Christie Brinkley brings her Broadway hit to L.A.
When you see the name "Christie Brinkley," many things come to mind. Supermodel. Former Mrs. Billy Joel. Equestrian. Illustrator and photographer. Helicopter crash survivor. The best thing that ever happened to Sports Illustrated.
I'll bet nobody thought "Broadway star." That's because Brinkley never ventured onstage – that is, until "Chicago" came calling.
Brinkley first tackled the role of Roxie Hart, the foxy blond murderess at the center of Kander and Ebb's racy musical, a little over a year ago on Broadway. Since then she travelled with the show to London and elsewhere. You can catch Brinkley's Roxie beginning Tuesday when "Chicago" opens at the Pantages Theatre.
We caught up with the willowy celebrity recently during a rehearsal break at the Pantages. Dressed in a figure-flattering red dress and looking far younger than her 58 years, Brinkley chatted at length about her love of theater, stage fright, preparing for the role, interacting with audiences and many other topics (including a lengthy and knowledgeable discussion of current U.S. energy policy – who knew?).
The Orange County Register: Why do a musical at this stage of your career?
Christie Brinkley: Because they asked! I mean, when you get asked to do a Broadway show, what are you supposed to say? As a child I loved going to plays. I would then go home and try to re-enact what I saw. I would enlist my friends, my brother. For my mom's birthday, my dad's birthday, my idea of a gift was, "I'm putting on a play for you!"
Register: Your acting career has consisted of cameos and small roles. Did you ever take acting seriously?
Brinkley: There was a place called the Century City Playhouse. I did a few acting lessons there when I was a kid. But I would say that you could count the days I was there on one hand. I wanted to do more, but I lived out in Malibu so it was a long haul for my parents.
Register: So how did this opportunity happen?
Brinkley: My agent was going over some offers that had come in, and he said, "And then there's this and that, and 'Chicago's' producers called and asked if you're interested in playing Roxie or Velma, and then there's this other thing and blah blah blah." I said, "Wait a minute. Back up. "Chicago" called to see if I wanted to play Roxie or Velma?" He said, "Yeah, but you don't have that kind of time." I said, "Wait another minute. Are you sure there wasn't some sort of mistake? Are you sure they were calling about me? And if they did could you get a script and the music and I could just see?"
Register: What did you think of "Chicago" at that time?
Brinkley: I remember seeing it with Ann Reinking and Bebe Neuwirth (in the 1996 revival) and being so enthralled and loving it. Of course, I did recall that they had their legs up to the ceiling behind their ears and were doing these impossible dance moves that I could never do.
Register: Why did the "Chicago" producers want you if you had no experience?
Brinkley: Barry Weissler, the producer, said he had been at a party and saw me come into the room and he thought I had a presence that just sparkled. He thought that would translate. I can't help but think there are certain similarities between me and Roxie. I had just gone through a quite sensational trial (Christie's contentious divorce from her fourth husband, Peter Cook, and its aftermath have been well covered by the media). And I thought while reading the script that there were things that could parallel my experience. But Barry claims that it was his gut instinct that guided him.
Register: What happened after you said "Yes, I'm interested"?
Brinkley: I agreed to audition. So there I was in my bathroom for the next week or so, just singing and imagining what it would be like, and fake dancing and selling it and giving it my all. I loved it. The story is fresh and relevant. Yet the music is amazing. It was written for Gwen Verdon and she didn't have a huge range, so they tried to keep the notes contained for her. I could sing the songs. Still, I thought that I probably didn't have the goods.
Register: Describe the audition.
Brinkley: I had fun with it. First of all I got the fishnet stockings, the black stilettos, a pair of tap shoes and a little black turtleneck. Red nails, red lips, a fedora. And I marched in there and I just had a blast. They said, "So, do you sing in real life?" And I said, "Are you kidding? They just can't shut me up!" Every Christmas I like to do a big sing-along party. I print up all the lyrics for everybody. Billy always comes and plays the piano.
Register: What happened then?
Brinkley: Then they said, "Do you know any Broadway tunes?" I said, "Yeah, I love to pretend to be all the characters at once in 'West Side Story.'" I did Tony, Maria. They were cracking up. Then they said, "Can you do Roxie? Can you start with the monologue?" I didn't even realize that it went to music. Soon they were playing the vamp underneath and I was like, "Oooh that's fun!" I went into the song. Of course I didn't know anything about the "less is more" Fosse thing. I was in there selling it. I was doing Liza moves. And then they said, "Would you mind repeating that for our producer?" Barry comes in and I do the same thing. He said, "My dear, we'd be honored to have you."
Register: Did panic ever take hold?
Brinkley: Oh yeah. I went back to see the show. The curtain rises and all of a sudden I go, "Oh God, what have I done? Look at the dancers up there. I'm going to look like a sack of potatoes." And then for a couple of days I felt a little sick. Then I started working in earnest. I had four weeks to learn the show, the dances, the songs. And I worked really hard. I would lie in bed at night moving my feet and counting "5-6-7-8" over and over.
Register: You got pretty good notices on Broadway. What were the audiences like?
Brinkley: They were incredible. I have a funny story about the first night. This one guy comes up afterwards and says, "Christie, can we get a picture with you? We came all the way from New Zealand just to see you." I said, "You flew all the way here just for this show? Please tell me it was worth it." He said, "Yes, it was well worth it." Then the couple next to him said, "Miss Christie, we have come from Japan just to see you." I said, "You did? Are you kidding me? Wow!" And then this couple goes, "Yeah, well, you know what, Christie? We came all the way from New Jersey just to see you. That's a drive. And it was worth it!"
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