Monday, February 10, 2014

Nothing Like a Dame (Book Review)

If you are a fan of musical theatre, you will greatly enjoy Nothing Like a Dame, Eddie Shapiro's collection of long, thoughtful interviews with many of the most brilliant women doing musicals today.

Using a simple question-and-answer structure, Shapiro lets us vicariously hang out with Elaine Stritch, Carol Channing, Chita Rivera, Donna McKechnie, Angela Lansbury, Leslie Uggams, Judy Kaye, Betty Buckley, Patti LuPone, Bebe Neuwirth, Donna Murphy, Lillias White, Karen Ziemba, Debra Monk, Victoria Clark, Audra McDonald, Kristin Chenoweth, Idina Menzel, Sutton Foster, Laura Benanti, and Tonya Pinkins.

The interviews are long enough to give a sense of each woman's personality and attitudes. Each women talks about her career, her hopes and dreams, and her triumphs and disappointments. While more than one interviewee feels hard-done-to by the world of theatre, others wake up grateful each day for all that theatre has given them. Many evince a surprisingly large amount of insecurity and others a breathtaking amount of ego. There is general agreement that awards are overrated (though welcome!), that Stephen Sondheim is a nice genius, and that Jerome Robbins was a nasty genius. Many talk about how hard it was to learn to advocate for themselves, and more than one talks about the difficulties of mixing motherhood and eight shows a week. There is much discussion about reviews, professionalism, missing performances, and the living mass that is the audience. They have a great deal of praise for each other--and for Ethel Merman. And, yes, there is a fair amount of dirt.

The book includes about a million interesting quotes. Here are a few:

Elaine Stritch
I had no idea what I was talking about, singing "The Ladies Who Lunch," but I just grew into it. I grew into that song. And I looked like I knew what I was talking about. I think that meant that I did know what I was talking about, but I just couldn’t explain how it was hitting me. I just could do it.

I don’t like the way you said that. I had a couple of drinks before I went out onstage, but "your first show sober?" I don’t think you’re not sober with a drink or two in you. It’s an unfortunate way of putting that.

Carol Channing
"I get terribly frightened. This could be the audience that just doesn't get it."

[Ethel Merman would say] “Get your ass over here you dumb cunt.” And I would do it! That’s what made me mad at myself. She asked the producer if we could travel to the set together. Oh, I idolized her. I never saw anybody like that. The thrill of her voice. The toughest broad that ever walked the boards. And tender, if you knew her. 

Chita Rivera
You have to be truthful through the choreography. It’s not just technical steps. Choreography comes out of emotion. It’s dialogue without words. 

[When they left for London to do West Side Story,] Lisa was four weeks old if you can believe that. I popped her out, lost that weight, and just went on. And I was in perfect shape. I didn’t look pregnant from the back; all front. She just dropped out like a basketball. And then we headed over there." 

Donna McKechnie
If you live long enough you realize that we’re human beings and we are complicated. We have frailties. Some people cannot help their behavior. They can’t help it. If you look at it that way . . . you can’t be like, “They’re doing this to me, I’m the victim.” That gets you nowhere. It’s like when I get depressed or I’m not working; I can go for weeks without getting any calls. I look in the mirror and I go, “You picked it.” That helps me. You make the choice. 

You know, when you tell a dancer to do something, they do it. If you tell an actor to do something, if they can’t justify it, they say, “Why?” When I did a play, right after A Chorus Line, that was an eye opener for me. It was like, “You can actually confront a director and say, ‘Why?’ That’s great!” 

Angela Lansbury
[About the movie version of Sweeney Todd:]  Helena Bonham Carter, I happen to know, was thwarted in her desire to be funny because her husband [director, Tim Burton] wouldn’t allow her to be. She wanted to bring that sense of musical comedy. But she’s so interesting to watch. I am always interested in people’s faces and certainly her look is very stunning and interesting. It wasn’t Mrs. Lovett but whoever she was . . .

[When Mame was out-of-town:] The only problem was that I didn’t really know how to take the stage. I had the producers, Jimmy Carr and Bobby Fryer, come to me and say, “Angie, you can do this. You’ve got to believe that you alone are quite enough on that stage. You just take it, it’s yours.” I had to learn within those few days on the road that it was okay to do that.

Leslie Uggams
If your name is there you need to be there. People are not interested in discovering the understudy most of the time. It’s a deep commitment. It’s hard. People don’t realize how hard it is when you do a musical. You really have no life. God forbid somebody has a cold, they can’t come near you. Really, no life.

