The Wonderful World and Work of “Character Actress” Mary Testa, Tony-nominated for her role in the Oklahoma! Revival
By: Ellis Nassour
June 7, 2019: It’s been another good year for one of the most talented and most cherished actresses working today, Mary Testa. But for the three-time Tony nominee, who describes herself as a character actress, every year seems to be a good one. Since coming to New York right out of college, Testa has appeared in over 30 Off Broadway and 12 Broadway productions and recorded a dozen albums.
Right now, she’s whipping up cornbread at Circle in the Square from corn that’s as high as an elephant’s eye and batches huge enough to satisfy any ranch hand’s appetite – all while delighting audiences playing the youngest ever and sassiest Aunt Eller in the revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, for which she received a Tony nod as Best Featured Performance by an Actress, Musical.
Testa discovered she had a voice in grammar school. “I sang with my mother, who had a lovely voice. She, my aunt, and a friend of theirs formed a trio in the 40s, the Gay Sisters. They won a contract with a big band. Mom went home and asked my granddad for his permission. He said, “No way!” And that was the end of that. She lived vicariously through me and, because of what happened, she was so supportive. My father, too.”
She never set her goals on musical theater. “I was going to concentrate on music. Though I never planned to be an opera singer, I trained for opera. But when things come together, you follow that path.”
Her big break came her sophomore year at the University of Rhode Island. William Finn was brought in to do a musical, Scrambled Eggs. “Of all those who auditioned, he chose me. Then, when I was 21 and moved here Bill got Alison Fraser, Kay Pesick, and I together and we started singing his material.”
Testa was waitressing, but managed to do a lot of Off Off Broadway. “I worked days, then from midnight to three in the morning we rehearsed Bill’s In Trousers at Playwrights. That was my Off Broadway debut.” That production led to Finn’s March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland.
Producer/director Stuart Ostrow hired Testa for a six-week project where the company would develop a musical revue every week. “It was $100 a week, so I didn’t want to lose my waitress job. I asked for a leave of absence. They hated me and refused. Some of the staff told me, ‘You didn’t come to New York to be a waitress!’ So, I up and quit and concentrated on what I came here to do. I’m very thankful that I’ve never had to do an outside job again.”
Testa’s worked Off Off, Off Broadway and Broadway. There’ve been the big (the spectacular 2001 revival, 42nd Street), and lots of small (First Daughter Suite, Queen of the Mist). What does she prefer? “I like a challenge, something different, even odd, but I’ve had to do work that’s not of burning interest to me to pay the bills. In those situations, I attempt to find a way to connect with the material and do the best I can.”
In 2012, Testa was honored by one of the theater leagues with quite an honor: a Special Award stating that “for over three decades, she has dazzled audiences with consistently outstanding work, including her tour-de-force performance in this season’s Queen of the Mist” [presented by the Transport Group].
Testa is proud her work is appreciated, but says that as a character actress, she’s not in the position to pick and choose projects. “However, I’ve had the good fortune to be offered the kind of work I love to do. I seek to work with those I find brilliant – like Bill, Michael John LaChiusa, and Daniel Fish [the Tony-nominated director of the Oklahoma! revival].” Often, she’s been on projects in development. “I have a lot of opinions and give them freely. A lot of the time, writers listen because as an actor you know when something’s wrong. I don’t always know how to fix something, but I can tell them when I think it’s wrong.”
She’s been with Oklahoma! since the table read. “Daniel asked me to come in, and I liked what he was doing. What I find fascinating about the revival is that it’s cinematic in its simpleness. The themes on the page are very dark and interesting to explore. The characters are real flesh and blood. Also, the team of Oklahoma! is a great group of people. We enjoy each other’s company. We have really bonded as a family.”