InDepth InterView: Kara DioGuardi Talks CHICAGO, BOOK OF MORMON, AMERICAN IDOL, GLEE & More!
Today we are talking to the new Roxie in CHICAGO on Broadway best known for her status as one of the most successful songwriters of the twenty-first century, having had hundreds of songs featured on albums by the likes of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Celine Dion, Pink and many, many more - with a significant number of them topping the charts in a variety of genres from pop to rock to country and beyond. In this all-encompassing conversation, DioGuardi and I dissect her career thus far - in front of millions and behind the scenes - and she generously sheds some light on how some of her most famous songs came to be - including the modern-day Gwen Stefani classic "If I Were A Rich Girl", famously sampling a song from FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. Additionally, we talk about her two-year stint on AMERICAN IDOL and what working with Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul was like, as well as her opinions on Simon's new talent competition premiering later this year, THE X-FACTOR, and how she looks back on her experience doing the hit show and her own reality series, PLATINUM HIT. Additionally, we discuss DioGuardi's Broadway baby roots and her formative theatrical experiences, as well as what taking the stage at this point in her career means to her - and, all about wearing AshLee Simpson's costume. Plus, DioGuardi's thoughts on entertainment legends ranging from CHICAGO composer John Kander to rock icon Jim Steinman to Broadway legends like Liza Minnelli, Gwen Verdon, Stephen Sondheim and many, many more. We also have news on her upcoming songs and collaborations to look out for, featuring a vast array of artists such as Jason Mraz, Bruno Mars, Jason Derulo and more - many featured through her music publishing company, Arthouse Entertainment. As if all of that weren't enough, DioGuardi also shares her affection for GLEE, THE BOOK OF MORMON, Broadway song craftsmanship and gypsies!
If I Were A Broadway Baby
PC: What does it feel like to see one of your songs show up in a theatrical context - like many have already on GLEE?
KD: I absolutely love it! Are you kidding? I mean, to be a part of that show is incredible. You are reaching a new generation of kids in the process, too.
KD: Especially when they bring back one of my older songs - like "Taking Chances" was on one season and it was a few years since it had been released. So, it was like, "Oh, my God! A new life for 'Taking Chances'!"
PC: It keeps them resilient and alive.
KD: I love what they do with my songs on GLEE. You know, GLEE kind of reminds me of the SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE sketch where they would go to school and they would sing all the current songs operatically.
PC: Of course! A great example.
KD: Yeah! Yeah. You know that you can always tell a good song when they do it operatically and you think, "Oh, that sounds pretty good."
PC: Speaking of operatic pop music, the king is undoubtedly Jim Steinman. What do you think of songs like "Total Eclipse of the Heart" and "Making Love Out Of Nothing At All"?
KD: "Total Eclipse" and "Making Love" and the Meat Loaf stuff is so, so dramatic - it was written to be that way.
PC: You can say that again.
KD: But, back to your question: What do I think of Jim Steinman? I think he's a genius. I mean, those are the people I grew up listening to, so, when you talk about writers of that caliber who came a little bit before me, those are kind of your mentors as a songwriter in a way; it's what you take in as a kid, and, whether you know it or not, you are kind of digesting a lot of the craft of what they do. Of course, when you get to do it yourself you bring your own inspiration to it and your own life experience, but it's the songs that come before you that really influence how you see music.
PC: Growing up, what did you think of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR and THE WALL and TOMMY - the rock operas?
KD: Oh, I love that stuff - but, I am a huge music person, so…
PC: What music do you remember most in your house growing up?
KD: Well, in my house, I remember a lot more Broadway and Frank Sinatra than anything else. Musicals like KING & I, too - especially.
PC: Rodgers & Hammerstein fans?
KD: Oh, yeah! Oh, yeah. A whole lot of that. My parents were always like, (Yells.) "Turn that rock music down!" and that kind of thing. "There's too much noise up there!" So, yeah, it was more of the Rodgers & Hammerstein stuff. (Laughs.)
