New York's state
Broadway vet Rachel York lights up the Goodman's Turn of the Century.
“I had a G-string on, and the only place to put my mike was in the middle of my chest. I had on a virtual bathing-suit top made of tape.”
Rachel York is describing her Broadway debut in the 1989 musical City of Angels, a brassy spoof of film-noir culture. At the time, she was only a few years out of high school; in fact, high school was the last place she’d appeared in a musical. In her big Angels number, York’s on-the-lam femme fatale popped up in the bed of the private dick who’d been looking for her. A scorching and innuendo-laced belter called “Lost and Found,” the song had to be performed while York was draped in only a revealing bed sheet that suggested total nudity underneath.
And even though she was surrounded by a cast of grizzled, pessimistic Broadway vets, and the expensive show, which didn’t have an out-of-town tryout, was getting ugly pre-opening buzz in the press, rookie York was having a ball.
“I was so starry-eyed and green. It was just a dream to me,” York says. “And everyone in the cast looked at me like, ‘Oh, my God, she’s on cloud nine. Just don’t talk to her.’ I don’t think they expected to get good reviews, and I don’t think they thought we’d last very long. I was just savoring every moment. And they were like, ‘Yeah, I don’t think you’re gonna make it.’ ”
The show itself did make it. (“Frank Rich just wrote us a love letter,” York says.) Angels ran for 879 performances, and it launched York’s prolific career, which, for want of a better term, could be accurately labeled a showbiz story.
This week, York starts previews at the Goodman Theatre in the world premiere of Turn of the Century. It’s a bill crowded with attention-grabbing names: The legendary Tommy Tune directs and choreographs, the leading man is film star Jeff Daniels, and the book is penned by Jersey Boys writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice. But York’s extensive résumé, especially in new musicals—in addition to the influential City of Angels, the lithe, muscular soprano with the huge, bewitching eyes drew raves as the gangster’s moll in Julie Andrews’s Broadway return vehicle Victor/Victoria and created the role of a white woman who aides a runaway slave in Dessa Rose—makes her more than worthy, seasoned company.
Instead of attending college, York and a friend moved straight to New York after high school, a leap she happily credits to her bohemian, somewhat nomadic upbringing. (Her mother at one point practiced healing arts.) After only a few weeks in the city—then a scarier, pre-Rent-rified downtown Manhattan—a rehearsal accompanist in a song class York was taking heard her voice and insisted on taking her to a talent agency. Once there, she recited two film monologues (one from Nuts, the other from Sophie’s Choice) and was signed on the spot. (A few years ago, she moved from New York to Los Angeles to pursue film work—and to have a house with fruit trees in the yard rather than “a really expensive box.”)
Her start was unconventional by just about any measure, save that of outlandish Broadway fairy tales. But it’s indicative of the kind of unplanned situations she’s found herself in. Take, for example, Julie Andrews’s infamous rejection in 1996 of her Tony nomination, which she publicly declined from the stage of the Marquis Theatre while the entire Victor/Victoria cast stood behind her, post–curtain call. “We didn’t know what was going to happen,” York recalls of the notorious media event. “All that we were told was that Julie was going to make a speech. So everybody was standing there, and all of our mouths were open.” Or consider the unexpected tween fans who recognize York in public from her one-off appearance on Hannah Montana.
In Century, York stars as a postprime singer who, at a record producer’s New Year’s Eve party in 1999, finds herself inexplicably transported back to the beginning of the century; she then encounters a host of influential American songwriters (the score samples the works of songwriters ranging from Irving Berlin to Prince). If there’s a voice prepped to take on a pan-20th-century songbook, it’s York’s.
And this time, no one in the cast is doubting her chances.
Turn of the Century begins previews Friday 19 at Goodman Theatre.