Diversity has graced the career of Randy Graff: on Broadway alone, she has appeared in comedies by Neil Simon and Ken Ludwig and musicals both sprawling (Les Miserables, Fiddler on the Roof) and intimate (A Class Act, Falsettos). None of these shows, however, provided Graff with her favorite role. That would be her current assignment, Frieda, in The Babylon Line.
“My best friend came to the Babylon opening-night party,” Graff told me. “Over the past 40 years, she’s seen me do everything. But we both decided that Frieda was my favorite role.”
That preference stems partly from Richard Greenberg’s text: “It’s such a pleasure to speak his language,” Graff said. And partly it’s personal. “When I play Frieda, I am honoring my mother, who is still alive, and two of her friends, who are not.”
Graff continued: “Frieda is, physically, like my mother – her posture, the peacock-like way she wears clothes.” In the evolution of Frieda’s language, she is more like Graff’s mother’s friends. “I grew up in Brooklyn, but my mother’s friends moved to Long Island. And, when they moved, something happened to their speech. It changed because they wanted to fit in with their new neighbors, and sound more sophisticated.” Greenberg, she explained, has a phrase to describe this evolution: “Flatbush on the Thames.” “That’s such an evocative way,” Graff said, “to indicate what was involved here.”
To research Frieda, Graff read up on the history of Levittown, where the play takes place. But she didn’t have to access Long Island women on YouTube. “I know these women very well,” she said. “They live inside me. Happily so.”
Graff, who won a Tony for her role in the 1989 musical City of Angels, has played Jewish women before: Golde in Fiddler on the Roof, for example. “But none of them are as complicated as Frieda,” Graff said. “Golde is similar to Frieda, however, in that they both fiercely protect their children. Almost to a fault. Speaking of one of her two sons, Frieda says, ‘I’ve shielded him.’” Graff explained: “That’s so indicative of how she views her family. Her children didn’t always get the harsh truth about the world.”
Frieda not only defends her brood; she also defends her community. “She’s the CNN of Levittown,” Graff said. “She knows everything, and if she doesn’t she tries to find out. She’s very tough. She would have made a great litigator.”
If Frieda’s toughness and intelligence make her Graff’s favorite role, what would be the runner-up? “I’d have to say the Countess in A Little Night Music.” That production was part of the glorious, six-show Sondheim Festival put together at the Kennedy Center, in 2002. “I always say it was like being in the Olympic Village during the Olympics,” Graff said. “We only did 13 performances, but I was so fortunate to be part of that undertaking.”
Graff also expresses gratitude to the performer Patricia Clarkson. “She’s my acting idol,” Graff said. “Two or three summers ago, we worked together in an indie film called Learning to Drive. I had one scene, in which I played her divorce attorney.” Graff went on: “We did the scene, and, right after, Patty called Richard Greenberg and told him that I had to be cast as Frieda.” (Clarkson and Greenberg have been close friends at least since the former appeared in the latter’s career-establishing play, Eastern Standard, in 1988.) “When we had the first read of Babylon, Rich told me, ‘You know, you have Patty Clarkson to thank for this part.’ Thank you, Patty!”
A final fun fact: Graff played Trina in the original Broadway production of Falsettos, during the 1992-93 season. “I replaced Barbara Walsh,” Graff said. “I did 10 weeks of the show, which is so beautiful.” She greatly enjoyed seeing the current Broadway incarnation – a Lincoln Center Theater production. “Stephanie J. Block is terrific as Trina,” Graff said. “When she sings ‘I’m Breaking Down,’ it’s thrilling. But I’m still trying to figure out how she eats a banana and manages to sing at the same time without choking.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.