SOUND OFF Special Interview: Leslie Uggams Talks UPTOWN / DOWNTOWN, PIPE DREAM, MILLIE & More
Today we are talking to an iconic Tony Award-winning star who made her name as a teenager singing on TV variety shows - THE Lawrence Welk SHOW and SING ALONG WITH MITCH included - and then went on to a multimedia career in film and theatre, conquering Broadway with her Tony-winning turn in the Jule Styne/Arthur Laurents musical HALLELUJAH, BABY! in 1967 and returning to the stage in the subsequent decades in a host of Broadway productions, such as HER FIRST ROMAN, BLUES IN THE NIGHT, JERRY'S GIRLS, ANYTHING GOES, ON GOLDEN POND, August Wilson's KING HEDLEY II and her celebrated Muzzy in THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE - a role she reprises in the new Muny production of the Tony Award-winning Best Musical beginning this week - the one and only Leslie Uggams. Taking a thorough look back at her career thus far, Uggams opens up about her many successes (and even some lesser entities) and how she has endured for more than sixty years in show business and shares many remarkable recollections of many of her most noted co-stars and collaborators, all the way up to her time spent in the recent 2012 Encores! PIPE DREAM. Additionally, Uggams comments on her film and TV appearances over the years, speaking about her work in INHERIT THE WIND, TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN, ROOTS, THE GOOD WIFE and beyond. Plus, she shares her candid opinions on SMASH, Broadway then versus now, future plans for her Lena Horne solo show, variety show memories from TV's heyday, her favorite current pop acts and thoughts on other roles she would enjoy pursuing - all of that and much, much more!
More information on Leslie Uggams in THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE at The Muny is available at her official website here. Her new album, UPTOWN/DOWNTOWN, is available now.
Lucy, Jessie & Leslie
PC: When Laura Osnes recently did this column she spoke so glowingly of working with you on the recent Encores! PIPE DREAM. Was that an especially enjoyable experience for you?
LU: Oh, yes - Laura is so wonderful. PIPE DREAM was just one of those things - you know, sometimes something on the page just becomes something completely different onstage and that was one of those shows where that happened, I think. It just popped. We had such a great time.
PC: And you've recorded it, as well - at long, long last.
LU: Yes. You know, they couldn't do PIPE DREAM for many, many years because there was some kind of legal thing.
PC: It has had a checkered history.
LU: Yeah, yeah - so, the estates of Rodgers & Hammerstein blocked any productions for many years, but, now, finally, we were allowed to do it again at Encores! and see it again up onstage; and they just loved it! They were thrilled that, finally, they were able to do it and see it and have it done so well - they were just thrilled with the whole overall presentation.
PC: How wonderful to hear. Had you worked at Encores! previously?
LU: No - this was my first time! My very first time.
PC: You certainly owned the stage - you were superb.
LU: Oh, that is so nice of you.
PC: Your voice is as strong and stupendous as ever. How do you keep it - and yourself - looking and sounding so good?
LU: Oh, to be quite honest with you, I respect it - I respect my instrument. I take it as a gift and I want to keep the gift, you know? [Laughs.]
LU: I've never been a smoker, either - you'd be surprised; a lot of singers are smokers - and I think that helps, too. But, I really just take care of it.
PC: You do a lot of clubs and cabaret engagements, so how has it been seeing them transition into smoke-free environments over the last fifteen years or so ? Is it easier on you as a performer now?
LU: Oh, it is - and I say "Thank You, Jesus!" every time I work a non-smoking club! I used to hate it!
PC: It wreaks a lot of havoc on the voice.
LU: It really does. I remember I would be backing up and backing up and backing up almost into the band onstage because I hated the smoking so much and wanted to get away from it as far as I could. It was just awful. But, thank God, they stopped all that - and it's certainly a help to all the people who want to put on a great show. I think the audience can sacrifice it for a few hours.
PC: Only Liza Minnelli is still allowed to smoke these days, it seems. Have you two ever worked together? She's done this column a few times and is so amazing.
LU: Oh, well, I've known Liza since she was 14, but I don't think we've ever worked together. We go back a long, long ways. She was dating one of the boys in my class at the time, I remember - when she was 14 - and, also, she was responsible for me appearing in a movie called TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN that her father, Vincente Minnelli, directed.
PC: Of course! Minnelli's films are being reappraised…
LU: At last! At last.
PC: … and finally being released on DVD - including that one.
LU: Oh, how fabulous! I love that - I love it. Thank you for telling me that.
PC: What are your memories of filming TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN?
LU: I remember having just so much fun on that movie and Kirk Douglas just couldn't have been sweeter to me - you know, here I am, this kid, and I am playing opposite Kirk Douglas and Cyd Charisse and George Hamilton; all these big people that were in the movie. That song in the movie, "Don't Blame Me" happened to be one of Kirk's favorite songs - because it was also in another movie he had done - and, so, he was just so, so wonderful to me on the set. And, so was Vincente Minnelli. It was outstanding. Let me tell you a funny story…
PC: Please do.
