He’s seen her twist and slither across the stage as Roxie Hart five times in NYC, and now Joel Markowitz interviews his favorite Roxie – Charlotte d’Amboise, who is playing the publicity-seeking murderess in Chicago, now on The National Theatre stage. Born into a family of famous dancers, and now raising two children, Charlotte talks about why she loves playing Roxie, what she learned from working with Jerome Robbins, how she juggles motherhood, and both her and her husband’s acting careers, and offers advice to her children and young dancers.
Joel: You have played Roxie Hart over 2,000 times. Do you know the exact number of times? Do you ever count?
Charlotte: I never ever count.
CharlotteIt’s a great, great character. You can show a lot of color with this character. It’s not a one dimensional character, which a lot of musical theatre roles tends to be. I can do a lot with her – there’s a lot there. There’s nothing sweet about her – there’s something horrible about her. She’s a shark. It’s just great to play someone like that, somebody that’s not nice. Then you have the incorporation of the dance and singing, everything all in one, and then a great acting role. There are very few roles like this that come around.
Joel: Do you ever get tired of playing Roxie that you may want to play fellow criminal Velma?
Charlotte: I absolutely have no desire to play Velma. Zero. And, I think for several reasons. One: I don’t think I’d be any good. I know what that part requires, because I have played so many, and I don’t have that. I know I can sing and dance it, but it’s not me. I don’t have that “hard edge” to play her. I’d have to work at that. It’s just not a role that is great for me. I don’t want to do a role unless I know I will be the best.
Joel: Tell us about Terra MacLeod, who is playing Velma here. . Have you worked with her before?
Charlotte: We had done New York a few times – the first time was three years ago. I love working with Terra because she “has that”. She is like a young Chita. I love her toughness, because it gives me something to play off of.
Joel: You have appeared with many actors who have played lawyer Billy Flynn. What makes John O’Hurley’s performance so unique and special?
Charlotte: What I like about John O’Hurley is that he doesn’t have to do anything with this role. When I work with others playing Billy, I know how hard they are working. He just comes out and does it. He just has to say the line, and it’s there. It’s so easy and natural for him. He’s made to play this role. He’s really good in it. He brings the humor, yet it doesn’t take away from what the character is. He’s very charming, and that’s what you need to bring to the role. He’s incredible, and I like him a lot.
Joel: How do you stay in shape for this very physically demanding role?
Charlotte: Right now, I’m injured and I have to go to PT. We get physical therapy a lot to work on our muscles. I do Pilates™. I’m there at the theatre at 6 PM, and I do a proper warm-up. I know my body, and I know what I need to do to strengthen it, and to keep it going the right way.
Joel: You have performed Roxie all over the country. Is the audience reaction towards Roxie the same or different wherever you go?
Charlotte: I haven’t done it a lot around the country now. When I initially did it, in the national company, I traveled more, but mostly I have performed Roxie in New York. and then in Chicago and Washington, DC in the tour. It’s a huge difference to do it in these cities, because those audiences respond. They’re smart, but if you did it in smaller cities, you get a totally different response. They don’t laugh at all the jokes, they don’t want to laugh at all the jokes, they just don’t “get it”. It’s that real east coast-type humor, and city-type quick wit, and sarcasm. You’re going to get a lot of that in the cities. My favorite cities to play are Chicago and Washington and New York City. It was an amazing audience last night (press night on April 1). I turned to Kevin Chamberlain (who plays Amos Hart) and asked, “Who are these people”? They were so amazing, and they were great the night before too.
Joel: Have you ever had audience members come up to you after the show and accuse you of being an evil woman like Roxie Hart?
Charlotte: I haven’t – you mean like – “You are a horrible person”? No, and I’m actually surprised. I do have some of my family, who are very religious, and I’ll say something about the part to them, and they will respond, “I know, we have been warned!” They have been warned about Roxie, and they always give me this look. I haven’t gotten any hate letters.
Joel: You met your husband actor Terrence Mann, who I loved as Javert in the original Broadway cast of Les Miserables, when you were both performing in Cats in 1984. Was it love at first purr?
Charlotte: Heh heh heh! Yes, it was, I must say. It was one of those things. I remember him looking in my eyes, and I just went “Whoa, that’s the guy I want to marry”! We did not get together then. We sort of fell in love then, but it didn’t really happen until he joined the cast of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.
Joel: So, what was it like working with Jerome Robbins? Are all those stories right about how difficult he was?
Charlotte: I stayed in a studio for seven months working with him. I loved it, because when you are working with a genius or someone that great, it’s inspiring, no matter what. He was constantly inspiring, and I learned so much from him. It was an incredible period in my life.
Charlotte: Well, I’m not on the road too long, and they are coming out, for the last week here in DC. I don’t like to go on the road in general. Neither Terry nor I go out on the road much. That stopped once we had the kids. It’s hard, but it’s fantastic. You have a reason to do everything in your life now, because of your children, everything has more of a purpose and meaning, and they love being backstage, they love hanging out, and they are with us all the time. They have seen me in everything, and they love it. They say they like Chicago better than A Chorus Line, because it’s funnier.
