Kate Baldwin on Superhero, Developing New Musicals, and More

Written by Sarah Rebell

Photography by Tess Mayer

March 25th, 2019

The first conversation I remember having with Kate Baldwin was about the Brontës. Kate was starring in Finian’s Rainbow at Encores! and I was a college student who had somehow managed to schedule all my classes into a two day timeframe so that I could spend the other three weekdays interning at New York City Center. Between renditions of “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” Kate spied me backstage, reading something for my Victorian Literature course, and we bonded over our shared appreciation of the Brontë sisters. I subsequently invited Kate to come teach a musical theatre workshop at my liberal arts college the following semester. The fact that she actually made time to lead the workshop is all the more impressive, and speaks volumes about the type of person she is, considering that this was around the time that Kate’s career took off in a major way. The Encores! production of Finian’s Rainbow had transferred to Broadway and she soon received her first Tony Award nomination. She then went on to originate roles in Giant, Big Fish, and Songbird, and recently played Irene Molloy in the 2017 Broadway revival of Hello Dolly!, for which she received her second Tony nomination.

So, when I had the opportunity to interview Kate, who is currently starring in Superhero at Second Stage, for The Interval, I was glad to get to talk to her as a full-fledged adult instead of student, and outside of a collegiate setting. That said, I was still totally intrigued to discover that her character, Charlotte, is an academic whose life’s work is studying the romantic 19th century poet John Clare—a contemporary of Emily Brontë’s. In Superhero, Charlotte is stuck in her research for her book about John Clare, and also in her relationship with her son Simon who, like her, is struggling to move forward in the aftermath of a traumatic accident that has destroyed their family. I recently sat down with Kate for a conversation about her research and approach to the character of Charlotte, why working on new musicals is a deep emotional investment, what ambition means to her, and more.

When you last spoke with The Interval, you mentioned how you often use models from art, and also from observing actual people, to help you find a way into your character. Did you employ a similar process in your approach to the character of Charlotte in Superhero?

I definitely had some models I worked from, and I had source material that I worked from. I relied heavily on Joan Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking. Mostly because, here I am in Superhero, my character is a widow, and I, Kate, have not experienced that type of loss in my life. I’ve never lost a spouse, or anyone as close to me as a spouse would be. There was no sort of substitution I could do for that relationship. So I had to find women who had had that experience, and gain some details from them that I can’t draw on from my real life. I used Joan Didion, and I used The Year of Magical Thinking. It’s a memoir about the death of her husband [John Gregory Dunne], and the subsequent death of her daughter. The things that I found useful from that book were that grief is actually made up of several different parts. The parts that are most useful for me are the parts that deal with anger and fear. I can relate to both of those very well. Especially as a parent.

As it relates to Superhero, Joan Didion’s book talks about memory, and talks about what she calls the vortex of being sucked into specific memories. If I could imagine, I would imagine Charlotte’s life, and I would imagine how she had a life that she had built with her husband and her son. To use specific things from my relationship with my husband and my son, and sort of use them as Charlotte’s memories. She talks about the vortex, and how you can be going through your life and then be sideswiped by a memory. I definitely have that, just in my life when I look at my son who’s about to be eight years old and I catch a glimpse of him as a baby. And I think to myself, “But you were just a baby and you were just my baby yesterday.” And you can mourn that, you can mourn that feeling of having lost some time.

She talks about time a lot in the book, too. And I find that very useful, because I can relate to the feeling of lost time. I’m coming up on 20 years in New York City, so I feel like I was a different person when I arrived here than I am now. There’s a quote I wrote down. It’s not Joan Didion, it’s the poet that she quotes. “Time is the school in which we learn/Time is the fire in which we burn.” That’s Delmore Schwartz. So, playing with time and raising a child is a way in which you can see time progress in front of you, and you can think about your past. I can think about who I was before my child was born. I can think about myself before I was married to my husband. And I can think about the chapters of my life since then. To get back to how to work on character, you can talk about the chapters of a woman’s life, and I can think about what it would be like to have to start over, and rewrite my life, and pick up again, and how daunting that would be, considering what I have built up to this point. So that book [Year of Magical Thinking] was a really good source, and it was suggested to me. I had read it years ago, but it didn’t really resonate with me the way it did this time because I’ve lived more life, and I’ve had more experiences, and I’m a mom. That was really helpful.

