With a Texas upbringing, a London education, an Olivier Award nomination, a cover album and a current starring role in a New York musical, it’s hard to believe actress Tara Hugo never saw herself as a singer. Stage Door Dish sat down with Olivier nominee, currently starring in Legacy Falls at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, to see how a southern ingenue who first snuck off to New York City for an audition ended up as one of the most diverse and international actresses in theatre today.
SDD: Can you start by telling me a little bit about your childhood? Where are you from originally?
Tara Hugo: I grew up in Amarillo, Texas. My dad is a musician and was a professional musician for many years, so I was actually born in Los Angeles, but all his family was in Amarillo. We went to Amarillo and that’s where I was raised, but my first introduction to music was through my father because he played the clarinet and the saxophone. My whole family, my sisters and my mother, are all singers and they also paint. The brothers are in business, but there were six of us, six children, but I’m the only one really who, from an early age, really had a desire to go out in the world. I had a taste of theatre in high school. I was very lucky because we had a teacher there called Neil Hess and he had been a ballet master in Utah and his daughters actually ended up in New York working with Jerome Robbins, so he was a connection in a way. To cut a long story short, I ended up deciding I wanted to be an actress, a serious actress. I was in college in Texas at the University of Texas and I remember that I sent off the applications for Julliard and for RADA in London and the Julliard application was very involved. You had to provide financial statements, letters from people who supported you artistically, and I wasn’t ready to be that upfront about my ambition about being a serious actress. The RADA application form, really all you had to do was show up in New York, and that was easier for me than filling out that Julliard application at that time because I was just a Texas girl. So, I didn’t tell anybody, I took my Christmas money and I came up here to New York and I auditioned for the principal of RADA, his name was Hugh Cruttwell and I got in! I ended up leaving Texas and going to London and those were very formative years. It was completely different from my background. Even though we had music in my family, there weren’t any actors. You know, we saw musicals in high school and whatever, but nothing beyond that. That’s really how I grew up in Amarillo and I ended up in theatre. It was by RADA in London, Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
SDD: After you were in school, you started your career back in the United States, correct?
Hugo: Yes, I came back because you couldn’t stay there. You know, Visa restrictions and all that. So I came back and I started really as a leading actress with some great theatre companies like the Guthrie and I was really doing what I wanted to do which was play Juliet and Ophelia, all the great classical roles. I did that in regional theatres—the Guthrie, Hartford Stage, Actors Theatre of Louisville—and I really got my feet wet and took on the difficult stuff. I was doing that and then my husband, we got together shortly after drama school, he was ahead of me at RADA but that’s how I knew him, his name is Steven Crossley, he was invited to do a part in Alan Rickman’s Hamlet in London. I went back with him and then we decided to stay in London. I knew that London is chalk full of brilliant actresses at the RSC and all that, and although I hoped I would have a chance to do more acting, I thought, “Maybe I should sing more.” I started singing and Alan Rickman became very important. He really encouraged me to sing and he directed my first singing shows. He helped me pick the material and also the order of how I should sing it, simple and conveying the song. He approached it like an actor, which I understood, but it was definitely singing. I sang everything from jazz to contemporary stuff to Kurt Weill. That became very important right around then. I kind of got firmly settled over there because now I was a singer as well as an actress and what happened was that the singing led me back to the theatre and I was asked to be in The Threepenny Opera at the Donmar Warehouse, which is this brilliant theatre in London. Sam Mendez ran it. I was in this production of The Threepenny Opera and it was kind of a radical production. Tom Hollander was Macheath and I was Jenny and Phyllida Lloyd was the director. We were nominated, the production, for an Olivier Award and I was singled out and nominated for an Olivier Award. That really put me into even more singing and even more theatre and more Kurt Weill as well. I started doing concerts and I started doing some films. I had some supporting roles in films and so really, that’s where I was based. I wanted to come back to America to do work but I didn’t quite know how to do that. I hoped I hadn’t burned all of my bridges