When it comes to the "Little Girls" in her life, Jane Lynch has swapped Cheerios for orphans. Best known as cantankerous high school cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester on FOX's Glee, the Emmy-winning actress makes her Broadway debut as boozy and belligerent orphanage matron Miss Hannigan in Annie. She fills in for Katie Finneran (who left the hit revival to star in a new NBC sitcom). Fully dressed with a smile backstage at the Palace Theatre, her home till July, Lynch explains why, despite initial fear, she thinks she's gonna like it here.
By Brandon Voss
Playbill: Tell me about the first time you stepped out onto the Palace stage.
Jane Lynch: I remember thinking, "Judy Garland was up here, Liza Minnelli was up here." This theatre's been around for 100 years, and I'm so proud to be part of its history. It's loaded with ghosts, and I can't wait to meet some of them.
You earned an M.F.A. in theatre from Cornell University and you're a veteran of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company and The Second City. In 2009 you also appeared Off-Broadway in Love, Loss, and What I Wore. Was Broadway a goal?
I guess not. The idea of being on Broadway was like the idea of hosting Saturday Night Live — a preposterous fantasy. I never thought I would be lucky enough or good enough for Broadway. I'm surprised I've done so well because my expectations of myself are not that high. I've always lowered the bar for myself. I did not expect life to hand me such wonderful things.
Some people may be surprised to learn that you have so much previous stage experience.
I've wanted to be on TV since I was a kid, but I'm a stage person first. I've been doing plays forever. Of course, Broadway is the pinnacle, the best of the best, and I'm so glad to be in this brother/sisterhood.
What was the first Broadway show you ever saw?
It was Slab Boys with Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon in 1983, while I was in my last year of grad school at Cornell. When you get down to it, Broadway's just theatre like any other theatre, but you do feel the magic of Broadway. When the lights came up, I remember just looking at the actors, thinking, "Oh my God, they're so lucky."
In your memoir, Happy Accidents, you describe your life and career as a series of happy accidents. Do you consider Annie one of them?
Yeah, I didn't set out to do this. Way in the back of my mind, I thought, "I'd love to play Miss Hannigan someday." I'd love to play Mame and Mama Rose too, but will that ever happen? Probably not. When my agent said we'd gotten the call about Annie, I started to create reasons in my mind why I couldn't do it, so I told her no. I was in a coffee shop about a week and a half later, sipping a macchiato by myself, and I went, "What is the matter with you, Jane? You're making up excuses because you're afraid." When I called my agent to tell her I'd do it, she said, "I knew you'd come around, so I never told them no; I've been working on the deal."
What were you afraid of?
That I was going to fail. That it's a huge deal and everyone would be watching. I love being the person who surprises everyone, like, "Who's that?" Now that people know who I am, they're like, "Alright, Jane Lynch, prove to me you're worth the hype."
You go into horrific detail in your memoir about how miserable you were after moving to New York City briefly during the '80s. Are you more excited about being in NYC this time around?
Oh, yes. The difference between now and 1984, when I first lived here, is that now I'm staying in a very nice hotel, people drive me places, I get good dinner reservations… People smile at me on the street now, as opposed to how mean the city felt in 1984.
In other words, New York is better when you have money, fame, and a great job.
It's the only way to fly.
You returned to New York in 1991 to perform in The Real Live Brady Bunch at the Village Gate. Was the city kinder the second time around?
I had a hard time, but I enjoyed the city much more during Brady Bunch. In '84 I had been at the height of my alcoholism, the height of my own self-contempt, so in '91 I reclaimed the West Village for myself and grew to love New York again as if for the very first time. Now I just adore New York.
What did you learn from your last stage appearance in Love, Loss, and What I Wore?
I learned that New York theatre is exhausting. I was sitting in a chair with a script in front of me, but it was still eight shows a week, and I remember stealing yawns even then. Tyne Daly was in the show with me, and I said to her, "How did you do Mama Rose in Gypsy eight shows a week?" She said, "I only existed during the shows. The only time I talked or moved was to do the show." So I guess that's the way to do it.
Did the experience make you want to do more New York theatre?
Actually, when I was doing Love, Loss, and What I Wore, I said, "I don't know that I really need to do this again. This is a lot of work!" And then I was pretty satisfied doing Glee. When I got Glee I felt relieved and stopped wanting so much. But just recently my ambition kicked in again. I got the itch for more and I started thinking about other things I wanted to do. Then Annie came along.
What's your relationship to Annie?
Well, I'm a musical theatre person. I didn't see a lot of musicals growing up, but I knew all the cast recordings, so I know every breath of the Annie score. I hadn't actually seen Annie until I came to see this production a few months ago. I'd never really seen the movie either.
That's a surprise, especially considering you've worked with Carol Burnett, the film's Miss Hannigan. She even wrote the foreword to your memoir.
I know! She's a friend. When it was announced that I'd be playing Miss Hannigan, she was actually the first person to text me to say, "congratulations" and that I'd be a great Hannigan. I've since watched the movie.
You weren't worried about being influenced by Carol's performance?
Well, I didn't watch the whole thing. [Whispers] I didn't really like the movie. But Carol Burnett was amazing!
You've made Glee character Sue Sylvester a famous villain, but Miss Hannigan is already an iconic role that's been played by many celebrated actresses. How do you step into those shoes?
I just try not to think of words like "iconic" and "stepping into shoes." [Laughs] Katie Finneran was so great. And, although I never saw her, Dorothy Loudon's voice from the original Broadway cast recording is always in my head. I don't think anybody's ever sung it like she did. It was the best.
How do you go about making a role like Miss Hannigan your own?
I find it from the inside out, the way I always do. And I don't try to be different just to be different.
You recently performed Miss Hannigan's big number, "Little Girls," as Sue on Glee. How did that come about?
That was [show creator] Ryan Murphy's idea, and it was all about cross-promotion for me and Annie. It was his little gift to me, and I thought that was really sweet. When I got that script, I said, "Oh, we're doing ‘Little Girls,'" and he said, "Yeah, I thought it would be nice to do a little cross-promo."
It's easy to see the similarities between Sue and Miss Hannigan. How are they different?
Miss Hannigan is just sloppier. She's also more transparent. She's beaten and bitter, which could you also say about Sue, but Sue hides it behind the stealthy veneer of a warrior. Miss Hannigan isn't a warrior. But there's a tenderness to Sue, and I hope you see the tenderness and vulnerability in my Miss Hannigan too.
Miss Hannigan also appears to be an alcoholic, and you've been candid about your own battles with alcohol in the past. Are you drawing on those experiences for this role?
Sure. Miss Hannigan definitely drinks too much. When we see her in the first scene, it's about three in the morning and she's frickin' loaded, half-dressed, half in her pajamas. It's one of those nights when you're looking in the mirror, talking to yourself, creating some kind of scenario where you're awesome. That's what I used to do when I got loaded.
Is there any of Miss Hannigan in you today?
I'm not that crazy about kids. I don't really know how to talk to them. It's funny, though, because kids always come toward me. It's like how cats seem to love people who aren't cat people. Of course, the kids in Annie are just delicious, and I love them all. But I don't want to take any of 'em home!
Playbill, June 2013 issue; extended online version.