Congratulations to Wagner College Theatre alumna Dr. Randy Graff ’76 H’01, named Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play for her work on “The Babylon Line” at the 2017 Lucille Lortel Awards, which recognize excellence in New York Off-Broadway theater.
Read all about Randy Graff in a profile prepared while researching an article on the Wagner College Theatre’s 40th anniversary for the Summer 2009 issue of Wagner Magazine:
Randy Graff was born on May 23, 1955, in Brooklyn. Her family moved to Staten Island in 1970, enrolling her at Port Richmond High School.
“Port Richmond had a tiny little theater,” Graff said. “The theater director, Angelo DeSimone, was also the gym teacher.”
Graff comes from a musical family — “the Family Von Graff,” she has jokingly called it.
“Grandma Fried was the soprano in the temple,” she said. “Uncle Jerry was the king of the medleys; he played in ‘The Pied Piper.’ And there were my three cousins who also developed Broadway careers of their own: Todd (‘Baby,’ 1984), Ilene (several shows, 1970s) and Laurie Graff (‘Grease,’ 1970s).”
Graff brought something besides her family with her from Brooklyn in 1970.
“I used to have a heavy Brooklyn accent,” Graff told the Staten Island Advance in 1984. “When I got to Wagner, my professors told me I had to get rid of it if I ever wanted to be anything in the business. But it still comes back if I get real excited, or when I visit my parents in New Springville and hang around Staten Island for a while.”
Following her graduation from Port Richmond High in 1972, Graff entered the fledgling theater program at Wagner College.
“It was a small theater department — a small family,” she recalled. “And it was close to Manhattan and the theater life. That’s why I wanted to be here.”
Graff “was kind of in the wings here, second banana,” recalled Professor Gary Sullivan, who joined the faculty for Graff’s final year at Wagner College. “Betsy [Joslyn] was the lead. But when Betsy left [in 1975], Randy did the brassy N.Y. babe [Joanne] for ‘Company’ — she had the chops.”
Lowell Matson wrote in a December 1975 recommendation, “[Randy Graff] delights audiences and is a joy to work with. She is imaginative, responsive to direction and dedicated to the theater; and she has made a good start on developing the tools an actress needs. She is a New Yorker, and she has now completed an excellent basic education here — plus, she’s determined to make a career out of this heart-breaking business. More power to her!”
Graff, like her friend Betsy Joslyn, recalls Milton Lyon’s 1975 master class on Jacques Brel as a turning point in her life as a singer.
“He was a friend of Lowell’s,” Graff said. “He became my mentor. He was the first theater professional to tell me I could sing, and he gave me my first professional job a couple of years after I graduated.”
* * *
The summer following graduation (1976), Randy Graff performed at the Pineville Dinner Theater outside Charlotte, N.C. That fall, she went on a five-week tour of North Carolina high schools with a troupe of six performers in an original production, “Shakespeare With a Beat,” consisting of musical excerpts from Shakespeare plays adapted to Broadway shows.
* * *
It was 1978 when Graff’s career really took off. That summer she had her Off-Broadway debut as part of the company of the revival of “Pins and Needles” at the Roundabout Stage One.
“Milton Lyon was directing,” she said. “I just called him up and asked if I could audition.
“Not only did that audition give me my first professional role — it also gave me my agent, who was there representing another actor. I’m still with him today.”
Later that summer, in mid-August 1978, Graff played her first show on the Great White Way.
“Another exciting thing happened 2 wks. ago, when I was called in to understudy for ‘Grease’ here in New York and got to go on,” she wrote in a letter to Professor Matson on Sept. 1. “So I finally made my Broadway debut doing the part of Jan for one night. A dream come true!”
Graff sang and danced in the chorus and understudied five roles, including Betty Rizzo, leader of the Pink Ladies.
“Performing in ‘Grease’ was a thrill for me,” Graff said. “I met people then that I’m still friends with now.”
* * *
In 1979 she played Rosalia, Flor’s sister, in “Sarava,” Broadway’s first rendering of Jorge Amado’s “Dona Flor and her Two Husbands.” The play, which earned mixed reviews, ran from mid-February to mid-June.
“I’m not doing that much in the show,” she said straightforwardly to the Staten Island Advance in 1979, “but I feel like a celebrity when I go back to Wagner. It’s great!”
