Donna Lynne Champlin’s big break into television came with its share of concerns — the main one being that someone had been secretly recording her for years. The singer and actress, who began performing at the age of four, had been gracing the stage and screen for more than 40 years before she learned about the new comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
When she began reading, Champlin, a Drama Desk and OBIE Award winner, did not expect to discover a character she related to, let alone one who seemed to embody most of her personal characteristics. The only TV roles she had played up until now were supporting characters that were decidedly non-sexual.
“A theatre person, especially a theatre person who looks like me, is not reflected on TV back to me,” Champlin said. “My type is middle-aged woman, not thin. I look like the average American middle-aged woman. The only TV roles I’ve ever had were for the secretary, the cop, the nurse. The acceptable nonsexual place for a middle-aged woman to be on TV. They would be 1-2 lines and that was it, and never be a series regular. That was unheard of.”
Unheard of until Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, that is. When Champlin began reading the description of Paula, both she and her agent were shocked by the similarities she shared with the character.
“I remember sitting in the couch, looking at the sides. My husband was sitting next to me, and I said, ‘Babe. It’s like someone has bugged our apartment. These lines and the way this character speaks is the way I speak, and I’m a little freaked out about it!’ It was so weird. Never in my entire career did I see a breakdown of a character on television that was even remotely close to me.”
Rather than hidden microphones or video cameras, the casting of Champlin in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend could be credited to predestination. Rachel Bloom, the writer, star and producer of the show is Champlin’s second cousin — a fact that wasn’t discovered until after the pilot was shot and submitted to networks for consideration.
The two women first met more than 10 years ago at a CD signing for the 2005 Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd, in which Champlin played the barber Pirelli. Bloom, then a student at New York University, attended the signing wearing a bright orange coat.
“I distinctly remember her,” Champlin said. “A) It was her coat. B) She said something that was so incredibly insightful and intelligent. It made an impression on me. I thought, ‘That orange coat girl is going to do something amazing.’ I had this premonition.”
That “something amazing” is the musical comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which airs on the CW Monday nights at 8 PM. The hour-long musical comedy follows the adventures and escapades of Rebecca Bunch, a successful but unhappy New York lawyer who impulsively moves to the small town of West Covina, California, where her summer camp crush Josh “just happens” to live. Paula plays Rebecca’s co-worker, best friend and oftentimes enabler as Rebecca pursues a romance with Josh.
Watch Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's opening number:
The name of the show was off-putting to some, who, upon hearing it, found it to be sexist or disparaging. But the show, which set out to deconstruct the titular term, has addressed weighty subjects like bisexuality, depression and anxiety with sensitivity.
An outspoken feminist, Champlin is savoring what she calls the “watershed” moments of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and there have been many. It’s a TV show written by, starring and produced by a woman (and Bloom recently took home a Golden Globe award for her acting). And much of the crew, including the line producer and show runner, as well as more than half the writing staff, are women.
After meeting her at the small law firm, Paula quickly forms an intense friendship with Rebecca, aiding her in her pursuit of Josh, sometimes — actually, oftentimes — to an extreme and co-dependent level. (While eating Thanksgiving dinner with her own family, she watches a livestream of Rebecca’s day with Josh on her iPhone.) But Paula is not the stereotypical romantic comedy sidekick, something Champlin is quick to point out.
“She’s three-dimensional. She’s got her own shit going on. She’s got her own family, which isn’t just mentioned in passing. She’s invested in her children and her husband. And I think the most important aspect of Paula is that she’s sexualized. This is the difference between Vivian Vance and Lucille Ball. Usually if there is a sidekick woman, the leading woman is sexualized and she’s pursuing a romance, and the sidekick is only there for asexual straight man work.”
When we meet Paula, she is struggling in her marriage almost embarks on an affair with an attractive law client, but she reconciles with her husband — not only on an emotional level but also a sexual.
“If that was any other TV show, first of all, Paula would have never had an affair because women like Paula don’t have sex,” Champlin said. “That would never been broached. Then with the husband, with Scott, they would have gone to couples therapy. That’s fine. But they would have resolved it with eating burritos and maybe clinking the burritos like wine glasses. But what Crazy Ex-Girlfriend does is goes beyond that to repairing the relationship sexually with two people who look like Middle America middle-aged people. And that’s something I certainly have never seen.”
