WASHINGTON — She grew up in our area before earning Tony and Emmy glory.
“It’s a really fun, entertaining, also very moving and thought-provoking show,” Monk told WTOP.
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.”
This lack of talent is played for laughs, as Monk hilariously belts off-pitch at the mic. How does she mine laughs from Miller’s voice 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 the play a 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 unfolds on a turntable that rotates just like Mrs. Miller’s vinyl records, all set against a “Hollywood Squares”-style backdrop where various panels show ’60s imagery. The time period is also reflected in the off-color comments by Miller’s cranky husband John, played by Gaines with the shaking hands of old age, not to mention the evolving costumes of Rebekah Brockman, who plays Miller’s concerned niece Joelle, and Corey Match, who plays Joelle’s scheming boyfriend Simon.
“In this span of years, you start off a buttoned-up kid and two years later, you’re a long-haired hippie,” Monk said. “It was a wild time in the history of our country when things and people dramatically changed. … You’ll see a time capsule of that time, beautifully staged, wonderful costumes and wigs.”
It was during this 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 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 for Best Musical. It was a wild time for us, but it was great. I feel very lucky.”
Other shows followed, including the Off-Broadway hit “Oil City Symphony” (1986), which earned Monk a Drama Desk Award, and Broadway shows “Prelude to a Kiss” (1990), starring Alec Baldwin and Mary-Louise Parker, and “Nick & Nora” (1991), starring Barry Bostwick and Joanna Gleason.
In 1993, Monk 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 in “Quiz Show” (1994), Warren Beatty in “Bulworth” (1998) and Taylor Hackford in “The Devil’s Advocate” (1997), starring across Al Pacino.
“[Pacino] 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 films coincided with TV acclaim, as Monk won an Emmy 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.”
Until then, come see her belt to the rafters as Mrs. Miller at Signature Theatre.
“You’ll get your money’s worth, that’s for sure,” Monk said with a smile.
Click here for more info on “Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing.” Listen to our full chat with Debra Monk below: