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BWW Interview: Barbara Bleier of LIFE, LOVE, AND WHO KNOWS WHAT ELSE? on MetropolitanZoom

Hail, Hail, the gang's all on MetropolitanZoom.

BWW Interview: Barbara Bleier of LIFE, LOVE, AND WHO KNOWS WHAT ELSE? on MetropolitanZoom A wise person once asked, "What good is sitting alone in your room" and advised us all to come to the cabaret. Barbara Bleier certainly came to the cabaret, but she was never alone. Whether at home, in class, in the clubs, or hanging out around New York City, the actress and authoress has company in the form of families logical and biological. Like a collector of fine wines, Bleier collects people, cherry-picking those artistic souls with like minds and artistic temperaments. It is with three of those old chums that Barbara has built her family of collaborators for her club acts.

For some time now, Barbara has teamed up with Austin Pendleton in the creation of cabaret shows so popular that every performance is standing room only (trust me, I've been there). With musical director Paul Greenwood and stage director Barbara Maier Gustern, Bleier and Pendleton make up a kind of a neighborhood cabaret gang, having adventures in a playground of their creation. Well, the playground just came into the twenty-first century, as our gang heads to the studio... Studio A, that is.

LIFE, LOVE, AND WHO KNOWS WHAT ELSE? is the first virtual cabaret show to come from this team of cabaret upstarts, and it will debut from MetropolitanZoom's Studio A on May 6th at 7:00 pm EST, and it's a sure thing that all of their usual fans will be tuning in to see one musical whizkid, two Barbaras and (it has to be said) one of the great (and greatly loved) actors dive feet first into the virtual waters.

Before that happens, though, I got on the phone to talk with Barbara Bleier about perfect pitch, collaborative family, and the clout of having a 212 telephone line.

This interview was edited for space and content.

Stephen, it's Barbara Bleier. How are you?

Hi, Barbara, it's a good day, today. How's about your good self?

It's a beautiful day.

You're here in the city, aren't you?

Yes, I am. I'm in the village and I'm looking out at a tree pit full of beautiful tulips.

There's nothing like New York in the spring, right?

Oh, really! Really! You're in New York also - you have a 212 number.

I am in New York and I will not give up my landline.

Me too! That's what I'm speaking to you on!

I consider my landline a badge of honor. I even have a rotary phone.

I did until pretty recently. (Laughing)

I'm glad you started our chat with your first and last name because I wasn't sure how to say it. You have the rare distinction of having an E and an I and an E Do people mispronounce that?

They say Blair a lot. Also, it's hard to write in script.

I call it the Hammerstein/Fierstein syndrome.

(Laughing) You get it!

So I have to tell you: before I even got this job at Broadway World, I caught your Christmas show at Pangea.

Really!

If I'm remembering it correctly, this was the same team that has put together the show that you're producing for MetropolitanZoom.

Right! We've been working together now for about five years

What is it that makes you and Austin and the other Barbara is such a dream team from your point of view?

There's a chemistry. It's very hard to explain, but we have just a similar sensibility, a similar kind of humor, and we love one another. It really feels like a family

That doesn't come along every day.

No, it doesn't. It really doesn't. Austin and I have been working on and off since 1999.

So, a couple of years.

(Laughing) Yes, a few years. And Barbara is my vocal coach and she hadn't directed. Her sensibility was so incredible that when Austin and I decided to do the show at Pangea, we asked her to be our director. Paul, I've known for a million years, I just think he's superb. He speaks in your language, whatever that is, he plays in it.

How did the four of you come to discover that you had this artistic relationship that would create something long-lasting, not only in your shows but also in your association?

BWW Interview: Barbara Bleier of LIFE, LOVE, AND WHO KNOWS WHAT ELSE? on MetropolitanZoom I studied acting with Austin, and I felt that with him there; I was about to do a cabaret show and I wanted to do Maltby & Shire's "There" and I needed somebody to do it with me. (Laughing) I said to Austin, "Would you like to do a duet with me in my cabaret?" And he said, "You're offering me one song?" (Laughing) And at that moment I knew. We've been a team since then... it's been on and off through the years, but pretty consistently the last five years - we've done two or three shows. We just think the same way. He's spoken my language. And Paul... I'm a sucker for a good chord

(Both laughing)

If I had a nickel...

