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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - Broadway

Scarlett Johansson stars in the Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams' classic.

Cat Matriarch Debra Monk on the Shows That Shaped Her Career, from Pump Boys to Curtains

  Cat Matriarch Debra Monk on the Shows That Shaped Her Career, from Pump Boys to Curtains
Debra Monk
Debra Monk celebrates her collaboration and friendship with Kander & Ebb.

Since bursting onto the Broadway scene more than 30 years ago as co-writer and star of the deliciously down-home musical Pump Boys and Dinettes, Debra Monk has happily jumped between drama and comedy, plays and musicals. (Got an 11 o’clock number? Trust her to hit a home run with it.) “I’ve had so many great roles,” says Monk, including her current one, Big Mama Pollitt in “the incredible company” of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. For her Role Call, the Tony winner and three-time nominee reminisced about Kander & Ebb, what she’s learned from the kids in Broadway choruses and more.

Role That Was the Most Meaningful
Pump Boys and Dinettes (1982, as Prudie Cupp), is a show I never expected to end up on Broadway. In 1980, I had been living in New York for four years, working as a temp secretary and a waitress; I was broke and couldn’t get any acting jobs. Cass Morgan and I, having never written anything, decided to write a piece for ourselves inspired by the waitresses I worked with, who were fun and kind of tough. Cass’ husband at the time, Jim Wann, and my friend Mark Hardwick had a band called the Pump Boys, so we merged it and did this show at 11 at night at the Westside Arts Theatre for one week. It became an event, and we ran off-Broadway for six months before moving to Broadway. Pump Boys was a meaningful piece because it came out of a job I’d been doing, waitressing in diners, and it gave me a little stability. It also taught me about this business: Even after being on Broadway for a year and a half, I couldn’t get an agent. Everybody thought I was this country and western girl.”

Role That Was My Big Break
“Winning the Tony for Redwood Curtain [1993, as Geneva, Best Featured Actress] changed my life. I didn’t know Lanford Wilson well, but I had been doing readings at Circle Rep, and one day, he sent me a play with a note saying, “I wrote this with you in mind; let me know if you like it.” I couldn’t believe I had the chance to play this incredible part and work with Jeff Daniels and [director] Marshall Mason. Geneva was a woman whose family runs a redwood forest where Vietnam veterans would live after the war. Her brother was a soldier who adopted a child in Vietnam and later died of alcoholism, and this now-teenage girl, Geri, sets off into the woods to search for her real father. It’s a beautiful story of family and legacy and what was going on with veterans. We closed before the Tonys, so nobody, including myself, thought I had a chance. Winning opened up opportunities to do television and movies; it was harder to cross back and forth then than it is now.”

Role That Was the Most Challenging
Steel Pier [1997, as Shelby Stevens, Best Featured Actress Tony nomination] was my first big legit musical, and I was really nervous about the belting and the dancing. It’s about a dance marathon, and I’m not a dancer! Shelby was a former cook in a lumber camp, a good-time gal who is a little older than most of the other marathoners. When we started rehearsal, I was thinking about how horrible and tragic dance marathons were, and [director] Scott Ellis pulled me over and said, ‘This gal loves doing this.’ It was the greatest note! John [Kander] and Freddy [Ebb] wrote this naughty song, “Everybody’s Girl,” as well as “Somebody Older,” about falling in love with a younger man. I loved standing center stage singing those songs, and I was blown away by the young dancers in the show. It taught me a big lesson because they are fearless and committed and they never whine; they just do their work. Some actors say, ‘I would never do a musical,’ and I say, ‘You should, just to learn from these kids.’ They are the heroes of Broadway.”

Role That Was the Most Frightening
“The original production of Assassins [1990, as Sara Jane Moore] was scary for many reasons. It was my first Sondheim musical, and I wasn’t convinced my voice was good enough. I was nervous to be in the company of people like Victor Garber and Jonathan Hadary. And the piece itself [about Presidential assassins] was scary. This was during the first Gulf war, and every night, people would get up in the middle of the show and walk out of that small theater at Playwrights Horizons. They were upset and vocal, and it was scary because you just knew people were hating it. Sara Jane Moore was a fascinating, sad case, and the great John Weidman wrote that fabulous scene where she is throwing bullets at President Ford because her gun stops. It was a funny part, but also very moving. I overcame a lot of my fears in that show. And, of course, the [2004] revival was met very differently.”

Role That Was My First Classic
“Almost all of my work as been in new plays and new musicals. The first revival I ever did was Ah, Wilderness! [1998, as Essie Miller] at Lincoln Center, which was a lovely, lovely experience. Again, a lot of firsts: I got to work at the Beaumont Theater, doing O’Neill, directed by Dan Sullivan, with Craig T. Nelson and my amazing ‘son’ Sam Trammell. I don’t have children, but Essie was funny and sweet and loving and made me feel like the mother of all mothers. It’s a play about family that worked for all ages. Even though it was set at the turn of the century, it was meaningful to everybody who saw it.”

Role That Was a Labor of Love
“The show that was both the most fun and the most sad was Curtains [2007, as Broadway producer Carmen Bernstein; Best Actress Tony nomination]. The great Peter Stone had written the book, Kander & Ebb wrote the music, and the show had been sitting in a drawer for a long time; it was much different than it ended up. Scott Ellis said, ‘We should do a reading,’ and then Peter died, which was devastating. Rupert Holmes came in, and then Freddy [Ebb] died. John decided to keep going, and we all got involved because we wanted to help him finish it, not realizing that it would become a hit. Carmen Bernstein was one of the great parts of all time. My first line was, ‘Holy shit!’ How many times do you get to say that on stage? We wrote Freddy and Peter’s names on the brick wall at the back of the set, and when we turned around to sing ‘Show People,’ we thought about them.”

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