Cynthia Nixon, photographed by Maarten De Boer.
Tony and Emmy Award winner Cynthia Nixon has played everyone from Jean Brodie to Eleanor Roosevelt, but the role that got away was Agnes Gooch. “I’m too old now, but I always really wanted to do Gooch,” she says. “Because if she sings badly, it’s fine, you know?” If the third lead in Mame seems like an unlikely Everest, keep in mind that Nixon is obsessed with musicals. She and Sarah Jessica Parker used to sing showtunes during long nights on the set of “Sex and the City,” and these days she still listens mostly to cast recordings. For her dream Encores! show, Nixon selected The Golden Apple, Jerome Moross and John Latouche’s exquisite, brainy “opera for Broadway,” which retells the Greek myths of Helen, Paris, Ulysses, and Penelope through the lens of American folklore. Although the 1954 musical closed on Broadway after four months, it has since acquired a merry, fanatical band of admirers.
CITY CENTER: How did you discover The Golden Apple?
CYNTHIA NIXON: My mother. I was very immersed in musicals growing up—which is what Steve, the play that I’m directing at The New Group, is so much about: people who live for musicals, and live through musicals. I certainly fit into that category, and I’ve done it to my children. (laughs) I’ve also done it to my wife, who was not a musical comedy person at all before she met me. My mother steeped me in musical theater, and we used to play the Golden Apple record. Then I was lucky enough to see a production of it, which is unusual, at the York Theater [in 1978] when I was still a kid. I knew the show inside out by the time I saw it.
Penelope (Priscilla Gillette) and Ulysses (Stephen Douglass) sing “It’s Going Home Together” in the original Broadway production of The Golden Apple.
What do you love about the show?
There’s so much wit in it. The music is terrific, and it spans such a range, from jaunty songs like “Store-Bought Suit” to sexy songs like “Lazy Afternoon,” which is like an instant classic. There’s also “Windflowers,” Penelope’s tragic song of longing and devotion. I used to listen to that and just cry and cry when I was a kid. It’s such a beautiful love song.
I’m so intrigued that you chose The Golden Apple. I had read that you loved the more cosmopolitan musicals of Stephen Sondheim and William Finn, but this show is so full of midcentury innocence and exuberance. At one point Ulysses sings that in a store-bought suit he’s a “proud galoot.”
“And the fruit of the loom is mine.” Right. But, you know, the other thing about me is I’m a classicist. It may seem midcentury, but it’s actually Greek, right? I think that’s part of the hook: how the writers of The Golden Apple took a classic story that we all know, that has all this love and death and betrayal and trickery in it, and put it into an American context. And put it there beautifully. They did such creative things, like making Paris a non-speaking dance part, in the same way that Macheath is basically a dance part. Of course there’s something very seductive about the male crooner, but there’s something even more seductive about the dancing man.
Helen (Kaye Ballard) seduces Paris (Jonathan Lucas) on a “Lazy Afternoon” in the original Broadway production of The Golden Apple.
The way they reinvented Helen of Troy is fascinating, too. She’s not so much a temptress as she is a 1950s housewife—one so bored she can “hear the grass as it grows.”
And she’s just a good-time girl! It’s not that she’s so pretty, even. She’s just game, and fun. When have you ever seen Helen depicted like that? It’s amazingly creative. Ashlie Atkinson is in the play that I’m directing now, and I told her, “You should play Helen in The Golden Apple and get to sing ‘Lazy Afternoon.’ You would be great.” One of the really fun things about the musical is that you can cast Helen in her twenties or you can cast her in her forties. It doesn’t matter. Also, the trio of the Goddesses—actually, the quartet, if you include Mother Hare—those are tremendous parts for women, and they could be as old as you want.
You could throw in Angela Lansbury.
She’d be amazing. If you’re picking from anybody in any period, yeah. Bea Arthur, too. (laughs)
When you eventually saw the show, was it how you’d pictured it?
It was a terrific production. I still remember it. The actors really inhabited it. I particularly remember the woman who played Old Mother Hare and then Circe in the second act, who was amazing. And that big crescendo number at the end of Act One, (sings) “Helen, Helen, oh, you gave me a scare,” when they head off in the balloon and everybody is chiming in? That was just fantastic. It really did live up to my expectations.
Scenes from the original Broadway production of The Golden Apple.
I read that you mostly listen to musicals—
I know. It’s so embarrassing.
What do you get from musicals that you don’t get from other kinds of music?
I guess character is what I get. I mean, you have some [pop] songwriters who are sort of doing character studies, but musicals are very emotional experiences for me. I just invest so much in the characters from song to song, and through the end of the show. I still listen to musicals almost as much as I did when I was a kid. I think it was part of becoming a performer, because when I was a kid, I had all these cast recordings, and the level of performance was so high. I really learned a lot about building a character and conveying a character from those records. Just listening to them over and over helped me understand characterization.
