InDepth InterView: Beth Leavel Talks CALL ME MADAM, ELF, MINSKY'S & More!
Today we are talking to a terrifically talented triple-threat who has made appearances on Broadway in entities as diverse as David Merrick's original Gower Champion-directed production of 42nd STREET, her debut, to roles in Susan Stroman's CRAZY FOR YOU, Hal Prince's landmark revival of SHOW BOAT and the Mark Bramble revival of 42nd STREET to memorable performances in THE CIVIL WAR, MAMMA MIA!, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, ELF, and, most recently, as the star of BABY, IT'S YOU! - to say nothing of her Tony Award-winning turn in THE DROWSY CHAPERONE - the thoroughly delightful and dynamic grand dame herself, Beth Leavel. Discussing some of her career highlights thus far - such as the night of her Tony Award win - while generously displaying her caustic, wacky wit and giving us a glimpse into the life of a modern-day leading lady, Leavel also offers us some insights into her newest role - one originally essayed by no less than Broadway icon Ethel Merman - that of Irving Berlin's heroine, Mrs. Sally Adams, in the politically-themed musical comedy CALL ME MADAM, opening this week and playing at the Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma July 24-28. In addition to all about CALL ME MADAM, Leavel also imparts her affection for past co-stars and collaborators - Sutton Foster, Christine Ebersole, Andrea Martin, Millicent Martin, Dolores Gray, Burt Bacharach, Hal Prince, David Merrick and more included - and looks ahead to some parts that she would potentially consider pursuing in the future (MINSKY'S perhaps? The Witch in INTO THE WOODS? An ELF encore come Christmas?). All of that and much, much more!
More information on CALL ME MADAM at Oklahoma's Lyric Theatre is available here.
Call Her Diva
PC: Could you tell me a little bit about how you have seen Broadway change since your debut in the original 42nd STREET? It seems that that was the very tail end of an era.
BL: Well, I've been on Broadway since 1984, and, you know, it's cyclical. There was a time in the 90s when work was hard to get, true, but I feel like it is coming around now - or maybe I'm just being completely optimistic! [Laughs.]
PC: Business is better than ever.
BL: Yeah, I think it is changing in other ways for the better, though - I do. You know, there is a light at the end of this tunnel and theatre is going to come back stronger than ever! Broadway is so strong and revitalized and ready to take us all into however many more years we can stay with it in this crazy business.
PC: 42nd STREET must have been a smashing debut for you.
BL: Ugh, I am old enough to have done the original and the revival! It's terrible!
PC: That's so funny. What was it like to revisit it?
BL: I mean, I wasn't in the original cast of the original, but I was in the original production, so, going back to the show, it was like, "Wow! I should have asked if there were older parts when I did it the first time!"
PC: You could make it a habit.
BL: Right! Hmm, I wonder if I should do Jane Connell's role in CRAZY FOR YOU next - what do you think?! [Laughs.]
BL: Yes! Let's do it! [Laughs.]
PC: Were you a part of the final company of the original 42nd STREET?
BL: I left about eight months or a year before it closed - I left to do a production of GREASE where I was playing Rizzo and that was supposed to come to Broadway, but it didn't. It just didn't happen!
PC: What happened?
BL: Oh, they tried - they tried to make it happen, but it just didn't work; it didn't come together right. But, you know what? Right after that CRAZY FOR YOU happened, so it all worked out for the best anyway!
PC: Indeed. Have you seen the new Gershwin revue, NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT? They share a similar songstack, of course.
BL: No, I haven't - I really want to get to see it, but with Gershwin you just can't go wrong; I give props to anyone who tries to reinvent his tunes for a new listening audience and revisit it again because they are beautiful tunes.
PC: You can say that again.
BL: I'm planning on going to see it when I get back from Oklahoma - it's high on my list of what to see when I get back.
PC: Did you audition for The Witch in the new INTO THE WOODS? It's been rumored you were considered.
BL: No! I didn't! How about that? How do these rumors happen without me! [Laughs.]
PC: You've played the role before, have you not?
BL: Yes, I have played it before - at the Pittsburgh CLO.
PC: Did you enjoy doing it?
BL: Oh, darling, it was divine! Divine. The emotional layers! Oh, it was fabulous. You know what I remember most? Now, remember, it was summer stock so we didn't have a lot of time and since it was Sondheim you really had to have done your homework...
PC: To say the least.
