What Goes ‘Round… // By Mary Beth Peil
A decade after an agonizing decision, a missed opportunity reappears for actor Mary Beth Peil.
They say, “what goes ‘round comes ‘round.”
I was never sure if that sounded like a warning… “You’ll pay for this!” or “Karma is a bitch and will bite you in the butt!” Having just achieved the ripe old age of 81, I hear it as Good News, a promise of connection—one of the many blessings of a life in the theatre.
It has been 40 years since I sang as a leading Operatic Soprano. During those 40 years since leaving that rarified world, I studied acting, untrained my voice, and learned how to audition and handle rejection, following the breadcrumbs of opportunity and good fortune into musical and legit theatre, film, and television. In 2004, when Jack invited me to play Eleanor Roosevelt in Transport Group’s musical revival of Michael John LaChiusa’s First Lady Suite, I was halfway between my former life and where I am now. At that time, Jack had no idea I had met and already worked with Michael John LaChiusa. In fact, I had the thrill of creating the role of Evelyn Kennedy (JFK’s secretary) in the world premiere of Over Texas at Ensemble Studio Theatre (EST) in the spring of 1991. Over Texas was the first chapter of the yet to be completed First Lady Suite.
Working with Michael John was a dream come true. His unique musical vocabulary of “talk/sing/talk” confirmed that I was an actress who can sing as opposed to what I had always been told and believed, a singer who can act. I had never sung music where, within one line, you would be speaking/singing/speaking. I experienced the thrill of speaking directly to someone and suddenly—imperceptibly—be singing a soaring melodic phrase only to return to ending the thought or emotion in direct speech, or vice versa. Within this sleight of hand, the audience forgets they are watching a musical. They too begin to blur the distinction between speech and song along with the performer. It is so freeing to discover yourself singing at just the moment the character needs more than words to express their thoughts and feelings. It was especially freeing for someone like me who had spent so many years striving for the perfect flow of perfect beautiful tones in a perfect uninterrupted line.
Shortly after that performance at EST, I joined a cast of incredible singing actors (Alice Playten, Chuck Cooper, Bill Parry) to do another Michael John premiere at Playwrights Horizons. It was a collection of one-acts with the memorable title of Four Short Operas: Break, Agnes, Eulogy For Mr. Hamm, Lucky Nurse. I can still feel the power of those delightfully flawed characters. The music revealed something in their souls with the simplest gesture. Each act was like a transparent character private moment. I was completely under the spell of the music of Michael John LaChiusa.
By 1993, in addition to Jackie Kennedy in Over Texas, Michael John had completed the other First Ladies (Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower, Eleanor Roosevelt) for First Lady Suite and confided he had written the role of Eleanor for me! There was to be a very prominent premiere of the entire suite during George Wolfe’s first season at The Public Theater, guaranteeing a huge, and well-deserved break for Michael John.
As luck would have it, after years of trying to be seen for non-musical parts, I was asked to understudy all six women’s parts in a wonderful Pete Gurney play, Later Life, at Playwrights Horizons. Both productions were to start rehearsals at the same time. It was a clear fork in the road: Do I do what I love to do, what I know I can do (world premiere of a new musical), or do I take the risk, the leap of faith to be the understudy—who may never go on—in an Off-Broadway play?
What would YOU do?
Looking back, I feel pangs of sympathy for the 53-year-old me. I realize that sounds absurd. But until that moment, that fork in the road, I felt like a middle-aged novice struggling to find my place in this new world. So, I took a deep breath and said, “YES” to Pete Gurney and, “NO” to Michael John.
Michael John was not pleased!
Cut to 2004, eleven years since the successful premiere of First Lady Suite at The Public, when Jack called about Transport Group’s planned First Lady Suite revival. By that time, I had cracked the legit theatre barrier, done several Off-Broadway plays, a few prominent regional productions, and just completed a six-season run as a regular on a popular television show, Dawson’s Creek. In fact, so much had changed during those years that some people didn’t know I could sing. But most importantly, Michael John had forgiven me! We were both experiencing a positive moment of “what goes ‘round comes ‘round.”
