Monica Lewinsky Sings Your Heart Out is a genius one-woman comedic cabaret from the mind of Amanda Hunt (UCB, Wedding Belles and beyond), and it’s running at the Kraine Theater for two more dates this month – tonight (8.15), and next week on 8.22. As the name of the show (directed by Lauren Brickman, ft. music direction by Kristin Sgarro) would imply, Hunt delves into the Clinton impeachment scandal through impersonations (there are MANY WIGS) and song parodies celebrating the much-maligned, borderline-mythical figure of Monica Lewinsky. I was able to hop on the phone to Hunt yesterday to talk about the process of developing the work, why a comedic lens is the perfect vehicle to discuss this sort of heavy subject matter and more, so internet-eavesdrop on our full conversation below, and then be sure to grab tickets to one (if not both) remaining performances:
So you just did the first round of this run of shows on the 8th. How’d that go?
Oh my gosh, it was so much fun! I’ve been working on this show since November of 2017, and I did it at the Duplex last September, which was really fun, but it was pretty much a pure cabaret at that point. Since then I’ve been building it out, so it’s really a fully fleshed out show. It didn’t lose any of the cabaret elements, but there’s multimedia involved, costume changes, and it’s just a bigger, more robust show. But not longer! [Laughs] Which I think is important. But it was really cool to put it up on a stage, have all the videos playing and have all these elements involved. It’s been really amazing.
Yeah, so I’m interested to hear about the trajectory of everything, from when you started creating it back in 2017 to now; what’s that evolution process been like?
So I did my first cabaret in New York in 2010 (just a plain cabaret, regular songs); I have a partner, Kate Wolfe, and we’ve done six shows together that were just regular cabaret, no character work, just kind of fun audience interaction and storytelling through song. And so in 2017, I’d admired Monica Lewinsky for a long time, but I’d waited to do anything because I was a very big Hillary supporter, and I just felt like this wasn’t something I wanted to be doing while Hillary could possibly be president. Which is incredibly egotistical, to think that my show could have an effect on the presidency. [Laughs]
No, no, I totally get it. [Laughs]
You just never know. But in 2017, it was pretty clear, like, “If you wanna do it, now is the time!” And so I took a class at UCB, and I’ve been there since 2012; I’ve taken a lot of improv there, a lot of character classes, I’ve written for a couple of sketch teams, and I’m on an improv team there now. So it’s a good place for me to go and incubate something. So I took a class with Leslie Meisel, who I think is such a brilliant performer and so good at creating single person work. In this class, everybody came in with a show idea, and I said, “I want to do something with Monica; I’m not sure if it’s a talk show that’s more interactive, or…” But then I wrote a song and brought it in, and everyone was like, “No, that’s it. Whatever that is, do more of that.” So for about six months I picked musical theater and pop songs that I liked, rewrote the lyrics and kind of built out the story from there.
Then in the spring of 2018 I got in touch with Michael Hartney, who was the original director for the show, and we developed a bunch of characters and fine-tuned stuff, and then right before the show went up at the Duplex in 2018, Michael got hired to be the artistic director at UCB. So he was like, “I’m so sorry, but I can’t…” You know, you go from someone who has a lot of free time and space to do projects, to someone who’s really dedicated to just one thing. So he had to step away from the project, and that was a bummer, but I also brought in another director, Lauren Brickman, who I’d done sketch and improv with for years. It’s cool, I think it’s tough to develop a one-woman show because it’s just you, so the more input you can have and the more external feedback you can have, the better the show is gonna be. So it was cool to have a second person get involved there. Lauren gave me some very quick notes for right before the Duplex show, and we’ve spent the last year really digging into what the show is and why it’s satisfying. That’s been a really cool and interesting process, especially with somebody like Lauren, who’s a professor and comes from an academic background, and can kind of approach things in a really three-dimensional way.
And that, to me, is what’s so interesting about it, too, and that’s why I love the concept. What, to you, has been the most surprising thing you’ve learned…maybe not even just about Monica Lewinsky, but about yourself over the process of researching and developing this show?
That’s a great question. There are a few things. I’d say one thing I’ve learned is that it’s not productive to make public figures your heroes. When I started this show I was a big Bill Clinton fan, and now I’d say I appreciate some of the work he’s done, but I would not say that he’s remained on a pedestal for me. But also, people are not pure villains. Most people are motivated by something that you think is terrible, but they think there’s good behind it. So heroes and villains are kind of useless concepts, especially with public figures, so it’s more important to look at actions and judge them individually, rather than to look at them like, “Oh, this is a good guy, this is a bad person.” That said, the show is full of my opinions about who is doing good and who is not doing good work, but it did teach me a lot about, “You don’t know very much about public figures, even famous, very out there ones. You only know a little bit.”
