On a recent Sunday afternoon I sat down with the creators and cast of Mama and Her Boys, Ethan Paulini, Wendy Watson, Christopher Sidoli, at one of Hell's Kitchen's hot spots, Gossip Bar (733 9th Avenue, between 49th & 50th), to discuss this fabulous new show! Mama and Her Boys is a musical revue that explores the dynamic relationship between mothers, sons and families. With musical direction and arrangements by William Demaniow, Mama and Her Boys features an eclectic mix of 25 songs from Broadway to Pop, Motown to Country, and even Disco.
Mama and Her Boys will play an open run at The Underground (955 West End Avenue at 107th Street and Broadway), the Upper West Side's hottest new theatrical performance space. Each week, a special guest "family member" will be featured in the show, which plays Monday nights at 9pm. Click here for tickets!
1. Who or what inspired each of you to become a performer?
Ethan: My mother. She was a visual artist and as I was growing up she just wanted me to be involved in something. My dad was kind of a jock, so they would compete to see which interest I was going to take more of a liking to. I never got that into playing sports, but then I remember one summer when I was six or seven and I didn't want to do any of those things and my mother told me I had to do something, so she took me to the Harwich Junior Theatre where I started taking classes. From the minute I got there, I was like, "I'm home." My mother was always encouraging me to do this as a career, as hard as it was, but she told me I needed to keep focused and keep going.
Wendy: My mother also influenced me. She was a theatrical director, well is, she's still doing it at 85 years old on Cape Cod. She cast me in my first role when I was five. My father was the minister of this huge Presbyterian Church in NYC and my mother would direct these "radical" plays in the old sanctuary...things like The Trial of The Catonsville Nine, these heavy duty political plays, which showed this tension between the good boy (my father, the minister) and my mother doing this radical theatre in the backroom and I guess I picked up on the theatrics and started directing, starring in, and selling tickets to my own shows in the same space by six or seven years old. I can't say my mother was as encouraging. She told me very clearly in my teens, "If you can want to do anything else, do it. This life is really really hard." I took that to heart and as a result, I ended up with two careers (acting and sign language interpretation). Getting to do Mama and Her Boys is really full circle for me...it's coming back to New York and singing, but not taking my entire life. It's very rewarding.
Christopher: I'm going to be the one person and not list my mother, but I do have three women who influenced me. My two grandmothers were very inspirational in my life. One introduced me to opera and the other introduced me to Rodgers and Hammerstein movie musicals at a very young age. That kind of explains a lot of me because I love both old school musicals and opera. The other person to influence me was Lucy Simon, the composer of Secret Garden, who we are showcasing in Mama and Her Boys. I remember hearing a song from Secret Garden for the first time in the third grade and it gave me shivers. It was that moment I knew I wanted to sing, so I auditioned for the school musical of Oklahoma and it just took off from there.
Ethan: One thing I've enjoyed about this process of bringing Mama and Her Boys to the stage is that it's taught me about being a producer and director. There are a lot of directors I'd like to work with like Hal Prince. I love the fact that he has both directed and produced his own work. There are also a few younger directors I'd like to work with: Michael Mayer (who I got to spend a little time with while he was directing American Idiot), Diane Paulus, Doug Wright, and Joe Mantello. I'm very excited about directors right now.
Wendy: I have a couple of answers to that question. I would love to work with Jessica Lange. I think she's incredible. I would love to just have the opportunity to watch her and learn from her. Diane Paulus also came to mind for me. I just finished interpreting the new production of Pippin at ART. That was a really extraordinary pinnacle life experience for me as an interpreter performer. Seeing her vision come to life and getting to be a small part of that was very exciting. I'd love to work with her more. I'd also like to work with Kim Weild. She's done some work with mixed deaf and hearing theatre. We've always interpreted a few of our shows per run and I'm wondering how Mama and Her Boys could be expanded to include sign language as well. And not just interpreted, but further than that, using a dual cast of singers and deaf people that are signing the songs.
Christopher: I would love to work with Maggie Smith. I've enjoyed everything she's done and feel like I take an acting class when I watch her. She is so inspirational. I love the fact that she's going to act until the day she dies. On the creative side, I'd love to work with many composers like Stephen Sondheim and Lucy Simon. I think the world would be really boring without them. I feel they add so much color and beauty to the world, like so many artists do. I've never been able to compose my own music and I think it's amazing to me the people who are able to do that and that they create this opera or musical and how that music can move you.
3. You are presenting Mama and her Boys, a new musical revue about the relationship between mothers, sons, and families at The Underground. How did this project first come about and how did each of you get involved?
