Conversations in the Wings

"Like a Piece of Music"

From the book Conversations in the Wings by Roy Harris

This interview took place on Friday, June 11, 1993, in the living room of Miss Kahn's upper east side Manhattan apartment. It was five days after she had won the Best Actress Tony Award for her performance as Gorgeous Teitelbaum in Wendy Wasserstein's The Sisters Rosensweig. I had watched her develop this character from the first time the play was read out loud (in February 1992) to its final incarnation at the Barrymore Theatre on Broadway. It is one of the chief reasons I wanted to interview her for this book. I had always felt Madeline Kahn was one of the country's finest comedians. Watching, close up, the precise, methodical way she found the rich inner life of this woman named Gorgeous is one of my most cherished memories as a stage manager. It was the purpose of this interview to capture how she did it.
Roy Harris: When you read a script and say to yourself, "I should do this role," what makes you feel that?
Madeline Kahn: Well, there are things that have nothing to do with the script. Those are not the things you want now, right?
RH: I'm interested in everything. You may decide to do something for a money reason. That's fine.
MK: Well, of course I have. And I hope people can tell which ones those are. But there are usually two considerations, though. First, the way the script strikes me and how I can relate to the part or if I can relate to it -- if I feel it's really within the realm of possibility for me (not just something that people think I can do but which I don't think I can do). So there has to be some connection that I make to the part.
In addition to that, there is something that has nothing to do with the script (which actually does), and that is the people that are going to put it together. Especially in a play, and most especially in an off-Broadway play where you're going to be working hard and you're not going to be earning much money, you want it to be an experience that will be very fulfilling. And that depends, as you well know, as much on the people involved as it does on the script. So deciding to do a role is really a combination of those two things.
In our case with The Sisters Rosensweig, it was a chance to work with Andre Bishop at Lincoln Center, Dan Sullivan, and of course, Wendy Wasserstein. And I wanted to work on something new. So all those elements are very important.
RH: When you first read it- when they asked you to do the reading- what made you do it?
MK: You want total honesty, right?
RH: Absolutely. I want you to say what you really feel.
MK: I was afraid of doing this role.
RH: Why?
MK: I think it may have to do with the fact that I'm a Jewish woman, and I'm very sensitive to doing stereotype sketches of Jewish women. And, right off the page, I thought that the role of Gorgeous had the danger of being that. When I first read it, I couldn't imagine a real individual saying those words unless she was campy. And I didn't want to come to Lincoln Center, be in a new play with all these talented people, and be the campy one. But I felt they're such smart people, they will have to answer to this. Anyway, just for the reading in February, I decided to do a surface version of a few women I've known in life who are very likable, very intelligent, but do have some of these stereotypical qualities. Now after the reading, I heard from many people. "You were so funny," they said. "You have to do this part." And I thought, "I was? I do?" Later, Wendy and Dan asked me to come in and read the darker sections for them. I don't mind doing that because I wanted to see what it would feel like with Dan, because I knew I would want his help with that aspect. So, mostly I decided to play Gorgeous because everyone thought I should do it. I take my cues from the universe, too, not only from inside myself.
RH: Now, we went into rehearsal last August and you started working on who she was. Do you do a lot of homework?
MK: Well, first of all, from the minute I know I'm going to do a project, I'm working on it all the time. The good thing about doing something like The Sisters Rosensweig is that you have some time. So you're free to let it roll around in your brain. Before we started rehearsal I sat down and read it very slowly; I just read it over and over, with great concentration. But from that point on, it's in my brain, and my computer is at work on it. And it's an ongoing process from the moment I'm going to be doing it until well after the reviews are out and I'm sure I know what it is. And it never stops. It becomes almost tormenting. And you think, "Am I ever going to stop thinking about this?" And then you just do. There comes a point where you can forget about it until you get to the theatre.
RH: Before you go into rehearsal do you think about how this person looks?
MK: The external things you mean?
RH: Yes.
MK: Definitely.
RH: And does that affect how you work in rehearsal?
MK: Everything occurs to me. I don't sit down and think about just one thing, like the look. But since there were many specific things said in the script about the kind of clothes Gorgeous wears -- the brand of clothes, her jewelry, and her accessories -- I was worried that her look might detract from the possibility of my doing a sensitive performance. Now I saw very early that no one had strong notions about that, which meant it was open to my interpretation. So, yes, I thought about it a lot. I did think it was important that those outward elements be there -- the physical cues tell you, "Oh, look, this is who she is." And, yet, that they may not be so dominant that they detract you from her.
