Christine Ebersole is a wonderful paradox: a down-to-earth gal from Winnetka, Illinois, with the voice of an angel and the cosmic sensitivity of a medium. Her plangent, soaring soprano can shift from early 20th-century operetta to modern torch songs like “The Way We Were” and instant classics from her Broadway vehicles Grey Gardens and War Paint, yet she doesn’t warm up. She jokes about singing to animals and can be irreverent about aging and Hollywood, but earnestly believes in a divine plan. Playbill talked to Ebersole by phone from her home in Maplewood, New Jersey, on the eve of a milestone: her major solo concert as part of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series. An Evening with Christine Ebersole, directed by her longtime collaborator Scott Wittman, takes place on February 20 at Alice Tully Hall. For those who adored Ebersole in her numerous cabaret engagements at the Café Carlyle, the show will be historic.

What songs might we expect in your American Songbook concert?
Christine Ebersole: Do you have any suggestions? I think I want to talk about my parents. I’ve been reading love letters that they wrote to one another during World War II. And my mother recently passed away. She lived to be 100 years old; she was born in 1918. I was just looking at these letters and the poignancy and simplicity of the love that they shared. There are so many songs that could go along with that theme.

Did your father serve during WWII?
Ebersole: He was in the Army, stationed in the South Pacific. My mother grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania, and she lost her mother to cancer when she was 15 years old. She was one of seven children and lost her younger brother in WWII. It’s ironic because they were German farmers that came over in the 1700s and then he was killed in Germany, in the land of his forefathers.

Speaking of homecomings, it’s been 20 years since you moved back to the East Coast.
Ebersole: We moved July 16, 1999. I’m glad that you brought that up, because now I’m thinking: Oh, that can be a part of the concert, too.

You’ve been living in Maplewood, New Jersey?
Ebersole: I found the house in one day. To be honest, I was a New York snob. I thought, I’m not going to be one of the bridge-and-tunnel people. I thought everybody in New Jersey lived next to a big smoke stack and a green river. But it really came down to economics, like what we could afford. And I had just had bunion surgery ten days earlier, I took the red eye from Los Angeles, so I came off the airplane in a wheelchair and then had to ice my feet at a friend’s house for an hour, then went and found this house in one day.

In your recent cabaret show at the Café Carlyle, After the Ball, you talked about how your three children are off at college; you’re dealing with an “empty nest.”
Ebersole: But you know what happens nowadays: They leave home, go to college, and then come back! It’s funny. I couldn’t wait to get out, you know? I mean, not anything against my parents, but it’s like: I’m on the adventure of life! 

You adopted your three kids. What’s being an adoptive mother like?
Ebersole: The way I describe it in my act is that it’s love and loss, walking together side by side. Because when a mother gives her child up for adoption it becomes the family’s treasure, and yet our biology—which is such a basic part of who we are—can’t be denied. I know this for a fact because my daughter, Mae Mae, who spent the first year of her life in an orphanage in China, recently graduated from USC Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude, in computational neural science and mathematics. I did not teach her this. I taught her, maybe: Snap on two and fourthat’s as good as it got!
Christine Ebersole: Children and Art (and a Few Pets)
Kit Kittle
Christine Ebersole performs an American Songbook concert on February 20 at Alice Tully Hall
We all want you back on Broadway. Would you ever do Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd?
Ebersole: Well, are you kidding? That would be like a dream, but you know, it’s been done a lot. By really great people.

You’re really great people.
Ebersole: 
I would not turn it down.

Would you turn down Rose in Gypsy?
Ebersole: I’m too old for Gypsy. But Mame… I’m not too old for that. But I don’t know. I love doing new things more often than not. Rather than being compared. “She’s not as piquant as Julie Andrews…” Whatever those reviews are, [they’re] like a branding iron in our brain. It’s exciting to do new work because you can bring so much of yourself to a new experience.

How do you keep your voice in shape?
Ebersole:
 This is the truth: It’s like Dr. Doolittle. I talk to the animals.

Which animals?
Ebersole:
 Currently, we have two dogs, two cats, and a cockatiel. And the cockatiel has really kept me vocally warmed up. It’s this little bird that I got when I was out in Los Angeles because I was doing a TV series there and was so incredibly lonely. I thought, I’ve got to get a bird to just stave off the loneliness! I found out that it was a male bird. And the male birds just sing all day long. Because he has this very high pitch, when I talk to him, I always try to mimic his vocal pattern. So whatever the bird is saying or singing then I will whistle that or talk to him in that range. And it’s the same thing with a cat because when cats meow, it’s in the higher range. I don’t warm up, but that’s how I stay warmed up. I’m always engaged with the various animals in my world.

Your sound is so pure, but you also have wonderful phrasing with lyrics. Do you study your lyrics a lot?
Ebersole:
 It mostly comes from just relating. Somebody might give me a song and I’m like, it’s a nice song, but it doesn’t really speak to me. If I connect to the lyrics, connect to the music, then it automatically connects to the source. The emotional, spiritual source.

What is the source that you connect to?
Ebersole:
 Love and longing and despair and hope and God. Just the basics, you know.

And lost time?
Ebersole:
 Oh, gosh. That’s a big one for me. Ay-yi-yi. Could do volumes on that.

Scott Wittman is directing your American Songbook show, but he also directed you in 1997 for your cabaret comeback?
Ebersole:
 When I lived in Los Angeles, I was dying to get back to club work. There was an opportunity to sing at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, so I went to Scott, and we put together an act. It was Scott who dictated the formula of the show. I didn’t have a clue.

Did that gig contribute to your decision to leave L.A.?
Ebersole: 
Yes. It was an internal thing where I thought, I’m just languishing here, spiritually languishing, because I have gone away from my singing, my roots. And literally two years later, I was gone. I hitched up the wagon and headed east.

A Reverse Pioneer.
Ebersole:
 Exactly. “Go East.” They say that the older you get the farther east you should go. So, I’ll be coming to you from Shanghai not too long from now.
David Cote is an arts journalist, playwright, and opera librettist based in New York City.

American Songbook Lead Support provided by PGIM, the global investment management businesses of Prudential Financial, Inc. For information and tickets, visit AmericanSongbook.org.