Helen Hunt makes her musical theater debut in 'Working'
Helen Hunt has held a wide array of onscreen jobs in the various films and TV series that have earned her an Oscar and four Emmy Awards — including waitress (“As Good as It Gets”), PR exec (“Mad About You”) and storm chaser (“Twister”).
So she’s perhaps more prepared than most to take on some of the employment options featured in “Working,” an updated version of the Nina Faso and Stephen Schwartz musical that was, alas, a flop on Broadway back in 1978 yet remains a perennial favorite at regional and community theaters across the country. Part of New York City Center’s Encores! Off-Center series, it runs through Saturday, and marks Hunt’s musical theater debut.
Based on Studs Terkel’s bestselling book, which includes interviews with real people across the United States talking about their jobs, the show features music from an eclectic mix of songwriters (including Schwartz, Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Mary Rodgers and James Taylor), plus new songs by “Hamilton’s” Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Hunt’s own resume includes acting, screenwriting and directing of films and TV series. And, yes, she’ll be both in front and behind the camera for the eagerly anticipated reboot of “Mad About You,” the 1990s hit sitcom that made her a star, which she and co-star Paul Reiser announced will air on Spectrum later this year. Hunt, 56, recently spoke by phone with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio.
Q: You have an interesting and unexpected connection to this show.
A: The whole thing kind of comes together for me. I’ve loved the show forever. But the only reason I’m an actor at all — the moment I decided THAT’S what I want to do — goes back years earlier (before "Working" was a show). When I was 8, I saw the musical "Godspell" (by Roslyn Heights native Stephen Schwartz). I’d seen a lot of theater even by age 8, but I hadn’t seen that kind of theater … where they’re not pretending it’s real. The actors were painting their faces in front of you, getting dressed in front of you. Somehow the story seemed even more potent and convincing when they weren’t pretending it was really happening. I don’t know, there’s probably a better way to describe that, but that’s what “Godspell” was like that for me — and seeing it made something happen. It made me think, “I want to make theater.” I don’t care if I’m on the stage or off the stage, but I want to be in the room where that kind of thing is made. So … now … getting to do another show with music by Stephen Schwartz is a giant win.
Q: Nice. But that’s not what I was thinking of.
A: (Another draw) is the cast. I’m a super-fan of these singers I’m singing with. I knew how great Christopher Jackson and Javier Muñoz are because I came back so many times to see them in “Hamilton.”
Q: Yeah, they were both great in that. But that’s not what I’m thinking of, either.
A: And then my connection to Mary Rodgers —
Q: Bingo. That’s it. What a crazy coincidence that you once knew the late Mary Rodgers, one of “Working’s” songwriters and a daughter of the legendary Broadway composer Richard Rodgers.
A: Mary’s husband, Henry Guettel, and my father were drafted at the same time. They met on the first day of basic training. The story goes that my dad said, “This looks like a very sad production of ‘On the Town,'" and one guy laughed — it was Henry. Our families became friends. I grew up with (their kids). So to sing her song is incredibly meaningful.
Q: It’s a song about a frustrated teacher. Did you request to sing Mary Rodgers’ song or is it just serendipity?
A: No. In fact, I was afraid of it. She was a pretty spiky woman, the teacher who was interviewed (for the original book, and who inspired the song). And that’s reflected in the lyrics.
Q: This marks your musical theater debut. Why this show?
A: I love the show. I’ve loved it forever. My daughter was in a beautiful production of it in her high school — and they toured in Northern California, performing in juvenile detention centers and county hospitals.
Q: Wow — tough crowds. Who did your daughter play?
A: She played Utkarsh, the caretaker of the older man. It’s the part Javier Muñoz is playing.
Q: Ahhh, so she got to sing a new song written for the show by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Did she give you any pointers?
A: As I’m learning the harmonies, I keep texting her saying, “You should be here, you’d pick these up in five seconds.” We’ve got a very short rehearsal period. But when I see other musical performers I love going, “Wait — do that three more times,” I feel much better.
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