What are the cast album performances that really knocked you out as a kid?
God, there are so many. Lonny Price in Merrily We Roll Along—you know, his breakdown song, “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” Bernadette in Sunday in the Park. Even Barbara Baxley in She Loves Me, singing “A Trip to the Library.” There are so many songs like that; they’re monologues set to music. I was listening to Pacific Overtures yesterday morning, and the song “Bowler Hat” was always one of my mother’s favorites. And it’s barely a song; it’s an incredible monologue that shows so much about character, and the passage of time, and loss of self. It’s just amazing. One of the things that I used to listen to all the time as a kid was A Chorus Line, and when the Public Theater had their 50th anniversary gala [at City Center in 2006], James Lapine asked me, “Is there something from the Public’s history, a musical thing, that you would want to do?” I didn’t even have to think about it. I was like, “Dance: Ten, Looks: Three.” I used to do it every day in my living room. Not just alone, but for my parents. (laughs) That gala was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. I was taking all these singing lessons and trying to get it right, and at one point I expressed my fear to Mary Testa, who was also part of the evening. Mary Testa’s not gonna blow smoke up my ass. She’s not gonna tell me I’m a great singer, or even really a good singer, cause I’m not. (laughs) But she said, “In the musical theater, there’s room for everybody. There’s room for me, with my big ole voice, and there’s room for you, who isn’t really a singer, but who can act her way out of certain songs.”
Do you still take singing lessons?
No, I stopped. But I did it for a few years. I had a great time, and I feel like it was even more important for me personally than it was with an eye toward performing. There’s something so emotional about opening your throat up and singing. It’s why we respond to singers, why we fall in love with them so much.
You once said that asking if you wanted to do a musical was “like asking an alligator if he wants to fly.”
(laughs) It’s true! I really do feel that way. And I have been offered some musicals in my time. I was offered to replace Catherine Zeta-Jones in Little Night Music, which is a part that I could ostensibly sing. Desiree. And it just didn’t seem like the right fit. My agents were not excited about the idea, and I said to my agents, “I just want you to understand that I may not be able to say no to Stephen Sondheim. I may not be physically capable of it.” But they got Bernadette Peters, which was such a better idea. (laughs) I’d like to try and do Charlotte sometime. And maybe in a different production I could do Desiree. It’s not an ideal fit, but maybe.
How about the Baker’s Wife from Into the Woods?
No, I could never sing such a thing. Never. Never sing such a thing. That’s a real singing part. Charlotte is not so much. Charlotte’s an acting part.
I have a few questions about Steve, which you’re directing for the New Group.
Yeah, please. And I just want to say that I love City Center so much. Most Happy Fella was my mother’s absolute favorite musical, and one of my favorites too. After she died, when they did it, I bought eight tickets and brought all of our nearest-and-dearest. Encores! does bigger shows too, like Merrily and Follies, and that’s all great—but it’s such a chance to see shows that you know are great, but for whatever reason people don’t put on. Like A New Brain, which is one of my all-time favorite shows, and I just loved the recent production. I mean, I understand why nobody puts on The Golden Apple, but why nobody puts on A New Brain I can’t figure out for the life of me. I mean, I would never have thought of Malcolm Gets for Steve, except that I listen to him all the time [on the cast recording of] A New Brain.
Did you tell him that?
Oh, he knows, he knows. We talk about musicals endlessly.
Malcolm Gets, Jerry Dixon, Mario Cantone, and Matt McGrath in Steve, photographed by Monique Carboni.
To get back to Steve: it’s a very funny play, but Steven’s life is also slightly melancholy. He used to be a chorus boy, and now the closest he gets to show business is quoting Company at brunch. Every reference is a reference to a world that he’s no longer part of. As a director, how do you get the jokes to work as jokes, but also as lines with depth?
I think that you cast really good actors, for one thing. You cast actors with a lot of emotional depth. And I have to say that so many of the people who came in to read for parts—the men, particularly—said, “How did you get my journal?” It’s very personal for the actors. We’ve got all these gay men around 50 playing gay men around 50. I think it’s a beautiful play and it’s a delicate play. You have to let it be lyrical when it wants to be lyrical, let it be funny when it wants to be funny, and try not to be too heavy-handed. Cause it’s like spun sugar. Which is not to say that it’s all sweet—some of it is very painful. But it’s delicate.
Well, banter means so much to these characters. Late in the play, Steven says to Carrie, “You quote Sondheim like a man,” and it registers as a declaration of love.
It’s very complicated. He’s saying that as a man himself, but also as a gay man, and he’s saying it to a lesbian who has certain masculine qualities. It’s very interesting, and Matt [McGrath] does it so beautifully. It has an actual sexual connotation, I think, when he says it to her. It’s like, “Even though I’m gay and you’re a lesbian, you actually turn me on when you quote Sondheim to me.” (laughs)
Matt Weinstock writes for the publications at New York City Center.