BL: Right! Tough stuff. So, the first day of rehearsals for an intense, intense eight-day rehearsal period for a full production of INTO THE WOODS my father passed away.
PC: How horrible. What did you do? Did you consider dropping out of the production?
BL: Well, I had to immidiately leave rehearsals and fly out to his funeral - I sang at his funeral - and then I flew back the next day. So, that whole INTO THE WOODS was quite the journey for me - it really was.
PC: I can only imagine - the themes are so applicable.
BL: They really are. I mean, to sing songs like "No One Is Alone" and, then, "Children Will Listen"? Wow - it was just one of those experiences for me as a performer that I will never forget. I reached a place in my soul onstage that was so wonderful - it was one of those moments where I was reminded why we do theatre and why we see theatre. [Pause.] Whew, I'm getting choked up!
PC: It must have been incredibly emotional to do INTO THE WOODS in that personal context. "Children Will Listen" is a masterpiece - so poignant.
BL: So poignant - just so beautiful. It's such a great, great, great thing to not only sing and perform, but to feel - oh, it's just wonderful. It's a true privilege to do that show!
PC: All of that and you get to rap about beans and greens. What a role!
BL: I know, I know! What the heck?! It surprised me when I first heard it, to be honest - I was like, "Wait, this is a rap song?! No way!" Because, it's like, how many times do you get the chance to sing a rap song with a prosthetic nose? [Laughs.]
PC: It's rare!
BL: Not many, Pat - not many.
PC: From witches to political ambassadors - tell me about doing CALL ME MADAM at the Lyric Theatre in Oklahoma.
BL: I'll tell you, truly, I had never seen CALL ME MADAM before - I don't know anyone who has even done it; anywhere! Yes, I know that there was a production at Goodspeed and that my pal Leslie Uggams did it at Papermill, but, other than that, I was so unfamiliar with the show. Of course, I knew about Ethel and I knew it was by Irving Berlin. But, you know what? It's really such a treasure - and no one even knows about it! We're so lucky.
PC: It's not as well known as it should be, for sure.
BL: I know! I feel like all of us are down here in Oklahoma and we have discovered and are personalizing this wonderful musical that nobody ever, ever does for some weird reason. I mean, it's so much fun and it just pops off the page - it's so entertaining and has so many fabulous tunes, too. Oh, my gosh, though, it's a lot of work for me!
PC: It's a huge lead. Have you ever seen the film version starring Ethel Merman? It's quite a departure from the stage show.
BL: I've seen clips of it - it is so, so different from the musical that I felt like it would end up confusing me! [Laughs.]
PC: You didn't miss much.
BL: I listened to Miss Merman sing a lot in preparing for this part, I'll tell you that much! [Laughs.]
PC: Anita Gillette just did this column and she told me some fascinating stories about her friendship with Irving Berlin.
BL: Oh, that's so funny you mention that - someone was just talking about the show that she did with him in rehearsal here the other day.
PC: MR. PRESIDENT.
BL: Yeah, they worked with him on that, too, and were talking about what a fascinating guy he was. Interesting - very interesting stuff.
PC: You gotten to work with some of the greats in your time, as well, have you not?
BL: Well, it depends on how you define great! [Laughs.] But, seriously - speaking of great, it absolutely breaks my heart that I haven't gotten the chance to work with Stephen Sondheim yet. I did get the chance to work for David Merrick, though, as we just discussed - on 42nd STREET - which was interesting.
PC: What was he like in person? What a reputation he had!
BL: Well, he had had some health issues at the time, so communicating was very difficult for him, but, let me tell you, when he came in a room, the energy of the room all pointed towards Mr. Merrick and no one else! Whew!
PC: What words would you ascribe to another of the greats you have worked with: Hal Prince?
BL: Genius! A total genius. I did his revival of SHOW BOAT and I'd love to work with him more - I'd love to work with him on an original piece and we can birth something together; I'll be his oxygen.
PC: You shared the stage with a modern-day Broadway superstar in the form of Sutton Foster in THE DROWSY CHAPERONE, as well. Did you enjoy working with her on that?
BL: Oh, Sutton is so unbelievable - she is my hero. You know, when you do an original show, you are so connected to those people because you give so much of your heart and your soul and your time and your life to create something - everybody - to give birth to something. All of those people you share that process with hold a special place in your heart - because to share that fear and that love and that excitement and to celebrate that and even to someday be disappointed in it because the show didn't work or it closes quickly; those people just own a chunk of my soul. Sutton is one of those people who holds such a special, dear place in my heart - and she always will. Forever.
