BWW Interviews: It's LESLIE UGGAMS Turn as Momma Rose in GYPSY
I was in the middle of an acting retreat in Woodstock, New York when I got word I would be interviewing Leslie Uggams. Her name is one that I have heard for many years in my household. She grew up across the street from my family in Harlem, She is a fellow Gemini, a May baby and we both played Lena Horne. It was only a matter of time before our paths crossed.
If anyone was destined for a career in the arts, it was Leslie Uggams. With a father who was a singer and a mother who was a dancer, it was appropriate that Leslie would be a professional by the age of six. She attended school with the composer, Marvin Hamlish and the son of Gypsy Rose Lee and Otto Preminger, Erik Lee Preminger. Ms. Uggams has worked with everyone from Ethel Waters to Kermit the frog. Yet, it is her latest venture that proves there are still many barriers to break for African Americans in the industry.
Starting in July Ms. Uggams will begin her run as the first African America woman to ever star as Momma Rose, when she takes the stage at Connecticut Repertory Theater's multiracial production of Gypsy.
I caught up with Ms. Uggams as she was prepping for her one woman show at 54 Below. We chatted about everything from music, to food to Gypsy.
(RK: Ryan Kilpatrick LU: Leslie Uggams)
RK: This is going to sound strange but I had mentioned to my grandmother that I was doing this interview with you and she told me when she was little she would go to her cousins house in Harlem and at a certain time of day they would look out from their window and see you leaving your apartment across the street and they would say "Oh look that's Leslie Uggams, she's going to dancing class or she's going to singing class."
RK: I always loved that story because people could even see when you were young that you were something special.
LU: I started so young you know. I started when I was six years old, so I was always going to dancing or singing class or acting class. I started going to Professional Childrens School when I was 8 years old. So yes, I was always going some place which kept my parents happy. It kept me out of trouble. (laughs)
RK: Did you feel like you missed out on anything being that you started working so young?
LU: Oh no, I missed out on nothing. I didn't have those kind of parents where it was work work work work work. I was a ham. Most of the stuff that I did was during the summer anyway. So it didn't keep me out of school, but I was still hanging with my friends and having a childhood.
RK: Which is really good.
LU: Oh absolutely.
RK: Do you feel that you were heavily influenced by growing up in New York City?
LU: Oh! Well, yes. I mean this is a great city and I have lived out of this city for 23 years and came back. There is no place like New York. I mean you have a culture here that is always thriving and there is always someplace to go, people to see. We have everything here in the city and certainly my successes have been predominately in the city.
RK: I saw the song list for your show at 54 Below and I noticed that you were singing Being Good Isn't Good Enough from Hallelujah Baby which is probably one of my favorite songs of all time. How has the meaning of the song changed for you since you first performed it in Hallelujah Baby?
LU: Well, because I've lived it (laughs) You know? When I did it I was still a baby I was a young woman and everything and it predominately was the focus of what the show was saying, and now having lived it all these years of having a career, it means more to me because it really is about longevity and when you are blessed to be able to have that I mean... Being Good Isn't Good Enough means not only do you have to have the talent, you have to be willing to put in the work. And if you see all of these wonderful artists still doing their thing... Earth Wind and Fire and some of the people like that and you say to yourself "My god how old are they now?" But they are still doing it because they are willing to put in the work, willing to have the discipline willing to take care of the gifts that they were given, and so Being Good Isn't Good Enough when it says you have to be the best or nothing at all that's what it really means. I mean, you look at my friend Gladys (Knight) she is still in incredible.
LU: Patti (LaBelle) still incredible.
RK: It's so great to have these singers that still resonate today, you know what I mean? There are so many singers now that have such a short shelf life. And I don't mean to say that in a negative way, but it seems that a lot of the work being produced today has little to do with the art and more about fame...
LU: It's a different business now. I mean when we were coming up... and when I say we I mean Gladys and Dionne (Warwick) and all of us... Diana (Ross.) We are all in the same age group, it was hard. I mean playing the Apollo I did 29 shows a week, you know? And that was the Apollo. There was a circuit that you played, and being on buses and stopping in towns and going through towns and because you were black you couldn't go here and here... I mean it was hard so you learned your craft.
LU: Because you had to win over those audiences under difficult circumstances. And even though I got known because I was a contestant on Name That Tune which Mitch Miller than discovered me and put me on Sing Along with Mitch It was rare opportunities. You were always opening doors in the things you were doing so, I mean that has a lot to do with your work ethic and your longevity, and now a days it's a different business and you have these great shows where you can see these young talents but there is so much pressure on them. I mean when we were starting out we were good... but we weren't great yet, but nobody condemned us because we weren't. And now you have these young kids and they've gotta come running out of that gate. And it's not easy to walk on a stage and be able to take command just because you sing great. It's more than just singing great, you have to engage with the audience. It takes a lot of time to do that. And we were able to do it in not "Ta Da," with a camera in our face all the time.
RK: Did you feel the pressure being African American. You had mentioned opening doors and the pressure. Were you always aware of that pressure?
LU: Oh absolutely. When I was on Sing Along With Mitch as far as everybody was concerned I represented the African American race. (Laughing) God forbid. There couldn't be a whisper about you doing something, otherwise you were out. You were absolutely out. And that goes for white performers too, but I mean, you know there weren't a lot of people (African Americans) being represented on television so therefore, I had to make sure that I carried myself in a way that was not going to be a disgrace to my race. Absolutely.
