INTERVIEW: Ella Fitzgerald is subject of intimate York Theatre show, ‘Me & Ella’

Andrea Frierson wrote and performs in Me & Ella, playing through July 23 at The York Theatre Company. Photo courtesy of The York Theatre Company.

Andrea Frierson loves the music of Ella Fitzgerald, and that love will be on full display at The York Theatre Company this month. Frierson, an accomplished theatrical actress, has written and will star in Me & Ella, an intimate musical that uses many songs from the Fitzgerald songbook.

The production, directed by Murphy Cross and Paul Kreppel, is part of York’s New2NY series, which offers new works in a semi-staged presentation. The show, which comes only a few months after Fitzgerald’s centennial, was previously part of the company’s Developmental Reading Series.

Frierson has appeared on Broadway in The Lion King, Once on This Island, Marie Christine, Bring in ‘Da Noise/Bring in ‘Da Funk, For Colored Girls… and Juan Darien: A Carnival Mass. Recently Hollywood Soapbox spoke with Frierson about the role and her history with Fitzgerald’s music. Here’s what she had to say:

On what the audience can expect from the show …

“You can expect to get a different perspective, I think, on Ella Fitzgerald than previously. Actually in truth, there hasn’t been a lot of perspective, in my opinion, because part of that is her fault. She has done such a beautiful job over so many decades of gifting us with her talent in such a way that in a sense her personality and her own personal struggles kind of receded into the background, and so that’s why I say that it was a gift because it was a kind of selfless way that she shared her talents with us.”

On her personal musical background …

“I come from a family of singers. Both my mother and father were singers, but they weren’t classical singers. And somehow I always marched to the beat of a different drummer, and I think Ella bridged the gap between those two musical worlds for me, in the sense that her technique was so flawless. … In other words, I couldn’t get into Billie Holiday until much later in my life because I thought, oh, her technique is awful. You know, Ella was so seamless and had such beautiful tone, and yet she could swing and was more playful and relaxed in her presentation in a way that my parents weren’t.”

On the development of Me & Ella

“Many years ago, I had written a play with music called Lady Be Good that had a five-day workshop at Lincoln Center Theater, and it was a different piece. … [Fitzgerald] was a character in it that was never seen, so it was sort of about three different women in a different decade that serendipitously met her in a different turning point in her [life]. So I was playing around with her and the ways that she influenced different decades, but it wasn’t until I met Murphy Cross and Paul Kreppel that it evolved into what it is today. I credit them a lot with the way that it has developed, and they encouraged me really just to explore my own path and how she influenced me as a singer. So it’s a kind of singer’s coming-of-age story, but a singer influenced by Ella.”

On how difficult it is to perform the piece …

“It’s that combination of fatigue and exhilaration, you know. As Ella said, the only thing better than singing is more singing. I love to sing, so in that sense, it’s very exhilarating for me. As the piece has evolved in its present incarnation, there’s more text than there was in the past, so I will be doing more speaking along with the singing. So it’s a lot. It’s demanding. It is kind of a marathon, but I think that it’s the perfect time in my evolution as an artist to meet the task, at least that’s my hope.”

On the future of the show beyond York …

“Yes, my hope is that we will have an enthusiastic enough response to have a New York run and beyond, so I certainly think it can be a regional theater favorite. But I’d like to run here in my hometown of New York City because … New York, in a sense, is a character in the story, too. I was born and raised here, and my mother was a native New Yorker, too. So I’d like it have a life here.”

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

Me & Ella begins performances Saturday, July 15 at The York Theatre Company at Saint Peter’s in Midtown Manhattan. Performances continue through July 23. Click here for more information and tickets.

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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