Sometimes when she's rehearsing a play, Donna Lynne Champlin says, she can tell if it's going to be something special.
"It happens every once in a while when you're working on something and it starts to take on a life of its own," says Champlin, who stars in the Transport Group's new revival of Irwin Shaw's little-seen 1936 anti-war classic Bury the Dead
. "You finish a reading and we all look around at each other and go, 'Whoa.' "
She says she felt this special tingle during rehearsals for John Doyle's path-breaking 2006 Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd
, in which Champlin played both the barber Pirelli and the accordion; she felt it while working on Michael John LaChiusa's First Lady Suite
at the Transport Group in 2004. And she most definitely felt it again in the room with Shaw's striking play, in which war dead refuse to stay buried.
In a framing device/curtain-raiser conceived by Transport's resident director Joe Calarco (Shakespeare's R&J
), Champlin plays a contemporary music teacher who comes to a town hall meeting all fired up about current events after watching This Week With George Stephanopoulos
. She proposes they stage a reading of Shaw's play, and, as Champlin puts it, "The play literally takes over the theatre and the audience. The premise of the play is that six soldiers who have been killed in battle refuse to be buried.
"A lot of people think it's an anti-war play; it's not," Champlin says. "It's neither anti- or pro. Both sides are equally expressed. Joe keeps saying, 'When we hear the pro-war argument, I want it to be a real, even argument here.' I think that's one of the reasons it works so well."
How well does the original play—written before the horrors of WWII and the nuclear age, let alone our current age of global terror—hold up?
"In a way, fabulously so, and in a way horrifyingly so," Champlin says. "We noticed it at the first read-through. Clearly, it was written in 1936; the language is very 1936-y. But that's the only thing that makes it feel like it's from a different time."
The question some of her fans are likely to have, of course, is: Does she sing?
"No," Champlin reports. She does note, however, that one of her co-stars, Fred Berman, does a little singing at one point, and there's some "really great harmonica playing in the show."
But it's obviously not a musical, and Champlin feels fortunate that her career has successfully straddled musicals and plays.
"I made my Broadway debut in a play," notes Champlin, who indeed had one of the roles in the non-musical-with-music, James Joyce's The Dead
. "When I was establishing myself, I did these sort of hybrid things—plays with music."
These would include not only The Dead
but By Jeeves
, a sort-of-musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Alan Ayckbourn. Carol Burnett's autobiographical Broadway play, Hollywood Arms
, in which the redheaded Champlin played the Burnett character, had no singing or dancing at all, though its show-business milieu and larger-than-life characters weren't far from musical theatre.
"People ask me how I didn't get stuck in one box, in either musicals or plays," Champlin says. "I honestly don't know. I'm thrilled that I am able to cross over back and forth. I wish I had some applicable theory. I've just been one lucky sonofabitch!
Well, her degree with honors from Carnegie Mellon's Musical Theatre Program, and her extensive study of Shakespeare can't have hurt. There may be one other simple key to her career's diversity—simple, but not easy.
"I'm willing to work for not a lot of money," Champlin confesses. "I am a huge fan of making the artistic choice rather than the lucrative choice, which drives everyone I know crazy. For me, the theater is a wonderful place for us actors to go and really sink our teeth into delicious material."