And then likewise, I have a dear friend who was raised by his single mom because his father died when he was an infant. I’ve become close with his mother, and I asked her a lot of questions about specific things. “How long was it before she moved out of their home? What did she do with her wedding rings? What did she keep of his? How did she process all of this?” And she answered those questions with such clarity and beauty and detail. It gave me a very strong picture of who Charlotte, my version of Charlotte, could be.

I also find when I’m dealing with a big topic like death, I try to find a little bit of understanding through art. I’ve been reading a lot of Mary Oliver poems, maybe just because she passed away recently. She writes so succinctly and with such clarity. I also found a podcast called Death, Sex, and Money. It’s fantastic. And, I’m paraphrasing, but the tagline is, “things we don’t talk about enough, but should talk about more.” There were really useful first person stories on that, people talking about their experiences of losing a loved one, trying to grapple with all that comes with grief. So that’s what I’ve been working on for the last year.

It’s interesting that you seem to have approached this character from an emotional and cerebral place, as opposed to more external, physical factors like the spine and the position of the feet.

I still talk about eye, spine, hands. The progression that Charlotte takes from the beginning to the end is an emotional one, and a physical one. At the beginning, when she’s trying to work on her book, I just literally read the same paragraph over and over and over again. I have my head in my hand, and I don’t move anything except my eyes, because that’s a person who is stuck. So for me, that external picture is still with me, even though I’ve done all this internal work too.

Because most of what we communicate, most of what we convey in life, is nonverbal. So much of what we convey is nonverbal, and especially with a musical or a play like this one, the audience sees you first before they hear you. That’s why I’m wearing a Gap t-shirt from 1982 with holes in it and a man’s cardigan sweater, and some house shoes that you would only wear in your house, and a rat’s nest of hair; hopefully it looks like bedhead. That’s what I’m going for anyway, to signal how stuck she is, how she doesn’t go outside and doesn’t see the rest of the world. The only person to really call her on any of that is her son.

And Charlotte is an academic working on a book about John Clare, a romantic poet whom, I must confess, I had not heard of before.

Very obscure.

But I did a little research after I saw the show and was fascinated to learn that he himself suffered from depression and from delusions and thought he was Lord Byron.

Yes! Oh god, I know. John Clare is super depressing. I love that you looked up John Clare. That’s hilarious. Poor John Clare. What would he have been like if he had some Xanax or something? He would have been much better off. I guess what I can appreciate about him is his vulnerability and his openness. And his large feelings. There’s nothing small about the things that John Clare feels, right? But he is wildly depressed, and I think that’s indicative of where Charlotte is in her life too. She’s also depressed. So maybe she is drawn to all of that because here’s somebody who, for lack of a better word, is wallowing in his grief, and at the beginning of our show, she is too.

Right. And you’ve been with the show for a long time, over a year. Do you feel you were able to really contribute to the development of the character of Charlotte?

Yeah, I do. Mainly from a standpoint of a parent. We talked a lot about Charlotte’s relationship with Simon and the timeline of events. If Simon is 15 at the beginning of our show, and we say that his father was killed in a car accident two years ago, that means that Simon was 13 years old when his dad died. And he witnessed the event. One thing I learned from my friend was that when her son was present at the death of her husband, and he was ten years old or thereabouts. To this day she has not spoken with him about it. It’s a big weight that this particular mother, Charlotte, carries, of not having had the wherewithal or the strength to talk with her son about a traumatic event that he saw when he was still just a kid. So that was something I contributed to the show. I also contributed some thoughts for lyrics for the opening song, based on conversations I had with my friend.