Yeah, really. I know! Paul used to play when I studied in Helen Gallagher's class, a million or so years ago. I just loved the way he played and he spoke my musical language. Barbara got recommended to me as a vocal coach by Tammy Faye Starlight, who's wonderful - we met in an acting class and worked together and she said, "You have to study with my voice teacher, I know you're going to love one another." And we did. Somehow the four of us just mixed in that way.

You are currently working artistically, creatively, and for a long time now, with your vocal coach and your acting teacher The relationship between a teacher and a student is a very personal one. What do you find is the difference in leaving behind the teacher-student room and moving into the creative room?

That's really interesting. I think what happens is it gets more collaborative. In acting class, Austin was the expert and I was the novice ... or relative to him, novice. Musically, I've had about as much experience - it was my first language. I read notes before I read English. (Laughing) Also, just working together - we just become more collaborative. And Austin and Barbara and Paul have also become very dear friends.

That just adds another bloom to the vase.

It really does.

I have found that the artistic families that we make can become more valuable than the families with whom we share DNA.

It's absolutely true. There's something extremely intimate about creating art together It's like having a child

A child of art.

Yes, exactly.

Speaking of which you are an accomplished writer; when you guys create a show, do you take the group's ideas and create the structure of the show?

It really is the team: we each put in, and we structure a show together

During performances, do you work from a script or do you just use a framework?

We have a framework and it varies from show to show. Sometimes it's like a plotline and sometimes, what's happened in our two most recent shows is that the songs kind of put themselves together - I know that's a crazy thing to say - but we were just singing them, not placing them, not having a particular plot.. and they made an arc in their own rights. (Laughing) We have a rough speaking script too. I hate to have things actually scripted.

That's a funny thing for a writer to say.

Yeah. It's because cabaret is so interactive that what happens in one show isn't what happens in another show... and we find ourselves responding, not only to one another but to the audience also. Each configuration is different,

That's part of what makes cabaret special.

Exactly. And the audience is very much part of it. I really am very curious as to what the MetropolitanZoom experience is going to be because we don't really have contact with the audience.

BWW Interview: Barbara Bleier of LIFE, LOVE, AND WHO KNOWS WHAT ELSE? on MetropolitanZoom

Since you've all been at this for a while and you have a built-in audience when you're doing these shows, do you find that having your regular fan base in the house gives you permission to relax into the show, or does it up the ante?

Sometimes it ups the ante - a little more pressure. There's something very relaxing about doing a show with strangers (laughing).

It takes the heat off.

Yeah. You can walk away and that's it. Especially (laughing) I think a couple of shows, my grandchildren have been in the house (laughing) - you want to talk pressure.

I'm sure that they are a lot less judgy...

Much less. They're really lovely.

This will be your first virtual presentation, won't it?

Yes, it is. I've done film before as an actor, but that's different.

Did the preparation process pan out the way that you expected it would, or have there been surprises in preparing for the May 6th show?

Not really. I think we're preparing in much the same way - probably because we work off one another. Even in a solo show, I would have Paul and we play with one another. One of the wonderful things about working with Austin is his reaction is never the same, you know? So that really feeds me because I have to respond to what he's doing in that moment.

I believe Austin is the original wild card.

He is! We were playing in Chicago at Davenport's, at the beginning of when we were working together, and at one point he stomped off the stage in the middle of an angry duet! So I stomped off the stage after him! (Laughing)

Doesn't that make it more fun?

It does! You don't want to do the exact same predictable thing.

I once heard Austin say when you, as an actor, forget your lines, it's because your character no longer knows what to say.

Oh my God. Yes. That's the most valuable lesson I've learned from him.

What a gift for you as an actor and as a student to get to live in the acting moment with him.

BWW Interview: Barbara Bleier of LIFE, LOVE, AND WHO KNOWS WHAT ELSE? on MetropolitanZoom One of the moments I always tell about how he does this is we were playing at Danny's skylight room? So we were playing in Danny's skylight room and John Bucchino gave me a song to sing - at that time I wasn't as close with him, now John is one of my closest friends but at that time I knew him, but not well. John never went to anybody's shows if they were doing his work, so I was relaxed about doing this song. And at the last minute, the house manager asked me to go over the list to see who I wanted to comp, and I saw John's name on it. I thought, "Oh my god!" I ran into the dressing room, I said, "Austin, I'm not doing John's song." I explained to him, "I cannot do this." He said, "Use it. Sing the song about John," (the song was, "If I Ever Say I'm Over You") and I did. Afterward John came over and he said, "You didn't sing one note flat!" I said, "Is that what you were scared of?!" I happen to have perfect pitch, I just was born with it. And I thought if I hadn't known that's what he was nervous about, I would have been so relaxed.