LU: One day, I came to the set - my mother always used to fix my hair nicely, and I had it in a French twist kind of thing - and Vincente Minnelli said, "Oh! I love the hairdo - that's what I want you to wear in the movie." And, so, Sydney Guilaroff was in charge of the hair and he had worked a lot with all of the great stars - at that time, Ann-Margret particularly - and he had Sydney come over and he said, "See how her hair is? That's how I want her hair tomorrow." So, I come in the next morning very early and I go into the hair room. Now, you have to remember, there were not a lot of chocolate people doing movies back then… [Laughs.]
PC: Uh oh! I see where this is going.
LU: They looked at me, and, honestly, I don't think they had ever done anyone's hair who was black before, so they gave me sort of a strange look - there was a certain coldness in the room. And, so, anyway, they did whatever they did and they did this hairdo that was nothing like what I had had, so, I walked out onto the set and the first thing Vincente said was, "Oh my God! What happened to your hair?!" And, I said, "Oh, well, I told them when I went in there…" and, he said, "Sydney didn't do your hair?!" And, I said, "No." And, then, he called Sydney to the set and said, "Sydney, I told you to do her hair," and, then, all the color drained out of Sydney's face and he said, "Uh, I told them to do her hair like it was yesterday." [Pause.] Sydney Guilaroff did my hair from then on.
PC: That's so funny.
LU: I'll tell you, too, that my mother and I just loved Vincente Minnelli. He could do no wrong as far as I'm concerned - he stood up for me. You know, other people would have said, "Oh, whatever," in that situation, but he believed me and stood up for me. He never passed me off to one of his underlings or anything.
PC: On your new album, UPTOWN/DOWNTOWN, you pay particular homage to Judy Garland - the album opens and closes with "Born In A Trunk" - so, is it safe to assume you have a special affection for her material?
LU: Let me tell you, I was so privileged to be there that night for the concert she did at Carnegie Hall - the comeback.
PC: What was it like to be there for that?
LU: I can't tell you! I have never felt electricity like that - ever; ever.
LU: First of all, the anticipation of what it was going to be and then she came out like a racehorse, saying, you know, "I'm going to win this Kentucky Derby, baby!" And she was just unbelievable. Unbelievable! I can't tell you the amount of times people stood up and cheered during a number at that concert. It was one of those nights I will remember until the day I die. She was just extraordinary - extraordinary.
PC: What high praise. Would you like to preserve your current solo show on film for posterity's sake now that you've recorded an album of it?
LU: Well, this UPTOWN/DOWNTOWN show started off as just a one-nighter for Jazz At Lincoln Center - they wanted me to do an hour of the Great American Songbook - and, then, people were like, "Oh, my God!" and they just loved the songs I did and the stories I was telling. So, then, the Pasadena Playhouse called and said, "Oh, we've just read the reviews and we wanted to know if you'd be interested in doing a theatrical kind of thing for us based on that?" And, we said, "OK!"
PC: You expanded it.
LU: Yeah, we added another hour - after all, I never got to the television years and talking about ROOTS and Mitch Miller and all of that stuff originally. So, they gave us an opportunity to do the expanded show and we did out there - and people just went crazy for it!
PC: How wonderful.
LU: As a matter of fact, we've actually won some awards for it. And, my husband - who is my manager; he is always thinking ahead - said, "I'm going to record it; even if it ends up just being for me." And, so, we would up recording it and people were like, "Oh, my God - yes!" and, so, we've been able to get a distributor and everything. It was something that, eventually, just worked out - it's like a tumbleweed blowing down the road; eventually, it just had its own life! [Laughs.]
PC: What a way to look at it!
LU: So, since then, we've done it a number of different places around the country and people just love it. So, we'll see where it goes from here - it's already been recorded, so to see it filmed, too, would just be so great.
PC: The Lena Horne show you do is another possibility - your "Stormy Weather" dedicated to her on this album is absolutely sublime.
LU: Oh, thank you so much - I really appreciate that. And, yes, in regards to the Lena Horne show, we are going to do another workshop of that in September.
PC: Fantastic news.
LU: Yes - it really is. I can't wait.
PC: There have been some hurdles along the way, yes?
LU: I'll put it this way: there were some people who had some other ideas about where to go with it - it's two Lenas; me and then the younger Lena - and some people who wanted different girls for the younger Lena than who I wanted. I mean, with some of their choices, I was like, "Are you dreaming?! Not gonna happen!", but, now, I think we've all come to the point where it is what theatre is supposed to be; which is, you know, sometimes you discover new people for a role. What a concept, right?! [Laughs.]
PC: Right! Especially these days.
