Katey Sagal is outside her comfort zone. It’s been 25 years since she trod a legit stage and she readily confesses to being hip deep in WTF territory. The last theatrical production she did was a 1985 Mark Taper Forum mounting of The Beautiful Lady, making her co-starring role in the current world premiere presentation of Randy Newman’s Harps and Angels a serendipitous homecoming of sorts. Especially when you throw in a teenage gig as the iconoclastic songwriter’s babysitter.
“I was probably 13 and lived across the street,” recalls the native Angeleno. “When I came in to sing for him, I thought, oh he’s never going to remember this. And the first thing he said to me was, ‘You were my kid’s favorite babysitter! I’ve been watching your career ever since.’ I was like wow. Unbelievable.”
Sagal is the first to admit her life’s been a series of eclectic chameleon-like turns during the subsequent decades between meetings. She toured for three years with Bette Midler as an original Harlette, earned a trio of Golden Globe nominations for a 10-year-run as Peg Bundy on the Fox sitcom juggernaut Married…With Children, lent her voice to an animated purple haired, one-eyed space captain named Leela, cut two mostly self-penned albums, fronted her own band and morphed in her 50s into a respected dramatic actress currently starring as Gemma Teller Morrow, the TV matriarch of a outlaw motorcycle club on FX Network’s Sons of Anarchy.
“I know, it’s weird!” Sagal exclaims with a full-throated laugh during a backstage talk in her dressing room two hours before final dress and nearly two weeks prior to the show’s Nov. 21 opening. “It’s pretty schitzy. I feel blessed actually and really grateful. You know how you can have that one vision of yourself? ‘This is where I’m going. This is what’s going to happen?’ Clearly the right doors [in music] weren’t opening. So when the acting thing came, I said okay, I’ll try that. And things just sort of veered that way. Now I’m really getting to do everything I could possibly want to do.”
With her long auburn hair, cuffed jeans, short sturdy boots and long-sleeved, scoop-necked top, Sagal looks like a cross between the biker character she plays and the late 60s- to-mid-70s female singer/songwriter she wanted to emulate as a young girl growing up in LA. She exudes an earthly sensuality coupled with the direct assuredness of a woman comfortable both in her own skin and conveying the emotional potency of a song.
“Music is something I’ve done since I was a little kid,” she explains. “My whole focus was to be a singer and a songwriter. I started writing when I was like 13 or 14. Had a little piano in my room and listened to all those women. I wanted to be Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro; mostly Laura Nyro because I really liked blues. She had that sort of blue-eyed soul thing about her that really spoke to me.”
The daughter of a writer/producer mom and director dad, Sagal enrolled in CalArts but left after a semester when she got hired as a chorus girl and understudy to one of the lead for the 1972 national tour of rock musical Two Gentleman of Verona. The freshman got the audition because her father Boris Sagal was a friend of the show’s casting director Joel Thurm. “School was not really my thing. I just wanted to work. So I dropped out, joined the circus and went out on the road.”
But musical theatre was not really her pursuit at the time either, she says. When Sagal returned to LA from the road, she knocked around as a singer/songwriter supporting herself doing background vocalist gigs for artists including Bob Dylan, Bette Midler, Etta James, Olivia Newton-John, Tanya Tucker and Kiss’ Gene Simmons. She was also in a band called The Group With No Name, which released the 1976 album Moon Over Brooklyn.
“This was my wild memory,” she offers about her short stint with Dylan after censoring herself before divulging a choice anecdote. “We would rehearse and then he wouldn’t say much. He wouldn’t speak during the rehearsal but he’d gather us all together afterward and playback a tape. If you made a mistake,” she laughs, “he would just kind of look at you! And you’d think, oh I’m just going to die right now! I mean it was intense. He would just give you the evil eye.”
