BWW Interview: Lorna Luft Looks Back at Laurel Canyon in Return to 54 Below
"This is a sing-along show! This is The Beatles!"
Lorna Luft... and The Beatles? That's right. Lorna Luft, famous for her Broadway belt and her concerts that pay tribute to The American Songbook and the musical legacy of a legendary Lady with whom she shares a special bond has a brand-new show, and it's an extremely personal one because it's all hers.
"Mom had this massive beautiful fantastic catalog and my sister was seven years older, so she had gone through her teenage music... This was MY music."
On August 8th Ms. Luft will take the stage at her Manhattan home away from home, Feinstein's/54 Below with a show she is calling "Laurel Canyon" and it will feature the music that gave the teenage Lorna a sense of who she was; and, for today's Lorna, putting this show together has been one exciting ride. When I spoke to an exuberant and excited Lorna this week, she had much about which to celebrate and be excited.
This interview has been edited for space and content.
Lorna, I understand that your new show at 54 Below is a musical departure from what we've been hearing from you in recent years.
It is! It is the show that I wanted to do but I just never found the venue to do it. This show is about my life from 1963 to 1967. It starts when I was 11 years old...I didn't have any music that I could call mine. Mom had this massive beautiful fantastic catalog and my sister was seven years older, so she had gone through her teenage music, you know, her favorite groups and guys and artists. But I didn't have anything. So, I'm 11 years old and the one group that I really liked, I couldn't relate to what they were talking about, was The Beach Boys - 'cause I couldn't relate to grabbing a surfboard and going down to the beach, surfing at 11 years old. Then, my mom, in 1964, came home from London and she said to me, "I just worked with four of the most fabulous boys" and I said, "really?" and she said, "Yeah" and I said, "Well, who are they?" and she said "They're called The Beatles". And then she went on to just rave about them and how I was going to love them and when they were going to come over and how they were going to be just a huge hit on the music charts. Well, little did she know. And the Beatles Changed My Life. They changed all of our lives. They changed everything from hair to fashion, to music and what they did for me was they gave us a sound and they gave us a voice to be listened to.
So, is it all Beatles music we're going to hear on the 8th?
No! Not all Beatles music - it's sort of a history lesson because I just watched this interesting movie called "Echo in the Canyon". Every musician sort of lost their minds and started thinking about The Beatles and how they could change and how they could be like The Beatles. Roger McGuinn- he didn't play the electric guitar, he played acoustic, and acoustic guitar is always folk music until he heard The Beatles and then he put that acoustic guitar away, got out an electric guitar, and The Byrds were born. The Byrds had so many members that I think the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was jealous of them! He found a Bob Dylan song that Dylan hadn't recorded, and put it to an electric guitar and apparently when Bob Dylan heard the arrangement he said: "WOW, you can dance to this now!" I am doing "Tambourine Man", "Turn Turn".. because that was really when it all sort of came to California and into what we call Laurel Canyon... and The Mamas and The Papas, but they weren't really Laurel Canyon, Cass Elliot was. Cass Elliott was an amazing performer and an amazing artist, and she moved to Laurel Canyon - she was really the Earth Mother of Laurel Canyon. She really ran the roost up there, and I tell a story about when I met her, a very funny story; and if you're going to do Cass Elliott, you've got to do "Dream a Little Dream", so it's that music. Then it goes in to "Pet Sounds" because "Pet Sounds" is the album that stopped everybody and went "what is this?" Then about a year later "Sgt Pepper" came out. It's just how they mirrored each other in that whole time frame of The Beach Boys and The Beatles. There are so many songs that The Beatles wrote and The Beach Boys. When you think of "In My Room", "God Only Knows", "Here There and Everywhere"... those are, for me, those are the songs that touched me so much and meant something to me. I mean the Beatles are my... I know every Beatles song that there is to know. I can tell you what album they're all from, I own... I went from a regular teenager to a Beatle maniac.
So you're a super fan.
Oh my god, yes!
All of the shows that you do are so personal...and you don't just go out there and sing, you share your stories about the songs and how they've affected you. When you do that, do you sit down before each show and write it out? Or do you find it's better for you to speak extemporaneously to the audience in real-time?
Oh, no, no, no...I write it all out and then my husband has to decipher all I'm saying. I've written it out but I don't read it. It's the stories that I have to tell... about meeting The Beatles... I have to tell about when I went to The Hollywood Bowl... The reason I feel to do a show, for me, is to have a reason why you're singing these songs. Why do want to do this, and not because they're your favorites.
Speaking of the Hollywood Bowl I understand you're going back to the Hollywood Bowl in the near future.
I am! I'm playing the Hollywood Bowl (on September 7) with my best friend, Barry Manilow. Barry and I have been friends for a long time. Don't ask me, because we'll both go 'Oy'. It's the Los Angeles Philharmonic and then it's me and then it's the greatest - I think that he is the best male entertainer that we have right now. When you go to a Barry Manilow show you know that you're going to get, not only your money's worth but your emotions worth.
