Debra Messing's Smashing New York Return
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“You know, the last person I interviewed was Elizabeth Taylor.”
Michael Kors thus greets Debra Messing in his office atop his eponymous label’s 42nd Street headquarters, partly to note he’s not a novice in the journalism arena; that is to say, when it comes to lobbing the questions, she can rest assured he’s got game to an icon degree. But ever the comedienne, Messing knows the next line, accompanied by the perfect look of mock horror: “Or it means I’m going to be dead soon.”
It’s easy to envision Messing and Kors as fast friends, sharing a love of fashion (you’ll see her in the front row of his shows most seasons), of New York, and most especially of theater—a cultural passion they both share. The latter plays a central role in Messing’s life as she embarks on her latest career move, starring in Smash, NBC’s Broadway-themed musical drama. The show brought the Brooklyn-born actress back to New York from Los Angeles, where she vaulted into the pop-culture stratosphere during eight seasons playing one half of the drollmeets- neurotic duo that was Will & Grace. Despite the December announcement that she and husband Daniel Zelman were divorcing after 10 years, Messing seems energized about what lies ahead, both for her work in a show that galvanizes her passion for the stage, as well as the new life she’s building for herself and her seven-year-old son, Roman.
MICHAEL KORS: We’re so excited about Smash, your new show. How did the conversations start?
DEBRA MESSING: My agent—I’ve been with her forever, and she knows I hate everything. It’s basically that I don’t want to work, so I have to love something to want to work. She called me and said, “I read a script I know you’re going to love; I’m sending it over.” The second I read it I called her up and said, “I have to be a part of this.” When I got the call that said I was offered the part, I shrieked, and all hell broke loose.
MK: You get sent things all the time. What was it about this particular one that made it that attractive?
DM: I was the first one cast. I knew it was an original idea from Steven Spielberg—he has a pretty good track record. I was told that some of the producing partners were responsible for the film Chicago, and I thought, that’s good. Theresa Rebeck was [a finalist] for the Pulitzer Prize for playwriting, and she wrote the pilot [and is a creator and an executive producer]; and then Michael Mayer, who directed Spring Awakening on Broadway, was directing the pilot.
MK: So it all was working.
DM: It all felt like bashert [destiny]. I thought, here’s a creative team, everyone is at the top of their game, and I’m going to learn something every day working with these people. I’m going to be pushed and challenged, and it seemed really exciting. And then of course, the fact that it was about the world of Broadway musicals. That was my first love, that’s what I wanted to do.
MK: [laughs] No, really?
DM: [belting out into the room] “Another opening…” I wanted to be a hoofer, I wanted to be a musical-theater girl. My journey went a different way, but it’s come full circle. The fact that I can act in a TV show that’s entirely of that world, I literally could not have written a dream project for myself, concept-wise, more exciting than this one.
MK: It’s kismet. Who’s your character?
DM: It’s a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a Broadway musical, which is written by [my character, Julia Houston]. I’m the lyricist, and my partner, Tom, is the composer.
MK: So you’re the modern-day Betty Comden.
MK: That’s divine. I love that.
DM: And [my character is] married, has a 15-year-old son, and we live in Brooklyn. You find out I’ve committed to my husband that I would stop working for a year, because we want to adopt a child. So in the pilot I come up with the idea of doing a musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe, and all of a sudden it’s something I cannot let go of, and everything breaks loose from there. Then you meet the Broadway producer, who’s played by Anjelica Huston, and you get to see her life. She’s going through a divorce…
MK: So you’re seeing all of your lives plus what goes into making this musical.
DM: Absolutely. You see the musical being written each episode. We have a Tony Award-winning composer and lyricist, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who wrote Hairspray; every episode they write an original song. And then you meet the actresses auditioning to play Marilyn; you see their lives out in New York, being a waitress and wanting to get their big break.
MK: It’s like Project Runway. Honestly, a lot of people who watch the show don’t even really care about fashion. They’re just fascinated by the process. So now we’ve got American Idol, we’ve got The Voice, and in Smash, you’ve got Katharine McPhee’s character, who’s “discovered.” There’s something oldschool, Stage Door about that.
DM: It’s brilliant because it’s life imitating art. Katharine McPhee was discovered literally before America’s eyes on American Idol. You rooted for her; I voted for her. Every week you got emotionally invested in her success. In a way, this is her entrée into a whole new world as well because it’s television. And there are real Broadway stars in our cast. Christian Borle, who plays Tom, my composer partner, was nominated for a Tony for Legally Blonde. Brian d’Arcy James [Shrek the Musical, Sweet Smell of Success] plays my husband; Megan Hilty starred in Wicked.
MK: You see people in the theater now who are brilliantly talented, like Sutton Foster—she’s a showstopper every night, and in another era she would have been Mary Martin. In today’s world, theater could be myopic, but you guys are pulling the curtain back.
DM: We’re also trying to incorporate people from the real world. Michael Riedel, the [New York Post theater] critic, he came on our show, and Bernadette Peters. We’re really trying to utilize shooting in New York, where Broadway is right outside our door.
MK: It’s kind of full circle for you. You started on off-Broadway, didn’t you?
DM: I did. I was born in Brooklyn, my mother was born in Brooklyn. She was a singer, part of a quartet in the ’60s called the BrookTones, and she played Funny Girl when I was three; I knew the words to “I’m the Greatest Star” before “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” I came back here for my master’s degree from NYU, and then did off-Broadway theater until I was pulled out to LA to do Ned and Stacey.
MK: Are the wheels turning to hit the stage again?
DM: I’ve been ready since I finished graduate school. Theater was always my first love.
MK: In the right thing, we’re going to see Debra sing and dance.
DM: You’ll see me sing on Smash. We’ve already shot it.
MK: Love it. So let’s have our theater tête-à-tête. Now that you’ve been in New York, what have you seen that pushed your buttons?
DM: War Horse.
DM: The first 10 minutes, seeing the colt come to life—that was one of the most magnificent things I’ve ever seen. Follies…
photography by brian bowen smith; Styling by Julie Matos for Ford Artists, NYC; Hair by Ted Gibson at TedGibsonBeauty.com; Makeup by Gita Bass for Exclusive Artists/Chanel; Manicure by Deborah Lippmann for deborahlippmann.com
Gotham Magazine hosted its latest issue featuring the current cast of Saturday Night Live at the Four Seasons Hotel on Monday, February 23.