Written by Victoria Myers
September 22nd, 2014
Kate Baldwin est fantastique! When we found out we were interviewing Kate during a break from her rehearsals for Can-Can we wanted to take her someplace with a Parisian flair. It didn’t quite work out (it’s hard to find something with a Brasserie Lipp-ish atmosphere in the theatre district), so instead we just pretended to be in Paris—Kate jumped right in and started speaking French (don’t worry, no Google Translate needed for this interview). It’s really no surprise that Kate Baldwin would, to borrow a phrase from improv (or l’improv), be someone who says, “Yes, and…” She’s known for her multi-dimensional performances in shows such as Finian’s Rainbow (Tony and Drama Desk nominations), Giant (Drama Desk nomination), and Big Fish. She also has two solo albums to her credit that feature her rich interpretations of some musical theatre classics and hidden gems. The richness and thoughtfulness that she brings to her work was evident in every moment of her conversation with us—from discussing her process to her thoughts on getting more women working in theatre—and we think she’s très wonderful.
You’re currently rehearsing Can-Can. It’s a really revised version of the show. Could you tell us a little about it?
Ninety percent of the book has been rewritten. The original book was written by Abe Burrows. David Lee is our writer and director and he’s been working on Can-Can for at least ten years. He did the slight revisions for the 2004 Encores! production with Patti LuPone, but they were very faithful to the original script and it was all about the music, as Encores! so gloriously does. He then got very curious about the jokes in the book and decided to tinker with it a bit, and he got his friend, Joel Fields, to help with it as well. They rewrote it for a production at Pasadena Playhouse in 2007, and they said it worked like gangbusters. Their version was fun, it was light, it was a little risqué, and there was a great reaction to it. So, they’d been looking to get it produced here. They’ve changed the book even more. I’ve asked for a few little changes. And when I read the script—because I didn’t really know anything about it—I laughed out loud and I thought, “This is really funny and could be a lot of fun.” And something totally different for someone like me.
One of the things that seems interesting about the show are the sexual politics.
I play Pistache, who runs a dance hall in the red light district. She runs the Bal du Paradis, which is a fun after-hours club where, not unlike the Moulin Rouge in Belle Epoque France, women would get up and dance and kick their legs. That was scandalous in 1893.
It seems like it has a very sexually liberated female character.
That’s right. Pistache is sexually liberated. She has created this persona for herself. She has given herself this name, the Pistachio Kid. She was broken hearted and ran away from her town in the South of France at a young age. She came to Paris and was living on the streets; she was starving and no one would help her. She thought about killing herself, and instead, she saw a pistachio nut inside a little bag and was reminded that there’s always hope. And so she gave herself this tough exterior and the name Pistachio Kid to go with it. And, as you know, with everyone who has a tough exterior and kind of brazen way of operating in the world, underneath they are marshmallows—they are soft, they’re easily wounded, they’re sensitive. And I think that exists for her as well. It’s my hope that, through this revisal of the script, we will show the many sides of her.
What’s your process like for forming a character?
I look for models—someone to model her after. I read the script and pick out things that people say about her and things she says about herself that give me clues about which direction to go in. I started looking at Toulouse-Lautrec paintings because he hung out at the Moulin Rouge and depicted the life there and all of the various characters. There was a dancer at the Moulin Rouge named La Goulue, which translated, means “the glutton.” She was a very famous—maybe the first famous Moulin Rouge dancer—and came from humble beginnings, rose to acclaim being one of the celebrated dancers of the Moulin Rouge, and then fell into poverty and died anonymously. So I look at pictures of those ladies who really did exist and see what they did with their bodies, what was written about them, and try to imagine around what their circumstances were; coming from a provincial town in the South of France at that time, there very few opportunities for women. I try to look for people in my own life who I know have a similar trajectory. And I look to other people—either political figures or figures in the arts—something I can get kind of a biographical handle on. I’ve chosen a few of those people too, and they’re my secrets. So that’s part of my construction for them.
It seems like there could be a lot of parallels with contemporary women.
Yeah. Sexual politics is something we still struggle with. It’s fascinating to me to look at Hillary Clinton, and is she going to run for office again? People have all of these feelings about her, and I wonder what it would be like if she were a man. And I wonder how her message would be received differently—because it would be received differently.
And those sexual politics issues also relate to how the show is updated for a contemporary audience.
