Christiane Noll in 'Ragtime'
I booked every job I auditioned for while I was pregnant.
Christiane Noll is a fabulous singer and stage actress, lovely and poised, and she’s worked a ton—but in the decade since she debuted on Broadway as demure Emma in Jekyll and Hyde, she hasn’t had great luck getting back to New York in shows like The Witches of Eastwick and Mambo Kings. Not one to sit still, she toured in Urinetown and became a sought-after concert artist while waiting for a great stage role. And now, in a standout performance as Mother in the Broadway revival of Ragtime, she’s got it. Appropriately enough, Noll won the part when she was eight months pregnant and began rehearsals for the Kennedy Center mounting of the show when daughter Rianna Grace LaVerdiere was six weeks old. Noll recently shared a clear-eyed account of her personal journey and career path (including a “take that!” shout-out to naysayers) with Broadway.com.
The role of Mother, Ragtime’s upper-class matron who finds her power, seems like a perfect fit.
That’s almost an understatement! [Laughs.] There are times when a part and an actress mesh, and this is that kind of experience. The notion that I auditioned when I was eight months pregnant—and when I went for my callback, [lyricist] Lynn Ahrens said, “You haven’t had that baby yet?!” The whole thing has been just a wonderful piece of kismet.
I wonder if a male director might not have been as open to hiring someone who was eight months pregnant.
I have no idea. I just know that I’m very excited they didn’t panic. [Director] Marcia [Milgrom Dodge] had brought her adopted daughter [now 13] on shows, so she was very open to the idea of accommodating whatever I would need. I didn’t think it was that big a deal. I was like, “I’ll have the baby and come to rehearsal—no problem!” It’s my first child, so I was delusional [laughs]. The funny thing is that I booked every job I auditioned for while I was pregnant. Maybe I had a laissez faire attitude that made me not so desperate, like, “I’m going through something right now that’s a whole lot more important than this job.”
You went into rehearsal at the Kennedy Center when Rianna was six weeks old, and you opened on Broadway when she was nine months old. How are you juggling everything?
My husband, [actor] Jamie LaVerdiere, is a saint, essentially. I try not to think too much ahead, because that’s when I get overwhelmed. When we started, the notion of being in rehearsal and performing and not being able to see her was daunting. At Jamie’s insistence, I said, ‘Okay, let’s just go one day at a time.’ He brings her to the theater if I can’t get home and we have a picnic in my dressing room.
Like our photo op on the day of your first Ragtime preview.
That was real! We practice walking and we play and we feed her. Strangely enough, that has been giving me more stamina than trying to catch naps—I just do what I have to do to see her as much as I can. When I do go to sleep, I’m out for the count.
Do you have a babysitter?
No, if Jamie can’t stay with her, my mother, who lives in New Jersey, has been stepping up, which has been amazing. I have no problem leaving her with friends, but I don’t know what I will do the first time I have to leave her with a stranger.
So, it’s worth it to get back in Victorian garb to play such a strong character, right?
Oh, definitely! When I heard that the Kennedy Center was doing Ragtime, I said, “That’s my part.” It’s so well written and well constructed—and funny! People said, “You’ve made her funnier than we’ve ever seen.” She makes you laugh, she makes you cry, and she experiences a vast range of emotions. She’s redefining herself as a modern woman, whatever that would mean at the beginning of the last century. It’s just an incredible character.
What’s it like to plant your feet and deliver the show’s big 11 o’clock number [“Back to Before”]?
With a 28-piece orchestra and nothing else on stage but a gorgeous set and beautiful lighting? It’s not bad! [Laughs.] Not bad at all. My friends from high school just came, and one of the husbands said, “All of a sudden, you’re out there all by yourself!” I said, “Yeah, that’s pretty neat.”
You’ve done that lots of times, of course, in concert.