PC: What was the first Broadway show you remember seeing?
KD: ANNIE was my first musical.
PC: Composed by Charles Strouse.
KD: Oh, yeah.
PC: And, I have to ask: what do you think of Bock & Harnick? You must be a fan since you sampled "If I Was A Rich Man"!
KD: Right! Gotta love them! (Laughs.)
PC: What other Broadway songs have a propensity to be a new hit in your estimation, especially since that was so huge?
KD: Hmm… what Broadway songs… (Pause.) What do you think?
PC: What about a new "Tonight" from WEST SIDE STORY?
KD: (Sings.) "Tonight, tonight…" Hmmm. (Pause.) I think I would have to say it would probably be something from THE BOOK OF MORMON - if you sampled anything from it people would just die laughing when they heard it!
PC: So, you're a BOOK OF MORMON fan, then?
KD: Believe it or not, I haven't seen it, but I have the soundtrack and with just that I'm dying laughing!
PC: So, you listen to cast albums, then?
KD: Oh, yeah! Everything.
KD: How crazy is that?! And, how crazy is this: I'm wearing her dress!
PC: No way. Her actual same costume?
KD: Way. Yes, I wear her actual dress. You know what's so funny is that I wrote her first album and some other songs after that and I remember she said to me, back then, "I'm going to be in CHICAGO!" And, I was like, "Are you f-ing kidding?! That is so awesome - it's like the best thing that could ever happen!" And, then, four years later, I'm doing it.
PC: How did they approach you to do it in the first place?
KD: Duncan Stewart, who does the casting for CHICAGO, says that he saw me in some blue dress somewhere and that it made him think, "You could be Roxie."
PC: And, of course, everyone knows you can sing thanks to IDOL.
KD: I'll tell you a funny story that happened one of the times I spoke to Duncan: I was going to come in for an audition, so I came to New York City and I was in the art gallery district - you know, on 10th, 11th Avenue - and I finally get him on the phone. We had been trading calls and trading calls and I was so excited to speak to him, and, then, I hear this screaming up ahead.
PC: On the street?
KD: Yeah. Someone was screaming, (Screams.) "Don't you ever f*cking do that," and, I'm like, "What the hell is going on?" And, I turn the corner, and there is this woman pushing her kid into a wall. So, Duncan hears this screaming on my end and, next thing he knows, the phone goes dead.
PC: What did he think?
KD: Right?! He was probably like, "Oh, my God! What happened to her?"
PC: What happened next?
KD: So, meanwhile, I go up to this woman and I'm like, "Hey, what's up?" and, she screams, "Mind your own f*cking business, b*tch!" And, I was like, "Woah!" And, I thought, "That's not cool," so I said I was going to call the cops - you know, because I was worried about this kid. So, then, her friend comes up to me and smacks me.
PC: Oh, my gosh! That's insane. How harrowing.
KD: I know! This is like the craziest moment. So, I have this moment and go through this and the cops come and all that and blah blah blah. Anyway, like a half hour later, I called Duncan and I was like, "Oh, I'm so, so sorry, man. Some woman slapped me." And, I was kind of emotional when I said it. Then, I was like, "All right. All right. Let's just get back to business here…" and, he pauses and goes, "That's so Roxie!"
PC: So true!
KD: It's totally Roxie, though. It is. You know, she's in the middle of killing someone and then she's like, "Oh, I gotta pee!" And, then, "If you can't help me, then you probably can!" She's always surviving and always moving from one thing to the next without getting stuck in any one thing.
KD: So, after that, Duncan was like, "You are so Roxie." So, I came in and auditioned.
PC: What a great story.
KD: It is so Roxie, though! It's like Roxie is in the middle of getting a slap-down from some random woman and she's dealing with the cops and, then, she's back on the phone making a deal, you know? (Laughs.)
PC: A microcosm of the character in a split-second encounter. What ended up happening?