While Sagal states that musically, Etta James was “the biggest teacher I ever had,” Bette Midler taught her theatricality during the years spent inside the Divine Miss M’s legendary ’70s road tours. “It was a great time to be with her. I was in the original group of mermaids. It was different then being a Harlette. Now the Harlettes seem to be more dancers than they are singers!” she laughs. “At that time we were more singers who had to move around a lot and dance.”
H&A‘s rehearsal process reminds Sagal of those days and Midler’s work ethic. “I learned an enormous amount from her. She is probably to this day the hardest working person I’ve ever worked for. Doing this show I now see–because we’re rehearsing like insane people–how with her theatrical background, that was her way of working, too. Tonight we have quick changes and I’m thinking, okay, I’ve got to be on this side of the stage and then I’ve got to be on that side. But that’s what being a Harlette was like. Constantly changing costumes. In and out dancing. It taught me a lot.”
From Peg to Gemma
Sagal’s road to the Taper and television stardom evolved in part out of a mid-’80s Equity Waiver mounting of the Paul Gordon and Jay Gruska-penned pop musical initially called Backstreet. The singer’s current manager saw her in the tiny Pasadena production and asked if she wanted an agent. Sagal told her she was really a musician who was doing the show as a favor to her friends and didn’t know if she really wanted to act. Six months later, she walked onto the Taper stage as a Russian poet in the summer 1985 west coast premiere of Elizabeth Swados and Paul Schmidt’s rock opera The Beautiful Lady. LA Times theatre critic Dan Sullivan singled her out: “Equally young, gifted and mad are the women…especially, Katey Sagal’s abandoned (and how she loves it) Tsvetaeva.”
CBS came calling and asked her to read for Mary starring Mary Tyler Moore. She got the part. While she’d done a few bit roles in TV movies in the ’70s, this was her first real TV series role. The series lasted 13 episodes but it led to her being cast as Peg Bundy in Fox Television’s first primetime series Married…With Children, which debuted in 1987 and ran for 11 seasons ending in 1997. For the next 10 years she continued to be a familiar TV presence on sitcoms like Tucker and 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, the animated series Futurama, television movies, recurring roles on Boston Legal and Eli Stone plus numerous guest appearances including character John Locke’s fiancée Helen Norwood on Lost. Then in September 2008, Sagal streaked her hair and slid onto a motorcycle for the series premiere of Sons of Anarchy.
She acknowledges the journey from Peg Bundy to Gemma Teller Morrow had its share of detours. “I kind of went on this comedy trajectory which was fabulous and then when you’re in people’s living rooms for that many years as one thing, they don’t necessarily buy you in another role. It took a minute. It just took a minute. You know? And I like to do different things. I like to stay interested-as you can see!” she laughs.
Being married to Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter who wrote the role specifically for her doesn’t hurt either. “It’s sweet,” she admits. “I love doing that show. It’s just been a dream come true. Plus it’s such a cool world that hasn’t been explored. There’s not really a lot of information on the women. So Gemma’s a little bit of creative license: sort of the upper echelon matriarch in any kind of off-the-grid community. It’s a really great part for me.”
When asked whether she now defines herself as a singer who acts or an actor who sings, Sagal puts herself in the latter camp. “I feel like I’ve learned how to be an actor. I’ve been acting now for something like 25 years,” she pauses a moment to let the number settle in. “Wow. I’ve taken it on to really learn what I’m doing. So I have this really big love and appreciation for being an actor. But I’d say the first 5-10 years I didn’t. I didn’t have any kind of technique to fall on. I didn’t have any kind of depth. I thought what I was doing I was doing very well but it was a little bit by the seat of my pants. So today, I would consider myself an actor.”
Conceived by multi-hyphenate Broadway impresario and former Taper dramaturge Jack Viertel, Harps and Angels takes audiences on a 35-song musical journey through Randy Newman’s American Songbook. From his early classics like “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” “Sail Away” and “Marie” to pop hits “Short People” and “I Love LA” or the political commentary in “Great Nations of Europe,” “Louisiana 1927″ and “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” the evening traverses the 66-year-old songwriter’s unique exploration of the human condition via six veteran music and Broadway performers.