because I worked with some terrific people here before I left. In 2007, I came back to New York and again, I was married to Steven Crossley and he was covering Bill Nye in The Vertical Hour. I came back here and I thought, “You know, I’ll just try, I don’t know if anyone remembers me,” because I had been over there about ten years. I remember I got with my agent, Marilyn Scott Murphy, and she got me three auditions and one of them was for Philip Glass. They were doing a production of a Leonard Cohen and Philip Glass collaboration and it was four singers and seven musicians, including Philip Glass was going to be performing as well as composing it. I got that job and I was one of the four singers, two women and two men, so I had a lot of singing to do and we did this incredible tour. We went everywhere and we were at the Lincoln Center, the Barbican, the Sydney Opera House, all over Europe at the best venues. It was a dream job. I got to know Philip Glass because we were onstage every night and that paid off later. Leonard Cohen was with us for the rehearsals and the big opening and Toronto at the Luminato Festival and also in London and in New York at the Rose Theatre at Lincoln Center. That was quite a big deal for me to do this thing. We had breaks in between and I went back to London for one of these breaks. It was a winter break, so we weren’t going to perform the Glass piece for…anyway, it was enough time that I was cast in La Cage Aux Folles at the Menier Chocolate Factory, which is the Douglas Hodge production that came here to New York. I was in the original production and it was directed by Terry Johnson. I was asked to move with it to the West End, but I was already contracted to go back to the Glass thing and I really tried to get it worked out but it was just impossible. I was sad, it typically happens to actors a lot, but at least I got to do the original production which was wonderful at the Chocolate Factory, in that little theatre and Douglas Hodge was so terrific. I just did lots of other small jobs in London mostly and here, but then just recently, I’ve done a solo album with Philip Glass. That’s my most recent project that has just come to fruition. I went to him and I wanted to record some of his songs and I got up the nerve to ask him to record all of his songs and he said, “Who’s producing it?” I took a deep breath and I said, “Well, in an ideal world, you would be!” Basically, he said yes. I’m the first ever singer to do a whole album of his songs. We took songs from different genres. We took them from The Book of Longing, which was not an opera piece at all, it was more of a contemporary thing. We took a couple from other pieces of his that maybe a tenor had sung in an operatic fashion. I was working with his main producer as well as Philip and he wanted to make them all more accessible. Even though they are still Philip Glass songs, I don’t think it’s what people expect, it’s not “one-two-three-one-two-three.” We took four of his melodies that were out there already, that were maybe played by an instrument like a cello or a violin, and we turned them into vocals and I wrote the lyrics for those four songs. I’m going to perform it in October at his festival in California called the Days and Nights Festival. I’ll be doing the whole album and I’m very excited about that. There are stories as well as well as music. I was able to use all my background—jazz, Kurt Weill, a little bit of classical, musical actress—we were able to put it all together and make it one thing so that these songs come across as stories. I’m very proud of it. I worked for two years on it.
SDD: That’s amazing that you were able to put that all together!
Hugo: The thing I haven’t told you about is how I got hooked up with Legacy Falls. I did the production in London when they did it in 2010. I finished the Glass stuff and this was a different version, it was longer, but I loved the script. I loved the part and the music is just so wonderful. You remember all the songs and it was just juicy and witty and smart. I was so excited to be doing that and we played for three weeks at what is now the Charing Cross Theatre. It’s in the West End but it was not a “West End production.” It was like Off-Broadway, off-West End. We got a great response and we were just so delighted that everyone loved it so much. I was nominated for an Offie, which is an off-West End award. I didn’t know that this was going to come back around again. You always hope that it moves on and I had hoped that it would be picked up immediately and it would be in the West End in 2010 or 2011, but these things happen on their own time. So here we are with a whole new cast, an American cast, it’s just wonderful. Gosh, I’m so excited to be with them all. Here we are at Legacy Falls.
SDD: Going off of that, the show runs for just a brief period of time here in New York. What’s it like to rehearse and learn a show and perform it in such a short time period as opposed to these other West End shows that have an extended or open-ended run?