KD: Yeah, the woman was like some crazy nut and ran up to the cops saying, "That woman hit me!" Meanwhile, I come over and say, "No, no, no - you see this big mark on my face? That woman over there hit me!"
PC: What a real-life Velma/Roxie moment.
KD: (Laughs.) Yes! That is totally a Velma/Roxie moment. You are totally right. That is exactly what it was. Exactly.
PC: Liza Minnelli famously played Roxie when Gwen Verdon was out for a few weeks in the original production in the seventies and she released a pop single of "My Own Best Friend" that you might remember. What do you think of Liza?
KD: What do I think of Liza? Liza has one of the biggest, no boundaries voices - she just sings it right from the heart, you know? I love that kind of voice and that kind of music. That's what I also love about being on Broadway - you just get to be a little over-the-top; you know, with the vibrato and all of that, which, as a singer you love to use, but you just don't really get to use it a lot in pop music. It's the more about the emotion and less about the technique in pop music. There is just so much technique in Broadway singing - enunciating and making sure you are telling the story and everything else. She is such a great, great storyteller. I think that's what I love about her, Ethel Merman and, even, Gwen; all big Broadway ladies - they are (or were) great, great storytellers.
PC: What is your personal favorite moment to perform every night? "Roxie" has a sort ofproto hip-hope vibe to it, no?
KD: Oh, yeah. It's a real sexy, slinky type of thing, isn't it?
PC: As a songwriter, what do you think of the CHICAGO score? There are so many styles.
KD: Well, to use what you just said as an example - when they originally wrote "My Own Best Friend" they thought it was going to be a samba, I think. They wrote it that way.
PC: How interesting.
KD: My favorite moment, though, is definitely "Funny Honey".
PC: Why exactly?
KD: Because it has that classic melody and storytelling. Something like "Roxie" is sexier and slinkier. Then, there is "Gun", which is this dance-y, fun kind of number.
PC: And "Me And My Baby" is a cakewalk.
KD: Right! Right. There really is something for everybody.
PC: And "We Both Reached For The Gun" is so much faster in the show than in the film version, for those not aware of it.
KD: Oh, my God! It is so, so fast!
PC: Faster than rap, for sure!
KD: It is! That is just the one number that I was like, "Forget it!" My arm and neck went out on that one.
PC: Oh, no! So, rehearsals tested your endurance? You've done many solo concerts all by yourself, so is it a lot different from that sort of performing?
KD: Well, of course, like a moron, I fell off my porch before I came for rehearsals. So, I had already hurt my back, and, then, I did "The Gun" in rehearsal and I was doing the puppet thing like crazy with my neck and everything and letting it all just go all over the place - so, then, the next day I looked like I had a fracture! I couldn't even move my neck! (Laughs.)
PC: But, you're much better now, at least!
KD: Yes, I am! But, that is the one big thing that I was injured doing. I am still getting used to the ladder, too…
PC: Dancing isn't in your training, so it must be a challenge to dance on a ladder.
KD: Well, the ladder isn't really even about dancing! It's about holding yourself up, really - they're not giving me all of the moves that everyone does, but, still: I have to switch back and forth on the ladder; sing; be really into the storytelling; and, not be worrying that I'm going to fall the whole time! It's kind of scary up there, you know!
PC: It's at least ten or fifteen feet up where you are.
KD: I have never been a huge rollercoaster person, either - even though occasionally I do go on them - but, it feels a little like that.
PC: A rollercoaster in the theme park now known as Broadway!
PC: CHICAGO is one of the best scores on Broadway ever, though - now or then. Do you feel privileged to be a part of it at this point in Broadway history - one of the best shows?
