The actress and singer Mary Callanan is currently appearing in the campy and colorful off-Broadway hit, "The Great American Trailer Park Musical" at SpeakEasy Stage. When the curtain comes down at the end of the month, she'll move on to star in the one-woman show "Sophie Tucker: The Last of the Red Hot Mamas" at New Rep.
As one of Boston's most popular talents, her stage credits range from local productions of "Nunsense" and "Menopause: The Musical" to international tours of "Damn Yankees," "BIG" and "The Sound of Music" (starring Marie Osmond). Also known as an exceptional cabaret artist with a powerful show tune belt, she has performed everywhere from Boston's Club Cafe to New York's famed Russian Tea Room. She also devotes a great deal of her time to singing at benefits.
In discussing her family history, a question came up as to how Callanan acquired an N in the middle, versus an H or a GH. It may have happened as her ancestors passed through Ellis Island. But one thing is certain. Her father and his six siblings spent their lives constantly having to spell their name for people, such that "Harrigan" became their personal family theme song, swapping out Harrigan for Callanan, of course. When her father died, the family even sang it at the church during his funeral.
Anyone who has seen Mary onstage knows that she has a sharp sense of humor and an easy laugh. When we spoke, she was gearing up for the opening of "Trailer Park," had just finished a pre-production photo shoot for "Sophie Tucker," and was busy learning three songs for a benefit concert. Here's an edited version of our conversation.
BIR: With all that you've got going on at the moment, you probably rank as the hardest working woman in show business -- in Boston anyway.
MC: Well, thanks. That's what my husband calls me.
BIR: So you're in the middle of "Trailer Park" and then "Sophie Tucker" is next. These two very different shows are coming really close together for you. It has to be challenging.
MC: It's the most I've chewed off in a long time. I'm so excited . . . the shows are sublime to ridiculous. It certainly keeps me on my toes.
BIR: The show at SpeakEasy is set in the Armadillo Acres trailer park in Starke, Florida, where the rednecks pass their time in lawn chairs surrounded by tacky pink flamingos. Would we call this is a comical look at white trash?
MC: (Laughing) We'll call it ‘trailer trash' -- a little more politically correct in this politically incorrect show.
BIR: Who do you play?
MC: (Adopting a dripping Southern accent) Well, my name is Linoleum, and my theatrical arc, if you will, is my husband has been in the Florida state prison system for eight years, on death row. But they have a funky (electric) chair, and it doesn't really work, so if I can get everyone in (town) to keep their lights on, then they can't fry my husband.
BIR: So from rednecks to red hot mamas, how did "Sophie Tucker" come about for you?
MC: Kate Warner (New Rep's Artistic Director) called, and I was stunned. I had pitched her something a week before, about a different project. And she called and said, ‘How would you like to play Sophie Tucker this summer?' And I thought, ‘Oh in a play about, blah blah blah,' and I said, ‘Well sure.' And she said, ‘Well, it's just you.' And I said ‘What?' I have certainly done enough cabaret shows in my time, but I've never done a theatrical venture where it's just me. I'm very excited. Excited and scared. ... I can't wait.
BIR: What's the vision for the show?
MC: Kate has decided, and I agree of course, that I'm not going to be old -- the Sophie that you can only see in (film) clips. We're not going to do 70-year-old Sophie. And we're not going to do 20-year-old Sophie. We're going to do Sophie closer to where I am (laughing). Where she was really at the height of her vaudeville theatrical stardom, before the movies and whatnot.
BIR: So do you see this show as an opportunity to spark memories, or do you think you'll have to educate contemporary audiences as to who she really was?
MC: I'm hoping it's more an ‘ed-u-ma-catable' loving tribute (laughing).
BIR: I remember seeing her on the "Ed Sullivan Show" in the 60s. She really stood alone as a sassy actress, singer, and comedian, didn't she?
MC: She was the step between Mae West and say, Totie Fields. She was a bigger wink than Mae West but she never said anything off color . . . The thing I find that's fascinating about her was she really was the first one, not to manipulate the press, but (to understand) the power of keeping your name in the papers. She also did more benefits than anyone in the ‘20s and ‘30s and ‘40s . . . She really cared about all those causes, which was great, but she knew that if she was the first in the Milk Fund or first selling War Bonds, that her picture would be in the paper.
BIR: She knew how to promote herself.
MC: Right. She invented self promotion. We're all so lucky now, between the Internet and television and whatever. But she just thought, ‘How do I get my name out there,' and she just figured it out. She was tireless. I had the good fortune of going to Brandeis to look through her papers. She kept every greeting card anyone ever sent her. Any card from any flowers, (whether it was) from a fan or Toots Shor, it didn't matter, she kept them all. And they're all in scrapbooks . . . every press clipping she ever had. There are like 200 scrapbooks. She knew what she was doing, and she was amazing at it. On top of being incredibly talented.
"The Great American Trailer Park Musical," through May 30, from SpeakEasy Stage at the Boston Center for the Arts. Tickets: 617-933-8600 or bostontheatrescene.com. "Sophie Tucker: The Last of the Red Hot Mamas," June 24 - July 11 at New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown. Tickets: 617-923-8487 or newrep.org.