LU: So, we're going to do a workshop here in New York in September and we are all really excited about that. Hopefully, it will come to Broadway - the money is there and it's not a question of wanting or needing more money or anything like that; it's ready to go, costumes and everything.
PC: Did you not become involved with HALLELUJAH, BABY! in the role of a replacement for Lena? It was written for her originally, yes?
LU: HALLELUJAH, BABY! was written for Lena, and, then, her and Arthur [Laurents] had a falling out. And, so, they decided they wanted to go forward with the project anyway and they auditioned people. I auditioned for HALLELUJAH, BABY! and wound up getting the part, but they wrote it with Lena in mind.
PC: What are your memories of your first meeting with the creative team?
LU: Well, the interesting thing is that my audition for Arthur and Comden and Green and all of them was at The Harlem Club in Atlantic City.
PC: How bizarre.
LU: They came there because I was working there and they were auditioning people and they had heard about me in THE BOYFRIEND and I had gotten great reviews there for that and so I was asked to audition for HALLELUJAH, BABY! My manager told them, "She can't come to New York; she's got a gig." So, they came down to Atlantic City and saw my nightclub performance - that was the first time I met any of them. They really liked my performance - they liked what they saw - and, so, when I finished my gig in Atlantic City I came back home to New York and that's when I auditioned for the acting part. So, I didn't have much contact with them until finding out I actually had the part.
PC: What were your impressions of Arthur Laurents? He was known to be tough.
LU: Well, actually, he was mostly very nice - I mean, he could get ornery, but, you know… I remember in one number - "When The Weather's Better" - they had all these umbrellas with my picture on them, for the opening number we were going to do, and, he came up from the back of the theatre once he saw that and he said, [Bellows.] "Ohhhhh - noooo." [Laughs.]
PC: A great memory.
LU: Honestly, I worked more with Comden and Green and Jule Styne and he had more interaction with Burt Shevelove, the director, than he did with me. The funniest thing, though, was how he always looked at me - there was always this kind of veil over his eyes whenever he would see me - and whenever anyone would say, you know, "Oh, wasn't she just fabulous?!" He would say, "Oh, yeah, I guess she was all right." [Laughs.]
PC: Very Arthur.
LU: Very Arthur. I remember, years later, I did a workshop for STORMY WEATHER at the Signature Theatre, and, unbeknownst to me, Arthur came to this workshop.
PC: Did you two talk?
LU: He want ballistic - he thought I was the greatest thing since ice cream!
LU: That was the first time he had ever gone over the moon for anything I did - and, after that, he wrote me this beautiful letter. I remember that I called him after that and we spoke and he said, "Oh, you're just brilliant in this - the whole thing is." And, my husband and I looked at each other and we were like, [Incredulous.] "Oh, my God!" [Laughs.]
PC: Almost unbelievable - he knew Lena herself so well, after all.
LU: Of course. He really wanted us to do this show, though.
PC: It only took forty years for some edification!
LU: Yeah, yeah - I finally made it! [Big Laugh.]
PC: I actually spoke to him for this column not long before he passed - I was the last member of the press he spoke to, actually.
LU: Oh, really? That's so amazing. Really, though, hearing that kind of praise from Arthur meant so much to me - so much. It really did.
PC: Was Broadway always your goal or did your time spent in Hollywood entice you to seriously consider a mostly screen career?
LU: Oh, no, I knew that I always wanted to do theatre - I had studied acting and dancing and singing and stuff like that since I was 8-years old; and, I had also come from an aunt who had been on Broadway in PORGY & BESS and ST. LOUIS WOMAN.
PC: How fascinating. It's a family tradition, then.
LU: Oh, yeah - I had been going to see shows since I was 6-years-old. So, theatre was something I always wanted to do and I never thought I'd get a lead role in something like I did right away, so I was just thrilled - thrilled. You have to remember, at that time there were not a lot of roles for a young black actress to do in movies, so, therefore, to do theatre was just fantastic and about as good as it gets.
PC: How did you become involved with singing in the film of INHERIT THE WIND when you were so young?
LU: Well, that came along because Stanley Kramer was a big fan of mine and he wanted me to sing that song in the film. So, I worked with Ernest Gold at his home in California and Ernest came up with this great interpretation of the song - that's how it all came about; Stanley Kramer was a fan.
PC: Is that ever a request at your concerts?
LU: Not really, but I think that's because people don't even know it's me! People that see that movie always say to me, when I say I did the old-time-y religious song at the end, "What?! That was you?! You've got to be kidding me!"
PC: They don't believe it.
LU: They don't! But, then, some of them go back and watch the movie just for the ending... and they still don't believe it's me! [Laughs.]
PC: That's so funny. What do you think of the renaissance of variety entertainment similar to your early days in TV - THE VOICE and AMERICAN IDOL and THE X FACTOR and all of that?
LU: Oh, I love it because, as a kid, I did all those sort of contests - except, in those days, you didn't have a panel of judges, you had a meter; if the meter went all the way to the other side, you won the contest. You know, I just love watching people singing great music by great writers - I think it's so important in expanding people's musical vocabulary, too. I think that's very important.
PC: What do you think of it being a talent pool for Broadway, as it so obviously is used for?
LU: Well, I think that, in some ways, it's good. Listen, I studied my craft and most of the people of my generation who have longevity did, too - there was study; there was discipline. When we were first coming up, there was a big audience out there and people had lots of places to play, so people would have to learn how to play every night - a lot of times people got laryngitis and stuff; that's something I have often worried about myself. But, it all depends on who is surrounding you and how invested they are in you for the long-term - you know, a lot of times you see these kids who are only interested in the short-term.
PC: You wanted to sing and do theatre - you didn't want to be famous, necessarily.
LU: Right. Right. I never went into it thinking, "Oh, I've got to be a star!" I did it because I really love singing and dancing and acting - I wanted to do theatre and everything else. I never really liked nightclubs, though - I was never a big fan.
PC: Why do you think that is?
LU: Well, I was never a big fan of nightclubs because you are fighting food, booze and cigarettes! It's like, "OK, so, now I am going to entertain you without being distracted by the food and the waiters with the plates and the glasses clinking and emptying the ashtrays and all that stuff;" even if it says in the contract, "No Serving," someone is always coming in late or something. I mean, there were just so many elements you had to fight. So, I love doing concerts much more than nightclubs because people really come to see the artist and there are not all of those distractions. [Pause.] So, no, nightclubs are not my favorite thing.
PC: What are your memories of a particularly quick closer, HER FIRST ROMAN?
LU: [Laughs.] A lot of laughing - and a lot of tears!
PC: That's such a great answer.
LU: Honestly, to be working with Richard Kiley was a dream come true for me. But, you know, when you are in a show and you go out of town - we went to Boston and then to Philadelphia - and you are constantly fixing like that, it gets to be like… someone used to say to me at the time, "It gets worser and worser and worser." [Laughs.]
PC: Why did it never improve do you think?
LU: Well, the first director - the guy who had wanted me - was fired. And, then, they got this young English director - I think he had done ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN - and he had a totally different interpretation of the show. It was just one thing after another and you could see, "Oh, my God - we've got big problems and there are too many to fingers in this pie." I remember Richard and I used to look at each other like, [Sighs. Agitated.] "Oh, gosh - do we even want to get out on that stage at all?" You know, you could just feel the resistance from the audience and you could just tell the show had too many ideas from too many people in it. And, you know, you are all just out there trying to make it work!
PC: Do you have any particularly wild memories?
LU: Well, I remember I had a headpiece that weighed like fifty pounds and I could barely hold my head up wearing it whenver I put it on - just crazy things like that. But, with things like that, you know, it's theatre - and that's why I love being in it, because you never know; sometimes you can be in something that looks fabulous on paper and then you get up there and they go, "Oh, that's not gonna work!" And, then, sometimes it's the reverse.
PC: And a recording exists of the score, as well - so the show lives on in some form.
LU: Yes. Right before Richard got sick we recorded it - Ron Raines did it, too.
PC: Speaking of him, Ron spoke so favorably of you when he did this column.
LU: Oh, I love him, I love him, I love him. You know, we did A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC together a couple of years ago and I am just so happy that he got nominated for a Tony this year. He is so fabulous and at last he is being appreciated and I am so happy for him.
PC: Did you enjoy working on A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC together?
LU: Oh, yes; oh, yes - I loved it. We had a great, great time.
PC: Did you enjoy playing Desiree?
LU: Are you kidding?! I loved doing that role! It was really just so fabulous. And, then, you know, that song - "Send In The Clowns". Wow. So, what is there to not like about that role? Nothing.
PC: Did you audition or investigate stepping into the recent Broadway revival?
LU: No. You know, to be honest, I've found that opera companies have more vision than Broadway does sometimes in as far as doing the unexpected with a show - on Broadway they still want to go with the expected so I doubt I would have even been considered.
PC: Being a prime interpreter of Gershwin as you are, I am curious what you thought of the new production of PORGY & BESS? Do you think it is a sacred show or should it be adapted for the times?
LU: Well, from what I have gathered since I haven't seen it yet myself - although I do plan to - is that they were trying to do a version so that PORGY & BESS would be done more often than just as an operetta in opera houses. So, I understand what their vision of it is - and, you know, it runs like at least three and a half hours, so you have to make cuts and stuff. For me, I can sit through the whole show as it was originally done - I remember seeing it when I was a little girl, actually. Every single song in there is precious to me and I know they had to make some cuts for this production - for example, the buzzard song is just such a fantastic number to me because it establishes who Porgy is - but I understand what they are trying to do. And, let's be honest, if the estate says that it is OK, who are we to say "No?" All I know is that I absolutely love the original version and I will probably love this version, as well, if only because such fabulous people are in there - Audra and Norm and David; I hear they are all doing amazing work in it. And, I haven't seen it yet because I haven't seen anything - I have been constantly working! I've just been so busy.
