Judy McLane is a Broadway actress currently starring in the long running show Mama Mia! As an actress and singer she has worked across all mediums including television, film, and concerts performed around the world. Other Broadway credits include Kiss of the Spider Woman, Aspects of Love, and Chess. Her national and international tours include, the Baker’s Wife in Into the Woods, the Narrator in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat co-starring with Donny Osmond, Mrs. Baskin in Big, and Side By Side By Sondheim, directed by Rob Marshall.
A full listing of Judy’s impressive body of work can be found here
So how long have you been doing Mama Mia?
Forever. Forever and a day. (Laughter) My story with Mama Mia is I started doing one role, Tanya, for seven and a half years and I’ve now been playing the lead role Donna for the last two years. It’s amazing. They let me go when I need to. I do a lot of symphony work…it might be 40’s music, it might be Broadway, or Gershwin, Cole Porter…so many different things. I just did Atlanta Symphony on New Year’s even, they’re great! I’ve got the best of all worlds. I went to do Next to Normal in the North West which I coached with Cay. They are really cool about that.
How do you do a show for 9 years and still keep it fresh every time?
You know, it’s the question I get asked most often. And you know, I’ll be honest with you, going to Cay gave me such an incredible foundation. I studied with her for many years, took movement classes there, and her class off and on. I’d go work on a project and come back. I coach with her pretty much on any new project I get, and she gives you such a foundation of preparation and a sense of place and a sense of how to go about a character and what to do. I still use that and maintain it. The difference being that I have to make it fresh every night so sometimes I’ll change a preparation. I’m lucky that I have different people coming to the show every night in different roles so I get to play opposite different people when they change the cast. In a long run you have understudies, so that helps to keep it fresh, but I really still use “peeling that onion” as Cay says, going down and digging deep, and it has really been a lovely playground. Even though I have to get out there and maintain the event of the play and the event of the scene, they are pretty good at letting me try things and letting me play as long as I stay true to what we are doing. So I play. I remember a class I had years ago where she said touch something, go around and touch things, and I use that a lot. I use my physical body in that way quite a bit and that’s been really effective for me.
So often it seems like that’s what it is, finding specifically what works for you…
I came from a singing place, from a music place first. I actually got my degree as an Opera Singer at Ithaca College. I knew I wanted to do it, I came to New York and had to learn a whole new technique, and basically started studying with Cay. I got my foundation from her. I worked off and on with her for years.
Any survival job before you started working?
Not just one survival job, I did them all! I answered phones, I did catering, I totally lied and said I had waited tables before when I had never waited in my life. I remember when I got my first broadway show I had just gotten night shifts, and as anyone who waits tables knows, that’s where the bucks are right? So I had just gotten my own night shift and I was like “Oh man, this is huge!” Then that same week I got my first broadway show any my boyfriend at the time said “Oh my god, let’s go celebrate” and I said “But I have to work tonight, I have my night shift!” And he goes “You’re quitting!” The funny thing is, I swapped out my night shift for a year trying to hold onto it! I swapped it out and I literally kept it for a year!
What was your first professional role?
I did so much non equity work before I became equity, I did so many great roles. But the first thing I did where I started to work equity was Chess on broadway. I understudied the lead, and I did that role many times around the country in regional theatres. And you get the role, you get to know it. Now I get frustrated when you don’t get the time to find a character and really express it. Like at the end of a six week run sometimes you think “I’m just now understanding what this character is.” I worked a lot at Papermill playhouse which really was like a playground for me, and they would let me do role after role and primarily musicals. The beauty of working with Cay is she often said Musical Theatre is like Shakespeare. When you go into a song it’s just heightened, it’s a heightened emotional moment. As long as it’s truthful and real then you’re doing okay.
What important lessons have you learned from studying with Cay?
Well I used to be in class thinking “I’m a singer, I come to the singing first.” And she really helped me to have more of a respect for what I did and have me realize okay, this is worth while. It’s not just about Musical Theatre equals bad acting. I bring the same process from class, whether it was Chekhov or Pinter, I bring the same process to what I do.
What is that process? When you get a character, what’s the first step, what’s the second, what guides you there?
Read the script, obviously. Hopefully with someone. Then see the similarities between me and my character are, and what’s the basis of where I come from and what I have to offer originally. And from that I branch out and make the other characters specific, who they are to me and what they mean to me personally. And then eventually break it down to each scene, see where and what the event of each scene is. And then what the physical life of the character is. I usually start incorporating that as soon as I can, as soon as I see where the character lives in me and what that is. I play two very different roles in Mama Mia, one a very upscale socialite, and the other earthy, in the ground, centered in the core. I try to get that in as soon as possible because for some reason the physical helps me more than anything.
Why do you think theatre is important?
It’s important now more than ever, with social media and with technology. To go to a theatre and experience something as an audience member, to see it happen right live on stage, and to empathize and sympathize with a character, I think that is what connects us all human beings. I think we have those experiences in a dark theatre. It’s us and what they call the big black giant, the audience sitting there. As a collective we’re experiencing something, and I think that’s really important. It’s like they say, where two or more are gathered, not in a religious way, but I think it’s so powerful. You’re in a chair experiencing next to someone who’s having a total experience from you.
As for being a performer, I think to have the privilege to get in front of an audience every night and to have them experience something with me and share that is like nothing I’ve encountered before. I count myself so lucky and privileged to be able to do it. To give someone joy, or grief, or sadness…we want to feel. I once had an 80 year old woman come up to me after a show and say to me “I haven’t had this much fun in 40 years.” And I got choked up. What is life but our experiences? And having those with people. And if you can have that in a theatre, and choose what you see, I think that is just a gift. It’s a gift. I count myself so lucky to be an actor.