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Tyne Daly teaches Sierra Boggess a 'Master Class'

In a Times Square hotel restaurant, Tyne Daly sees Sierra Boggess approaching and immediately looks down at the young woman's feet.
/ Source: The Associated Press

In a Times Square hotel restaurant, Tyne Daly sees Sierra Boggess approaching and immediately looks down at the young woman's feet.

"Hi, honey. Let's see the kicks," she says. "Whaddaya got?"

Boggess, who looks radiant in a spaghetti strap maxi dress, has her hair pulled back in a ponytail and a pair of strappy wedges with towering 4-inch heels. She lifts the dress ever so slightly to reveal the goods.

"I did the usual," she says bashfully.

Daly and Boggess may be playing a chilly teacher and her overawed student in a revival of Terrence McNally's Tony Award-winning "Master Class," but they have bonded like sisters over something quite pedestrian.

"Sierra and I share an appreciation of the importance of shoes," says Daly.

Their love of footwear has evolved into a little bit of a friendly rivalry. The other day, Boggess says she showed up for an interview in a pair of black Christian Louboutin d'Orsay style pumps, which she'd bought in London to congratulate herself on landing "Love Never Dies" in the West End.

The 29-year-old actress, excited to show them off, waited for Daly to arrive and gush. When her co-star walked in, though, Boggess' face fell: Daly had upped the ante and had some of her most expensive shoes flown in from Los Angeles. She was wearing an impressive pair that had an ankle strap, sparkles and sunflowers.

"Hers were fantastic," Boggess says with genuine respect.

What made the moment even funnier was that both women hadn't brought out their big guns for a TV interview. "We were both doing radio, so nobody saw our shoes, but we had the best shoes on," Boggess says and cracks up.

Onstage, their easy rapport vanishes. Daly, 65, plays the imperious opera singer Maria Callas at the end of her career and Boggess plays Sharon, a gifted student enrolled in the diva's master class at the Juilliard School. Callas is withering in her sarcasm, criticizes the students' voices and appearance and brings Sharon to tears.

Daly, the Emmy Award winner who played Mary Beth Lacey on the TV cop show "Cagney & Lacey" and later won a Tony for "Gypsy," was hesitant at first about playing the glamorous Callas, a role that originally earned Zoe Caldwell a Tony in 1996.

"I usually play regular people," says Daly. "I said to Terrence, 'I don't know anything about the opera, I don't know any Italian and I don't have a look. Otherwise, I'm perfect for your play.'"

Daly had seen the original production with Caldwell, whom she calls "entirely brilliant," and considers it among her all-time favorite moments in theater. She remembers weeping in her seat at the end of the play and then going to knock on Caldwell's dressing room. When Caldwell opened the door, Daly burst into tears again.

McNally managed to persuade a skeptical Daly to step into the part at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts last year. The Manhattan Theatre Club brought it to New York and put it into its Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Broadway.

Along the play's trip north, Boggess jumped aboard in the role that earned Audra McDonald a supporting Tony. Boggess, who was last seen on Broadway in the title role in "The Little Mermaid," had been in London starring in the West End's "Phantom of the Opera" sequel "Love Never Dies" and was eager to return home in a juicy play.

Boggess, who hadn't seen the original "Master Class," had her own tearful moment with the play after the first table reading with Daly. "I was overwhelmed and I walked out of that rehearsal and turned up Ninth Avenue and burst into tears. I couldn't believe that I was part of this project," she recalls.

It's easy to see why actors love "Master Class." While nonperformers can appreciate the portrayal of an aging diva reliving her triumphs and failures, actors especially relate to having their talents evaluated and criticized.

Or, as Boggess, says, "It touches every single nerve that we possibly have."

Daly agrees. "It's about performers and artists and what they do and what it costs," she says, "but also I think it has a layer of appeal to people about what happens to their passion."

While Daly had to channel her inner diva, Boggess, who lacked opera experience, went back to school. Even though she's a great Broadway soprano, Boggess had to learn the difficult Lady Macbeth aria "Vieni! t'affretta! (Come! Hurry!)" from the letter scene in the Verdi opera. That's the aria Sharon tries to sing for Callas in "Master Class."

But despite taking classes at the Metropolitan Opera and at Juilliard, as well as having a private tutor, Boggess says she felt resistance from professionals in the opera world, including some outright sneering.

"I can't tell you the amount of people that I was working with and who are part of the opera world that were tearing me down, saying 'You will never sing this,' or 'You have no business singing that,'" she says. "I was intimidated by that before, but I love it now because it gets me exactly where I need to be."

Daly saw her co-star work hard and, unlike her Callas character, is quick with praise. "This one will try absolutely anything that's thrown at her and she sponges up information," she says, nodding across the table at Boggess. "I think maybe the most impressive thing is learning this opera technique."

Daly, whose other Broadway credits include "Rabbit Hole" and "The Seagull," says she had her own demons to battle, specifically the ghost of Zoe Caldwell. But she says she's used to following big names, having stepped into the role of Mama Rose and winning a Tony in a revival of "Gypsy." Rose is one of the most demanding roles in musical theater, a role that Ethel Merman had first claimed and made famous.

"The ghost of Ethel Merman was something that I really had to deal with. And also the ghosts of my own characters. At the start of 'Gypsy' I had about 17 seconds to tell those gathered they were not going to see Mary Beth Lacey as Rose and they were not going to see Ethel Merman as Rose. They were going to see me as Rose," Daly recalled.

Interview over, the two actors link arms as they prepare to walk down a staircase to the hotel's front door. Both, after all, are wearing complicated footwear and need the extra stability. Plus, each clearly enjoys the other's company.

"I knew that being onstage with Tyne was going to be the most extraordinary master class in itself, but it's the offstage time that has been the best," says Boggess, smiling affectionately.

As they wander away, they are deep in discussion — about Christian Dior shoes.