Emmy Winner Debra Monk Comes Home in Signature's ‘Mrs. Miller'

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Debra Monk at Signature Theatre

Jason Fraley | November 30, -0001 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — Her Emmy and Tony talent was groomed here in our area.

Now, Debra Monk returns home for “Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing” at Signature Theatre now through March 26, sharing the stage with an impressive cast, including four-time Tony winner Boyd Gaines.

“You’ll get your money’s worth, that’s for sure,” Monk told WTOP. “It’s a really great, really fun, entertaining, also very moving and thought-provoking show. So you get a little bit of everything.”

Created by Pulitzer Prize winner James Lapine (“Sunday in the Park with George,” “Into the Woods”), the play is based on the true story of Elva Miller, whose infamous off-key singing became a pop music phenomenon in the late 1960s by covering hits like “Downtown,” “Monday Monday” and “Girl from Ipanema.” As Signature Theatre puts it: “When Mrs. Miller does her thing, it’s so bad — it’s good.”

“She started off as a 58-year-old woman who sang in church in Claremont, California, not a great singer, a soprano who was not always known for hitting the right notes or even being in the right time,” Monk said. “But there was a little recording made of ‘Downtown’ that she did, which all of a sudden Capitol Records got a hold of and she became an overnight sensation in the United States.”

How do they mine laughs from the bad singing while remaining respectful to the real-life woman?

“She took herself seriously as a singer,” Monk said. “She loved to sing, she thought she was a good singer, this happened to her and people made fun of her, but she was a person who loved to sing and loved the spotlight, so I think she enjoyed this time even though people considered her a bit of a joke.”

While the general public might have considered her a joke, Mrs. Miller ultimately got the last laugh, laughing all the way to the bank like William Hung after his infamous “She Bangs” on “American Idol.”

“She got some recording [deals], she made some money, she was on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ she did a U.S.O. show with Bob Hope, she made four albums, she was on ‘The Jimmy Durante Show,'” Monk said. “She was on television a lot and did a lot of things for a housewife from Claremont, California.”

Not only is this work an individual’s rags-to-riches story, it also provides a social commentary of the ’60s.

“James Lapine wrote this piece because he wanted to write about that period of time in the ’60s, because it was the Vietnam War, it was civil rights, a lot of things were happening in our country. So when he discovered Mrs. Miller, he thought, ‘Well this is my way in.’ So, it’s about a lot of things.”

Visually, the action is staged on a turntable that captures a specific time and place.

“We have a turntable, which is really interesting,” Monk said. “You’re gonna see the beginnings of the ’60s when everything started to change. … In this span of years, you start off a button-up kid and by two years later, you’re like a long-haired hippie. It was a wild time in the history of our country when things dramatically changed and people dramatically changed. … So you’ll see a lot of things that way visually. You’ll see a time capsule of that time, beautifully staged, wonderful costumes and wigs.”

It was during that era that Monk grew up. Born in Ohio in 1949, her family soon moved to Arlington, Virginia, where she attended Patrick Henry Elementary before moving to Takoma Park and Wheaton, Maryland. Upon graduating from Wheaton High School, she enrolled at Frostburg State University.

“A lot of high school friends, college friends and family have all come to see the show,” Monk said.

Ironically, Monk never studied theater in high school, discovering it by accident in college.

“I had never seen a play, I had never been in a play, I think I was a screamer and a fainter in ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ and that was it,” Monk said, laughing. “I went to Frostburg and you had to take a speech class. My teacher Dr. Press … said, ‘You should try out for a play’ … It was Harold Pinter’s ‘The Birthday Party,’ and I always say to this day say, ‘I don’t know what the hell it was about.’ But anyway, I did that play and I started to study acting at Frostburg and [Dr. Press] suggested that I go to graduate school.”

After studying acting at Southern Methodist University, she moved to New York, where she worked as a waitress and typist for four years before writing a breakthrough musical role for herself in 1982.

“It took me a long time to get started,” Monk admits. “Then I co-wrote a show called ‘Pump Boys and Dinettes,’ which started my career in New York. [‘Pump Boys’] started off-Broadway and ended up on Broadway, which was surprising that we wrote this little show, the six of us, and we were actually nominated for a Tony Award Best Musical. It was a wild time for us, but it was great. I feel very lucky.”

Other Broadway productions followed, earning a Drama Desk Award for writing the off-Broadway show “Oil City Symphony” (1986), and acting in both “Prelude to a Kiss” (1990), starring Alec Baldwin and Mary-Louise Parker, and “Nick & Nora” (1991), starring Barry Bostwick and Joanna Gleason.

In 1993, she won a Tony for Lanford Wilson’s “Redwood Curtain” about a Vietnam veteran who lives in the redwood forests of the Northwest United States and meets a woman who runs a forestry.

“It didn’t last very long; we only ran about six weeks,” Monk said. “In fact, when I won my Tony Award, the show had already closed! So nobody really wanted to talk to me! My friend said, ‘You know what you are? You’re a winner but a loser at the same time.’ … But I’m thrilled to have won that award.”

After the Tony win, other Broadway roles came pouring in: “Picnic” (1994), “Company” (1995), “Ah, Wilderness!” (1998), “Thou Shalt Not” (2001), “Chicago” (2005) and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (2012). She earned two more Tony nominations for her work in “Steel Pier” (1997) and “Curtains” (2007).

Along the way, she was cast in films by Robert Redford on “Quiz Show” (1994), Warren Beatty on “Bulworth” (1998) and Taylor Hackford on “The Devil’s Advocate” (1997), starring across Al Pacino.

“He was amazing,” Monk said. “I didn’t get to be with him in too many scenes, but I got to be there watching him, and he was truly a lesson in acting, in film acting, to watch him.”

Monk also worked across the prolific Meryl Streep in “The Bridges of Madison County” (1996).

“She is truly extraordinary,” Monk said. “I’ve been lucky enough to work with Meryl in the movies and also in a play. She’s very generous, one of the most generous people I’ve ever met and such a pro.”

The film also coincided with TV acclaim, wining an Emmy for guest starring on “NYPD Blue” in 1999.

“They brought me in to play Dennis Franz’s [ex-wife],” Monk said. “I did one episode of that where our son had died and it was a very tearful episode. Then two years later, they brought me back, and she had turned into an alcoholic by this time. … It was great. They wrote me the most beautiful episode about her having trouble. That’s what won me the Emmy — they wrote a beautiful episode for me.”

You may also recognize her from ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” and Amazon’s “Mozart in the Jungle.”

“It’s coming back! We’re going to do our fourth season,” Monk said. “We get to shoot [‘Mozart’] in New York, so I get to be home and shoot it. It’s a wonderful cast, a fabulous piece and a wonderful character. I get to play a spicy, wonderful, wacky gal … The whole cast is fabulous. It’s a great show.”

Through all of her roles, Monk never stops pushing her limits and never stops shifting mediums,

“I have been very, very, very thankfully employed and able to do movies and television and theater,” Monk said. “I’m very happy about being able to do all those things, so it’s very exciting.”

Click here for more info on “Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing.” Listen to our full chat with Debra Monk below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Debra Monk (Full Interview)

Jason Fraley | November 30, -0001 12:00 am

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