Ethan: We've all known each other for a long time. Christopher and I have known each other since we were teenagers doing local theatre together. In 2000, we were cast in a production of Kiss of The Spiderwoman and Wendy was cast as my mother. Since then, we've all worked on different projects together and Wendy kept playing one of our mothers in the shows we were in, so she kind of got this mama reputation [everyone laughs]. Since we liked singing together, we decided to try to find a way and a reason for us to do so. This idea of mothers and sons came about and Cape Rep (where we did Kiss of the Spiderwoman and many other productions) was starting a new winter series and said, "Why don't you put together a show?" and we all thought about it and came together with songs that had a theme, but didn't tell a story and then every time we would get a booking, we didn't want to sing the same 25 songs that don't mean anything, so let's try to find a way to string them together in a way that will create a story. Through everyone's suggestions, the story evolved and then every time we would refine the story, the characters, the conflict, and their resolution some more. Then I gave the story to Linda Kline, who wrote A Class Act. I had been working with her at the time and asked her to look at the piece and suggest ways to further refine it. We've taken feedback very seriously and now we have a piece with a clear story and great songs. This story will continue to grow.
Wendy: To me this process has had a magical quality. I don't think any of us imagined that two years later, we'd still be doing this show. Because we've done it at a variety of venues, there's been this natural evolution that has worked with the natural audience in that area. For instance, what we presented in Brewster was more dramatic than what was presented in Provincetown, which was campier. To me, the most amazing part has been the emergence of the story. We didn't start with a beginning, middle, and end. That sort of showed up partially because of the music and the influence on us and partially because of our relationship between the three of us that naturally occurs and one of the things that exciting now is exploring the use of other performers which reaches to a larger circle of people and how this story is archetypal in a sense and affects everyone who sees the show.
Wendy: The best part of working together is singing together. Today in rehearsal, there is a song that I've been singing for the past two years and I just got so choked up looking at the two of them, I could barely finish the song. There is a genuine familial like relationship between us. These guys grew up together and sometimes they really do talk to each other like siblings and I have come in the middle. Sometimes we have moments where I become more maternal and other times I'm less maternal. There is some microcosm of a family we are enacting here and we all come at it from different places. Ethan has lost his mother and I am transitioning into a period in my life where I'm taking care of my elderly parents and Chris' relationship with his parents is different, so it's like a means to explore the most important relationships in our lives, so it always has this real resonance to it.
Christopher: We've known each other for so long and there is a tremendous amount of history between us already and that all comes into play. When you are performing a piece of this intimacy there are so many memories that come up. Ethan's mother played such a huge role in both our lives and been very supportive of us, so she's so much apart of this show with us. When you go through things like that together, it strengthens you and you are never quite the same, in a good way.
Ethan: My favorite part of working on this piece is not being the director or producer, though I'm very interested in pursuing that, but getting the opportunity to do this show with people I trust so I don't have to pull any punches, but I also learn the way to navigate someone with respect. The people I'm working with know I have a lot of respect for what they do, so if they are doing something that doesn't work, I feel comfortable letting them know, without them taking it personally. I think this will transition well when I work with people I don't know and have to tell them something is not working.
Ethan: Warmth. A sense that they are not the only ones who go through struggles with a family member or any relationship in their life. It's okay to get frustrated by someone and be hurt by someone and it's okay to find a way to forgive and grow. We also want them to have fun. There is something for everyone. You don't have to be a musical theatre lover to enjoy our show.
Wendy: I'm going to answer this question with how I've seen audiences be moved by Mama and Her Boys. There was one family that came to see the show in Provincetown and it was probably a 35-year-old transgendered woman and her parents in their mid-seventies. In Provincetown you have to bark (sell your tickets on the street) and the parents were so clearly uncomfortable, but trying very hard to be accepting. They came to the show and it was so moving to see all three of them go through this process of recognition of where they each stood, their differences, and then the reconciliation of coming together. I remember one woman coming up to me after a show in Harwich, who was about 85 years old, and she said, "Thank You very much. I never realized what my mother did for me." I thought to myself, "Wow, you can be 85 and still look at that." It's these responses that are powerful to me. This is a story that anyone can relate to.
Ethan: We have to remember that parents were children at some point too. That's another thing I love about this show. In the latest version of the show, there is a part in the show where we make a very clear shift to "Mama" remembering being a child and remembering her family relationship. This is an important part to her story because she has to figure who she is beyond "Mama." She has to figure out who she is without her children and who she was before her children. I want the people who are children who come see the show to have a new sense of their parents' point of view and I want the parents to have a sense of the children's point of view.
Christopher: We have seen some incredible responses from people that have come away from the show. As a performer when you go out the stage door and you can very clearly see that they were affected or moved by what you just did it fills you right up, even if your tank is below empty. It's moments like those that you realize; this is why I am here doing theatre.
