Legend Leslie Uggams Talks Uptown Downtown and Her Career
Actress/singer par excellence Leslie Uggams brings her acclaimed one-woman show Uptown Downtown to the Pasadena Playhouse opening November 19. In stories and song, Uggams recreates her extraordinary journey from uptown to downtown. From Mitch Miller to Roots. From the Apollo Theater to Broadway. Featuring direction by Stormy Weather's (2009) Michael Bush and musical direction by Don Rebic, the show played earlier this year at New York City's Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Tell me about the roots of Uptown Downtown.
Last year I did it at Jazz @ Lincoln Center for the American Songbook. It was one of those situations where they asked me to participate in it, so I called my dear friend and director of Stormy Weather to help me put a show together. While we were putting the music and everything together, we realized that I was an uptown girl who worked her way downtown to do Broadway. That became the title and we did the show. People just went crazy over it. They'd come up to me and say, "Oh gosh, we just loved it and the stories and we want to hear more stories, but you didn't sing Mitch Miller." It was only an hour; eventually we thought we'd expand it, because the Pasadena Playhouse had called about possibly bringing the show to LA. So I thought, "This is a great opportunity. Now I can put the television years into it as well." That's how it all came about.
I cannot think of another actress/singer who can play Lena Horne. You're it!
Thank you, thank you.
What's happening with Stormy Weather?
We're trying to get it to Broadway. Our problem is that they want a young star for the younger role. It's not easy to find that person. First of all, Lena was gorgeous. A lot of the ones who come up are not interested in doing eight shows a week.
Nikki Crawford who did it in Pasadena with you in 2009 was wonderful.
She was wonderful, but, you know, Broadway has changed. They want to make sure that there are guaranteed butts in the seats. That's how they look at it, so that's what we're struggling with right now. They're talking to a few people, so we've got our fingers crossed. That's what's holding it up; the money is there.
I'm happy to hear that. Let's move back a little. You did Mitch Miller and The Ed Sullivan Show many, many times and you even had your own TV show. If you had to compare TV then and now, what differences exist?
Well, it was live. What you saw was what you got. There was no "Oops, we'll retake this!" It was like being on stage. You had to have your stuff. There was no way it was going to be edited. And of course, it was an exciting time with television. Variety was everywhere. All these great shows that you could appear on that helped your career, because in those days there were tons of nightclubs, so from television you'd get booked in nightclubs. Now the variety shows become the talk show and the people are there to promote something, they sing a song and that's it. We miss those wonderful shows like Sullivan, Hollywood Palace and Milton Berle. All those shows had great, great stars and variety. It was a wonderful time and it was great for me, because I got to be on the shows and watch these great people and learn my craft.
You also did All My Children.
Oh, I loved that. That was so fascinating to me, because...Ben Vereen and I were out on tour. Everywhere we went, like in a restaurant, people would stare and then come up and say "Rose, we love you, Rose." I became like a rock star. Soap opera fans are so loyal. It was fabulous, and a lot of people that came to see me with Ben, didn't even know that I sang. I had a whole new audience. They'd say, "Oh, and you sing great, too!" (she laughs) I had a ball. And I have such an appreciation for those actors. I had to learn pages and pages of dialogue. They got it down. After a while, you get in the rhythm and you can hang.