For singer-actress Christine Ebersole, a career with a full range of notes
The word Christine Ebersole uses to describe her career is “eclectic.’’
That sounds about right. How many performers, if any, can say that they have won two Tony Awards and spent a season (1981-1982) in the cast of “Saturday Night Live’’?
Those subjects are likely to come up on Jan. 26, when Ebersole will appear with Seth Rudetsky as part of the “Broadway @ The Huntington’’ series. In a pair of back-to-back performances, Ebersole will sing songs and tell stories from a lifetime in show business during which she has been one of the leading lights of musical theater while also juggling roles on television and in movies.
Those two Tonys handily illustrate Ebersole’s range, because they were awarded for her work in a pair of musicals that could not be more dissimilar. The first came for her portrayal of egotistical diva Dorothy Brock in the 2001 revival of the ultimate warhorse, “42nd Street.’’ The second was for a performance that became the stuff of Broadway legend: Ebersole’s dual portrayals of the deeply eccentric Long Island recluses, Little Edie Beale and her mother, Edith Bouvier Beale, in the 2006 musical “Grey Gardens.’’
Two years ago, she returned to Broadway for “War Paint,’’ a musical about the fierce rivalry between cosmetics moguls Elizabeth Arden (Ebersole) and Helena Rubinstein, played by Patti LuPone. (“War Paint’’ reunited Ebersole with the creative team behind “Grey Gardens’’: director Michael Greif, bookwriter Doug Wright, composer Scott Frankel, and lyricist Michael Korie.) Ebersole has just been cast in a new sitcom for CBS, “Bob (Hearts) Abishola,’’ created by Chuck Lorre. She spoke with the Globe recently by phone.
Q. I’m wondering if you could give me a sense of what the Boston audience should expect when you sit down with Seth Rudetsky?
A. With Seth it’s always a party. It’s like we’re all kind of invited to the party, and he’s hosting the party. [He’ll] ask me questions about show business. I’m going into my fifth decade. I mean, it’s 45 years.
Q. What was your breakthrough show, where you felt you got to show people what you could do, early in your career?
A. Every opportunity that I’ve had has highlighted different aspects of what I do, or what I love. So when I was a jazz singer in a nightclub at 20 years old, when I was still a student at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, that was one thing, and then when I was a waitress, that was a display of a different talent. Then when I went from that to Broadway to do a play [“Angel Street,’’ in 1976], that was something else. Then I went on the road and did musicals, then did “Saturday Night Live.’’ I would say the one thing that really elevated the game was “Grey Gardens.’’ That was quite a bit later on.
Q. Can you tell me about the “SNL’’ year?
A. I’d just come off the road doing Guenevere opposite Richard Burton and Richard Harris [in “Camelot’’]. So that was quite a gear shift. Then I went from “Saturday Night Live’’ to do [the 1984 film version of] “Amadeus.’’ It’s been such an eclectic gathering of experiences that, I guess in a way it kind of makes sense that I did “Saturday Night Live.’’ What do you do after you do Guenevere opposite Richard Burton? “Saturday Night Live’’! It’s crazy.
Q. You were on “NewsBreak’’ on “SNL,’’ right?
A. Yes, with Brian Doyle-Murray. And then 30 years later, we did a TV show, called “Sullivan & Son,’’ on TBS.
Q. Is that kind of versatility the key to a long career?
A. I think so. It’s just kind of the way it worked out with me, because I was given the gift of singing, that offered more opportunity, but that wasn’t the only thing I did, you know? [But] I really loved to sing. That was something that I was really drawn to my whole life. When I went to college and then joined a band and sang Bette Midler songs and played the violin in the band, during those hippie days, I actually never saw myself as doing musical theater.
Q. What did you see yourself doing?
A. Just plays and maybe nightclub work. [Laughs] Which is actually kind of how it started, interestingly.
Q. You’ve won Tonys for a revival, where you played an established character, and for creating a character — or two characters — whom you originated. Can you tell me about your approach to the one and then the other?
A. Well, “Grey Gardens’’ presented a very specific challenge because they were immortalized in a documentary. So Little Edie, you could see her in real life. Fictional characters are different. They kind of come out of your inner life, your imagined inner life. But when you have someone that is so indelible, like Little Edie Beale, that was iconic, that presents its own challenges.
Q. You do a lot of concerts. What do you try to bring to a song when you perform it, interpretively speaking?
A. Just sort of my own feelings about it, what I feel about the song, and what it means to me, or what it means to the character. But then again, I can only draw from myself, really. Or, in the case of Edie Beale, I listened very intently to the music and the rhythm of her voice, her speaking voice. In a way, it’s like learning music.
Q. A couple of years ago, [composer] Scott Frankel said of you: “In ‘Grey Gardens,’ I tried to throw everything I could at her, comic stuff, soprano stuff, some burnished, elegiac ballads, and I found there wasn’t anything she couldn’t do.”
A. Well, I see every opportunity as a chance to bring myself to the role, to share that experience with an audience and hope that we can have a shared experience together. That’s what I like about new musicals, because they offer a different challenge than doing something that’s already been done. I see it as life is so varied, and the characters that are in life — that are in art — are just so unique.
Q. Is there a role that you would really love to do?
A. I’ve always wanted to do Mrs. Lovett [from “Sweeney Todd’’]. I think that could work at any age. I think there’s certain things that have passed me by, that I’m too old for now. But Mrs. Lovett, I think I could be my age and play her.
Q. You could ask Patti for some tips. [LuPone played Mrs. Lovett in the 2005 Broadway revival of “Sweeney Todd.’’]
Q. What was it like doing “War Paint’’ with LuPone?
A. Well, she’s just a master at what she does. It was a great learning experience for me. She really kept me on my toes. [Laughs] No slacking with Patti LuPone!
Q. Were you were one of those kids who listened to a lot of cast albums growing up?
A. I did. I listened to “Camelot’’ a lot, which helped me when I did it, because I had three days to learn it.
Q. Three days, opposite Richard Burton? Was it the case that very little could throw you from that point on?
A. Yeah, I was really thrown into the deep end on that one. But he was a very supportive person. He really took care of me on the stage.
CHRISTINE EBERSOLE WITH SETH RUDETSKY
Presented by Huntington Theatre Company and Mark Cortale. At Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Jan. 26 at 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. Tickets from $25, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org