When Anika Noni Rose starts belting the iconic Sondheim song "Another Hundred People" this weekend at Avery Fisher Hall, as part of the New York Philharmonic's all-star presentation of Company, it will mark a first for the actress and singer: Not only the first time she's worked with the Philharmonic, or the first time she's doing a Sondheim show, but the first time she's even seen Company.
She missed the 2006 revival while working on the film of Dreamgirls, she explains, but believes that never having seen a production will be helpful in making her Marta fresh and original. "I like to craft a role without having that person's performance in my mind."
To develop the role, Rose is studying the script and the songs for clues, and finding her own connections to the character. "She's somebody who is extraordinarily excited about New York, and is exuberant about it, and youthful and full of life. We all are, when we get to New York!" she laughs. But, she adds, that excitement about New York is the only real connection between Rose's life and Marta's. "We're very different people, so this is all from the script and my imagination."
A notable challenge with this production is bringing together the very hard-working (which is to say, very busy) stars for rehearsal. "With this many people in a cast, and the caliber of people that they have, we're working around everyone's schedules," Rose explains. "It's sort of piecemeal, which probably drives the director and choreographer insane! But you do the best you can, and at some point, everybody comes together-which is good!" she laughs.
And since this is her first Sondheim show, Rose is also learning how to tackle the legendary composer's legendarily difficult words and music. "The song 'Another Hundred People' is pretty relentless," she acknowledges, and jokes that when she began learning the number, she wondered if she would get an oxygen mask to go with it. She has been learning to work with the rhythms of the song and to find places to catch her breath-which, in a way, is fitting for the character as well: "The song echoes the relentless pace of the city," Rose notes.
Since Rose earned her Tony award for Caroline or Change a few years back, she has been working constantly in film (Dreamgirls, Disney's The Princess and the Frog), TV (The Good Wife and The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency) and stage (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway, Caesar and Cleopatra at the Shaw Festival in Canada). "I'm very pleased about what I'm able to do," she says, "because it's a blessing when you get work and it's always feast or famine. Right now, it's a little feasty."
Still, she says, she has the same concerns as most performing artists have, regardless of successes: "What am I going to do to get that next job? How do I elevate the work that I'm doing? You're always asking yourself that question, because you're always looking to do that." Getting deeper into the arts, she invested for the first time this year in the Broadway revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. "It's important for a theater artist to water their own garden," she says. "While we are so concerned about theater going away, it's important to make sure that it's here and to create work for ourselves."