By Karen Moul
It seems one Dreamgirl
isn’t enough for NBC’s Smash.
Jennifer Hudson, who won a slew of awards for the 2006 film, joined the cast earlier this season as Veronica Moore. Next week iconic star Sheryl Lee Ralph, a 1982 Tony nominee for her work in the original Broadway hit, joins Smash
as Hudson’s powerful mother/manager, Cynthia.
“I love this character,” Ralph said in a recent interview. “This is a woman who is so comfortable in her well-earned Manolo Blahniks that it is a joy just to get to play her.
“She's so grounded in the church but at the same time she knows how to handle the world. You can tell that she's been under the leadership of a strong bishop or two, you know? And I love that about her.”
Ralph loved every minute of Smash
. “It was an intense schedule,” she confides, “a really intense schedule and it was all day, baby. But I did love it.
“Great wardrobe, great set, great songs, great cast. I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed it so very much.”
Ralph wouldn’t share any info about the number she and Hudson sing together, insisting that fans must watch the show to find out. But she did mention that Cynthia appears only in the one episode, at least for now.
“We're waiting to see what's going to happen, but the door was open for the possibility of more. One never knows, does one?”
Tuesdays at 10 pm ET on NBC.NBC Conference Call
SmashSheryl Lee Ralph
February 19, 2013 1:00 pm ET QUESTION:
As a stage performer, how do you feel Smash
captures the process of mounting a Broadway show and performing in a Broadway show? SHERYL LEE RALPH:
Well you know, it's television so a lot of it is glamorized but it's glamorized to (unintelligible), it's glamorized to people interested and audience with a basic understanding of just how a musical does get launched. You know, things have changed greatly since the beginning of stage productions so there's always a different way to launch a show, but from what I see they're doing a pretty good job. QUESTION:
And how do you feel the show represents the changing Broadway community in the sense that the process of Broadway has changed over the years into more of this dynamic youth-based culture? SHERYL LEE RALPH:
Oh come on man, when has it ever not been a youth-based culture? Even if it was fake youth-based culture, remember back in the day women who used to be 103 trying to play 13 years old on stage? It has always been youth-based even if you were ancient. SCIFI VISION:
I understand that you're going to play a very, they're calling her a powerful mom and just at a point when Veronica's ready to change her life here comes her mom. Could you tell us what she's like -- (Cynthia) -- and if you're able to relate to her and understand her a bit? SHERYL LEE RALPH:
First of all, I love this character. This is a woman who is so comfortable in her well-earned Manolo Blahniks that it is a joy just to get to play her. I was there on set and one of the execs came over and they said, “My God, the last time we saw a woman like this it was Dominique Devereaux.” And for those of you who remember Dominique Devereaux, she was a powerful woman played by Diahann Carroll and I was just like, "Wow, I take that as a supreme compliment." But also I had to stir in a little bit of a mom-ager or two that I've worked with just to make sure she had some authenticity. SCIFI VISION:
And are you going to sing? SHERYL LEE RALPH:
Yes, Jennifer and I sing together just a bit but it's a good song and it's a good moment together. QUESTION:
In taking on a role like this, what did you like about the dynamic between mother and daughter? SHERYL LEE RALPH:
As I said, the two of us - you know how it is sometimes when you're a strong mother and you raise your child and then your child one day turns around and they are everything that you have raised them to be?
Sometimes you have to rethink real quick how do you hold on to what you raised. So I love that dynamic between the two of them.
And even when things get a little bit testy there's still that foundation of love. And I'm so thankful to have a character and a relationship written like that, especially for women of color. QUESTION:
And can you talk a bit about working with Jennifer and your initial thoughts of her as a talent? SHERYL LEE RALPH:
Let me tell you something, I walked into my dressing room and inside the room was the hugest, grandest, most beautiful arrangement of flowers I have ever seen. In fact they were so big that either the flowers had to go or I had to go. And when I opened the envelope and saw that they were from Jen, I walked over to say thank you and she looked at me and she said, "Miss Ralph, you don’t have to tell me thank you for anything because you are all that I ever really want to be." I was like, "Oh my God." It just made me feel - I can't even explain it but I was like, "Wow, what a moment, what a moment." QUESTION:
It's nice to have so much culture, so much class, the music and the drama. What is the best part about being a guest star on that show? SHERYL LEE RALPH:
Oh my gosh, I guess the best part of being a guest star on that show is that you know you're probably going to get to do something great that's basically a theatrical stretch, but onscreen. And for me it was the fact that when they called me in they said, "Look, are you interested in playing the (momager) to Jennifer Hudson on Smash
?" And this was coming from my agent. I told my agent, “That is not funny, do not punk me,” and I hung up the phone. I hung up the phone!
