“I have three little grandsons at home, and there’s something really wonderful about all that ‘quality time,’” says Christine Baranski. “And yet … gin-and-tonic cannot come soon enough.” Baranski, who spoke with AIR MAIL’s Ash Carter from a public parking lot in Connecticut, where she is isolating with her family, was nearing the end of filming Season Four of The Good Fight—the sequel to The Good Wife, starring Baranski as lawyer Diane Lockhart and whose season finale airs Thursday on CBS All Access—when the coronavirus put a temporary stop on everything, including filming The Gilded Age, an upcoming series developed by Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey) for HBO in which she is set to star. Baranski has taken the change in stride, practicing her lines on her daily three-and-a-half-mile power walks up and down the hills around her home and participating in a virtual tribute to composer Stephen Sondheim on his 90th birthday, for which she sang “The Ladies Who Lunch” alongside Meryl Streep and Audra McDonald in a clip that has since gone viral.
Ash Carter: I don’t know if you’ve read any of the user comments on the Sondheim tribute. One person says, “What a beautiful and strange piece of Broadway history this is going to be.” Another, “Meryl, Christine, and Audra: Here’s the ladies who rule.” A third person says, “If this video is ever taken down, we riot.” How did the project come together?
Christine Baranski: Oh, I’m happy to talk about it, because it has such a happy ending, but the three of us were thinking it could quite possibly end our careers. We went from absolute dread the night before to thinking, “Well, whatever.” I wrote to the ladies to paraphrase the late director José Quintero: “Tonight’s the night we sink or drown.”
Here’s what happened. Meryl and Audra and I took [Stephen Sondheim] to dinner last year [for his birthday] at Felidia, the great Italian restaurant, just because we love him, and Audra and Meryl and I are buddies. We had this great dinner, [and] on Steve’s 90th I said, “We’ve got to do this again with Audra and Meryl, and we’ll probably have to do it virtually.” At that time, I didn’t even have Zoom, but it was just like “Too bad we can’t get together at this moment in time.”
[Then] Raúl [Esparza] contacted me about … singing a Sondheim song from my, whatever, living room or back office. And I thought, “Oh my God, how do I sing a Broadway showstopper by Stephen Sondheim in the back office with the children in the house? Do I tie them up in the garage? How can I hit those notes? How can I belt out a song and not wake up the children?”
“I wrote to the ladies to paraphrase the late director José Quintero: ‘Tonight’s the night we sink or drown.’”
“The Ladies Who Lunch” was a song that I always wanted to sing, but, of course, it belonged to Elaine Stritch [who originally sang it], and then I knew it belonged to Patti [LuPone] because, if and when Broadway opens, she will be that role. But I always wanted to … sing the song, [and] it just came like a light bulb going off: Wouldn’t it be fun for Meryl and Audra and I to each sing a stanza of it?
We didn’t have much time to do this. The idea that this was percolating for months is a fallacy. Maybe it had been, but I had less than a week to sort of think about it. And then I didn’t know when to record it because I couldn’t do anything until after the kids were asleep, which meant at about eight P.M. taking red-wine bottles and glasses into my back office, where my son-in-law spends all day working, and trying to do this belty song. For me, the funniest thing was trying to belt out “Another vodka stinger! I’ll drink to that,” and the “Rise! Rise! Rise!”—without waking up my grandchildren, who would be traumatized by hearing grandma either in a drunken rage or a quarantine meltdown.
“How do I sing a Broadway showstopper with the children in the house? Do I tie them up in the garage?”
Two nights before it aired, I said [to Streep and McDonald], “I’m so sorry for getting you guys into this.” [Later] Audra sent me a link to three famous drag queens doing a parody of this. If three drag queens parody you, you know you’ve made it into the showbiz lexicon.
I had no idea it would technically be so challenging to do a performance into your cell phone. This is a new way of entertaining people. For however long this lasts, there’s going to be plays done, and this is how we’re going to be communicating. And here I am talking to you in a parking lot.
A.C.: Well, my next question is about Broadway. As wonderful and novel and moving as the Sondheim tribute was, there’s no substitute for the real thing. Is this something you’ve been discussing with other people in the theater community?
C.B.: The problem with any discussion is no one knows where we’re going with this. It’s becoming clear that large gatherings are the worst possible thing, and that’s where we live as performers and opera singers and musicians and dancers. I mean, a film set is a large group of people in small spaces, and same with a Broadway show. It’s people sitting shoulder to shoulder in crowded theaters. And backstage in a Broadway show—performers are just like sardines back there. It’s a real problem. How do we do it? I don’t know.