And also, just in the interpretation; she’s quite a sincere and vulnerable character, but her defense can be humor, and her defense can be deflection. When she says, “My name is Charlotte after Charlotte’s Web,” if you read that on the page, you can play it many different ways. I’ve chosen to play it sort of making fun of it, which is not how I feel in real life. I love Charlotte’s Web in real life. But for a person who is on a date for the first time in years to reveal that about herself, feeling insecure, feeling very vulnerable in front of a man with whom she senses a connection with, she is fearful, and so she makes light of it.

Charlotte’s Web seems like a significant, symbolic choice, because it’s a book that deals with death, and it’s often children’s first experiences reading about and understanding death.

Yes, and it’s sad. That’s [bookwriter] John Logan. He’s smart. He’s pretty smart.

As an audience member, one of the takeaways I had from Superhero was celebrating the endurance and strength that comes from being a parent. What is the message of the show for you?

I think the show for me is about family. I have a line towards the very end that says, “We are a family. You and me, that’s what we have.” I am enough. You are enough for me, and I am enough for you. As a parent, I feel that every day; I’m not going not anywhere, and you need to know that I’m not leaving you. I’ll stand by you. I’ll walk beside you. I will listen. I will hold your hand. I will be here for you, even when you don’t want to talk to me, even when you push me away. I will always be here waiting. That’s a powerful truth for parents.

How do you do a show that makes you envision the nightmare of losing your husband, and then go home to your family and be there for them? What do you do to protect yourself and keep the show from becoming an emotional weight at home in your own life?

I was just talking about this with my husband yesterday, because what the show asks me to do emotionally every night is very deep and very strenuous. And my body, any actor’s body, doesn’t know the difference between real grief and imagined grief, right? So, my body is reacting as though I am re-traumatizing myself every night. It makes me cling more tightly to my family, and to the guys I love. My Graham and my Colin. It makes me value them more. It makes me reach out to them more. It makes me kiss and hug them more, and tell them I appreciate and love them even more. It does the opposite of what I let happen [onstage] at night, when I let in the fear and I let in the vulnerability of what life would be like without them.

Back in a 2015 interview, shortly after Giant and Big Fish, you discussed “how deeply [you] care about creating new work,” and the vulnerability that accompanies that experience. You’ve just gone from doing a big Broadway revival right into working on a brand-new musical. What was that transition like for you, not just in terms of the craft, but in terms of the personal investment that goes into it?

You’re right to point out that it is a stark contrast, isn’t it? I mean, you get on stage and you do your job every night, and you sing your songs and hope that people relate. And theatre at its core is about connection. That’s all we’re trying to do, no matter what story we’re trying to tell, is connect. Only connect. But you’re right to talk about how different those two experiences are, and those two shows, [especially] when it comes to something that’s a big, celebrated, revered revival with a megastar at its center. My feeling joining Hello, Dolly! was full of joy and hope, but also, it felt like the pressure was off me in a weird way, because it’s called Hello, Dolly! and I’m not Dolly, right? I could come in and invest in doing my part as bravely and fully as possible. It’s great in that stamina sense because you get a little bit more time to yourself to prepare every night. And also, it felt like it was a hit even before it opened, so that worry, that, “Will I have a job tomorrow?” worry was taken right off my mind. And that’s a gift, too. That had never happened to me in the 22 years that I’ve been doing this. It had never ever happened to me, and it finally did, and I’m so grateful for it. I have endless gratitude towards the creators of Hello, Dolly!, and to our very special company.