PC: Your version of "Summertime" on UPTOWN/DOWNTOWN is gorgeous. Do I detect a little Ella Fitzgerald influence?
LU: Oh, that was purely my own take on that one - as I said, I just love PORGY & BESS and I have since I was a little girl. I got to see Leontyne Price's Bess with Cab Calloway and I will never forget it - and, of course, Clara in that red dress singing that song. So, my interpretation of that song comes from my memories of seeing it as a 6-year-old and that's how I sing it.
PC: Do you consider Gershwin the most significant of the Great American Songbook writers or does your affection for Harold Arlen and Rodgers & Hammerstein come into play, too?
LU: Well, listen, if I had time to do a four-hour show it would be much different! I'd have a lot more Jule Styne and Irving Berlin in there, too.
PC: What are your thoughts on Irving Berlin?
LU: When I was on SING ALONG WITH MITCH, Irving Berlin came on the show, actually, so I got to sing one of his songs with him on the show. Hoagy Carmichael came on the show, too. We just didn't have the hours to do all the songs I've gotten to sing over the years in this show. What was great about doing the MITCH show was that we got to do the songs of so many Great American Songbook composers over the years. And, besides the composers, I did a lot of stuff associated with Judy Garland on there, too - as we were talking about as being on this album and in this show since I tell stories about all of it. We did "The Trolley Song" and "Get Happy" and all those great old songs. I mean, honestly, I could do a four-day show!
PC: And you could do it right now - you know all the songs already!
LU: Exactly! Exactly.
PC: How did you settle on the setlist for this specific album and show?
LU: Well, once we had decided on the title of the show being UPTOWN/DOWNTOWN, all the rest of the musical things fell into place, really. We tried to find the songs that went with each of the stories I was trying to tell. So, that's pretty much how we chose them. It was never, "Oh, let's do this composer;" it was always, "Let's see what works best for what we are trying to say."
PC: The album has so many great songs but it never feels over-filled - was there anything that did not make the cut? It is 2 CDs, after all.
LU: Yes, yes - it is. Hmmm. [Pause.] No, I don't think so - it's mostly all there.
PC: Did you ever consider using the Stephen Sondheim song cut from FOLLIES actually titled "Uptown/Downtown"?
LU: No, but that's interesting you mention it. At one point we were talking about putting some Sondheim stuff in there, but, ultimately, what we found was that what worked really worked and we should leave it alone. And, in the show, we don't do "He Walked Into My Life" because we wound up doing something with the dialogue that put it all together in a different way - although sometimes that song will be the encore.
PC: A Jerry Herman barn-burner - you make a powerful case for it!
LU: Yes, yes - thank you. I love singing that.
PC: Did you find your voice diminished at all as you got older and songs you sang got more difficult in any way? Linda Eder once told me childbirth effects the voice, as well.
LU: Well, for me, my voice got higher. You know, even though I sang high in HALLELUJAH, BABY! and stuff, if you are not constantly singing stuff way up there, your voice can lower, but I found another part of my voice that I didn't develop before - now I am able to sing higher in quiet moments.
PC: You can float more delicately.
LU: Yes - exactly.
PC: Is it true you were asked to be a part of the recent revival of FOLLIES?
LU: Yes. I was asked to do it in Washington, D.C., and, then, I was asked to do it in New York.
PC: Why did you decline?
LU: The thing is, there are a few major roles in that show and that is what it is really about - no one remembers a lot of those other parts. So, you know, I was doing something else at the time with my show and everything and I just had to stop for a moment and think, "This is not really the main part of the show and these are not the best songs to be singing," so, at that point, I felt like I would be doing FOLLIES just to say I had done FOLLIES.
PC: Were you up for Stella or Solange?
LU: Solange - "Ah, Paris." I mean, honestly, who the heck remembers that one? In the great score of FOLLIES, that is just not one of the ones that come to mind - at least not to me.
PC: Indeed. Did you ever work with original FOLLIES co-director Michael Bennett? I know you did THE Ed Sullivan SHOW around the same time as he was on it.
LU: Oh, honey, we go back even before THE Ed Sullivan SHOW to HULLABALOO!
PC: What was your personal perception of him?
LU: Oh, well, back then, him and Donna were just dancing buddies on the show at the time! I did that show a few times and I remember him being this genius, incredible dancing person, but, at the same time, you could see there was something else going on up there in his brain - he was constantly creating, creating, creating. I knew him over the years and there is no question in my mind he was a genius - a genius.
PC: What were your impressions of DREAMGIRLS originally?