PC: Wow! So, THE DROWSY CHAPERONE was a career pinnacle not only because you won the Tony Award for your role in it, then?
BL: Yeah, every show has its different thrill, but that one was definitely special - I mean, c'mon!
PC: It was a very unusual creation.
BL: That's part of why it's so thrilling - I mean, no one knew what to do with that role! They just didn't know what to do, I guess, and, then, finally, Casey Nicholaw said, "OK, OK - fine. Just give the role to Beth."
PC: So, that's how you got involved in the process - Casey knew how to utilize you?
BL: Yes. You see, I had auditioned for it in July - Casey was so sweet to call me himself and he said, "Listen, Beth, I just don't think it's going to work." And, I went, "Absolutely. I don't think I am the right person to bring life to this character, either - I don't think I am this person at all. Thank you so much; blah, blah, blah." So, fast forward to two months later, I get a call from my agents, "We've got a job offer for you." And, I say, "Offer?!"
PC: Incredulously, right?
BL: Yeah, like, "What?!" I was like, "An offer? I don't even have to audition? Yes! What is this dream job?" And, he said, "It's THE DROWSY CHAPERONE." And, then, I said, "No, no, no - I didn't get that. Call them back because they must have made a mistake." So, he did. Five minutes later, he calls me back and says, "Beth, they have offered you the Beatrice Stockwell role in THE DROWSY CHAPERONE and you leave in three weeks to do three and a half months in LA. Get packed! Bye bye."
PC: What was your reaction?
BL: "OK!" [Laughs.] Then, when we got there together, we just created this wonderful woman and we kept layering it and personalizing it to my particular style and my singing - and, then, before we knew it, I won a Tony Award for it. It was so satisfying - the show was so great and people just loved it. Now, no matter where I am, at every stage door there is somebody who loves THE DROWSY CHAPERONE and that show somehow just touched them in some way - that's what theatre's about to me, anyway, really; having experiences like that that stay with you.
PC: Speaking of unforgettable moments: what was winning the Tony like for you?
BL: [Sighs. Pause.] Holy schmoly! [Laughs.]
PC: A good way to put it.
BL: I remember kind of just leaving my body - you know, I sometimes feel that there is the Beth that can do all that stuff and then there is the Beth saying, "Don't fall! Don't curse! Remember to thank your parents!" and all that stuff. So, I think that the stronger Beth took over. Being up there and everything, it's all so overwhelming and then you have to speak, too - you have to speak to Radio City, in front of thousands and thousands of people in the theater and then everyone watching on TV! I was terrified and giddy and so very honored - I still kind of have to pinch myself about it. The first time I heard "Tony Award-winner Beth Leavel" I was like, "Oh my gosh! That's me!"
PC: It's taken a while to set in for you.
BL: It has! You know, it was an event and a moment in my life that I hope I get to experience again just one more time - it was that good! [Laughs.]
PC: On that topic: what is the future for MINSKY'S, as far as you know?
BL: I have no idea! You know, I got to play the second banana hooker with a heart of gold in that - and, wow, there are some great, great tunes in that score.
PC: A fantastic Charles Strouse score.
BL: What a score, right?! I am hoping that it is just nesting still for a little while while we find a place to hatch it. We'll see! It was such a great score that I would even just love to do a CD or a recording of it, even if it wasn't going to get fully realized as a show. But, you never know - it is theatre, after all; you know, one day you are unemployed and the next you win a Tony Award for THE DROWSY CHAPERONE. It happens!
PC: With Strouse's ANNIE being back this season, perhaps MINSKY'S will gain some Broadway traction at last.
BL: It's such a terrific score - it's gorgeous. It would be such a shame if people never got to hear it or experience it.
PC: Another of your recent roles was in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. What was your experience of stepping into Andrea Martin's shoes?
BL: Oh, it was great. One of my favorite stories about replacing Andrea Martin is that they designed the front door of the castle for her entrance with the candelabra - you know, "Hello." Well, I am about eight inches taller than she is, so I couldn't actually fit through the door with my wig on, so I bent down my head and had to physically figure out a way to do a backbend through the door - this was at the tech rehearsal.
PC: That's hilarious.
BL: It was all about finding the right bend! But, basically, otherwise I stole whatever I could from her.
PC: How honest!
BL: Hey, if it ain't broke, right?!