And then I’d say on a personal level, I’d say this show (especially with Lauren) has really forced me to be really vulnerable about things that bring me shame and make me feel uncomfortable, and that’s probably been very good, and I hope that makes for good theater, but it is really tough to go there, especially on stage in front of people who you know and don’t know.
Oh my god I’m sure! Well, speaking of the audience, did you get any feedback from the show on the 8th? Did people stick around to tell you what they thought?
They did! I was really pleased, because it takes a really long time to put away all the wigs. [Laughs] But a bunch of people stayed, and it was really cool to hear from people I didn’t know who said, “I never thought of the Clinton impeachment scandal that way,” or “ I never thought of certain body issues the way that you portrayed them.” We also (Lauren and I) took the show to the Adelphi Drama Department last spring, which was really cool, because theater kids are the ones you cannot fool. Not that I’m trying to fool anybody, but they won’t laugh or cry unless they really love it. So it was in a workshop studio for about twenty students, and it was so cool, because afterwards…I think of kids in their teens, early twenties, as probably more sensitive and more generally aware of people’s feelings than I was at that age, or my generation was at that age, but they don’t know nearly as much about the nineties or the scandal that happened. So they were shocked to learn so much of it, but also so insightful about the way we as a society treat people we deem worthy of scorn.
That’s really interesting! I do agree with you, too, about how people in their teens and early twenties these days just seem way more in tune with their brains and hearts than I remember from when I was that age. I mean, obviously not all of them are like that, but it does seem like there’s been a shift.
Yeah, they’re not as eager to hide behind coolness as I know I certainly was. (And maybe still am, to a degree.) But they were just so open and honest about what they liked and what they were surprised by, and no one said a whole lot of what they didn’t like, which…thank you so much for that. [Laughs] You know, they were very polite. They did give Lauren separate feedback, and Lauren’s directed with that in mind for the last few months, you know, not taking everything they said as gospel, but “Oh, the audience didn’t feel like this was very clear, so we need to clarify this point,” or “Let’s make this tighter so it’s really clear what you’re trying to say here.”
Right. And speaking of theater kids, I know you have a theater background, and I think I read that at some point you kind of decided to give improv a go on a whim. Tell me about making that leap, and how you developed your comedic voice, because I would assume you must have always been aware it was there?
So I do have a BFA in Musical Theater, and I’ve done theater since I was like five years old. It’s my greatest joy in life to be on stage. And I came to the city with my BFA in hand, and my shiny dreams, and after five years of auditioning and waiting tables, I had a vocal cord injury. So then I spent the next few years in vocal therapy, changing my diet, changing my job, changing the way that I spoke and sing, and it was very useful, but I did end up having to have two different surgeries on my vocal cords. So by the time that all of that was done, I had lost a little bit of my passion for auditioning for musical theater, which is a real grind; you can go in at 6am, wait all day, not get seen and then go wait tables, and that’s kind of the reality of the gig.
So I was just working in an office temping and not doing any performing, but my goal my whole life has been to sing beautiful ballads and make people cry, so I was never really like, “I want to be a comedian!” It was more like, “I like to make people laugh, but when I’m on stage, I want to play someone who’s more serious.” So when I took the improv class, I didn’t love it at first. I think with musical theater, it’s all very choreographed, and so rewiring your brain can be really difficult. But I took a couple of classes, and all of a sudden it was really fun, and I thought, “I could be funny!” I think growing up as a woman in the South, you kind of feel like, “I don’t want to make myself too big, I don’t want to take up too much space. I don’t want to be unfeminine.” And so being funny can be misconstrued as being unfeminine, and I think there was a big resistance for me there. So it’s been very cool to shed that very slowly over time with the help of improv.
Right, and it’s also so cool that you’ve been able to use the comedic lens to express some of these heavier themes, you know? Like, only in my adult life have I become aware of how comedy doesn’t just have to be about the laughs; like, it’s such an amazing tool to unpack really heavy things, and I love that you’re doing that with this show.
Yeah, I feel like when people are laughing they’re more open to listening. It really is such a powerful tool. This show specifically, one big thing that we did over the last year is try to pack it with jokes, because even though the concept and the subject matter and the details are not that funny, I’ve tried to make it so that the show itself is very funny, so people are laughing and not getting bogged down too much. Somebody like Anthony Atamanuik with the Trump show…people who can take something that I find very upsetting and make me laugh about it…I agree, it’s really cool to be able to do that.