Finishing a gigantic personal triumph in the recent revival on Broadway of “Master Class” as the grand opera diva Maria Callas, Tyne Daly had only one day off before embarking on yet another theatrical assignment. She had Labor Day to catch her breath and then began rehearsals for the new musical comedy, “It Shoulda Been You” premiering at the George Street Playhouse under the direction of David Hyde Pierce (TV favorite on “Frasier” and Tony winner for the Broadway musical “Curtains.”)
The schedule doesn’t seem to daunt her in the least. She had planned to go immediately to the West Coast to appear in the musical “Queen of the Stardust Ballroom,” for which she had done two workshops, but the production “couldn’t get it together,” she says. So when Pierce called her and asked her to do the musical he was directing, she thought, since it was the same time frame, “Oh, why not? One musical just replaced by another.”
Then she adds: “What I forgot was that I knew ‘Queen of the Stardust Ballroom’ — the music and the book. This one, I have to learn. Ho, ho. It’s a bit more than I counted on, but it’s a great deal of fun.”
Daly has had a diverse television, film, cabaret, and theater career, but this will be the first time she will originate a role in a new musical. That challenge plus working with Pierce, for whom she has high regard, sealed the deal for her. “Callas is still very dear to my heart. At this stage of the game, to make a nice noise in New York is fun,” she says. She feels that “It Shoulda Been You” will make a good balance for her. “It’s silly, schticky, sentimental, and very dear. ‘Master Class’ is certainly a good play, but I couldn’t characterize is as ‘dear.’”
“It Shoulda Been You” is billed as an “interfaith wedding that spins out of control.” The bride is Jewish; the groom is Catholic. Daly plays the role of the bride’s mother described in a press statement as “a force of nature.” Daly puts it this way: “She has her peculiarities that make the character interesting to play.” A hint at the mayhem that ensues is the casting of the delightful comic actor Edward Hibbert as the wedding planner, and Tony winner and “Frasier” alum Harriet Harris as the mother of the groom. Daly laughs (which she does a lot) as she admits she’s back to being a mother again.
As a youngster, she performed in community theater in Suffern, New York. “My first job there was doing makeup. Then I won the job of the captain’s daughter in ‘HMS Pinafore,’ my first and only ingenue. The following season, I had to play the mother even though I was only 11 years old.” Since then, she says that she has been cast as either the mother, the suffering sister, or the tragic auntie. “I had to suffer for 10 to 15 years being the victim. The categories for women in our culture were pretty strict and continue even now.”
A dramatic change came when she starred in the popular 1980s television series “Cagney & Lacey.” Her performance as a detective in a male-dominated profession has prompted some to give her credit for pushing progress forward for the independent woman. “I’d like to think the things that I did helped to make some inroads to that,” she says, but mainly she feels that the pervasive thought in the TV and film industry is that women are meant to be decoration. “I wasn’t pretty enough to be decoration so I was a character actor from the beginning. This, actually, was more interesting to me. I knew I would have a longer shelf life if I played not the heroine or the girlfriend.”
As I sit across the table from her in an office at George Street Playhouse, I do a double take. The woman looking back at me and saying this is very chic, glamorous, and beautiful to me. Some of the diva Callas is still there. Her face is now much thinner than in any of the familiar photos of her, and she admits that she lost weight to play Callas.
“It was a surprise to me to play a glamorous person. But every single job I’ve had has informed the next job.” She saves her heartiest laugh for here — when she says that if she were to write a diet book, it would be titled “Too Little Too Late.” With her hair its natural silver, she explains that she thinks it’s important to claim one’s age rather than try to disguise it. “It’s harder if I’m trying to hang on to some image of myself. I can’t say a particular time of my life was best.” Then adds, “There’s no looking back.”
Daly, 65, certainly doesn’t give any indication that it’s “too late” for anything in her career. After years working on the west coast, “I came back east specifically to do new plays and had good luck the first couple of years.” Probably the most lucky were the audiences who saw her dynamic award-winning performance on Broadway in the 1989 revival of “Gypsy,” which garnered for her the Best Actress in a Musical from the Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle awards.
She got her chance to originate a role in a new play and received a Tony nomination in the supporting actress category for her performance as the mother of Cynthia Nixon’s character in the 2006 Broadway production of the Pulitzer-Prize winning play “Rabbit Hole.” Two years later, she was originating another role (and another mother) in the production of Edward Albee’s “Me, Myself, & I” at McCarter Theater. That same year, she switched to the classics, playing Clytemnestra in a California production of “Agamemnon.” Back in Manhattan, she was in the original cast of the Off Broadway production of Nora and Delia Ephron’s “Love, Loss, and What I Wore.”
