Tracey Ullman has always had to be her own ensemble.
From her breakout sketch comedy series “The Tracey Ullman Show” to her award-winning series for HBO and Showtime (“Tracey Takes On” and “Tracey Ullman’s State of the Union”), Ullman’s knack for playing a variety of wacky characters has become her signature style.
Now, Ullman is trying something new: musicals. She’s currently singing and dancing with Brian Stokes Mitchell (“Ragtime”) and Laura Osnes (“Cinderella”) in the Encores! production of “The Band Wagon” at New York City Center.
“I’m a bit tired of being my own cast,” Ullman told NBC New York, days before opening in the adaptation of the MGM musical of the same name. “I do so much work on my own, it’s really nice to be with other people.”
She also has a role in Rob Marshall’s film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Into the Woods,” which hits theaters this Christmas. Ullman plays Jack’s mother, alongside Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick and Johnny Depp.
Here, Ullman talks about both experiences, and her own outlook on comedy:
NBC 4 NEW YORK: What drew you to “The Band Wagon”?
ULLMAN: Kathleen Marshall. I worked with her before, and I worked with her brother Rob on “In the Woods.” She really understands this genre and makes it real and great for you. It seemed like a lovely opportunity. I’ve never done something like this before. So I get a month with all these incredible people to see how I do.
NBC4NY: And you get to sing again, which is a real treat for those of us who still listen to “They Don’t Know About Us” on the regular.
ULLMAN: Oh I was just a pop singer! I can carry a tune, but here you see people like Brian Stokes Mitchell and Laura Osnes who really are just incredible. Their pacing and their phrasing and the strength they have! It’s that energy and that discipline of doing a musical that's really interesting to learn about.
NBC4NY: You play Lily Martin, a writer going through the process of trying to make a show work. What’s that experience like in real life?
ULLMAN: It’s painful. You have to just keep trying. If you’re in a room full of writers in a group like I’ve been, they’ll soon tell you if it’s not working. Learn to take the blows and go, ‘Okay, I’ll try something different.’ If I feel it’s phoney or not working, I work from the character I based it on and just improvise.
NBC4NY: Improvise? Sounds hard when you’re doing a TV show!
ULLMAN: I get bored quickly. So I like to do 30% of it on the day and be spontaneous. Sometimes it just doesn’t work up to the day. They’re the most interesting ones because you say 'Blimey, I’m just going to have to give it a go here.'
NBC4NY: Is that why you’ve mostly done work you’ve created yourself?
ULLMAN: I always made my own stuff happen because I just was one of those people who thought, ‘Oh, well no one is going to cast me!’ I was an odd looking thing when I was younger. So from very early on in my career, I was instigating my own work. I’ve been very fortunate to have people pick up on it.
NBC4NY: Has it changed for women working in comedy over the years?
ULLMAN: It’s so different being girls now. Women like Tina Fey, Melissa McCarthy, Amy Poehler and Kristen Wiig have made such great strides, starring in movies and not playing second fiddle to men. But, you know, they’ve always had that tradition in America. When I first came here, I couldn’t believe it that you had Gilda Radner, Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett on TV. There were no shows with just women in England, really. Especially with comedy.
NBC4NY: What makes you laugh?
ULLMAN: Sometimes the poignancy or sadness of something is what’s funny for me. As you get older, it is different. You can’t just do the same things. I like trying to explore our culture and the melting pot we are. The things that are painful — that’s what’s interesting.
NBC4NY: Speaking of sadness, you lost your husband to prostate cancer this year. How have you been?
ULLMAN: It’s been a difficult year. I had been married 30 years. It’s a bit of a readjustment in your life, and I’m not quite sure what I’m up to on my own. But I have taken a great comfort in working, especially with the Marshalls. They’ve scooped me up and filled my heart with music.
NBC4NY: What can we expect from “Into the Woods?”
ULLMAN: I still haven’t seen it! I’m just thrilled to be a part of it. It was just the most fabulous experience. Everyone was brilliant. And it was another one of these great ensembles. We had a three-week rehearsal period, and we became a company.
NBC4NY: You have a real cow in the film, which is a bit different from the stage show.
ULLMAN: I fell in love with my cow! I would scratch her head. And you know when you stop scratching a dog’s head, and they sort of move their head for more? That’s what my cow did! And I thought ‘People eat these things?’ I know I don’t eat them. She was extraordinary. I’d come home and people would smell me and go ‘You been working with the cow again?’
NBC4NY: Do you think a full Broadway show is in your future after this?
ULLMAN: We’ll see! I’m always looking to try something different. And who knows. It’s wonderful to just have this trial of it.
“The Band Wagon,” through Nov. 16 at NY City Center; 131 W. 55th St. Tickets starting at $30. Call (212) 581-1212 or visit citycenter.org.