Two-time Tony nominee and Obie Award winner Mary Testa began collecting loyal legions of fans with her mind-blowing belting and riffing on the original cast album of William Finn's In Trousers in 1979 and has continued to cement her status as a one-of-a-kind mammoth musical theatre talent in show after show for 35 years. In some of these productions and in a number of solo concerts of her own, Testa has collaborated with musical director and arranger Michael Starobin and now the pair have teamed up for Testa's debut album, "Have Faith," a collection of disparate songs linked by spiritual themes.
The new recording features everything from Finn and LaChiusa to Leonard Cohen and Alanis Morisette, and even includes a "mash-up" of Bjork's "Unravel" and Rodgers and Hammerstein's "If I Loved You." Testa says of the eclectic line up, "We're not American Songbook — we don't do 100 versions of 'My Funny Valentine.' It's not what we're interested in."
That's not to say there isn't an old-school saloon singer interpretive swell or classic rock-and-roll edge. Testa "grew up listening to Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra. I was in love with them, and then I found Leon Russell when I was 16 and my entire world changed. You find something that speaks to you, it's like the clouds part."
She still feels the passion for the artists that influenced her. "Yesterday I bought a turntable and I listened to [Joe Cocker's] 'Mad Dogs and Englishmen' album, and I was in my f**king glory."
Of course, the Mary Testa voice was always destined for the stage. "I've always had a big voice, but when I moved to the city, I studied for six years with an opera teacher."
She believes firmly in the important of vocal discipline. "I try and use my whole range a lot. If you sing in a low range too long, you know, it sort of pulls it down. I was belting 'til the cows came home when I was in my twenties, but if you want to keep your instrument intact, you gotta take care of it and that means mixing in those high places."
Besides the sheer power of Testa's vocals, she was long recognized for her riffing, which was for many years unheard of in musical theatre.
"Now everybody sings with the riffing. I've stopped being as riffy as I used to be [to honor] the power of whatever was written."
But once upon a time, she suffered consequences for taking musical liberties. "I did Company at Playwrights Horizons in 1979, '80 and I had no musical theatre background. I thought 'Another Hundred People' was boring! So I riffed on all the held notes. I guess half the people complained and half thought it was fantastic. Finally, Sondheim said, 'You're singing two intervals wrong.' That was it.
"But a very powerful casting director called my agents and said, 'Who does she think she is? We will never see her.' And I was blacklisted from all the British shows in the 80s."
Testa found more receptive partnership with William Finn, working on In Trousers and later, A New Brain. In between these productions, she also took part in the original workshops of March Of The Falsettos, which initially included her character, Miss Goldberg, from In Trousers.
"We would rehearse at Playwrights from midnight to three in the morning — Bill [Finn] was Marvin and it was crazy and weird and quirky and no one had ever seen any of that before. And then when they moved it to the main stage, Chip [Zien] came in. We created that from the ground up. It was Bill's writing, but Alison [Fraser] and I wrote all those harmonies."
Broadway called in the form of a swing gig in Barnum and Testa faced for the first time "art versus commerce. It was a horrific quandary for me. I wanted to be in March of the Falsettos, but I thought, 'This is why I'm here.' Bill didn't talk to me for a year, but it turned out that Ms. Goldberg had no place in March of the Falsettos."
Her next Broadway role was as Hedda Hopper in the famous flop, Marilyn: An American Fable, which Testa describes as "a clusterf**k. It was the longest preview process ever; they fired every director and Wally Harper [known as a conductor and musical director] actually ended up being the director. I had this number called 'Gossip' that was fun. They'd write different lyrics every day because it was the one thing that worked. When Wally got the final job, I went to him with the 'best-of' lyrics that I had put together and said, 'Can we do this?' And he said, 'Yeah, okay!'"
Testa went back to a waiting-in-the-wings cover job to standby for Liza Minnelli in The Rink. "I was there maybe eight months and then, Liza committed herself to the Betty Ford Center. She was erratic… One night, one of the stage managers said, 'Do you have any Valium?' I got insulted because I thought he was thinking I was a druggie, but then he said, 'It's for Liza.'"
An unsuccessful show Testa loved doing was The Knife at The Public Theater. "It was a brilliant project — in workshop. At one point we did a big number and someone stood up and screamed, 'Garbage!'"
Mandy Patinkin played a transvestite in The Knife and, "at the end of Act One, we had this big party scene and he shows up dressed as a woman, and someone said, 'Who invited Ethel Merman to this party?' Because Mandy's not the prettiest woman." Despite such a wide variety of performances, Testa has not yet starred in a leading role on Broadway. (She received recognition for her starring role Off-Broadway as Niagara Falls-traverser Anna Edson Taylor in Michael John LaChiusa's Queen of the Mist.)
"The powers that be don't seem to understand about me. They think I'm loud and funny, but they don't know half of what I can do. There are so many roles I'm like, 'Oh, surely they're gonna see me for that,' and then they don't. They think of me as, like, the bridge troll."
But Testa remains positive. "I'm like a pinball. I audition for things and I have the mind that if it's supposed to be my job, it will be. There have been things I was disappointed about, but I move on because I feel like if a job has your name on it, it's gonna be yours. Sh*t happens. You push your hair back and move on."
Perhaps her greatest role will be the multifaceted Mary Testa as herself in this upcoming run of solo performances. "I think I've gotta make my own way."
The duo will perform a live show based on the album at the Laurie Beechman Theater at The West Bank Café Jan. 4-5 and 11-12, 2015, at 7 PM. Visit westbankcafe.com/beechman_theatre.html for more information.