“My parents are very supportive now, but they weren’t sure, at first, that I should plan a life in the theater. They made me take a lot of education courses at Wagner, to have something to fall back on. Now, my father acts as if he’s my agent!”
Producers kept putting off the official opening of “Sarava,” likely to avoid a critical savaging. Eventually, fed up with the delays, the New York Times and other papers ran their reviews of the show’s “preview” version, which played for six months.
“The show became such a joke, I removed it from my resume,” Graff later recalled. “But you know what? Back in 1979, when I was 24, it was great being on Broadway and earning $430 a week.”
“Sarava” closed on June 17, 1979. Graff recalls standing on the fire escape of the theater that evening, looking out on the Broadway traffic after the last show had finished.
“I wondered to myself, ‘When will I be here again?’,” she recalled.
“It took me seven years.”
* * *
From October 1983 through the summer of 1984, Graff played Mindy, one of the five-member ensemble in “ ‘A’ … My Name is Alice,” an Off-Broadway hit.
“Alice” is a musical revue of 20 or so songs and sketches performed by women of different ages and types in a “wide variety of situations and relationships with insight, empathy and self deprecating humor.”
Each of the cast members “introduces” herself by reciting an adult update on the children's ABC rhyme. One example: “My name is Alice, And my husband's name is Adam, And his girlfriend's name is Amy, And my lover's name is Abby, And her husband's name is Arnie, And his boyfriend's name is Allan, And my analyst's name is Arthur, And we're working on my anger.”
“I knew it was very special as soon as I read it,” she told the Advance in 1984. “I knew I had the part right away. It was just one of those things where I clicked with the part, and they knew it and I knew it.”
Frank Rich of the New York Times loved “Alice” — especially Graff’s performance. “The new faces of ‘Alice’ — or at least they're new to me — are both finds: the wiry Randy Graff, who specializes in single young neurotics, and the matronly Roo Brown.”
Winner of the Outer Critics Circle “Best Revue” Award, “Alice” alternated performances between the Village Gate and the American Place Theatre, both considered Off-Broadway venues.
Asked in July 1984 what she would like to do next, Graff quickly replied, “Broadway. I’d really like to get back to Broadway to do a book show. It doesn’t matter if it’s a straight play or musical. I think of myself as an actress-singer.”
* * *
A couple of years later — and 10 years after her Wagner graduation — Randy Graff’s wish came true in a big, big way: In the summer of 1986, she was chosen to play the tragic heroine Fantine in the upcoming Broadway production of “Les Misérables.” The show, which opened the following March, was a huge success, winning eight Tony Awards and becoming the third-longest-running show in Broadway history.
“I was extremely nervous,” Graff recalled of her audition. “I sang my first song, and when it was over I just exploded. I shrieked, ‘I am so nervous!’ ”
Co-director Trevor Nunn responded calmly with, “Well, you don’t appear to be nervous at all.”
Four weeks later, she got the call: She had won the role of Fantine.
“Such a talented, dedicated performer as you deserves this break, and I am thrilled for you and enormously proud of you,” wrote Lowell Matson in a letter to Graff that October. “It makes those years of struggle and sacrifice worthwhile, doesn’t it?”
By early November 1986, the cast was rehearsing in Washington, D.C., where the show played for eight weeks before its official Broadway debut the following March.
The D.C. reviewers raved.
“Randy Graff as Fantine wrenches tears in her solo number, ‘I Dreamed a Dream’,” a critic wrote in Variety.
When the Broadway premiere arrived, the New York press climbed on board.
“Randy Graff delivers Fantine’s go-for-the-throat ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ like a Broadway belter handed a show-stopper, rather than a pathetic woman in ruins,” wrote Frank Rich for the New York Times on opening night.
“I was impressed with her big voice when she left here,” Gary Sullivan recalled, “but when I heard her 10 years later [in “Les Miz”] — my God!”
By early August 1987, Graff had settled into her part as a star in the biggest show on Broadway.
“The excitement has died down since we won the [Tony] awards, and now it’s just a job — a fabulous job, I might add, but it’s just a job,” Graff told Randi Mitnick, writing for the Advance. “Everyone thinks Broadway is so glamorous and so wonderful, but it sucks your blood.”
