BWW Interview: Kurt Peterson on WHEN EVERYTHING WAS POSSIBLE Archival Recording and Remembering Victoria Mallory
This spring Kurt Peterson, original cast member of the Lincoln Center revival of West Side Story, Follies, and Dear World, will release a digitally mastered, archival recording of "When Everything Was Possible - A Concert (with comments)" as memorial tribute to Victoria Mallory, who tragically passed away from pancreatic cancer on August 30, 2014. Recorded live at New York City Center on April 29, 2012, "When Everything Was Possible" was a memorable evening of song and story featuring Kurt Peterson and Victoria Mallory in what would be her final New York City performance. An online fundraising campaign has been established through Fractured Atlas to assist the producers with the release of the album and accompanying booklet that will memorialize the legendary performer and share a message of history and hope with a new generation of young artists. A portion of proceeds from the album's sale will go to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
Peterson recently chatted with BroadwayWorld about the creation of When Everything Was Possible, his career and relationship with Victoria, who he would love to work with next, and much more. Check out the full interview below!
How did you first come up with the idea for the When Everything Was Possible concert?
Well, the idea came when Victoria and I spent eight years together as boyfriend and girlfriend and collaborators. We did so many shows together. We met on the first day in New York - we came to New York and went to AMDA - and we were both cast in the first revival of West Side Story in Lincoln Center in '68. And then went on to do Follies together. And she did Night Music, then we did the tribute to Stephen Sondheim together. We just had a whole history together during sort of a golden era of musical theatre and then separated after that 8 years and didn't really speak for 35 years, until she gave me a call one day and wanted me to help her daughter - introduce her to New York and to some teachers.
So that happened. And then I said, "well, maybe you and I should talk, too." We got together and talked and just talked about what had happened in the years that we were separated. And we said, "Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could sing again and pay homage to all the time we had together as young performers in the city?" And so we started to put down thoughts and things to try to remember as much as we could. And then, as we were working on that, Seth Rudetsky asked us to do a Chatterbox session with him. And Seth was so wonderful, because he pulled a lot of the humor out of our stories. And so a lot of the story of the concert came out of that time with Seth.
Then, after that, we did a benefit up in Connecticut, which was the beginning of the concerts, and did a production down in Florida. And after that we went to the Triad in North Carolina. And each time, we grew and we put in more material, and we added people to the team. And then we decided that we wanted to put it on stage, and so we did it at City Center, and then only one other performance after that, and that was in Vicky's hometown of Columbus, Georgia.
And we were all set to do a full studio recording, and we had touring bookings, and we were also going to bring it back into New York, and she got ill and passed on. So it was a very, very sad time personally, and certainly creatively, because we put three years into it. But, fortunately, there was archival recording made of the live performance at City Center, and we went back and we remastered it, and discovered that it was really quite good - not quite the level of a studio recording, but studio recordings never have the life and the love of an audience, and the light of the performance.
So now we're going to release the archival recording with a beautiful 20 page booklet with all the wonderful historical photos that we have and quotes from people who had worked with Vicky, both friends and colleagues: Hal Prince and Angela Lansbury, and people who were at the concert, like Kelli O'Hara, and people who worked with her like Paul Gemignani and Jonathan Tunick - all of the people from her era are going to put little sentiments in.
What do you hope people will take away from listening to the CD?
We're doing it because we want - as a couple of reviews said it - no young person starting out in musical theatre should miss this, because it was such a lesson of history and hope. And, since we can't continue to perform it around the country as we planned, hopefully, we're going to get this CD into all the conservatories and theatre schools around the country as something that they can put in their program, and they'll learn a little history, have a little hope.
And the proceeds will go to Broadway Cares, which was our charity when we did it at City Center, too. My brother, Bobby, passed away, as one of the first AIDS deaths in the Midwest, and so the concert is a benefit to his memory, and so we will continue to give the proceeds to Broadway Cares. But right now, we're in the process of funding through Fractured Atlas, which allows people to give 20 dollars or 5,000 dollars, completely tax deductible, and you can get to that by going to WhenEverythingWasPossible.com.
We just started raising the money a couple weeks ago, and fortunately, Vicky's had a lot of fans and friends both in the theatre, but she was also on a soap opera, The Young and The Restless, for seven years. She was the very first person to play the piano and sing on a soap opera, so we get a lot of those fans too. She's touched a lot of people because she toured the summer stock circuit for years after Broadway, and so there are a lot of people who remember her.
Both you and Victoria trained at AMDA and started out in West Side Story. Do you have a favorite story from when you were first starting out?