Hugo: Well, I know, I know, it’s kind of like, “Oh, we only get to do it five times? After all this work?” You don’t work any less hard than you would if you were going to do a six-month or a year run. You put exactly the same amount of things into the rehearsals and into the part. I don’t think we’re thinking about it, really. We haven’t really thought about it that much. I know it’s a bit like festivals. When I was doing the Glass festival, we traveled to Taipei and did two shows only and then came all the way back, so I guess it’s like festivals except that we don’t get to come back to it in a few. I hope we get to come back to it and have a full-blown, huge, long run. I believe in the show that much, I really do. It’s hard, you want to have a good, long run at it because it always changes and grows. We’re going to do as many runs as we can before Tuesday, when we open, so we can experience it and that process of playing with it and having it grow and you have more a rapport with the other actors and the company, even though we already have a pretty good one already, that develops through playing with it. It’s kind of disappointing, actually, that it’s only going to be for five shows.
SDD: You have to make them count.
Hugo: You have to make them count! Exactly.
SDD: You actually have had a unique experience of working on the same show both in London and here in New York. What are the differences, the closing confines of doing theatre in general over in England and over here in the United States?
Hugo: I’d never done this before, stepping into a whole new company where I had done the role before and I knew it really well. I had some trepidation, not what the company would be like but could I start again but retain what we found over there, which I would have found again? It was the whole thing of “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water” and all that stuff. The differences…I suppose American actors, if I’m going to make a very generalized comment and I include myself in this too, I suppose they want to go into the motivation and psychological, the part of it. Ian encouraged that in London, too, I’m not saying he didn’t because the thing is you have to know what your subtext is even though it’s a musical. There’s a story we’re telling and it’s a bit like farce, in that it has to be real to be funny. He was encouraging that, but I think actually, if I’m going to generalize, the American company might really want to know more about the motivations than maybe a British company would. The comment that the British have about Americans is that Americans don’t understand irony. I don’t know if that’s true but I think there is some irony in this piece because it was written by James Burn. Although, half the cast in London was American because we were Americans who worked in London. There was no British production because there were Americans. Overall, I think good acting is good acting and good directing is good directing and it doesn’t matter what country it comes from. Just like it doesn’t matter that I just worked in a Philip Glass piece. If it’s good, it’s good. It doesn’t matter and I think that’s true with music. It can be country-western, it can be jazz, it can be musicals, it’s just good stuff.
SDD: Aside from the short time that Legacy Falls is running, how has working on the New York Musical Theatre Festival been different than past theatre projects and productions you’ve been a part of?
Hugo: I haven’t really noticed a difference yet. I think that we will on Tuesday, when we only have one day to get in, do a dress rehearsal, rest up, and do a performance. Normally, you go into a theatre the last week and you do a tech and you live in the theatre, at least if you’re lucky you live there for a week or even two days or three to four days is standard. That’s huge because the more you know your space, you make it your own. I feel that actors always have to go through a period where you have to get to know the space. We’ve been switching rooms at the rehearsal studios and it’s always the first time we do a run or rehearse there that it’s like, “Where am I?” It’s kind of disorienting. Maybe that’s a good practice thing because on Tuesday, we’ll have never been there before. I think it’s a bit like Edinburgh, I did a show in Edinburgh a few years ago and it’s the same thing. You have fifteen minutes to get in there, get the set up, do a lighting and sound check, and then you’re on. There were no dressing rooms there. I had to walk through the dirt, we were at a great theatre in Edinburgh, but the bathroom, you had to go where everyone like the audience went. I was in my costume, hoping nobody would see me. I have experience with that, even in the Chocolate Factory in London, where La Cage Aux Folles started. It was communal dressing rooms, no crossover behind the stage, you had to go outside and around and come back in the other way. We actors are used to whatever they throw at us. We’re prepared for anything, but we’re all kind of, “Oh God, Tuesday. Oh God.”
SDD: You’re an Olivier Award nominee for The Threepenny Opera. What was that experience like for you, for someone who ended school and did a lot of straight plays and Shakespearean roles and didn’t think about singing to someone who was nominated for one of the top theatre awards for a singing role?
