Faith Prince has forged a four-decade Broadway career of drama and, especially, musical comedy, stitching quirk, nuance and an eye to mining laughs.
To best understand what makes her marvelous, let's start with a mumble. The merest of mutterings, maybe, but it exemplifies Prince's devotion to text and development of character.
In the 1992 Broadway revival of "Guys and Dolls," Prince won a Tony Award as lovelorn Miss Adelaide, lead dancer at the Hot Box club and self-described "well-known fiancée."
Frank Loesser's ballad "Adelaide's Lament" finds the character backstage reading, between sneezes, a self-help book. She deduces a long-lasting head cold may stem from her inability to wed Nathan Detroit after umpteen years of trying.
An actress playing Adelaide encounters in the song a curious two-word phrase: "See note." It refers to an aside at the bottom of the book's page; the line is usually delivered quickly.
But Prince spins it out: "See note. ... Ohhhhh, see note!" (Mumble, mumble). "Clever!"
In the briefest of seconds, expressing contentment at solving this tiny puzzle, Prince subtly communicates to audiences that Adelaide is not some airhead cutie pie, but an "average American female" relieved at having conquered yet another of life's minor dilemmas.
Since 1988 — following, as she told audiences recently during a night of cabaret at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, "a decade of off-off — and I mean, really far off — Broadway," Prince has similarly developed leads and major character roles on Broadway. Additionally, she has had a long string of bill-paying TV and movie parts.
Often, she told the Cerritos audience, "people, assume I am Jewish because, I guess, of my speech. Sorry … I'm a Virginia Presbyterian." She grew up in the town of Lynchburg and studied theater at the University of Cincinnati. She has been married to trumpeter Larry Lunetta for 25 years; their son Henry Lunetta, 21, juggles projects as a music producer in Los Angeles.
Prince's next lead role comes Dec. 2-4 in Los Angeles Opera's semi-staged concert version of Leonard Bernstein's "Wonderful Town." She plays Ruth Sherwood, who, along with her younger sister Eileen, is a hopeful Ohio transplant to exciting '30s-era Greenwich Village.
For this edited conversation, Prince talked about her career, from her big break with Jerome Robbins to "Wonderful Town," which begins L.A. Opera's three-season celebration of the coming centenary of Bernstein's 1918 birth.
You have done 14 Broadway shows over the years. Is this your first Leonard Bernstein piece?
Almost. My first major show was "Jerome Robbins' Broadway" in 1989. Robbins directed and one of the segments had some numbers from "On the Town." I was a slow drag dancer, dancing with Robert La Fosse.
What was working for Robbins like?
It was very instructive. He was an extreme perfectionist … which is funny, because there is no "perfect," obviously. He became more "OCD-ee" about that time, you know, the older he got, the more he wanted things a very certain way.
Clearly one of musical theater's greatest directors, Robbins also was a legendary tyrant. Did you find him intimidating?
He could be. I think if you weren't in the same zone of concentration, you really got it from him. I learned early on to really concentrate. I stood up to him one time, unlike a lot of the other people.
This is your first Broadway show and you challenged Jerome Robbins?
He was pushing me to the max at a rehearsal. Leading into "You Gotta Have a Gimmick" from "Gypsy," I was Tessie Tura, I had a line and I took a beat and he snapped his fingers to keep things moving. I said "No, it needs a pause to get a laugh." And he barked, "No, it doesn't!" And it just flew out of my mouth: "Yes it does, but you wouldn't know it because you haven't seen it [in front of an audience] for six months."
This was in front of cast members?
Yep, everyone in the room went, "What's happening?" — gawking.
Did you back down?
I have always had a sense of myself. I try to balance that and pick my battles. I think most people would say I am a pretty good egg. I like to come to the table and collaborate but I know what I bring to the table too. So I felt worried, but not wrong.
Didn't your worry this would be your last show on Broadway?
I was sure I was going to be fired, and the rest of the day I was looking for the pink slip. But it didn't come. That night there was a holiday party at a friend's house and the first person I see is Robbins. He looks at me and I look at him and I go "Merry Christmas." And he said, "The next time we have a row, can we please talk to each other, because I have been upset all day." And I said, "Yes sir, we can, absolutely!"
After that he was different. We had another rehearsal and he said, "You know, take the pause, it's funny." Maybe he had some respect if you pushed back at him. But only a little pushing.
Let's talk about the role you have in "Wonderful Town," Ruth, the older sister. Before rehearsals begin, how do you prepare?
I start to listen to the score while I am driving around, have it in the background, let it wash over me. But I don't want to listen to the voices too intently, I want my own version to emerge. And I am thinking about what opportunities there are in Ruth for my own little Faith-isms, opportunities for what, contextually, I can bring to it.
How do you find a character?
There are three initial starting points: "How am I like this person?" Or, "How am I not like this person?" And, "Do I know somebody like this?" If I can't draw on these, then I ask myself, "Well, if not me and what I know, why might this character be like she is?"
Ruth is feminine, but she has the male energy — practical, with drive — that in those days many musical heroines often had. And she has to keep an eye out for her younger sister: Now that is good for me! In my family I was the oldest. They might ask me for advice or I would give it anyhow, so I think Ruth could be like this.
That sounds serious. And this is a musical comedy.
But I already feel good about that side of Ruth, in part because of Comden and Green's wonderful lyrics. In "Swing!" "Conga" and "100 Ways to Lose a Man" she is matter-of-fact, but they also tap into her inner whack-a-doodle. And I love getting to play this kind of role, with both qualities.
You have done TV and movies, but I think of you as a Broadway actress. Do you live in New York?
Not anymore. My husband and I moved to California in 2003, Sacramento, where his family is, and a little place in L.A. Before that, in New York I was doing eight shows a week, and my husband might do eight shows a week, and my son, Henry, who was about 6 then, asked one night, "Do you think you will tuck me in before I go to college?" So we relocated. I turned down a couple New York jobs recently. It has been pilot season, and I would really like to do a series for a while.
Beyond acting, you also teach?
If I had to quantify it, I am kind of a "life coach" for performing artists. I created it because when I was starting there was nobody I could go to and show me the ropes of how to get onto Broadway and crack show business as a performer.
What exactly do you do?
Each scenario is different: I have young students who want to go to college for a degree in arts or know how to get in a first show, and we brainstorm on the getting going, a first agent who is right for them, how to put an act together, that sort of thing. For already established people, it could be talking with them about new material they are working up, how they can shape it to get it seen, broadening out from who you already are. I tailor it based on their specific needs, not just general blah, blah, blah.
You sound like you enjoy being this person.
I do! When I was young I was a baby-sitter, and then a resident counselor in college. And I love being a mom. Plus, I like puzzles. My dad was a nuclear engineer so solving stuff appeals to me. After all my years of experience, I thought I could help other people think out of the box.
Would you do this instead of performing?
No, no, I love to work. Even if I retire a little I'd want to keep my hand in … maybe go off to Italy or France for two to three months, my husband and I could get some kind of club thing for a bit there or teach master classes or something.
That is a great thing about my professional life: I feel I have a future. After all, Broadway and Hollywood, they always need old geezers, don't they?
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