RH: I know what you're saying. One of the reasons I'm asking about this is that I think Gorgeous' first costume is a brilliant creation. It's one of the chief reasons, I think, that Jane Greenwood got a Tony nomination for the show. It gets all the things you need to know about her from an external point of view -- she's not wearing the real thing, there's something a little too much about this person -- but it doesn't overwhelm you so that you can't see the person underneath.
MK: That's exactly right. Jane was very sensitive to the way Gorgeous should look. That costume even has some classic references.
RH: What do you mean?
MK: That little polka dot blouse. Now who would wear that? No one. But it's very Harlequin-ish, or perhaps very Commedia-ish. Well, at least I look somewhat Commedia in that blouse.
RH: From a spectator's point of view, Gorgeous' clothes get less showy as the play goes on. Were you aware of that as you and Jane looked at clothes?
MK: No, not as you put it. But Jane was very pleased because I always chose the more subtle choices she offered. As the scenes got more complicated, I felt that you wanted to see more of her. For instance, the Chanel suit we chose was not typical of Chanel. The one we picked was the subtlest, most heavenly one. When I put most Chanel suits on, I look boxy and amusingly suburban. And that's not what you want there. The point of that scene is the ecstasy of that divine gift and her great pleasure when she puts it on. Now, I felt very fortunate to be in the company of people like Jane, Dan and Wendy, who desired to show the inner part of this woman.
RH: To have approached her any other way would be to ruin her. It would be a terrible mockery because Gorgeous is a great character.
MK: Well, now she's taken her place alongside Anna Christie and Michael Redgrave's daughter.
RH: When I first read the play, I was moved by Gorgeous.
MK: No kidding?
RH: Yes, because when she gets the thing she most wants, she gives it away. The generosity of it made me cry. My response probably has to do with my being a parent, and Gorgeous' giving up this $10,000 outfit so that one of her children can go to college in the fall.
MK: Now that's interesting, because when I read it, it showed me that she's not a stereotype. I happen to know a lot of Jewish women about whom you would come to conclusions based on their appearance. But, like Gorgeous, if their husbands suffered reversals, they'd be out there doing whatever was necessary. These women are resilient; they're ethical, strong, loyal, responsible, and they'd be there for you in a hard time or a good time. But, you know , Gorgeous gives the Chanel suit back partly for a practical reason: it solves a problem in her life. She feels, "Well, now that's solved."
RH: Now in working on Gorgeous, did you do any sort of research?
MK: Well, for the candlelighting ceremony, yes, I did. I didn't have any firsthand experience with the lighting of the Shabbes candles, and the character did. So I asked the mothers of friends of mine, and they agreed to tape themselves saying the prayer and even explaining what each word meant. Also, two friends of my mother agreed to videotape the ceremonies in their homes, which was a very nice personal touch. Now being a New Yorker, I could easily have gone to any synagogue and seen this, but I wanted it to be through my mother in some way, so it would feel firsthand, authentic.
And then, of course, we had Rabbi Schnier come into one rehearsal, and he validated, for me, that I knew what I was doing. It was very important (because of who she is) that Gorgeous look like she knew what she was doing. Do you know what I mean?
RH: Oh, of course. When you do other roles do you often research?
MK: Yeah, particularly if it's something I don't know much about.
RH: Do you do whatever research you feel is required?
MK: I do it because it's useful, and sometimes I do it because it sparks your imagination and enriches the source of your creativity.
RH: When you're in rehearsal, what are you looking for from other actors? What is an ideal, or good, rehearsal situation for you?
MK: The best thing is some kind of heartfelt connection so that you can exchange feelings freely. You can then choose the ones that will be the real ones for the role. And so you hope that the other actors you're working with will be open to that.
RH: Was The Sisters Rosensweig a good rehearsal situation for you?
MK: Well, actually it wasn't ideal, but they rarely are. Dan has a mind set that, for me, wasn't always easy. I think he expected you to do what you had to do, and he would edit it. And that's fine... just not easy for me. I was uncomfortable wondering, will I get there? how will I get there? And I knew the other actors' way of working was different. Bob Klein is a different kind of actor. Jane Alexander is, too. She will definitely get there, but what you see in rehearsal is her technical expertise. That's how she works.
