Less than a year after her real-life wedding to Tony-nominated composer/lyricist Craig Carnelia (Sweet Smell of Success, Working), Lisa Brescia is headed to the Winter Garden Theatre as Spandex-clad mother-of-the-bride Donna Sheridan in Mamma Mia! Brescia has spent the last decade as Broadway’s standby of choice, including a drama-filled stint in The Woman in White that included subbing for cancer-stricken Maria Friedman. She’s a Wicked vet (starring as Elphaba in Chicago and standing by in New York) and played a singing runaway in Twyla Tharp’s short-lived 2006 Bob Dylan tribute The Times They Are A-Changin’. Now it’s Brescia’s turn to belt “The Winner Takes It All” in a bona-fide Broadway hit, which is celebrating its ninth Broadway birthday.
Congrats on winning the role of Donna Sheridan! Had Mamma Mia been on your radar?
I always thought I would grow into age-appropriateness for Donna. The show has been open for nine years, and as I approached 40, I thought, “Oh, this will be become a possibility.” When I heard, I was thrilled. A lot of people work, work, work for years and never get the opportunity to step into something this big and splashy. I feel really lucky.
You’re OK with the idea of playing the mom of a bride-to-be?
Totally. I enjoy getting older in my real life. I just feel more comfortable in my own skin, and I’m grateful for every day I’ve had on the planet. I would never go back to 25, not for all the money in the world.
Do you find yourself singing ABBA songs all the time?
Night and day. I was walking down Eighth Avenue singing someone else’s song, “Take a Chance on Me,” and the guy walking next to me was like, “Hey, nice voice!” I’m really enjoying the music. My father introduced me to most of my musical influences, including Bob Dylan and ABBA.
What do you love about Mamma Mia!?
I love how it makes the audience feel, whether they have a personal connection with the music or just want to have fun. The story is so well told through these songs, and people can relate to it at any age. I remember when the show first opened, shortly after 9/11, this city in particular needed something to lift us up, and I think that Mamma Mia! fills that role beautifully.
You have personal experience with a "jukebox" show that didn’t work, The Times They Are A-Changin’.
[Director/choreographer] Twyla [Tharp] is a genius; she has a mind so far surpassing mine that I didn’t understand what she was talking about half the time [laughs]. She speaks in metaphor, and her knowledge of mythology and history is so vast, I felt like this lame no-brain next to her. I loved the piece, but I thought, “This is not a Broadway musical, this is performance art.”
You’re no stranger to performing top 40 hits, since you toured for five years in the 90s as a member of the Mamas and the Papas!
So crazy, right? When I was 23, John Phillips hired me to be one of the Mamas with him, Denny Doherty, Scott McKenzie and Deb Lyons. Deb was a seasoned chick singer and I was trained in straight plays, so she really taught me what to do. I had a ball singing those incredible songs in five- and six-part harmonies. I didn’t even have a passport before I got that call; two weeks later, we were in Munich singing in that huge stadium where the Olympics took place. I was like, “OK! I’m faking it till I make it!”
You’re also a member of the Elphaba sorority. Does that role inspire a feeling of, “If I can do this, I can do anything”?
Amen! [Laughs.] With all respect to other incredibly demanding roles out there, I think that one takes the cake. When I first started doing it full-time [in Chicago], I said, “I have never felt this level of fatigue in my life.” I even had to learn to feed myself in a new way, to sustain that level of energy output eight times a week. But I loved singing the score of Wicked. I think Steve [Schwartz] did an incredible job, and Winnie Holzman with the book. It’s clever and funny and so well done.
You’ve done a ton of musicals all over the place. What role is most like your personality? Not Evita, I presume.
No, that was a wonderful stretch. I identified with Cathy in [Jason Robert Brown’s] The Last 5 Years. When I was in my early 20s, I was a bit of a lunatic when it came to romance. Cathy compares herself to others and always feels she comes up short, and I related to that kind of paralyzing insecurity when I was younger. I also related to Claire in [the 2009 off-Broadway musical] Ordinary Days. The loss of her first husband causes her to keep pushing away this new love, and I identified with that a lot, and also to her saying “Yes, I will marry you,” at the end. In fact, my husband [composer/lyricist Craig Carnelia] and I were together for nine years, and at the end of Ordinary Days, we decided to get married.
We’d been discussing it for many, many years. I loved that we had an unconventional, but in no way casual, relationship. The commitment had been solid all along, but I didn’t see the point [of marriage], really. And then I did. We got married on New Year’s Eve.
What kind of wedding did you have?
There were four people and us, in our living room. It was fabulous. Two of our dearest friends were witnesses, and Craig has a 15-year-old daughter; our dear friend Hal Robinson, an amazing actor and Broadway veteran, officiated. We had our Christmas tree in the background, and candles and flowers everywhere. It couldn’t have been more intimate. We wrote the entire ceremony. It was great.
Your wedding obviously kicked off a great year.
It’s been tremendous. I had a thrilling summer with the Public Theater Shakespeare Lab, where I was able to do Shakespeare for the first time seriously in my career, and then Mamma Mia! happened. Forty is a good year!