Whether you know Ana Gasteyer from her six unforgettable seasons on Saturday Night Live or as Sheila on the criminally underappreciated Suburgatory, one thing is for sure: You’ve probably never seen her quite like this.
In support of her first album, I’m Hip, which was released in 2014, Gasteyer is touring the country with her intimate and stylish evening of songs and stories. It is a throwback to slightly fancier times, her trademark humor intact, and features a delicious and surprising selection of songs. She brings the show to Sanders Theatre on February 6, presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston.
I spoke to Gasteyer by phone from Los Angeles, where she is busy preparing for Grease: Live, which airs this Sunday.
You’re in the middle of a pretty busy week; it’s crunch time for Grease.
It’s crunch time for Grease, yeah! We’re going to SoulCycle. I know, that’s so cheesy, but it’s our day off, and I’m running around and doing everything, but the cast is going to SoulCycle.
Is it supposed to be a bonding experience?
I guess. Presumably, yes. They’re all so tiny. I thought I would represent for the old people.
This must be no big deal for you; you’re such a live creature. Grease: Live is probably no sweat.
It is and it isn’t. It’s sort of weird because it’s such a hybrid between theater and TV. TV is so much faster and more instinctual. So it’s sort of strange because I’m having a hard time with the footing. But we had a really good run-through yesterday, and we’re starting to work in costumes, and the tracks are coming together. It’s very difficult to do because we’re not doing a show on a stage with the conventions of changing scenery and all the behind-the-scenes things like quick changes; they’re all happening all over the Warner Brothers lot, so it’s really complicated and interesting. There’s golf carts involved—people speeding under stress.
Like literally tearing. I have to memorize, “Okay, I’m changing into this costume here and then I have to run out and get into the cart and go over to that set and that’s where the pep rally is going to be at.” Do you know what I mean? There’s a lot of that and it’s a little daunting. But I think it’ll be really, really, really fun when it happens. And there’s going to be an audience, sort of Our Town-style sprinkled all over the lot.
Our Town-style! [laughs]
It’s kind of crazy. We’re doing it like a sitcom taping where it’s basically like a little theater, right, but the audience is going to be everywhere and we’re going to be everywhere. It’s really weird.
A live audience is something a lot of people thought was palpably missing from the other live musical broadcasts.
Yes, I do think it will make a difference. I hope. It’s hard to know without them being there yet. It’s a very interesting thing. And of course, it’s going to look fantastic, so that’s good news.
Break a leg! I hope you’re having a good time.
I will. It’s always scary, you know, doing something iconic, but it is really fun. You have to hope people go with the flow and aren’t all about hate-Tweeting, you know?
And then you get on an airplane and come to Boston to do your show!
Yes I am! I am indeed! I’m very much looking forward to it.
I love that you included the theme from Valley of the Dolls on your album. I really appreciate that.
Thank you! I’m happy to have done it for you. It’s such a great song, and it’s got sort of a wink and some camp to it but it’s beautiful, so it sort of fits the Ana Gasteyer manifest.
That’s funny. Do you perform it in the show?
[whispers] I do it in the show.
You were a musician before you were an actress or a comedienne.
That’s exactly right. I started as a violinist, so to speak, and I worked really hard at it, but I wasn’t a natural. I mean, I love violin, but I wasn’t going to be a violinist when I grew up. Then I moved on to the voice world and actually got into Northwestern as a vocal major and then spent a year in music school; then I discovered comedy because I was in the birthplace of improvisational comedy, and then I sort of abandoned ship and switched over [to] the theater program and graduated with a theater degree from Northwestern.
And then everything changed for you when Saturday Night Live came along.
Yeah! It’s so funny to look at a career and sort of define it for people, but yeah. After I left SNL I started to concentrate more on singing, and when you do a Broadway show you really have to take care of yourself and get up to speed quickly. There’s no better way to do that than eight shows a week; lots of different kinds of shows and styles. But in terms of like, my actual own marriage of what I love to sing, the stuff that is in my act tends to be a really comfortable happy medium between the sincerity and earnestness of musical theater and the comedy work; it kind of lives somewhere in between and it’s really fun, and that’s the most important part. Yes, I did start as a singer but I’m essentially a comedienne. It never felt like a great fit to be terribly serious about music. Jazz lives in a really fun place that way. It can be really improvisational, very loose, very fun.
I saw you in The Threepenny Opera on Broadway.
Oh, you did? You saw me being very serious.
I think a lot of people hated it. It’s kind of controversial as a piece. A lot of people have done it and studied it, and so they have very strong ideas about what it should be or represent, you know? It’s an academic piece of theater.
Tell me about playing Elphaba in Wicked. How on earth did you sing that eight times a week?
