De­bra Monk makes a big noise as sin­gu­lar 1960s singer Mrs. Miller

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY PE­TER MARKS

De­bra Monk pos­sesses a lovely voice. And a not-so-lovely one, as well.

“I have,” she ex­plains, “the abil­ity to sing off-key and off-tempo.” It’s a vo­cal tal­ent quite apart from a lack of vo­cal tal­ent. And it’s not a skill you might think would come in par­tic­u­larly handy for a New York stage and tele­vi­sion ac­tress, even one as ver­sa­tile as Monk, who is far more likely to be re­quired, at a min­i­mum, to sing on-key and on-tempo.

Ex­cept that in “Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing,” now in a world­premiere run at Sig­na­ture Theatre, sound­ing aw­ful is ex­actly what the play­wright-di­rec­tor, James Lap­ine, wants to hear from Monk. The show is about one Elva Ruby Miller, whom the­ater­go­ers of a cer­tain age might re­mem­ber as — for a brief, un­shin­ing mo­ment — an un­likely celebrity of the 1960s. Achiev­ing renown sim­ply as “Mrs. Miller,” she soared to star­dom on ra­dio and tele­vi­sion by virtue of her LPs and ghastly cov­ers of Top-40 hits such as

Pe­tula Clark’s “Down­town,” the Bea­tles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Mon­day Mon­day” by the Ma­mas and the Pa­pas.

“She be­came a kind of pop sen­sa­tion in spite of her­self,” Lap­ine says, ex­plain­ing that what made Miller unique was that she was in her 50s and per­form­ing ex­cru­ci­at­ing ver­sions of songs associated with a younger, hip­per gen­er­a­tion. “I don’t think it was her mu­sic, and that was the whole joke,” he says. “The ques­tion was, did she know that peo­ple were laugh­ing at her?”

If the in­quiry rings a bell, per­haps it’s be­cause a sim­i­lar one was posed in “Florence Fos­ter Jenk­ins,” the movie from last year that earned Meryl Streep her 20th Academy Award nom­i­na­tion. In it, she plays a tone-deaf so­cialite of an ear­lier age, a Mrs. Miller of the 1920s and ’30s, who squeaked out op­er­atic arias so sourly that lis­ten­ers’ lips would pucker. Jenk­ins also was the sub­ject of a 2004 off-Broad­way play, “Sou­venir,” star­ring Judy Kaye, which moved the fol­low­ing year to Broad­way, where it quickly fiz­zled.

This all might help to ex­plain why Lap­ine, 68, didn’t have the eas­i­est time find­ing a home for “Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing,” which he has been work­ing on for the bet­ter part of a decade. Two years ago this month, though, Lap­ine was in Wash­ing­ton to re­ceive Sig­na­ture Theatre’s Sond­heim Award, given to him for his dis­tin­guished col­lab­o­ra­tion as book writer and di­rec­tor of the Stephen Sond­heim mu­si­cals “Into the Woods,” “Sun­day in the Park With Ge­orge” and “Pas­sion.” That night, he men­tioned “Mrs. Miller” to Sig­na­ture’s artis­tic di­rec­tor, Eric Scha­ef­fer, who agreed to pro­duce it.

Lap­ine says he had long wanted to write about the mu­sic and pol­i­tics of the late ’60s, and he be­came in­trigued with Miller af- ter be­ing in­tro­duced to Mark Oliver Everett, a mu­si­cian with the in­die rock group the Eels, who had writ­ten a film treat­ment about her.

“I looked her up and thought, this is a great way to think about this era,” Lap­ine says, “be­cause ’66 to ’68 was the mid­dle of Viet­nam and the cul­tural rev­o­lu­tion, and she started record­ing in that pe­riod, when the mu­sic changed.”

He also long had in mind Monk, who has made a zesty ca­reer out of sup­port­ing roles: She orig­i­nated the part, for ex­am­ple, of Sara Jane Moore in Sond­heim’s 1990 mu­si­cal “As­sas­sins” and won a Tony three years later for her fea­tured per­for­mance in a Lan­ford Wil­son play, “Red­wood Cur­tain.” She has been nom­i­nated three other Tonys, and, even more im­pres­sive, the nods have come for her work in both plays and mu­si­cals. (Monk also has done tele­vi­sion, most promi­nently play­ing the eter­nally wor­ried wife of Den­nis Franz’s Andy Sipow­icz on “NYPD Blue.”)

Born in Ohio, Monk grew up in the Wash­ing­ton area and grad­u­ated from Wheaton High School. She never gave act­ing a mo­ment’s con­sid­er­a­tion un­til after a stint as a sec­re­tary in Dupont Cir­cle and a sub­se­quent schol­ar­ship to Mary­land’s Frost­burg State Col­lege. At Frost­burg, Monk was re­quired to take a speech class and, as a re­sult, was asked to try out for a pro­duc­tion of an avant-garde play, Harold Pin­ter’s “The Birth­day Party.”

“To this day, I don’t know what it’s about,” she says.

Monk did, how­ever, have some in­nate be­lief in her­self, be­cause by her own ac­count, she talked her way into a well-re­garded grad­u­ate act­ing pro­gram at South­ern Methodist Univer­sity in Texas and, upon grad­u­a­tion, went to New York, where she and fel­low ac­tress Cass Mor­gan cre­ated a coun­try-mu­sic mu­si­cal for them­selves called “Pump Boys and Dinettes.” The show would trans­fer in 1982 to Broad­way, where it ran for nearly 600 per­for­mances.

What Monk, now in her mid60s, hasn’t ex­pe­ri­enced much is a piece built around her. Lap­ine is happy to have been the sup­plier of that par­tic­u­lar prop­erty.

“She re­ally hasn’t been a head­for liner,” he says. “It’s a thrill to be able to give her a part that’s at the cen­ter, at this stage of her life.” (An­other the­ater heavy­weight, Boyd Gaines, is also fea­tured in “Mrs. Miller.”)

It’s a part in which Monk gets to sing ’60s stan­dard after ’60s stan­dard — not just “Down­town” and “Mon­day Mon­day,” but also “Th­ese Boots Are Made for Walkin’, ” “The Bal­lad of the Green Berets” and “Moon River.”

Just not in the stan­dard way.

AN­DRE CHUNG FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

De­bra Monk, a stage and TV ac­tress who has most of­ten shined in sup­port­ing roles, is tak­ing cen­ter stage at Sig­na­ture Theatre as vo­cal phe­nom­e­non Mrs. Miller, the Florence Fos­ter Jenk­ins of the 1960s.

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