Zorba! may be the greatest Kander and Ebb musical you've never seen. A story of life and death in the Greek isles, originally produced and directed by Harold Prince, the show was well regarded in its original Broadway production in 1968, but it ran less than a year. A mid 1980s tour came to Broadway and ran a little longer. There have been few if any other major revivals, and no film version of the musical was ever made. But now Zorba and company will have their place in the sun again: The show is about to presented by City Center Encores! for six performances, May 6-10, with Walter Bobbie directing a cast headed by Adam Chanler-Berat, Robert Cuccioli, Elizabeth A. Davis, Santino Fontana, Robert Montano, John Turturro, Carlos Valdes, Zoë Wanamaker -- and, in the role of The Leader, the golden-voiced, chameleonic, Marin Mazzie. During a recent break in rehearsals, I spoke with Marin about what has brought her to playing one of the most singular roles in the musical theater canon. (For more information on Zorba!, or to purchase tickets, go to nycitycenter.org.)
BROADWAYSTARS: Tell me about the Leader.
MARIN MAZZIE: We were just talking about the costuming for the character. The initial idea, as I learned from talking to John [Kander] and Walter [Bobbie] -- she was Hal Prince's idea, based on the Leader in the Greek chorus. In the original production, I believe she did become part of certain scenes. The other characters would see her, refer to her, and even touch her as one of the townspeople. But that's not what we're doing; no one sees her. She's omnipresent, and she knows everything. It's almost as if she's leading the others to what their lives are going to be. She just presents life as it is. My idea for her has been informed by Anna Louizos' set: a stone wall, with an olive tree in the back. I said, "I want to feel like I've come out of the stone wall, or like I've literally walked out of the sea."
STARS: I assume you're singing the original lyric at the start of the show, "Life is what you do while you're waiting to die."
STARS: Because, you know, they changed it for the revival with Anthony Quinn and Debbie (Shapiro) Gravitte...
MARIN: No! What did they change it to?
STARS: "Life is what you do till the moment you die."
MARIN: No, no, no, no, no. Uh-uh. We're doing all the original lyrics.
STARS: Will you be wearing a wig?
MARIN: Yes, I am going to be brunette. I'm not going to be blonde. You know, I've worn brunette wigs before, as Aldonza and as the Lady of the Lake. I like being blonde, but I also like wearing other colors.
STARS: You pronounce your last name "MAY-zee," yes? What's the derivation of the name?
MARIN: It's Italian, so the pronunciation there would be "MOTT-zee-eh." We really don't know much about my father's family; his parents died when he was really young, and he was torn in 1924. His mother was Swedish, so he was half Swede, half Italian. Then my mom's side of the family is very Swedish. So I have a lot of Swede in me, but I sort of identify more with the Italian. My father thinks his father was from Sicily -- so, you know, that's near Greece!
STARS: I well remember the TV commercial for the revival of Zorba! Do you?
MARIN: Yes -- with Debbie. I was talking about it with someone just yesterday. I didn't see the revival, because I was doing a show at the time. I've never seen the show, and I didn't really know the score. A couple of years ago, there was a Kander and Ebb evening at Lincoln Center with Chita and Joel Grey, and Jason [her husband, Jason Danieley] and I sang some of "Life Is" to open the show -- but just a little bit of it. It's a Kander and Ebb score I was not familiar with, but it's so beautiful and so amazing. When you think of when it was written, where this came from in 1968 -- right before the Sondheim/Prince musicals, and all of that. In this show, there are three deaths, including a murder and a suicide. It's a show about life and death.
STARS: Do you and Jason ever still do your two-person show?
MARIN: Oh, yeah. And we're working on a new one.
STARS: I saw what I think was the first one, at American Songbook. I remember there was that great joke in it, during your "competition" banter. You introduced yourself to the audience by saying something like, "I've been in several Broadway shows, and I have three Tony nominations." And then Jason said, "And I'm 32."
MARIN: Oh, God. That was a long time ago! Now we do jokes about how long we've been together.
STARS: I think I've said this to you before, but when you and Jason went into Next to Normal on Broadway, you gave one of the most beautiful performances I've ever seen.
MARIN: Thank you very much. That was an extraordinary experience for both of us. Next to Normal was a very bonding piece, to say the least. It was like pouring your heart and soul and guts out every night. The great thing about working with Jason is that our relationship is so strong.
STARS: You've worked with Sondheim, Flaherty and Ahrens, John Kander, and so many other greats. Creating roles in shows like Passion and Ragtime must have been thrilling.
MARIN: Yes, it was. I had first worked with Sondheim when I was very young. About 30 years ago -- when I was 1 -- we did the first revival of Merrily We Roll Along, in La Jolla. James Lapine directed it. I played Beth, and John Rubinstein, Chip Zien, Heather MacRae, and Mary Gordon Murray were in the show. It's one of my best memories. Then I went into Into the Woods and worked with Steve and James again, but my dream was to originate a role in a show that they wrote. So that came true with Passion.
STARS: Any thoughts on the movie of Into the Woods?
MARIN: I'm so glad that it got made, like Sweeney Todd, and that people are being exposed to Sondheim in a huge way. I think it's fantastic that this beautiful piece is now on screen.
STARS: It did very well, didn't it.
MARIN: Yes, and that will continue. You know, the way people -- especially kids -- see movies these days is they watch them over and over again. And the great thing about Sondheim, as people always say, is that every time you hear the songs, you hear something new or different. He writes so beautifully for each character. The one thing that disappointed me about the film was that "No More" is not in it. It's one of my favorite songs, and one of the greatest things about being in the show was being able to see and hear Chip Zien sing that song every night.
STARS: Did you wind up going on in three different roles?
MARIN: Yes. I came in covering the Witch, Cinderella, and Rapunzel. Then Pam Winslow left, and I took over for her as Rapunzel, but I continued to understudy the Witch and Cinderella. I actually did all three of them in one week. That was crazy, but how fantastic -- those three roles. You learn so much by doing them.
STARS: Any retrospective thoughts on Bullets Over Broadway that you'd like to share?
MARIN: I loved it. I thought it was a fantastic show, and a wonderful company. Helen Sinclair was so great to embody, and it was fun to do a comedy again.
STARS: Well, I'm very much looking forward to Zorba! I think it's a perfect choice for the Encores! series as a great show that's not often done, for whatever reasons.
MARIN: It isn't often done, but people who do know it really love it. Chita did the tour with John Raitt, and she LOVES the show. We've talked about it. Everybody I know who's ever seen it says the show really gets into your bones. So it's exciting that we're doing it.
Published on Monday, May 4, 2015
Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The last five Michael Portantiere articles:
Pardon My English
Justin Guarini Talks to the Trees (and Makes Beautiful Music)
Randy Skinner Gets Together With the Gershwins and Tommy Tune at Encores!
Michael McKean Hops Aboard The Band Wagon
Carnival Sets Up at Musicals Tonight!
For an archive of all the Michael Portantiere articles, click here.