Broadway star Jenn Gambatese is set to headline as Maria in the Lyric Opera’s “The Sound of Music,” opening April 26. The cast and crew began rehearsals on Monday and Ms. Gambatese joined me for a chat the following morning to discuss the magic of the Lyric Opera, raising a kid while in show business and just how Greek her co-star (and Chicago’s homegrown boy) Billy Zane really is.
So, you missed out on what Chicagoans are referring to as the worst winter in the history of ever.
Well, I didn't really. You guys would get hit and then we’d get it in New York two days later. It was a long, rough one, and I refused to bring my winter coat with me [to Chicago]. I’ll just layer, layer, layer.
You have to will the Spring.
That’s what I’m doing!
And you’re from the Midwest originally, right?
Yes, originally I’m from Cleveland. Lake effect snow, I know it well!
Have you spent a lot of time in Chicago before?
I have, actually. I love Chicago. My first original Broadway role was a show called “All Shook Up,” and we started it here at the Palace Theatre. Then I was just in town in December for “Wicked.”
What would be on your ‘My Favorite Things’ list of Chicago?
The Art Institute, the Art Institute, the Art Institute! Such great restaurants, and the people! The people would definitely be on my favorite things list for Chicago.
You've had a really cool career so far, with characters running the gamut from Tarzan’s Jane to Glinda and now to Maria - are there any dream roles that you've yet to do?
My biggest dream roles are original ones. They've yet to be written or they’re in the process of being written. I love collaborating with authors and bringing something new, I think that’s so exciting. That being said - and this is a very Chicago answer because it’s housed in your Art Institute - but Dot, in “Sundays in the Park with George” is on the list, and I’m so enjoying working my way through the Rodgers and Hammerstein ladies. I’d still love to play Nellie in “South Pacific,” Anna in “The King and I” - I love the RH Canon so much. So they’re definitely on my list.
That’s a good list.
Yeah, and then, you know, there’s the whole “play” list, after the musicals!
You've performed in family-friendly productions and shows for young audiences for years. Now that you have a young daughter, do you find yourself drawn even more to roles and stories that she’d enjoy?
You know, I don’t think I’m drawn more. I think it’s always been part of the fabric of who I am. I don’t know if it’s increased necessarily because of her; it’s wonderful when she can see them. It’s convenient! But I like to tell stories that have universal truths, and I think that things that are appropriate for young and old audiences tend to have those truths in them.
And now for an unfair question: how do you balance raising a kid with staying with the forward momentum of a career in the arts?
That’s a great question. I think there was a period when she was just born that it was just about accepting that I was stepping off the career path for a bit - and happily and importantly doing it. But the number one answer to that question is my amazing husband and my amazing mother. I’m very fortunate that I’m the youngest and my mother is relatively recently retired. The whole touring experience with “Wicked” wouldn't have been possible without my mother! We would've been spending so much in childcare, and because of my mother we’re actually closing on a house in our community and we were really able to save. How many kids do you have?
I have three! And they’re all very, very little right now.
Oh my gosh! I think that’s so amazing and wonderful. You know, it didn't work out for us, timing-wise, to have them close together. We would like to add on in the relatively near future! But my friends who have them close together, once you get out of the weeds of two little ones in diapers, you have this built-in playmate.
It’s getting to that point!
And I felt like it wasn't in the cards for us, financially and career-wise. You know, I stepped off and stepped back on. It’s hard to figure out when to step back off again. And as it was apparent that they weren't going to be close together [in age] my husband and I kinda looked at each other and said “You know what? I think there’s a bigger plan happening here.”
Does your daughter dig what you do, or is just another 9-5 job in her eyes?
She digs it! There are definitely sacrifices for her as well, and before I left it was “I don’t want you to go!” But, she also loves the magic of theatre and loves seeing the shows. I certainly won’t thrust it upon her and I hope it’s a passing phase, but she makes a lot of peeps about wanting to do it with me. And if she were a little bit older, it would've been interesting to have a little von Trapp of my own. But I think I have enough on my plate without worrying about her first big show on the Chicago Lyric Opera stage! But I would not be surprised if in the future we share the stage together. It would be a lot of fun.
I would love to do that interview!
This production of “The Sound of Music” is pretty wonderfully star-studded between you and Edward Hibbert and Billy Zane as Captain von Trapp. Tell me about the vibe of the cast and rehearsals.
We all just met but it was very thrilling. What’s really special about this besides the star-studdedness are the resources of the Lyric Opera. I was joking yesterday that attendance is up at the abbey - I mean, there are so many nuns! It’s so glorious when they sing together. Really, goosebumps. Everyone just seems so nice and happy to be here. And, oh gosh, yesterday we did a little read-through and Christine Brewer who plays Mother Abbess sang “Climb Every Mountain” and I was like - this is happening!
Have you ever fought the urge to quote that Zoolander line at Billy Zane?
I had forgotten about that until a friend put that on my Facebook page! He’s actually a Chicago boy. Yesterday he took Edward and me out to lunch. We had a short amount of time and he said “I’m taking you to Greektown” and we went to Greek Islands. You know, he is Greek, and he’s speaking Greek with the proprietors and the waiter, and told us what to order. Already he’s just so generous and wonderful, so I don’t know - I’ll see - I can’t even remember that line…
“Listen to your friend Billy Zane, he’s a cool dude.”
Yeah, that’s it!
I think you need to work it in at least once.
I will! I mean, I definitely had this moment of ‘Wow, you’re just this big ol’ movie star!’ But I think it’ll lend itself well to the Captain and Maria’s relationship. How old is your oldest?
She’s four and a half. She’s stoked to see “The Sound of Music” - she loves the movie.
Oh, great! So, Josephine saw little bits of the movie after I got cast and then I was like, you know, I want her to experience it for the first time with Mama. And then after that I’m sure we’ll watch it daily. Like “Frozen.”
The Sound of Music runs April 25th to May 25th
For more info and ticket information, call 312.827.5600 or visit www.lyricopera.org/soundofmusic
Keely Flynn is a Chicago playwright, freelance writer, and blogger living with three young children, an extraordinarily tolerant husband, and two cats who just try to make it through the day without being ridden like ponies. Check out her personal blog, lollygagblog.com.
See more of Keely's stories here.
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