He called me right back and he said, "No, no, no I'm serious. They're offering you this right now. Do you want to do it?” Oh honey please, I had say yes so quickly it was unbelievable. I was so happy. I was like, “Oh my God, I can imagine the clothing, I can imagine the words and what will be the song?” So I was excited. QUESTION:
And how long are you guest starring on that? Do you know how many episodes you're going to be doing? SHERYL LEE RALPH:
I only got to do the one episode as we're waiting to see what's going to happen but the door was open for the possibility of more. But one never knows, does one? QUESTION:
I've watched your career for a very long time and you did a long stint on Moesha
, how would you compare the motherly role that you played on Moesha
? SHERYL LEE RALPH:
Oh wow, let me see. You know, it's really interesting because I was thinking about that myself and when I really looked at all of the young women that I've played mother to it's an incredible group of talent. Let's see, there was Brandy on Moesha
but before Brandy there was Sister Act 2
and my daughter was -- why am I blanking on her name? Sister Act 2
... oh, my gosh. QUESTION:
Lauryn Hill? SHERYL LEE RALPH:
Lauryn Hill! Lauryn Hill, Brandy and then let's see my other daughters, I just wrapped a pilot with Tia Mowry and then the mom for Jennifer Hudson. So my God, if you just consider the four of them it's an incredible group of young women and all of these mothers are so very different.
I love this mother on Smash
because she's so grounded in the church but at the same time she knows how to handle the world. You can tell that she's been under the leadership of a strong bishop or two, you know? And I love that about her.
But then at the same time when I was doing the mom in Moesha
she was a stern but loving stepmother so she had to really tread lightly when it came to the kids. But at the very end, you knew that they grew to love each other so deeply and it's just so interesting. And in the piece that I did with Tia Mowry, oh my God, this mother can drink, she can dress but she loves her daughter. They're all so different. QUESTION:
Being that you worked with Jennifer Hudson, you both have Dreamgirls
in common, you had the iconic role of Deena Jones in the Broadway play and she had the iconic role of Effie in the film. Did you two ever have any conversations about Dreamgirls?SHERYL LEE RALPH:
Absolutely, and she said something to me that - she was just full of great conversation but she said, "Miss Ralph I really wish you had been on that set. I really wish that you had been there." And I was just like, “Wow.” And all I could do was say thank you for that, thank you because heck, I wish I had been there too myself. QUESTION:
Could you shed some light about your pilot with Tia Mowry? SHERYL LEE RALPH:
The pilot with Tia Mowry's called Instant Mom
and she's a real, real party girl who marries a doctor and inherits three children, all kind of by accident because the mother had the kids. But then again her mother gets sick so she leaves to take care of her mother and she ends up with the kids. And I end up a mother with a daughter who has children because of course I am glamorous, I will never be grandmother. QUESTION:
I met Jennifer several times. And she's a wonderful woman so it must really have been an exciting time for you to, A, be on this incredible show and B, to work with - you being an icon working with a new icon. I don't know if you discussed that dynamic at all but can you just give me a little wrap up on that? SHERYL LEE RALPH:
Well I tell, you when I got to the set I opened the door to my dressing room and inside was the grandest most beautiful arrangement of flowers and there was a note from her. And I went over there to say thank you to her and she said, "Miss Ralph, you don’t have to say thank you to me because you are all I ever really want to be." And I was just like wow. That was just amazing. It healed so many of those little wounds that someone might have and I was just like, “Oh my God, this young woman gets it,” so that was great. But at the same time she's gotten to keep the company of some of the greats so she's probably learned a great deal in a short amount of time. QUESTION:
You're pretty conscious of your legacy and what your name holds, [aren’t] you? I mean, you know that you are an iconic person, an iconic star.SHERYL LEE RALPH:
That's so interesting. I hear from people all the time but it's nothing that I - I don't wake up thinking about that. I wake up every day just trying to do the best I possibly can do in life. In fact I wrote it in my book, Redefining Diva, I wake up trying to be as nice as I can for as long as I can to as many people as I can, because the same butt you kick today you may have to kiss tomorrow. QUESTION: Smash
is a great show but do you think the American public is still having trouble with the musical concept? Because I think Smash
breaks that barrier. So what do you think? SHERYL LEE RALPH:
I think that it's just one of those things that is always evolving. Musicals have been around since the beginning of time. Musicals are not going anywhere and I think as you see how musicals - especially the kind that we've been seeing televised - have grown and have changed, this particular show is like you just said, taking it another step forward for the greater good. I love it. QUESTION:
I would say this is almost like a television version over the concept that Bob Fosse came up with Cabaret
in that very long, extended way. Do you agree? SHERYL LEE RALPH:
Yes, but you'd have to say it's been serialized. QUESTION:
Right, right of course. SHERYL LEE RALPH:
It's serialized. I love the characters. Every now and then, though, I look at something and I say, "I don't know if that would really happen," what's going on with that director and the girl and they meet on the street. I said, "I wonder would that really happen." But I love it for the drama of it all. QUESTION:
Now you've been on several sets, on TV, movies and on the stage, how does the Smash
set differ from all of those? What makes Smash
stand out for you? SHERYL LEE RALPH:
First of all, it was great to be there. It was great to know that there were so many little - well okay, let's put it this way. In L.A. you walk into these sparkling stages that have their own ghost and all of that, but we were literally shooting in a tricked out warehouse in Queens and I was like, “Oh, my goodness.” If you would drive by this building you would never know all of that magic was taking place inside of those doors. So I was just like, “Oh, my goodness.” That was the one thing.