At present, it is a novel thing for Broadway performers to be doing great songs from their living room and for opera singers. And I don’t know how long that can continue, but if it’s the only way we communicate, I guess we’ll have to. Every day as I walk, I do my lines for the purpose of memorization. It’s easy as an actor to work on lines; you can always work on material. For singers, they can work with Joan Lader online, and you can do a Zoom singing class. I just wonder about those amazing thoroughbred Broadway dancers, who were the ensemble kids, now stuck in small apartments. They need to go to class. They need to exercise, and how do you do it? It’s a question of how do you keep flexible and alive as a performer during this time? I just e-mailed and got a response from Renée. And I mean Renée Fleming, people with international careers. Can you imagine? Everything’s canceled.
“I wonder about those amazing Broadway dancers.... How do you keep flexible and alive as a performer during this time?”
Of course, I wish I had an answer as to when it will end and how it will end, but I do know this: When and if we can get back to some semblance of normalcy, it will feel like such a luxury to be back in the world. Can you imagine hugging every waiter in your favorite restaurant, and planting a big kiss on your doorman and saying, “Oh my God, you’re still here”?
A.C.: That is really how I feel. I’m working on a playlist for Air Mail that’s all live music. I’ve been listening to a lot of it lately just because it reminds me of everything that we’re missing right now. You don’t always appreciate these things until they’re gone.
C.B.: Oh my God, eating dinner at a restaurant and then seeing a Broadway play, or going to Lincoln Center and hearing a great opera or Carnegie, I mean, I think of all these places being dark for two months, and it blows my mind. It’s not like after 9/11 where you said, “Let’s go out and eat. Yes, we’re going to continue our life, damn it.” This is way weirder.
A.C.: There is a moment in The Good Fight where Diane swears and then, almost as if anticipating the audience’s reaction, kind of gives a little commentary on how she never used to swear and why she feels the need to do so now. And obviously that’s because the show is not on network TV anymore, but at the same time, I think that she’s also giving voice to something that a lot of people are feeling.
C.B.: Isn’t it the truth? This is fucking nuts. What is it about that word that just packs that punch that you really need?
Diane Lockhart dropped the f-bomb in the pilot when she found out she lost all her money. That was the first time you heard this elegant, very ladylike, pulled-together woman lose it. And it seemed thoroughly appropriate to me that she would. If I found out I lost all my money in a Ponzi scheme, I would drop the f-bomb several times.
The Good Fight has been a study in how a liberal feminist copes with life in the Trump age. She’s got a real kind of class to her, and she was always the sane person in the room for the seven years we did The Good Wife. To see women like that unravel and resort to martial arts or micro-dosing or throwing axes or—
C.B.: Yes. The unraveling is so interesting, but I think we have all been unraveling during the Trump administration. And who knew? I mean, who could have ever foreseen that this, on top of living through Trump and the impeachment proceedings, that this would happen?
A.C.: The show, among other things, is known for its smart topicality, and the new episodes certainly have that, but at the same time it almost feels like a period piece, just because it’s a bunch of people going to work in the office.
C.B.: I totally agree. I think that for all its pertinence and of-the-moment, ripped-from-the-headlines quality, when people watch the show, they’ll be like, “Oh, the good old days when you actually showed up for work!” Now, I said to [the show’s co-creator] Michelle King, “If we go back for a fifth season, we’ll be wearing face masks, and at least the actresses will only have to make up the top part of their faces. We don’t have to wear lipstick or even know our lines.”
And I love Season Four more than any of the other seasons, because it’s not just about Trump anymore; it’s about who is enabling Trump: the Department of Justice. We’re going after the William Barr issue of his enabling the president and what’s happening to the rule of law. A journalist asked me about the opening credits with all those objects being smashed to smithereens. He said, “If you could choose something that would be smashed to smithereens in the opening credits, what would it be?” And without even missing a beat, I said, “Mitch McConnell’s head.”
A.C.: As I’m reading the papers, I feel like every day there’s something that can be mined in a future episode, like the Supreme Court hearing a case by phone and this push for businesses to be immunized from any kind of virus-related lawsuits.
C.B.: Maybe next season we’ll be filming via Skype—that’s how I did Big Bang Theory. I often couldn’t make it to L.A. to play Leonard’s mother, and I’d sit in my producer’s office with a computer in front of me. And we’d Skype my material because that character would Skype her son. That was their way of having a relationship, so maybe that’s the future. We’ll all just Skype.
Ash Carter is the Features Editor at Air Mail