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by Michael Portantiere

Christine Ebersole Meets The Whiffenpoofs

  • Christine Ebersole-edit.jpgHow versatile a performer is Christine Ebersole? Let's count the ways. Many people first became aware of her from her work as a sketch comedian on Saturday Night Live. On Broadway, she has played roles as disparate as Ado Annie in Oklahoma!, Guenevere in Camelot, Dorothy Brock in 42nd Street, and Edith Bouvier Beale/Little Edie in Grey Gardens, winning Tony Awards for her performances in the two last-named shows. Her film credits range from Tootsie to Amadeus to True Crime, and she has made countless TV appearances in soap operas, sitcoms, drama series, etc. Yet when Christine teamed up with jazz violinist Aaron Weinstein and his trio for an unforgettable concert at Birdland in November 2011, her jazz-idiom singing was so wonderfully natural and organic that, as Weinstein later said to me (I'm paraphrasing): "If you didn't know anything about Christine Ebersole and you came to see this show, you would think singing jazz is what she's famous for."

    Currently, Christine is keeping busy as one of the stars of the TBS sitcom Sullivan & Son. And this coming Saturday, January 19 at 8pm, she'll add another new experience to her resume when she appears at The Town Hall (123 West 43rd Street) as the special guest star of Sing Out, Raise Hope, a concert to be presented by the Association of Yale Alumni and the Yale Whiffenpoofs Alumni Association as a benefit for The Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. In addition to the world-famous Whiffenpoofs, the event will showcase the NYU N'Harmonics and The Young People's Chorus of New York City in a program of a cappella and choral renditions of American jazz classics, contemporary pop hits, and more, with Christine joining in on the fun. I recently chatted with her about this latest endeavor and the fact that, apparently, she can do anything.


    BROADWAYSTARS: You and the Whiffenpoofs -- what a neat combination. How did you hook up with those guys?

    CHRISTINE EBERSOLE: I think they hooked up with me. Of course, I'd heard about them, but I'd never seen them perform live -- and I didn't go to Yale. They just called and asked me to sing with them, which was quite a thrill.

    STARS: What can you tell me about the program for the Town Hall concert?

    CHRISTINE: I'm going to be doing some of my own stuff, and then a couple of things with them: "I Only Have Eyes for You," and the finale is going to be "The Age of Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In."

    STARS: You always have so much going on in your career...

    CHRISTINE: [Laughs] It's true. That's just how my life goes. I feel very blessed, and at the same time, the challenge is to stay balanced.

    STARS: Would you say that you prefer any one medium -- the stage, film, television -- or does it really depend on the project?

    CHRISTINE: It absolutely depends on the project. Live theater and live singing are the most fulfilling, I think, but that doesn't diminish any of the other things. They're just different experiences. I sort of liken doing television to going fishing.

    STARS: In what way?

    CHRISTINE: Well, it's not very taxing. I'm talking about half-hour sitcoms now; you rehearse, then you shoot the show in front of a live audience in real time, and it's over. But hour shows are a different story. You work 16-hour days, and as the week progresses, you end up going home at five in the morning. It's arduous! Live theater is arduous in a different way, particularly if you have a family. And eights shows a week is not for old people.

    STARS: Big-screen-wise, you have two films "in the can," and they both sound exciting. What can you tell me about The Wolf of Wall Street?

    CHRISTINE: That was really fun. It's not a big part, but I did it for the opportunity to work with Rob Reiner and Marty Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio. I play Leo's mother.

    STARS: Is there anything about him that you'd like to share with our readers?

    CHRISTINE: He makes a mother very proud!

    STARS: Good answer. Your other upcoming film is The Big Wedding, with Robert DeNiro and Diane Keaton.

    CHRISTINE: The really amazing thing about that experience was that Justin Zackham, the director and writer, asked me if I wanted to sing in the movie. I said, "Yes, of course." What ended up happening was that I wrote the song myself -- the music and lyrics. And it's in the movie.

    STARS: Have you done much songwriting?

    CHRISTINE: No! I'd never written a song before in my life.

    STARS: How wonderful. What's your acting role in the movie?

    CHRISTINE: Her name is Muffin O'Connor. She's a Greenwich, Connecticut woman who very much wants to be accepted in that society. Everyone makes fun of her because she's had so much plastic surgery. I had my face taped back every day before I went on camera.

    STARS: Oh. I believe Lucille Ball was famous for using that trick in her later years.

    CHRISTINE: Well, it's not a bad idea!

    STARS: On top of everything else, you have a new album coming out: "Strings Attached," with Aaron Weinstein and his trio. Does it pretty much consist of the same material you all did in your show at Birdland?

    CHRISTINE: Yes, plus some other things we didn't do there. Aaron's arrangements are terrific. The CD is hopefully going to be released some time in the spring.

    STARS: Your performance in Grey Gardens was brilliant. Did you get to see the non-musical TV movie that came afterwards, with Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange?

    CHRISTINE: I saw parts of it, and I thought it was very good. [The musical] Grey Gardens was a great experience. You know, before she died, Edie Beale was aware that the musical was going to happen.

    STARS: After the events depicted in the original documentary Grey Gardens, Edie came to New York and actually did a club act. I've heard there's a bootleg audio tape of the act out there somewhere.

    CHRISTINE: Wow. If that's true, somebody could sell it for a lot of money.

    STARS: What else is on your plate at the moment?

    CHRISTINE: Well, I'm going back to L.A. to shoot the second season of Sullivan and Son. There are a few other things floating around in the ether, but they haven't landed yet.

    STARS: When you're shooting in L.A., do you stay there for several months at a time, or do you try to get back east to your family?

    CHRISTINE: I try to come back every couple of weeks, because I have teenagers. It becomes a bigger picture when you have children. I'm very grateful that I have them in my life.

    STARS: Remind me, how many children?

    CHRISTINE: I have three children and one husband. And my mother, who just turned 95, also lives with us in Maplewood [N.J.]

    STARS: I guess that means you're not far from the airport, at least.

    CHRISTINE: It's only 12 minutes away, but you have to get there early for the TSA. I always tell people, don't do the radiation body scanners. They're not healthy. You should take the body assault instead!


    [Tickets for Sing Out, Raise Hope at The Town Hall are priced at $50 - $100.For ticket inquiries, call 1-800-982-2787 or visit www.ticketmaster.com]

    Published on Sunday, January 13, 2013

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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