Mary Stout and Yenta: A Perfect Match!
She made Kennedy Center audiences howl as the scowling matriarch of Peckerwood (Mame), and now she almost butchers Tzeitel and Motel’s chance for happiness at The National Theatre through May 2nd as Yenta, the matchmaker. But, it was her graceful and loving Mrs. Fairfax in Jane Eyre The Musical, and her hysterically top-drawer performance as a wise-cracking and high-note hitting and kibitzing wardrobe in a Disney musical – that made me a fan-for-life. So, as you can imagine, I was ecstatic and honored when I was offered the opportunity to interview the one-of-a-kind Mary Stout. Here is Mary talking about her career, working with three Tevyes on the Fiddler tour, being “carted” by an Oscar Myer-salesman, and offering some words of wisdom to future actors.
Joel: You were so cute as Yenta in Fiddler on the Roof that I wanted to grab and hug you.
Mary: That’s so sweet. Thank you. I’m having the time of my life playing this role.
Joel: How did you get involved in this production of Fiddler?
Mary: It was in the Fall of 2009, and I had recently recovered from surgery, and my agents called and said, “We have an appointment for you for the Fiddler on the Roof tour. And I was like, HUH?” I played Golde in summer stock twice in Maine, and I never felt I was the ideal Golde. I’m not Jewish, so it was kinda wrong. I certainly felt I played her well, but it never felt like a perfect fit. They thought I would make a great Yenta, and at first I was like “What?, and this is not right”. I am a purist in the sense that being Jewish is important, but not mandatory, and we certainly have a lot of non-Jews in the show, so it would never have crossed my mind to play Yenta.
After I went in that first day, it became pretty clear that I was the first choice, and they wanted me to come back and meet Topol, and I’m thinking, “She’s just a little totem woman. She’s on her own planet, but she is committed to the work that she does.” It just never occurred to me that until that moment when I went, “Wait a minute – maybe I could do this! And, it was just perfect after that. I eased into it, and had a great time in rehearsals.
Joel: Why did you take the role?
Mary: She’s fun. She’s connected to everything. It’s also fun to be part of this ensemble. She’s part of that unit, as everyone is part of that little town,. They all care about each other. It’s a wonderful town – Anatevka – I think, despite the Russians being there. It’s a very special place, and there’s Tevye, being the town whatever – mayor, advice giver, milkman, etc., and everyone rallies around Tevye. Who wouldn’t want to play that role?
Joel: How would you describe the accent you use for Yenta?
Mary: It’s middle European. Whether it’s right or not, I am not Jewish, and I didn’t want to be dishonest by making her sound stereotypically Jewish. I wanted her to give a flavor of the area, and whether I succeeded – well, I don’t know. We certainly didn’t have anyone to help us on that, but they didn’t reject what I was giving. As long as they understood everything I was saying – that was really most important.
Joel: How do you relate to Yenta?
Mary: A lot! Like me, she notices a lot and sees a lot. She’s very observant of people. I think she would have to be, because she is constantly matching people up. She’s always looking who is good for who. I like to listen on the stage. I like to see what’s going on, and be part of that journey. She’s motherly without being a mother. She is her own person, her own gig – like me.
Joel: You told me you had a tough time understanding how to play your exit scene after the song “Anatevka” – when you turn around and give Golde a hug.
Mary: When I made my exit in the show, I thought it was an exit line in the sense of an exit line – versus going down and talking to myself. It was after “Anatevka”, and I come back and say goodbye to Golde, “Is it right? Of course right! We suffer. We suffer. We suffer in silence. Right? Of course right!” I thought it was to be “Bubududump -Applause”, and I expected that. I tried to make it a more consistent exit, and sometimes I would get applause, and sometimes I wouldn’t. There was no rhyme and reason to it, and I couldn’t figure it out. And eventually, the director stepped in and helped and said, “It’s not an exit. She is just going down the road, and the more that I throw it away, the better”. And occasionally I’ll get applause, but it doesn’t matter.
Joel: Why did Topol leave the tour?
