Interview with Kelli Barrett Talks Playing Liza Minnelli on FOSSE/VERDON
Broadway star Kelli Barrett right now stars on FX’s FOSSE/VERDON as Liza Minnelli. The series follows Bob Fosse, who a visionary movie producer and a standout amongst theater’s most persuasive choreographers and directors, and his wife Gwen Verdon, who is the best Broadway dancer ever. FOSSE/VERDON recounts to the narrative of these two splendid, confused people – the love they shared, the art they made, and the value they paid in the pursuit of greatness.
Barrett set aside some effort to chat with BroadwayWorld about what it resembled to play Liza Minnelli on the limited series!
Interviewer: How you found out about the role and become a part of the project?
Kelli Barrett: It’s a really traditional trajectory for me. I got an audition from my agent. I got it in an email, it wasn’t even a phone call. I just checked my email and there it was. And it said, “Liza Minnelli,” and I was like, what? Are you sure? Me? I auditioned, and then I had a callback with the whole creative team, and I also had a 45 minute work session.
Interviewer: How did you prepare once you found out that you were going to be playing Liza?
Kelli Barrett: I got really obsessed with watching everything she had ever done, and I was already familiar with most of her performances that were captured on film, but I went down a Youtube rabbit hole and I listened to every interview I could get my hands on, and I read a lot of material on her, there was a lot of writing. She spoke a lot, and people had done interviews with her about Cabaret, and her experience doing Cabaret, so I really wanted to get to know her as well as I could, and then from there try to figure out what between her and I was similar and try to start there and go through that door.
Interviewer: You have so much to work with when you look at her repertoire.
Kelli Barrett: Exactly. I mean, what was really nice is, and what they didn’t want to do, was the sort of impersonation that has been done of a later Liza Minnelli, when she really became who she is. What we’re doing is showing her early years. It’s kind of the way we don’t think about her now because we know her as a huge star than when she was younger and really naive, wide-eyed, and finding herself and that voice. So I really had to let go of all of the ways that we can walk around the world impersonating Liza Minnelli, because that’s not at all who she was, or who she really is anymore. People have sort of made a caricature out of her, so I was trying to find a real person.
Interviewer: It’s great to see her beginnings and how she started out, so we can understand her in a different way.
Kelli Barrett: Yeah, and she was always otherworldly. I mean, she from the time she came out of her mother Judy’s womb, there was a camera in her face. She’s always been a star, you know? She’s always been in the limelight. And she’s always been completely singular in her energy. But like I said, it was a different energy when she was in her early to mid twenties. So it was really fun to look at that footage, and capture that Liza.
Interviewer: What was it like getting to be a part of her in the Cabaret world–had you ever done Cabaret before?
Kelli Barrett: No! I had done Chicago, I had never done Cabaret, but it was the second Broadway show I had ever seen. My arts high school took a trip up here my sophomore year, and I saw the first Alan Cumming revival, and I was riveted. I always loved Fosse, because I wasn’t a great dancer, but I understood the Fosse language in my body, so he was really one of the reasons I felt like I could even try to dance is because I understood that. So, no, I never got to do Cabaret, I’ve never played Sally Bowles. I never even have SANG a Sally Bowles song.
Interviewer: What was it like working with Andy, and learning how to embody this character and do this iconic dancing?
Kelli Barrett: That was amazing. I mean, Andy Blankenbuehler’s amazing. He’s one of the best right now out here, and he has roots in Fosse, he understands it, he just lives so fully in the language of the Fosse style, so I worked a little bit with him and his assistant Morgan, but I really worked with Valerie Pettiford. They brought her in to work with me and the Kit Kat dancers on Mein Herr. And so I worked with her, we had a couple of eight hour days and it was on and off for about two weeks. And she’s one of the best teachers I’ve ever worked with. I mean, I worshiped her as a kid growing up. She’s still a huge icon to me, and she cried when I got it right. She’s just a supportive sort of Mama Bear, and was one of the best memories of my career for sure.
Interviewer: How was it working with the rest of the production staff and collaborating with them on this?
Kelli Barrett: They’re amazing! They’re so down to earth. I mean, they are the best in the business, and they, you just feel like you’re hanging out with your friends, but also completely supported, and like, they’ve got it. You know nothing’s gonna go wrong while they’re around. Tommy’s a genius. They said it at the premiere that he’s the next Mike Nichols but I really believe that he is. And Alex Lacamoire is one of my favorite human beings to walk the Earth, let alone music directors. He just couldn’t be more kind, and he is the embodiment of an absolute star in terms of what he does and how he does it. Working with him in the recording studio was one of the highlights of my life. He is so supportive, but also, very meticulous and we were in the trenches but having the best time trying to get it exactly right, and trying to do it our way.
Interviewer: And its great to see this show give credit to Gwen Verdon, who many people may not have even known about before.
Kelli Barrett: It’s awesome because it’s based off the biography of Fosse, but the more you get to talk to Nicole, their daughter, and read the book, you realize, no, we have to call this Fosse/Verdon. She was an equal part of this. She was not just his muse, but, the other side of his brain, and they worked together to make each other who they were. She was already a big star when he entered her life, but she really helped him figure out what that vision was and complete it.
Interviewer: I really enjoy how the full picture of these stories are finally being shown, not just what was presented at the time.
Kelli Barrett: Absolutely. I have a magnet on my fridge that says, “For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.” And we’re finally giving women their due. Piece by piece by piece, we’re going to start telling these stories about women’s contribution in every field, and it’s amazing to be a part of that. This team loves Gwen, and they love women, and they love telling the truth, and its really exciting to be a part of telling the truth.
Interviewer: How was it working with Sam and Michelle on the show and getting to be a part of the story with them?
Kelli Barrett: Amazing. I only got a little bit of time with Michelle. She’s so gracious and an absolute star. She’s just killing it. She walked in, looked like Gwen, sounded like Gwen, I was like. Okay. This is on. And Sam couldn’t be nicer, and he’s so talented and he’s so committed.
Interviewer: And it’s great how FX has melded the theatre and film and television world with this show.
Kelli Barrett: I think it’s one of the few shows that’s really crossing over in the dramatic, scripted style. I mean, it’s not like the stuff that FOX and NBC have been doing with filming the live musicals. They are incredible and have helped us tremendously with theatre actors being on camera, but now what we’re doing is even deeper. You’re getting into scripted television with huge film actors working in tandem with theatre actors to tell this story, and theatre actors aren’t just being isolated to the numbers where they sing. They’re also being given real roles. And so it’s really cool to watch.
Interviewer: Any insights on what might be next for you coming up?
Kelli Barrett: Oh, I’ve got a couple of irons in the fire. We’re working on some stuff right now, so hopefully I’ll be able to tell you about it soon.