Though she is a self-professed “girly girl,” Sally Mayes looks positively gleeful to be wearing a severely tailored pants outfit in the new off-Broadway musical Play It Cool. Cast as the lesbian proprietor of Mary’s Hideaway, a Hollywood nightclub catering to gay patrons forced to live in the shadows circa 1953, Mayes tears into the show’s jazzy original score and flirts with a femme fatale chanteuse named Lena (Robyn Hurder). It’s a welcome challenge for the Texas-born, Tony-nominated actress, who burst onto the Broadway musical scene in Welcome to the Club and She Loves Me and won raves for another jazz-tinged show, Pete ‘n’ Keely. Mayes talked music and gay rights with Broadway.com just before opening night of Play It Cool, now playing at the Acorn Theatre on Theatre Row.
You seem to be having a great time in Play It Cool. What drew you to the show?
The music, initially, because it’s just wild crazy good. My dad was a jazz guitarist, and I’ve been singing in jazz clubs since I was a kid. In New York, I started out in cabarets and ended up doing Broadway. I loooove the freedom I feel to express myself in this show. It was a challenge, though, because I’m a girly girl.
Mary is certainly a far cry from Ilona in She Loves Me, the show that earned you a Tony nomination.
I know! In real life, I don’t go without makeup, and I “bevel.” Ilona’s whole stance was a bevel [laughs]. I wear pink, and I’ve been married for 20 years and have a 14-year-old son. But it’s a great acting challenge to find mannish mannerisms and to feel that power and strength. Mary is one of the best characters I’ve ever been allowed to play.
It’s startling to realize that secret nightclubs ever had to exist—and that being openly gay could be life-threatening.
When I was starting out in Houston in the early ’80s, Billy Stritch and I had a vocal group, and we used to sing in the gay clubs, when AIDS was rearing its ugly head. I can remember people coming into the club with bruises and black eyes. There are still areas of this country that are like that. What I love about this piece is that it’s about acceptance on all levels: acceptance of who you are and what you need to be. I find it ridiculous that we’re still having this dialogue now. Some of the most gifted, passionate, lovely, hilarious people I know in this industry also happen to be gay. And who cares? Who. Cares.
How much are you loving being part of a musical that has a jazz score?
It’s so gratifying. Our music supervisor encouraged me to scat, and really find my way with this music. I used to sing in this Mexican restaurant down in Houston called Las Brisas, doing four one-hour shows a night with the most amazing trio. It was the best training in the world, and that’s what it feels like to stand up with these guys.
It must help that you’ve sung a lot of Cy Coleman [most recently in the off-Broadway revue The Best Is Yet To Come].
There was nobody better at that kind of music. He was very dear to my heart, and I miss him. He always came to see me and support me, and he would have dug this music.
We haven’t seen you on stage that much in recent years. What have you been up to?
I’ve never stopped working, but I say “no” a lot. I have a son to raise, so if I can do concerts and be gone for a weekend, it’s a lot more family-friendly than a long run. Also, I’m getting older, and Broadway is about youth and beauty right now—kids and beauty, really—so there’s not as much of a place for me. My husband [Bob Renino] has had a 12-year run as a bass player, from Ragtime and Pete ‘n’ Keely to The Producers, Curtains and Young Frankenstein, so I’ve only taken things I really wanted to do. But I’ve managed to rack up four Broadway shows, six off-Broadway shows and five albums, which is not too bad!
You’ve recorded in so many styles. What’s your favorite kind of music?
“My Funny Valentine” is my favorite song. I’m crazy about Rodgers and Hart. I’m crazy about Cole Porter, and Maltby and Shire. I’m insane about Cy Coleman. I grew up listening to Eydie Gorme and Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett. I love Bruce Springsteen. I don’t think there is any kind of music I don’t like!