BWW Interview: Sally Mayes And George Dvorsky of THE RETURN OF PETE N KEELY at Birdland
The year was 2001 and the off-Broadway season was about to lose one of its' best productions to the one-two punch of winter doldrums and steady depletion of funding. It didn't stop the love for Pete N Keely, a musical comedy that many hailed as the funniest showbiz spoof since the days of The Carol Burnett Show. The musical starring George Dvorsky as Pete Bartel and Sally Mayes as Keely Stevens was about a 1960's husband-wife singing duo who had acrimoniously divorced but who, needing work, re-teamed for a tv special. The demands of working alongside one another with great tension gave way to much hilarity, and the musical offerings brought both Mayes and Dvorsky many opportunities to showcase the skills for which they have earned such acclaim. Created by James Hindman, Mark Waldrop and Patrick Brady, the show had a huge following, but simply could not keep up with the harsh economy that was live theater in the early 2000s, and the show shuttered.
In the years since the original cast album and the regional theater need for two-hander shows have caused Pete N Keely to develope a large cult following. The love of nostalgia and the knowledge that their show was so beloved lead original stars, Mayes and Dvorsky, to re-team for a concert version in 2017 at the famed Birdland nightclub. The event sold out almost immediately, and out of that one night was born an idea. Pete N Keely would return for a run of shows in the fall of 2019.
Well, that time has come, and George Dvorsky and Sally Mayes are ready to bring that fighting, loving, belting duo Pete N Keely to a new generation of fans. Before that happens I got on the phone with the twosome for a conference call to see what's changed in the few years since Pete N Keely first came to NYC.
This interview has been edited for space and content.
Sally and George, you are back together again with Pete N Keely in Concert. How many years has it been since Pete N Keely first appeared together?
S: It happened in 2000, right George? Was it 2000 or 2001?
G: It's been a lot of years.
S: I know, that's why I was confused. Was it 2000?
G: It's hard to remember.
S: It's been a while!
G: We got together, the first time, in '97, right?
S: Oh yeah! We worked on it for, like, five years before we ever did a production of it.
G: We did a production of it out of town.
S: And since that run, we've done it out of town two or three times. We did it at the Cape Playhouse.
G: We did it down in Florida.
S: We've done it a few times. And then this reunion that we did last year was really to see if we could do a concert version of the show.
G: So that's kind of what this is.
Was Pete N Keely created for you?
G: Not necessarily.
S: I would say that, since we did all the readings...
G: It was written for another...
S: I felt like it was created around what we had to bring to the party, once they found us. I don't feel like it was written for us but I feel like as soon as they did it... I remember we were called to Patrick's apartment and they said, "We want to play you some stuff."
G: And so they did and they said, "We want you to be our Pete N Keely.
S: And so I think that they maybe had us in mind when they were writing it. And after they kept us, we were really kind of it.
G: Mark Waldrop worked on Leading Men Don't Dance, and after we did that performance, he said there was a project he was working on that I might be right for. Sally was on board before I was.
S: I think that once we sang together everybody kind of went "Oh!" Because we kind of had this magical thing from the very minute that we opened our mouth very well.
G: It went very well.
S: To be fair about that, I have to say that George could blend with a cactus.
G: Laughing Hysterically
S: George is a great freaking singer.
G: As are you!
S: The thing that I find so astounding about George in this show is that he sings with every part of his brain because whenever something was too high for me, they'd go: "George, can you sing it?" And he'd go: "Yeah." Or when something was too low, they'd go: "George, we're going to put you down here." But he is able to sing anywhere. That's what I find so astounding. And still, after all this time! You know, I have to be a little bit more careful with my belts and with the way I use my voice, now. But George is just like the same as he always was.
G: Well thank you for saying that! When we started I knew who Sally was. I was a big fan of hers. And when we first started to sing the first couple of pages together and we thought "Ok, this is going to work" and because the arrangements were so wild, they would just throw stuff at us and we would jump in and figure it out.
S: Yeah. It was kind of whoever could sing wherever. (Laughing) I mean we, we worked for a long time on it, so,
G: For a while, it was several songs longer.
S: (Laughing) Well, we had all these things that are not in it anymore and I'd give anything if we had those arrangements. There was an international medley...
G: There were some things that we couldn't get the rights for when we got into a theater, so they had to write their own things...
S: You know the Battle Hymn of the Republic that we do? So that was originally a Porgy and Bess medley and the Gershwin estate wouldn't give them the rights and it pissed Patrick off. So he said, "I'm going to find something that's public domain!" And so he went and he got Battle Hymn and then he just made it like Porgy and Bess and It's hilarious! (Laughing)
G: When he came in with that it was amazing.