Mary: This was a man who was injuring himself nightly by falling on that (milk) cart before the “Chaveleh (Little Bird) Ballet”. He tore his rotator cuff, and he was reinjuring it, and he wouldn’t change it. “This is the way it has always been done”. Theodore Bikel (who is doing the Canadian part of this tour) and Harvey don’t do it.
Joel: You worked with Theodore Bikel in the Canadian cast of the Fiddler tour. What was that like?
Mary: Theo is the real thing! He is Tevye! When we were in Edmonton, he had a party for us. It was a Thursday night and he invited us to his hotel room – a rotunda room – and sitting in the middle of this rotunda was a grand piano, and his wife played the piano as he sang for forty minutes. It was amazing listening to all those songs and folk stories and stories about singing for The Queen. I can see him back in the sixties. He’s such a child of that time period.
Joel: Now let’s talk about Harvey Fierstein’s Tevye, which DC audiences are seeing at The National Theatre through May 2nd.
Mary: Everyone loves Harvey. His Tevye loves his girls and his wife Golde, and Harvey really shows it. He is so funny. He is in the Zero Mostel mode. First of all, he is the nicest man on the planet, but on stage he is so committed to what he does, and he always has fun doing it. If something happens, he rolls with it, which is exciting.
Joel: Tell us about an incident where Harvey had to “roll with it”?
Mary: We had a couple of incidents where cell phones went off which literally almost stopped the opening number. Harvey turned around and said, “Do you want to get that?” He doesn’t ignore it – he pulls it in, and throws it into the number. He’s very spontaneous and if something funny goes on – he picks up on it. He’s so smart in that way.
Joel: You told me about Harvey taking the cast to a production of A Catered Affair at The Aurora Theatre, when you were on the road in Atlanta. (Harvey wrote the book for the show).
Mary: It was the first production of the show outside of NYC . It was really great. They rented a bus and took about forty of us.
Joel: How did you like it?
Mary: I am friends with Glenn Rainey, who played Uncle Winston, who Harvey played on Broadway. I was up for the production on Broadway, so I was a little jaded about watching this production, but I liked it. It was right after Beauty and the Beast closed that I auditioned for A Catered Affair in NYC, so it was OK that I didn’t get the role.
Joel: Why do you think Fiddler on the Roof is still so popular forty six years after it opened on Broadway?
Mary: It’s as close to a perfect musical that we have. The story is so moving. It’s the story of what these people go through which is timeless. It’s hard to really ruin Fiddler (although I’m sure some people have) because it pushes all the right buttons.
Now let’s talk about the other show I am in locally.
Joel: You mean [title of show] at Signature Theatre? Is it true that you were run over by a hot dog cart as they say in the show. Now be “frank” with me. Do you “relish” having that accident mentioned in the show for people to laugh at?
Mary: It’s true! It was in the summer of 2004, and I was on a medical leave from Beauty and the Beast because I had back surgery, and I was taking care of my mother who was dying. I was coming out of the stage door after visiting the stage manager and cast, and I had to get back by 7 PM, and I was walking toward 8th Avenue, and was rammed on the sidewalk by the short end of the hotdog cart. Luckily, I didn’t fall. I was OK, but how much damage it did to my back, it was never addressed.
It was six months after the surgery and I was in the process of waiting for my lower back to fuse. I had all that metal and I was waiting for all of it to grow together. This was not a good thing! The doctor looked at the x-rays and said that everything looked OK. I did nothing wrong. I was just walking down the street. I was doing a show a few months later at the NYMF (New York Musical Festival) and someone walked to me and said, “Did you know you are in a show?” I said, “Yes, I am this show” and he said, “No, No, No! You are in [title of show]. It was all over Broadway. On the bus I asked George Lee Andrews (he’s been in the cast of Phantom of the Opera since it opened), “Did you hear that I was hit by a hot dog cart?”, and he said, “Yes I know. It’s all over the news!” News travels quickly!
Joel: You learned that a story like this will eventually “ketchup” with you.
Mary: I was screaming at the top of my lungs on 46th Street, “Stop him! Stop that hot dog cart!” It was a hit-and-run hotdog cart! He ran!