Joel: Do Shelby and Jojo have any of the famous dancing genes that you inherited from your parents?
Charlotte: One of them is adopted from China, and the other one, I think might. She certainly has the body for it. She has the legs and the feet. All kids love to dance, I have found. So, we’ll see if anything takes off.
Joel: What would you tell your daughters if they came to you and said they wanted to dance professionally?
Charlotte: I’m starting to put them in dance class now. I worry about it, because it scares me, because I know how good you have to be to get anywhere. But, if they have that desire, who am I to stop them? As a mother, I just try to put as much out there for them as I can. I have them taking Chinese and French – I’m trying to get them in every direction. I am definitely going to put them in dance class. Ballet is the best thing.
Joel: You have come in as a replacement many times in your career. Do you feel replacements never get the respect they deserve?
Charlotte: No. I don’t ever feel that, or have felt that. I love replacing, truthfully, because I don’t like the “hoopla”. I don’t like the attention. I like to just come on in the lead role, and I like to have good roles, and I like to perform. I can’t stand all that Tony stuff.
Joel: Remember, The Tony Awards committee announced an award for Best Replacement, and then they never gave it out?
Charlotte: Really? I don’t remember that. It would be nice, but it would just add more stress to my life. I am really lucky to get a chance to play all these roles. Sometimes, they like to put stars in these roles, and I get the second shot at it. And, that’s OK, as long as I get a chance to do it. I feel really lucky to have played all these great roles. Gwen Verdon got to play most of them.
Joel: They have just made a documentary about the auditions for the 2006 revival and the original 1975 original production, called Every Little Step. Have you seen it?
Charlotte: Yes, I’ve seen it. Have you?
Joel: It’s not playing here, and when I was in NYC last weekend to attend the Show Biz Expo, I searched for a theatre where it was playing, and couldn’t find it playing anywhere.
Charlotte: I think you’re going to like it!* Joel, it’s really good. It came out really great. I’m so thrilled.
Joel: Did it accurately capture what you experienced when you auditioned for the role of Cassie?
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Charlotte: Yes. It’s very honest and really captures everyone and their situation, and the truth. The show is the truth. All those stories in A Chorus Line are true. They came out of people that had true stories. It’s the truth of what we deal with every day. They put me through the ringer in that show – and everybody! And, the movie has a lot about Michael Bennett, and why A Chorus Line was formed, and why you have this audition process. It really captures the show in such an incredible way. It’s a show within a show. It shows exactly what A Chorus Line is.
Joel: What was the best advice Bob Fosse and Jerome Robbins gave you about dancing?
Charlotte: You always dance for a reason, and you always have a focus. I didn’t really work with Bob Fosse. I auditioned for him, but never got to work with him. Jerome Robbins came out of character development, so everything you did for him was out of a character that you played. It wasn’t always about being this incredible dancer. It was about the part you were playing, which is what I took with me most from Robbins. Also, the way he focuses on everything, and even Fosse, where everything is focused. That courtroom scene in Chicago– the more that it’s focused the better it is, not so much about all the things that are going on, but that you are focused on the story. It’s so important, and they both taught me that. Telling the story, and not being worried about the audience, The audience will come to you – you don’t have to go to them.
Joel: What role that you turned down, do you wish you would have taken?
Charlotte: I haven’t turned down any roles (laughs!). As far as big Broadway roles, the ones I turned down, I turned down for a reason. Luckily, nothing I turned down was something I regretted.
Joel: What role in a musical playing now on Broadway would you like to play, or come in as a replacement?
Charlotte: The only role that I feel I haven’t done yet is Sally Bowles in Cabaret, which is not playing right now. I really wish I had done that role. I loved the last production that Rob Marshall put together, and Sam Mendes was fantastic with that production. That was a role I was dying to do. As far as anything right now on Broadway, nothing.
Joel: What advice would you give a young dancer or actress who is considering a career in musical theatre?
Charlotte: You have to really want it, and you have to take a lot of dance classes. You have to have the passion. If you don’t have that passion, you will never make it. If you do have that passion, then you just have to go out there, and take as many dance classes from as many styles of dance, from modern dance to hip hop to tap. Do as much as you can absorb to learn how to do. On Broadway today, you never know what’s going to be thrown at you. You have to be able to do it all.
Joel: What’s the secret of your very long and distinguished career?
Charlotte: Oh God! Again, I think it’s my passion. It’s literally people like me who have hung in there and are still doing it. It’s the only thing that I know I can do. So, I have hung in there. It’s hard, because you still get rejected. You still struggle all the time. You are always auditioning. It never goes away. If anything, it gets harder, rather than easier. A lot of people just dwindle away, or can’t hang in there, It’s just sheer determination. That’s why I am still here.
Chicago runs through April 12th at the National Theatre. Details here.