One of the things that Seth got out of us when we did the Chatterbox is a great story is that, when I first met Vicky, she had studied ballet since she was three, piano since she was four, and sung since she was five. And I was this kid from Wisconsin who fell in love with musical theatre. I first met her in summer 1966, and my jaw just dropped. I said "Oh my God," I had never heard a voice like that. And I was always insecure about my talent. I was from Wisconsin where I had done musicals in high school, but nothing like she had. She had done shows all her life. I was in awe, but I was also a little jealous.
This is a theme that sort of followed throughout our whole career. So we went to AMDA together and we were dating, and seeing shows, and we were in workshops together at AMDA, and for summer, she did summer stock at one place, and I did it in another place. And, of course, she did roles and I was in the chorus, so I was jealous of that. Then, at the end of our second year at AMDA, she had auditioned for West Side Story at Lincoln Center, the first big revival of West Side Story, and I was so happy for her, but at the same time, I was so jealous. She said, "Why don't you audition for Tony?" and I said, "Well, I can't sing Tony." I suggested we do it in high school, and my choir teacher said he had no one to sing Tony. So I didn't audition. And then finally I got so upset and so jealous that I went to audition, and I got it. So I got Tony in West Side Story.
And then I went on to do some shows, and she did, too. And then the next thing was Follies, and I didn't audition for Follies either. She had auditioned early on, and she got Follies, and I was jealous of that too. And the last day they were casting Follies, they decided to change the leading man and the Young Ben, which is the part I got. And I finally go to audition for Follies, but I was so jealous of her there too. There's this whole sort of jealous emotion that goes through the whole concert where I was just jealous every time she got a job. And at the end of the concert, I said, "I just want to thank you Victoria. If I hadn't been so damn jealous of you, I would never have had a career."
You've worked with so many incredibly talented people, both composers and actors, throughout your career. Is there anyone you haven't worked with yet that you would like to?
I also have a production office and I've been producing along with my performing all through my career, and one of the heartbreaks was that I had this wonderful project with Kelli O'Hara and we were going to do a Christmas album. And we worked on it for almost a year, and we had every major composer writing new material for her, and this wonderful team. And it fell through, not because of Kelli, and not because of me, but just because of the suits and the business. And Kelli was devastated, and I was too, because I just love her. And I'm such a big fan of hers. And we remained good friends after sort of talking through what had happened with this wonderful CD, and she's been a very supportive friend coming to shows of mine. She was at the concert, and in the concert, she hugged me and said, "We've got to sing together," and I said "You're darn right, we have to sing together." And it hasn't happened yet.
I'd love to sing with her anywhere. She is one of the people that I would really love to work with. I've had the great good fortune of working with so many wonderful both performers and creative people throughout my career. I've been very blessed, and I'm not done yet. I'd love to work with Kelli.
You've mentioned before that you consider yourself a little bit of a "lyric snob" after working with Sondheim. Do you have any favorite lyrics?
Oh gosh, I don't think there's a favorite one, but boy, there are an awful lot. And not all Sondheim. You know I am a lyric snob. I think Steven Schwartz, in terms of lyrics, has a magic there that's really terrific. I think Jerry Herman is very underrated as a lyricist and as a composer. We do a couple of his songs in the concert. One is from Dear World, "And I Was Beautiful," I think it's just a glorious, glorious song. Some of his other things are just really, really wonderful. Actually, one of the things I have been doing - I started before we did the concert - is writing an original book musical. And we'll see what happens with that. We should know more about that in a year from now. But I said, "If I'm going to be a lyric snob, I had better either do something, or shut up" in terms of lyrics. I actually wrote the lyrics to the opening and the closing of the concert. And I was ok with that and got some nice reinforcement from that. And so I've been writing the lyrics for this original book musical. The new show is called Dancing on the Moon.
What made you decide to get into producing after performing for so long?
I don't know, I mean I sort of know in hindsight. I always had sort of a business mind. And it first happened when I was in Follies, the stage manager, who was Fritz Holt and his partner Barry Brown had optioned the Broadway musical Gypsy, and they were raising money to take it to London and then back to New York, and I had a conversation with them. And I said, "Do you have all the money for the show," and they said no, and I said, "Well, do you need some help?" And they said yes. So we made a deal, and I didn't know anything about it, but I would go out and have lunch with people and try to talk them into raising money for Gypsy. And I did. I raised a quarter of the budget for Gypsy in London and New York. And so that was my first sort of producing as an associate kind of venture.