And then half the time [the ensemble performers are] not even in the show. One day in Millie instead of this huge party [scene onstage], we had a small soiree of five people. Where is everybody? Well, this one had a personal day. . . . What’s a personal day? That’s another thing; I don’t understand the personal day thing.

Judy Kaye
[About Madeline Kahn in On the Twentieth Century:] When she was on, like opening night, she was on and she was fabulous. But then she said that Cy Coleman said she didn’t have to sing the high notes after opening. She started cutting back, cutting back. And I wanted to slap her silly because I thought, “This is such an opportunity for you, Girlfriend. You should be having the time of your life.” She was just living in total fear.

[About Patti LuPone's refusal to let Kaye use her tuba when Kaye replaced her for five weeks in Sweeney Todd:] It wasn’t her tuba. It was a tuba they got for her to play. I was not even allowed to touch the fucking tuba.

Betty Buckley
And when I was a kid I was always in the church choir, the junior choir, and the all-city chorus. The choir teacher was always putting me in the back row saying, “Blend in, Betty Lynn, blend in.” 

To this day, there’s a perception in some circles that I’m a difficult person. I know I’m a team player. I’ve heard all the rumors, and I’ve heard all the gossip. People have different ideas about “difficult.” To be sure I’ve been outspoken. I care a lot about the work, and I think sometimes that intensity has struck people the wrong way.

Patti LuPone
The other thing I realized when I was sixteen was that my face . . . this is a stage face. It’s a very mobile, theatrical face. I had to grow into my lips. Now they’re falling.

[During Evita:] I had a really ineffectual stage management team and it was a constant battle. It was Beirut from my dressing room to the stage.

Bebe Neuwirth
Honestly, some of the dancers have a right to be pissed off now because the show schedules are so brutal. A lot of shows are now doing five shows in three days and that’s really not acceptable but we are being forced to accept that. The body doesn’t have the time to recover and depending on what you are doing in the show, it’s just not healthy.

My friend was telling this dirty joke and he said “Angela Lansbury told me this joke” and I was like “Gwen Verdon told me that joke!” Man there is nothing better than Gwen Verdon telling you a dirty joke! 

Donna Murphy
My agents are submitting me for theater and television and the feedback is, “She’s talented but there’s something kind of masculine about her.” And I’m thinking, “Oh, God, because I played Edwin Drood and now I am playing this tomboy [in Birds of Paradise]?” I couldn’t believe it. So I told my agents to find me something ultra-feminine. I ended up doing this little tiny one-act on 42nd Street where I pranced around in lingerie for most of the piece. Then, all of my pilot auditions were for vixens and pussycats. Isn’t that ridiculous? 

Steve [Sondheim] came to rehearsal [of Passion] and he watched and gave notes. I had never heard a composer give notes like this in my life. Rarely was something just a musical note; it was about this whole life behind the reason why it was a quarter note and not an eighth note, or it was that the tempo would be faster because she was closer to orgasm, and then he was going to pull it back. There was nothing negative about any note that he gave. It was just more information and it was brilliant.

Lillias White
 [About working on the legendary flop Carrie:] Across the aisle is Barbara Cook and Wally Harper, and we are watching this scene where they kill the pig. I am looking and thinking, “Well, this is different.” I hear Barbara Cook say, “I haven’t been on Broadway in eighteen years and I am going back in this piece of shit?” Barbara Cook is a tough cookie, honey. Barbara Cook is a no-shit-taking cookie with the voice of an angel.

I hated [doing Cats]. Hated it! First of all I got sick from all of the gunk and dirt and gook. There was so much gook and stuff that hadn’t been cleaned, it was like ornaments hanging from the vents. There were roaches accumulating around the barrels of ice that they used for the smoke effect. Roaches of every size, every configuration. One night I am doing my makeup, all of the layers and layers of crap on my face, and a roach falls out of my wig.

Karen Ziemba
Dance has become a lot of quick takes and about tricks; how impressive can you be in a short bite of time, as opposed to telling a story. I think that’s in conflict with what choreographers really want to achieve. They really want to tell a story.

I take yoga and do Pilates, but not dance class. I was at the opening of a new ballet studio and I thought, “You know what? I should take class again. I shouldn’t feel embarrassed that I don’t look like I did when I was 20.”

Debra Monk
In fact, when I was married, my husband had his Equity card and I would take it and go to those auditions. I’d put my hand over his name and just flash it. Sometimes I’d get through and sometimes I wouldn’t. They’d say, “That’s not you!” Well, I tried. 

