5Q: Judy McLane

All Photos by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade
All Photos by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

“5Q” is an online-only column featuring five questions about stage productions in the Metro Area. Periodically, “5Q” will take the form of an interview with actors, directors, writers, etc. to shed some light on the production process.

Anyone familiar with Stephen Sondheim’s Company might notice a few differences in the production directed by three-time Tony Award winner Marianne Elliott that is set to take the stage at the Orpheum Theater next week. Sondheim and Elliott collaborated to bring Company into the 21st century, including some character gender swaps that bring additional nuances to the musical’s relationships.

The iconic role of Joanne will be played by Judy McLane, who is a Drama Desk Award nominee and Outer Critics Circle Award winner. Joanne is often described as a bit of a spitfire, if not sarcastic and rude. For example: having been married three times, her character’s climactic moment comes after she’s just discussed the collapse of her first marriage, screamed at a waiter, attracted the attention of everyone in the room and then told them to stop staring. And for Judy, playing this role is “pure joy.”

For casual theatergoers who might not be familiar with the idea of a “concept musical lacking a linear plot,” how do you describe a show like Company to them?

Company explores relationships and marriage through the eyes of the main character, Bobbie. She is facing some of life’s big questions. The characters/friends she interacts with in a series of vignettes reveal the colorful, varied, and often funny complexities of being in a relationship. 

Following Sondheim’s passing, a lot of his work has gained some extra attention. What does joining the cast of Company after his passing or in this season of your life mean to you?

I’ve had the great honor and privilege of working with Stephen Sondheim. I played the Baker’s Wife on the national tour of Into the Woods. Just a few weeks before he died, I sang “The Last Midnight” in a symphony concert honoring his longtime friend and collaborator, Jonathan Tunick. He surprised us all by being in the audience. It may have been the last time he heard that song and I am forever grateful. Mr. Sondheim was always lovely and effusive with his words. I feel lucky to have lived in the time of the genius that was Stephen Sondheim. Being in the first tour of Company, playing Joanne, one of musical theater’s iconic characters, and singing his music is pure joy. For some of the audience it may be their first time seeing Company; it’s a privilege to be part of their experience. 

How do you approach a role that has been played by the likes of Patti LuPone and Elaine Stritch? What is that balance of honoring those women and their work, while also making it your own?

In discovering any role, I first come from myself and how I relate, or don’t relate to the character. Next, of course, is analyzing the text and music. Joanne is no different. I’m thrilled to step into a role that amazing women have played before me. And I’m honored to be a part of that legacy. I believe letting go of expectations and finding the character from my authentic self while remaining true to the material is the best way to honor the writers. 

Tell me about how you explore the nuances of who Joanne is as a character in this revival, particularly with the swap from Bobby to Bobbie. For example, in the original, Joanne propositions Bobby; in this version, Joanne makes a different suggestion.

I see the complex character of Joanne as both fun and dangerous. She’ll throw the first verbal dagger to take power or control in a given situation. Often, when she feels most vulnerable. As a woman of a certain age and facing all the complexities that brings, the younger, beautiful, educated female Bobbie, though a friend, can be perceived as a threat to Joanne. I think the change of Bobbie to a female character helps define what Joanne’s flaws are on a deeper level as she compares herself to Bobbie. 

What is the highlight of portraying Joanne for you? What’s your favorite moment of the show?

Sondheim creates such rich, full, and flawed characters. His material allows continued exploration. In a long run, that is a gift. There is so much to unpack with the character of Joanne. Singing  “Ladies Who Lunch” is an actor’s dream. Each show can be full of discoveries. And when you add the energy of the audience, I couldn’t ask for anything better. 

Company runs at the Orpheum Theatre from November 14-19. For more information and to purchase tickets, head to www.hennepintheatretrust.org.

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