Hopefully, we’re creating a world in our musical version of Can-Can where, if a woman kicks her leg up, it is both shocking and fun. I was actually talking to some of the dancers in the show who were saying, “I’ve done moves like this in other shows, but I’ve been wearing a lot less.” Hopefully, the people who are in our world and reacting to us on stage, who think it is shocking, will convey the right tone of both fun and scandal.
The world of the show sounds a little different than maybe what a lot of people think the Paris dance hall world was. What’s some other research you did?
There’s a film by John Huston called Moulin Rouge from the 50s where they show the ladies coming out and dancing. It’s about the life of Toulouse-Lautrec. I watched that as well, and it was very helpful to get the sense of that world. The Moulin Rouge was not a proscenium theatre—it was just a big dance hall and performers would sit around at tables and chairs and have drinks, then get up and do their number, and then sit down again. Then the whole crowd would get up and do a group dance. Then someone would come out and sing a song and then the guys would come out and do backflips. It was very inclusive of the audience. It wasn’t like sit down, fold your hands, and pay attention. It was like, “Have a drink and join us!”
We talk a lot about how theatre isn’t literature. It seems with musicals, maybe because of cast recordings, people can be more set in their ways about how a part should be done. Is working on a show that’s very revised freeing?
Well, there are people who, when I say that I’m doing Pistache in Can-Can, go, “What? You?” I have raised a few eyebrows by attempting this role because it does seem like it’s a bit of a stretch for me, and that’s kind of what drew me to it. The woman who created this role, Lilo, was a French chanteuse brought over specifically to do this show. She put her stamp on it, and that recording exists. She very much sings in the style of a French chanteuse with all the hallmarks of Edith Piaf. I don’t sing that way. I have developed a sound for this character that is different and that I don’t think people have heard me do before; it’s exciting, and also one of the challenges that drew me to this project. It is liberating because you’re free to do your interpretation of something that has already existed, but it’s also daunting because people will come and say, “Oh you weren’t this enough or that enough,” or, “I remember when Lilo did it…” So you are being compared in a way. But I can’t think about that.
What’s your relationship like with music?
Well, for me, lyrics always come first—what’s the story that is being told? And then I pay attention to where the lyric sits on the line: if it’s on a high note or a low note or a long note. I think my way in is always the words and how the composer and lyricist have placed them. Because, really, singing a line of music is like getting a line reading from a composer like, “No, I want you to say it like this.” So I think that’s where I first start out.
When you’re doing your own concert work and albums, do you find you can express different things?
Oh, for sure, yeah. When I’m playing a role, I’m constantly editing things out and trying to shape a character into who I need her to be to tell that particular story. So, when it comes to concerts and albums, I have so much to choose from. In a way it’s harder because I have to select what I put in a spotlight for that moment. My first album [Let’s See What Happens] was about Lane and Harburg and putting them in a spotlight. My second album [She Loves Him] was about the lyrics of Sheldon Harnick and paying tribute to him—one of our greatest lyricists. I have to make up the point of view instead of having it made up for me by the playwright.
What other areas of culture affect your work?
Visual art is a great one. It’s so accessible. You can Google anything and pull up photographs and paintings. I always wonder what’s going on with that person in the photograph or painting, and I make up a story for them. I love dance. I’m fascinated by dance and the way people move. This show is so dance-centric and trying to find some form of dance that makes sense: earthy, untrained, very forceful, and muscular type dance.
We love that you automatically come up with a story for paintings.
Paintings or sculptures, too. Sculpture is really helpful. Rodin sculptures. I sometimes think the way in, for me, for an emotional moment, is to put my body in that position and then the emotion will come. It’s kind of working from the outside in. And working on Rodin sculptures—it’s something I did at Northwestern where I went to school—always helps me emotionally know where to go. Sometimes seeing a picture or a sculpture can elicit that reaction in you more than words. Because I think we are visual. Even though theatre—and musical theatre—is a word based medium.
Who are your top five favorite visual artists?
1. Rodin sculptures
2. Rothko paintings
4. Dale Chihuly
5. Toulouse-Lautrec (Right now!)
What is your dream culture collaboration?
It would have music by Michael John LaChiusa, direction/conception by Emma Rice, costumes by Ann Hould-Ward, original story by Sarah Ruhl, and movement by Steven Hoggett. I have no idea what the story would be, but those artists collaborating is exciting to me.
What is the first piece of storytelling that had a major impact on you?