KD: Oh, yeah. The thing for me with CHICAGO is that every day I go to the theater and do it I find a new part of it that I love. Another layer always reveals itself. I wondered how to play this certain part - you know, where Roxie is talking to Mama and Velma and she says, "Hey, hey, get outta my chair!" and, then, "Who the hell are you?" and all that stuff - and I realized it's about figuring out what her grounds are. It's all right there in that moment where she turns to Velma and she goes, "Yeah, what's your grounds?" You can play it either as "Huh, is being drunk grounds [in court] or is Velma just being a b*tch?" Or, you can play it like, "If being drunk is grounds, maybe I will use that [in court]." I think Roxie is really about, basically, "What can I take from everybody to get myself out of this situation?"
PC: How insightful! John Kander was very complimentary towards Gwyneth Paltrow [who just won the 2011 Guest Star Emmy Award for her role] and Lea Michele on GLEE doing "Nowadays" when we discussed it when he did this column and I was curious what you thought of it yourself if you saw it?
KD: They did it on GLEE?! I didn't see it - but, for a minute just now I thought you said "Gwen" and not "Gwyn" at first! Can you imagine?
PC: Wouldn't that have been amazing if she was still here and could do it?
KD: I know! I wish we could call her up and ask her so much.
PC: Have you gotten to work with Ann Reinking directly yet?
KD: I haven't, but I do hope I get to meet her, though.
PC: Moving to the future: Bruno Mars has had such success with your music publishing house, Arthouse Entertainment.
KD: Oh, yeah. Actually, it's Bruno's co-writer on all of those songs that is on our label, but I am so glad for them. They're great.
PC: His demo tape and his first album are so phenomenal.
KD: Aww, I'm so glad you like that and like what we're doing!
PC: Bruno wrote a batch of new songs for Charice's new album, as well. She has done this column and I know you are quite influential in her career, yes?
KD: Yeah. I actually just A&Red her record.
PC: She's so talented.
KD: Isn't she? Just great.
PC: Will your show PLATINUM HIT be back for Season Two?
KD: I don't know if it will be. I mean, I think that, honestly, songwriting is a hard thing for people to see and do.
PC: Isn't that the truth?
KD: It's not like cooking or fashion where everyone has a hand in it - you know, we all do a little cooking and we all wear clothes…
PC: Of course.
KD: …I think it's kind of difficult to see in from the outside world and be connected with it. I always had a fear of that - you know, watching a songwriter create is not exactly the most stimulating thing.
PC: Definitely not. Reality competitions are still going strong, though - Simon Cowell himself gave us one of the first US X-FACTOR interview in this very column, actually.
KD: That is so awesome! Good for you.
PC: I should point out that Simon also spoke so favorably about Jim Steinman and their version of "Total Eclipse".
KD: Oh, my God! Isn't that great? Well, Simon certainly knows great songs!
PC: How do you look back on your experiences working with Simon? He is so eminently powerful in the music industry.
KD: Oh, I look back on it like: there is a lot to learn from him. He taught me, you know, to not take it all too seriously - which, in the beginning, was kind of hard for me to get my head around. When you go from behind the scenes to onstage in front of 25 million people it is hard not to be tightly wound because you are nervous. And, on top of that, you are not entirely sure what you are supposed to be doing - you are a judge and you are also a trained professional, so it's easy to be too serious about all of it.
PC: It's difficult to find a balance at first.
KD: Yes, that's true. I honestly think that by the end of our time together he had a different opinion of me, though. I think he respected me. You know, I always stood my ground and I was always true to myself whether people liked me or not. I think I gave some constructive feedback, too.
PC: You definitely did. And, one of the great all-time reality show moments is you singing back to Bikini Girl.
KD: (Big Laughs.) Yeah, it takes some balls to do that, huh? (Laughs.)
PC: It's like a poker game - you don't show your cards unless you have to do so in order to win or make a point.
KD: Totally. Totally.
PC: Since we are talking about songwriters who have done this column: Jason Mraz is an absolutely amazing songwriter.
KD: I actually know Jason - we just worked together for the first time this year. I really liked him, too.
PC: Was it a song for his new forthcoming 2012 album?
KD: Well, I don't know yet if the song will go on the album. But, we had a really good time together.
PC: The songs he has written for his new album are incredible - "Frank D. Fixer", "All Dialed In"; so many.
