Interview with Tony nominee Mary Beth Peil

Tony nominee Mary Beth Peil is doing double duty this Broadway season, appearing as Madame de Rosemonde in the Donmar Warehouse production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses at Broadway's Booth Theatre until January 22 and then as Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna in the Broadway premiere of Anastasia at the Broadhurst Theatre from March 23 2017.

She made her Broadway debut and earned a Tony nomination for her portrayal of Anna Leonowens in the 1985 revival of The King and I. Since then, she has gone on to star in a diverse range of Broadway musicals, including Nine, Sunday in the Park with George, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Follies and The Visit.

Thomas Hayden Millward: You have a hugely celebrated Broadway career in musicals, Mary Beth, but how has this experience been for you so far as your first straight play on Broadway?

Mary Beth Peil: Yes! This is my first straight play on Broadway and I was the most surprised of all when I got into rehearsal and I learned that I was still going to be singing!... (Laughs)

THM: You just can’t get away from it!

MBP: I was the last to know! (Laughs) But I am enjoying the singing and being part of the musical interludes in the background. The ambient sound that Michael [Bruce] has written for this piece is very effective and very haunting and it’s a wonderful warm-up for me just to keep those vocal chords oiled.

THM: When a production has done well in London and transfers over the pond and, in this case, it has the same British director in Josie Rourke and British leading lady in Janet McTeer attached, I’m always interested to know what the experience is like for the new American cast to fit into that?

MBP: Well, interestingly enough, both Janet and Josie were very clear right from the beginning that they did not want to duplicate the London production. Knowing that the show was going to be for American ears and American sensibilities, already the language was going to have to be a little slower and we were going to have to be as clear as possible because not only is it a play with very dense language and a lot of names, but we all have to speak with British accents too, as best we can. Janet really wanted to be free of making the same choices that she made in London. Josie was also clear that for Liev [Schreiber] it was HIS Valmont. We were going to open the whole thing up. It would be the same production values, in terms of the set, costumes, candles and everything else, but for the actual character relationships and character choices, we were starting as if it was a brand new production, which was really lovely and very freeing and it made the rehearsal process deeply interesting for me as an actor to watch Liev, Janet and Josie work together through this text. They asked: “What is this really about? What is really going on here?” It was thrilling.

THM: I found the scene between your character of Madame de Rosemonde and Birgit Hjort Sørensen’s Madame de Tourvel very touching, as it’s revealed that Rosemonde is much more in the know about the games that have been going on than perhaps we first anticipated. What do you feel that Rosemonde represents in the play yourself?

MBP: I’m so glad you asked that because when they asked if I would be interested in doing it and I read the play, that was the scene! I thought I have to play this woman! She’s the voice of experience and compassion, but also of reality. She knows the way of the world. And we are definitely living in a kind of mirror reflection of that reality right here in this country right now. She wakes you up and you realise that not everything is rosy. I love that about Rosemonde. There’s a line that Janet has about what she loves about Rosemonde and that’s that she keeps connected to the young. She wants to keep herself young by keeping herself connected to young people and the way young people think and what they’re into. I don’t think she was necessarily a modern woman, but the way her brain and her mind and her emotions are very connected to the young.

THM: Interestingly, you used the word ‘haunting’ before and that’s really how I felt about the production at times. There is this wonderful mix of lavish costumes coupled with this ghostly, decaying set with empty picture frames…

MBP: Yes! It’s kind of terrifying and sad and yet I was surprised at how funny the show is. I’ve seen it many times and I’ve seen the movie and I’ve seen the opera version, but I didn’t remember it having as much humour. Then you put that on top of this haunting, sad, decaying end of an era… it’s very rich.

THM: Of course, you are doing double-duty this Broadway season, as you’ll next be reprising the role of the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna in the stage adaptation of Anastasia, after successfully completing the out-of-town tryout in Hartford. I am a big fan of the animated movie from 1997. When you originate a role on stage that already exists in the world of animation (and voiced by Angela Lansbury in your case), how much reference do you take from the animated character?

MBP: Well, Stephen [Flaherty], Lynn [Ahrens], Terrence McNally and Darko [Tresnjak] the director have gone out of their way to touchstone – and it’s mostly musically; I think there are three or four songs retained from that animated film. But the Broadway musical of Anastasia is a fully re-invented piece that stands on its own. The beauty is that the historic events that bring Anastasia into focus are so rich. You just couldn’t make it up! What actually happened was so amazing and I’ve been particularly fascinated for years and years with the Russian character, Russian music, literature and poetry, so for me, I feel like I’ve been doing research for this character for fifty years! (Laughs)

THM: What do you feel is the target audience for this stage adaptation?

MBP: Well, obviously there were a lot of young girls and a lot of them are now Moms and have young girls themselves, who are the same age as them, when they first saw the movie. So there’s that “Disney Princess” audience for sure. But I think also because the music is so beautiful, it’s a family show that the grown-ups are going to love as well. It’s not going to hurt your ears and it’s beautiful to look at. The technical aspects to the set and the way it moves with the music are so thrilling. I’ve never seen anything like it. I think it’s quite inventive and new. When we’re on stage, we feel like we’re in a movie.

THM: So, finally, back to ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses.’ Would you be able to summarise what you believe audiences take away from an afternoon or evening out at the Booth Theatre to see this show?

MBP: I think they will find themselves feeling very exhilarated, emotionally and mentally. If they have the time, they’ll go sit and have a nice dinner and ask each other questions. Who was really the bad guy? Who was really the victim? Who was really the victimiser? Who’s the good guy? And I bet they’ll all have different answers!

Les Liaisons Dangereuses is booking through to 22 January 2017 at Broadway's Booth Theatre.