DC theatregoers remember Tia Speros from her powerful and heartbreaking performance as Rose Sputnick in Studio Theatre’s Helen Hayes Award Winning Best Resident Musical Caroline, or Change in 2006, and now Tia Speros is playing four characters as part of a hard-working ensemble in The Tin Pan Alley Rag, now playing through September 6th at the Laurel Pels Theatre in New York City.
Tia talks to Joel Markowitz about The Tin Pan Alley Rag, her work at The Olney Theatre Center and Studio Theatre, as well as offering advice to young actors.
Joel: Tell us about The Tin Pan Alley Rag.
Tia: The Tin Pan Alley Rag is about a fictitious meeting between Irving Berlin and Scott Joplin, because their lives paralleled in so many ways. Mark Saltzman [author] decided to show what would have happened if these two gentlemen had met. And to look closely at what happened to their first wives, and, too, to show how they wrote their music. The other characters in the play are on the periphery, and supplement and fill out their stories.
Joel: How did you get involved in the show?
Tia: I did a workshop this year at the end of February for three weeks at the 42nd Street Studios, with Roundabout’s Stafford Arima as director. It was a newer version than they had in the past. Stafford Arima is the one who got me on board. He requested me, and I didn’t have to go through the audition process with him.
Joel: Wow! That’s nice!
Tia: You hope for that. You hope you reach a point where, and it’s not always that way, once in a while a gift is thrown your way. So, this was my little gift from them, and they kept me on for this full production, which was an additional gift.
Joel: Tell us about the four roles you play in the show, and how you relate to these characters.
Tia: I play Ida, who is Berlin’s and Teddy Snyder’s secretary. She’s in a couple of scenes and I really like her. I envision her having to deal with these two personalities, and having to deal with all the “pluggers” that come in all the time – people who are trying to plug their wares and music, just the rock-hard shell she must have acquired going through all of that – just the sarcasm, just to deal with those two difficult gentlemen alone.
Then I play a Wedding Singer, and it’s the antithesis of what Berlin and Joplin were about. They are very staid, operatic and unemotional, and the Wedding Singer feels that she is the most beautiful thing in town – “People are requesting me”.
I play Sophie The Whore. She’s just the fixture at Jimmy Kelly’s bar. That’s what they did. They had their rooms upstairs, they worked the clientele downstairs at the bar, and they had a good time. That’s Sophie.
I also play Kate The Plugger. She’s the first one you see – a very enthusiastic, songwriter. “I write it and sing it myself. You’re gonna love this one! If you don’t like this one, I’ve got a whole bunch of them!” She’s really clever and she writes about “states”. That’s where her cleverness comes in.
Joel: Which of these characters is closest to the real Tia Speros?
Tia: Ida, because she is hard-shelled, not that I’m a hard-shelled woman – but I appreciate her sarcasm – not that she gets to displays it all that much – but I find her supportive and no-nonsense, and I really like her.
Joel : What did you learn about Irving Berlin by working in the show, that you didn’t know about before?
Tia: I didn’t know much about Irving Berlin. I had done a revue many years ago, in some summer stock theatre, but I didn’t know about his hard-line personality, and I didn’t know that he started out as a singing waiter. He was a cut-throat. Obviously, he was incredibly successful. And, I heard he “second acted” a lot of shows. He snuck into the theatre during the second act, to see what people were doing. And what a long life this man had – 100 years old +.
Joel: What did you learn about Scott Joplin by working in the show, that you didn’t know before?
Tia: I didn’t realize that he died at such a young age and that he died with little money. You would think otherwise for a man who created so much beautiful music. I didn’t know that.
Joel: What is your favorite scene in the show?
Tia: I love the Alfred Ernst/Joplin scene in the beginning of the second act, with Joplin being sort of “green” and going to this conductor, and how Joplin was influenced and inspired by classical music. I think that scene is so well written.
Joel: It’s my favorite scene too. I am a sucker for “mentor” scenes.
Tia: It is a beautiful mentor scene. My second choice is the scene between Freddie (Mrs. Scott Joplin) and her father. It’s very short and also in the second act. It really shows the feistiness of Freddie, who died at such a young age, and how she had so much spirit and fire, and really wanted to make such a difference in the world. You can really see that in the relationship she has with her father.
Joel: What is your favorite Irving Berlin song?
Tia: Oh my goodness! “White Christmas” comes to mind. The melody is so beautiful!
Joel: What is your favorite Scott Joplin composition?
Tia: It’s (she sings) “doo-doo-doo-doo” (and asks her son Ben to help her). It’s “Bethena”! It’s so beautiful! In the play, after Freddie dies, Scott Joplin sits at the piano and composes it. I just walked into my son Ben’s room and he is taking piano lessons, and he revisited it. He played it a long time ago with his piano teacher, and then came to the show and heard it.
Joel: What’s the audience reaction been like? Do you read reviews?
Tia: No, but I know The (NY) Times did not like the play.
Joel: But they liked the performances.
Tia: I know, but that’s what I’ve heard is the comment across the board. Right?
Joel: But there were some that really liked the show. I really liked the show.
Tia: Some people find it’s not compelling, that it doesn’t have enough conflict. But then you get the people who come to the talkbacks who absolutely loved it because of its historical nature – “I didn’t know this, and I didn’t know that…, and it moves them, and they are in tears at the end. It’s a play with music, and it’s not featuring Berlin’s popular music. At the end of the play when he is aging, you hear a medley of his popular songs, and people say, “Yes! Those are the songs that should have been in the play!” That’s not what the play’s about. You can’t please them all, but I know a lot of them have been pleased and love the show. A lot of the Roundabout subscribers love the show. The cast have not been affected by that review. They believe in their work, in the work of Mark and Stafford, and Liza Gennaro (choreographer), and have carried on.
