How does one go from Zürich, Switzerland, and a celebrated 31 year international career as an actor, singer and recording artist to portraying Mama Rose in Lyric Stage's upcoming production of Gypsy? For Sue Mathys, it's about who you know, and having the talent to back it up. Mathys replaces Julie Johnson, who was originally announced to star in Lyric's production, but was then cast as another Mama, in the national tour of Memphis.
Mathys grew up in a musical family near Zürich. Her father played the lute, her mother the piano and both sang. As a young teen she saw the movie version of West Side Story and a London stage production of Fiddler on the Roof. Both delighted, moved and disturbed her deeply, she says. By then she was singing gospel and moved soon into pop, R &B and jazz, first performing with a band at age 15.
She talked to TheaterJones about this, her career and playing the iconic role of Rose.
TheaterJones: You grew up in a family that loved music. Was it natural for you to sing from ayoung age?
Sue Mathys: When I was about 5 years old, I had a solo act in a children's circus, singing songs in different languages—all in gibberish, of course. My sister played the ukulele to my songs, dressed as a boy—quite like Baby June and Baby Louise in Gypsy!
Where did your voice lead you?
When I began training my voice in New York, it quickly became clear, that I was a Broadway belter. It's fascinating, that my voice still takes me on new journeys I am curious to explore.
How would you describe your singing voice in one sentence?
I would like to think of it as oscillating within the entire color spectrum.
You sing in English, French, German and Swiss German. Is it difficult to switch languages?
Only if I sing the same song in various versions of different languages. That can be tricky!
How did your career as a solo and featured artist take off?
I had been performing professionally for 12 years. I already had played several leading roles, when I made my big breakthrough playing and singing the title role in Piaf.
Which composers do you love to sing, and why?
Stephen Sondheim, Kurt Weill, Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin, John Kander, Cy Coleman, Jule Styne, Adam Guettel, David Yazbek, to name a few. They speak to me.
What is different for you about singing a recognizable classical repertoire versus original, contemporary works, some avant-garde?
My approach is basically the same. I'm classically trained, but I'm definitely a contemporary gal—that also applies to my acting. Participating in the process of creating new works is utterly thrilling, and you're free of any comparisons and expectation.
Do you like to challenge and befriend an audience?
Jacques Brel described it with the perfect words: It is like a bullfight, exactly the same. Only it's not about killing, but about loving. Like in the corrida, the course of action is set, you only improvise the gestures. It's the same in a concert: you enter the stage, the audience is the bull. Instead of killing them, you want to tell them that you love them. And you're trying to do so with as little insinuation as possible.
You made your American concert debut at Carnegie Hall in 2008. What songs and which composers were featured?
Chansons made famous by Edith Piaf, my signature songs from Sunset Boulevard, Gypsy, Cabaret, Sweeney Todd, "Seeräuberjenny" ["Pirate Jenny"] from Threepenny Opera in the original German version, classics from Irving Berlin, special material by Michael Ogborn, David Yazbek and more.
How did you come to recreate that concert at Lyric Stage in 2009?
Years ago, I met founding producer of the Lyric Stage Steven Jones through Jay Dias (the music director/donductor of all Lyric Stage's full-orchestra musicals). We've always wanted to work together, and the concert offered itself as a first opportunity. I am thrilled to return to the Lyric Stage for Gypsy.
How did Lyric Stage's Jay Dias become your music director?
Jay Dias and I met 16 years ago when he was music director and supervisor of Sunset Boulevard (directed by Trevor Nunn) in Germany, and I sang Norma Desmond. Our special rapport deepened, when he conducted the New Year's Concert with the 60-piece Lucerne Symphony at the great concert hall of the KKL in Lucerne. We collaborated on the live recording of it. A good working relationship is give and take on eye level—honesty and complete trust in each other. It's very rare and very precious.
Many people don't realize what hard physical work singing is, that professional singers train like other athletes. What do you do to stay fit and avoid illness?
Precisely what athletes do: train physically and mentally on a daily basis; sleep enough, watch my diet, tap dance, stay away from smoke and alcohol. Spend time in the countryside to rest and recover body, mind and soul.
What is your favorite musical theater role and why?
Always the one I'm working on: Now, it's Mama Rose. What a great, rich character. It challenges every fiber of your being as a performer.
Where have you played her before?
At the New Bedford Festival Theatre in New Bedford, Massachusetts last summer [directed by Michael Susko].
What excites you about playing Mama Rose again?
That show is so well written, that I discover new facets of this character in every rehearsal and every performance. And working with a new creative team and cast is stimulating as well.
What do you hope the audience will take away from seeing your Mama Rose?
To understand her humanity.
Are you excited to perform it with a full orchestra?
It's a dream come true—I love the sound of a full live orchestra!
Talk about your recent performance successes in New York, in the original works.
It's most exciting to have material written for you. Taking the Plunge was originally created for "8 Minute Musicals" at the New York Musical Theatre Festival 2010. The writer/composer team knew whom they were writing for and custom tailored this short musical. I'm thrilled for them, that this piece made the finals of the 26th Annual Samuel French off-off Broadway Short Play Festival 2011. In my one-woman show Lila Rosen, only original material specially written for me by one lyricist, five composers and one author, was used. It was very exciting to collaborate with the composers, lyricist, and the book-writer. I adore teamwork.
Two Worlds, One Voice is my current concert/cabaret act [there's a video of this embedded at the bottom of this interview]. I like to call it a concert. The first time I performed it in New York, it received an Agnes Moorehead Award for being "one of the ten best live performances in New York City in 2009." It combines Edith Piaf Chansons, Brecht/Weill repertoire with my signature songs from musical theater. I like to surprise an audience, give them what they do not expect. All those songs have a deep connection with me.
Any words of advice to aspiring singers?
Study hard, with discipline, be patient with yourself. Don't give up, believe in yourself. Learn to understand your body and your psyche as your instrument, and take good care of them. Be ready to make sacrifices, but also beware of exploitation. Know your talents—and your limits. If you do not have to sing, don't bother!"
Where do you see the future of musical performance heading?
I hope we'll find our way back to live orchestral music. There's nothing like it and it's the real thing.
◊ A version of this interview is in the September issue of Arts+Culture Magazine, which is on stands throughout North Texas now. It also appears on the author's blog, CriticalRant. Both are TheaterJones media partners.
Also, look for a ticket giveaway to opening night of Gypsy (Sept. 10) on TheaterJones, coming later this week.