After nearly eight years of playing the disco-dancing fashionista Tanya in Mamma Mia!, Judy McLane has graduated to a brand new role—the one she initially auditioned for! McLane is taking center stage at the Winter Garden Theatre as mother-of-the-bride Donna Sheridan in the long-running ABBA musical, leading a new cast that includes Felicia Finley as Tanya, Aaron Lazar as Sam, Lauren Cohn as Rosie and Christy Altomare as Donna’s daughter, Sophie. The Broadway vet, who got her start in Chess, Aspects of Love and Kiss of the Spider Woman, took a brief hiatus from Mamma Mia! in 2011 to star in Next to Normal at Salt Lake City’s Pioneer Theatre Company before returning to the smash hit musical. Broadway.com recently caught up with McLane to chat about her new headlining role in Mamma Mia!, shooting Nerf guns backstage and the secret to maintaining a killer beach body for almost a decade.
How have you been settling into the role of Donna?
It’s been such a lovely journey. It’s been two months now, and I’m finding more every day. I did seven and a half years of Tanya, but I never stopped playing, which is really fun. I’m just at the beginning of Donna, which feels good.
Does it feel like the role is officially yours now?
It does, and in many ways, it feels closer to me than Tanya does. I’m enjoying the fact that I’ve had a lot of life experience to bring to Donna, and it’s been fun to explore that. After a certain age, you don’t have to imagine as many “as-ifs.”
Did you always feel closer to the role of Donna, even when you were playing Tanya?
No, when I went in initially for the show, I had auditioned for Donna. I got called back for that, and then at that point, Carolee [Carmello] was doing it and so they said, “Well, can you read for Tanya?” I was like, “Okay, sure,” and I fell in love with Tanya. There’s something great about a doing a fun-loving character who is positive and sexy and gets to play with the boys and have a great time.
Like Tanya, have you ever had a younger man hit on you?
How many people are reading this? [Laughs.] I will say: Yes. I have had that experience.
Do you find yourself having to modify your daily routine now that you’ve taken on a more demanding role?
Absolutely. On Sundays, my day off right now, I go hiking by myself and spend the day not talking. I don’t go out and drink every night; I’m more conservative about that. I’m not one of those people that’s crazy overprotective, but I tend not to go to loud places during the week.
Aside from disco dancing in Spandex eight times a week, how do you stay in such fantastic shape?
I haven’t been to a gym in 15 years. I’m a yoga girl. I practice every day in the Cloisters, in the park, especially in the summer. I go up there and pick a spot. And I got this workout called Brazilian Butt—have you ever seen that on TV? I did it three times, but then I was like, “Okay, I’m done with that.” [Laughs.] Yoga’s been the consistent in my life. It keeps me in great shape overall and meditatively in great shape.
You’ve basically been living on the Greek Islands for the last seven years. What’s your beach beauty routine?
I’m white as a ghost, so I’ve been fake tanned for a long time. Some people spray tan, but I’ve found that Estee Lauder gel works best for me. It comes off on my costumes the least. I’ve become an expert on which ones to not to use. And because I wear a lot of white in the show, it tends to be tough on the Spandex!
What is it like being the cornerstone of this production now? Do you offer advice to your castmates?
I wanted to make sure that with the new company, I didn’t say a lot of things. Especially with Felicia Finley [who plays Tanya], who is phenomenal. Or Lauren Cohn [who plays Rosie], or Aaron [Lazar, who plays Sam]. I wanted to make sure the new cast had a new experience—not my experience. So when people would come up to me and ask, “How is this done?” I’d say, “Let’s just wait and see what happens from the director or the choreographer.” I don’t wanna be one of those people saying, “Well, we usually do it this way.” And for me, it feels like a brand new show. I don’t look at Felicia’s costumes and think, “I wore those.” It feels like an entirely different character to me.
In all of your years as Tanya, who was your favorite Donna to work with?
You’re not gonna do that to me, are you? [Laughs.] I did it with Carolee for four years, so we had a special bond. And Beth Leavel and Michele Pawk and Leah Hocking…all of these woman are very present onstage, and willing to play. They have a kind of twinkle in their eye, and they’re always ready for anything.
Did you have to audition for Donna?
I did. At first, I said to my agent, “I’m not sure I want to go in and do this.” I had really put aside the idea that I’d ever play Donna. But after talking it over, I thought maybe that’s the way to do it: to wrap up my Mamma Mia! experience with the role of Donna, and seeing it all from another perspective. I went in and sang “The Winner Takes It All” and read a couple scenes for them.
And you obviously nailed it!
Sometimes when you let things go, they come more easily. I let those feelings go and said, “I’ve had an amazing time here, and if it happens, great. If not, that’s okay, too.”
Mamma Mia! is such a high energy show. How do you keep from getting jaded after so many years?
Drugs [laughs]. I’m kidding. Joke, joke, joke. Mamma Mia! tends to be a first-time Broadway musical for many people. I think we have a responsibility to them, and I take that very seriously. They come to the stage door very often and say, “This is my first show,” and I say, “Come back and see another one.” Energy-wise, I have to be more present and in the moment now than I’ve ever been. If I’m playing the same thing every day, that’s gonna get tired. So I would play games with myself, as Tanya. I would say, “For this scene, let me try this on this line and see how it informs the rest of the scene.”
The songs in Mamma Mia! are possibly the most contagious hits ever written. How do you not walk around humming them 24 hours a day?
That happened to me in the beginning. “Dancing Queen” was like that. Seriously, can we stop now? Can we stop the record? But I don’t find that now, and I’m not sure why.
When Broadway.com checked out your dressing room a few years ago, it was one of the most homey on Broadway. Is that a perk of being in a long-running show?
Oh, absolutely. You’ve gotta come see it now; it’s even nicer! People come in and they’re like, “Wow, you don’t even need an apartment.” You want that comfort because you’re there so much. It’s very decorated and homey. I took some of my things from Africa and added to it; Africa’s a big thing for me.
How is your work with animals going?
I’m helping a friend of mine, Charles Henderson, who is starting an animal rescue. I met him through the Sean Casey Animal Rescue, which I still work with. Charles' foundation is bringing awareness to the dog and cat situation in the city, and we’re hoping to do some more education in schools. In the spring, I did an event with the Cheetah Conservation Fund—we have raised over a million dollars for the cheetahs. These things are very real and dear to my heart. I always try to do more, but it never seems like enough.
What is life like backstage at Mamma Mia?
We just had the Olympics! We each named our team, got T-shirts for the teams…it got crazy. We had synchronized swimming events, Nerf gun shooting, carrying eggs down the theater aisle, things like that. [Production stage manager] Andy Fenton goes all out. The lighting gets changed, we’ve got the rings, we’ve got the torch being brought in. It’s all with a comic flare, obviously. But that’s what Mamma Mia! is. It’s such a special place to work.
See Judy McLane in Mamma Mia! at the Winter Garden Theatre!