KD: Oh, I've heard a lot of it. It's gonna be really, really great. I am so excited for him.
PC: What Broadway show is next for you?
KD: You tell me! I am loving it so much. Seriously - tell me!
PC: Maybe KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN? It's another Kander/Ebb show that is supposedly going to be revived very soon.
KD: I don't know that one so I'll have to check it out. I will, too!
PC: What about your thoughts on Sondheim? What do you think of Sondheim's work?
KD: You know, with him, it's just crazy amazing songwriting! It kind of reminds me - because I am doing a lot of country writing now - in the sense that every line and every word of a great country song has meaning and it's the same thing on Broadway. Every single word is hand-chosen; hand-picked. You know, today in pop, how many songs do you know with baby in the title or in the lyrics?
PC: And you happened to write one of the most famous examples - Britney's "Ooh Ooh Baby"!
KD: True! True. But, so many songs are about the same thing - "I'm up in the club!"; "I'm drunk!"; "Shorty loves me!" These Broadway songs are dealing with the human condition in such a meaningful and poetic way. I just love that.
PC: What a juxtaposition - or, period of adjustment, in your case!
KD: It is! I mean, look at CHICAGO - look at "Nowadays"! Things haven't really changed that much.
PC: They haven't.
KD: You know, (Sings.) "In fifty years or so / It's gonna change, you know," but, they haven't!
PC: Crime still certainly pays, it seems.
KD: You're famous for being arrested. Look at Casey Anthony with her daughter - crime made her famous.
KD: Things definitely haven't changed too much! "Life's everywhere! Booze is everywhere! Jazz is everywhere!" You know, now, jazz is just whatever music you like.
PC: Rap is the jazz of the 2020s.
KD: Exactly. Exactly.
PC: Since the essence of theatre is collaboration, could you define collaboration?
KD: I think it's basic chemistry that exists between two people. I think the best collaborations come when two people have a shared experience that they can find The Common denominator in. It's like, one of my favorite songs - and, I think, one of my best - that I ever wrote or co-wrote was "Sober", with Pink.
PC: A great song.
KD: It came out of the fact that we both had had a similar experience, so, the chemistry between us on that subject and in that moment was such a great moment of collaboration. (Pause.) I really do think it comes down to chemistry.
PC: Collaboration is chemistry.
KD: Yes. I think that every time you walk in the room as a songwriter, it's like a date: within five minutes you know whether you are going to be like, "Check!" or if you are going to be going all the way to dessert - and, maybe, a few drinks after! (Laughs.)
PC: A fellow pop songwriter himself, Frank Wildhorn, talked about exactly that when he did this column - you either click with a co-writer or it is absolute torture.
KD: Yeah. Torture. And, when it is torture, you just get someone to call you on your phone so you can get out of it! (Laughs.)
PC: That's so funny. So, what's next for you after CHICAGO?
KD: Well, I have a song on Jason Derulo's new album.
PC: Congratulations on his huge worldwide success, by the way.
KD: Thank you. He's really good. I am also excited about some of my new acts, as well. But, to be honest, right now I am concentrating totally on being the best Roxie I can be, you know?
PC: It's an all-consuming affair to do your first Broadway show.
KD: I have such respect and admiration for the people I am in this musical with - they have dedicated their whole lives to being on Broadway. The lessons they took and the dedication and the craft of it - I feel that it is my duty and my obligation to work non-stop to even stand next to them onstage so that they're not, like, you know, cringing. (Laughs.)
PC: Indeed. Aim for the top.
KD: I want to be as good as I can be - to show them I can do it; and, to honor them, too.
PC: That's such a wonderful and rewarding way to look at it.
KD: It's true, though! You know, you're standing next to someone and you feel like saying, "You know what? Thank you for letting me stand on this stage with you. I know this has been your life and you have struggled your whole life to be up here. I know how lucky I am to be standing here next to you. The fact that you are even letting me in shows what an incredible person you are, but I promise you I am going to do my best and I'm going to go home and rehearse on my own."