S: And I don't remember the name of the Christmas song we were going to sing.
G: They couldn't get the rights to that either.
S: So they wrote "He's Too Fat To Fit Down the Chimney"
G: Which is better!
S: I think we ended up with exactly what we needed. The only thing I miss from all these incarnations is the "The Best Is Yet To Come" arrangement that we had. Cy wouldn't let us use the song.
G: So we had to use "That's All" instead.
S: Which turned out to be an amazing arrangement.
Would you say that Pete N Keely are based on real-life people?
G: I think they borrowed from a Steve and Eydie type duo. But it's funny because there were no production shots. They took our headshots and superimposed them on pictures with Ed Sullivan and Steve Allen, Frank Sinatra, and Carol Burnett and Judy Garland.
What do you think it is that makes Pete N Keely such a special show?
G: It harkens back to a time of Variety Shows, of seeing that kind of stuff and hearing that kind of singing! People don't sing like that anymore.
S: I think that it's special because of this. I think that the chemistry that George and I have made it very special.
G: That's true.
S: Because, if you can feel that we love each other, you can feel that we love singing together. And then the story is really just this very sweet story about two people who love each other and, and can't stop fighting. I just felt like that once they had us on board, they put everything that we did have, as actors and singers, in the show. I feel like if you like this show, then you like me and you like George because that's really what it's about.
So does that mean you two fight, like Pete N Keely?
S: (Laughing) I don't think we have disagreements very often!
G: (Laughing) Very rarely!
S: (Laughing) That's my take on it!
G: We've been in some pretty rough situations with some of the places we've played. Even off-Broadway, when the producer wanted to bring in special guests.
S: The special guests?
G: Remember, we were struggling along, building an audience, slowly, off-Broadway, and the producer had an idea to bring in special guests. Sally and I both thought it was a bad idea and we told them "please just let us get through this" because we WERE building an audience. They ended up getting these three special guests and it cost so much money that we closed.
S: It cost him so much money to bring in the special guest stars, even though they were lovely people. It was Charo
G: And Phyllis Diller. We just had to deal with that kind of stuff together and make it work for us. We never fought about anything.
S: Yeah, we don't fight with each other. We stand up for our couples, you know, with the show. It was a lovefest.
G: It was incredible.
Now that you're back together again, what's different about the experience this time around?
G: I think we've got plenty more years under our belts, in this crazy business. So it makes it even more poignant with the ups and downs that that couple goes through.
S: You know, when we did it the first time, George and I were really at the top of our game. We were really, really active in New York in the business and so we weren't that couple. We were just playing that couple. And we're not that couple now, but we are older and wiser, and we have been through some things. So, you know, it's kind of like George says, it's a little bit more poignant.
Describe the experience of having original Bob Mackie costumes made for you for the original production.
S: (Laughing) Hilarious.
G: We had the BEST time. They flew us out one at a time. Separately. We arrived in LA on Monday, by Wednesday we had mockups, by Friday the most of the costumes were done.
S: Yeah. He, when I flew out, I went to the, I'm sure for George it was the same. He had his little workshop out there and we went and stood on Bob Mackie's pedestal! And there was this Romanian woman who didn't speak much English and she had pins on one of those little pincushions on her wrist, and she walked around, and she'd take my boob and push it up (Laughing) or she would do whatever she needed to do to get that costume where it looks the best. And the way that he fitted me, and George, the way that he fitted both of us, I've never had anybody take that much time and detail with a costume for me.
G: And we've both worked with some really great costumers.
S: But this was like "These are being created FOR US!" And they were GORGEOUS. Oh my god. But we're not wearing the Bob Mackie's for the upcoming show. We don't have them anymore.
G: They got sent back to the shop.
S: Then they got used for every production of this that's been done all over the country for the last 20 years. So you can imagine what they look like.
So every actor and actress who have played Pete N Keely have worn your clothes.
S: Well, the ones who rent them.
G: For opening night. Bob drew paper dolls of both me and Sally and drew our costume sketches with tabs. We can actually have paper dolls.
S: I have them, I've never cut them out. I have Bob's because Bob got a set as well. Everybody in the show had a set of them. I kept saying that I would have mine to put up on the wall and then I would cut Bob's and play with them. (Laughing) Cause when I was a little girl I loved paper dolls.
G: (Laughing) How many people can say they have paper dolls designed by Bob Mackie, of themselves?
S: I KNOW! And they're beautiful. The presentation, he made this big folder and Oh it's gorgeous.
What excites you the most about doing this next run of this show?
G: Singing with each other.