RK: There is also something to be said about the group of African American's that came up during that time. Everyone was unique. Everyone had that one thing that set them apart from the rest.
LU: Well God forbid that you sounded or tried to be like somebody else. People would say "What are you doing?" You know? You were supposed to be unique. If you weren't unique nobody was interested in you. A lot of times I find today ...sometimes... I love all kinds of music and I listen to everybody but sometimes I can't tell you... "Which one is that one? Cause they sound a bit like the other one...there are some great ones today though that when you hear them, you do know who they are.
RK: Oh definitely.
LU: But there are a whole bunch of people who are doing really well selling records and everything but if you said to me "What's that persons name?" I might get it wrong.
RK: I am the same way. Sometimes I will be at my mothers house and I will have my iPod and I'll play my music and she's say "Are you sure this is yours?" because all you hear is "Lena Horne, Barbra Streisand, Leslie Uggams, Diahann Carroll."
RK: I mean it's music, it's real music. That's why I have such a love and respect for it because it is so timeless and can touch so many people.
LU: It's the universal language. I don't care if you don't speak the language. It still touches your heart.
RK: That's why I love music so much.
(After our interview I ask Ms. Uggams if she would be wiling to answer some of "Ryan's Randoms." They are a series of simple questions that I think help readers see a new side to the interviewee.)
RK: What is your favorite time of day?
LU: Um, I'm a night person. My favorite time of the day is 11o'clock at night. And I like to sit down. That's when I like to read my book before I go to bed, or that's when I like to work on the scripts that I am working on and stuff like that because it's quiet and I get a lot done (laughs.)
RK: The nighttime is also my favorite. What is the book that you're reading now?
LU: Honey, I just finished reading Goldfinch. It's a new book that's out and it's very very interesting. My director he said you've gotta get this book because I am always reading everything. I also finished the James Patterson The Murder Club Women. I usually read three books at once because I just have to be reading. But Goldfinch was the last really wonderful big book that I just finished reading which is fiction. It's a great book, you should get it. It's fascinating.
RK: So do you enjoy more crime novels? Or mysteries?
LU: I enjoy everything. I love crime novels. I like mysteries. I love fantasies. I was into those Hunger Game books.
LU: (laughs) You know? Twilight books as well. The Harry Potter books, oh my God. And also The Game of Thrones the George Martin books. I read all of those. I love all that.
RK: So you watch the TV shows and the movies too?
LU: Oh yes, Oh yes.
RK: Do you watch any reality TV?
LU: I love watching the cooking shows. I just love that. My husband said "You are not writing down another recipe." (laughs) I just see it and it looks so good I say "I have to try that" because I love to cook... so he says "We're running out of paper."
RK: The Food Network is the hardest thing to turn off.
LU: I love all that. And I love the show with the two brothers who make you buy a house that is rundown and they redo it. The Property Brothers. I love stuff like that. And the travel shows... I go okay "I'll check out that place."
RK: What's your favorite thing to cook?
LU: Well, I'm pretty good at everything. Everything Thanksgiving and Christmas I do the big dinner for the whole family, and I like doing everything from scratch. So I'm pretty good at everything. I'm famous for my Macaroni and Cheese when my son is concerned. He always says to me "And are you making Macaroni and Cheese?" and I say "No, we're trying something different for a change." For him it's his mom's Macaroni and Cheese.
RK: Is it baked Mac and Cheese. In the oven with all the...
LU: Oh yeah. Not the stuff where it's just in one pot. Oh no. Mine goes into the oven.
RK: That's the only way to do it. Do you use the bread crumbs?
LU: No, I tried that one year and my son didn't like it. He told me "Ma, if it ain't broke don't fix it. "
RK: That's what happens when you watch the Food Network, you just want to try everything. So... Leslie Uggams is a secret chef?
LU: (laughs) Yes, Although it's not a secret to my friends and family.
RK: But the world is going to be say "Oh my gosh!" Maybe you should do something for the Food Network. "Rhythm and Food with Leslie Uggams"
LU: Yes, yes.
RK: That would be good. Well thank you so much for speaking with me.
LU: You're welcome.
RK: And the best of luck with Gypsy! Momma Rose is an exciting role.
LU: It really is. Especially because I went to school with Gypsy Rose Lee's son.
RK: Wow, wow, wow, wow.
RK: They call that the greatest Broadway musical of all time.
LU: Oh it's... the score is amazing and the characters that are in it are all beautifully written. I knew Arthur Laurents. And Arthur wanted me to do this which is very interesting that I'll be doing it this summer. It's a great part.
RK: I hope you have a great time with that good luck.
LU: Thank you.
GYPSY: A Musical Fable is directed by CRT's Artistic Director Vincent J. Cardinal. Performances are at the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre on the campus of the University of Connecticut in Storrs, CT from July 10-20, 2014. Evening performances start at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Matinee performances start at 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Single ticket prices range from $10 to $43.
Please call 860.486.2113 for tickets and additional information. Please call the box office or visit www.crt.uconn.edu for specific show dates and times because performance schedules vary and are subject to change.