BY DAVID NOH | Versatile Veanne Cox personifies the kind of New York actress who is always working, on or Off-Broadway, and never disappoints. She's playing Sister in the Encores! presentation of “Damn Yankees” (through July 27; 212-581-1212 ) and told me, “Sister is a family friend – I come on and say something funny and leave and that happens about four times during the show so all I have to do is have fun. I do a reprise of a song with some children where you get to hear my own voice, which bounces off the back walls with very little subtlety there. I think I was meant to live in another era where you couldn't be on Broadway if you didn't have one of those big old voices which needed no amplification.”
Vivacious Veanne, impassioned Ebersole.
The show reunites her with former co-workers Jane Krakowski and John Rando and costume designer William Ivey Long: “He remembers when I was young enough to wear a leotard and prance around onstage. In 'Smile' (1986) he put me in my first and only $10,000 dress – because I was the winner of a beauty pageant – like Glinda in 'The Wizard of Oz.' Now he's going to put me in polka dots or pedal pushers – '50s – but it's always fun with him. We both have a Southern sensibility – he's from Georgia and I'm from Virginia – and we just go on and on about the way things are done down there.”
As for Sean Hayes who plays the Devil: “Just wait. I'll just say that he takes the 11 o'clock number and hits it to four in the morning, right out of the ballpark. And Cheyenne Jackson [who plays Joe Hardy] is wonderful. We were at a dinner party and I told him I was coming in to audition and he was like, 'Oh, you're going to get it. I'll see you on Monday.' So I don't know whether he put in a good word for me. Our first day of rehearsal, a woman from Equity said, “I'd like for everyone to introduce themselves and tell me one thing that surprised them about the Tony Awards last night.' I said, 'My name is Veanne Cox and I'm playing Sister and the thing that surprised me about the Tonys last night was Cheyenne's thighs.' And then, of course, seven people reiterated that. I'm going to see him this Friday in 'Xanadu,' with Sean and Megan Lawrence. It's Gay Pride and Megan and I are going to be Sean's bodyguards because he will be mobbed, I'm sure – so exciting.”
Cox works all the time because “I never say no. I do what people ask me to do, which is a lot of Off-Broadway and roles that other people just don't want and after they offer them to several people, they end up with me. But I feel blessed because after this, I'm going to DC to play Millamant in 'The Way of the World,' one of the most glorious Restoration comedy roles, and Olivia in 'Twelfth Night.' I sort of have to go out of town to play more of the leading lady roles – like Amanda in 'Private Lives ' at the Guthrie [in Minneapolis]. And I won an Obie this spring.”
Cox's first big break story is a real object lesson: “I got my Equity card from 'Smile' because I was young and courageous. I read in Backstage about this role of Sandra – red-haired, all-American – and thought, 'Oh, I was made for that, that's my role!' I was non-union so I went to the call auditions all week and waited all day long. On the fifth day the casting director came in and was taking pictures and rÃƒ©sumÃƒ©s from the non-union people and when he walked out of the room, I snuck in behind him and closed the door. [Composer] Howard Ashman and all the auditioners were there, putting on their coats, about to leave, and I yelled, 'Stop! I've been here for five days and I'll sing 16 bars or even one note. You gotta see me!' They all looked at each other, took off their coats, and sat down. I sang 16 bars and got the role.”
In response to a query about her personal life, Cox laughed, “You know, that's elusive. I've been lucky because I've had a lot of good sex, because I haven't been married. I can't believe I just said that. I've had some long-term relationships – people would laugh at five years – but in New York, that's long, certainly as long as good sex lasts! I've been lucky with love, but you also wonder what you miss by not having a long-term mate. But the leading woman needs to get laid, and wants to stay sane, please. How do you stay sane in this life? I've pretty much allowed my life to be theater and that's why I work a lot and don't have kids or pets. I do garden, in my community garden, and have a green thumb, which is wonderful therapy. This is going to be my very last interview!”
Equally candid, in her own way, was Christine Ebersole, who has a new CD out, “Sunday in New York” (Ghostlight Records), which she recorded with Billy Stritch, a jazzy compendium – perfect for urbane leisure-listening with good, preferably romantic, company. The title song is a gem, as is “Walking in New York,” and “Errand Girl for Rhythm,” which displays Ebersole's sizeable swinging chops.
To look into the crystalline blue eyes of this true modern diva was a rare joy, as she expounded passionately, and with rare intelligence, on a myriad of themes: “I guess the jazz on this record is my favorite thing to sing. It's what I always gravitate to. Billy and I are very compatible and these are numbers we do together. My range? I don't know. I think it's like three and a half octaves.”
To me, Ebersole pioneered the modern-day Broadway leading lady-versatile sound, which blends conservatory soprano high notes with forceful belting: “I was doing Ado Annie in 'Oklahoma' in 1979, a character voice, and the next week I was doing Guinevere with Richard Burton in 'Camelot.' The New York Times did an article about that, but it's really more about the music and singing in the correct style.
“In 'Grey Gardens,' the songs 'Winter in a Summer Town' and 'Around the World' weren't in the first workshop and Scott Frankel used my voice as a template, but I don't know if I was paving the way or if it was just the way the styles of music were evolving.
“On my first CD I used a tape my father sent from 1956 when I was three years old of the family around the piano, and my mother saying, 'Let Christy sing the chorus,' and at three I sang 'Jingle Bells,' absolutely on pitch, so I guess it was a gift from God. I always try to connect my voice with my heart, to be able to reach people through song – it's not just about making pretty sounds. It's weird, but I totally feel that I sing better than ever. I don't know what it is – maybe because I'm not boozing or popping pills. If you take care of the voice, it's the last thing to go. Listen to Tony Bennett or Barbara Cook – my God!”
Contact David Noh at [email protected].