S: Yeah, I love singing with George and I love these jokes and I love, I love to see a whole new audience and the old guys respond to this. Cause this is different than the show because we're not doing the whole show. It's a concert version of it. We're not pretending to be that, we're not pretending to be what we were then. And it is more poignant and more full and fat and rich and I think the story is clearer now. I also think that when we ran, we didn't get the chance to run it as long as we should have. We didn't get the chance for various reasons. We didn't get the chance to let the show develop an audience and to grow and become what we thought it should be. I think that a whole new generation of people are going to discover it watching this. t. And that'll be neat.
G: I think people are always impressed by how funny it is. The last time we did this at Birdland, a year and a half ago, oh my god, I laughed so hard I cried. It's so funny. It's a funny, great script. It's a very funny story, and sweet-natured. It's fun to do.
The two of you have a very clear love for one another and such great on-stage chemistry. Have you considered doing other projects together?
G: We did. We had just so much fun. We did an Irving Berlin evening together and that was really fun, but we just did it in one location, so we haven't really put together a show. We did the redo of Closer Than Ever. When we got to the last night we cried like babies, we get so emotional.
S: I know. It's always emotional when we work together because we love each other. But for the most part, George is... George is a beloved actor in this country. He goes around the country and does all of these amazing roles and around the world really, he does all of these amazing roles. And I'm kind of quirky and unique and specific, and I don't work as much as he does and we have never, except for this show, been cast as love interests in the show together or like another couple kind of situation. And I think it would be great if we were.
I think you'd be great in Hello Dolly.
S: And we could do I Do! I Do! There are options. We just... (Laughing) We're waiting to be asked!
George, Sally just mentioned all your theater work around the country. You just won an acting award for playing Daddy Warbucks, didn't you?
G: At the Berkshire Theater Festival, from the Berkshire critics. I played Daddy Warbucks because I LOVE that show. I've played it five times.
Sally, you've branched out into writing musical theater, haven't you?
S: I sure have! I've written a play called Contradiction of the Southern Soul and we haven't signed any contracts yet, but we're going to do an equity production of it next fall down in Texas. And so I'm thrilled to the moon about that.
Who's your favorite boy-girl singing duo?
S: I really love Stephen and Eydie. And really this is very lovingly, very loosely based on Steve and Eydie. They didn't have a divorce and they didn't have an acrimonious relationship. But the singing and the arrangements are very, very much an echo of that. And so that's really my was my inspiration for this. And, and you know, when I was a little girl, my daddy taught me to sing. He was a jazz guitarist and he taught me to sing, and he taught me to sing by singing for me in having me sing for him. But he also did it by having me listen to music, and one of my big, big, huge influences is Eydie Gorme. And when they sang together it was magic. I can't really think of anybody else. George?
G: See I grew up listening to Gordon McRae and Shirley Jones. My family, my father bought the soundtracks, and not cast albums, and that's who I love to listen to.
S: I never listen to them except for the movies that they were in. Did they do gigs together?
G: They did, after the movies came out, they did a couple together.
S: I know Sheila and Gordon worked together because when she came to see Pete N Keely, afterward she said: "That's us!"
S: "That's us! That's us! That was us!" She felt very strongly about it - she saw their relationship in the show.
I think there's a little bit of everyone in Pete N Keely. Somewhere. That's why I'm so happy you're doing this run at Birdland.
S: The main thing that I want audiences to go away from this with. I want them to go away knowing this is an act of love. That's what it is. As you get older and you get a lot more attached to the people that you love because we start to lose people here and there. It's a comfort zone that you don't have with everybody. And so being in a room with all of these guys is joyful and especially with George. And so it's really an act of love. And you know, the fact that we're doing it at Birdland with my darling Jim Caruso in his beautiful room that he worked for years to have and, and, and so it means it all means a lot to, to be able to do that again and just, just, I hope we sell to the rafters. What we want to do with this is to be the Monday night tour.
G: We don't want to do a big tour of this or a big revival of it. It's a lot of singing.
S: What we would like to do is a Monday night tour. You know how every theater in the country is dark on Monday night? Why can't we go to those cities and do a Monday night tour of this Pete N Keely concert? That's what I want from them. What do you think, George? Is that a good plan?
G: Definitely. That's an ideal outcome.
A world with more Pete N Keely would certainly be ideal.
Sally, George, I am so glad you took time out to talk to me today. I can't wait to be there at the opening of PETE N KEELY IN CONCERT.
G: Thank you, Stephen!
S: You're precious! I thank you so much!
Pete N Keely plays Birdland November 10, 17, and 24. For Information and tickets to opening night: Birdland Website Link
Photo of Pete N Kelly taken by Stephen Mosher during the run of the original production: