Sweeney, Skivvies & Squeaky: An Interview with Lauren Molina of Yale Rep’s “Assassins”

Noah Golden

OnStage Connecticut Columnist

Lauren Molina is no stranger to the work of Stephen Sondheim. She made her Broadway debut as Johanna in John Doyle’s “Sweeney Todd” and has since been in “A Little Night Music” and the Sondheim revue “Marry Me A Little.” “He’s pure genius,” she said of the prolific 86-year-old composer, “his characters are like ducks, they’re smooth sailing on a pond but underneath their little legs are kicking, kicking, kicking so hard but you don't see all of this emotional turmoil inside.” Not one to box herself in artistically, Molina has rounded out her resume playing such diverse roles as Regina (in the original Broadway cast of “Rock Of Ages”), Cunégonde and everyone’s favorite blonde-haired plant food Audrey. Besides her stage work, Molina is also an accomplished musician and one-half of the very popular New York-based band (and YouTube favorites) The Skivvies. On March 17, she returns to the work of Stephen Sondheim in Yale Repertory Theatre’s production of “Assassins.”

On a snowy morning just about a week before the show opens, I got the opportunity to speak to Ms. Molina via the phone about how rehearsals are going, what makes now the perfect time to revive “Assassins” and what it’s been like to return to Yale after being a part of a summer acting workshop there her senior year of college.

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.  

NG: I first became acquainted with you and your work over ten years ago through seeing "Sweeney Todd.” Before we talk about what you're working on now, I'm curious what you took away from that experience?

LM: Not only was it a life-changing experience for me to have made my Broadway debut but the experience of getting to work with John Doyle and Sondheim and people like Patti LuPone on a totally reimagined production where the actors not only were the characters in the show but also the musicians. I'd never really played my instrument and sang at the same time before. I'd been an instrumentalist since I was in elementary school but to take away from that show the skill of being able to play cello and sing at the same time was huge for me and opened up so many new doors. In addition, I learned that typically huge productions could be stripped down in ways to just focus on the storytelling. Specifically, John Doyle, who I was fortunate enough to work with on a couple other projects, would always say, 'do less.' I think as an actor we always try to work so hard for people to like us and to be impressed by us and he would always stress the importance of just 'do less. Do less. Sing less.' I think that really helped me find my groundedness as an actor and to trust myself. 

NG: Is "Assassins" a show that you had been a fan of previously? And, if so, what drew you to being a part of it?

LM: Absolutely! I love "Assassins!" The first time I saw it was in college at the University of Michigan and I was like, 'oh my God, I have to play Squeaky Fromme someday!' I saw the revival at Studio 54 with Neil Patrick Harris and Alex Gemignani, who’s a friend of mine from college and was actually in "Sweeney Todd,” and Michael Cerveris. I was like a super-fan of his before I got to do "Sweeney Todd" with him. I was blown away by the brilliance of how [Sondheim] and John Weidman, who I believe is a genius as well, took these characters who were all assassins or attempted assassins and put them in this world together where people from different time periods were having conversations. Like what if someone from the 1970s could have a conversation from somebody from the 1800s about their passions and dreams. You emphasize with these crazy characters and you think, 'oh maybe they're not so crazy.' What I love about this piece is that it really opens your eyes to having empathy for these sort of mad characters and the music is incredible. With this one the combination of the book and the music is really exciting and daring. It's a dark subject matter but there's so much comedy, which I love. 

NG: The show was written in the late ‘80s and premiered in 1990, yet the message and themes of "Assassins" seem more timely than ever. Why do you think this is a good time to revive the show and is that something you talked about in rehearsals?

LM: Absolutely. That is definitely something that our director James Bundy thought about when programming it for this season. He said that no matter if Hilary or Trump won, there would be an absolute reaction and response to this piece. We can all relate to being disenfranchised and unhappy with the status quo and feeling unhappy with our own lives and wanting something bigger to blame for it.

NG: How are rehearsals going?