PC: Especially for $140 a ticket.
KD: Exactly - of course, it's all for the audience, too! The audience is the most important element of any live show.
PC: You are now the record-breaking Roxie since it just became the longest running American musical this week.
KD: I know! Isn't that crazy?
PC: Beating A CHORUS LINE, too.
KD: Talk about irony! CHORUS LINE originally won the Tony over CHICAGO, didn't it?
PC: It did. And the Pulitzer Prize.
KD: It's funny how that worked where it took all this time for people to catch up with it, isn't it?
PC: And, after all, the film version of CHICAGO won Best Picture. What did you think of the film version?
KD: I liked it. I thought Catherine Zeta-Jones was really brilliant in it. She really played Velma in an interesting way. I liked Renee, too; but Catherine? I didn't know she had that voice! She has a really great voice.
PC: She started out on the West End - 42nd ST., ANNIE, etc..
KD: I didn't even know that! She's so phenomenal. You know, that's what I love about shows like this, though - it's so well-written that you really follow along with how they act and what they are saying and singing because the material is there every step along the way.
KD: It's so good already to start with and there is so much that's there where you can develop and go from. I didn't even know Catherine Zeta-Jones could sing like that, you know? I wouldn't have ever known that otherwise, probably.
PC: Just like how few knew you had a powerhouse voice until you actually sang back at someone on IDOL way back when.
KD: I don't think people even knew I was a songwriter! They just thought I was the girl who follows Paula or something. "Who's she?" (Laughs.)
PC: What is your favorite album of this year so far? What do you think of the new Jay-Z/Kanye West WATCH THE THRONE?
KD: I really have to get into the Kanye stuff soon - I am living in CHICAGO land right now, you know? Seriously. I have to come back to this century sometime, but I am going to stay in CHICAGO land for a little longer, I think. (Laughs.)
PC: You've certainly earned a break from pop music! Have you seen your collaborator Katharine McPhee since you came back to town? She is the lead on the new NBC musical series SMASH.
KD: I absolutely love her. You know, actually, let me say something about Katharine McPhee: whenever I have a charity event they are always asking me to get someone to sing and it is really difficult to get someone because they are on tour or they want to do their own charities, but that girl comes every time I ask her. Every single time - without fail. She is really always right there for me. I love that b*tch! I hope this is her moment with SMASH because she really deserves it.
PC: She's so perfect for the pseudo-Marilyn in SMASH, too, since she can do the blonde and black hair look with equal ease.
KD: You know what, it was a good move for her to go blonde, then, wasn't it?! (Laughs.)
PC: Have you ever gone blonde yourself? I think you could…
KD: Oh, God, no! I don't have the looks to go blonde. (Laughs.) I will tell you a funny Katharine McPhee story: one time we were in Virginia doing one of her albums and there was a fire alarm. So, we all go downstairs at 4 in the morning and I have zit cream all over my face and I look like a monster and, then, she comes down with rosy cheeks and she was, like, actually glowing. She was like, "Oh, my God - I look so awful." And, I was like, "Don't ever say that. Just don't ever say that out loud. Everyone here looks like a monster and you look…" It was like she was a cartoon with birds flying around her head, singing.
PC: And she also has the chops to kill a Bernstein/Sondheim song like "Somewhere".
KD: I know! I know. Unbelievable.
PC: SMASH is going to be huge. It's so well-crafted.
KD: I've heard some really great things. And, it's Spielberg, isn't it?
PC: Yes it is.
KD: So, you know what? I really can't wait!
PC: Yes, indeed. So, you are with CHICAGO until Halloween?
KD: Yes! Until Halloween. I really feel so honored to be here.
PC: You are ideal for the role and this was truly awesome.
KD: I hope to talk to you soon and best of luck to you, Pat. Bye.
Photo Credits: Josh Lehrer (CHICAGO); FOX (American Idol)