Signature Theatre’s refreshingly “old school” Donna Migliaccio.
Verve, panache, moxie: Those are some of the words conjured by Donna Migliaccio’s bright, sassy style. It’s a signature she has forged on musical theater stages for more than two decades, in often flamboyant roles that have included Ursula in “The Little Mermaid” and Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd.”
Her frequent onstage sidekick Bobby Smith gets a little Barbara Stanwyck-y describing Migliaccio’s sunny throwback palaver — “How ya doin’, kid?” he says with a glint in his eye and a sideways smile. Sure enough, Migliaccio, currently playing an outsize villain in Signature’s new pop musical “Girlstar,” displays a certain vintage quality in her pep and slang. She originally studied to be a journalist, and you can picture her cracking wise around the card table with the colorful scribes in “His Girl Friday.”
“That’s m’ agent’s job,” she says colloquially about whether she wants to do more acting out of town. Describing how she learned to hold a stage as commandingly as she does, she lightly tosses off a line that sounds like a Jimmy Stewart truism: “I learn from m’ betters. And I learn from m’ worsers.”
“There’s a bit of old school about Donna, in the best way possible,” says Signature Theatre Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer. He would know: Schaeffer founded the company with Migliaccio 26 years ago, when both were chafing to tackle a higher grade of plays and musicals than those they were working on in community theater.
When Schaeffer says “old school,” he’s talking about professionalism, the kind of businesslike yet collaborative approach in a rehearsal room that Smith calls “quarterbacking.” You could see it this month as all three grappled with fresh rewrites of “Girlstar,” a music industry fable with book and lyrics by Anton Dudley and music by Brian Feinstein. Migliaccio scrutinized the new pages, asked brass-tacks questions of director Schaeffer and tiptoed through a barbed duet with Smith, who plays a character who has some dirt on Migliaccio’s power-hungry record producer. (The main character is, as the title suggests, a young girl dying to be a star.)
Washington audiences know they can trust Migliaccio for solid fundamentals. After all, it takes savvy to play the diabolical squid Ursula and belt out the jolly showstopper “Poor Unfortunate Souls” the way she did last winter at the Olney Theatre Center. Migliaccio won a Helen Hayes Award as Mrs. Lovett for Signature in 1992; she has done the role there twice — “One of the best that’s ever played that part,” Schaeffer ventures — and has been Hayes-nominated more than a dozen times. Migliaccio and Smith shared very grown-up turns last season, prickly in “Threepenny Opera” and suave in the Stephen Sondheim revue “Simply Sondheim.”
So it’s surprising to hear that she doesn’t think of herself as a refined singer.
“My voice is like a Slinky to me,” Migliaccio says. “Can we make it go up the stairs? Can I duplicate what I just heard?” She doesn’t have a vocal coach: “Probably should,” she muses. “But my job in musical theater is not to sing a song. It’s to tell a story. Musically, I’m not about makin’ pretty sounds. I might make a big, showy sound on occasion, but I’m about telling the story, first and foremost.”
Pop is not her native style, and some of the bright finishes in “Girlstar” are making her think about how to work her voice. “I’m a lady baritone,” she says with a laugh. “I’m an alto with these stupid low notes, and some surprising high notes.” She demonstrates with a deep, round sound: “It’s getting lower all the time: C below middle C.”
Migliaccio will turn 60 this spring, and she cackles with pride as she says so. “I don’t have a problem with that,” she grins. “I’m a late bloomer anyway. Everything I’ve ever done, I’ve done late. And I feel like I am really in my full stride right now.”
Her late theatrical start took root in high school, when she played an old lady in “Oliver!” (“I was always the character woman. Even when I was 14, I was doing characters,” she says.) She was a true Army brat, moving from station to station with a big family, the fourth of seven kids. She went to college in Hawaii — “ducky” is her word for those four years — and came to Washington after graduating because an older sister was already working here. She wanted to write newspaper and magazine features but settled for a series of positions with the Mutual Broadcasting System, where she stayed for eight years until that radio network started to collapse. When she and Schaeffer created Signature, Migliaccio was the troupe’s first managing director even as she kept another day job as a legal secretary. Signature grew fast, and Migliaccio, not trained to run a business, was a casualty when the board cut her salary and basically let her go.
“I wasn’t mad at the theater, I was just mad at the situation,” Migliaccio says. “From an emotional standpoint, it was like having my baby ripped from me.”
She wasn’t sure she’d stick with acting, until her parents encouraged her to give it a shot. She built momentum through the decade but still groused through fallow stretches until a mind-changing experience with “Ragtime.” Migliaccio was cast as the revolutionary Emma Goldman for the 2009 Kennedy Center production but was left dangling about whether she’d be taken along as the show moved to Broadway. Dispirited, she was summoned to New York for yet another audition. She told her husband that she hated her life.
He sharply told her never to say that again, and she saw his point. Then, on her way into the audition: “It was like God reached down out of the heavens and slapped me on top of the head and said, ‘Stupid: If they had found somebody else, they would have hired them by now.’ I had this huge surge of confidence, went into the audition and was as sure as I have ever been that I had nailed it.”
Migliaccio got her taste of Broadway, and the local gigs have been steady ever since. She’s always looking to do more plays (she’ll be in the two-hander “Bakersfield Mist” at Olney next spring) and maybe land more out-of-town jobs, like the “Little Mermaid” she did last summer for the Alabama Shakespeare Festival.
“Life is good. Everything I have to [kvetch] about is pretty picayune,” Migliaccio says. “Don’t ya love that word?”
“My job in musical theater is not to sing a song. It’s to tell a story,” says Donna Migliaccio, shown here sparring with Bobby Smith on the set of “Girlstar” at Signature Theatre. The two are frequent onstage partners.