Did it enhance your performance? Did you find something fresh and new?

Oh, god yes! Oh yes.

As a playwright, you must love finding something new in a song that you've already done before.

Absolutely, I totally love it. And I am so fortunate to have friends who are the most amazing songwriters and who trust me with their new work - that's a compliment, it's an honor. I have a new Amanda McBroom and Michelle Brourman song for this show that the ink is barely dry on, it is just such an honor to have something fresh that not everybody knows, that I can let happen in my own way. It's like nothing else for me.

You said that you practically sang before you spoke. How did that happen?

I had a musically ambitious mother. I was a classical pianist very early on; I started studying piano before four and I was performing at four.

That is a heck of an artistic life.

I played Carnegie Hall at four... in the days of protegees... what I really wanted to do was sing.

How long did it take you to get into that?

When I was about 11, I auditioned for a scholarship at the Third Street Music School. And Julius Rudel was the head of it - he said to my mother, "She should be studying singing," and my mother said, "I don't like opera," and that was the end of my singing. I went to Music and Art High School - now LaGuardia - and they put me in the senior chorus and stuff like that, and I signed for the dance band there. Then I worked my way through college singing folk clubs, weddings, bar mitzvahs, and all the social functions. I didn't really formally study singing until I would say was in my early forties.


You had perfect pitch all that time and didn't get to use it.

Yeah. Yeah, really! Because on the piano, you don't need it. I always sang and played at parties and I did sing in clubs and stuff - folk clubs and play the guitar.

So your love affair with music is your longest relationship.

You know, it's really true.

And you're still going strong.

I really hope never to stop. My total idol, who I had the privilege of studying with, was Julie Wilson.

She was the greatest.

She was the greatest. I met her at the O'Neill and we became dear friends. I want to grow up to be her.

Well, you're going to have to get a Gardenia.

(Laughing) Okay!

When I saw your Christmas show, Barbara came up for a number. Is she going to make a guest appearance on MetropolitanZoom?

She is indeed! She just decided yesterday. And she is singing something that broke our hearts. We were sitting there weeping. She's just wonderful.

Every one of your shows has a theme and this one is Life, Love, And Who Knows What Else? What brought this about?

We were originally going to do a show about politics and politics kept changing. It started expanding into everything and we decided, if that's the case, we might as well have some political things in it, but we might as well sing about everything.

It opens up every door for you.

Exactly.

Put a picture in my head of what a creative session is like between your team.

Well, take yesterday... now, the show was pretty much formed and we were going to do a run-through but beforehand each of us had a couple of ideas; we kind of threw them out and some flew and some didn't. And a couple, we tried and they either worked or didn't work. We started to run the show, Barbara made some wonderfully incisive comments which turned, for me, one of the songs around, just put a new light on it - and any one of us could do that with the other one's song. Paul made an offhand comment during one of my songs and we all screamed. Let's take that!

(Both laughing heartily.)

Marvelous.

There's a lot of consensus. We very rarely disagree on things but when we do, we'll try it the other person's way - sometimes they won't like it. Even songs we've done before - you know, through our entire history we've sung Maltby and Shire's "There" and it's like our song, cause it's the one that got us started. This time Barbara said, "Let's do something a little different with staging," and it turned the whole song around. We try not to just repeat things we've done in the past. it's always very tempting if something has gone well, to want to repeat, but there's no growth there. And it's boring.

Now I would be remiss if I didn't take advantage of this opportunity to talk to you about something with which I am wildly fascinated. You are well-known for a show called "Who's Your Mama."

Yes.

It's a show about the aging process of women in America. We are at a time now where a lot of things have come into the light as isms and phobias that must be fought against, ageism being one of them.

Oh man, I don't get me started!

The point is that I want to get you started. I think that we are in a youth-obsessed society in a youth-obsessed country. I did not have the benefit of seeing "Who's Your Mama." So would you tell me a little bit about that show and your thoughts on age-ism in America and show business?

Oh, yes, sure. "Who's Your Mama" got started when I had an experience walking on 57th street about 15 years ago. I had gone to see my agent and it was summertime... I was wearing a long denim skirt, I was sort of dressed in my usual upper Bohemian way, I had sandals on and a spaghetti strap top with a sheer blouse over it. I was crossing the street and I heard this guy yelling, "Ha! She thinks she's young!" I turned around and it's this young Caucasian man in a wife-beater t-shirt with headphones and he's yelling about wearing certain clothes at a certain age. I figured he's gonna wait till the light turns and cross the street and then, suddenly, it hits me: he's yelling at me.

