction whatsoever about saying, “I think we can get something stronger here.” Absolutely. And some people aren’t going to like hearing that. But some people are going to rise to the occasion and write a great new song. It doesn’t always make you friends, but it always makes a better show.

Watch this video on YouTube.

Romance/Romance at the Tony Awards in 1988

RH: One thing that I really appreciated about when you and I worked together was that, yes, you were very much an advocate for the character, and very clear about what you thought was working, in a very professional way. And I feel like there’s a real pressure for actors to just go along with whatever in the room. You seem to have very strong gut instincts that you follow, and give voice to.

AF: I do. I can understand people, especially young people, being a little bit reticent about speaking up. Because, you know, if it’s your first job or second job, I can understand the urge not to make waves.

Unfortunately when I was younger, I was a wavemaker (laughs.) But I think it has actually stood me in good stead. The early parts that I originated have become iconic.

But I did not make friends in certain shows, like in Secret Garden. I was very strong minded about what that character needed to be. And there were people on that creative team who did not appreciate that. And they will never even have me audition for them again. But you know what? I made Martha a very, very successful character. And I got a Tony nomination (laughs.) I regard Martha as a very hard-won battle. Because that was a tough experience. And you know, there was even a question about whether I was even going to continue with the piece after the workshop.

But Martha – I knew I had her in me, and I also knew, musically speaking, I had a very good voice for Lucy Simon’s music, and I know that Lucy felt that way, too. She had such a Celtic folk quality to the score. I have a different kind of musical theater voice. I don’t sound like a lot of people. And I don’t think a lot of people sound like me.

And that’s either good or bad. I mean, there are shows that I’ll never do because of that. But I believe that when you originate a part, you are indelibly etched on that show for the rest of your life. And I think that’s thrilling. I do. I do. The first time I got a cast album on it with my name on it was maybe the most thrilling moment of my life.

Watch this video on YouTube.

Alison singing “New York Romance,” a song by her late husband, the composer Rusty Magee.

RH: When you’re considering working on a new piece, what makes it stand out to you?

AF: When I look at a script, I say, does this show need me? Does this show need my particular talents?

Far From Heaven, for instance – I did the Williamstown production, but they didn’t need me, and they knew they didn’t need me. And I kept trying – “Well, how can I make this me?” and it just didn’t work. And when I did not continue with the project, it was fine. They didn’t need me.

And if you don’t need me, Alison Fraser, then don’t put me in your show. Because if I’m not happy with something, chances are, I’ll say it. And chances are I’ll be right, and chances are you’ll be mad at me for being right (laughs).

It’s very exciting when creative types – writers, directors, composers – say, “Yes, your input is valuable. Your experience and taste are valuable to me.” And that’s part of what I bring to a project. If I were a director, the first thing I’d say to my cast is, “I love you, and I think you’re right for this show. You’re here for a reason.”

Watch this video on YouTube.

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