On Saturday, November 27, 2010, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing cellist Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf, direct from the pit of "A Little Night Music." What makes this interview so special to me is that I've known Mairi since I was 15, when we met at Buck's Rock Camp in New Milford, CT, at which time her kindness and friendship meant a lot to a boy trying to find his way. It was quite exciting for me when we reconnected in 2002 as I saw her exit the stage door at "The Boy From Oz." And now to be able add this kind of dynamic to our friendship is a real treat for me. Mairi has been a fixture in Broadway orchestra pits since her debut in "The Boy From Oz." She has played in the orchestra pits of "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," "LoveMusik," "Sunday In The Park With George," "Irving Berlin's White Christmas," "Guys and Dolls," "Bye Bye Birdie," and currently "A Little Night Music" which is running through January 9 at the Walter Kerr Theatre (219 West 48th Street, between Broadway & 8th Ave).
On Sunday, December 19 at 8:30pm at Cornelia Street Cafe (29 Corneila Street, Greenwich Village, NYC) you can catch Mairi playing cello in "Joni and Johannes" (the music of Joni Mitchell and Johannes Brahms) along with Simon Mulligan on piano, and Randy Landau on bass with special guest vocalists Jessica Molaskey ("A Man of No Importance," "Parade," "Tommy," "Crazy For You," "Les Miserables," "Cats," "Sunday In The Park With George," etc) and Mary Beth Peil ("The Good Wife," "Dawson's Creek," "Nine," "Sunday In The Park With George," "Women On The Verge of a Nervous Breakdown"). For just $15 + one drink minimum, you will get a real opportunity to see accomplished musicians and performers live up close and personal! For reservations call 212-989-9319.
1. Who or what inspired you to become a cellist? It was my cello teacher in high school, Nancy Green, who I also went on to study with in college. I went to a music boarding high school, so I was away from home and lonely, and her style of teaching was so expressive. She taught us about the connection to every note, the vibrato, the tone, what you were trying to say, what the emotion was, what part of your body the note came from – were you trying to sound like an alto voice or a tenor? With all the different types of tones and voices, I often came up with a storyline to go with what I was playing. Discovering what I could do by holding one note on the cello was exciting, and cathartic. I often think about that time in my life when I play “Miller’s Son” here at “A Little Night Music” because that first “B” that you hold for a long time is like yeah, this is what I dug about cello when I was fifteen. I moved to the US for graduate school and had another phenomenal teacher, Judith Glyde, who gave me the confidence to go out and actually work. Then I started playing shows and it all made sense…that emotional story telling feel.
There’s a masterclass of Sondheim teaching “Later” that was filmed at my undergraduate school (some time in the 80s, I think). It’s odd to know that so many years after being there, I’d be trying to express the quality he’s talking to the singer about in “Later” and I’d be trying to bring that to “A Little Night Music.”
1a. What was your first Broadway show that you played here in NYC? “The Boy From Oz” although I moved here to play “The Last Five Years,” which I had played first in Chicago. Me: I had no idea that you played that show, I saw it quite a few times, but it was “Boy From Oz” that I saw you at the stage door and we reconnected. Mairi: Yeah, it’s an amazing community that we are in because we see each other again and again, even though it’s nerve-racking when the shows keep closing… but the energy keeps going!
2. Who’s the one person you haven’t worked with that you would like to? Joni Mitchell, although even saying her name makes me a little breathless so I couldn’t imagine working with her! But that would be incredible. Me: You never know…whenever I ask this question I always put the person’s name in the tag so you never know who from Joni’s team might see this. Mairi: During that time in undergrad it was the music of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder, Sting that I listened to when I wasn't practicing. It was such an aggressively competitive classical environment, that I spent my downtime listening to their music. I actually worked with Sting recently and got to tell him that without “Soul Cages” I don’t know that I would be a musician.
3. If you couldn’t be doing what you are doing now, what career would you choose? That’s hard because I really like this. I guess I’ve thought about law every now and then. I was in graduate school for a really, really, really long time and at some point in that process I realized I could have gotten a law degree…hahaha.
4. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? So much…There was a line in “Cast Away,” which I thought was in the movie, “You never know what the tide is going to wash up tomorrow,” although I’m not sure he ever actually said that! The idea is that you’ve just got to have faith that something good is going to wash up tomorrow. This gig, “A Little Night Music” is a spectacular job and it’s hard not to get depressed that we have only 6 more weeks – to believe that there will be something just as great. You see where we are and how much space we have. It’s such an incredible environment, not to mention playing for Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch every day. I have a little TV screen on my stand so that I can follow Hunter (Ryan Herdlicka) when he’s playing the cello on stage. Plus it’s run for over a year and I’ve never had a show run that long. You just gotta hope that there will be something else!
5. What’s your proudest moment? Anytime I get to play with my husband. He’s a saxophone doubler. Me: Have you ever played a job together? Mairi: Yeah, he's played here at "Night Music". We haven’t had a show together, but we’ve played shows together when one of us has been subbing. Outside of shows, we’ve done various gigs together. It's fun, 'cause he works in the 'other side' of the orchestra (reeds/brass), so I've gotten to know a lot of those guys through him.
6. Favorite place to rehearse on your own? Somewhere that is cushiony with carpeting and tons of pillows. Anything that soaks up the sounds so I can hear everything, so when I go and play, I won’t be surprised by any little sound. To be honest I don’t like to practice. It’s a necessary evil. There are some people who want to practice every day, but I never felt that way.
7. Favorite way to spend your day off? At home, sleeping, watching TV, knitting, eating, and hanging with my husband.
8. Favorite skin care product? Cetaphil and Shea Butter (in the winter). I sadly don’t use any of those fancy skin care items.
9. Favorite website?Facebook. I’m hooked on it. At this point I have friends all over the world and it’s pretty cool to be able to keep in touch with them so easily and see what they are up to.
10. Superman or Wonder Woman? Wonder Woman of course!
11. Do you have any strange or unusual talent that nobody knows about? I can be an archer (you know with a bow and arrow). Me: Like Geena Davis. Mairi: Sure, but I don’t know that I have her strength. Those bows are heavy and super tension-filled, and my elbow sticks out a bit so it's tricky when the string comes back after you release the arrow…
12. If you could dream about anyone while you sleep, who would it be? Dreaming at all would be great. Last night I watched the PBS Sondheim Gala before I went to sleep and oh my gosh, they had those six incredible women come on stage in those stunning bright red gowns: Elaine Stritch, Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, etc. One after another they stood up and sang and after watching that special I was wide awake until 5:30am. I’m looking at 2 shows today on 4 hours of sleep…haha
13. When one of the cast members are out during a show, how does that affect you as a musician in the show? It depends. Sometimes if there’s a different key, we’ll pull out a different part depending on their range, but as to the timing, it’s all up to the conductor because they are the ones leading and making those choices. The great thing about this show, particularly with Elaine Stritch, is that you get a different theatrical performance each time and I love that.