NEW YORK — Even in rehearsals, Debra Monk can stop the show. In a cavernous hall tucked behind an anonymous metal door on Manhattan's Upper West Side, the actress belts out the lusty number "Everybody's Girl" for Broadway's "Steel Pier," and every member of the 60-odd cast and crew stops to listen. It's no wonder the actress was nominated earlier this week for a Tony award for her performance in the current musical.
Monk is no stranger to Tony awards, having won the prestigious prize for her electrifying performance in "Redwood Curtain" in 1993.
At the Richard Rodgers Theatre, "Steel Pier," featuring music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb ("Cabaret," "Chicago") and choreography by Susan Stroman ("Crazy for You," "Showboat"), chronicles the lives and misfortunes of marathon dancers during the Depression. Monk portrays Shelby, whom the actress describes as a survivor. "Her forte is not that she's a terrific dancer," she says, "but she knows she can go the distance. She's a crowd-pleaser. And, she's tough."
For Monk, it represents a departure from roles she has come to be identified with. Two seasons ago in the revival of "Company," she recreated the role of Joanna, an acerbic, rich woman originated by Elaine Stritch. In Woody Allen's "Death Defying Acts," off-Broadway last year, she dazzled audiences as a no-nonsense wife plotting revenge against an unfaithful husband.
"I've worked on women who are usually more upscale. They're usually very funny and have a great wit. Shelby is different. She's 'downscale.' She's 'out there,' with her own kind of style. She's been around!" But, she adds, with a hint of her Texas background coming through, "There are other sides of her, too. In the second act, you get to see a more vulnerable side, which makes her much more interesting."
The showcase role came to her "because Scott [Ellis, the director] called me and asked me to do it." Ellis, who is also a Tony nominee, and Monk have been a winning team, having worked together on "Company" and a revival of "Picnic," both of which were successful.
Arriving in New York more than 20 years ago after graduating from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Monk found the city less than eager to offer her the spotlight. "I was working as a secretary. I was working as a waitress. I was working as a temp. I didn't have an agent. I couldn't even get an audition."
Her solution? Together with a few friends, she wrote, co-produced, and starred in a lively musical comedy revue titled "Pump Boys Dinettes." When a few financial backers saw it, they moved it to Broadway. It ran there for more than a year, went on to become an NBC television special, and then toured the country.
"We just wanted to do something, and it turned into a show. I had nothing to lose!"
Even after the success of "Pump Boys," Monk found that she was thought of only as a country singer and comedy performer type. "I couldn't get hired to do anything else." But she continued to pursue her career and gradually landed other roles.
Eventually, New York audiences grew accustomed to outstanding performances from Monk, who has appeared in "Prelude to a Kiss," off and on Broadway, as well as "Three Hotels," "Assassins," "Oil City Symphony," and her Tony-winning role in "Redwood Curtain."
That award "opened up more opportunities for me, in terms of giving me a chance to do movies," Monk says. Her film credits include "Reckless," "The Bridges of Madison County," "Jeffrey," and the coming "The King of Plants" and "Amelia." She has also appeared on TV shows including "Law & Order" and "N.Y.P.D. Blue."
But theater remains her primary passion. "I have no desire to move to Los Angeles," she says emphatically.
She is cautious about the flighty nature of an acting career, recalling one of her more exasperating experiences, when she read for Woody Allen. "I just did a terrible audition. Woody Allen stopped me and said, 'You're not doing this right. I want it slow and mean.' I did it again, technically, slow and mean, and with no feeling. I was so embarrassed while I was doing it, thinking to myself, this is one of the worst auditions I have ever done.... I got up and put on my coat, and as I was leaving, they stopped me and said, 'You got the job!' "
Because "Steel Pier" takes place in the 1930s, the dance styles include popular steps of the period, such as the fox trot, the polka, and the waltz. But Monk admits, "I'm not really a dancer," attributing her ability to choreographer Stroman's teaching.
Pleased with a part that combines her dramatic and musical talents, Monk says with a broad smile, "I've been here 22 years, and finally, I'm able to do both."