Broadway's Mary Callanan Spreads Holiday Cheer
It’s the holiday season, and with it comes new song standards by some incredible artists. Theatrely recently spoke to Boston native and Broadway veteran Mary Callanan about “At Least There’s Christmas” – written by conductor/pianist Caleb Hoyer – that tries to encapsulate the wide range of emotions everyone is experiencing as Christmas 2020 approaches.
Theatrely: Tell me a little bit about growing up in Boston. Did you attend a lot of the local theaters there?
Mary Callanan: You know, I didn't! I was more into sports reports and choir until I went to my first show at the Colonial late in high school on a date to see Annie! Then I got to see Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, Yul Brynner in The King and I — but I didn't really start doing theater till I was pretty much out of college. I sang in a band, that's what I did!
T: Then when did you know you wanted to be in theatre?
MC: Strangely enough, when my husband and I were signing our mortgage! We had gotten married, and I had been singing in a band like five or six nights a week and working at Boston Music while he was doing a real job, if you will. And we went in to sign the mortgage and I picked up the pen and I said, “you know, I think I want to do theater.” And he's like, “great, because I don't want to work at the hotel anymore. I want to do theater management.” And we were like, “okay let's sign the mortgage!” So that's exactly what had happened, it's so bizarre. And it worked! It was a gamble and it worked.
T: Now you have such a storied career, I guess that's how you met Caleb Hoyer. Tell me a little bit about your relationship with him.
MC: Yes, he was our associate musical director on Bridges of Madison County. I had just never met anyone that was that brilliant and that young. He's a shy kid, like the band people usually hung out with the band people, but I would say, “you want to have lunch some time?” just because the road is the road and he's just a very nice guy. And then the show closed, and you know theater families are really tight and then spread to the wind when the show is over. But he's also like a vocal coach in New York, so if I needed a piece of music so I could learn it or whatever, you know, and I would see him through the years since Bridges closed. So then when I heard him sing “At Least There’s Christmas” on his Facebook I immediately called him and said. “Hey hey hey hey hey! Can I sing that? Would that be okay?”
T: How did you feel when you first heard “At Least It’s Christmas”? What made you want to sing it?
MC: If you've had any of the experiences that are listed in the song this year, it will grab you. I mean, I would imagine it would grab you. It's one of those songs where If I had been in a car, if it was on the radio, I would have had to pull over. So, you know, you're trapped in your house, and you're just sitting there looking at Facebook. And then Caleb came on and he was like, “Hey, guys! I wrote this song. I thought I'd sing it for you,” and I was just stunned. He nailed it perfectly, and yet it sounds like a traditional Christmas popular song. It's almost like an “I'll Be Home for Christmas” for our generation, or for 2020.
T: You're right, everyone's had quite the year. You were on tour with My Fair Lady before the pandemic. What was it like then that was put on hold?
MC: Well getting the job was so great way back when! We started rehearsal at the end of October, we teched in Schenectady, we opened a year ago this week, we had the press opening in the Eisenhower Theatre at the Kennedy Center. Christmas and New Year's at the Kennedy Center–I highly recommend it. It was perfect, you know, fireworks on New Year's Eve over the Potomac. It was unbelievable. So I'd given up my New York apartment because, of course, we were going to be on the road for at least a year, if not more.
And then three months later we were in Ohio, and we heard about this thing that was out there in the world. And we opened on a Tuesday night for a sold out week in Columbus at the State Theater, which coincidentally, is right across the street from the state house and the governor of Ohio was the first governor to shut everything down. So we sat in Columbus for a week and other states were saying, “No, no, no, you can come on, we're good. Iowa's clean. Come on, come on.” And the producers kept us there for five days until finally Friday night, they said, “yeah, no, we're done for the moment.” I guess some time during that week, they told us to pack our stuff up because we'd already all been to the theater, packed up our makeup, put away our ditty bags and and went through our trunks because it's they said we'll probably be off for a couple of months so if there's food in your trunk, please take it out. That kind of thing. And that was it.
