It's a drizzly spring Thursday. The management at the restaurant where I'm meeting Linda Lavin has set aside a corner table which is surprisingly private. Lavin brings a bolt of sunshine into the room when she arrives wearing minimal makeup, a colorful rain poncho and a sporty baseball cap.
Lavin is appearing (and has received rave reviews) as Mrs. Van Daan in a newly realized production of "The Diary of Anne Frank" which is currently the highest grossing straight play on Broadway. As if appearing in the emotionally charged play eight times a week isn't enough, Lavin also teaches weekly Master Classes at NYU's Undergraduate Performing Arts Division, runs the Linda Lavin Foundation which focuses attention on the development of eleven to fourteen year old girls, and heads a production company which develops theatrical and television films. Yesterday, after playing a matinee and evening performance, she was up until one a.m. conferring with a colleague about the Foundation.
Lavin comes from a show business background. Her mother, Lucille Potter Lavin, was a coloratura soprano who appeared with such luminaries as Rise Stevens and Paul Whiteman in concerts, radio and early television. "Ultimately she gave up her career, because it was not easy or acceptable for women in those days of a certain culture and certain class, the middle class, to be on the stage and also have a husband and a family. But there was always singing the house. She had her own radio show in Portland, Maine and when I was a little girl I used to go with her every Wednesday night and sit in the control booth and watch her do her show.
"The story about me, apocryphal or not, is that I could sing before I spoke. My parents went into bedroom one day and there I was standing in the crib singing God Bless America. 'Oh my god, she's singing! She's singing! Come listen.' (That's what I should call my next club act: "She's singing, she's singing, come listen.)
"There was a time in my early teens when I was being groomed as a concert pianist, how I would have made that I don't know because I loathed practicing. I liked to listen to the teacher play the tune, Chopin or Brahms, memorize it and play it by ear in the key of 'C.' This was not, of course, acceptable to a classical teacher but it sure was fun for me. But I stopped at the age of fifteen when I was making a salad with my newly married sister's new knives, and I accidently (on purpose) cut off the tip of my finger. It was always acting, singing and dancing that I loved. Not the horror of performing on the piano in front of an assembled audience of quiet people. I'd forget the piece just before I went out to do the concerto, the panic was too great. This was not anything that gave me pleasure. This was fulfilling somebody else's dream.
"My mother gave me singing lessons; that was totally painful, because I couldn't do what she wanted to hear. She used to say: there's more there, there's more voice but I just didn't want to give it to her. I didn't want to do anything my mother wanted me to do so surely I wasn't going to sing for her.
"A man named David Baker came to Portland in the early spring when I was a senior. He had written a show with Sheldon Harnick called 'Smiling The Boy Fell Dead'. He brought it home to Portland to try it out with local people and my mother knew who David was, she knew his mother, she knew his sister Sally and this gorgeous, beautiful man came and held auditions. My audition song was 'Almost Like Being In Love'. I went with a girlfriend and I thought I did a lousy job and I got the part. Talking about auditions, you never know what anyone else is thinking. Sort of teaches you about critics, too.
"I got the part of Dorothea, the lead and I went every day after school to David Baker's house in a suburb of Portland and he taught me the score. He played the piano like four people, he played like an orchestra. He was amazing and handsome and sweet and of course I fell madly in love with him. He taught me how to sing, how to belt, what my mother was talking about all those years. I had no idea I had that power in my voice. And it was David who gave me the incentive and courage to go on and pursue the theater as a career. I was so I was conflicted about all of that because of my mother's history. David said 'Come to New York now' and my parents said, 'No she's going to college.' So I applied to schools and I got into the College of William and Mary. David said to me to at the closing night party. 'You have it, you can do it, you have what it takes, you just need to do it.' So I majored in Drama, did all the plays that were possible to do, skated through school in order to be in every production on stage or backstage in whatever capacity and I came to New York looking for work in the summers." (Lavin got her Equity card while she still an undergraduate, performing in the chorus at the Camden County Music Circus and went back to school a professional actor.)
"My first Broadway show ['A Family Affair'] was in the chorus. I auditioned with 'Almost Like Being in Love.' We got to Philadelphia and the director could not function and they brought in Hal Prince. I remember exactly where I was standing. I was by the stage door, at the pay phone and he walked in, he had seen the show the night before and he said, 'You're terrific.' He kept going, you know that amazing energy he has, and the next thing you know I was given four or five speaking parts, so I ran through the show as five different characters and I got five dollars extra for each show. And when we opened and I got reviewed by Norman Nadel, a lovely critic. I remember the line 'even the supporting players behave like stars' and he mentioned me.
"So I'm doing off-Broadway, revues, musicals, whatever I can get my hands on and I read Hal Prince is doing 'It's A Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman'. So I look for a comic book of Superman and I can't find it. I finally found a book with some Superman episodes in it. I went into an instant photo booth (you know, four for a dollar) wearing a green fedora like Lois Lane and I pasted the photos of me over every frame of Lois Lane that appeared. I sent the book to Hal Prince and he said 'It's brilliant, but you can't be Lois Lane. You're not mid-western enough. But there's another part.' So I went and sang 'Almost Like Being in Love' and they asked me to learn 'You've Got Possibilities." I knew the character was a blonde so I borrowed Sylvia Miles' blonde wig -- Sylvia and I had done a play together called "The Riot Act' -- and I got the part and I didn't have to be blonde, they let me use my natural hair color.