Yes, but it’s different when you’re in character. In concert, you’re singing right at the audience. But I’m going to be honest: A terrible thing occurred to me in the first preview down in DC. I was doing “Back to Before,” and when the audience started applauding before I was even done, I couldn’t help thinking about all the negative things you hear over the years. [She speaks in a snide tone] “She just doesn’t make me excited,” or “I’m just not a fan”—things you hear and unfortunately store away. I couldn’t help but go, “Woo-hoo! Here I am, and I’m doing it! You can’t take this away from me.” It was a childish reaction, but I had it and I own it [laughs].
Had you really felt that much negativity about your work?
I think every actor experiences the naysayers—the doors that are not opening up for whatever reason. It’s just a part of the business. I always marvel at people who are like, “I want to be a star, and I’m going to make it happen.” That’s great, but I don’t think you can force-feed yourself into the business. For any one part, there are tons of people who could play it beautifully, so there’s no explaining why some people succeed and others don’t. In this case, the fact that I’m a new mother was certainly helpful—I didn’t have to go to baby-carrying school, and there are a lot of intuitive things that came with me on this piece.
It’s been 10 years since you were on Broadway, though you’ve done tours and worked in other cities.
I was actually a little bit nervous, waiting for people to say, “Where have you been?!” But that question has not come up, because I’ve stayed really busy with concerts, and I attached myself to a number of projects that unfortunately didn’t make it [to New York].
Which shows deserved a longer life? The Witches of Eastwick?
Yeah, gosh, Marc Kudisch was a god in it. The part of the devil was perfectly written for him, and the show was funny and ballsy and dangerous, with incredible music. It might not be dead in the water, but by the time they get around to doing it I’ll be too old. And I was really sad that Mambo Kings didn’t make it. Sergio Trujillo’s work on that piece was exquisite. There were certain elements that needed help, but by the time they realized it, the die had been cast. A lot of people who were amazing in Mambo Kings are now in In the Heights, and I’m thrilled they’re getting to tell their story.
Did you and your husband [actor Jamie LaVerdiere] meet on the Urinetown national tour?
You had a show-mance?
Kind of! We became friends first, and it turned into something else. He tried to break up with me a bunch of times, and I was like, “Not on the road, you’re not! No way!” [Laughs.] In every relationship, eventually your “stuff” is going to come up, and a lot of times, you get to a point where you say, “Ah, too difficult.” I didn’t want that awkward thing when we were working together. I said, “Once the tour is over, if you still feel that way, fine—we’ll break up and it will be okay.” After we got home, he looked at me and I looked at him, and he said, “Gosh, I haven’t tried to break up with you in a while. Maybe we should do something about it.” [The couple married in 2006.]
You’re not making this story sound very romantic.
Well, I’m a realist. I’m pragmatic. It’s terrible!
Seriously, how did you know Jamie was the one, having waited so long to get married?
He had been married before; he knew what he did wrong and he wanted to do it again. And that was amazing—to find someone who is not turned off by the whole notion. I never thought I was going to get married.
I always equated marriage and family with death in this business [laughs]. It was that severe. Whenever you hear, “So-and-so is having a baby,” you think, “They’re done! They’re leaving the business.” My impression was: If I decide to have a family, I’ve given up. And I wanted to be the last one standing. [My attitude was] if I hang out long enough, everyone else will have fallen aside and it will be my turn—which is a really ridiculous way to go through life. Finally, I realized you can have all of it. It’s okay! He was such a partner and made me so happy on so many levels, I was finally ready to consider sharing my life. Then the notion of having a baby—I had always wanted to know what that was like, and he definitely did. I wanted to make him a father, and thankfully we now have a beautiful daughter.
How are you and Jamie handling the tradeoff of two careers in musical theater?
He has been very gracious because of this opportunity with Ragtime. He said, “Honey, you have to do this. I’ll be Daddy for a while, and when everything calms down, we’ll shift it around again.” The gentleman who books my concerts is continuing to do that, and when this Ragtime chapter is over, I can go back and Jamie can hit the boards again. You just have to grab stuff when it comes, especially as a woman in this business, because the older you get, the less opportunities you will have. I waited a long time to get married; I waited a long time to have a baby; and the paradox is that the minute I decided to do it, all the opportunities presented themselves!
See Christiane Noll in Ragtime at the Neil Simon Theatre.