So I wrote this piece that was initially a monologue on why does one have to be young to wear colors and sandals and whatever. It sort of went on from there, I started writing other pieces to it and it came together. It ended by saying "I'm not going to wear beige just because I'm older. I'm not going to hide my crepey hands." I think ageism (is a problem), particularly for women. And yet cabaret is a special place because age-ism (disappears). I'm talking about Julie Wilson I'm talking about Marilyn Maye, I'm talking about these icons that we have. Alberta Hunter. It's a special place where ageism is not the way it is in film or theater. I never give my age because I'd rather be seen for a role as what I look like, rather than what your conception of a grandmother is because most of the time I lose roles.

That's because people have no vision.

Exactly. They see a grandmother is a little short woman who's dumpy with gray hair. I went to an audition in LA for something and it was a pretty good audition and I left and I saw a little woman coming in with gray hair and I thought, "Okay, there's that part gone." You get stereotyped, you get pigeonholed into roles.

Do you, do you see it changing?

I see it changing when it comes to other things, but very slowly when it comes to age. That's why I love to watch British films and British TV. They have characters. And you know age is not an issue. People aren't having their faces done - Look at Judi Dench.

The Greatest.

The Greatest. She looks like who she is. My husband's an actor and we always look at one another and say, "She'd never worked in the States!"

I grew up in European countries where the elderly are respected and revered, and in this country, people just want to push them aside.

And not see them. The "Who's Your Mama" piece is about seeing older people.

I know that it was created a while ago. Do you think that now would be a good time for you to get it out again?

I haven't really thought about it, but it might.

I'd like to circle back around to Life, Love, And Who Knows What Else? Austin Pendleton, your longtime friend, longtime collaborator, is one of the industry's great actors and teachers, and directors.

And how.

What have you found that, for you, is the strongest component to Austin's unique ability to connect with others as a teacher, as a director, as a fellow performer?

It probably is the same for others - by the way, he's also become a dear friend of my husband's; my children consider him an uncle at this point. It's that He really listens. He really, really listens. He'll take you - it's the same thing for Barbara, now that I think about it - they take you where you are and work with that, they relate to that, rather than have an aspiration of what they'd like you to be

That's rare.

It's very rare. And also - his focus is incredible. We did a film together, my husband, Austin, and I called Sunset, which is on Amazon. It's a really good film. When you do a scene with Austin, he is 100% focused on you - it makes every scene fresh because his reactions are always fresh. That's the other thing I've learned with him: just how important listening.

So your MetropolitanZoom show is all about life and love and random surprises. What's a motto or philosophy that has seen you through your own life filled with love and random surprises.

When I was 25 it was the worst birthday of my life because I thought, "I'm a quarter of a century old, I've made every major decision there is to make. I'm married, I have children, I'm in graduate school, I know what I'm going to do, and the rest of it is just living it for another 50 or 60 years. And boy was I wrong. (Laughing) So if there's a motto, it's: go with the flow. Just take what happens and see where it brings you.

I love that motto.

I had back surgery about seven years ago that got botched badly and it left me with some mobility stuff. And I just thought, "Oh my god, this will ruin my career." Talk about isms, by the way, I did write a piece on my blog about ableism. And then he thought, "Well, you have a choice. You can sit here and get depressed about it or you can take what you have and use this, and see what you can do with it." It brought me more heavily back into cabaret because there were a lot of parts I couldn't audition for that required much more mobility than I have. I can walk but either with a limp or cane. So it brought me back into cabaret. in that "Who's Your Mama" piece, I used the cane as an emphasis tool. It gave me another perspective. The people who wrote "Sunset" wrote the character with a cane so that I could use it. So it gave me another way of looking at things from another perspective

You have quite the determination, don't you?

Yes. I really do.

Barbara Bleier & Austin Pendleton LIFE, LOVE, AND WHO KNOWS WHAT ELSE? Plays on MetropolitanZoom on May 6th at 7:00 pm EST. For information and tickets visit the MetropolitanZoom website HERE.

BWW Interview: Barbara Bleier of LIFE, LOVE, AND WHO KNOWS WHAT ELSE? on MetropolitanZoom


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