When I was ten years old, I got to be in a college production of La Bohème at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which is where I grew up. I was one of the kids and we were only in the second act. But there was something about the largeness of the feelings being expressed through that Puccini opera. There was something about the beauty of the music and the excitement of that Act Two world at the cafe that was totally entrancing and enthralling to me. And just that people could stand and pour their hearts out and move other people, and do so with such ease and grace and truth was really fantastic to witness as a ten year old.
Who were your heroes growing up?
Katharine Hepburn. I loved that she was so herself. I found that really fascinating. Eva Le Gallienne who made theatre and had her own theatre. She was also so herself. I was fascinated by Eva Le Gallienne. There was an incredible biography that was written about her and that sort of led me to Eleanora Duse, and that whole idea of mysticism in the theatre I found fascinating and cool. So I read a lot about that. And even to this day I do believe, even though I can break down how I work on a role, that there’s this inexplicable part that just kind of happens—that’s just kind of a magical something where everything comes together, synthesizes, comes out, and you become an instrument for storytelling. And, in a way, maybe that was influenced by reading about those two ladies.
Lets talk more about mysticism.
Well, Eleanora Duse was one of the first people to talk about the truth in acting. Instead of acting like you were embarrassed, she would actually blush from within. It was real for her, and I found that fascinating. I loved reading Uta Hagen’s book Respect for Acting; I found it so fascinating how she could break down her method and talk about telling the truth or the search for truth. I think that is what’s most inspiring—a search for truth and a search for a little bit of inexplicable beauty.
Did you have any fictional character that you identified with?
Anne of Green Gables, of course. There must have been a Bronte or two or a Jane Austen character. Jane Eyre, probably. As a child, I was always pretending I was an orphan and running away from home and was in the wilderness trying to survive. So there was some kind of pioneer spirit about both of those girls—Anne of Green Gables and Jane Eyre—young women transplanted from a comfortable home and transplanted into new and uncharted territory. That pioneer idea.
So you had an active imagination?
Oh, yeah. Running around outside… all the things that kids do, but I think wilderness living was a big thing for me; if I had to survive, how would I do that?
(vii.) Social Conscience
What social issues are you interested in?
Women’s health is a big one for me. Especially since employers don’t feel it’s their duty—or they can decide it’s not on their list—to pay for birth control. That’s a big one. Equal rights. Civil rights. I’ve done stuff with the New York ACLU. And that’s strangely one of the hooks that pushed me the edge to say, yes, I’ll do Can-Can. There’s a song in Can-Can that’s called “Live and Let Live.” It’s about how what I do affects me and what you do affects you and it’s my business and it’s your business, and why not live and let live, and refrain from judging others? The character is talking about her dance hall escapades, but I think, in a larger sense I can hang my hat on, there’s an idea of mutual respect that should be cultivated in this country, regardless of who you are, where you’re from, or what you look like. I feel those things very deeply and, in sort of a light way, it comes to the surface in Can-Can a little.
When did you first feel like a grownup?
When I brought my son home from the hospital and I realized I was going to be responsible for taking care of him—not just the day in and day out—but that I’m going to be a witness to his life. And I’m going to bear witness to him growing up and discovering the world. That, to me, seems like a real passage of time and I’m a grownup now. I’m responsible for guiding him.
It seems like, as an actress, you get out of school and you start having all of these people telling you what your type is and who you are. Most people at twenty-two haven’t really figured out who they are. How do you develop as a creative person while you have people trying to put you in a box?
I had someone tell me when I was twenty-two that I was a leading lady and that I would never get any work till I was thirty, so my job for the next eight years was to get ready. So that was huge. I wanted to work right away, and I wanted to play the roles that I had imagined I would play. I did see what he was saying—I’m tall, I have a low speaking voice, I have a certain maturity about me—so I wasn’t going to slip into an ingénue role as easily. So, I think that shaped my artistic mind because it made me think outside the ingénue sphere. When I graduated college, I had been preparing ingénue material to go out and audition with in the world, so I very much thought of myself that way. But I did have an artistic director early on say, “Kate, you’re just so darn tall. I wish you weren’t so tall. You’d have a great career if you weren’t so tall.” So, you know, it’s like anything with those types of things—you either take them in and let them defeat you or you listen and say, “I’ll show you! That’s not going to deter me and that’s not going to defeat me.” But, yeah, I did feel better about myself once I turned thirty, that’s for sure. I was kind of floundering a bit in my twenties. I didn’t really know how I fit in and where I fit in. I kept auditioning and kept getting hired, so that was good. But I don’t really feel like I came into my own as an actress until I was in my thirties.
