Innuendo & Outuendo recently had the chance to chat via phone with the lovely Renee Lawless-Orsini, Midwife and understudy for Madame Morrible on the 1st National Tour of WICKED. Check out her wonderful interview with us below!
We started by asking Renee about how her start in performing/musical theatre came about – on this subject, she said, “I went from the birthday table to the church pew…. I didn’t pass go.” She speaks of singing in her church choirs as a child, where she says, “I was always the loudest… this didn’t necessarily mean I was going to go into music, ironically, and I liked doing little shows for my parents.” She explains that when she was growing up, the only opportunity to watch musicals was on televisions on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, so she always performed in school musicals and plays.
From around 6th grade on, she began many activities musically as her talent became more clear, from voice lessons to orchestras – and it became clear, in her words, that this was “the natural highway I was to go down – and I just so happened to like it as well.” Renee has loved all facets of performing from the beginning, from musical theatre to television to opera, which she began to study due to her classical style voice. That said – she still participated constantly in theatre – performing in nineteen productions in four years of college, between musical theatre and opera – and right after graduate school, she realized she was not going to be an opera singer.
From there, we went on to discussing her first “professional” job – which, by our definition for this interview, was her first “non-community theatre/educational job” – which was at the Showboat Majestic in Cincinnati, Ohio – kind of like a summer stock production, but paid. Soon after, she did a production of “Closer than Ever” – where she says, “I went and auditioned for what I thought would be like the soprano part, and at eleven that night, I got a phone call saying I got the part and it was “Woman 2” – and I said “oh, okay – great!” – then I called back and said, “Wait, excuse me – did I hear you correctly? Just to be clear? Isn’t Woman 2 the belty, alto-y person?” – to which they said yes – and I said “oh, okay, just checking!” – and Renee describes this as the show that taught her to belt and changed her life.
Next, the conversation moved towards “Beauty and the Beast” – her first ever Broadway gig, in which she played the Eggtimer (“I had an hourglass figure eight shows a week!”, as she told people) while also covering and performing as Mrs. Potts and Madame de la Grande Bouche. Renee actually moved to NYC later in life – not straight out of college, as many do. Prior to NYC, she did beauty pageants and other things, but she moved to NYC in her early thirties, and a mere two months after the move, she landed a job at Westchester Broadway Theatre, and worked nonstop afterwards regionally (such as at Papermill Theatre) for quite a while. “Beauty and the Beast” actually happened in 1999, about five years after her move to The Big Apple, and this was her first production contract.
Renee speaks of learning to understudy from the experience at “Beauty and the Beast”, stating that “As a professional, I consider myself always prepared – but in understudying, I had to be prepared for anything.” Her first time to go on in “Beauty and the Beast”, she had a half hour notice – and the next night, she had to go on mid-show, after being in the show for maybe five months and not going on. The first time she describes as, “Hit your mark, get your lines.” – but the second time, she had literally less than three minutes to get into costume. In this situation, she says, “You have to go with what you know – it is when your education kicks in and you have to put everything else out of your mind and you HAVE to know your lines – sooner rather than later. So basically, [understudying] taught me to be ready for any situation, any circumstance, even moreso than as a principal. Also, you will be hit with a whole different set of circumstances than with a principal – they’re used to working with these people all the time, but you’ve never been onstage with these people before – you’ve been with the other understudies. You have to adapt and follow and listen, more so than anything else.”
Our next question for Renee was in regards to touring versus sit-downs – what the disadvantages and advantages are of each. She immediately pinpoints the biggest difference (from when she transitioned directly from the National Tour of “Beauty and the Beast” to the Broadway company) as that on tour, you are “usually playing larger houses – Broadway theatres are smaller by design, except like the Gershwin and the Marriott. My Broadway debut was almost anti-climactic because I went “oh. This is it? Smaller audience? Oh, okay.” She explains, however, that keeping it fresh on tour is easier, because every four to six weeks, there is a new opening night, “in a new theatre and dressing room, with a new dresser, and a new set of variables – so every opening week is always fresh because even though the stage is exactly the same, everything else – the front of the house, the back of the house, everything is completely different.” She also explains, however, that keeping it fresh also comes from training. She also speaks on the fact that touring is fun for the sake of seeing the country and meeting new people, but in a sit down, you get to go home every night. She says that on Broadway – and not in a negative way – you just go to work and do your job – “clock in, clock out, do your job, and go home” – while on tour, you “clock in, clock out, do your job, but are still always kind of in your job because you are around the same people 24/7.” No matter what you do, you are surrounded by people you work with – no matter what you want to do or who you want to hang out with. She uses a simile of being in college – living with the same people for four years, twenty-four hours a day, and just occasionally changing dorms.
