Judy Kuhn: Playing Seriously
Laura Nyro's ample songbook might not be the most obvious choice for a Broadway singer to tackle, but for three-time Tony nominee Judy Kuhn, it's familiar territory. She earned an Obie Award in 2001 for Eli's Comin', a jukebox musical created from Nyro's famous and lesser-known numbers. With her sophomore album, Serious Playground: The Songs of Laura Nyro, Judy Kuhn is bringing a new audience to the composer she calls "one of the great American songwriters."
"Even though I was familiar with her songs, I didn't yet have the passion that I have now for her music," Kuhn recalls. "I don't think I really focused on it, and doing that show was really my true introduction to the full body of her work and her particular genius." A year ago, Kuhn was asked to perform at Lincoln Center's American Songbook series, and producer Jon Nakagawa suggested that she do an evening of Laura Nyro. "And I just thought it was a great idea," she says. "I certainly didn't think I was done exploring the material. I also feel that she's one of the great and most under-recognized songwriters."
"I absolutely adore her songs," Kuhn continues. "She wrote in so many different styles, and she was a great, great storyteller." Nyro's lyrics also attracted Kuhn as much as her music. "I'm a lover of language," she says, "and she really had an understanding of language that was very unique. She was an inventor of language: she made up words when words didn't exist that suited her." For example, she references one of Nyro's most popular numbers, "New York Tendaberry," which is not included in Serious Playground. "'Tendaberry' is not a word you'll find in the dictionary," Kuhn says eagerly, "but it was a word that expressed a feeling she had about New York. When you hear it, it just makes sense, and there are words like that throughout her songs. One of her great songs, 'Stone Soul Picnic, [asks] 'Can you surry?' I don't really know what 'surry' means, but you get it when you hear the song!"
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Kuhn found the transition from recording classic showtunes (as in her first solo album, Just In Time: Judy Kuhn Sings Jule Styne) to an album of rock and jazz to be a smooth one. "There's so much crossing over by people in all ends of the performing arts," she says. "Musical theatre performers are singing pop music, and pop artists are singing theatre songs and standards. Categories that people once wanted to put [performers] in are being broken down a bit, which I think is very healthy." As a Broadway performer, though, she knew she could not imitate Nyro's style, but would have to find her own voice in Nyro's sound. "Obviously, I'm gonna bring a theatrical sensibility to the enterprise," she says. "But ultimately, I just want to be true to her songs... There's something universal about her songs that everyone can relate to. I think that's one reason why they feel so timeless, and why they'll always be around. But I also think it's why someone like me, who's very different from Laura Nyro and had different experiences, can still make them personal and own them, to a certain extent."
A risk like this endeavor is nothing new for Kuhn, who starred in such genre-bending and groundbreaking musicals as Drood and Chess long before Eli's Comin'. "I don't really feel like I need to do one kind of thing," she says thoughtfully. "I just want to do what's interesting and challenging and I want to work with people who I find interesting and challenging. And if that's a big commercial Broadway show, then that's what it is, or if it's some crazy original piece with Martha Clarke (which I did several years back), then it's that. If it's not interesting or challenging in some way, then why do it? If you're gonna work in this business, there are so many opportunities to do varied and interesting things. I wanted to have a career that's rich in that way, and not necessarily repeating myself."
But repeating herself is exactly what she's doing: at the end of October, Kuhn returned to the revival of Les Miserables, 20 years after she earned a Tony nomination playing Cosette in the original Broadway production. This time, however, she is playing Fantine , Cosette's doomed mother. Still, she insists, this triumphant return is, in its way, a new step for her. "This is a part I haven't played before, so I'm starting from scratch in terms of creating a role," she says, and adds that the creative team is letting her make this Fantine her own, and letting her find her own connection to the character. "I'm a mother, which I wasn't then... Certainly, if I'd played Fantine twenty years ago I wouldn't have had that to bring to it: that understanding of what one is compelled to sacrifice for one's child. That's what drives her through her story." Of course, returning to the show brings back memories of the mega-musical's explosive debut, and the effect it had on her career. "It was such a rich and interesting and fun experience for me then," she says, and suddenly laughs. "I'm also working with all these people who were probably children then! It makes me feel very aged!"
While she recreates Fantine onstage every night at the Broadhurst, Judy Kuhn is looking forward to reinterpreting Laura Nyro's songs in more concerts. "I want to keep singing Laura Nyro anywhere that will have me," she says with all the passion of a teacher eager to enlighten new minds. "To me, it's all about quality of lyric and the music, and if I can relate to it, then I want to sing it."