During rehearsals, Artistic Director PJ Powers (PJP) conducted this interview with Juno star Marya Grandy (MG), who portrays the title character in TimeLine’s production of the musical. An edited version of their conversation appears in the Juno Backstory.
(PJP) Where’d you grow up?
(MG) It’s funny—I get asked that question a lot, and I have yet to come up with a consistent response. I lived in Los Angeles until I was about 14, and then my parents, who had recently divorced, each moved across the country. My father split his time between Washington, D.C., and Sioux City, Iowa, and my mother settled in Cambridge, Mass. So I made the decision to go to boarding school in New Hampshire, followed by college in Connecticut, and then the big move to New York to make my fame and fortune as an actor. So, the short answer is that I am a geographical mutt, which actually ended up being extremely helpful in preparing me for the itinerant lifestyle of an actor.
(PJP) Acting runs in your family, correct? Was performing a big part of your childhood or did you come to it later? When did you know you wanted to make performing your life’s work?
(MG) Yes, and it definitely influenced me. I loved watching rehearsals, and helping my dad run lines. Everything about performing spoke to me. My parents love to tell the story of when they were doing summer stock at the Dorset Playhouse when I was about 2 or 3, and apparently on one of their breaks during tech, I strode on to the stage and belted out “Yankee Doodle.” I have no memory of this, but I also cannot remember ever having wanted to do anything else. Also, and this is true of many actors, I was a really shy, awkward kid, and I did not have many friends. Performing allowed me to escape and express myself in ways I never could in my real life.
(PJP) You spent many years in New York. What are your memories of that city and what do you consider highlights of your time and work there?
(MG) I love New York. There is nowhere else on earth that has that kinetic, nonstop energy, and it’s incredibly invigorating.
It will sound a bit odd, but my strongest memories are of how kind the people of New York are. It is a very aggressive kindness, and it is often unsolicited, but it is unfiltered and genuine.
My two favorite examples are when my husband Matt and I ran the New York Marathon, and the sheer number of people on the sidelines cheering the runners on was completely overwhelming. There was so much goodwill in the air, it was palpable.
The other example, strangely enough, was during the days immediately following September 11, 2001. Matt and I saw the towers fall from our apartment in Brooklyn, and we spent the rest of the day wandering through our neighborhood, picking up burnt pieces of paper and hugging strangers, and there was such a strong sense of community, it makes me cry to think about it even now.
Professionally, I’d have to say getting to create the role of Lin in The Great American Trailer Park Musical Off-Broadway was one of the highlights of my time in New York. I had been friends with David Nehls (the composer) for years, and to get to share that experience with him, to say nothing of being part of an original musical from the ground up, was absolutely thrilling. There was a two-story billboard in midtown Manhattan with my face on it, which I still haven’t recovered from, and we recorded a cast album, which was something I had always wanted to do.
Then, in the fall of 2012 I got to join the cast of the critically acclaimed Off-Broadway revival of Maltby & Shire’s Closer Than Ever, with Richard Maltby directing, and that was absolutely incredible. Their songs are so smart, so witty and so poignant, and it was such an honor to sing them every night.
(PJP) Why did you make the move recently from New York to Chicago?
(MG) I have always loved Chicago, and as a matter of fact, I was born here. My mom grew up in Barrington, so I have had a lifelong connection. In 2009 I was rehearsing a show in Chicago, and the more I talked to people in the theatre community, the more excited I got about the sort of work that was happening here, so in 2011 we made the leap!
Marc Blitzstein’s music is gorgeous, and challenging, and serves the story … There’s nothing musically extraneous, and each song either forwards the plot or fleshes out the character.
(PJP) What’s been your impression of the Chicago theatre community so far?
(MG) It is incredible. First of all, just the amount of theatre that takes place here is staggering. I think we’ve seen more shows in the three years since we moved to Chicago than we did in the 10 years prior in New York.
And then there is the talent. Holy. Cow. The performances I’ve seen both as an audience member and when I’ve been in shows is as good if not better than anything I’ve seen anywhere. The attention to detail, the level of commitment, and the way Chicago actors connect with their audiences and their fellow cast members just blows me away. They also happen to be some of the smartest, funniest, and most generous people I’ve ever met. It’s humbling.
(PJP) Did you have any knowledge of the musical Juno before this? I’m guessing you’d never seen it on stage, but was curious how well you knew any of the music or the story?
(MG) It was always a bit on my radar, because I sing “I Wish It So” when I do concerts, but I didn’t really know much about the show itself, other than it being an adaptation of the O’Casey play. I’ve never heard the cast recording, and I’ve never seen Juno and the Paycock on stage, so it’s been great to discover it.
(PJP) What touches you most about the story of Juno Boyle and her family?
(MG) I think Juno loves her family, but she is very tunnel-visioned with regard to her own survival, so she doesn’t really know her family, and it’s particularly poignant where her children are concerned. Missed connections break my heart, and this show is full of them.
(PJP) One of the knocks against Juno in 1959 was that Shirley Booth who originated your role wasn’t really a singer, and she mostly talked her way through the songs, thereby begging the question “So why not just do the play Juno and the Paycock?” But with you, we’ve got not only an actress but also a singer, and I’m curious to hear how you feel the songs impact the original material?
(MG) First of all, thank you for the compliment. You can’t see me, but I am blushing to the roots of my hair.
Secondly, Marc Blitzstein’s music is gorgeous, and challenging, and serves the story. I feel like when musicals are at their best, it is because the writers know where to put the songs, when spoken words will no longer suffice, and Juno does that beautifully. There’s nothing musically extraneous, and each song either forwards the plot or fleshes out the character. It helps tremendously that the text of the play is also lyrical and lovely, and informs the songs, which is rare.
(PJP) Has it been helpful for you to look back at O’Casey’s script for Juno and the Paycock as you work on the character of Juno Boyle?
(MG) Absolutely. The character of Juno is prickly, and not always sympathetic, so the challenge for me has been finding her humanity, finding her warmth, and finding her humor, without losing any of her backbone. You don’t want to have a lack of compassion for the title character, but you don’t want her to be a doormat, either, and director Nick Bowling and I have been having some great discussions about finding a balance.
(PJP) The design for Juno puts the audience inside the Boyle home, essentially surrounding you when you’re on stage. What’s it like working on a show that is so intimately staged?
(MG) I love it. With Juno, which is essentially about a family, it is so important to have everything fine-tuned with regard to the inner workings of that family, whether it’s with stolen glances, a raised eyebrow, or how someone pours a cup of tea. Subtlety like that is very hard to convey in an 800-seat house. The set design essentially turns the audience into another member of the Boyle family, and I think it will be really powerful. Plus, I am over the moon at not having to wear a body mic.
(PJP) Any role you’re dying to take on after this?
(MG) Well, immediately after Juno I go into rehearsals for On the Town at the Marriott, and I’ll be playing Hildy, which is a role I have wanted to do forever. David Bell has written a beautiful new show about Fanny Brice that we have done productions of at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre and Asolo Rep in Florida, and that we’re trying to get produced in Chicago. I’d also love to sink my teeth into the role of Fosca in Passion. For the time being, though, I am so grateful to be working on Juno. I can’t thank you and Nick enough for bringing me on board. Here’s to making you proud!