Directed by four time Tony Award winner Jerry Zaks, the cast features Ryder Bach (LA’s History Boys), Storm Large (Crazy Enough), Adriane Lenox (Doubt, Kiss Me Kate), Michael McKean (Superior Donuts, The Pajama Game), Matthew Saldivar (The Wedding Singer, Grease) and Sagal.
“The way Jerry and Jack have put it all together, the songs do kind of tell a story,” she explains. “It’s a big American story about six regular people going through their lives. It just seems to flow. Randy always seems to have this stance, his political take on things in that sort of tongue-in-cheek, ‘well if it’s all so fucked up, let’s just drop the big one.’ That kind of sets the tone. I’m curious to see what people think.”
Some of her younger cast members only knew Newman via his Pixar movie music and were unaware of his earlier album career. “I was a huge fan back then,” his former babysitter admits. “I don’t remember dates. I don’t remember when his first records came out. I’ve just always been aware of Randy Newman. As a singer songwriter in the Troubadour days. That stuff.”
In the Taper program, the performers cite a Newman tune that had made an impact on them. Sagal offers a memory of “Real Emotional Girl,” which came out when she was 29. Asked if she has other favorites, she offers: “I love this song he wrote that Dusty Springfield covered on Dusty in Memphis. It’s called…(she starts to sing looking for the title) ‘But the walls are much too thin, I don’t want to hear it…’ “I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore!” she declares. “I love that record. I love that song. It’s not in the show. But so many of them are.”
Despite the great material, Sagal admits placing a “what was I thinking” call to her manager during the show’s first week of rehearsals. “This is a definite learning curve for me because I’ve done television for so long. It’s a whole different kind of presentation than what I’ve been doing for the last 25 years. I mean I’ve performed a lot with my band but this is a different thing. It’s been fascinating for me. Using muscles I haven’t used in a long time and parts of my brain, which are saying this is good exercise! It’s all that great stuff they tell you as you’re getting older–learn new things!” she laughs.
Like the differences in perks working on a set versus on stage. The absence of craft services or a second team to handle lighting set ups. “I keep saying where’s the food?” Doing your own hair and make-up. Sagal says the chance to perform in H&A really was an opportunity to see if she wanted to pursue theatre again. Project opportunities in New York and elsewhere have beckoned from time to time but family obligations to her three children always checkmated the choice. “This is a great way to really kind of see wow, do I really like this? Would they like me?” she laughs. “It’s been really great that way.”
As a singer songwriter Sagal has released two of her own albums, a 1994 solo entitled Well…. followed 10 years later by the 2004 Room. When asked whether being in H&A had sparked new creative musings of her own, she concedes it had not. She was still in the throes of catching the show’s rhythms and performing the songs. “I love to play music. I always feel like, no matter what else is going on, it’s a gift that was given me and I need to always do that. For money or for no money. It doesn’t matter.”
Sagal confesses writing her own material doesn’t come as easily when her life is happy. And hers she feels is in a well-earned place of self-acceptance and gratitude. “My life is really good right now. Truly. I love being where I am. It’s awesome. I think it’s a better time than any time I’ve been in. First off I feel healthy, which I think is majorly important. I also feel pretty okay with who I am. I don’t have to be the best and the greatest at everything. I don’t have to be liked by everybody. I can just be one amongst many in a weird way. I like it. I just like it.”
***Production photos by Craig Schwartz.
Harps and Angels, presented by Center Theatre Group, opens Nov. 21; plays Tues.-Fri., 8 pm; Sat., 2 & 8 pm; Sun., 1 & 6:30 pm; through Dec. 22. Added performances Mon., Nov. 22 at 8 pm; Tues., Dec. 21 at 8 pm & Wed., Dec. 22 at 2 & 8 pm; no performance Thur., Nov. 25 or Tues., Nov. 30. Tickets: $20-$80. Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles; 213.628.2772 or centertheatregroup.org.Print