McGowan does triple duty in A Little Night Music, not only crooning, waltzing, and providing choruses for Broadway vet Angela Lansbury and Oscar-winner Catherine Zeta Jones, but as an understudy.
She is on tap to “Send in the Clowns” in the titular role of Anne, and can belt out “The Miller’s Son” as Petra at a moment’s notice.
McGowan recently took a moment to chat with TheImproper about her return to Broadway, the challenges that she faces in such a competitive career, and what it’s like to work with such famous co-stars.
TheImproper: What have you been doing since Broadway last saw you in the 2006 revival of Les Miserables?
McGowan: I’ve been working regionally, but I’ve done a bunch of different shows across the country. I went to Oklahoma City and I did The Sound of Music, and then I went to Rochester and did Sweeney Todd there. And then this audition came along, and I didn’t know what my plans were for this fall. I was in Connecticut doing Camelot, and I got this appointment for A Little Night Music. I went in at the last minute, and the next thing I know I’m going back for a callback for [director] Trevor Nunn. Only a few days later I found out I had it! It was a really quick, amazing process for me, which is not usually the case. Even with this show, a lot of people waited for a long time to find out. I was really lucky. I just went in once, went in twice, done, “Here you go,” “We want you in it!”
IM: That’s truly a testament to how talented you are. What did Trevor and his creative staff have you do at the audition?
McGowan: They were seeing me for Mrs. Andersson, which is my part. They originally just had me learn the ‘lahs’ from the opening of the show, and another little section from the second act when the quintet sings. So I sang that, I sang my own thing, and then I sang again for my first audition for the music supervisor. Later I found out they wanted me to come back and to bring all the Anne stuff because they were looking at me to understudy Anne. I worked out all my Anne stuff, and this time it was for Trevor. I sang all the quintet stuff, I did a monologue for him, I did all the Anne songs, I did all the Anne scenes, and they had me stand at the piano with the music director and sing some of “Weekend at the Country,” which was really cool.
It was such an amazing audition, Trevor was just so kind, and I felt great about myself. Sometimes you walk into an audition and you feel like, ‘Oh I’m wasting my time, they don’t really want to hear what I have to do,’ but Trevor was so welcoming and so amazing, so it was really very fun actually. As I walked out of the room and I was on my way to the bathroom to get changed, the casting director followed me out and said, “Do you know ‘The Miller’s Son?’ Can you come in and sight-sing it?” So I sat at the piano with the music and I sang “The Miller’s Son.” I knew the show, I actually did it when I was 16, I played Anne on Long Island at a community theatre, but I had never sung “The Miller’s Son.” So I thought, ‘Oh, I know this song, this is a hard song, let’s give it a shot.’ It was a Thursday or Friday, and then I got the call Monday afternoon that I got the job! It was pretty incredible. They said, “You have this part and we want you to cover both these girls.” I thought, “Oh my gosh!”
IM: That’s a great story. It must have been so exciting!
McGowan: It was so exciting, it was surreal. I thought, ‘I can’t believe this is actually happening!’ It was pretty cool.
IM: As far as musicals go, A Little Night Music is not as well-known as many other Broadway classics. It’s great that you already knew the show.
McGowan: It really is like a play with music. It’s a different kind of musical; it’s not like Into the Woods where each song sort of holds its own. These songs are really telling the story. As for “Send in the Clowns” and “The Miller’s Son,” I know a lot of girls will sing them in college musical theater classes. Besides those two, I don’t think the songs are really taken out of the show and performed. It has been a while since I’ve done it, but I still remembered all the music and I still knew the basic story, so that was great. I was lucky, because I know a couple of the people in the cast didn’t know the show at all. It happened really quickly for them, and the music seemed complicated at first.
IM: When you were told you had the part, you didn’t know who else would be starring in the production. Knowing in advance would probably have made the audition more nerve-wracking!McGowan: I had heard rumblings pretty early on that Angela [Lansbury] was going to do it, but she had to confirm. I didn’t hear about Catherine [Zeta Jones] until it was printed in The New York Post. You have to take it with a grain of salt, but I was really excited because I love Catherine. I think she’s gorgeous, and I loved her in Chicago. I was pretty excited about Angela too, because I grew up watching “Murder She Wrote.” Obviously she’s a theater legend; I just think she’s amazing.
IM: Your dance numbers in Les Miserables were raunchier and modern, definitely much different from the numbers in A Little Night Music. The moves are so pretty and classical. Did you have to go through any special training to perfect your waltzing and other steps?
McGowan: We worked with the associate choreographer for a while just getting the steps, but I have dance training from college. But when you’re waltzing, basic training helps you. I don’t think any of us could ever be professional waltzers, and I imagine if a waltzer came to the show they’d probably be cringing! (laughs) We worked on just waltzing in general before we learned the actual choreography, and we worked with different partners before the choreography was finally set for us. We spent a couple of weeks on it. But it was very quick, our rehearsal process is brief, so we didn’t have all that much time. We’re just lucky that we can fake it well!
IM: What challenges do you face when doing New York theater that you don’t face in other parts of the country?
McGowan: Just being home and in New York is amazing. You get to be in your apartment and with your things and with your friends and whatnot. But you’re here, it’s not like you’re just doing your show and that’s all you have to focus on. You have commitments to other things and friends to see, so I think it can get a little overwhelming. But I love it, I’m so glad to be back in New York, it’s really such a blessing to be home for a little while.
IM: You have the incredible challenge of being the understudy for two roles, in addition to having the responsibility of performing Mrs. Anderssen. Is it difficult to remember the blocking and the lines for all three parts?
