BWW Interview: SO NOW YOU KNOW with Klea Blackhurst
She is a singer, actress, host, comedienne, and shines on whatever stage she's on, and she's been on some amazing stages - Royal Albert Hall, London Palladium, Carnegie Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center to name a few. Who is the SHE you ask? None other than the force of nature, one of the foremost performers of our time, Ms. Klea Blackhurst, of course!
Besides being a Merman-esque voiced singer, Klea has outstanding comedic ability. It is no wonder that she has been tapped to be one of the hosts of the Mabel Mercer Foundation's New York City Cabaret Convention for the past six years. She has also, on occasion, hosted Jim Caruso's sensational, CAST PARTY. Klea is one of those rare performers that can really relate and connect with an audience the minute she enters the room. She gives them all she's got and is sure to add a couple of zingers in for good measure.
surprise, Klea has played many of our most beloved, remarkable, and legendary characters on stage - Dolly Levi, Mama Rose, Emma Goldman, Mama Morton, Reno Sweeney, and Annie Oakley.
Besides performing all over the world, Klea has found time to teach, both with her series, "OLD SCHOOL, A practical history of the American Musical" and her most current project, THE ETHEL MERMEN PLAYBILL PROJECT. Any student would be lucky to learn from this artist who is not only kind and generous but also exudes class and is a bonafide natural on stage.
It will be very interesting to see what Klea has up her sleeve next - We will all be ready to enjoy.
Look out world, here comes Klea!
NA: Who is your mentor and what would you like to say to them.
KB: I'm going to say Paula Laurence. She died in 2005 at the age of 89 or 92. (She apparently took the years off sometime in the '20s.) She mentored me the last four years of her life. My Ethel Merman show had just come out and many people recommended her seeing it. I've been told her response was always some variation of, "I didn't enjoy Ethel in life, I feel confident I won't enjoy a celebration of her in death." She also made it clear that if this Klea was talented, she would do something else in the future and catch her then. This is exactly what happened. Her dislike of Merman was genuine. Paula was the star Merman had fired (or Paula chose not to renew her contract) in 1943's SOMETHING FOR THE BOYS. Paula starred in ONE TOUCH OF VENUS with Mary Martin, she was in FUNNY GIRL with Barbra Streisand. Al Hirschfeld was her first boyfriend. (They never lived together, but they "had lots of sleepovers.") And she was pals with Cole Porter. So tea with Paula was a wonderful and fascinating time. She never bad mouthed Merman, nor would she talk about her. If I worded a question the right way, I could find out the answer to a specific query, but she wouldn't dish. My relationship with Paula was very honest. She would tell me her opinions about what I wore, my hair, the material I was choosing. She taught me great things about comedy and comedic timing. She also told me I should never come above 14th Street without my eyelashes on! Paula, thank you for including me in the arc of history. You could see how much I love and respect the past, but you refused to live there. You taught me to accept that it's not possible to have it all. You are at your best when you fully engage in your work. Go after the opportunities you know are your destiny. And choose to not give a fig about what others think or the outcome. It's all part of the giant game of life. You win some you lose some. And that your losses leave you free for a big win.
NA: What has this business given you and what has it taken away?
KB: I don't know how to even approach the question. It's my life. It just is.
NA: What is the hour like before you go onstage?
KB: I like to make time move very slowly. I often get to my dressing room 90 minutes before curtain. I like to roam, turn on my kettle, chat with people, I'll start putting on my makeup the hour before, with the door open. At half-hour I shut the door, finish my makeup and get my head together in peace and quiet.
NA: If you could experience one performance over again, which one would it be and why?
KB: The first time I sang with an orchestra. The Hendersonville Symphony in North Carolina. They asked me to sing Don't Rain on My Parade. I was so healthy, super fit at the time and I felt like I was levitating, that's how exciting all that sound hit me; to let my voice ride on top of that sound.
NA: What are you most proud of?
KB: My curiosity.
NA: At what age did you realize you had a big voice? Were you ever intimidated by it?
KB: My mother had this same type of voice and I just thought all women sounded like Ethel Merman when they sang. I mean, my mother sounded like that in real life and Ethel Merman was Annie Oakley on my favorite record. So it was a very natural feeling. When I got into high school though, I began to experience a certain shaming. There was a great prejudice in the '80s against belting. Of the teachers I worked with in college,
many perceived belting to be harmful. I'm here to tell you it isn't. Nowadays, I think it's generally accepted as an esthetic difference, not a moral one.
NA: Who introduced you to the America Songbook and when did you become interested in old school history?
KB: I love theatre. My mother was a community theatre actress and I went to rehearsal with her as a little kid. There's never been a time in my life, I can recall not loving the sound of a musical; live, recorded, or actually coming from me. My mother did BELLS ARE RINGING with Betty Garrett and Hal Linden before I was born. I've studied that Playbill for years and it planted the names and curiosity for what I call Old School.
NA: What was the best part of originating the role of HAZEL?
KB: The best thing was realizing my dream of creating a role. This was the most responsibility I've been given. My goal has always been to sing songs no one else has sung yet. I've done that many times, but this is unique. I was Hazel and the show was called HAZEL. It was just a huge opportunity in the dreams coming true category.
NA: What would you talk about if you were to have lunch with Ethel Merman?
KB: I would be a detective. I'd ask her to remember every detail about October 13, 1930, the opening night of GIRL CRAZY. Did she have her own dressing room? How did she do her eyes? How did she get home to Astoria and did she go out after and what time did the curtain go up? I'd ask her to describe how 4 encores at the end of Act One works, in a practical sense. Just things that would bore everybody but me. She'd probably be bored too. So we'd end up talking about Almaden Chablis, the names of her pets, (did you really have a poodle named Showboat?) and maybe the weather?
NA: What would you like to accomplish in the next year?
KB: I would like to be fully present for what is coming next. I can't imagine the world going back to the way it was. I know I have a long way to go with technology. It was
kind of cute to be a Luddite in the pre-COVID days. But not anymore! I'm midway through my Ethel Merman Playbill Project. I thought I could do a segment a day. But then I realized nobody wants to just sit through a 20 minute shot of me talking about a Playbill. I've been using iMovie, learning to edit and get the raw shot down to about 10 minutes. Create comedy and education and a respect for the viewers' time. It's averaging one every two days because I'm slow. But I am an old dog working on a new trick. I'm trying to rise to the occasion, which is what I think the next year will be all about.