Susan Wood:
Singing for the Bard

by Michelle Erica Green

You won't remember seeing actress Susan Wood on Xena: Warrior Princess, but if you watch the show regularly, you'll remember hearing her. The Broadway star - a featured castmember of the WB Network's Jamie Foxx Show, who will be seen in CBS's upcoming Payne this January - can be heard on Xena as the singing voice of sidekick-and-bard Gabrielle. Though Renee O'Connor appears onscreen lip-synching, Wood performed all of the duets with Lucy Lawless in last season's highly-acclaimed musical episode "The Bitter Suite." She can also be heard on the album.

Ironically, Wood and Lawless have never met, though they have another connection - the Broadway revival of Grease, in which Wood played sweet lead character Sandy for a year and a half, while Lawless did a stint as tough chick Rizzo. When Xena's production people were looking for someone to sing for Gabrielle, they approached the director of Grease, who had worked with both Lawless and Wood. Though Wood never worked with Lawless onstage - her Rizzos included Brooke Shields, Rosie O'Donnell, and Deborah Gibson - the director thought the voices would be a good match, and that Wood would sound similar enough to O'Connor to make a convincing Gabrielle.

"I had a really good time on Xena," the actress recalls, though she adds that she wasn't certain whether her work was effective until the finished product, because Lawless and the crew were in New Zealand while she put down her tracks in a studio in Culver City, CA. "I had no idea what she was going to do," she recalls. "There was no Lucy. The musical director wasn't even there, he was on a telephone in Detroit. I lay down the tracks with the headset on my ears, I could barely hear him via the phone, I had no video, I had nothing." Though Wood was familiar with the series and with O'Connor - "I knew her type, I had heard her voice" - she did not have any shots from the episode to study.

"After we laid down the tracks, they called Lucy and the director on a mobile phone in a trailer in New Zealand, and over the loudspeaker of the recording studio, they listened to it. Via a cellular phone in New Zealand! You know how bad those things are just for conversation in the same country!" she laughs. "And then Lucy laid the tracks down separately there. It was very interesting. I never got to actually meet Lucy, even though I feel a connection to her because of Grease. I heard Lucy was wonderful in the show."

When Lawless performed in the musical, Wood was out cold - a year and a half of doing eight shows a week had taken its toll on her body. "I have allergies, and if I had to sing today it would be horrible. When I did Grease, I never missed a show for a whole year, and then I just collapsed. I was completely gone for two weeks - I had had it. Your body just falls apart. TV is like a breeze compared to that. And they don't even pay you what's required to live. But people do theater because they love it."

Wood, who was a singer before she became an actress, received rave reviews for Grease and followed up playing sexy singer Evelyn Nesbit in the Los Angeles production of Ragtime. But she had wanted to take a break from singing when she moved to Los Angeles, so her role on The Jamie Foxx Show as a UCLA student who's involved with Christopher Duncan's Braxton P. Hartnabrig came at a fortuitous time.

While her television experience is not as extensive as her stage resume, "The thing with doing a sitcom is that you're kind of onstage because you perform for a live audience, so I look at it like I'm doing a play." Wood plays Cameron, who works as a Global Parcel Service delivery woman to pay for school so she can finish a masters' degree in speech pathology. "I'm a really nice girl next door, very Sandy-ish actually; Braxton is an intellectual as well, so we bond on that level. We have yet to figure out whether she's going to end up working at the hotel on the show."

Wood was never given the character breakdown - "Just, they're looking for a blond woman" - so she laughs that basically she's been playing herself. "I have nothing to go on except the dialogue that I read, so I'm still finding my character, trying to find out where I fit into a cast that has been together for two-plus years. I think it's always difficult to come into a show that's running, even on Broadway - to come in when you weren't there when they were first getting the show off its feet, not to know what the goals are with the show and that feeling of a family, I would always prefer to be in the original cast. But this is wonderful in that they know what they're doing - when you do a new show, you're really stressed about whether the show's going to go, so there's a lot of pressure. There's really not a lot of pressure here. It's a lot of fun, and the cast has been more than welcoming."

Now in its third season, The Jamie Foxx Show shoots on the exciting Warner Bros. lot and airs on "the only network that's really growing this year," which is a nice experience for the actress, who had previously appeared on Frasier, Silk Stalkings, and The Naked Truth among other shows. "Jamie is a singer and a classical pianist - he does a lot of that - so I would love to be able to sing on the show," Wood notes. Wood is a recurring character this year, but not yet a series regular. "They've been very encouraging; I think they're really pleased that Christopher Duncan and I have a really good chemistry together. I think they're waiting to see how their audiences respond to me as well."