The next thing would be the hours. It was an intense schedule, a really intense schedule and it was all day, baby. But I did love it. It felt good. It was like a hot shot of adrenaline and then you got to sing, too. Oh, it was great. Great wardrobe, great set, great songs, great cast. I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed it so very much. QUESTION:
Do you know the name of the song? Is that something you're able to reveal to us, the song that you sang with Jennifer? SHERYL LEE RALPH:
You know what? I can't do that. I have got to let you watch the show. QUESTION:
You may have answered this, I came in a little late. Are you just signed for this? Is this going to be recurring or what's happening with the character? SHERYL LEE RALPH:
The door has been open for that but it all depends on exactly what happens with her arc. But nobody has said that that's not a possibility. One never knows. QUESTION:
Do you talk a lot with the producers? Are they still developing the arc as we're going along or have they finished the season? Is this the kind of show that develops along the way much like a Broadway show? SHERYL LEE RALPH:
Oh, that would be exciting, wouldn't it? QUESTION:
To me that's how it's unfolding in a weird sort of way. SHERYL LEE RALPH:
I think that's the magic in the writing of the show in that it seems like it is absolutely unfolding in front of you, which is the way it would be happening if it was a real Broadway show.
I think that they've really achieved a lot of great things one on top of the other. You see the making of a Broadway show and at the same time it is revealed to you in the drama of a television series. That's magic. QUESTION:
Yes it's magic, it's very much magic. I'm sure you've done shows out of town where there were songs in there that were pulled out and pulled in and stuff put in at the last minute until you finally got to your final stop and even then it kept changing. SHERYL LEE RALPH:
Oh my God, Dreamgirls. Dreamgirls
continued to change. QUESTION:
So I think again that's what makes Smash
so special and I think people are either aren't figuring it out or somebody's not telling them enough about it. SHERYL LEE RALPH:
I think the producers realize that they need to add a little bit more of this and that and I think you're going to see it in this season and the audience is going to get exactly what they want. We just need them tune in and stand tuned in. QUESTION:
You live in New York, don't you? SHERYL LEE RALPH:
No, I commute between Las Angeles and Philadelphia. QUESTION:
Are you still involved in theater a lot, in any of three places? SHERYL LEE RALPH:
I would love to be involved in theater much, much more but there seems to be lesser and lesser roles for woman of color. And that has been a great challenge because sometimes I feel like I'm being shut out of an industry that I absolutely love because there just seems to be a lack of roles unless there's a specialty piece of theater developed and that's hard. QUESTION:
They had one in Houston, the name escapes me at the moment, that I saw at the Ensemble Theatre that was incredible. SHERYL LEE RALPH:
Oh my God, the Ensemble Theatre is a great theater house. I love them.
I really look forward to more regional theater having the support that they need. It's more and more people are not giving the arts the financial support that they deserve and need. I mean, from reading that all great cultures have a firm foundation in the arts and I'm really afraid sometimes that we're letting us let go of our artistic foundation. QUESTION:
With such a successful career in stage, television, music, et cetera, for a collegiate person how should they follow their dream? I know that's a big theme on Smash
. How should they go about making sure that they get their desire? SHERYL LEE RALPH:
I've got to tell you I graduated from Rutgers University and we now are home to one of the leading theater arts programs in the country in the Mason Gross School of the Arts, and I was one of the first students there for that. And part of my whole learning experience, I reached out to every theater festival there was. I did as much acting as I possibly could have. I got into some of the best classes that I could find.
I'll never forget winning the Irene Ryan Theater Festival Award for acting and I write about that in my book, Redefining Diva
, about what it was like as a young person going out there trying to pursue your dreams. And it's not always easy because there's so often a lot of people around you want to tell you why you should not pursue your dream. So it sometimes takes a great deal of heart to go for it, to try, to practice, to learn, to discover new things.