Joel: Talk about the two young actors who play Irving Berlin – Michael Therriault and Michael Boatman, who plays Scott Joplin.
Tia: Therriault is the most giving, and supportive of any person on that stage. He could be, “I am playing Irving Berlin, now focus here”, but he gives you focus, whenever he is on the stage. I don’t get to appear with Michael Boatman a lot, but I get to observe him on and off the stage. Boy! You couldn’t ask for two better gentlemen to play these roles, and they get along so well. Boatman also supports his ensemble and his cast.
Joel: When did you first get the theatre bug?
Tia: The Tia Theatre Bug history! It was when I appeared in Bye Bye Birdie in 8th grade. I played Kim MacAfee, of course, braces and all! I grew up in a small city outside of San Francisco called Daly.
Joel: Where did you get your vocal training, because you have this great voice?
Tia: You’re sweet! I started singing in choirs, and then in high school. I hooked up with a teacher who actually taught me the mechanics. I can’t remember her name. Isn’t that awful? Stephanie Samaras, here in NYC, was really my vocal teacher for a number of years. She really works well with the female voice, and all its complications.
Tia: That was one of my greatest experiences, I must say. I loved that show. I loved working with those people. Max Talisman, included. What a dear boy he was and still is. I had dinner with him and his Mom last night. And, I loved playing that role. I’m a mom. She’s not a mom, really.
Joel: She really tries to be a mom.
Tia: But she really wants to, and she just wants to be liked. She wants Caroline to like her, and she wants everyone to like her. She does the wrong things thinking she’s doing the right things. I just enjoyed it, and enjoyed singing that very challenging music (by Jeanine Tesori). It was not easy stuff to learn, but very rewarding. It was a good time, and the audiences responding so great.
Joel: And those reviews were fabulous!
Tia: OK. I lied. I don’t read them when I am in the show, but then they give you a press packet, because the temptation is too good, so instead of throwing it into the recycling bin, I read it! OK?
Joel: Especially when you walk past the marquis and the rave reviews are splattered there!
Tia: Right (laughs).
Joel: Why do you think Caroline, or Change is finally finding an audience, when it didn’t do so well during its Broadway run?
Tia: NYC audiences are funny. “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, show me something else”, or maybe the music is becoming more familiar out there now. Sometimes, people want a humable tune. There are some nice melodies in the score, that maybe you can hum, but not right away, because you have to listen to it. Thankfully, it’s being done a lot regionally.
Joel: It did very well in London, and won Best New Musical in 2007 at the Olivier Awards.
Tia: They like that American history in London, especially the JFK era, and respond more to that.
Joel: Let’s talk about working at Olney Theatre Center.
Tia: That was a lifetime ago.
Joel: You were nominated for a Helen Hayes award for Lucky Stiff, and the show won the Helen Hayes Award for Best Resident Musical in 1990. It’s the least known work of Steven Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, whose Kennedy Center production of Ragtime is on its way to Broadway.
Tia: It’s also one of my fondest memories. I played Annabelle. To get to sing Lynn and Stephen’s music was wonderful. I remember we lived in a house that they provided, with great old rooms, like an inn, adjacent to the theatre. I remember Stephen Flaherty coming and being so thrilled his show was being produced there, and hanging out with us several nights. He was there on opening night at The Tin Pan Alley Rag, and it’s always nice to see him, and he’s always very sweet.
And then I did Lend Me A Tenor with director Jack Going – who is sort of a fixture there in DC – which was also a lot of fun. I got to work with my childhood friend Evan Pappas in both shows.
Joel: What role would you love to play that you haven’t played yet?
Tia: As I get older, they seem to be passing me by. I have always wanted to play The Baker’s Wife in Into The Woods. I love Stephen Sondheim. I was fortunate enough to do some productions of Company, where I played Amy. I would have loved to have done Into The Woods because I listened to that cast CD over and over again. I also like the Baker’s Wife’s sarcasm. There’s something about sarcasm…
Joel: Tell us something about you that only your close friends know.
Tia: My close friends know that I love to participate in Dinner Club. We get together once a month and I love to cook. In the last year, I went back to get – something far removed from the theatre – a fitness trainer certificate from Hunter College. I have one more course to take. I had an itch to be a fitness trainer, particularly for the elderly, and to work with senior citizens like myself, to see if I can make a difference. This is what I’ve been toying with these days.
Joel: What advice would you give students who are considering making acting and theatre their career?
Tia: I’d say, “Go for it! And study hard!” I’m an advocate for college. I think it rounds you out. I think kids are given a lot early in life, and I think it’s valuable for kids to work every facet of the theatre – see how costumes work, to work backstage – because that’s where you learn to appreciate all the hard work that goes into a show, from every soul that is participating. So, I’d say, get involved fully, not just wanting to be a star, but fully appreciate the makings of a production in every respect.
Joel: Tell our readers why they should make the trip up to New York City to seeThe Tin Pan Alley Rag.
Tia: Because, like me, they will discover some new things about two great men who shaped our music and our theatre, and see some really great performances from the two leads, and the ensemble who play multiple roles, like I do, and then some, who do it so beautifully and so committed.