Twelve years later, in the Summer 1998 issue of Show Music magazine, she was even more direct about her year of playing Fantine.
“I spent my 40 minutes on stage; I ran the gamut; then I died. I would rush back to my dressing room and eat chocolate; I would consume masses of chocolate. You’re so depressed playing that part.”
“It’s not easy to die onstage every night,” she added.
* * *
Graff’s next Broadway role, playing a pair of supporting characters in “City of Angels,” was not nearly as high-profile a performance as Fantine — but it was “City of Angels,” not “Les Miz,” that won Graff her Tony Award. “Angels” won six Tonys in 1990, including Best Musical, Leading Actor in a Musical, and Randy Graff’s Featured Actress in a Musical.
“Did I get a pile of scripts after winning the Tony? No-o-o-o,” Graff later recalled, “but my price went up.”
* * *
Since then, Randy Graff has worked steadily and successfully. Her resume since winning the Tony Award includes seven Broadway shows, three Off-Broadway productions, three films, 10 individual TV episodes or pilots, and one 7-episode television series.
She said that the biggest difference between working in a play and shooting a television show is that TV work “is mostly hurry up and wait. I don’t like it as much; I like the process of putting a play, a musical together.”
* * *
In “Moon Over Buffalo,” which ran on Broadway from October 1995 through June 1996, Graff played a supporting character; the star of the show was Carol Burnett.
Throughout rehearsals and early performances of the show, a camera crew was shooting footage for a documentary, “Moon Over Broadway,” which was released in 1997. The directors were Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker. Four years earlier, the duo had produced “The War Room,” a documentary about Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign.
“You’d forget that the cameras were there,” Graff said. “I’m just lucky I didn’t get included in much of the film.”
“Moon Over Broadway” shows “Buffalo” director Tom Moore criticizing and trying to reshape Carol Burnett’s performance, even while audiences were obviously loving what Burnett contributed to the show.
“I was sitting with Carol at a screening,” Graff said. “Some people were shown in a really bad light. She was very hurt at some of the things they said.
“It’s uncomfortable to watch, but it’s a very good film.”
* * *
“High Society,” which played from April through August 1998, gave Graff a chance to sing on stage again.
“I hadn’t done a musical on Broadway for a while,” Graff told Show Music magazine that summer, “and I hadn’t had a serious moment since ‘Les Miz.’ The role of Liz [Imbrie] has a wonderful arc. There is a moment in the second act — it’s the reason I took the part — when Liz reveals herself to Dexter and sings a torch song, ‘He’s a Right Guy.’ It’s a wonderful song nobody knows.”
(“He’s a Right Guy” was introduced by Ethel Merman in the 1943 Cole Porter musical, “Something for the Boys.”)
“High Society” also brought Randy Graff back together with Wagner classmate and former Manhattan roommate Betsy Joslyn, who played a supporting role in the show.
A few months after “High Society” closed — on Feb. 20, 1999 — Randy Graff married Tim Weil, who was also in “the business.” Weil is a Broadway composer/conductor whose credits include “Shrek the Musical,” “Jumpers” (2004), “Rent,” “Sally Marr and her Escorts” (1994).
* * *
“A Class Act” was first produced Off-Broadway in late 2000 before moving to Broadway for a three-month run the following year. It earned eight Tony Award nominations, including a Best Actress in a Musical nomination for Randy Graff — but, in the end, no prizes for anyone.
“My friend Lonny Price wrote the part of Sophie for me,” Graff said. “He sent me a demo of her song, ‘Next Best Thing to Love,’ and I knew right away that I had to do it.
“It’s one of these lovely little shows. It has great fans — mostly theater students.”
* * *
Since “A Class Act,” Graff has played on Broadway in two revivals: as Golde in “Fiddler on the Roof” (2004-06), and as Meg in “Damn Yankees” (2008). As always, she sandwiched work on several films and TV episodes between her Broadway stints.
* * *
In 2008, Graff and Weil moved back to New York from Los Angeles.
The following spring, she had two new ventures in the works. One was a service offering private song interpretation coaching to musical actors. The other was a contribution to another one of Symphony Space’s “Wall to Wall” concerts, this one a 12-hour celebration of the last century of music on Broadway.
This profile was prepared in 2009 while researching an article for Wagner Magazine on the Wagner College Theatre’s 40th anniversary.