DIVA TALK: A Chat With Two-Time Tony Nominee Alison Fraser, Star of Tennessee Williams Songbook and Love Therapy (Plus Video)

By Andrew Gans
March 22, 2013

News, views and reviews about the women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.



Alison Fraser
Alison Fraser has always been one of the more versatile theatre artists — transitioning from Tony-nominated turns in Romance/Romance and The Secret Garden to acclaimed runs in such non-musical fare as The Divine Sister and In Masks Outrageous and Austere. That extreme facility in moving between performance modes has never been more evident than in her three current projects. Fraser, who was most recently on Broadway as a humorous and touching Tessie Tura in the Patti LuPone revival of Gypsy, is currently in New Orleans starring in the one-woman Only a Paper Moon: A Tennessee Williams Songbook, an evening of music inspired by Williams' works that the actress will perform in various cities, with the ultimate goal Manhattan. The gifted artist can also be seen in delicious diva mode in the new Wesley Taylor-Mitchell Jarvis webseries "It Could Be Worse," which debuts each week on Playbill.com. And, beginning next month Fraser will star in the Off-Broadway production of Wendy Beckett's Love Therapy, a new play that begins previews April 20 at the DR2 Theatre. Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of catching up with the singing actress, who spoke by phone from New Orleans about her numerous and eclectic projects; that interview follows.

Question: What brings you to New Orleans? Are you performing the Tennessee Williams show?
Alison Fraser: I'm doing the Tennessee Williams show for the festival there—the big Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival happening down here, and we're also recording a CD. We decided that since we had just absolutely spectacular Dixieland musicians down here that we said, "Hey! We're going to be there, we're going to be rehearsing, we're going to be doing the show with these guys day after day after day… It's a perfect opportunity to record." So we're doing that Saturday and Sunday, and I could not be more excited about that.

Question: I love the clips of the show that I've seen.
Fraser: Oh, thank you so much. I think it's one of the most exciting shows I've ever done, and I'm dying to try to get it done in New York. We have some meetings coming up. I just think it's beautifully, beautifully constructed. I think that the same documentarian that did those clips that you saw is going to do the whole show down here as a documentary. The Tennessee Williams estate really loves our show, and they're behind us all the way, so we're very, very lucky. I manage to get myself involved with really interesting projects! [Laughs.] The three that I'm doing right now pretty much simultaneously are, of course, the Tennessee Williams show, which is ongoing — A Tennessee Williams Songbook — and Wendy Beckett's new play, Love Therapy, and she wrote the part of Madge with me in mind, and that's, of course, a thrill. I feel so lucky when people actually write me parts because I'm terrible at auditioning, so it's a good thing that people are writing me parts and I don't have to audition! [Laughs.] And then, of course, Playbill has been pretty supportive of the wonderful new web series "It Could Be Worse," Wesley Taylor and Mitchell Jarvis'… I think those guys are terrific, and, again, I just so lucked into that. I worked with Wesley when I did "Smash." I did an episode of "Smash," and I was standing next to Wesley Taylor all day, and, oddly enough, two weeks later we were doing a Project Shaw reading, and he was splendid in that. And, Mitchell is with my agency, and the two of them got to talking and thinking, "Hey, Alison might be a really great choice to play the horrible diva!" [Laughs.] … I play just a hell-on-wheels star of screen, television and Broadway, and she's just not the nicest person in the world, but she's a great big star, and Wesley's character has been cast opposite her, and she makes his life a living hell! [Laughs.] And, I guess she's very, very glamorous. It's so much fun because they made up this whole legend. I have a mythology — Veronica's mythology is Alison's film clips, and Alison's pictures. [Laughs.] It's a very Meta experience for me.

Fraser and Wesley Taylor at a recent screening of "It Could Be Worse."
Photo by Monica Simoes

Question: How did the Tennessee Williams show come about? I'm curious about the genesis of the project.
Fraser: It came about in an interesting way—really through Julie Halston because I got a call from Julie… I think it was a couple of months after Divine Sister had closed, and she said David Kaplan, the head of the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival, needed a pinch hitter for an actress that bowed out at the last minute to do a reading of a Tennessee Williams short story. I said sure. I just finished Love, Loss and What I Wore. It was going to be two short stories — shocking short stories that Tennessee Williams wrote — and Michael Urie was to do one, and I was to do the other, and David Kaplan talked to me. I went up, and it turned out that this story was more than saucy — it was quite filthy! [Laughs.] I'm like, "Oh my God, what made you think Jo Anne Worley would be the right person to do this in the first place?" I'm convinced that she took one look at the script and said, "Oh my God, I can't do this!" [Laughs.] But maybe not; I have no idea. But I enjoyed it tremendously, and I have also done a lot of audiobooks, including some erotic audiobooks. I'm like, "Hey, I'm your dream girl for this job because not only have I just come off a gig doing Readers Theatre, but I also do erotic audiobooks narration, or I have in the past." I haven't in a long time, but anything to get your insurance! And, it was fun. It was a huge success. People really, really responded well to it. It was very funny and racy. [Laughs.] And then I got a call from David in November, and I had given him a copy of "New York Romance" as a calling card. I'm very proud of that album still, and I had a great time revisiting it at 54 Below back in the fall for a couple of performances. I'm proud of it, so I gave him a copy of it and said, "If you ever need somebody to sing a song, give me a ring," and in November he asked me to dinner, and he presented me with this idea, which was the songs that Tennessee Williams requested to be put in his plays.