How fun it must be to get to be creative with your husband on your own shows and with your best friend on your other shows.
I know! It's so great! I'm very lucky. I consider myself to be very very very lucky. My husband (Colin Freeman) and I work really well together. He's certainly not afraid to say 'I don't think we should do that' or 'Let's try this' or 'Have you lost your mind?' It's not like we get together in a room in his studio and say we've never disagreed on something. Are you kidding me? We work it out, and that's the whole thing about having a musical director that is ... That you feel so safe with, that says NO, and not 'oh yes, I'll do anything'. I've seen a lot of artists who have musical directors and it's like, oh my god, why didn't they say something? I'm lucky. My husband says something. And we have an electric guitar player who sings on this show, and we're going to do all those harmonies! You can't do Beach Boys without electric guitar! This music, I consider Mine. This was the music that I sat in my room and I looked at every single solitary picture I could find of George Harrison because he was my favorite, and everything I could find... The Beatles were my youth, they were my joy. When you listen to how brilliant The Beatles became starting with "Rubber Soul" and then going all the way through to "The White Album". Look what they went from "I Want to Hold Your Hand" into "Eleanor Rigby".. What?!
Alright, Lorna Luft, here's the million-dollar question: what's your favorite Beatles song?
OH MY GOD... you know... I would have to say... Composition wise "Eleanor Rigby" is probably one of the greatest songs ever written. They're so great with story songs like "She Is Leaving Home", but I also love singing the love song "Here There And Everywhere". OH! SO GOOD!
I'm partial to "A Day in the Life".
Oh, honey, YES! Me too! I hope people are ready to go back to their childhood, too. Cause a lot of my audience is our age, this is your childhood, too. The second song I sing, do you remember Cass Elliott's "Make Your Own Kind of Music" - it just sort of says everything... That you've got to make your own kind of music. I open the show with All My Lovin'. When you're going to do that, you're going to have so much fun. Until you really pick apart a Beach Boys song, you have no idea how hard they... What they did.
Now, I want to ask you a question... I saw a video of you online in this amazing dress at the Life Ball in Vienna...
Who designed that dress, girl?
That was a Viennese designer, Eva Poleschinski. I went in and I tried on the white dress first, that I wore down the red carpet, and I thought it was magnificent, and the jacket weighed 400 pounds. The red dress was an actual skirt that was made with (and I'm not kidding) upholstery under the lace so that it wouldn't lose its shape, so it must've weighed at the most 40 pounds, just the skirt. So, I had to have, it was sort of this sight gag that four or five people had to pick this dress up whenever I moved, and then trying to maneuver down those stairs! So I did rehearse in that because I said I am NOT falling down these stairs at the Life Ball. And it went right back to the designer 'cause I'm never going to wear that again because I thought it was magnificent and it was brilliant and it was great, but where am I going to wear that? To dinner? I don't think so.
To do the dishes.
To do the dishes! (Laughing) I don't think so!
You had a really special duet partner that night .. you sang Over the Rainbow with your mom.
When the Life Ball came to me and they asked me to do that, and they explained to me what the Life Ball was, how long it had been going, all of the incredible charities that they have supported over the years... I'd never sung the song. I'd never sung "Over the Rainbow" only because I just don't think you can sometimes improve on perfection and it was so personal and I'd just always never sung that. But I thought well if I'm ever going to it this would be something that not only do I think is appropriate but I know that she would've said, "Go ahead, sing it"!
One of my favorite things that happened this year was a picture of you in front of the Stonewall Inn. And then you rode in the parade. What was that Gay Pride week like for you?
It was the most phenomenal, uplifting - it was so incredible to me because it has only been fifty years. I know that sometimes sounds like a lot but it really isn't and from where we were when the police were arresting people and putting them in paddy wagons, to the police protecting us... That was pretty extraordinary. And I really do believe we've got a hell of a long way to go, we really do. BUT we have come a long way. But that doesn't mean that we've gotten to the end of the road. We've gotta keep going. We've come to a point where we are still on the road to understanding one another and to, hopefully, accepting. And New York City turned it out this year. I was stunned because I walked around the whole city that week and every tiny little newsstand had a rainbow flag and I thought to myself, "this is just magnificent". Being in the parade was... I can't tell you how emotional it was for me. Young people and old people and people on walkers and wheelchairs - everybody turned out! The police having rainbow flags, was just amazing. It was so uplifting. I've never been through anything like that in my life, I really haven't. I haven't been through anything that was so hopeful and everybody had a great time, the entire city of New York. Then after the parade, I did something really great, my agent and myself and Judy Gold and her friend and a bunch of friends of theirs we all got on a private yacht type boat and we went out onto the Hudson and we watched the fireworks go off at the end of Pride.