Then, to turn around and do something completely different was totally welcome and totally refreshing to slide into a show like Superhero that has more fuzzy edges. When I think about Hello, Dolly!, I think about the sharp comedy. I think about highs and lows. I think about sharp edges, and the precision that is required of that brand of comedy, that style. Superhero is much more fluid, much more malleable, and much more like real life, in that subtext exists under every line. There can be many things going on, not just one clear cut choice. I was excited to do something that was a little more slippery, and also to speak in a way that I speak in everyday life, with a lot of “ums” and “you knows,” and stuff like that.

Whenever you’re creating a new show, as you were talking about with Giant and Big Fish, along comes a huge vulnerability, because you’re creating something from nothing. I’m creating something from [composer] Tom Kitt’s idea, from John Logan’s words, from [director] Jason Moore’s coaching, and my own research and my own experience. And so, somehow, we smoosh all of those together and come up with a performance that hopefully serves the story that everybody else on stage is trying to tell, too. We’re all trying to get our story across, and it comes with a lot of work, a lot of experimentation, a lot of discovery, a lot of joy, and also a lot of pain, because there’s no such thing as a surefire hit when you’re creating something that’s brand new. I didn’t have the same feeling opening Superhero as I did with Dolly. There was no guarantee of an extension or any life past what we’ll do here [at Second Stage]. So, that’s a little bit of a heartbreak too; just because a show doesn’t have a guaranteed future doesn’t mean I don’t work hard on it. I work even harder. And what hurts a little bit, in this moment, just to be very honest with you, is the amount of time, and effort, and thought, and emotion, and personal investment I’ve put in this new piece of art, and it might all disappear on the 31st of March.

Have you ever felt, particularly in terms of the newer shows that you’ve worked on, that you’ve had the opportunity to participate in the creation of new roles for women in theatre? Have you noticed any shifts over the past five, ten, twenty years, in terms of how female characters are now being written?

That’s interesting. Well, I’m not a writer, and I’m very clear that my job is to give life to, and fully realize, a character that a writer has written. And I have to be very careful when I talk to a writer about character, because I’m the type of person who hates it when somebody identifies a problem but doesn’t have a solution for it. So I don’t want to be that type of person for a writer. But sometimes your job is to bring up things that are confusing. Now, I want to draw a very distinct line between bringing up things that are confusing, which is helpful to a writer, versus “my character wouldn’t say that,” and things that would negate what a writer is trying to create. When I approach a role, I think all possibilities are available because I as a person, you as a person, are full of many different facets. And so, you could be put in any sort of position and you could act any number of ways. So to say, “my character wouldn’t do that,” is really unhelpful. But in the interest of making some choices, it’s very important to have a conversation with a writer and a director, because the director has to get the whole cast to be telling the same story, to hopefully talk in a constructive way, so that nothing’s confusing, everything makes sense, and we’re all telling the same story. It feels much more like a team effort, rather than me coming out and saying, “Here’s my idea,” for a strong lady character.

For the new shows that I’ve done, which are Giant and Big Fish and Songbird and now Superhero, I think as I get older, I’m finding it more interesting to play women who are flawed, and who wear their flaws more openly, and don’t apologize for their flaws. Well, Sandra Bloom [from Big Fish] is the outlier, but women who don’t pretend to be perfect. Women who say, “Here’s a problem, and I’m going to identify it.” Leslie does that in Giant. She struggles with her marriage. And in Songbird it was about a career, a fading career, and saying, “I’m feeling vulnerable and fearful about my fading career and my fading relationship.” And in Superhero, it’s “I’m afraid of losing the only thing that matters to me, which is my son.”

All of these women have outbursts, moments of real, true vulnerability, and anger and sadness. I think as women, often, we are told in society not to show those things. And so, first of all, it is a great therapeutic moment for me to have that, to be able to do that on stage, to dare to let that part show. And secondly, I hope it shows other women that if they feel those things they’re not alone. I think that’s why we go to the theatre, right? To feel less alone in our lives. To search for a story that resonates with us. So many people come up to me after Superhero and say, “That’s exactly how it was with me and my son after my husband died,” or “This made me think about losing my partner and all of the emotions that came up that surprised me.” I think if it gives us a way in to talking about all the things that maybe we’re not allowed to talk about in real life, maybe that’s useful.