Christopher: Ultimately NY is our home. It's a return for Wendy and we are thrilled to have her back. We all have come and gone over the years. Ethan and I have left to do tours and regional gigs. It always feels great to come back home to NY and rediscover friendships and colleagues. We had always felt it would be wonderful to do the show here. It feels so good to be here. Ethan found The Underground and from the moment I walked in, I knew this is where Mama and Her Boys was going to start its NY run. There is such a comfortable ambiance to it.
Ethan: I am digging The Underground. I really like the location that has a great energy to it that feels like our show. It's a new venue so we can take some responsibility in putting a stamp on it and becoming known as something that spearheaded it. From a producing standpoint, it was the perfect size. It was in a perfect location that allowed us to draw from a variety of pools. The Underground is only 80 seats, so it's the logical next step in the life of our show to get people in the door.
Wendy: One of the things that is special to me with The Underground, in this whole full circle, is that I used live only a block away when I had lived here previously. My parents found the apartment for me and this was before any kind of gentrification was happening there. No one in their right mind would live there, but I did for the longest time. It's nice to be back in the neighborhood again.
7. Each week you will be having a different guest "family member" perform with you. How did you decide who you wanted to join you?
Ethan: I love the idea of this guest "family member" because the reason to do this show for us is to make music with people we like making music with. We all have a lot of friends who do really interesting things, whether they are in Broadway shows or another part of the entertainment industry, and in order to expand our family and keep it fresh for us and the audience I thought we should reach out to some of these people we know and have them find material that resonates with them and makes them feel a part of the show. I went through my wish list for the first group and everybody said yes, which I love. The first group of people are friends like Christina Sajous who's in Forever Dusty (and previously in American Idiot and Spiderman) and Ellyn Marie Marsh who's in Kinky Boots. Some of the people I chose were strategic because they've been in several big Broadway shows and it was a way to get their fan base to come see our show.
Ethan: I kind of touched on this in the first question, but my mother passed away in 2008. I was very close with her. She was funny, generous, and warm, with a great spirit about her. She was all the things I'm not [laughs]. I got all these qualities from her. She was artistic and musical, but not in the traditional sense like a musician, but she loved music. We would talk about it all the time. She was really great. It was in 2010 when we started thinking about Mama and Her Boys and I felt I had grieved the appropriate amount of time to allow me to talk about anything to do with mothers and then as we started working on the show, I started to crave that maternal energy and fill the maternal void.
Christopher: I believe that when the cards are down and you are going through a particularly hard time in your life, whether it's losing your mother or something else, you quickly learn who your real family and friends are. I remember when Ethan's mother passed, it was an interesting experience because all of our close friends rallied together and were there for him. In many ways to me, I feel like, we celebrate her in this show. Her presence has always been there with us from the start and she'll be there on opening night with us.
In terms of my particular family, I was closest to my two grandmothers, which I also touched on earlier. My mother and my father are very supportive of me currently, however, my maturation process with them was not so easy. They were not supportive of me going into this career. I've kind of done everything I wasn't supposed to. I was supposed to be a doctor, but instead I went into theatre. Theatre in my house was looked upon as something impractical or stable (which it's not stable), but they have come a long way and are very supportive of me and my career.
Wendy: My parents were my cheerleaders since day one. They came to EVERYTHING I ever did, even if it was difficult to get to or they didn't understand why I was doing it, they still came. It has only been with their advancing years that that has changed at all. I think it's really hard for them not to be here for this opening. I feel very fortunate to be so close with them. I think one of the reasons we are so close is because of when I was born. I was the youngest of five kids, so by the time they got to me, they sort of had been through everything already. They already knew what they could and could not control about their children. I had a much easier set of parents in a lot of ways than my siblings did, so I feel very lucky that way.
Wendy: That's a great question. I think at different periods of my life, my answer would be different. Right now, what's so exciting to me is doing it for the love of doing it. When I was younger it, I performed more for the reason of "look at me, look at me, look at me." I used to do a one-woman show for years and I just felt you'd get more bang for your buck. You'd be paying for 45 minutes of me instead of just seeing me to two lines in a show. Now, I noticed I don't want to do that anymore. I want the collaborative experience and for me it's about the heart. It's about being able to create something that touches people and makes a difference in this world. I wouldn't be commuting from Cape Cod to do ANY show. I'm commuting to sing with these guys and to do THIS show because I've seen how it affects people. That's what I've learned...it's not really about the glitz and the glamour; it's about the guts instead.
Ethan: I've learned patience. I have a touch of the OCD and I like things organized and finished. I don't like to leave loose ends hanging. I used to tell myself that until it's finished I couldn't stop. Through being a performer I've figured out how to enjoy the process, to enjoy the moments that it's not finished and that it's not supposed to be finished.
Christopher: In life you have good days and bad days and in theatre you have good shows and bad shows. What you learn from the good ones is just as important as what you learn from the bad ones. Sometimes a light doesn't go on or a door doesn't close and that is one of the things that make live theatre so great. It's okay to have a bad show or bad day. Similar to Wendy, what I've learned has changed for me greatly over the course of my life. The biggest process for me was learning to let go of things, which I continue to try and do.