Now the question was whether I could still thread that needle of vocal dexterity magic required for the music of Michael John. And there was the factor of working with an unknown director and a new theatre company in a hard to get to Off-Off-Broadway theatre in the East Village. But I saw immediately that Jack understood the secret of Michael John’s particular voice. As a new struggling company with less than no budget, simplicity was required. “Less is more” was Jack’s mantra. It was a no-frills approach driven solely by the actors’ interpretation of what Michael John had written. Somehow money was found for our historic costumes including separate individualized white dresses for each actress (9) for the show’s thrilling finale (designed by Kathryn Rohe) and enough paint for the large Presidential Seal brought to life on the floor of the stage (designed by the late John Story). With the wizardry of R. Lee Kennedy’s lighting and brilliance of Mary-Mitchell Campbell’s musical direction, Jack convinced Mary Testa (Lorena Hickok), Julia Murney (Amelia Earhart), me, and the audience that three chairs were all we needed to provide the illusion of being inside the cockpit of a small private plane in flight. I can still hear Mary’s very unique personal way of saying/singing “Eleanor.” With just that one word, you understood the torture and bliss of Lorena Hickock’s love for the First Lady. The power of all of us encircling the Presidential Seal—that recognizable icon of American Exceptionalism—raising our voices in hope for our country’s future, is a goosebump memory.
Reflecting on our country’s future, it occurs to me that in these uncertain days of fractured politics, Covid fears, insider governmental leaks, conspiracy social media, climate crisis, the Afghan tragedy, and so much more—First Lady Suite may seem naive. Is there any value in looking back at a more innocent, hopeful time? What would a revival of First Lady Suite be like during these current, troubled times? As I mull over this question, I wonder if Michael John has ever thought of doing another First Lady sequel. Imagine what his unique voice of whimsy and gravitas could reveal with Hilary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Melania Trump, and Jill Biden! It could be an interesting way to learn and teach modern 20th/21st century United States history seen through the eyes of four such different First Ladies.
And yet, I see the value—the need—to reconnect with more innocent happier simpler times, especially in these days of uncertainty with so many “alternative facts.” Call it nostalgia, perhaps a longing for simpler problems with simpler answers. Or call it a silent fervent hope for reuniting our fractured Democracy, a prayer for economic, health and environmental recovery, for social justice, for an Afghanistan that can embrace and encompass the gains made by women and girls—a reminder of what we can accomplish when we come together for the greater good. I have to believe that our better angels will prevail and that in time we will be able to gather to create, to perform, and attend the theater again, proving that “what goes ‘round comes ‘round” can surely be…Good News.
About the author:
Mary Beth Peil is an Obie Award-winning and Tony Award nominated actress who has made careers on stage and screen alike. Winning the Metropolitan Opera National Opera Council Auditions launched her two-decade trajectory as an opera and concert soprano, during which time she originated the role of Alma in Lee Hoiby’s Summer and Smoke at Minnesota Opera. Reflecting on her experience playing the title role in a production of Kiss Me, Kate, also at Minnesota Opera, Peil realized “I was a singing actor, not an acting singer.” So began a second successful career on Broadway, where Peil portrayed Anna Leonowens opposite Yul Brynner in the national tour of The King and I (her first Tony nomination), played the role of Desiree in A Little Night Music with the Opera Ensemble of New York, and appeared in productions of Follies, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and Sunday in the Park With George. In 1995, she won an Obie Award for her work in three Off-Broadway plays: The Naked Truth (WPA Theater), A Cheever Evening (Playwrights Horizons), and Missing Persons (Atlantic Theater Company). She also appeared in First Lady Suite (Transport Group) as Eleanor Roosevelt, in The Threepenny Opera (Atlantic Theater Company) as Mrs. Peachum, and The Visit, Nine, and Les Liaisons Dangereuses on Broadway. She received her second Tony nomination for her most recent appearance as The Dowager Empress in Anastasia. Peil also has forged a career as a film and television actress, where she is known for her roles in Dawson’s Creek, The Good Wife, and Law & Order: SVU, among others. Most recently she was seen as King Duncan in Macbeth at Classic Stage Company, and Martha Graham in Halston on Netflix.