“Saturday Night Live” Alumna Ana Gasteyer took the path less traveled after she left that seminal late-night sketch show a decade ago. She became a Broadway baby!
Ana did the “Time Warp” in “The Rocky Horror Show,” offered her 10 cents in “The Three Penny Opera” and defied gravity as Elphaba in her most-technically-challenging role to date in “Wicked.”
Now, named after a back-handed compliment from her mother, Ana is inviting you to listen to “Elegant Songs from a Handsome Woman,” her one-woman-show-turned-cocktail-party in San Francisco’s Rrazz Room from Friday to Sunday.
“It’s an awesome way to connect with audiences in a much more personal way. It’s not a character. It’s not a wig—I barely even tease my hair. I get to be the authentic party girl that I am,” Ana told me.
Gasteyer’s transformation into cabaret singer makes sense. Some of her memorable turns on “SNL” included belting out ballads as Celine Dion, nailing hip-hop covers as middle-school music teacher Bobbi Mohan-Culp (with her pal Will Ferrell) and as a core member of Destiny’s Child rip-off group Gemini’s Twin (with Maya Rudolph and a rotating assortment of guest hosts).
Corey Andrew: Have you performed in San Francisco before?
Ana Gasteyer: I have not, and I’m really looking forward to it. My show is a combination of great music and fun—everything that I am—at least what I wanna be when I grow up. It sounds like everyone can throw back a smooth cocktail, tap their toes and enjoy a good evening out.
Corey: What was the nugget that helped create this show?
Ana: I’m known from ‘Saturday Night’ and now ‘Suburgatory,’ my wackier, crazier, higher-profile venues. I was a trained singer, and I kind of went backward. The two parts of me are Jekyll and Hyde. Bad example, but there are radically different sides of the coin: kind of an earnest, musical theater lady and funny lady. When you work on Broadway, people hire you for private events to sing. It was kind of happening. I would do it, and half the audience would show up for ‘SNL,’ and I felt like I was disappointing them by being really serious and singing ballads.
I have a better time when I’m authentically letting it rip and having a good time and making myself laugh. I was talking to Julian Fleisher, my director, and he said, ‘I think you should stop trying to be serious. I think it’s depressing you. Tell me what songs you like. What do you want to do?’ The whole idea of having an act was to have a party that I was happy to invite people to. It’s just me doing songs that make me want to dance around my living room. That makes me really happy.
Corey: Did you look at some of the shows you performed in to pull selections from?
Ana: That’s the irony. I played Foska in Sondheim’s ‘Passion, ’ one of the most beautiful performances I’ve ever been a part of. It could literally not be less funny. It just didn’t work. We do have a song from ‘Wicked.’ I did that for over a year, and it’s part of who I am musically. We do have a nod here and there to standards and some Broadway classics. We job way more from the American song book, from Gershwin and Cole Porter. Old-fashioned and fun.
Corey: Do you leave room for the show to change?
Ana: All the time. We’re always adding songs and moving them around. I played violin for 15 years, but I put it away obviously when I grew up. I started taking lessons again recently. I wouldn’t say improved but less painful. We’ve incorporated some of the old fiddle into the mix. I’m hearing songs all the time that make me happy and characterize my persona—whatever it is—to keep it light and fun.
I’m singing with the Seattle Men’s Chorus the weekend after I sing in San Francisco. That’s a great opportunity because there’s a great men’s chorus behind me, to work on some great holiday songs. I try to look at everything as an opportunity to thrown a couple new songs into the mix, just because it’s a great challenge to make yourself learn something. Even the last shows we did in New York, we went for broke. We knew we weren’t going to be making any money, so we hired a bongo player, and that added a huge amount of dimension. Whatever we can do to liven up the proceedings, we try to do! To me a great night club evening is a throwback to the Ricky Ricardo orchestra.
Corey: What words would you use to describe your singing voice?