In the midst of all of this, she has interspersed performances of her cabaret act. When she opened at Feinstein’s at the Regency in Manhattan in the spring of 2009, the New York Times music critic wrote that “seasoned performers contemplating making the leap into the cabaret world would do well to study her act.” She did her act again in early 2010 at a club in San Francisco, and then it was back to Feinstein’s for another stint, titled “The Second Time Around.” This past March she did another cabaret evening at NJPAC in Newark and will take a day off from performing “It Shoulda Been You” to do it again for one night only at McCarter, Saturday, October 22.
This maddening pace doesn’t daunt her because, as she explains, she is just following in the tradition of her “family business.” Her father, James Daly (“JB” on Broadway, “Medical Center” on TV), and her mother, actress Hope Newell, met in college and toured in stock together.
“I had seen my parents on the stage from probably when I was three,” says Daly. She and her sister, Pegeen (born after her parents had done an Irish play), would be taken to the theater and handed off to some ushers where “we were supposed to sit and be perfect. Up on stage there were people who looked a little like people I knew, but with different hair and accents. When the play was over, our parents would come back to collect us. That trick of turning my parents into other people and then back again galvanized, mystified, and delighted me. I’ve told this story many times.”
During her early years, she saw a lot of theater and was allowed to explore the backstage tricks of the trade and was enchanted. She says she was about eight years old when she thought to herself, “In my secret heart, this is for me.” Her brother, 10 years younger than she, is actor Tim Daly (“Wings,” the voice of the animated “Superman,” and nominated for an Emmy for his role as J.T. Dolan on “The Sopranos”).
Did she ever consider any other “business?” She admits that when she was in ninth grade, she fell in love with her biology teacher. “I thought I’d be a bio chemist. My parents got very excited and got me a microscope. When I fell out of love with my bio teacher, that was the end of my career in science.”
Later, as a young actress in New York, she married actor Georg Stanford Brown, an Afro-Cuban-American actor and director who is probably best known for his role as Officer Terry Webster in the 1970s TV cop series, “The Rookies.” That’s how Daly got to the West Coast. “I thought it was going to be all about the theater, but I got married. And his thing was all about the films, so I followed the man.”
The irony of this move — which led to her liberated woman cop in “Cagney & Lacy” — is not lost on her. “The West Coast and TV were very good to me, and I made a good living as a freelance actress.” They have three daughters: Alisabeth, Kathryne, and Alyxandra. She and Brown were divorced in 1990. Their daughter, Kathryne Dora Brown, has followed in the “family business” and has appeared with her mother in several television episodes and on stage.
After the run of “It Shoulda Been You,” Daly says she is going to take a break. She laughs, saying, “It’s called a holiday.” Yes, and well deserved. She will fly to California to visit her daughters and grandchildren. Alisabeth has two teenagers in high school. And Kathryne, “thinking that her body clock was running out of time, met this lovely fellow, and they had a baby last year,” says Daly.
Baby Poppi is 16 months old. Sounding much the grandmother, Daly adds, “Just as the older children got too old to boss around, we can carry Poppi from room to room and make her do things. The little ones are quite magnetizing. Nature makes them so cute so we’ll take care of them. When they get spotty and hormonal, we have to let them go. It’s great.”
She attended the births of each of her grandchildren. The second was born at home in Los Angeles. Then she quickly adds, “I don’t have a house out there anymore. I still have the bed and the mattress, but not the house.” By now she is laughing heartily, but she explains, “My work demands a flexibility that, at least for me, precludes a ‘hometown.’ I don’t feel that I have a home except on the stage. That’s not meant to be sad.” And I don’t take it that way; she’s much too centered and direct to lie about that.
Another award has just been announced. She is one of two actors selected by the American Theater Critics Association to be inducted into the 2011 Theater Hall of Fame, an award for lifetime achievement.
“It Shoulda Been You,” George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Now in previews. Opening night, Friday, October 14. Musical comedy featuring a Jewish bride, a Catholic groom, two mothers, an ex-boyfriend, and a sister. Tyne Daley and Harriet Harris star. David Hyde Pierce directs. Through November 6. $25 to $62. 732-246-7717 or www.gsponline.org.