Though she was "discovered" at a young age while performing in a New Jersey summer camp production and commuted to New York to work off-Broadway, Wood did not commit to the craft until she entered N.Y.U. on a scholarship to study acting ("as opposed to singing, because I already knew singing was my strength"). She ended up leaving college "because I was bored with just the acting, I wanted to do the singing, and I was in the middle of New York City and wanted to do Broadway shows." After many years in the musical theater world, however, she got burnt out on the exhausting work, and went to L.A. "I had always wanted to pursue television and film, and knew that time was running out - it's a young world out here, and you have to get here while you still have your beauty."

Though her career took off fairly quickly, it was a difficult time for Wood because she was separated from her husband Adrian Zmed, whom she met in a production of Godspell and who had been in Grease with her. They eloped in Hawaii when he was on standby with the show: "Jon Secada was playing Danny Zuco but they wanted Adrian there in case Jon couldn't do it, so they paid Adrian to sit there in Hawaii! They flew me out, we got married and had three weeks of vacation! It was amazing. And it was basically the only time we were going to be able to get married, because of him being on the road. We got married, and then he stayed on the road for the next two years, and I came to L.A. by myself and tried to start a life out here. Looking back on it, I don't know how we did it. We would talk five times a day, I would travel every three weeks and see him. As actors, you survive that and you know that that's part of the game, and you have to support each other and allow each other to grow and do things, but you certainly will find out if you have a good relationship or not."

While Meryl Streep is her idol and she would like to appear on a drama because most of her credits to date are in comedies - "I think it's the misconception that if you do musical theater and you have sitcoms on your resume, chances are drama is not your field" - Wood says that she's more of a fan of upbeat material. "The heavy stuff, to go through the belaboring of emotions, of crises and depression, is just unappealing; I like to be uplifted and feel good about myself, so I think I tend to go for the lighter stuff. Shakespeare has no appeal to me. I got this scholarship to go to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London - I was all set to go study the classics - and my mother was like, 'What are you thinking? You're going to be miserable!' I never went. I wonder whether I would have had a good time or not. I've just never done that." Though she is enjoying camera work at the moment and would like to break into films, Wood also would like to do a straight play without singing. "I know my husband, who's done tons of TV and film, definitely prefers the stage. He would take the stage over TV any day."

As far as long-term goals, "my biggest goal is just to be happy, in whatever field - if I decide suddenly to become a teacher, if I'm happy doing that, then that's what's most important. I don't want to be in this business if I'm unhappy, but I think a lot of people are. I enjoy the work, I enjoy being in a show, it's just a lot of fun. When I was a kid and knew I wanted to do this, it was because I didn't want to be at a desk job or doing something that I knew wasn't going to fulfill me - even if it meant that I would be on a cruise ship doing some show, that's what I wanted to do. But it's funny, I didn't really have high expectations when I started in this profession, I just wanted to make money doing what I wanted to do, and then you start to get greedy. You start to go, 'Let me try THIS!'"

The athletic actress, who has occasionally thought about becoming a physical trainer, might like to try writing or producing at some point down the road. "I always thought that I would want to just do Broadway theater, and then I lost my interest in singing. I used to play the flute, and then one day I just stopped, because I like singing better. Maybe one day I'll hate acting and want to try producing or try writing, I don't know. I have to trust that that's where my life is meant to go as long as I'm happy doing whatever it is. But I don't want to lose that connection that I have with Broadway theater."

Wood says that she is torn between the private and the business aspects of her life: "I see a lot of women who have babies and still act, and somehow juggle with a baby and career, but a lot of people get so wrapped up in the business and being a star and that kind of garbage. I think your personal life is the most important thing in your life, and I'm proud of my husband; he told me the business is going to love you and then leave you, your family is what's going to be there for you, through thick and through thin. If you have that as your base, you're going to make it. I love my job, my job makes me really happy, but my life is my priority."

Having been called "the Juliet of all the centuries" by Variety and "a walking four-letter word" by John Simon of New York Magazine, it seems likely that this sexy star will remain in demand. If Xena wanted her badly enough to summon her across the seas, after all, there can't be too many limits for Susan Wood.

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