When Barbara Walsh was preparing to play Joanne, the iconic character created by the legendary Elaine Stritch, in the Broadway revival of “Company,” friends were quick to point out that she had large shoes to fill.
“That’s OK,” the actress wryly responded. “I have really large feet.” She also adds, “And they keep getting bigger with age. Bunions are hell.”
Walsh, now onstage as Margaret White in “Carrie the Musical” at Studio Theatre, which runs through Aug. 3 (studiotheatre.org) was shocked when she heard that Stritch died last Thursday.
“It’s a huge loss to the Broadway community,” she says.
When Walsh was in previews for “Company” in 2006, the New Yorker wanted to do a joint interview with the new and old Joanne. As Walsh arrived at the Carlyle (Stritch’s long-time residence in Manhattan), Stritch looked her up and down and declared in her stentorian voice, “Oh, you’re too young to play the part.” Walsh did not mention that she was older than Stritch was when she originated the role.
Stritch, of course, dominated the interview (which was unfortunately never published), but Walsh remembers that the two had a lovely conversation about composer Stephen Sondheim. As Walsh was leaving, Stritch said she was looking forward to seeing the new production, but wouldn’t tell her when she was coming to see the show so she wouldn’t make the younger actress nervous.
As reimagined by British director John Doyle, the Broadway revival of “Company” featured the actors doubling as the orchestra. As the hard-drinking Joanne, Walsh played the triangle and other percussion instruments, most memorably striking a martini glass with a swizzle stick. The cast never left the stage, so Walsh had plenty of time to scan the audience. One night she spotted a woman in an aisle seat in the fifth row dressed in white from head to foot, including, of course, a white hat.
“It was Stritch,” Walsh says. “You couldn’t miss her.”
After the show (“It was a lovely performance”), Walsh was headed from the wig room to her dressing room when she heard a voice booming down the stairwell. “Where’s Barbara?” Stritch bellowed. She descended the staircase and gently grabbed Walsh by the face, quietly saying, “That was just wonderful.”
“It was such a magical moment, a moment I’ll never forget. We just won’t see anyone like her ever again.”
Now Walsh has several pairs of large shows to fill as she tackles the role of Carrie’s murderous mother. There were Piper Laurie and Julianne Moore on the big screen, and Barbara Cook, Betty Buckley and Marin Mazzie in earlier productions of the stage musical. Walsh did not see those other stage performances, but she does remember watching the famous Brian De Palma film for the first time as a teenager.
“I remember being absolutely terrified of Piper Laurie,” she says. “Her performance was simply amazing. Seeing her come down the stairs in her nightgown carrying that knife was delicious. … When you’re playing a role with this rich history, you just have to stay on track and tell the story. It’s an amazing story about a lot of fascinating things.”
For Walsh, the essence of the character is a mother who is terrified of letting her daughter go, rather than religious zealotry or sexual repression, although these elements are also important. The key to the role is deep maternal love.
“That helps me to tell her story in a more grounded way. It was important for me to play the humanity against the madness. I was also very interested in the role reversal between the mother and daughter. It is terrifying to Margaret when Carrie takes over. When Carrie unleashes her telekinetic powers at the end of act one, Margaret is suddenly in uncharted waters. That is very interesting to play.”
One of the most complicated moments for the tangled character is the haunting act two ballad, “When There’s No One.” It illuminates Margaret’s tortured decision to kill her daughter. Walsh says it’s “such a beautiful song, an unbearable life-shifting moment for Margaret that leads to her psychotic break.” She credits the creative team of Michael Gore (music), Dean Pitchford (lyrics) and Lawrence D. Cohen (book) for laying out the moment so well in the script and creating such a multi-layered song.
Despite the excellent writing, Walsh still says the song was a struggle.
“It’s not easy. It’s a very tricky shift and I’m still finding it in some ways.”
Before the song starts, Margaret watches Carrie cross the sage in her home-made prom dress. As Walsh watches Emily Zickler, she says, “a tiny smile that quickly goes away crosses my face. I don’t know if anyone notices, but for me, its Margaret’s last moment of humanity before the madness takes over. The song starts a cappella — that was my decision — because Margaret is super vulnerable in that moment. The song brings together all of Margaret’s conflicting emotions, that she needs to save Carrie’s soul, that she wants to stop her daughter from making the mistakes she made, her anger that Carrie will leave her for someone else, her fear that Carrie will be taunted again and her dread of the horrible loneliness she will feel when Carrie is gone.”
Born in Chevy Chase, the D.C. native calls New York home now, but has returned to the area to star in Studio’s 2008 production of “Grey Gardens” and in “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” at Center Stage in Baltimore earlier this year. In addition to “Company,” Walsh’s Broadway credits include “Blood Brothers,” “Hairspray,” “Nine” and “Falsettos,” William Finn’s ground-breaking musical about AIDS. Walsh is thrilled to be back at Studio Theatre tackling this incredible role, but is looking forward to returning to her husband (Jack Cummings, artistic director of the Transport Group) and dog in Manhattan.