McGowan: Yes, I have things written down so I can always go back and refresh my mind and jog my memory. But keep in mind that in Les Mis I understudied ten girls. So, compared to Les Mis, A Little Night Music is easy breezy! (laughs) I think because I have understudied before, I kind of know how to compartmentalize everything in my brain to keep it all straight.
The part that gets confusing is the waltz in the beginning. Everybody’s waltz is just a little bit different! But when you get thrown on as an understudy, you have people to help you. I actually got thrown on for Petra early on in previews before I had any rehearsal! It was crazy and exciting, but we have such a nice company that all of the stage managers are there to support you, the dance captain is there, people are there wanting to help you and make it easier for you. Even if you mess up a little bit you know that the cast is excited for you and proud of you. We also have rehearsals. Today we’re doing a run through, and I’m playing Anne in it. So I can just focus on that, which is good. Next week we’ll have a run through and I’ll get to play Petra, so I’ll get to focus on that.
IM: Have you gone on as Anne yet?
McGowan: No, I only went on as Petra. About a week and a half into previews the girl who plays Petra was sick, and they threw me on! It was crazy and unbelievable! The best part of the entire experience was that I was nervous that I wasn’t really prepared, I had done my work watching and seeing what the regular cast did, but it’s completely different to get to do it. That afternoon when I knew I was on, they did a little reminder session, because it’s all about the backstage stuff that you’ve never done before. It’s that stuff that’s more nerve-wracking than singing the songs! I was the first understudy to go on, so everybody was like, “Oh my gosh!” Luckily I fit into the costume! I was sitting up in my dressing room, and I got a knock on the door, and it was Angela’s dresser. She gave me flowers with a note from Angela saying something like, “Dear Marissa, We’re all with you, you’re going to be great. Love, Angela.” It was the sweetest thing, it was so generous of her. She’s just a classy, classy woman, and I just adore her.
IM: Besides Ms. Lansbury’s classiness, have you picked up any advice or characteristics through working with Angela and Catherine?
McGowan: I have to say both of the ladies are just positive and kind and fun to work with. It’s amazing, because there’s no diva attitude at all. I guess I look at them and I think, ‘If I could ever be as successful as either one of them, I would just want to be as gracious and as kind, and as giving as the two of them.’ We have an Academy Award winner, a numerous Tony Award winner, and they’re such incredible women. You sit down with them, you chat with them, and they’re just fun to be around. There’s no pretension, so I think it’s just about keeping yourself grounded and continuing to try to be a good person, and not let your success get to your head.
IM: How are your Long Island roots reflected in your performance?
McGowan: I would say one of the best things about being from Long Island is that everybody is so close, so I have people coming to the show all the time to see me. My parents’ friends, and people I went to high school with, I am constantly getting messages or notes saying, “I’m coming to the show tonight!” Some people I haven’t seen in ten years, it’s exciting, so it’s nice to be doing what I love to do and being able to share it with people who were there along the way and saw me trying when I was a teenager. Now here I am, and everyone can see!
IM: What is your dream role?
McGowan: Oh gosh, I think right now I would really love to play Clara in The Light in the Piazza. That seems to be the score I keep coming back to in the shower. I do love that show.
IM: What do you do in your little down time? I know you don’t have much of it!
McGowan: I usually go to dinner with friends. Sunday nights I will usually plan to have dinner in the city with a friend, have a glass of wine, and just laugh and enjoy myself. I’ll go see movies. I don’t really get to see a lot of theatre while I’m doing theatre, because it’s not really what I want to do while I’m involved with the theatre! (laughs) I’m pretty low-key these days in my life. I talk to my boyfriend on the phone, see friends, have dinner and conversation, and that’s pretty much all I want.
IM: I would imagine A Little Night Music has drawn some big names to its audience. Who have you been most excited to see taking in the show?
McGowan: We’ve had an exciting amount of celebrities, but to be honest, the person I was most excited about is probably so ridiculous! I mean, we’ve had some major Hollywood celebrities, incredible actors, but I was so excited because I am a huge fan of “So You think You Can Dance,” and Jacob, who came in second this year, who was an incredible dancer, sat in the front row. I was taking my bow and I was looking at him, and I was like, ‘How do I know him? How do I know him?’ It took me a couple of minutes to realize who he was, and I was more thrilled about him than any other celebrity! I saw my friend and I was like, “You’re not going to believe who was at the show!” and she said in a bored tone, “Who, another celebrity?” I was like, “Jacob from So You Think You Can Dance!” She was freaking out with me, we were so excited! Everybody in the show who watched So You Think You Can Dance was like, “Oh my God, Jacob!” I was laughing and thinking, ‘If he only knew we were all running upstairs after our Broadway show freaking out that he was in our audience!’
IM: Aside from your secret infatuation with Jacob, tell me something that no one else would know about you.
McGowan: That’s a hard one. Some people know this, but I have a double-jointed arm. Actually, even Trevor Nunn knows that, because I have it on my resume as one of my special skills. At my audition he said with his great accent, “What is this double-jointed arm?” (laughs). I said, “Oh, you want to see it?” So I showed him my double-jointed arm at my audition! It’s kind of gross, it grosses people out.
IM: What is your biggest pet peeve?
McGowan: People not letting you off the subway before they start coming on! I get very, violently angry when people do that. But I know that’s a pet peeve of a lot of New Yorkers.
IM: Where would you like to see yourself in ten years?
McGowan: I would love to be settled in my personal life, and have a career in which I can play roles, and then take a little time to live my life. I guess I would like to not be a slave to the business at that point. I would like to be able to pick and choose things a little bit if possible, and be able to work, but not constantly auditioning and constantly taking every show. Hopefully at that point I’ll be able to do things when the timing is right.