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Past/Present/Future for … Megan Mullally

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American screen and stage actress Megan Mullally, aka Karen in American sitcom Will & Grace, brings her band Supreme Music Program to the West End this week for eight performances only, marking the first time Mullally and the band have played outside of the US.

Best known for her two-time Emmy and four-time Screen Actors Guild Award-winning role as Karen Walker on the long-running American TV sitcom Will & Grace, Mullally made her Broadway debut in the 1994 revival of Grease with Rosie O’ Donnell. She received an Outer Critics’ Circle Award nomination for her performance as Rosemary in the Broadway revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying opposite Matthew Broderick and starred in the Mel Brooks musical Young Frankenstein. She was also recently seen in the new film remake of Fame and can be heard singing the solo “You Took Advantage of Me” on the Fame soundtrack.

Mullally is planning a new Broadway musical entitled Karen: The Musical, where she will reprise her role from Will & Grace. This spring, she will also star in a Broadway revival of Terrence McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart as well as series two of US comedy series Party Down, airing on US cable channel Starz.

PAST: The first theatrical production I did was when I was 12 years old in summer stock in Oklahoma City. I was one of the daughters in Fiddler on the Roof. Since then, I’ve probably done as much or more theatre as I’ve done anything else. When I went to college at Northwestern, outside of Chicago, I did a lot of theatre and I got my equity card and continued to do a lot of theatre for about six years in Chicago. I wasn’t a theatre major in college, but that’s where I feel I got a lot of my training, I learnt just by doing. I moved to Los Angeles after that – with a boy, of course – otherwise I would have moved to New York on my own and auditioned for a Broadway musical. But I moved to Los Angeles and actually continued to do theatre there off and on.

Then in 1994 I inadvertently got cast in the Broadway revival of Grease because a guy that I had gone to Northwestern with was directing it, and he tracked me down. I was 34 playing a 17-year-old on Broadway. As a direct result of that show, I got cast as the lead in another revival of a musical, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, with Matthew Broderick. That show was kind of my big break in a funny way. Even though I’d lived in Los Angeles for about nine years at that point and had had some minimal success in television, because I had gotten some good reviews in How to Succeed, all of a sudden everybody in Hollywood was curious about me.

This last theatre venture I did was a play called The Receptionist, at a very small theatre in Los Angeles called the Odyssey in Los Angeles and it turned into a big hit. The theatre’s been open for 35 years and apparently it was the first time in its history that they’ve sold out every performance. That, this little equity waiver production of a four-person play, actually is probably my favourite thing I’ve done to date.

PRESENT: The thing that I’m doing in London with the band is not a show ... it’s just a band, I want to stress that! I don’t want people coming expecting to see Karen draped across a pink poof with a cigarette holder and a martini because it’s literally a band, just me and five straggly, fifty-ish musicians who walk out and play our instruments and do a set of music.

Supreme Music Program started because I wanted to do a theatre piece. When I got back to Los Angeles in the mid-Nineties right after How to Succeed, I had this friend who I thought was really cool. She took a lot of different classes for different talents and hobbies, and one of the classes she was taking was a singing performance class. I never take classes like that but I thought she was so cool so I decided to take it just to be like her. I went to this class and it was simply a small group of people and this wonderful woman teaching it and you could pick any song in the whole world that you wanted to do and come in and perform it.

It really made an impression on me, so I decided that I wanted to do a stage show where it was all music, so I had to find musicians. I found this big keyboard player Greg through a friend of mine who was in a rock band. He and I hit it off and then he found our guitar player Stewart and then, through a girl who did a little part on Will & Grace, I found our drummer Joe. We did the craziest performance-art piece called Sweetheart at this little theatre called the Coast Playhouse in Los Angeles. I don’t know if critics thought it was awesome but we thought it was awesome and the audiences thought it was awesome. It’s not what we’re doing in London unfortunately.

This was around 1999 I guess, so it was right around the time Will & Grace started. We made a record of the songs from that show which is out of print now, but we just got all the songs approved and are going to be able to put them up on Amazon and ITunes finally. After that, we simply didn’t have time to mount productions anymore so we just started playing around town as a band, and from then on we’ve just played as a band. We added a viola player and a pedal-steel player and a trumpet player. We played the Lincoln Centre, Kennedy Centre, Seattle Symphony, all around the States at various venues. This will be our first time playing overseas, and we’re all really excited about it.

We have a very eclectic mix of styles. We do songs from practically every genre of music and everything from full on rock to “Ave Maria” which we’ve deconstructed to the point of it being sort of electronic. I don’t know what it is, but it’s very atmospheric anyway. That’s kind of the point. It’s not about me, it’s more about songwriters and the songs themselves, and how each song has a sound and feel and its own world. Many of the songs we do are written by men and I never change the facts or lyrics of a song – I’m kind of a purist in that way – but we do re-imagine the songs musically sometimes. We sort of deconstruct them a little bit. We don’t write our own music, but maybe someday, Greg is always bugging me to write something.

I think there is a cachet to performing in the West End, you know, like Broadway. And it’s just exciting for us to get to go to London. From what I can glean, Will & Grace is really popular there, and this is a great way to be able to perform there in some capacity. I’ve been offered different things over the years, including that production of Guys & Dolls with Ewan Mcgregor which I was dying to do, but I could never do it because it was a long commitment and I was doing Will & Grace.

FUTURE: It’s true that I’m working on a musical based on the character Karen from Will & Grace, called Karen: The Musical.It’s probably a couple of years out because it hasn’t been written yet, but we have a producing entity, Fox Theatrical; a director, Casey Nicholaw, who directed The Drowsy Chaperone; a composer, Jeff Blumenkrantz; and a writer, Ruth Blanche. That’s our team we’ve just gotten together. Everyone’s deals need to be made, but then we’re going to sit down in May and we’re going to start writing.

I had this idea for the musical years ago when we were still doing Will & Grace. I was getting a massage one day and my face was in the little pocket and my eyes just shot open and I thought, “My god, how funny would it be to do a musical as this character?” I’m lucky I have so much singing and theatrical experience in my past, it’s kind of a rare combo to have a character that you would want to repeat combined and the musical experience. We actually got permission from NBC and the creators of Will & Grace to do it, which was saying something, and so now it’s off and running. I think it’s really going to be fun.

Karen didn’t really sing in Will & Grace, just little snippets here and there, and then on the final episode of the series, the characters of Jack and Karen do a duet of “Unforgettable”. I sang the bulk of it and Sean Hayes (who played Jack) sang along with me a little bit and played piano. It’s going to centre around Karen and her arch-nemesis Beverly Leslie who’s trying to thwart her at every turn.

As for other theatre plans, I’m doing a play on Broadway in the spring, Terrence McNally’s four-character play Lips Together, Teeth Apart. That’s at the Roundabout, opening in April and running through the middle of July, we start rehearsals in March. It’s a really great play and it hasn’t been revived since 1991 so I’m really excited about that.

With Supreme Music Program, we have a few performances at the Orange County Performing Arts Centre, which is a very popular venue just south of Los Angeles, in October of 2010. And I’m sure at some point we’ll do another record. We’re just compiling some new songs now, including a few for London that we have never done before.

- Megan Mullally was speaking to Terri Paddock

Megan Mullally and Supreme Music Program play at the West End’s Vaudeville Theatre for eight performances only from 16 to 21 February 2010.

** Our Whatsonstage.com Outing to Megan Mullally and Supreme Music Program on 16 February - including an exclusive post-show Q&A with Mullally! – is now sold out! Click here to join the waiting list for returns! **


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