PROVINCETOWN — Christine Ebersole’s résumé includes notable roles in films like Amadeus, Tootsie, and The Wolf of Wall Street, and her television credits require a deep scroll on IMDb: from an Emmy-nominated gig on One Life to Live to 70 episodes (and counting) as Dottie in the hit CBS sitcom Bob Hearts Abishola.
But it’s her musical theater roles that have earned her the most devotion, especially among her LGBTQ fans. Among her many stage achievements, a trifecta of iconic roles elevated her to the upper stratosphere of Broadway stars: Ado Annie, a country girl who struggles with consent in the 1979 Broadway revival of Oklahoma!; Tessie Tura, an enterprising stripper in the 1993 television production of Gypsy; and Dorothy Brock, a tempestuous prima donna in the 2001 Broadway revival of 42nd Street, for which she won her first Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical.
Ebersole will be performing at Provincetown Town Hall on New Year’s Eve, accompanied by Billy Stritch, a highly regarded musician and cabaret performer in his own right. Although she has performed many times in Provincetown, this will be her first show in town hall.
“Billy and I have done a lot of Christmas shows together,” she told the Independent by phone from Hollywood, where she is filming the fifth season of Bob Hearts Abishola. “Performing with Billy is like being wrapped in a comforting blanket by a warm fire. We’ll be doing holiday songs to help bring in the New Year.”
Ebersole’s voice is startling in its ability to shift seamlessly between styles. She can belt out a brassy, big-band number and then slide right into a lullaby with notes that are achingly soft and emotive. One moment she’s a human horn section, and the next she’ll make you believe her wistful lament is wafting out of a Victrola.
A graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, she credits her training with giving her a process she applies to singing. “I approach a song from the character,” says Ebersole. “I examine the style of the show, the type of music. I ask, ‘Who is this character and how do I communicate the message of the song?’ Those elements inform the sound I make.”
Ebersole says that a supportive family and her faith helped bring out her natural talent. “My father had a penchant for tape recorders — you know, the old reel-to-reel recorders,” she says. “On Christmas Eve in 1966, he was recording my siblings singing ‘Jingle Bells’ around the piano while Mom played. So, at three years old I sang ‘Jingle Bells’ right on pitch, and they knew I’d been given a special gift. Perfect pitch is not something you can learn. That’s a gift from God.”
Forty years after that pitch-perfect debut, Ebersole starred in the 2006 off-Broadway and Broadway musical productions of Grey Gardens, in which she originated stage portrayals of two cultural icons — and for which she received her second Tony award. The musical is based on Albert Maysles’s 1975 documentary film of the same name that depicts the lives of a reclusive mother and daughter, Big Edie Beale and Little Edie Beale. The former socialites, who were the aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, struggled with poverty in their later years while their East Hampton neighbors waged long battles to have them evicted from their derelict mansion. Ebersole played Big Edie in the first act of the musical, set in 1941, and Little Edie in the second act, set in 1973, a year before the movie was filmed. Fans of the documentary are fiercely devoted to and protective of the Beales’ legacy and would have revolted if they’d felt the show slighted either mother or daughter. It’s a tough burden to bear in what is essentially a musical comedy intended for mass appeal.
But Ebersole was up to the challenge. “Little Edie had no pretense, no artifice,” she says. “She was just honest, so I approached it honestly. Comedy came through it, but I didn’t set out to make anything funny.” The reception from audiences and critics was rapturous. Ben Brantley, then the theater critic of the New York Times, said her performance was “the best argument I can think of for the survival of the American musical.”
Though she’s shouldered the weight of many Broadway plays and musicals, Ebersole finds concerts are the most demanding live performances.
“It’s just you,” she says. “You’re not playing a character. You must make yourself vulnerable. But the audience feeds you and encourages you, and the energy between you builds. It’s like communion in a way. For sure, there are venues in the world — I won’t name names — but snooty places where people are just there to sign their divorce papers. I’m up there singing and they’re on their phones looking up their bank accounts to find out how much is going to be left. But 99 percent of the time, it’s amazing, and Provincetown is wonderful.”
You’d think that after such a long and illustrious career that the job would get easier. But Ebersole is adamant about staying mentally and physically prepared.
“That time at the makeup table before a performance helps me to center myself and focus,” she says. “You go over where you messed up the night before or little things you want to do differently. And I exercise all the time. You must stay in shape to maintain your instrument. Doing eight shows a week is demanding. You can’t talk to people when you have 44 songs to sing.”
Ebersole was nominated for another Tony Award for portraying cosmetic impresario Elizabeth Arden in the 2017 musical War Paint and was recently inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame. But she doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon.
“I’m just so grateful that things keep coming my way,” she says. “I’ve been down the road of hard knocks and it’s behind me. Listen, if someone wants to send me a postcard, they can address it to Easy Street.”
Wishing on a Star
The event: Christine Ebersole performs in the Broadway @ Town Hall concert series
The time: Saturday, Dec. 31, 7 p.m.
The place: Provincetown Town Hall, 260 Commercial St.
The cost: $50-$150 at ptownarthouse.com