Saturday as they were giving us the meeting, as we were all sitting in a hotel room and they're telling us, I'm scrolling through my phone and I'm renting a car because they weren't going to fly us out until Monday. I thought “there's some highly contagious infectious disease, I don't think I want to fly.” So I drove straight from Saturday morning, 8:00 AM., left Columbus, got to my house at 9:30 PM. You know, I stopped to go to the bathroom and that was a nerve racking experience, just like “should we be doing that, should we even be stopping?” And it sucked, it sucked really hard because, you know, it was a good job. It was a highly positively reviewed show, brilliant performers, a gorgeous Lincoln Center production, the costumes, the sets, everything, the orchestration. And they tell us we're just on an intermission. A really long intermission.
T: So how have you been staying creative during this time?
MC: Well I will say that Caleb's song was the perfect thing to hopefully sprint over the finish line of 2020. I've had some Zoom readings, I've done some play readings, I've done some film and TV auditioning by camera. Which may end up being the new way we all audition, which I'm a thumbs down on that.
That being said, what have I been doing creatively? The answer to my prayer has been my Tuesday night, I do a one hour virtual piano bar with my longtime musical partner Brian Patton on Facebook Live every week. We call it Tipsy Tuesday. So we make a cocktail and we taste it and either it's good or some of them have not been, but that's funny too. And then we take requests from people! So much like in a regular piano bar, if there's 20 or 30 people there and someone will yell out “Christmastime Is Here” from Snoopy or “Omar Sharif.” Like we had a cocktail one day called Omar Sharif, and Brian said, “Well so you'll sing that song, right?” I said, “No, no, no, I can't sing that!” But so we sing what people ask us to sing. And so last week was Dionne Warwick's 80th birthday. So we did “Promises Promises”, we did all kinds of Burt Bacharach, which is a little challenging, and then we did her regulars like “Say A Little Prayer”, “Foolish Things”, and we added Christmas songs. And then people want to hear things because they miss theater. When I do these things in our virtual piano bar, you know there's a lot of eleven o’clock numbers like “Ladies Who Lunch”, or “Fifty Percent” from Ballroom, or Gypsy because people miss theater. Or they want to hear Dolly Parton's “9 to 5” complete with the tambourines and the foolishness.
So it's been a different kind of creativity. It's not my theater creativity, but when it's a theater song it's nice to be able to act a song, tell a story. But you're singing to the camera instead of singing to the people. And you just have to trust that people are actually getting what you're trying to send out. So that and shoveling and raking leaves and I made all our Christmas stuff this year, like I made the wreaths and I decorated the mantles.
T: To end on a lighter note, do you have any theatre mishaps or any funny stories you want to share?
MC: Well, I assume that everyone has to have the story of when your wig falls off on stage, that's never good. I was doing Mamma Mia! on Broadway and the guy that was playing my partner Bill Austin came running out for the finale–they run out in those big shoes and we all do “Waterloo” together–he ran out and he jumped and he landed, and he looked at me and I knew he had broken his foot in that second. So Donna, Rosie, and Tanya are the only ones where our wig mics are off and we have handhelds. So I just pulled my mic away and I said, “you just mouth the words because I know, I can see it." And I had to like, lift him up! I said "we don't have to do choreography. We can just be in love." And so there are bad things that happen. But thankfully, it was right at the end of the show. But we got him in the wings and sure enough, he had broken a bone in his foot. And I still don't know how. He still doesn't know how he did it.
Also speaking of Mamma Mia! I had also done the show on the road for a number of years. And I had a dentist appointment so I wasn't at the first show of the day, but I came in for the second show. And at the end of the show, when we put on those big outfits and sing “Waterloo”, we have a 30-second full costume change from what we wore in the last scene of the play into the ABBA costumes. And so we throw off the linen and I'm jumping into my jumpsuit–and the head dresser was my dresser because I had the most costume change–and I said, “we have a problem, we have a really big problem.” And she said, “what?” And I said, “this isn't my costume!” I guess the gal that was my understudy in the first show was probably a size 12, and I was a size 16. The costumes were made of spandex, but still. So she said "there's no time. Take a breath. One, two, three." And she zipped it up and I went out. Because of the way that Rosie's costume was designed it didn't have arms which was good, but I'm out there and I'm afraid to move because I'm afraid the whole thing's going to explode. And my friend who's playing Tanya is looking at me and I keep trying to have her look at the costume. She couldn't stop laughing because, of course, I could only move my arms. That was hilarious, except not for me, but hilarious!
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.