LU: Oh, I remember seeing it and thinking, "Oh. My. God. This is phenomenal!" It was unbelievable. You know, LorEtta Devine is doing so great now with her career, but when she sang "Ain't No Party" she just knocked you out - besides Jennifer Holliday, of course. She was just like a thunderbolt, though. Sheryl Lee Ralph was so great in the Diana Ross role, too. I mean, the whole casting was just brilliant - you couldn't have asked for a more perfect cast. And, then, on top of it, you had Michael's whole vision for it - you know, "The Supremes! This is my era! This is really how it happened!"
PC: The show is still ahead of our own times now, I think, in many ways.
LU: It is. It will never date. Whenever anyone does it, it is still so popular - it is packed. The music and everything is just perfect.
PC: What did you think of the film adaptation?
LU: I enjoyed it. Of course, I had a couple of people in my head for some of the roles, but I thought Jennifer Hudson was just amazing - amazing.
PC: Would you like to collaborate with her someday?
LU: Oh, sure! I'd love to - I love all three of them - Jennifer, Beyonce and Anika Noni Rose; they've all got it.
PC: Are there any other performers you particularly enjoy from the current Broadway crop?
LU: Oh, well I love LaChanze, as well - I really love her.
PC: You would do a fabulous "I Miss You Old Friend" ala the jazz version LorEtta Devine does in the film, I think.
LU: Oh, yes! That's such a great idea - I love that. I'm writing that down now, actually!
PC: Your UPTOWN/DOWNTOWN album has some terrific medleys. Whose idea was it to interpolate a bit of Bernstein's "New York, New York" into the Gershwin medley?
LU: Well, that was really Michael, my director, and Don, my musical director's idea. You know, we sat and brainstormed how we were going to go. I mean, you have to get the first song right before you can do anything else - opening numbers and second numbers are always the hardest to figure out. So, we would sit and go through music and talk about things until, finally, Michael had this vision: since I am a New York girl, I worked my way uptown to downtown; this girl from Washington Heights finally worked her way downtown. The three of us really put this show together together.
PC: Who devised the Leslie Uggams-specific "Born In A Trunk" lyrics?
LU: Wally Harper did that.
PC: How did that lyric come about? It's a fabulous arrangement, as well.
LU: Well, I was doing an act and he came up with that whole idea. It was a brilliant idea because we wanted to do something for the Apollo segment, which I had been doing but not like I do now. So, he came up with that - my dear, wonderful, departed Wally.
PC: So, the story about "Sunny Side Of The Street" is actually based in fact, we may presume?
LU: Yes! It is. I had a whole act - "Sunny Side Of The Street", "Exactly Like You" and "Them There Eyes".
PC: Your cover of "Up On The Roof" is spine-tingling, I must say - especially your witty homage to Leiber & Stoller's "Stand By Me" in it. Can you tell me your relationship with that song?
LU: With "Up On The Roof", first of all, I worked with the Drifters at the Apollo - I worked the Apollo from the time I was 9 until I was 16 and I worked with them three times. Clyde [McPhatter] was still the lead singer the first couple of times I played with them there, but, unfortunately he died from an overdose of drugs - he was a big drug addict. So, I was a big Drifters fan - my friends and I were big, big fans. And, that song, "Up On The Roof", was always my favorite. So, one day, I was working with the fabulous guitar player we have with us for gigs and he was playing around and that song popped into my head. I said, "Oh, I really love that song," and, so, right there and then we came up with that arrangement of "Up On The Roof".
PC: Another fine re-interpretive arrangement on the album is your cover of "Yesterday" by the Beatles mashed-up with Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays". How did that come about?
LU: Well, I came up with that one. In the show, I talk about the fact that Mitch Miller hated rock n roll - and he did, it's true; he didn't think it was going to last and he thought the Beatles were a fad - so, since I knew we were going to tell that story, I knew I wanted to do a rock number and I wanted to do a Beatles song, so I picked "Yesterday". My rehearsal pianist has one of those Best Books Ever that has like every popular song ever in it and I asked him one day, "Hey, do you have 'Yesterday' by The Beatles in there?" And he said, "Oh, yeah." So, my manager and director were there and I just started singing through it for them and then I flipped to the next page and saw that "Yesterdays" was after it in the book. So, I thought, "There! That's it!" Both things were saying what I wanted to say and so we wove them together.
PC: "You Made Me Love You" is such a touching moment on the album - a fitting tribute to Louis Armstrong and Dinah Washington and Lena Horne and your foremost inspirations.
LU: Oh, yes. I grew up with them as a child and a teenager - they all mean so, so much to me.
PC: To be totally honest, I am so disappointed that no Cole Porter made the album - you were so superb in ANTYING GOES!
LU: Oh, I'm so sorry! We'll do it on the next one, I promise! [Big Laugh.]
PC: You better! There is no official record of you in ANYTHING GOES beyond a few YouTube clips.
LU: That's so funny you say that, though, because I am doing 54 Below in a few months and we are going to put together a different show for that engagement and I have been going through the things we want to include and I think I can say that Cole Porter very well may end up in that show. Stay tuned!