Paula’s weight is never mentioned on the show, another fact Champlin, a size 14, delights in, saying, “There has not been one line in this entire show for the entire season that addresses my weight. And we’re always eating real food — donuts, burritos. We’re always drinking. That’s a huge thing for us that we’re really eating. We’re not sipping cuts of shit that have nothing in them.”
Each episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has featured several original musical numbers, and fans have seen Paula singing an inspirational gospel-style number titled “Face Your Fears,” as well as the sultry jazz-club number “His Status Is Preferred,” which she performed wearing a tight, glittery red dress.
“The Internet exploded with plus size women saying, ‘Where the fuck did you get that dress? It’s amazing.’ What I loved about it is it was tight. There was no apologizing me and hiding me. The boobs were up, and the dress was tight and that thing sold out online in a matter of minutes. Again they’re not apologizing for Paula being a size 14. They’re accentuating that she’s a size 14, which is unheard of.”
The show’s unique approach to body image was apparent from the pilot episode, when Rachel, preparing to go to a party, performs “The Sexy Getting Ready Song,” a parody of the hyper-sexualized woman preparing for a night out. The video juxtaposes lingerie-clad backup dancers with Rebecca as she struggles to pull Spanx on over her stomach — a scene Champlin feared would be cut by network executives. “I thought to myself, ‘They’re going to cut that tummy thing, and there’s going to be no rational reason for it except that networks are homogenized.’ And God bless it, there it was.
“I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is a watershed moment,’” Champlin continued. “On three levels: for women on television, for women everywhere and for the CW. It was such a simple 2-3 second bit that I thought, ‘That changes everything.’”
Attempting to change the status quo in the entertainment industry is nothing new to Champlin, who made her Broadway debut in James Joyce’s The Dead, followed by By Jeeves, Hollywood Arms, Sweeney Todd and Billy Elliot. It was during Billy Elliot when she broke her ankle and, encouraged — actually dared — by her brother, self-produced a solo CD on a budget of $1,000, recording it in the bathroom of her studio apartment. Champlin, who had been told by various record labels that a solo CD would cost between $30-$35,000, arranged the music to accommodate the instruments she knows how to play, including the piano, accordion and flute, among others and completed the album, titled Old Friends, on her own.
“It was kind of amazing to learn that I technically made the CD, if you don’t include the second staff of physically making the CDs and art, and it cost me under $500 to do the whole thing,” she said, adding that she kept a blog of her experiences. “It was very freeing to force myself to educate myself about all that stuff and realize it wasn’t as impossible as I had been led to believe. And certainly not as expensive.”
As the team behind Crazy Ex-Girlfriend awaits news on a second season, Champlin is savoring the show’s success in changing the game — an Asian-American romantic male lead, a sympathetic but also humorous look at depression and anxiety, and a plus-sized series regular, a trend she hopes will continue in the industry.
“I think there is a revolution, and I love that Melissa McCarthy is almost solely responsible for it,” she said. “My parts I would audition for were were like ‘Time of Death Doctor’ and ‘You want the wastebasket where?’ That’s all I was allowed to do. And then Bridesmaids came out. And it took about a year and a half after Bridesmaids, and all of the sudden there was writing for plus-sized women. I really do think that Melissa McCarthy is single handedly responsible what I see as a renaissance for — I don’t even want to say plus-sized women — average sized women.”
“I feel proud if I’m in any way a part of any woman sitting on her couch watching the show, feeling better about herself because she merely sees herself reflected back to her in a non-judgmental way. I’m incredibly proud of that.”
Images via Warner Bros. Television
This post was originally published March 7, 2016.
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Carey Purcell is a New York based writer, reporter and theatre critic. Carey is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, the League of Professional Theatre Women, the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle. She has contributed to Elle, Jezebel, Salon, the Huffington Post, Alternet.org, Broadway Style Guide, HowlRound.com, TheaterMania.com, NewYork.com and WHERE New York magazine. She has also appeared on the TV show “Good Morning America.” Follow her on Twitter @CareyPurcell and read her writing at CareyPurcell.com.