Tyne Daly has won a Tony Award and multiple Emmys and interspersed her TV renown with stage work in the classics (The Seagull), musicals (Gypsy), and new plays (Rabbit Hole). Now she has added a West End run to her list of credits, courtesy of Terrence McNally’s Master Class, reprising a performance as Maria Callas that was previously acclaimed in Washington DC and on Broadway. The 66-year-old actress recently met Broadway.com in her dressing room at the Vaudeville Theatre for a lively and engaging chat, wrapping a blanket around herself and countering London's February chill with her own warmth.
Welcome to the West End, where you are long overdue.
Thank you! I was supposed to come here with Gypsy, and that fell through because there was a war and a lot of nervousness about terrorism; audiences were being patted before coming into the theater, which isn’t a very jolly way to start. So at this late stage in the game, to make a debut in the West End, and in this play, is pretty exciting.
Master Class must be fascinating to do here, given the degree to which the British famously adored Callas.
Yes, and before we started the run, I got to stand on the stage of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, which was extraordinary just to look out at that house and imagine that you are commanding that space; that has certainly informed the performance.
Does it feel as if the play is landing in the same way it did Stateside?
Audiences here know their music and their opera but then again they don’t know their [Renata] Scotto, for instance, so there are some jokes that are missed. But I do think [Callas] was held up as perhaps more of an ideal here insofar as London was one of the only places where she wasn’t fired. The British were on her side, and her flame has been kept here.
You’re no stranger to taking a show to different cities, having toured in Gypsy before you brought it to Broadway.
And, of course, each time we change students, the play changes; it is designed that way, and so that became part of the excitement. We have [onetime Wicked co-star] Dianne Pilkington, who has a following here and is great, and the extraordinary Naomi O’Connell, who was a student of [the director] Stephen Wadsworth at Juilliard. Our various theaters have been different, as well. It's like we began with an 8 x 10 envelope [at the Kennedy Center] and then moved to a business-sized one [Broadway’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre] and have ended up here in a postcard [laughs]. The Vaudeville is a tiny little space, which in turn has changed everything in terms of what we had figured out about the play. It's hard to stride onstage when you've got two feet of backstage space before you hit the lights.
How extraordinary to have begun previews in January within a week of [Daly’s Cagney & Lacey friend and colleague] Sharon Gless finishing her run in A Round-Heeled Woman.
It was like tag-team wrestling [laughs]. We felt for a minute as if we’d both be on the street together but as it turned out, Sharon went out and I went in. I got to see her re-opening of the play at the Aldwych and then the last 15 minutes of her closing night because we were in tech, so that was really fun, and she gave me this huge all-Callas box set of 25 complete operas from when she was in her prime, mostly between 1952 and 1957. I listened very carefully to [Verdi’s] Macbeth and La Sonnambula [by Bellini] because they’re in our play. I’m now making my way through the rest.
Has performing a play about so legendary a performer changed your own views on performance?
Well, there are places in the play where I agree with Miss Callas about, let’s say, the difficulty of what we do as artists, and then there are places where I don’t. What’s happened, in fact, is that I find myself thinking of my mother, who was a great monitor of my work. She came to see me when I was about 32 and was playing an 87-year-old French matriarch and I said, “Well, Mom, what did you think?” and she said, “The only thing I can tell you, Tyne, is ‘Deeper, richer, fuller, better!’”
Those sounds like sentiments with which Maria Callas would concur!
They printed it up on a T-shirt for all of us at the end of the Washington run! [Laughs.]
Presumably Callas’ deep commitment to live performance resonates with you as someone who has embraced the theater after making your name on TV.
They are very different things, movies and TV and the theater. On film, it’s frozen and you do it out of order, so you can’t jump on the train and take the ride, or catch the wave. On the other hand, here we are on Tuesday at the theater and I’m here and whoever comes to the play will be here and we’ll take the trip together, and that’s a very different experience for me from TV or film, where you do it and somebody’s enjoying it someplace at the same time that you may be at home doing the laundry [laughs]. It’s like those arguments kid actors are always having about where “the real work” happens, and the truth is, it happens everywhere, it’s just how you get to it or who has the final say that is different. There’s no doubt that of all three [disciplines], the theater is the one most about the actor.
Sharon Gless told Broadway.com a few months ago that there was talk of the two of you teaming up on a revival of [McNally’s play] A Perfect Ganesh.
Yes, that’s in the wings for New York, though I’ve also told [the producers] that I may have to go and make some money sometime soon; sorry, but this is real life [laughs]. Luckily, the requests do come in, which is good, and I have not sat and thought, “Oh God, it’s all over!” I found when I moved back to New York from California that I wanted to do new plays. The first one that came was Rabbit Hole and then a new Edward Albee [Me, Myself & I] at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Two days after we finished [Master Class] in New York on Sept. 4, I started rehearsals for a new musical [It Shoulda Been You] in New Jersey, directed by David Hyde Pierce; I did that to refresh my spirit.
Master Class isn't new.
No, but the play is so challenging, really inspiring—and I don’t toss that word around lightly. I still count my night seeing this play with Zoe Caldwell on Broadway as among the five top nights I have ever had in the theater. For some reason, the play and the performance and the production just grabbed me by the vitals.
What does it cost you to do this play eight times a week?
A lot. I’m not in my prime, and the task is real. [Points to the bed in her dressing room] When we’ve finished, Granny’s going to take her nap!