PC: Did you enjoy that production and touring with it?
LU: Oh, I had a ball - a ball. You know, that's a great show and it's a show where people in the audience just go out practically dancing up the aisles. It has great, great songs and great characters - I love Reno Sweeney and that character. It's a great show and it's so fun to do - always.
PC: What is your personal favorite Cole Porter song? Have you ever sung "Come To The Supermarket In Old Peking", which happens to be my favorite?
LU: Oh, no, I haven't - but that is a fabulous song! There are too many I love, I think. I love all the ANYTHING GOES songs Reno sings, though, I'll tell you that.
PC: Did you happen to catch the recent revival of ANYTHING GOES yet?
LU: Oh, yes - I just love Sutton [Foster]. I'm a big Sutton fan, so I saw it just to see her and she was just fabulous and I loved the whole show.
PC: Your PIPE DREAM co-star Laura Osnes starred in it, as well.
LU: Oh, absolutely! You know, I am so thrilled that Laura got nominated for a Tony this year - that is so fabulous.
PC: She was nominated for a show that had already closed and you won for a show that had closed. What was that like?
LU: Well, you are up there, thrilled that you won, but you're thinking, "What dumb producers!" [Laughs.]
PC: If the shoe fits…
LU: In my case, it's like, "Why didn't they just hang in there?" If they had hung in there the show would have still been running, but they were businessmen and they weren't the typical kind of producers so they didn't know that you keep the show open and if you get a Tony it will give it some legs. But, whenever you get a nomination it gets you a step up and I think that is so great for Laura - she is going to be doing a new version of CINDERELLA and she will be great in that. She's got a beautiful, beautiful voice and she is a beautiful person.
PC: You and Laura are the go-to Rodgers & Hammerstein ladies.
LU: I know! I know. Who woulda thunk?! [Laughs.]
PC: Many of the people involved with the recent revival of August Wilson's FENCES have done this column and I was hoping you could share your thoughts on doing KING HEDLEY II with the man himself?
LU: Oh, it was just glorious - a really thrilling experience. What's interesting about that show was the song that I sang in KING HEDLEY II originally was just something that was hummed while we were dancing, and, then, August said to me, "I think maybe we'll just make this a few lines longer because I really want to hear you sing in the show." You know, this moment where I sing this waltz.
PC: The whole cycle is going to be done again next year, I believe.
LU: Of course, two years ago they did the cycle of that at the Kennedy Center. I did FIRST BREEZE OF SUMMER with Ruben, one of the directors of that, and he did just JITNEY, and, yes, they will be doing the new cycle at Signature next year, I believe.
PC: Constanza Romero is so sweet and smart.
LU: Oh, I love Constanza and their daughter; that girl is so gorgeous - well, she's a woman now.
PC: What about GEM OF THE OCEAN for you someday?
LU: Maybe. We'll see. Phylicia [Rashad] was just so phenomenal.
PC: How do you juxtapose working on a musical versus a play?
LU: Well, honestly, I love doing plays just because it's easier! [Laughs.]
PC: Honest, but true.
LU: You know, when you are doing a musical you have no life - you are doing eight shows a week, so you can't be hanging out and talking a lot. If you are really dedicated, you live like a nun - and it's really, really hard. And, let's be honest, if people come to see the show, they want to see you in it!
PC: They bought a ticket with that implicit contract, more or less.
LU: Yeah, I mean, they don't want to open their playbill and have the slips falling out and hear "The understudy is going on," no matter how good the understudy may be. They want to see you.
PC: Did you ever miss any performances in HALLELUJAH, BABY!?
LU: One. I had the flu, but I came to the theater anyway and I was so sick that I just had to miss. So, I missed one show.
PC: What a huge role - that poor understudy!
LU: I know! I know. [Laughs.]
PC: THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE is coming to the Muny this month with you reprising Muzzy. What was it like working with a young Sutton Foster on the original?
LU: Oh, we had a ball! I loved playing Muzzy and I can't wait to do it again at the Muny. Also, I am just such a fan of Sutton's now - and Kristin [Chenoweth]'s and Marc [Kudisch]'s? We had so many talented people involved on that show and I'm sure this new production will be a ball to do, too.
PC: Are you a fan of SMASH?
LU: Oh, I am a SMASH junkie! I love it. And, as a big fan, I was so happy I got a chance to work with Will Chase on PIPE DREAM. I said to him, "Ohhh, you bad boy! Trying to break up that marriage! You're trouble, boy!" [Laughs.]
PC: And every Marc Shaiman/Scott Wittman original song is better than the last.
LU: I know! I can't believe it, either - it's just unbelievable; it's amazing. And that Megan Hilty - when she sang "I'm Goin' Down" by Mary J. Blige; honey, I don't know, but it was like she dug into some black mists she found in herself or something! She floored me!