Ana: Loud would be one. The microphone went out at Studio 54 when I was in ‘The Three Penny Opera,’ and I had absolutely no problem being heard. I’m an old-fashioned belter in many ways. I’m less of a modern pop singer, and I definitely think I have a vocal quality that’s old-fashioned. My influences are more along Betty Hutton and Ethel Merman lines than Beyonce.
Obviously, I can sing legit and pretty if I need to. For me, it’s an expression of personality and story, and I know it sounds artsy-fartsy, but that’s really where the voice has to go. It gets big where it needs to get big and gets bawdy where it needs to get bawdy.
Corey: How much room do you leave for storytelling?
Ana: A fair amount. It’s who I am. I’m pretty verbal. We do a pretty long set. We do 13 or 14 numbers, usually. It’s largely musical. For me the biggest rule is, is the song fun? Does it have a sense of humor? Not a comedy song. Comedy songs make me want to kill myself a little bit. I went down that road for a little while, looking for hilarious songs from musical comedies. I felt insane. It didn’t quite work. These are more songs that have an inherent sense of humor.
Corey: As a trained singer, was there much opportunity to sing once you got involved with The Groundlings?
Ana: I’ve always used it. I kind of gave it up. I didn’t think I was going to be a singer at all. I had gone to college in Chicago. I’d gone there to be a voice major and very quickly fell into the disreputable comedy group and dropped out of the music school and hung out with all the fun improv people. Improv was such a huge deal in the ’80s in Chicago. Whenever you’re in an improvisational setting, you use whatever’s in your play book, and for me singing was there. I kind of felt, if you can do it, you use it. On ‘SNL’ it was helpful.
Corey: Did you do any singing for your audition for ‘SNL.’
Ana: I did not, actually. I don’t think anybody really knew I could sing. Probably, Celine Dion was the first time I really sang on the show. In a way there it worked because she’s a singer. That’s something that came up. If I developed a character like Cinder Calhoun, the Lilith Fair character I did, it just sort of worked because it was apropos to the subject matter we were developing. Likewise, Gemini’s Twin and Bobby and Marty are all things that came about as part of the joke and ended up being successful.
Corey: Every year now, ‘SNL’ shows those Christmas specials and, of course, you’re gonna have ‘Schweddy Balls,’ because it’s become one of those sketches that’s its own thing. The other one that stands out for me has got to ‘The Martha Stewart Topless Holiday Special.’
Ana: Also a great Christmas moment. Those are favorite moments of mine from the show, without a doubt. I’m glad other people enjoy them, too.
Corey: Were you actually topless?
Ana: I was just barely topped. Just barely.
Corey: There were kids present, the boys choir.
Ana: Exactly. Just barely.
Corey: Is that something you can recreate with the Seattle Men’s Chorus?
Ana: Let’s hope so. That’s a great idea. I should work that in. That is hilarious. I’ve got to think about that.
Corey: That has to be one of the most-unique jobs in show business. What is it like when you see the other veterans of the show?
Ana: We have a very close bond, especially the girls from the show. I feel very close to all of them. On election night we were on this massive e-mail chain, all connecting. I would count them my closest girlfriends, probably.
Corey: I know she wasn’t on your cast, but I’m taking a wild guess that Victoria Jackson wasn’t on that e-mail chain.
Ana: No she wasn’t. (laughs) No, she was not. There were a whole lot of pictures of all of our babies holding up little Obama and Go Maryland and Go Washington signs.
Ana Gasteyer is performing at 9:15 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and at 7 p.m. on Sunday at The Rrazz Room inside Hotel Nikko in San Francisco. Visit therrazzroom.com for more details.
Corey Andrew has been interviewing comedians and writing about comedy for the last decade and a half. In 2011, he published the book, “Laugh Lines: Conversations with Comedians.” Corey was a writer and performer with Midwest sketch troupe, The NonProphets, before moving to the Bay Area with his family several years ago. If you have ideas for future columns about comedy, you can send them to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/coreywrites.