The ingénue police are at my door.
Is this Melissa Errico? The actress? Do you understand that Sharon in Finian’s Rainbow should be around 27 years old? Would you please come with us?
Then I wake up.
Sleeping actors are known to forget their lines, or what play they are in, or where their pants have gone. When I was offered the chance to perk up my curly curls and scrub up my Irish brogue to portray the fairylike Sharon McLonergan in a coming Off Broadway revival of the musical Finian’s Rainbow, this version of the actor’s dream crept into my subconscious and made plain thoughts I was already thinking: At age 46, when does an ingénue hang up her ponytail? When is it time to stop dancing with leprechauns?
What is an ingénue in a musical? Sharon, a role I’ve already played twice, is typical of the kind. She’s the young lady who might end up with a nice-looking tenor. She has a high lyric soprano, big eyes, long hair and a figure that is conventionally attractive but not wildly attractive — neither voluptuous nor what you would call sexy. An ingénue is candid and innocent. A little waistline is good, and she certainly isn’t a mother yet. Leggy is for the funny or dangerous characters.
I was an ingénue for a long time. My first three big roles involved 19th-century source material and petticoats. I was Cosette in Les Misérables, Kitty in Anna Karenina and Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady (I don’t think my knees have ever been shown on Broadway.)
Shortly after, there was Venus in One Touch of Venus and the more brittle Tracy Lord in High Society. Still, as I got into my 30s, the ingénues kept coming, though tinged with a sometimes strange eroticism.
In the surrealistic Amour I ended up singing a weird ballad to a man stuck in a wall. For Sunday in the Park With George at the Kennedy Center, I asked if I could re-envision Dot prepping herself naked in a bathtub, begging George to take her on a date and stop with the hat. In Dracula, the Musical, Kelli O’Hara and I conceded to step out of our clothing at different moments and into a state of inge-nudity to make our characters more vulnerable.
The morning after opening night, the word “lovely” appeared twice in a review describing my character. I was “ever-lovely” and in “lovely” voice. Nothing else. I had spent about $2,000 to learn that an ingénue role is difficult to un-lovely.
Ingénues are often asked to bump into men and fall in love instantly. The trick is always to make that moment weighted, full of humor and sensuality. Sharon in Finian’s Rainbow requires this. She is in a tree when Woody, her unmarried and prospective male-ingénue beau — another casting conundrum — enters in Act 1. She watches him arguing with some businesspeople that money doesn’t grow on trees. She then drops money from her branch; moments later, she descends from the tree and their eyes lock.
As it happens, I have just spent a year at liberty, outside police lines. In January, I played a recurring role as June, a vengeful 9/11 widow, in the debut season of “Billions” on Showtime, complete with a mental breakdown in one scene. It was scary to film; I was covered in snot and tears, and I almost broke my actual hand banging a steering wheel as directed.
In March, I inherited the challenging stage role of Leona Samish in Do I Hear a Waltz? The musical had not been seen in a major production since its Broadway debut 51 years ago, and Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics, has gone on record wishing it never happened. (I have no idea if we helped convince him otherwise.)
Leona is unmarried and, as Mr. Sondheim once said in a television interview, not so much one age or another as emotionally “frozen.” She feels she is running out of time and options. She is rigid in many ways, even “demonic” at times, as Mr. Sondheim has said to me. Singing the part, I sensed a new possibility — a role not so pretty, a character with an emotional life that could grab hold of my frustrations and turn them into fuel.
Could Sharon, who sings the poetic ballad “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” — a highlight of Yip Harburg and Burton Lane’s score — be as layered as Leona or June? She certainly needs far less cleavage. Do I want to put the petticoat back on?
Of course, when Woody asks her, “Sharon, dear, where is Glocca Morra?,” she gives a rather blurry answer: “You won’t find it on any map, Woody. It’s that faraway place in everyone’s heart — a little beyond one’s reach but never beyond one’s hope.” Which may be another way I could answer when someone asks me, “Melissa, dear, how old are you?”
The truth is that women in musical theater still tend to be segregated: romantic innocents or worldly dames. Where is the elusive middle? What roles are there for actually aging, still human women? Very few come to mind: Arlene in Baby. Anna in The King & I. I’m not ready to be Auntie Mame or Norma Desmond yet.
So here it comes, another theater season to delay the transition. A hopeful sign: The last time I played Sharon, I wasn’t a mother; now I have three young daughters, an army of colorful ingénues themselves. I have sung over cribs and beds as well as on stages, letting life grow layered. I can watch and be taught by the truly ingenuous. Plus I can wear a flattening bra and a snug belt.
So: The ingénue police are knocking, but I’m not letting them in. They know the great Mary Martin was 46 when she played the young postulant Maria Von Trapp in the original The Sound of Music. (They probably knocked on her door, too.)
And Finian’s Rainbow is a fable always worth retelling, with an absurd plot which is really not absurd at all. It’s about equality, peace, racism and tolerance. It is about a more hopeful America where each person might see beneath the surface of another, and find within oneself a tolerance toward oneself — even a celebration — as we allow our own surfaces to change. I have never looked forward more to singing the exquisite lyrics to “Look to the Rainbow.”
Everyone in the show changes color. A leprechaun’s green is fading. A white senator turns black. And now, as it turns out, the romantic lead has less pink in her cheek.