Fraser at the March 17 Project Shaw gala.
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Almost every Tennessee Williams play has music attached to it — like Glass Menagerie has "I Am the Pirate King," Streetcar Named Desire has "It's Only a Paper Moon." Some of the other songs are "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles," and even "Bye Bye Blues," "Sophisticated Lady"… It was a wildly eclectic group of music that he had chosen. What I like to think is that this is the soundtrack of Tennessee Williams' early years. I like to picture him as a child listening to say "St. Louis Blues" on the Victrola… And then later on, as a younger adult, listening to "If I Didn't Care," "It's Only a Paper Moon"—these are songs from the '30s — "San Antonio Rose"… I really can picture this wonderful, sensitive, intelligent, brilliant, young man sitting by that Victrola and having this music pumped into his head, and then later on he becomes a fantastic playwright that we all know him as. He put this beloved music of his youth into his plays forever. And, what David did — he brought all of this music together under the aegis of a Blanche archetype. If anybody on Facebook is wondering why I'm a platinum blonde these days, it is for this show. I have very, very, almost Jean Harlow-esque hair. And, it just works beautifully. It follows the trajectory — the emotional trajectory — of Blanche DuBois' journey in Streetcar, but it's done through this music, and the fantastic thing is that we brought Allison Leyton-Brown on board, and she's just a wonderful, wonderful pianist and arranger, and we have an incredible band. We have a seven-piece band that will absolutely knock your socks off when you hear the CD. We have the best players in New Orleans. I cannot believe how lucky I am. [Laughs.] I'm almost scared to go into that studio because I saw some of the guys play last night, and I was just absolutely blown away. And, our producer down here just worked with Harry Connick, Jr. And, I just figured if we're going to New Orleans, this is where we're going to make this music to last. So that's how it started, and we started doing it in Tennessee Williams festivals, and I'm really hoping that we get a run in New York because I think that people would enjoy it. We did one night at the Five Angels Theatre — a big benefit for the Tennessee Williams Festival, and it was a big, big, big success. We're keeping it going. We want this show to be seen by lots and lots of people… I believe there are plans to go to St. Petersburg in Russia. That would be fantastic, and we just want it to keep going, so I guess I'm going to be platinum for a while. [Laughs.]

Fraser and Charles Busch in The Divine Sister.

Question: What type of venue do you see the show in in New York? Broadway theatre, Off-Broadway…
Fraser: No, I think it should be an Off-Broadway house. My dream house would be Theatre 80 at 80 St. Mark's. I love that theatre. To me, it's the most wonderful, ambient theatre space in New York, and come on, there is an Absinthe bar there. [Laughs.] I mean, how perfect is that? It's a wonderful theatre that you walk in and it's like 1925, and it's just like going back in time. I had seen a magnificent piece there called Cloud 8, which was just this astonishing anarchic piece by Scotty Decker, and the really happy coincidence here is that Scotty is doing a movie version of that this summer, and he took my agent's tickets to the Tennessee Williams benefit — because my agent had gotten ill, he had this bad stomach virus that was going around — so Scotty got his tickets, and then afterwards he emailed me and said, "You know what, I'm writing you a part in the movie," so I'll be doing a part in the movie version of Scotty Decker's Cloud 8, and I think we do that in L.A. this summer, so that's very exciting, too!

Question: Tell me a little bit about the character that you're going to play in Love Therapy.
Fraser: This is wonderful because, as you can see from "It Could Be Worse" — and as you saw in Divine Sister and School for Lies and all of those wonderful plays that I've had the good fortune to be in the past few years — I get cast as the villain a lot, although I'm not the villain in the Tennessee Williams show. I'm just the Blanche archetype… But in "It Could Be Worse" I play a severe character… Wendy has really, in an act of fabulousness, written me not as the villain, but as incredibly warm and pragmatic, and I'm really almost a mother figure in this, and I'm very helpful to the leading character who's going through a lot of emotional turmoil because she has developed a sexual attraction — she's a therapist who's developed a sexual attraction for one of her clients… I am a waitress at a diner/bar, and I talk to her. She's my friend even though she's quite a bit younger than I am, and we talk things out, and I have a very different view of therapy than she has. I have that opinion that you just need a good friend to talk to. And, it's a lovely part, and like Wendy, this character is of an Irish background. I'm half Irish, so she speaks with a little bit of an Irish accent even though she's been here for about 25 years, and she's just one of those ladies [who] works very hard, and she probably plays hard, too, and she is kind and smart, and I am very grateful that Wendy has seen that side of me. I'm very grateful for that.