I have to audition to this day for everything I get, especially in film and television. I’m not too proud to do that. But you know, these days everybody has to work hard to get in, I mean, everybody. You can go in for an audition and there are like twenty great gals sitting in the room. And you can go, “Emmy, Emmy, Emmy, Oscar, nominee, nominee.” 

Victoria Clark
I always look for roles that explore grace because what unifies us as a race, as a people, is that none of us have ever gone through anything that someone else hasn’t been through.

[About the Tonys:] You’re up at 6:00 am, at the theater, getting your costume and wig on for the dress rehearsal, then you go do your matinee, then you change into your red carpet outfit, then you do the red carpet, then you sit in the seat, then you run backstage, you change back into your costume, to perform onstage live at Radio City Music Hall, then you change back again. It’s exhausting. And I was forty-five. It wasn’t like I was a spring chicken. 

Audra McDonald
And then there’s Steve [Sondheim] after a performance, hanging out and drinking, and I’m listening to all his stories. “Tell me another, tell me another.” And then I go home and think, “Where was I? And what the fuck was I just doing and with who? I was just hanging out with Steve Sondheim???” 

And when I go home I’m a mom. So balancing the two together is very challenging. It was a goal of mine to play this part someday [Bess in Porgy and Bess] and now I can check it off my list. I can’t check off my list that I played it as brilliantly as humanly possible but at least I got the chance to play it, where I wanted to play it, on Broadway. 

Kristin Chenoweth
I remember hearing a guy saying, “Oh my God, the enthusiasm! I just wanna slap you.” He said it in a kind way. But he said, “One day Kristin, it’s gonna be a job to you. You’re still gonna love it but it’s gonna be a job.” Well I am happy to report that as of the last time I was on Broadway for a length of time, it was no job. I did it for the sheer love of the role and the opportunity to do it.

[After the Encores! run of The Apple Tree,] we did it for three and a half months at the Roundabout and I didn’t miss one show. I lived like a nun. I lived on Airborne. I got nine to ten hours of sleep a night. I had to. And people don’t get it. They don’t understand that going to a luncheon when you have an 8:00 show might not be the best idea because you have to talk to people and then maybe you have to talk over people because you have to be heard. 

Idina Menzel
I didn’t really know what [Rent] was [when I auditioned for it]. It reads funny. A lot of musicals read funny in script form. This especially did. It was hard to imagine what it was and that “Over the Moon” monologue was like, “What is this? Is this some kind of joke?” 

I always find it weird when people say, “When I’m in a show too long, it just gets boring,” because the audience really is different every night. It truly is. The audience is incrementally this much different and you’re in a tiny bit of a little different place that day.. . . So for me, it’s this living breathing thing. I also don’t sing it the same every night. I stay within the parameters so the composer will be happy, but I find a little something I can do. 

Sutton Foster
[About auditioning for Grease:] I was a ballsy little fucker. I think I was getting antsy at home and decided, “I’m going to see what New York is like.” I auditioned not thinking I was going to get it, but I did. 

[When she won the Tony:] Then I came home and I had like thirty-five messages on my phone and one of them was Alice Ripley. I remember her message meaning a lot to me because I admired her so much. 

Laura Benanti  
I think the smart thing to do is not read [reviews] because they never help. They only hurt. When I did Sound of Music, somebody said I was “unaffectedly graceful,” and then I was onstage, and thinking, “I’m unaffectedly . . .,” and I fell. Even the good ones make you self-conscious. But I kept reading them, which was foolish. 

I wake up a lot of times, and I’m like, “today’s the day that everybody finds out that I don’t know what I’m doing.” 

Tonya Pinkins
I remember one of the first days I was in New York I was on a bus and I saw a car almost run over a biker, who threw down his bike, got off, started bashing the car’s windshield and meanwhile somebody stole the bike. I’m thinking, “Okay, this is New York.”

I never had any faith in the business. I still don’t have any faith in the business. But the work itself . . . Because when you’re doing the work itself, it’s like good sex. It’s like an orgasm. All of the rest is a nightmare.

If you're like me, your sole complaint about Nothing Like a Dame will be about who's missing. Bernadette Peters. Kelli O'Hara. Marin Mazzie. Alice Ripley. I can only hope that Shapiro is hard at work on Volume 2.

(review copy) 

Reprinted from NOTHING LIKE A DAME: Conversations With the Great Women of Musical Theater by Eddie Shapiro with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc.  Copyright © Eddie Shapiro 2014.

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