Joel: He didn’t even offer you a free Hebrew National for what he did to you? Sounds like, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn!”
Mary: Funny! No! No! He didn’t even stop! It’s one of those things that even though it happened, I have more humor about it than anger.
Joel: Tell us about your six years playing Madame de la Grande Bouche in Beauty and the Beast.
Mary: It was so much fun! I carried those heavy drawers and wardrobe around for six years – six years! I loved doing that show so much that six months before it closed (on January 29, 2007), I found a new laugh in the show – Madame laughing at herself. I found it and it just blossomed, and the director popped in one day and he loved it. We pulled it back a little bit so it wasn’t such a big deal, and again, it was so much fun listening to rolls of laughter. Discovering it kept me into it. When you do something for so long, you have to find ways to freshen it up.
Joel: It was like opening new drawers.
Joel: You played Mrs. Fairfax in the musical Jane Eyre The Musical, which is one of my all-time favorite musicals. Tell us about that journey.
Mary: I was in the show for over six years. I was asked to do the first reading of it in 1995 at The Manhattan Theatre Company, because it was right before I left Beauty and the Beast.
That year, I also did the first four pilots of AMC’s series Remember Wenn, where I played Eugenia Bremer, the station’s organist. That summer we did the reading – me and Marla Schafell and Anthony Crivello. After the reading was over, I said to my friend Brooks Almy, who was also at the reading – “I think this is something I need to hang with”, and she said, “Mary – absolutely!”
Mrs. Fairfax had two songs, “Perfectly Nice” and “Slip of a Girl”, which is amazing for a character actress. This role is what I do best, and that’s why I am in the business. It had everything for me, and it only got better. They actually gave me a new scene about two weeks before it opened. They used to have a scene when Jane returned to Thornfield, and she met the gardener, who ends up being the brother of someone, and he fills her in on what’s been happening while she was gone, and now they felt it was too late to introduce another character, so they went back and had her meet me. It was a lovely scene and a very moving role. It had humor and pathos. She had everything. I just loved working on it so much.
I left Beauty and the Beast to do Jayne Eyre in Toronto. We pretty much sold out for the five weeks we were there. In fact, we are going back shortly to Toronto with Fiddler on the Roof. It was amazing that Jane Eyre sold so well in Toronto. People go to the theatre big-time in Toronto. We opened the same week as Ragtime in Toronto, so everything was focused on Ragtime. In Toronto, we had over fifty reviews, and all but one – The Globe and Mail – were raves, but because of that one review, it killed our box office.
Joel: I was there to see Ragtime, and I never heard of Jane Eyre playing there. I saw no ads for Jane Eyre, but Ragtime was everywhere.
Mary: It was such a great production up there in Toronto I thought. It was longer, and they had a wonderful section of the show when she went to stay with her sisters, and it was this section of the show that was eventually cut. It was a whole different show in Toronto. It was like hauling you through molasses; it was so riveting.
Joel: So what happened when it got to Broadway?
Mary: I think there was already a lot of angst against the sung-through British musical.
Joel: And they always compare these kind of musicals to Les Miserables.
Mary: I know. How they could compare it to Les Miserables was a mystery to me. We did get some nice notices. Marla got rave reviews and The Wall Street Journal was a rave. Clive Barnes in the NY Post liked it. There were some really wonderful reviews, and Marla won some awards for her performance.
Joel: Why is it so much fun being a supporting player?
Mary: Who wants to do all that work? Being a lead is hard. I have had a couple of little turns of carrying shows.
Joel: I know you played Mama Rose in Gypsy a long time ago.
Mary: I was in college, at 21. I was pretty good at it. I worked pretty hard at it, but you know, it was a hard role.
Joel: Vocally it’s a killer.
Mary: Only eleven songs.
Joel: Merman wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Mary: No, No, No. “Look at me, me, me!”
I haven’t played many of those carrying of the shows things, but I love being the “extra”. I loved playing Mother Burnside in Mame at the Kennedy Center.
Joel: I just wanted to strangle you – you were so mean – the bitch from hell.
