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.
What is your memory of Hallelujah, Baby!? (1967)
Having Jule Styne sit down with me at the piano playing and teaching me the songs. It was just extraordinary, and then to have Comden and Green come into the room and do the same thing...working with people who were legendary in the theatre and here I was sitting there and they're helping me rehearse.
And now you're legendary yourself!
Ah, thank you!
How did you enjoy doing On Golden Pond? (2005)
That was great, and it 's interesting, because that was something that wasn't planned. In fact, that's another thing with this show (Uptown Downtown), is that most of the stuff that I have done in my life was not planned. Things always come to me from around different corners. What happened...it was supposed to be a reading kind of thing that James (Earl Jones) was going to do with Diahann Carroll. It kind of grew and she had had back trouble and had to bow out. I had a week to learn this whole thing and open at the Kennedy Center. I didn't have time to sit there and go, "Oh my God, I'm working with James Earl Jones." I really had to focus, which was great. It was like taking a master class onstage with him every night. I just loved it. He's the dearest, dearest man. When you work with that kind of calibre artist, it makes you raise your own bar. My career's been like that, working with people like Carol Channing (Jerry's Girls), people like that who are amazing and it makes your game even better.
Who is your favorite composer?
I have so, so many. Of course, Jerry Herman. My national anthem has become "If He Walked Into My Life". I also love Harold Arlen, any Gershwin music, Beatles songs. Usually anything that I sing in my show, the composer speaks to me. Even Irving Drake; I do a song of Irving Drake. I pick classy people. Music that has lyrics that say something.
What is your all time favorite Broadway show. whether you've don it or not?
Recently, I've done... twice... Hello Dolly! I had a ball doing that show, and that was a show I never thought about doing. Jerry (Herman) has written some great music and it's so funny. It's a classic. I would love to do that on Broadway. It's a great one and sends so many different messages.
Do you have any favorite musical artists from amongst the newer crop?
I love Beyonce, and I also love Christine Aguilera. She can sing her butt off. She can sing anything. I've seen her with Herbie Hancock singing standards, and then she gets up there and sings her rock and roll at the same time.
If a young aspiring actor came up to you and asked for advice on how to become a big Broadway star, what would you say?
Well, first of all, I would say that if you're in it to become a big Broadway star, you're in it for the wrong reasons. You have to love the theatre, love the work. That will come if you're true to what you're doing. And I believe it's studying your craft. So many young people really don't know their craft. Go to a Stella Adler school or the Actor's Studio because it teaches you how to dig deeply into what you are doing. And also voice lessons. In theatre, you have to sustain it eight shows a week. A lot of times, these kids are great for two shows and then they're out. So I would say, learn your craft! Anything that you can possibly be in, do it! That's how you learn.
Thank you so much. I am so looking forward to Uptown Downtown.
Thank you! You're going to have a good time.
The lady herself guarantees a good time, so you cannot afford to miss the one and only Leslie Uggams in Uptown Downtown @ the Pasadena Playhouse opening November 19 and playing until December 12. Get tix early!