And I remember, about the same time, my alma mater AMDA heard that I was doing some producing, and they were in financial trouble, so they asked me to help raise money for the school. And they said, "Can we get Hal Prince?" And I called Hal, and he said no. And then I said, "Well, what about Stephen Sondheim?" So I asked Stephen if he would show up at a little function at the Plaza where a couple students would sing a number and he would say thank you and allow them to sell tickets and get donations. And he said yes. Well, all of a sudden, this thing was rolling and rolling and rolling, and the next thing you knew we had a Warner Brothers recording contract. Every single Sondheim star who had been in a Sondheim show was on it. And Hal Prince gave us the Shubert Theatre, and we had this giant benefit, which was a great big success, only accidentally. Because everyone at that time who had worked with Stephen knew what a genius he was, but a lot of the public didn't. It was before Night Music opened, and Stephen was still misunderstood and a little bit neglected up until then. Even with Follies and Company, a lot of major critics didn't quite get what he was doing. Until Night Music came along, then he got more popular. But the whole community knew what a genius he was and what groundbreaking work he was doing, and so this was the very first celebration of Sondheim.
So that began my producing career. And after sitting at the Shubert Theatre at the back of the orchestra with Stephen Sondheim, watching the show unfold and watching the audience just so appreciate it, and those performers performing, and the full orchestra, I just said, "Oh my God, this is as special as being on stage. To be part of the team that makes something happen that is brand new."
And from that point on, I kept producing things. I always felt a little bit more sense of control being on the business - It's much easier to get your phone calls answered as a producer than it is as an actor. It's true. So, one thing that I have done is I promised myself I would never produce another revival of something. That I would always do something new. And I've held to that. The last few things I've done - which is Capture Now, a one-person play, and hopefully it's going to be a movie, Stephen Schwartz's musical Captain Louis, Zero Hour, the one-person show about Zero Mostel, the concert, and hopefully the original book musical that I'm working on - they're all brand new. It's more difficult, and you don't get the kind of recognition that you get from changing a movie into a musical, but it's the only thing that really excites me in terms of what we should be doing, especially in - on Broadway and whatever there's so much taking an old property and sticking a star in it, and there's just no excitement in that. No real fun for me. So I need something to get me out of bed in the morning, and that's new projects.
So, do you think we're going to see you back on stage any time soon, or are you going to stick to producing?
I'm doing two projects that will put me back on stage. One is called Proud Ladies. "Proud Ladies" is a number I sung in the Baker's Wife as a male chauvinist pig, and I'm doing a show called Proud Ladies, and the subtitle is "Close Encounters and Lessons Learned from:" and then it lists 23 women, and they're all people that I've worked with in the theatre. Some are living and some are not. And there are vignettes and stories of each one and lessons I've learned from them. It's a one-person show with projections. And the other one is Dancing on the Moon, which is what I've been working on, which has a role for me. So those two, and hopefully there will be something else that somebody else is going to hire me for, but I don't always count on that. I've been a self-starter.
KURT PETERSON began his career when Leonard Bernstein and Richard Rodgers chose him to play Tony in the revival of West Side Story at Lincoln Center. On Broadway he starred opposite Angela Lansbury in Dear World and created the role of Young Ben in Stephen Sondheim's Follies. Off-Broadway, Kurt starred in Dames at Sea and By Bernstein, and appeared in The Town Hall productions of Knickerbocker Holiday, Music in the Air and I Married an Angel. Kurt starred opposite Patti LuPone in the Broadway-bound The Baker's Wife. He also starred in the highly acclaimed Canadian premiere of Company and Rob Marshall's production of Side By Side By Sondheim. Kurt was featured in the 75th birthday celebrations Wall to Wall Sondheim and Children & Art honoring Stephen Sondheim, and has performed as a leading man in many productions around the country and in Europe.
Kurt and his company, James William Productions (JWP), produced the acclaimed Sondheim-A Musical Tribute, the first celebration of America's foremost composer/lyricist, helped launch the New York and London productions of Angela Lansbury's Gypsy, produced the live tours of WPIX-TV's classic children's show The Magic Garden, and the National Tour of Rob Marshall's innovative Side By Side By Sondheim. Recent projects include co-producing the New York productions and National Tour of the Stephen Schwartz family musical Captain Louie, the Off-Broadway production of the play Capture Now, directed by Larry Moss, and the BC/EFA benefit Alone At Last featuring the music of Ian Herman.
JWP is currently represented by the Helen Hayes and Drama Desk Award winning play, Zero Hour, about theatre legend Zero Mostel, now touring the U.S. and Canada. In 2015, look for the new musical Dancing on the Moon. Kurt is the owner of New York City's The Voice Studio, home to more than 300 students and some of Broadway's greatest teachers and performers. For more information, visit jameswilliamproductions.com