LM: We just started tech yesterday, so we're putting all the elements in place. It's a very stark-looking stage, lots of metal, lots of light. It kind of symbolizes the media and flashbulbs. We have giant projection screens because we live in a society where we're constantly bombarded with news and media.

The process has been really fun. We have built in five-weeks rehearsal here at Yale, which is kind of unheard of. It's such a long rehearsal in comparison to other regional shows that I've done. There's been a lot of time and we rehearse in the evening because the Yale grad students have class and they have to come to rehearsal. I love that too. I'm more of a night owl. The cast is really great and funny and kind. I’ve been friends with Julia Murney [who plays Sara Jane Moore] for a while now. I worked on a show called "The Fortress of Solitude" with Bob Lenzi who's playing Booth and he's wonderful. Stanley Bahorek who's playing Zangara went college with me. I've known him 17 years, which is wild. We've never done a full production together since we graduated. It's been a really great experience.

NG: Have there been any memorable moments in the rehearsal process?

LM: What's wild is that we use guns constantly within the show. So James Bundy thought it would be a good idea to go to a gun range and shoot some real guns and get some real training and feel WHAT it's like to load a gun and shoot a gun.. I've shot a gun before, my family in Texas had a ranch and so I've shot like clay pigeons before. I am not a gun person. I'm very anti-gun. I shot a Colt 45 [which is what Fromme used in her attempted assassination], I shot a 38 and I shot a semi-automatic. It's like 'wow, this is a killing machine.' To feel that power and the reality of it for sense memory to take with me on stage is pretty powerful.

NG: What are you most excited about when it comes to the rest of the run?

LM: You know how it is when you're rehearsing; in the room you can only tell a joke so many times and people will continue to laugh. We need an audience, that's the last piece of the puzzle when it comes to theater. It's that element of connection and communication to the audience and seeing how they react and are moved and tickled and frightened and all these things. This piece really shines a mirror on the audience and asks you to see yourself in these characters. I'm very excited to see how people will respond. Since this is not done very often, I'm just excited to expose people to this piece. I think it's going to resonate with people of all ages and all political leanings. It's going to resonate in a new way if you've seen it before.

NG: Before I go, I need to ask about your work with The Skivvies since many of our readers know you and are fans of yours through that group. I was just wondering how the concept of playing pop/Broadway acoustic mash-ups in your underwear started and are there any fun plans for The Skivvies going forward?

LM: Like I said, I got the skill set of how to play the cello and sing at the same time doing "Sweeney." Then, years passed and I was making music with my best friend Nick Cearley. Five years ago, we were hanging out one day and we were like, 'let's put a cover song up on YouTube because that seems to be really popular.' [Laughs] We wanted to take a really overproduced pop song and strip it down to two instruments and change the vibe of it. I was walking around in my bra trying to figure out what to wear and Nick said, 'you should just wear that.' He was sorta half-joking and I said, 'well, you know, we are stripping down the music. What if we did a whole stripped down music series for YouTube and never really commented on the fact that it's stripped down both physically and musically.' Then my boyfriend said, 'you should CALL yourself The Skivvies.

We started making videos for The Skivvies, inviting friends to join us as special guests and then our videos started to go viral. We were asked to do a show at Joe's Pub and that was our first concert in 2012. We just invited a bunch of our Broadway friends to join us and get silly and be in their underwear and it's like the oldest trick in the book. You take off your clothes and people look at you. [Laughs] it's just taken off organically for the last five years. Incredibly, it's like my day job when I'm in between shows, which has been the greatest gift. I once met Jason Alexander and I was like, 'what's the greatest piece of advice you give to anyone who's an actor?' And he said, 'create your own work. It will change your life. Don't wait for somebody else to give you a job.' I really took that to heart. I know it’s hard to be motivated, it's hard to know what your niche is, but I also encourage everyone to just make shit. Like go with your friends. Do some sketch comedy, make content for the internet. Write. Just do it. Even if you're not in a show. Just keep working. Keep flexing those muscles. It's just been so crazy. It's the greatest gift to be able to play music with your friends and add a twist of comedy to it.