PC: It was incredible.
LU: We were talking about her a few weeks ago - a group of us went to dinner after seeing MY CHILDREN, MY AFRICA - and, people always either love SMASH or hate it, but we all agreed, "I don't know where she got that voice, but she dug into some real black mists; some real soul! She was fierce!" And she was - fierce!
PC: Will you be returning to THE GOOD WIFE?
LU: Oh, I hope so! I loved working on that and I hope I can come back - maybe as a judge or something. I just love that it is shot here in New York, too - they have the opportunity to use Broadway performers and they do it all the time. It's a great show and it's great for them to get to use people from Broadway shows and so everyone benefits.
PC: Any other TV appearances we can look out for?
LU: Yes, I am also on an episode of that Robert De Niroshow NYC 22. It's a great acting opportunity for me - a great part.
PC: What about upcoming Theatre Projects?
LU: TROUBLE IN MIND is a play by Alex Childress that is just incredible and that Michael Randolph White directed originally. A company did it recently and got reviews and we are seeing if we can take it to Broadway or Off-Broadway soon. It got postponed, but we really want to take it to Broadway soon.
PC: One last thing I wanted to ask you about was the infamous YouTube clip of you singing "June Is Bustin' Out All Over" during a thunderstorm on a live TV telecast?
LU: Oh, my gosh! Let me tell you: that was the wildest, craziest day! It had poured the night before - and I mean poured - and it had rained all morning, too. So, of course, everyone is out there on the lawn and the ground is drenched. They had asked me to sing "June Is Bustin' Out All Over".
PC: Which is not an easy song to sing and has some very weird lyrics.
LU: Yes - some very weird lyrics and is not an easy sing at all. I usually memorize everything, but since they had asked me to sing it that day I agreed to do it but said I needed cue cards. So, they said, "Fine. No problem." And, then, what happened was that the show starts and we start the song and it's all soaking wet and drenched and the cue card guy slips and falls and so then the cameraman just keeps following me anyway and I am like, "What the?!" and so every lyric that I do know went right out of my head and I just sang anything I could think of and tried to throw in "June is bustin' out all over!" as much as I could. [Laughs.]
PC: And it lives on forever!
LU: Forever! Little did I know, though, but a friend of mine said to me one day, "Honey, do you know you are in every gay club in America with that 'June Is Bustin' Out All Over'? It's on YouTube, too - and it's got all these hits!" And, I said, "You know what? If people are listening, people are listening!" [Laughs.]
PC: So, it's all good, then? All publicity is good publicity, isn't it?
LU: It's all good! The interesting thing is that I wanted to do it and talk about it in my show and we even had a segment about it for a while, but, eventually, we realized it doesn't work to try to recreate it or to talk about it - we even had it on film and did commentary live and sang along with it, but it was not the same thing. And, you know, the people who are in the audience who have not seen it don't really get it, either, so it's kind of strange for them. We had a segment where we played it and I talked about it and then I did a good version of it. So, we are still trying to find the right way about how to put it into the show. I did it recently at the GYPSY OF THE YEAR thing, too.
PC: Of course. A whole new generation discovered you thanks to the ultimate "Show must go on" moment and you are cool with that.
LU: Oh, absolutely! I mean: so what? It happened - it's life! I grew up on live television, where there was no going back and editing it; there was no "Wait a minute! Wait a minute!" you know? You just have to keep going.
PC: What's on your iPod right now?
LU: Well, I love Adele. I like Maroon 5, too. I even have a little Chris Brown.
PC: "Look At Me Now"?
LU: Yes! [Sings.] "Look at me now / Look at me now."
PC: What about Lady Gaga?
LU: Oh, I love Lady Gaga - I think she's so fascinating. When I saw her on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE and she just sat and played, I thought, "This is a talented lady." I love Beyonce, too - and, of course, Mary J. Blige, who we were just talking about.
PC: I'd kill to hear you do Blige's "No More Drama".
LU: Oh, yeah - that's on my list!
PC: No way!
LU: It is! Yeah.
PC: She is in a movie musical now, with ROCK OF AGES.
LU: Yes, I want to see her in that - I saw a little piece of it when she guest hosted THE VIEW recently and she was great in what I saw of her in it.
PC: What role would you like to do next most of all? It's such a shame you have never done GYPSY with your big voice.
LU: Well, you know, it's funny you ask that: after Arthur saw me do the first workshop of STORMY WEATHER, he said to me, "Oh, you've got to do GYPSY. You'd be great." He said, "Bernadette is going to go out and do the tour and I want you to come in and take over for her in the role," but the production ended up not running so that never happened. I love Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim's songs, though, so I might do some of those someday. We'll see.
PC: What a story - or, should I say, stories! This has been superb, Leslie - thank you so very much.
LU: Thank you, thank you, thank you, Pat - this was fabulous. Bye bye.
From This Author Pat Cerasaro