So I decided, at one point, that I had to bring it in myself and risk being self-conscious. I have to find out in rehearsal how its going to work. So there was one day when I knew I'd be doing the scene with the broken shoe. I don't know if you remember it, but I seemed upset to everyone, and I was. And it was deliberate. I knew I had to do that scene as deeply as I could there, in order to find out how to do it. So I didn't have fun. And that's okay.
RH: When you work on a role -- any role -- how much do you consciously use things that have happened in your life to understand a character?
MK: I use anything that comes into my mind, anything that will lead me where I have to be. There is a place where I know, this is the place I have to be, this works now. It not only gets me logically from point A to point B, but it gets me from the beginning to the end. The pathway is right. It's really hard finding the pathway. But whatever puts me and keeps me on the path, I use.
RH: When you're finding the path, how conscious is that in your homework and in your rehearsal work?
MK: What do you mean by conscious?
RH: Are you saying, "Okay, now I'm going to work on this scene so I can find what she's after and how she gets it?"
MK: Yes, I attack it like a piece of music.
RH: Great. What do you mean by that?
MK: With a piece of classical music, you already know it works. But in order to be the one to perform it, you have to take the music totally apart. It's not just learning the notes (that's obvious, it's like learning lines). You have to find what inside you is going to make your voice go from that note to that note. And what is it inside of you that's going to allow you to start on those notes and then soar up to those other notes. Where do you have to be inside to take you through those notes? Of course you have to sing them technically, but you have to know who the person is who is singing these lyrics.
And so, with a scene you ask: where has this person just been? what are the realities of her life at the moment? what is on her mind? It's like you and me sitting here now. A person comes to any situation, and there are things present in your life that are going on in the back of your mind. There's your physical situation that day. All of those things that I'm not telling you about -- what happened to me last night, a phone call I may have had -- well, they color everything I say.
Now, none of that is on the page, though there are a lot of clues. So I have to imagine myself into the situation of this woman named Gorgeous. She has four children. I figure two of them are out of the house by now; the other two are still at home. Her husband is really not able to be much of a father at this time. I'm constructing the outer life of this woman that will tell me what her emotional life is.
For instance, there's her entrance with the broken shoe. She's supposed to be drenched. How do you get to that feeling? Well, there was a day when I was walking around in this neighborhood. I came out of a store and something was leaking, and a little of it got one me. And for some reason, it made me cry. And I thought, "Ah, stay with this feeling." And you stay with it, see where it takes you, and you get into the right emotional groove, and then say the lines.
RH: This is just fascinating. When you said it's like music -- to me your performance as Gorgeous is like music. There's a rhythm that's always there underneath it. It'll vary because of something different you get from the audience or another cast member. But that basic rhythm I always see there, and to me it's like music. It's really a character rhythm.
MK: You could put it that way. Could be. It's also the writing itself.
RH: Another question: you mentioned earlier that at a certain point you got the feeling that you knew what you were doing. Now you've done Gorgeous almost three hundred times. Is it harder now or easier?
MK: It's different. In the beginning when you aren't sure of it yet -- either you're still finding it, or you think it will work but maybe it won't, or the director is still checking it out so you're still being judged -- at that point there's so much adrenaline before you go on, the adrenaline does carry you, even if there's discomfort.
Your life on stage is energized because you are in a condition of striving and searching and proving. And that energy propels you around the stage and creates this tension which is felt as excitement by the audience. And your task then is to find the things which work best and which withstand that energy going through you all the time.
And then that subsides because you've found it. You landed, you're there, and everything's okay. And then you no longer have that disturbing energy propelling you. Your task, however, is to maintain it anyway. And you hope you're with a group of people who know that they have to find another way of creating that energy. Comedy absolutely requires the motor, the energy. It really does not work without it. It's not like a drama. The drama itself supports it.
Your task as a stage actor is to find something in that moment that will propel you through and give you the same results. And sometimes it's sheerly technical. Thank God there's something called technique that carries you through. It's a different energy.
RH: Now, I've noticed that you are very methodical. You come down at exactly the same time every night, you go to the change booth, you sit in your chair, and you stand up, cross to the door, and pick up the shopping bags at the same time. Is all that part of what makes it work for you each night?
MK: Well, it seems to be. Doesn't everyone do that?
RH: No. Everyone is different.