Mary: I would sit in the Green Room and watch the Yankee game with Michael Kaiser. It was too funny. I had nothing to do. We’d always go up and watch the opening number, and sneak into the back of the house, with the bit players and Jeff McCarthy, because it was such a kick. And then I’d go back to wait to play that wonderful Mother. It was so much fun being the surprise!
Joel: You gotta admit, that when you walked in with expression on your punim (Yiddish for “face”) – it was drop-dead hysterical.
Mary: Eric Schaeffer kinda let me go a little bit. I asked him if it would be OK if I added a line – because the audience was laughing hysterically – and Eric cleared it – and I looked up at Jeff McCarthy and I said, “That was a good one!”, and they just roared again! It was a little ad lib there. When I walked in that first night and said, “What do you mean I don’t look happy Beauregard?”, I realized that I had to look out, and I let the audience see my face, and when I did – they roared. OK, I was “milking it,” but it was so much fun hearing people laugh like that! I loved playing Mother Burnside, and I played it again two summers ago at The Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, where I also played all the other little parts. They bought or rented the Kennedy Center set and the house wouldn’t fit, so I had to come out through the side for my entrance, but it didn’t work. We then had me walking down with Beauregard straight in front of the audience, and that worked.
Joel: No wonder. When you did it at The Kennedy Center, it was like you were attacking us. I remember a young kid looking straight at you and saying, “What the f**k!”
Mary: (laughing loudly) It was the real me. It was one of those special moments. I don’t know if it just happened or if Eric came up with it, but he’s very gifted in coming up with concepts and ideas like that. That’s one of his big strengths – looking at the whole picture.
Joel: What is the state of the Broadway musical today?
Mary: The last year and a half is a blur, so I haven’t seen a lot because I have been on the road with Fiddler, and when I get to NYC I try to rest. I certainly pay attention on the Internet. I think we are still in that “nobody wants to spend any money mode”, and it’s making it difficult for many of these shows. Mary Poppins is still running because Disney owns the theatre. If they had to pay rent, they probably would be closed – because of the days where they didn’t make a lot of money, especially during the winter months.
Joel: If I were to ask producers and directors why they keep hiring you, what would they say? Why do actors love working with Mary Stout?
Mary: “She loves what she does”. I love to be on the stage so much. I can’t imagine myself doing something else. I love making people laugh and I love telling stories. I guess people like seeing me on the stage. I hope Joel that you are right and that I will continue working in the theatre.
Joel: What advice would you give young students who are considering making acting their career?
Mary: My advice to them is to do what I did: get as much experience on any level as you possibly can. Don’t say NO to anything. Obviously if it’s something horrible – don’t do it! You never know how these experiences can color your life and your career down the line. So I say to everyone: don’t be too picky. I did lots and lots of dinner theatre and lots of summer stock, and I would often select the summer stock shows based on the number of performances they were doing, and what was the potential for me to have roles. I wanted to work and didn’t want to go to places that only did one show all summer. I also did a lot of community theatre after I moved to NYC – everything!
Then I taught school for a couple of years, which only cemented the reason why I wanted to be an actress! I wanted to perform more than I wanted to teach. I worked at a resident community theatre, but I taught and traveled within the school system, and then I would run off to do community theatre at night, because I wanted to be part of it so bad.
My first part outside of community theatre was a tour of The Good Doctor, that I did in 1975, and I replaced (Tony Award-winner) Cherry Jones.
We are so alike – Cherry and me! We see each other once in a while, and it’s always like the old days. I trailed her for a week and I never actually worked with her on stage, but I knew from the beginning that she had amazing talent.
Joel: Where does Fiddler on the Roof go next?
Mary: We have a week off after DC, and then we only have a handful of cities left on the tour – Appleton, Wisconsin, which seems to be the new Grand Rapids. Everyone says to me, “See you in Appleton!” I say, “Huh?” I’m told they have a beautiful performing arts center there – The Marcus Center. Then we go to Denver and Seattle for a week. Then we have another week off, and then it’s off to Toronto for a week, and then two weeks in Cleveland, and that’s where the tour and our trip to Anatevka ends.
Fiddler on the Roof plays at The National Theatre through May 2nd. For more information, and to purchase tickets, click here.