As she strides onto the stage of the Asolo Repertory Theatre, Mary Testa is well aware that two fellow performers in “Love, Loss and What I Wore” will instantly get stronger reactions from the audience.
Audiences quickly recognize Emmy Award-winner Loretta Swit (from her years as Maj. Margaret Houlihan on “M*A*S*H”) and Tony Award-winner Donna McKechnie from her role as Cassie in the original cast of “A Chorus Line.”
But Testa, a confident performer and New York stage stalwart for more than 30 years, isn’t worried.
“I know when I come out, I might get tepid applause, but by the end of the evening, they’ll know who I am,” she said during a recent afternoon interview.
And she’s right. Mention the show to just about anyone who has seen the production and they’ll talk about her, if not by name then as the woman in the middle.
In New York theater circles, Testa is a well-known and beloved figure, but outside of New York, she’s less likely to be recognized by face or name, perhaps because she prefers to work in the city. But audiences remember her after they see her.
A two-time Tony Award nominee (for revivals of “On the Town” and “42nd Street”), Testa has been a nearly constant presence on New York stages since her 1980 Broadway debut as an understudy in the musical “Barnum.” Just mentioning that Cy Coleman circus-themed show, leads to one of her many humorous and poignant stories.
She had been working with her longtime friend, composer William Finn on a workshop version of “March of the Falsettos” (after making her New York debut in his musical “In Trousers”) when a friend told her to audition to be a swing performer (someone who covers several roles) in “Barnum.”
“I wasn’t interested in that, but she said, ‘just get here,’ ” Testa recalled.
Hear Mary Testa sing a song from "In Trousers" in the clip below
She was hired for “Barnum” and had to understudy “all these people with circus skills, none of which I could do,” she says. She understudied the role of the “160-year-old” Joice Heth, a slave who was supposedly George Washington’s nursemaid. A smiling picture of the actress who usually played the role, Terri White, was featured on a banner above the stage “and here I am, with my white face, smiling and singing ‘Thank God I’m Old,’ and the audience is looking at me and the picture and going, ‘What?’ It was just wrong.”
Her choice to leave “Falsettos” caused a rift with Finn, but it healed over time, and the role she was playing in his show eventually got eliminated, “so who knows how that would have turned out,” she says.
They’re friends, still (she appeared in his 1998 musical “A New Brain” at Lincoln Center) and it was Finn who presented her with a special Drama Desk Award in May. She was recognized for her career, but in his introduction, Finn said it was really “because she’s just so damn good.”
Actually, she was initially disappointed with the Drama Desk Awards because she wasn’t nominated for what she considers one of the best roles she’s had to date in “Queen of the Mist.” She played Annie Edson Taylor, who was 63 in 1901 when she became the first woman to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Ben Brantley in The New York Times wrote that "it's a bravura piece of music done full justice by Ms. Testa's magnetically focused interpretation."
You hear a bit of "Queen of the Mist" in this clip from rehearsals.
“It was thrilling. Michael John LaChiusa wrote it for me and it was just an extraordinary show. The day they announced the nominations, I was going to speak to a class at Yale. A friend called and said ‘I heard your name,’ and I thought, Oh good, I was nominated. I should be nominated. ‘No, you weren’t nominated,’ she said. ‘They’re giving you a special award.’ It took me 20 minutes to really understand what happened.”
An original cast recording of “Queen of the Mist” was recently released by Ghostlight Records and Testa is really proud of it.
“You just have to listen to it. It is gorgeous,” she said.
“Queen of the Mist” represents the kind of thing she’d like to do more of — create challenging leading roles in new, original musicals.
She is critical of creative teams and casting directors who don’t look beyond what an actor has done before when hiring actors for new productions.
“People think they know what I can do, but they only have seen a small part of what I can do. That’s why ‘Queen of the Mist’ was so great for me. I sang in a range no one had heard before. It’s an extremely dramatic role. They’re used to seeing me in comedy, but this was a very emotional role. Every night, someone would come backstage and say, ‘I didn’t know you could do that.’ I don’t think I’m the only one. That happens with everyone in show business. They think you can do this and this. I’ve always known that I have an extremely large talent that just hasn’t been tapped yet.”
And that is clear even when she’s just sitting on a stool reading from the script of “Love, Loss and What I Wore” at Asolo Rep. Though the show seems simple, “it’s a great challenge,” she said, comparing it to concert work. “You have to bring an enormous wealth of nuance and color to sitting still and use your voice in an interesting way.”
She appeared in the show in New York but read different stories, and is grateful that this time she gets to read “The Purse.” “It’s sort of the big piece, the 11 o’clock number in a way.”
Testa has worked on film and television (she appeared in an episode of the CBS comedy “2 Broke Girls” this season), but she doesn’t want to move to Los Angeles. “I’d go if I had a role, but I don’t want to move there. I like New York way too much.”
And New Yorkers — at least New York theatergoers — seem to like her.
Over the years, she has starred opposite Nathan Lane in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” She also had a ball starring as a muse in “Xanadu” and playing Matron Mama Morton in “Chicago” among other roles.
“I”m just like a pin ball. I hit up against whatever comes my way.”
And that makes it more surprising that beyond a production of “Pippin” in Kansas, she has no shows lined up after her run in Sarasota ends July 15.
“It’s crazy. I win an award and I have no work in New York City,” she says.
It’s hard to imagine anything keeping her off the stage for long. She’s too eager to be on it, and doesn’t seem fazed by much.
Consider her experience in 1984 when she was cast as Liza Minnelli’s standby in the Kander and Ebb musical “The Rink,” which also starred Chita Rivera.
Minnelli played Angel Antonelli, who returns home after years of drifting with drugs and boyfriends to the family roller rink, which her mother is planning to sell.
“It was a really great role that was very right for me. I auditioned for it originally, but they were going to Liza. I wasn’t a name. They wanted a star,” Testa recalled.
She became Minnelli’s standby (meaning she didn’t have a role in the show like an understudy but had to be ready to replace her if needed). At the time, Minnelli was dealing with personal problems and before the end of her contract, she checked herself in to the Betty Ford clinic. As the standby, Testa got to go on for two straight weeks until Minnelli’s replacement, Stockard Channing, was ready to get on stage.
“I’m not a person who is intimidated by anything, so it never bothered me to hear the audience groaning or booing when they heard that Liza wasn’t going to be on. I knew I could to it and I did it every night. I get them every time.”