Rusty Magee

Question: You mentioned before revisiting "New York Romance." What was that like for you, going back to that show and that title song?
Fraser: Well, of course, I sing that song a lot. It's a great song that my late husband Rusty Magee wrote, and it's the song that made me fall in love with him and say, "Geez, I've got to marry him and get him out of the dating scene. Whatever dating scene he's in, he's been miserable!" [Laughs.] And, that's the mythology of our New York romance, and I've been singing it for years, and, of course, when I did the big concert at Tisch Center years and years ago, which my first album was based on, it was successful and the CD is still in print and Phil Bond over at 54 Below asked me to do a show there. It was at a time I was very busy, and when I put together my cabaret shows, I obsess about them, but it was exactly the same time as I was doing the Tennessee Williams show, and I couldn't come up with a new concept, and I thought, "What if I revisited 'New York Romance'?" For those people who don't know the concept of the album, it's the story of a New York romance from first lightning bolt of attraction to the lesson learned after the romance doesn't work out. And, it's all done through a combination of American Songbook and some contemporary songs—Randy Newman is in there—and then about five of Rusty's really gut-wrenching songs about romance, culminating with the great cabaret anthem "New York Romance," and I was wondering how it would play with just piano because, of course, we couldn't afford the fantastic band that we had… I think we had nine pieces on the album, and in the big concert at the Tisch Center, and I thought, "You know what, I think the story holds." It's a theatrical piece. It's like a little play. I could actually see somebody else doing it. Like, I'd love to see Alan Cumming do "New York Romance" — the same series of songs…because everybody has their own New York romance story, and I would love to hear somebody else's take on this same group of songs because it worked like a charm when we did it at 54 Below, and they immediately asked us back.

Daisy Eagan and Alison Fraser in The Secret Garden on Broadway.
Photo by Bob Marshak

Question: How old is your son now?
Fraser: My son is 22, and he'll be 23 on April 5 if anybody wants to send him any presents! [Laughs.] He just moved into his own apartment, and he's flown the coop, and he has a lovely job in post-production down in SoHo at a wonderful facility, and he's happy and works very, very hard! He's cooked to perfection! [Laughs.] Golden brown.

Question: Other than new work, are there any dream roles you have? Especially doing this Tennessee Williams show, would you like to play any of his women?
Fraser: Everybody wants to play Blanche DuBois, but I think I'm getting to do my version of her in this show, and it's a version that nobody's ever seen before because it's done through extant music and this is certainly a dream role, but I have to say, my dream role is the next original role I get to do. I love originating parts. I love it. That's not to say I don't have a great time doing other things. I'm going to be doing Anna Christie this summer up at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, and that's going to be great! I'm playing Marthy, and I'm so looking forward to that. I've never done O'Neill before, and that's going to be absolutely thrilling… My dream role was a part I never got to play, and now obviously I'm not going to play because I've aged out of it, and that was Sally Bowles. And, I was cast in Cabaret once when it was in France. I remember it was kind of a racy audition because you had to show your fanny because the costumes were sort of Folies Bergere-type costumes, and it was like, "Oh God… Okay, here goes." You had to actually show something-something at the audition, and I got cast, and I think it was to replace Ute Lemper. And, we're talking 25 years ago or something like that, but it was a huge version of Cabaret, and it broke down in contracts, so I didn't get to do that, so that was a big regret. If there's one other part that I would like to play, I'd like to be Peter Pan. I was an acrobat when I was a kid, and I'd like to fly once before I die or retire, and I also have a bent on it that I think is interesting. I don't think of Peter Pan as a benign creature. I'd like to do him a little bit scruffier than he's normally done. I don't think he's as perky and cute…as he's portrayed a lot. I would like to play a dark Peter Pan. I don't think that there's anything healthy about not wanting to grow up. I think growing up is a great, great privilege, and trying to hang onto youth is actually a dangerous proposition, and that's something I'd like to do with Peter Pan.

Question: And now you're getting ready for Love Therapy.
Fraser: We're going to be playing at the DR2, owned by my fabulous and wonderful friend and producer Daryl Roth, and we'll be there from the end of April through May, and we have a fantastic cast… The first reading was very exciting. It's a very tense play, and anytime you're dealing with a play about therapy, everybody, again, brings their own issues to it, and I think that this is going to be a very exciting play for the audience — just like last year I did A Charity Case, and that's where I first met the wonderful Wendy Beckett, who's become a great friend. I just think she's a lovely playwright. I think she writes plays about important subjects, and Charity Case was about the triangular relationship between an adopted mother, a birth mother and a child going through difficulties. And, the conversations you would hear afterwards were just so incredibly intense. Some people thought I was the bad guy, some people thought the birth mother was the bad guy, some people thought the teenage girl was the problem. With Wendy's material, you really bring your own life into what she has to offer. So I'm excited to see what happens.

[Love Therapy will play Wednesday-Saturday at 8 PM, Saturday at 2 PM and Sunday at 3 PM. DR2 Theatre is located at 101 East 15th Street. Tickets are $45 and are available by visiting telecharge.com or by calling (212) 239-6200.]

To view clips from Fraser's remarkable performance in A Tennessee Williams Songbook, click below.

TWSB test from tim wolff on Vimeo.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.