It seems like sopranos get a lot of things projected onto them like, “Oh, you have to be the nice girl,” and then it’s up to you to make it multifaceted.
Yeah, you do, but I never thought of the soprano as the nice girl. I don’t think any character is just one thing. There’s an equal and opposite reaction for every action, right? So there’s always an opposing force within any person or character. And I always look for that opposing force. Moments of surety, moments of doubt, moments of clarity, moments of confusion. It’s just not all one thing.
Musical theatre has some really good female roles. But it seems like the structure of Broadway is limiting in the number and diversity of those roles that can be in one season, especially for new material.
As an actor, unless you’re generating your own work, you really are at the mercy of what is being produced, what voices are rising to the surface that season, what stories are being told, and then how the actress fits into that story. So that’s one of the great frustrations of being an actor—that sometimes your options are very limited. But I don’t feel like I have a platform to complain about that kind of stuff because I’ve been given so many fabulous opportunities. Just recently with Giant and Big Fish I got to play two very different women throughout decades of their lives, which was thoroughly satisfying. But, yes, there should be more room. There should be more room for more voices and more diversity. I’m sure that we could have more points of view represented than we currently do. It’s about starting that conversation and starting that dialogue. People just kind of aren’t aware of the statistics [about women in theatre]. That’s what I found out when I went to the Lilly Awards this year. We have to pay attention and we have to cultivate those opportunities for women to be the playwright, the producer, and the director—and not just as the actress. Women show up more often as actresses than as they do as writers and directors. But, I tell you, if there’s a play by Sarah Ruhl, or Amy Herzog, or Annie Baker, or, my friend Laura Eason, I’m going to make every effort to go see it. I think that’s one of the things we need to be aware of: going out and supporting each other.
You participated in the Lilly Awards cabaret this year. Why was it important to you to participate in that?
Well, my friend Georgia Stitt asked me to do it, and I’ll do anything for her. She asked me to sing one of her songs that she wrote with me in mind, so that was the first reason. The second reason was that it feels good to be around people who are fired up about making a change. And it feels good to be around people who are fired up about discussing the state of affairs in open and honest and inclusive terms. And saying, “We see where we are, so how can we move forward and how can we help each other and take care of each other?” That was great to be a part of. It was a really invigorating night. I’m making it sound like the biggest pep rally ever, but in a way it kind of was. Everyone got to get up and say their piece, and it felt very homegrown and honest and cool. Groovy even. I would call it groovy.
Why do you think there aren’t more female composers?
I wish there were more women working as composers and lyricists. We have great ones, but I wish there were more. And I wish they could write all the time and turn out three hundred musicals a year. I don’t know how that all starts though; I feel like I’m so on the receiving end of that stuff, so it’s hard to talk about the beginnings of things. My collaborations with female composers, lyricists, writers, and directors—like Sybille Pearson, Susan Stroman, Molly Smith, Susan Schulman, Georgia Stitt—have been so rewarding that I’d like to have more. I’d love to have the opportunity to work on new plays and musicals written by and directed by women. I’m grateful for all the working collaborations I’ve had and would like more of them.
You’re a mother. We noticed that women get asked about balancing work and families and men hardly ever get asked.
My husband [Graham Rowat] and I are both balancing in equal parts. We’re both actors and we both take care of our little boy. He really is my equal partner in every way—when it comes to taking care of Colin and taking care of our home. When it comes to mundane tasks, like doing the laundry and stuff, I do half and he does half. We really share.
What’s something you think people can do to improve gender parity in theatre?
Go see plays by women. Go see musicals by women. Write about them, ask questions, talk to each other about them. Form a group and go. I think it’s more fun if you go see a play—like I just went to see Laura Eason’s Sex with Strangers—and you talk about it afterwards with everybody you know. And hopefully, there’s a way for people to all go see it so you can have a discussion about it. But yeah, support. I think sometimes people take theatre for granted. They think, “Oh well, I’ll go see that when I’m there for spring break,” and trust that Big Fish, for example, will still be open, but it’s not going to be since no one buys tickets that far in advance. People sort of take for granted that a show will run for years and years, and they don’t understand that the way that happens is by people buying tickets. The support for work you want to see done is really important—to go out and see stuff and talk about it and spread the word. Going to a live theatre performance is a completely unique experience and visceral and fun, and you can do it, not just in New York City, but in your hometown. Make the effort to go and see stuff.