Lorna aside from being an actress and a singer, you've written two best-selling books. Are there any other creative talents that you're keeping from us? Do you paint, do you cook, anything like that?
You know I really honest to god don't. I used to cook until my husband, he's a much better cook than I am, he sort of took over the kitchen. Even when I'm popping a gluten-free pizza in and he's standing over my shoulder saying "What are you doing?" and I say "ok, fine you do it". He's not only an incredible arranger, conductor, musician, he's also a great chef. And I tell him that food and art goes together. He really runs the kitchen. I don't really do anything else, I don't paint... I can't even draw... You know, stick figures are a lot for me."
I'm sure you enjoy his cooking artfully
I do! But you know I've been battling cancer for the last seven years so I've really changed my way of looking at food. I've changed a lot of my diet, as far as reading labels and thinking "you know maybe this isn't such a great idea". I've gone completely gluten-free, and I have to say it is not challenging at all because there are so many restaurants and food stores, so many companies have been putting that famous GF on everything so it's really easy for me to eat. I'm going to do (the play) White Christmas again this year, and a tour used to be challenging for a lot of people who have gluten problems and food problems but it isn't now because everybody is so accommodating. I've just found that when your body says something to you, you've got to listen.
Your fan base rallied around you to send you support, how did that feel for you?
When I first was diagnosed it was difficult for me to go onto my social media page because I felt guilty that I couldn't write back to everybody and thank them. It was so overwhelming to me that strangers were reaching out and sending me messages, and it was hard for me because it made me cry that everybody was so generous and so loving - 'cause I really did want to write back to everybody so, I hope that when I thanked everybody, everybody knew that I was really talking about every single one of them. I feel that whenever you are in a life-challenging time of weathering a disease or anything, everybody's going to react differently and certainly in the world of cancer the one thing that I have found that has literally been my survival is my attitude. I have been lucky enough to have Dr. David Agus and I'll never forget (him) saying to me "Your attitude is 90% of your healing". And I said "OK. OK. Alright"! I have friends that have gone through the same thing and we laugh! I'm not going to let this define me, and I'm certainly not going to let this take me down the rabbit hole. I'm just going to fight.
Brava! Now, if I can change gears and ask you about your acting: much of your career is comedy and musicals but you've done some hefty dramatic parts. Is there any part that could draw you back onto the stage? Some juicy dramatic part you've had your eye on that you'd like to do?
Actually, no. I find that sort of living in the land of 'what if'... I just don't find myself thinking "Oh gee I would've loved to have done that". I think to myself I'm really really fortunate to be going to 54 Below and to have them ask me back every six months. I am SO excited! HERE's What we should be talking about! Are you ready? I've never been to P-Town! I'm playing P-Town! I'm really, really excited! I'm so excited that I'm going! Lea DeLaria was with us at the Life Ball and she told me that she's opening a place in P-Town, so I'm excited to go!
You've got your eye on the future.
I find myself, that's what I get excited about: what I'm going to do today. And what I'm going to do. I guess if there's one thing cancer did teach me, and it's a lesson that I live by every single day. I live in the present. I don't live in the future and I don't live in the past. I live in the present. Now. I have the incredible luck and gift... I have three grandchildren. My oldest one's going to be five, then we have a three-year-old, and then we have a two-year-old. That's what's important to me. My little three-year-old, who says to me in the car "GG (they call me GG) put on 'Here Comes the Sun!'" and I go "Alright, here we go!" Then, whenever one of my mom's movies is on, they look at the screen and they look at me and they go "That's Triple G" cause that's what they call her. Triple G! And I go "Yup!"
Before we go, I just want to ask you, do you have an exercise regimen that you use to stay so fit?
I would love to say that I do. I watch what I eat, I'm really aware of staying as healthy as I can. I am not a gym person - Sorry, but I'm not. I used to be a complete fanatic about spinning. I used to jump up and down on bikes and all of that, and then I just thought "Ok this is nuts" but I've got a girlfriend, one of my best friends, and she's trying desperately to get me to try yoga. And I said ok if I don't have to turn into a pretzel, I will ... why not? I have tried it and I thought it was ok. I liked it. But honey, all you have to get... just have a three-year-old in your house- that's enough! And it's so hot here right now that we're sort of housebound. We can't do a lot, so putting this show together that's been really wonderful. I'm just grateful for Austria and all of the work I've got coming up - until the beginning of next year. White Christmas goes 'til December. So, I'm lucky.
You truly are. And I'm lucky you spent this time with me. I will see you at 54 Below on opening night, August 8th!
Alright! This is a sing-along show! This is The Beatles! This is The Beach Boys! This is called you can sing along to this show because that's what that music was all about.
I will be singing along, I promise.
Good because if I screw up a lyric, I'm looking at you!
Lorna Luft will play Feinstein's/54 Below August 8, 9, 10 at 9:30 pm.