"What an experience that was! I mean it was my first part in a Broadway show that was a real part and it had beginning and a middle and an end and it kept growing. In Philadelphia Charles Strouse and Lee Adams wrote a second song for me called 'Oooh, Do You Love You'. To get a song out of town was such a validation, such a big thrill.
"Hal has always been wonderful to me. When I was going through hard times, during a certain period, I went into his office and I said 'I need a job.' He said: 'I'll put you in 'She Loves Me'. There was someone leaving and I went to meet him at the theater a few nights later and they had just had a meeting and the show was closing. It wasn't meant to be but his graciousness and his generosity were always there and are still ongoing. He and his wife Judy, whom I've know since they were courting, are two of the most important people in my life. They're real family to me. Always have been. Always will be."
Lavin's career took her from Broadway to nine seasons in the television series "Alice", for which she won an Emmy. Lavin returned to New York, winning a Tony for "Broadway Bound" and spends her performing career either on stage or and in theatrical and televison films. I was lucky enough to see Lavin's Broadway opening in "Gypsy" and tell her that she was the sexiest Mama Rose I'd ever seen.
"Rose was sexy. It was my fantasy about her. She accomplished so much and came from so little in terms of a background that would have prepared her for the world, let alone the world of entertainment. Somebody who accomplished as much as she did had to be charming, attractive, sexy, winning, fun to be with, all the things that keep people hooked, otherwise why would anybody not just have blown her out of the theater. There was no talent in the girls at that point, they were like anybody else's kids.
"She's innocent, full of hope, when she sings 'Some People' to her father. Yes, she has anger, yes, she has rage, she's had a lot of bad stuff happen to her. But I felt that she was full of the zest that catapults you from a bad place into the unknown. When you've got kids and a man around you, you can't bully someone into being in your life. I thought she'd have somewhere to go if she started with a more innocent, not to say soft, but innocent approach to the hopefulness of life. By the time she sings 'Rose's Turn' it's about disappointment and feeling that she had failed and the abandonment of her children, who had abandoned her as she had abandoned them.
"I prepared for the role for six months by speed-walking around the central park reservoir twice a day with a cassette of the score playing through a Walkman. I joked to Steve Sondheim, 'I think you wrote this score to kill Merman.' But I didn't want to be done in by it. It was like preparing for an athletic event. And I kept saying to myself: this will not undo me, I won't let it. I will get stronger doing it. I did love doing it. I got a note from June Havoc with a picture of her mother. She said she was small and petite and sexy and seductive and she validated what I had done"
"I'd meet with James Lapine during rehearsal and I'd say "I'm trying to come up with kind of fear, because I've never been there. I have to relate it to something in my life. Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan have lost everything and they're living with people they have nothing in common with. All of that is easy compared to what lies ahead, but the challenge of the play is not to play the end of the play. You can not play what is going to happen to you so you invest it with the daily chores of living, never mind hope, just daily chores of dinner, taking care of your kid, sewing buttons on things. All of that goes into the coping mechanisms of survivors. So that the end is a devastating surprise for everyone
. "You must tap into your own fears and pains and anxieties. And you remember. Dreams come up and nightmares come up. Now you're in touch with the loss of parents, the loss of lives, the loss of relationships, anything that reminds you of loss and grieving. Once you get the understanding of the feelings, you describe them with behavior. That's how I work; I don't speak for anyone else. Once you have the pattern of life of this person, the choreography, so to speak, you have the canvas that you present eight times a week, not without feeling underneath it, but it's not as churning as the discovery process was. That's one way that it's a bit easier, and having said that, there's nothing easy about it at all.
"Except that in the giving of it, there's such an outreach in this show. This show has informed me about the quality of a gift as a performer, the potential of the performer as a gift giver. We give you this story. It is for the audience to be moved and gut wrenched, not us. It isn't as if we don't go through those real feeling and it isn't as if I don't cry three or four times a night. I usually do."
Lavin, in addition to keeping a New York apartment, has a home in a small North Carolina town on the Cape Fear River which she discovered when she was producing a television film. The area attracts artists, writers, directors and actors because of a surge of film production.
" I discovered that the character of 'Alice' represented 80% of the working women in this country, the blue and pink collar women. Hundreds of women have come up to me and said 'It was because of watching Alice in the morning that I could get through another day with the baby in a high chair. I knew that if she could do it, I could do it. I could go back to school, I could get off welfare, I could change my life.'
"It was time to find a way to subsidize the arts. To give something back. I wanted to teach, I wanted to give master classes and I wanted to direct." Lavin knew nothing about foundations, but with the help of lawyers and actress Brenda Curran, who had run a successful after school program in New York, she started a pilot program involving young girls in the New Hanover County public schools. "We had twenty girls between the ages of eleven and fourteen, two teachers, a space to work in and a bus. If we called it 'Life Skills,' no one would come, but we call it a theater program and now we're in our second year." Lavin spent her entire summer working directly with the girls in the program and saw painfully shy girls emerge from their cocoons. Immediately thereafter she came back to New York to start rehearsals for "Anne Frank."
"Doing 'The Diary of Anne Frank' is extraordinary, too. We do a lot of shows for young people who have probably never been to the theater before and they are learning about the Holocaust, which unhappily, many of them do not know about. In a way, you're the storyteller, who can possibly make a difference in somebody's life in terms of teaching tolerance."
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