Next we spoke about another unique aspect of touring – the constant changing of the orchestra from city-to-city. Renee saw this happen also with “Beauty and the Beast” – traveling with three keyboards, plus the conductor, drummer, and bass/electric guitarist – picking up the rest from city-to-city – and she explains the one reason for this – each city has a different set of rules with the local musicians’ union. “Wicked” is allowed to bring in a certain number of people, but is also required to bring in per capita a certain number of musicians per city. She also explains that in a few cities, two of which are Chicago and Los Angeles, the drummer, bass/electric guitarist and one keyboardist also have to go – and in some cities, such as Los Angeles, the strings are live instead of being synthesized.
Our next topic was on Renee’s audition process for “Wicked” and how she got the job. She explains that before her audition, she had performed in several different sit-down productions of another show, going home and back and forth constantly. She then explains that she attended an open call of “Wicked”, where the casting director was shocked that she had never been seen for “Wicked”. Renee’s agent then got her an appointment for the 1st National Tour, where she sang, had a callback to read for Madame Morrible, another callback to dance (“Which is a joke, because my track doesn’t dance at all,” she says, “They told me later they only do it to drive us crazy.” Ha ha ) In her final callback, she knew the other two girls, and she knew that they were on equal footing, and knew that if she lost to either one, it was not an issue of talent, but just that it was not her time. Unfortunately, she did not get the job this time, though her agent was called by the casting director and informed that it was nothing of Renee’s doing – it was merely that it was not going to happen this time. Funnily enough, one year to the day later, she was called and asked to go on the road with “Wicked”. “I didn’t even have to come back and audition,” she explains, “All I had to do was say YES, I’m available. Of course, they didn’t offer it to me for three weeks… they just called and asked if I was available, and it was over the Christmas holidays, so I thought I was going to go crazy. I was available before Christmas and I had to spend those three weeks going “Okay… What’s going on?… Do I have a job?” On January 2nd, she was offered the job with twenty days’ notice to join the tour.
On January 22nd, she joined the cast and began rehearsals. She laughs and says, “They tell you that you have two weeks…that’s a total lie [laughs]. You do have two weeks before you go in, but basically, you have three days to learn the show – they don’t tell you that, but you do. Basically, you come in one day and do the music, and you kind of think they know it, then they teach you the blocking and after the third day, you start doing run-throughs – so you get three days to learn it, then you start doing run-throughs, and they’re spaced out depending on their schedule, and then the following week mid-week, you’re doing the understudy rehearsal and the put-in – and you’re learning this all by yourself.” She explains, however, that because she was used to this intense process for the ensemble, she knew what to expect when being rehearsed for Madame Morrible – because the process was nearly exactly the same – and by day three, you are expected to be off book. Renee has had several opportunities to go on as Madame Morrible, though it is sometimes a tad sporadic depending on the lady leading as Madame Morrible.
Renee describes her take on Madame Morrible as a “mean Morrible – not by choice, just because that is how it evolved.” She explains that Kim Zimmer, the new Madame Morrible on the 1st National Tour, saw her do the 2nd act one day, and at dinner a few days later, she said, “You’re a pit bull! [laughs].”
Next, the topic moved on to bloopers – Renee laughs and says, “I have a small, medium, and large one for you, okay? So the small – and I’m not the only one this happened to – sometimes, at the top of act two, I would forget my Emerald City glasses, and I would be like, “Why is everyone so clear out here? How come I can see everybody so well?” and I would realize that everyone was looking at me because I didn’t have my glasses on – including the conductor – and that would be hysterical.”
“The medium is – I went up on a line as Madame Morrible at the top of act two – and it seemed like every time I went on with…I think it was Bud Weber [as Fiyero], there was one line I could never remember to say, and I would always skip it. But the big, big blooper that nobody would notice except everybody onstage – this is the biggest, funniest story… and the audience would never know. So I’m playing me – just my normal girl with a fan track, and you know there’s a minute in the show where we all say “Congratulotions!”. Well we had a big company meeting and our stage manager said, “Okay guys, we’re not together on this, we need it to be where Madame Morrible says, “…being engaged.” and we say, “Congratulotions!” with no beat between “engaged” and “congratulations” – and I was the one asking the questions in the meeting and backstage before that, I’m saying this over and over to myself. Well, we get to the show that night, and the stage manager with whom we had the meeting is right behind me because I’m on stage left, and we get to the part where Madame Morrible says, “…our new captain of the guard!” – so this is a whole phrase before the engagement – and I stepped forward and said, “Congratulotions!” [hysterical laughter from both Renee and myself]. The whole stage busted into laughter, and the whole stage is shaking, and I can hear my stage manager behind me offstage has fallen off the chair, and then Morrible says, “…being engaged!” and by that point you can see the whole stage shaking and laughing because I have completely jumped the gun and said it two phrases too soon.”