MK: I'm such a creature of habit.
RH: Why shouldn't you be if it works for you? There are some people who come over and chat before they enter.
MK: I could never do that.
RH: No, you wouldn't. There are others who race right to their entrance. Now as a stage manager I can't say that thrills me, but it's their way, and as long as they get there, I'm not going to judge.
MK: You know what? I think I work partly the way a dancer works.
RH: What do you mean?
MK: Well, dancers are musicians, too. I've established certain nerve pathways in the playing of the role, and if I get off to the right start, it'll just go. It's really like a train going on a track, and I just have to feed these little, current things to keep it sparking along. But, you know, part of what's hard about my role is that there are these twenty minute intervals in between.
RH: Well, that is hard.
MK: You come on in high gear, or you come on and you get into high gear very quickly, you leave in high gear, and then you have twenty minutes (or sometimes thirty, with the intermission), and you come back on again. Now I have established what the notes are, what the levels are, and I have to be able to click into it when I return to the stage, or I won't get where I have to. It's so much easier to do a role where the scene builds logically because it's a conversation. I say this, you say that, and the lines bring you where you need to go. Gorgeous has very little of that. Something triggers her and she has to be there. In that way it's a virtuoso role, and it requires virtuosity (which is what makes it musical, like a concerto). It has arias.
RH: Well, a little like Rhadames. He comes in singing at the top of his register for "Celeste Aida".
MK: Marilyn Horne said there are these Bel Canto operas that Rossini wrote for a contralto coloratura -- perhaps he wrote them for one woman. Well, they are now sitting on a shelf somewhere because very few people can do them. They require virtuosity.
RH: I'm switching the subject briefly. Do you think there's a true place for critics in the theatre, and if so, what is it?
MK: Well, the information has to get out to the public. Everyone sees things differently and has different tastes. But the thing I don't like about some critics is that they have a small palette. For instance, if we didn't know what foods were edible and what ones would poison us, and we depended on certain critics to tell us, we would all be eating nothing but the white meat of turkey. Nothing green, for instance: "Oh, it's green. Ugh!" And all the many foods which are fine would be listed as inedible.
RH: Now, if you were going to do Gorgeous in the movie, is there anything that you would do differently?
MK: Well, I think I'd have to rethink it. First, I'd have to let it clear out of my system because I've established this routine with her. But it can be done. Just lately I've seen Mercedes Ruehl achieve it. Her performance in Lost in Yonkers is as good or better than it was on the stage. Irene Worth, too, even more so. The camera can come in and pick up these little thins that happen on your face, and you'd never see it in the theatre. There's a different physical reality on stage.
RH: What do you mean by that?
MK: Well, on stage your method of transmitting the material is more active. You are the transmitter. You have to send out the message, to project it. For instance, on stage if you know they can't see your face or it's covered for some reason, you have to do something with your body that will transmit it. There's this one line I have and I have to accompany it with a gesture like this, to let them know that the sentence isn't finished yet.
RH: It's when you say, "I haven't been this happy since the day I found out that I made cheerleader and I knew that Sara didn't."
MK: Right, and when I started getting the laugh after "cheerleader," I found myself making that gesture to let them know I'm going to keep on talking so they wouldn't miss the rest of the line. Since you are the mechanical means by which the message is sent out -- rather than a camera picking it up -- you use your whole physical self in addition to the truth of the character.
RH: Since you mentioned the word "classic" earlier, is there any classic role you'd like to play?
MK: I think I would like to do something classical, but I'm not at all sure what it would be. You know, though, it's very important to me to do new works and help to turn them into classics. I always try to find the classic reference in anything I do. For instance, in Paper Moon it was definitely Tennessee Williams. And once I realized that, I worked on the role with the depth of Williams in mind. In Blazing Saddles, the reference was Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill and Ernest Lubitsch movies (added into Mel Brooks). I try, wherever I can, to find the classic vein to tap into.
RH: Well, I think that you've definitely helped turn some new plays into classics. I'm sure that The Sisters Rosensweig will be seen one day as a classic. There are many reasons for that, and your performance as Gorgeous has helped insure that.
MK: Well, thank you.
RH: As far as I can tell, your winning that Tony is about your future work. People will finally see -- and too bad it took an award to do it -- what a fine dramatic actress you are. The Tony will give you a new kind of clout.
MK: And who knows what that will mean?