It’s really hard. It’s really hard, there’s no other way to put it. You have to work really hard and take incredible care of yourself, and I did. I was lucky to do Threepenny in the middle of my run; I did Elphaba in Chicago for about nine months, then I did Threepenny, then I came in and did Wicked in New York. The hardest part about Wicked, I mean, the range is ridiculous and the endurance of it; it’s a long show. But there’s also a lot of smoke and fog in the show which sounds like a diva complaint, but it is very hard to sing in. That actually became the most challenging; it’s a very physically demanding show.
What is your favorite thing about being able to take it down and just do your own show? That’s so many people’s dream.
It is totally a dream; that’s beautifully put. It’s very intimate. I love the experience of that kind of live work with an audience because it’s very personal and you can kind of write the rules to your own whims. So you know, if I want to swear a couple of times I swear; if I want to tell a particularly revealing story that night, I do. In real life I love throwing parties and I’m a very social person. I really like that feeling of connection with an audience. So much of what we do, especially on television, it’s all so abstract. It’s nice to connect with an audience; there’s no substitute for singing live or hearing music live. Really trying your best to do that well for people, it keeps me really focused and grounded in the most fun way. I love working with a band, I like the kind of ensemble vibe of that. I also just like the old-fashioned medium that feels slightly throwbacky in terms of a lovely evening out where an entertainer is expected to sing really well and tell a bunch of good jokes in between.
Do you perform mostly in typical theaters, or do you do nightclubs?
We’re mostly in typical theaters, but that is my dream. I wish that there were more of them and more places where people could go out—supper club acts, so to speak.
Listening to your music, that’s what I picture. I picture martinis.
That’s what I want. And I really love it when people drink at my shows. If I had it my way, it’d be fun if everyone got dressed up, too.
You can put that in your requirements. Print it on the tickets.
[laughs] Tie required. I love it. I’m going to do that. Dress code strictly enforced.
What is your favorite song to perform in this show?
That’s a tough one. Any kind of jazz standard, they leave so much room for interpretation and those are really fun to do because they’re always slightly different. As is Before He Cheats. I love telling a story in a song, so any time you can do that, you can explore a little bit as well.
I love that you do Before He Cheats. It’s such a well-written pop song.
It’s a great story with tons of emotional content and it’s really fun to do. And the band can really, really rock it, which is great. And I like horns. I like anything with horns. When I do a really big show, I’ll have a whole horn section, but this guy that I’m bringing out to Boston is fantastic. He’s played in a ton of Broadway pits and he’s on the record, actually. He’s really fun and really creative and he understands inherently that horns make funny sounds. And that’s incredibly important to me.
Hairspray is going to be the next live TV musical, and you would be perfect for it. It’s probably too early, but…
Oh, God, that’s so nice. I doubt that they’re considering me for it just because I’m not sure they reiterate these casts, you know? But that is really sweet. Yeah, I love that show. I absolutely love that show. I’m delighted that they’re doing more and more of them, it’s great; it’s great for musicals, it’s great for people who don’t live in New York who can’t see musicals. I’m all for it. TV’s changing, it’s exciting. I’m doing a series on cable that just got picked up and they’re doing 10 episodes, which means that you can do 10 really good episodes as opposed to 22 sort of okay episodes. It leaves me more time to tour and do specials and live musicals and Broadway musicals. As an actor who seeks variety, I’m quite delighted with this change of the landscape.
What is your big bucket list role?
Well, when I’m old enough, I’d like to do Gypsy, of course. And I would love to play Annie Oakley at some point.
Oh, that’s a great idea!
Oh, I would love to play Annie Oakley. And at the moment, we’ll see what happens in terms of scheduling, but I’ve been working on these workshops for Freaky Friday the musical, and it’s great. It would be really, really fun to do. I also have my own material that I’ve been writing and I’d love to do a Christmas special, I’d love to do a Christmas album. The bucket list goes on and on. It’s always something. I’d love to do an album completely about food, because I love food. And then I’d love to do a recipe book in association with it. There’s so many great songs about food, I just want to do a whole set about it! I’ll get it done in 2025. When my patron shows up. My benefactor.
You never know. They might be watching Grease on Sunday.
You never, ever know, do you? I unfortunately have to go do SoulCycle. I’m so embarrassed for myself, but I think we’ll all be that much happier for it next year.
You’ll make it through.
I shall. I hope. I’m sort of dreading that they’re going to be playing Grease music the entire time.
Oh, are they? Hmm.
I love the score, but we’ve certainly been listening to it enough. We’ll see.
Enjoy. And good luck. With everything!
Thank you! Thanks for promoting the Boston show! I really hope we get a fun crowd. Key words are fun, ridiculous, bubbles, jazz, and… I don’t know. Flask.
Flask. I want people to have a good time!
ANA GASTEYER IN CONCERT. 2.6 @ 8 PM. SANDERS THEATRE, 45 QUINCY ST., CAMBRIDGE. CELEBRITYSERIES.ORG/GASTEYER
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.