Hugo: It was so exciting. I couldn’t believe it. I got the reviews to die for. It was just incredible. And they just don’t have one paper there, they have lots of newspapers and lots of critics, and so I was taken aback by that. I love that music, I loved doing it. Every night I went on stage I was like, “I don’t want this to end.” I loved that piece so much. I loved the company and the director. It was just so wonderful and I think that enthusiasm just came out of me when I went on stage. People picked up on that. I remember when I was nominated for it. The awards ceremony was terrifying because the “Who’s Who” in British theatre are there. Helen Mirren, Michael Gambon, you name them. You see them all in Harry Potter and any British film, they’re all there. Plus every director, Sam Mendez, Michael Boyd, every director, everybody is there! It was like, “What do I wear?” and “We’ve got to get a nice car” because you pull up and they have you on camera when you arrive. It was nerve-racking, really. Luckily, where I live, there was a limousine and mini-cab service. In London, you don’t get taxis if you have to go long distances because you could fly to another country for what they cost, so you get mini-cabs and they’re affordable. We used this mini-cab service and I remarked often how they’d often send a Mercedes or really fancy cars and they were the same price as a mini-cab, so I remembered that and said, “We’re going to order one from them.” They were late and they showed up, here we are and we’re all dressed up, and they sent a Volvo, a dilapidated, old-looking Volvo. I said, “Where’s the cars? What happened? Oh my god, it doesn’t matter. Let’s just go.” We get up there to Lester Square, and I didn’t realize until we got there that once you go in this sort of entryway, you can’t get out. You’re in a line with all of the limousines going to the theatre where they’re filming you when you get out. I was like, “No, we’ve got to get out now, we can’t let this Volvo go past the entrance with all the cameras!” So I said, “Stop, stop!” We had this temperamental, English driver who said, “I can’t stop, I’m going in.” I said, “No, you can’t go in, you have to let us out!” We got out and we walked up, but I remember looking back on those big screens and there was that Volvo that went by with nobody in it. To answer your question about what was it like, at the time, they stage it and they tell you where you get up and come up to the stage and you have to be ready. I kind of put together some words I was going to say, but I was so nervous. I was thinking more about how I could get up the steps to the stage if I won and how I could keep my composure and not sound like an idiot because as I said, we’d already seen the “Who’s Who” list of British theatre. There was a part of me which, I know this sounds ridiculous, when they didn’t announce my name, there were four of us nominated, I was actually, for a minute, relieved that I didn’t have to go up there. It was almost like you had won just being nominated, you know? It was a big deal. On the way there, by the way, in the Volvo, I had planned this in my ritual for getting there, I had him stop at RADA because I wanted to go look at my name on the wall, I had won an award there when I graduated as a student. I wanted to go look at it and think, “Here I am.” I just looked at it, got back in the car, and panicked about getting in front of the cameras.
SDD: Going back to the Philip Glass project, you said you did a bit of song writing. Can we expect an album with original music anytime soon from you?
Hugo: Well, I didn’t write music, I wrote lyrics. That’s a big difference. I did not write music. They are all Philip Glass’s compositions but I did write lyrics! I had written lyrics before when I did the show that Alan Rickman directed in London at the venues there and they were more like songs, compositions where I sang about what I knew, very organic things. People liked my lyrics but I kind of just put them on the back burner. When they decided to do this project, they had thrown around some pretty glamorous names for lyricists. I was very excited about that, but in the mean time, I thought, “Well, just to have something to sing, I’ll write some just so I can feel how the song will feel to be sung.” Kind of marking it, I suppose. It turns out that they liked my lyrics and just to have their approval kind of made me think, “Wow, I should do more now.” So yes, I’m working on that, about doing more recording, maybe some of my own stuff. I just don’t know, I’ve talked about it. There’s a jazz pianist, Jeanette Mason, we’ve talked about doing an album together. I also want to do some more Kurt Weill stuff. I don’t know, I just love moving around all of these different genres, so I just don’t know. I hope to do more work with Philip Glass and I’m sure that if there’s an opportunity, we will. I’m excited to be singing at his festival.
SDD: That is very cool. What is your favorite style of music to sing?
Hugo: Well, this is it. This is what I’m saying. Philip Glass also says this. He likes all kinds of music and he started in the theatre and he likes all kinds of theatre as well. I don’t know if I could choose! If it’s something that’s good, I really like all kinds of music. I get excited about all kinds of music. I know I don’t really have a favorite kind to sing. I mean, I went from singing Philip Glass stuff to these big, musical songs in Legacy Falls and honestly, I love both. I love them both.
SDD: That’s great that you are able to enjoy all kinds of music.
Hugo: I think it’s having training as an actor, I think a lot of actors can do that.
