Joanna Gleason has spent past few years “telling stories I want to tell,” including an acclaimed dramatic performance in Sons of the Prophet and writing a novel and screenplay, plus intense instruction in the tango. Now, the Tony-winning star of Into the Woods and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is getting set to make her cabaret debut in a three-night engagement (October 9, 16 and 23) at 54 Below. The vibrant actress recently previewed her show and everything else she has been up to in a chat with Broadway.com. (Click here for Gleason’s comments on the casting of Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife in Rob Marshall’s film version of Into the Woods.)
You’ve been a Broadway star for more than 30 years. It’s hard to believe you’ve never done cabaret!
I’m not a classic songbird, I’m an actress who is comfortable singing in a show. But Phil Bond at 54 Below asked me, and I’ve taken on so much that has been new and daring and exciting in the last few years, I found myself saying yes. I’ve had a lifelong fantasy of being a big-band singer.
Give us a preview of your 54 Below show.
It’s autobiographical, and goes places I had no idea I was going to go. It’s not a list of “And then I did…” It’s about me: how I got lucky at various intersections and tried to put together a real life, which was always more important to me than my work life. My life was pretty fractured for many years, and I go into that, and how you bring things together to find your home and your heart and where you belong.
What’s on your set list?
There’s some James Taylor and Billy Joel, a funny twist on a Peggy Lee song, and a little Sondheim. I don’t want to give too much away, but there’s a song I will reference from Nick and Nora, a show I did that was a big flop, that has a different application from when I did it 22 years ago.
Well, you got a husband [actor Chris Sarandon] out of Nick and Nora!
That was the great gift. I don’t go anyplace uncomfortable [in the show], but I figure, if you’re not going to reveal anything, why be up there?
Speaking of revealing a different side, you were wonderful in Stephen Karam’s Sons of the Prophet, opposite Santino Fontana.
That play was heaven on earth. Even though I had just three scenes, it was a complete journey of a woman unraveling. Those kinds of parts don’t come around very often.
Did that experience make you want to do more plays?
For me, it’s really a question of quality of life right now. I’ve written a screenplay about a woman who inherits an old, formerly gay nightclub in Palm Springs. It’s being cast, and I’ll direct if it all comes together. I’ve written a novel that’s gotten terrific response, and I dance the tango. I study eight hours a week and go to ballroom competitions. These are things I’ve wanted to do my whole life.
What’s your favorite memory from starring in Into the Woods?
There are so many, but the greatest gift to come out of that is my 27-year friendship with [stage husband] Chip Zien. When we met each other, our kids were itty-bitty, and now we have grandchildren who are the same age!