BL: I just took whatever I could and just said "Thank You, Andrea!"
PC: Are there any contemporaries of yours you looked up when you were coming up in the business? Your co-star Christine Ebersole - who has also done this column - perhaps? Other stars, maybe?
BL: Oh, Christine - absolutely. It's everyone, though, really - on all of your shows. You know, no matter how long you have been doing this, we are all still learning from each other. Some people really teach you lessons that you can remember the rest of your life, though. I remember all those great divas I had in 42nd STREET - Millicent Martin, Dolores Gray, Tammy Grimes, Bobo Lewis; I learned so much from Bobo Lewis, especially.
PC: Speaking of dynamic divas, did you ever get to meet Florence Greenberg prior to playing her in BABY, IT'S YOU?
BL: She had passed, unfortunately. However, I had a lot of time with her two children - Mary Jane and Stanley - and they came to the opening of the show and everything. She touched a lot of people's lives, so at the opening of the show I got to talk to people about her who knew her and other people came later in the run, too. I felt lucky to get to tell her story to a lot of people that may never had heard of her before by doing that show, so it was a really great experience for me.
PC: That show certainly made it to Broadway against all odds, would you agree?
BL: Against all odds is right! I had never even heard of it, but I was doing ELF at the time and one of the producers approached me saying, you know, "What are you doing in February?" And, I'm like, "I don't know, working at Macy's?" [Laughs.] And, he said, "I'd like you to come and read this script." And, I said, "OK, but what is this show? Who is this lady?" And, so, it became another one of those stories - the next day I'm starring in this Broadway show I had never heard of about someone I had known nothing about the day before then; singing these great, great tunes.
PC: The title song is so sensational - a great Bacharach/David pop gem.
BL: Oh, I know! I love Burt Bacharach. He came and saw the show, actually, which was so amazing.
PC: Did you get to meet?
BL: Oh, yeah - he's a doll; such a doll. I was kind of star-struck, actually - when I get star-struck I get nervous and when I get nervous I talk really fast and really high; he probably couldn't have gotten a word in edgewise if he wanted to!
PC: Have you seen Quentin Tarantino's use of "Baby, It's You" in the Director's Cut of DEATH PROOF yet? It's well worth checking out, I think.
BL: No, I haven't! It's like a Honda - once you get a Honda, all you see are Hondas; they are using that song everywhere! I've seen it used as a jingle recently, too - [Sings.] "Baby, it's you." That's so amazing that he did it, though! I love that.
PC: Will ELF be returning to Broadway this winter?
BL: From your mouth, Pat! From your mouth...
PC: Nothing official yet?
BL: I am hoping to hear any minute, actually - literally, any minute. I will definitely be a part of it if it does. I would be the happiest person in the world to be able to do that show again - it was such a great show and what a great way to spend your holidays.
PC: ELF has a really catchy and enjoyable score, as well.
BL: Oh, yeah - Chad and Matt! The cast album came out like a year after we first did the show, so it's great it's out now and people can hear it and enjoy it. It's another great score I've been lucky enough to get to do. I hope everyone who hasn't seen it will get the chance to see it now if we bring it back this year. We'll see!
PC: What is next for you after CALL ME MADAM?
BL: Well, it all depends on ELF - we'll see, we'll see. I have three or four things I have been dipping my toes in, so we'll see what happens first! I'll let you know when it does, I promise!
PC: Is MINSKY'S the best show you have done that has not made it to Broadway? You have done a lot of readings and workshops over the years.
BL: I have done a lot of readings - yes. You know, what it always comes down to is that it's called show business - someone has to always write a check. Some shows just don't work in that particular moment, so you are so hoping that something will happen that will help you to give more to the show sometime; that it becomes more than just sitting around the table and singing great tunes. Did I love every single one of them? No. But, I do have to say that there are a lot of great shows and great scores around that I hope find life.
PC: So, MINSKY'S is the one you want to do next most of all?
BL: Yeah, I think it is. To have a story of a big Broadway show with a great score like that set in burlesque - it's a win-win for everyone.
PC: Or, maybe better yet, the Madeline Kahn role in BLAZING SADDLES: THE MUSICAL?
BL: Oh, yes! Yes! From your mouth, pal - from your mouth; again! [Laughs.]
PC: This has been superb - you are divine, Beth. All my best on CALL ME MADAM!
BL: Aww, thank you so much, Pat! You are a true delight to talk to and this was so much fun. Bye bye.