Wendy: The best advice I've ever received just very recently came to me from a friend when I was thinking about coming to NY and I did vacillate between "I'm absolutely thrilled to death and what the hell am I thinking." I had these thoughts because it's been a long time since I've performed in NY. I wondered "Am I the best person to be doing this in NY? Is this the best approach?" My friend told me "You are the only one who can bring what you bring." That gave me some real genuine groundedness. I was like, "Right, this wouldn't be the same if someone else was standing here doing the same material. This is what I HAVE to offer and that's enough."
Ethan: My advice comes from my last answer. Learning to live in the mess of it, comes from advice I've received. That keep calm and carry on is really the best advice I've gotten.
Christopher: My advice comes from my friend who's a painter and has struggled for many years in his career. He said to me, "I have seen people who are better than me, but they gave up too soon. They didn't fight hard enough. You have to have a fight in you for what you want to do. If you don't have that, you just have to hold on and realize that eventually things will work out."
11. If you could have any super power, which one would you choose?
Ethan: To fly.
Wendy: I like the freedom of flying, but what occurred to me first, was "Beam me up Scotty." That would just make my life easier.
Christopher: I grew up loving horror films and Carrie is one of my all time favorites, so I would love to have telekinesis and move stuff.
Call Me Bios:
Ethan Paulini: After graduating from Emerson with a BA in Acting, Ethan began almost immediately performing in New York, on national tours and regional theatre. His favorite credits have included Oliver! (Cameron Mackintosh's national tour), Forever Plaid (TriArts/Sharon Playhouse), The Who's Tommy (Arkansas Rep/Arts Center of Coastal Carolina), tick, tick..BOOM! (Cape Rep/Provincetown Theatre), The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Northern Stage), The Full Monty (Arkansas Rep/Cape Rep/Provincetown Theatre), Side Man (Cape Rep), The Drowsy Chaperone (Cape Rep), and The 39 Steps (ACCC). Ethan was a member of the Equity acting company at the historic Weathervane Theatre appearing in 9 to 5, Kiss Me, Kate, Moon Over Buffalo, Avenue Q and the regional premiere of Young Frankenstein for which he received a 2012 NHTA nomination. Ethan created the title role in the regional premiere of Andrew Gerle and Maryrose Wood's The Tutor (SBT/2007 Spirit Award) and "DT" in the original New York production of The Sexless Years at Ars Nova (2006 MAC Nomination). In 2006, Ethan appeared in BC/EFA's Gypsy of the Year at Broadway's Neil Simon Theatre. Ethan appeared in the world premiere of Larson Award winner Lance Horne's Back in the Day (Cape Rep) and can be heard on the original cast album. He appeared and co-produced, with Provincetown Counter Productions, the pre-Broadway World Premiere of David Caudle's The Common Swallow. He also appears on Lisa Howard's debut album Songs of Innocence and Experience. He created the critically acclaimed musical song cycle Mama and Her Boys and is currently developing Gaylebrity with Kate Pazakis.
Wendy Watson: Wendy is delighted to return to the New York Stage with this production, having originated the role of "Mama" at Cape Rep Theatre, and performed the show in Provincetown, Harwich and Brewster over the past two seasons. Recent Roles include: "Molina’s Mother" in Kiss of The Spiderwoman; "Old Lady" in Sunday in the Park With George; "Sophie" in A Class Act; "Ruth Sherwood" in Wonderful Town; and "Lead Performer" in Grand Night for Singing. Many New Yorkers will recognize her from her one- woman show, Wendy Watson, I Presume, directed by Barry Kleinbort, which recurred over five years at The Duplex and Don’t Tell Mama. Wendy also enjoys her life as a Professional Sign Language Interpreter, having interpreted well over 100 shows including the upcoming Broadway Revival of Pippin.
Christopher Sidoli: Christopher E. Sidoli grew up in Connecticut and began pursuing music at the age of 16. He attended Skidmore College as Filene Scholar where he studied opera and vocal performance under Anne Turner. Christopher has lit up Off-Broadway in The Awesome 80's Prom (swing in the original cast), June Again (EST), and The Children of Children (Merkin Hall). Around the world, he has entertained audiences in the National/International tour of Cats 25th Anniversary (Gus/Growltiger/Bustopher Jones) and in Regional productions of The Secret Garden (Archibald Craven), Side Show (Terry), Kiss of the Spiderwoman (Gabriel), and Closer than Ever (Man 1). He is one of the creators and performers of Mama and Her Boys (currently running at the Underground in NYC). Last Summer he performed a successful one man concert in Provincetown, Massachusetts called Look to the Stars which is soon to be reprised.