So I say if you can do that as a young person, that's what's going to give you the foundation you're going to need to carry on in this business because this can be a lowdown rough business, baby, and it is not for the faint of heart. QUESTION:
Earlier you said you've been shut out of things or had limited opportunities, has this always been a challenge for you throughout your career? And the second question: why do you feel you play such a strong role as mothers or as the matriarch over your career? SHERYL LEE RALPH:
I've had an excellent example of a mother in my life and it's not just a mother as mentor, female mentors in my life. I often write in my book, Redefining Diva
, the women that came before me were so wonderful in sharing what they had learned with me that it helped me in ways that I see coming true now, about holding on in times of disappointment, celebrating in times of true happiness. Those are learned things. Those are learned choices, the choice to be happy no matter what is going on.
I have a great mother in my own mother, a strong West Indian woman, Jamaican to be exact, and I had an incredible grandmother from the south. Both sides of my family were full of the most incredible women. So I really think my ideals of motherhood come from the mothers that have been placed in my life.
Now in terms of facing challenges, I write about that also in my book, Redefining Diva
. Life is full of challenges and as a woman, just plain old woman, there are always challenges in moving forward in life. But then often you talk about show business or business, any kind of enterprise period, and you add color on top of it, it gets even harder.
At the Image Awards they made so much out of the fact that - and rightly so - that Kerry Washington was the first black female to star in a series on the network since Diahann Carroll and that was Julia.
And if that's really the case, my God, it took my whole lifetime for that to happen.
And then I was talking about my love of theater, there just seems to be a lack of roles and we were talking earlier with another interviewer, if it weren't for regional theater where would those roles for people of color come from?QUESTION:
So I'm sure most of your scenes are with Jennifer Hudson on Smash
, but was there anybody else you got to share a scene with that you particularly enjoyed? SHERYL LEE RALPH:
Oh my gosh, you know what? Ivy. QUESTION:
Megan Hilty. SHERYL LEE RALPH:
Megan Hilty! Megan and I worked together before on a workshop musical called It's On
and we had such a ball working together. And when I got to the set she was like, "Oh my God, are we going to get to do this musical together?" So she and I are really hoping that the musical goes and who knows, in her hiatus we might be able get that musical on its feet. We had such a ball so it was great to see her and work with her even if it was just a little bit. QUESTION: Smash
has a huge gay following. A lot of gay people watch that show. You might have noticed. How did you get so involved with the gay community? You've done all kinds of projects with the gay community and how does that all happen for you in the first place? SHERYL LEE RALPH: Dreamgirls. Dreamgirls.
You have got to read my book Redefining Diva
and I write in the book that we immediately had a huge gay following. In many instances they were the backbone and the support of moving that musical forward.
And for me what really solidified the relationship was that we were - Dreamgirls
for me was the best and the worst of all time and in the best times you're singing and dancing with somebody on stage one night and the next night they'd be fighting for their life. And as a performer and as friend to some of the most incredible men ever I saw them die on the stigma, shame and silence because of AIDS. And that's how that relationship came together because as a preacher's kid, a Christian kid, I said how can I turn my back on my friends, we have to do something. SCIFI VISION:
I was actually going to ask you a very similar question. I had the opportunity to meet you in Vienna at the International AIDS Conference. I was there and I bought a Diva Foundation tee shirt. SHERYL LEE RALPH:
Oh well, so your requisite diva, I love it. SCIFI VISION:
The Diva Foundation's been around more than 20 years now, what kind of projects are you doing now and how has your work changed and how was the show in December? SHERYL LEE RALPH:
Oh my gosh, the concert was incredible. You know, “Divas Simply Singing” is the longest consecutive running musical AIDS benefit in the country. And when I created that I really just wanted to have a living, breathing memorial of the many friends that I lost while doing Dreamgirls
on Broadway. Of all the great things we've ever done, people hardly ever mention that we lost close to one-third of our original company to AIDS and that's why I created “Divas Simply Singing.”
So for me it's just one of those things that I just have to do because Tom Eyen we lost him, Michael Peters we lost him. If you read my book Redefining Diva
, you'll get the full story. SCIFI VISION:
Great, well I wear that shirt all the time, thanks a lot. SHERYL LEE RALPH:
Thank you. Keep wearing it and keep engaging people in the conversation and make sure you tell them to watch Smash
. For too many of them it's one of the best shows they have not seen yet. QUESTION:
You've been in this business for a very long time, when I watch the show you get a lot of backdrop information about what it takes to get a project up and running on Broadway. How accurate does Smash
capture that type of stuff? SHERYL LEE RALPH:
It's pretty good. Now I'd just remind you it's been serialized and it's been glamorized, but a lot of it is pretty much right on point. QUESTION:
And do you think Smash
will help rejuvenate people's interest in going out to the theater more being that it's on TV, the show? SHERYL LEE RALPH:
Absolutely. People love the theater. They love the theater. So I think this is absolutely bringing more interest to the show. And I look forward to the next thing will be Smash
the musical on Broadway. QUESTION:
You never know. SHERYL LEE RALPH:
Oh baby, stranger things have happened but I can tell you I would bet on that