SDD: Aside from being a stage actress, you’ve also done some film and television work. How did you get into that?
Hugo: Well, it’s not so separate over in London. Over here, I think people are pigeonholed more, certainly with my experience before I went to London. I was sort of pigeonholed as a classical actress and more classical acting came my way. Not so much musicals or not so much film or television. But in London, especially since the union is all one thing as well, you just cross over all the time. There’s no delineation. Your agent will say, “Okay, I’ve got you this television audition.” That’s how it happens, you just do. You just go from one to the other. I was on a short list for a lot of things because I’m an American. People would come over and they would say on the breakdown “Original American. Must be American.” So I would be in there on the short list. I knew some directors who directed in theatre that were doing films and Richard Attenborough was very connected to RADA, he was the Chief Chairman at that time. He respected my training of course, and I auditioned for him for In Love and War and that’s how I got into that. That would be my answer. It’s a smaller community and it crosses over easier.
SDD: What would you say out of the three—live theatre, television and film—do you prefer?
Hugo: Well, they’re just so different. I think that film and television are great fun and it’s so short-term. You were asking me about just doing five performances of this theatre piece. You really become more of a company and a family in theatre whereas in film and television, you’re jobbed in. I suppose long-running series they’re all family and certainly the soaps and all that. In some ways, it’s a lot easier and in other ways it’s harder. It’s that “Wait, wait, wait” then “You’re on!” I did one television film with James Keach as the director and we were in Malta and one of the other actors had a terrible time remembering lines and it was agonizing because of all those cuts. When you’re on, it’s like time is money and it’s like “Cut!” and then you do another take and you say, “Oh god” and every time this actor would dry and it was like “Oh god, here we go again” and it got more intense. It finally ended up being a closed set and so, it’s a different kind of tension. You see the film and you can’t even tell, it looks fine. So I don’t think I have a favorite. I loved traveling to Italy, Malta, Tunisia, and I loved all that, but film’s so glamorous, right? And theatre is not so glamorous.
SDD: What is your favorite role that you’ve ever played?
Hugo: The current one! It’s always the current one! That’s the truth. Right now, Stephanie Stone is my most favorite role I’ve ever played. It’s a great role. It’s just got so much in it. I get to be a bitch. My diva bitch side gets an outing, so it’s great fun.
SDD: I can imagine, it sounds like a really fun role to play.
Hugo: Yeah, it is.
SDD: Do you have an ultimate dream role? If your agent called you tomorrow and said, “We want you to audition for this role” that you would say, “100%, I’ve always wanted to do it, let’s go.”
Hugo: Well, you know, I was really disappointed, I was up for the mother in Light in the Piazza when they were doing it in London. I had a lot of people behind me, wanting me to get the role. Actually, it didn’t go over. They wanted to do it in the West End but they did it in Leicester first and so, oh my gosh, I wanted to do that so badly. It was unfortunate that I had just flown in from Australia and then they changed my audition to the day I got there, so I had mega, mega jetlag. I worked really hard on it. But, they gave to an opera singer and so I didn’t get it, but that was a role that I thought, “Oh, I want to do this, I want to do this so much.” I was really excited about that, as much as I’ve been about The Threepenny Opera where I was Jenny and Stephanie in Legacy Falls. So there have been roles where I’ve thought, “Oh, I could really get my teeth into that,” but I can’t think of one right now. Yeah, I don’t know. That’s a good one!
SDD: One last question for you. What is next for you? Do you think that now you’ve kind of dabbled in the New York theatre scene a bit that you may want to make the leap to Broadway or what do you see in the future?
Hugo: Well, I hope we get picked up. You know, we’ve got some interested people coming and there’s a buzz about Legacy Falls and I want us to be picked up and to move on to Broadway. I’m telling you, this is a winner. I really believe that, I’m not just trying to sell the show. Quite frankly, I’ve been offered stuff in London and in New York and you always hate to turn down jobs, but I just thought, “This isn’t anything I’m excited about and it’s not that great, even though loads of people are going up for it and they’re casting it.” This thing I have remained excited about it and I just want it to move, of course. We all want our shows to move, but I really think it deserves it. I hope I can stay and do more here in musicals. All of the above!
SDD: Anything is possible!
Hugo: Anything is possible, absolutely!