What is your relationship with ambition? That’s another part of the self that women are not always encouraged to talk about in real life.

Well, let’s define ambition first. What is ambition? Is ambition wanting to work as much as possible? Is ambition wanting to work in a high-profile situation? Is ambition wanting to stretch yourself? Is ambition just wanting to be famous? Is ambition wanting to make the most money? I don’t know. For me, it’s wanting to work all the time. I want to work all the time. And I want to work with people whom I think have something to say, and who have talent. If that’s ambition, then I’m all about it. I also am the type of person who wants to help other people achieve that goal too. If that’s their goal, then I’ll grab you by the hand and bring you with me, you know?

And let’s not discount, too, that you can be the type of person—and I know many actresses and writers who are like this—who works really hard, and is really ambitious, but never gets the spotlight shone upon them, for a variety of reasons. There is something about luck, and being in the right place at the right time, and having to get that light to shine on you for that moment. And then, it really is about what do you do, if that light shines on you, what do you do? And that can be scary, too.

A friend of mine texted me during the month of February, when we were rehearsing five hours a day and then doing the show every night, and then putting in enormous changes. I’ve never worked so hard and so quickly in my life. I had a friend text me and say, “How’s it all going?” And I texted back, “Changes galore.” And she wrote back, “Ah, the magic of the theatre.” And I said, “No, not magic. Work.” Because what may appear to be magical to some is hours and hours of hard, repetitive work. And I think it’s hard for people who haven’t necessarily ever been in a show before, haven’t been around it before, to really understand how mind-numbingly repetitive and painstaking it can be to try and get every detail right. It’s not just wave a magic wand, and it all falls into place, as much as every behind-the-scenes TV show or movie would have us believe. That’s not the way it works. Most overnight sensations have been doing this for ten years.

And yet, you have spoken before about there being a mystical or magical quality to theatre. How do you reconcile that element with what you’re describing here?

That has more to do with what I call surrender and opening yourself up to the possibilities of, “What would it be like if I were in this situation? What would it be like if my character faced these circumstances?” That has to do with letting go and a feeling of surrender, which are the best ways to describe how I approach a scene or a song where I have to be vulnerable and sing from my heart, speak my fear. It also has something to do with control, and recognizing that we’re not always in control. As much as I like to do research, and I am a cerebral person, and I do like to seek control—we all seek to control our lives every day, right? We control what we’re going to have for breakfast. We control the clothes we’re going to wear. We control how we’re going to get to midtown. We control all of it. But then, some things are out of our control. There are certain things that we have no control over, and recognizing that is a very powerful thing.

What are your thoughts on the ways in which people in the entertainment industry can help build community? How do you strive to imbue life with meaning, to make the world a better place, whether on or off the stage?

I was just talking about this with Graham yesterday. I think it’s my responsibility to set the tone at work, whether it’s in my dressing room, onstage, or backstage with everybody. I think it’s important to help to lighten everybody’s load, to ease everybody’s burden, and to be easy to work with, to be cheerful about it, to be respectful, and kind, and polite. I feel like if you can make the place where you spend so much of your time a happy place by taking care of people just in that simple way, that does a world of good, and that, to me, is something tangible that I can do during the day. Whereas, in my more ambitious moments, I want to volunteer for Women in Need, I want to volunteer in Maplewood [New Jersey] for several organizations there, I want to donate here, I want to give money there, I want to march with Planned Parenthood here. There are many different causes that I have donated to, that I have supported in various ways. But I do feel like in my immediate circles, in my work environment, in my home environment, I can lead by example, and show people the way in which we can all treat each other. I hope that’s enough. I want it to be enough. I feel like if more people took responsibility for how they move through the world, the world would be a happier place.