As we drew to a close, Renee and I spoke about dream roles – Rosie in “Mamma Mia!” is one she’s been in for several times – she also is interested in at some point playing Mama in “Memphis” – though the show has currently closed on Broadway – and Emma Goldman in “Ragtime” – specifying that these are the roles she would like to play in musicals. Down the road, she would like to perform as Florence Foster Jenkins in the play “Souvenir”. She also mentions that she is specifically referring mostly to shows that are currently running – though she would also love to play the Mother Superior in “The Sound of Music”. Renee also has a strong attraction to straight theatre – “something like “Doubt” would be great,” she says, “or “The Women”, or “Little Women. I’d very much like to do some straight theatre. Of course, any time there’s an older woman in the classics – I’d love to play Miss Hannigan one day. I don’t even care if it’s at a regional theatre in Timbuktu – it doesn’t have to be Broadway.”
Speaking of regional theatre, we asked Renee what was more challenging – developing a role in a regional production or keeping it fresh in a production contract? She explains that it is “easy and more difficult on a regional level.” You have less rehearsal time, but in a regional production, “you have a lot more freedom to create. Now, that being said, if I had walked into “Wicked” as a principal Madame Morrible, they would have given me freedom of creativity, don’t get me wrong, but they’re also keeping it within confines – it is a successful production and they do not want you going too far out of that box, especially as an understudy. I am expected to fit in to what is already established – same thing with “Beauty and the Beast” – they liked what you could bring into the play, but you still had to stay within the confines of what they had already envisioned. On a regional level, you have a little bit more freedom to experiment, and there’s not as much at stake. My favorite role that I ever did has always been Patsy Cline – and for a dream role, one day I’ll be too old to play that role – I actually already am, but I could still do it now, but I would love to be the role of Louise – it is one of the most amazing acting parts in musical theatre. She basically gets one continuous monologue, and she IS the show. But even doing Patsy Cline, they gave me a lot of freedom, and even though most of the acting was done within song, it was a very freeing experience – and even in the ensemble of regional shows, I’ve felt more freedom. On Broadway, whoever started it is whoever you have to come in and fill.” Referring to “Wicked”, she says, “I hesitate to use the words, “it’s a machine”, but it’s a well oiled machine. It has stood the test of time. They have worked out the kinks and they know what works. Hence the huge success. At a regional level, it’s just not that specific. They’ll say cross-center-cross to three, but you’re not as confined as you could be.”
When we asked Renee what her favorite cities were on tour, the answer came without hesitation – “Chicago and San Diego without a doubt. I had never been to Chicago and it had all of the excitement and fun and exuberance of New York, but it was much cleaner, and I loved that there was so much theatre, and we were downtown, and we could do anything downtown. I could go to the best Macy’s in the nation, if you ask me, and I could have a full shopping day between shows – and I had great restaurants at my fingertips; transportation was wonderful, the city itself is wonderful, there were so many sights to see downtown – it was very reminiscent of New York, but not New York, and the people were very nice – surprisingly enough, they had a very southern hospitality about them. The people there were wonderful, and I really enjoyed myself. I didn’t mind the cold; we were there at Christmas and it didn’t bother me at all. San Diego, you can’t beat the weather, no matter when you’re there. It’s a dream, San Diego. This time was not as enjoyable as the first time – the homelessness has gotten kind of out of hand, similar to San Francisco, and we were there during Comic Con, but it’s still just a beautiful city, and you can go to the beach and to Coronado. Those are just my two favorite. And you know what, followed third by Louisville, Kentucky. It is a great city, with a great great great theatre.”
In conclusion, we asked Renee for advice to give to aspiring performers. She says, “I am a big proponent of school. I think education is key and I’m going to give you a part two – why I think college or higher education is important. Aside from the fact that it looks very good on your resume, and casting directors do look at it – College gives you a place to fail. You can fall on your face, go up on a line, do something wrong, have the worst show of your life, all these things and you’re not going to have that reputation follow you for the rest of your life. Stumble and fall and learn from your mistakes in your early years before you get out on the professional scene. College also helps you grow socially and emotionally to help you when you step out on your own. That being said, whether you do college or a tech school, there will NEVER be any substitution for “doing.” So even if you go to college, try and get involved in every aspect of the theatre, not just performing. Learn your lights, learn your sound, learn costuming, learn shop. Take a directing class – and definitely take a Shakespeare class. If you never do Shakespeare ever again, take a Shakespeare class, and if you’re not in school – summer time, anytime you can, community theatre, whatever – get involved in your local theatre, because nothing will take the place of doing – and I’m not going to say “practice, practice, practice”, because that’s a given.”