BWW Interviews: TOMMY FEMIA and RICK SKYE Become Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli
Two of the greatest and most iconic legends in the history of show business, mother and daughter dynamos Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli, are brilliantly channeled by multi-award winning entertainers Tommy Femia (as Garland) and Rick Skye (as Minnelli) in JUDY AND LIZA: TOGETHER AGAIN!, now in its fifth year at Don't Tell Mama. This delicious and uproarious tribute provides an energetic evening of parodies, duets and classic songs, blending moments of pathos with over-the-top belly laughs. Winners of the 2012 Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs (MAC) Awards for "Best Duo," Femia and Skye are perfect artists to spend the holidays with - or should I say Judy and Liza? At some point, a magical spell is cast and one believes. As Buddy Clarke of Entertainment News and Views said of them, "Houdini himself could not have created such an illusion."
Tommy Femia, who grew up in a traditional Italian-American family in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, is a 7 time MAC Award recipient for his uncanny portrayal of Judy Garland and has been transforming into Garland since 1992. He was recently featured in an online Vanity Fair issue when he entertained at a Sotheby's dinner. Eerily evoking her look, voice and mannerisms, including her witty self-depreciation and rich singing (no lip synching), he truly inhabits her without ever being disrespectful or cruel. Prior to becoming the foremost Garland impersonator, he honed his acting chops in summer stock, dinner theater, and off-Broadway and has since even played Nancy Reagan. But primarily it's been Judy, Judy, Judy!
Internationally acclaimed Rick Skye looks nothing like Minnelli (he, in fact, sans makeup, resembles Alec Baldwin), but with a spiky wig, his own great dancer's gams and innate talent at capturing and projecting what makes Liza Liza, he really makes you see and feel her onstage. Like Minnelli, he's a triple threat. He combines Fosse moves, biographical patter, and powerhouse belting (like Femia, no lip synching) with humor that makes audiences laugh until their sides ache. (The "Mein Chair" bit is zany and priceless). His diverse career includes touring with Ann Reinking in The American Dance Machine, playing opposite the indefatigable Madame in "It's Madame with an E" (which he wrote), and ongoing success as Liza in "A Slice O'Minnelli" (MAC Award - Best Impersonation and "Best Achievement in Performance" Award at the Dublin Theatre Festival.)
The sequined chanteuses are performing at Don't Tell Mama (343 W. 46th Street) on select Saturdays throughout December, including a special New Years Eve show! (Check the website for dates and times) (http://www.donttellmamanyc.com/shows). They discuss what it takes to become show biz royalty.
Q: Where does the drive to perform come from?
Rick: The cliché is that you crave attention but I think the reality is that, if you are creative person and a natural performer, you have something that you want to GIVE to people and THAT is the reason you never stop trying to do so. Oh, and because "none of us got enough love in our childhood", to quote Roxie Hart.
Tommy: Since I can remember, since I was tiny, I mean I never wanted to do anything else but perform. I don't know if it's genetic or what, because my mother was certainly no stage mother. She never wanted me or my little brother [to do it]. My little brother [John] did a lot of television when he was a kid. It was all our decision. She supported what we wanted, but it was never a Mama Rose behind it.
Q: Where did you find your greatest outlets growing up?
Rick: I was always creating opportunities to perform - I had a puppet theater, I was writing skits and plays in school, playing piano, tap dancing, singing in chorus at school and taking any opportunity to tell a funny story complete with impersonations of all the characters involved. I remember singing "Ladies Who Lunch" on the bus stop in sixth grade. Nobody got it, but I'm still here.
Tommy: I started with the choir, my church choir. I was about ten, eleven years old and I was in it for four years and it was great training, and then I went to High School of Performing Arts. I was a music major. So it's always been there.
Q: Is this the path you envisioned for yourselves?
Rick: If you mean living in New York and dedicating my life to the performing arts, then "Yes" - I am doing what I set out to do. If you mean playing "Liza" in a show - I never would have dreamed of it. It is, however, a great role and I approach it like an actor would any part. It's a great acting exercise - when you play the opposite sex, you have to investigate EVERYTHING about the character from the foundation up.
Tommy: Oh, no, no. It's funny how it happened. A friend of mine from high school [Hal Simon] - we used to do impersonations and fool around at lunch time and all of that and he had asked me how many times if we should do a Judy Garland and Ann Miller show, because he does a very funny Ann Miller. This went on for years, so finally I just said, "Hal, shut up and write it if you want to do it. We'll do something onstage at five o'clock and nobody will know but our families." And it was an instant hit. We were only scheduled to do a few shows and we wound up running nine months before he had to leave and that's when I started doing solo Judy over twenty years ago.
Q: How did you come together as a duo?
Rick: We were booked separately at the Rising Action Theater in Florida for a week. When we arrived there, they said they "wanted a Judy/Liza show". We didn't have one, so we made one in three days. It was a solid hit, so Tommy turned his bi-monthly slot at "Don't Tell Mama's" into "OUR" slot for a few weeks as a trial and it just kept growing.
Tommy: We were just acquaintances and I had wanted to do a Judy/Liza show and he was interested, you know, just for a short, little run and that's gone so well that it's four years - four years of a duo show.
Q: What makes your chemistry work?
Rick: We are like cousins from the same family. Our voices blend, we both love what we do and we understand the energy of the people we are portraying and have loved and admired them both for years. You can't fake the warmth between us. People translate it as Mother/Daughter affection in the show, but it is our real affection for one another.
Tommy: We love each other very much.
Q: How has the act been evolving?
Rick: It has gotten deeper, I think. We added "I can't give you anything but love" as a quiet moment and we really just look at each other and do the song simply and just appreciate each other for a moment onstage. I think that is when the show flips into another realm. It is all fun and games until then and then we touch the audience's hearts and it is magic.
Tommy: We're so much more comfortable in those high heels! We have a great rapport. People actually think we're a mother and daughter team.
Q: Is there anything you do to keep it fresh?
Rick: It is such a difficult show to do - there are hundreds of cues and marks we have to hit, plus the hours of prep time and tech that I have to be very concentrated for a long period of time. Once the show starts, I try to stay open to things happening in the moment and then I don't have to "do anything" to keep it fresh. Between the new audience and honestly delivering each moment, it simply is new and fresh each time.
Q: How much do critics and reviews influence you?
Rick: In a cabaret situation where it IS possible to change things immediately and without it costing thousands of dollars, I take critics seriously to see if they've seen something that I've missed that can improve the show. We don't usually get much criticism nowadays. People say what they "liked" or "didn't like" but that is subjective. So, if someone questions a structural choice, I take it seriously. If they say they "liked" or "disliked" something, I follow my instinct.
Tommy: Oh, my! In the beginning, you have to develop a thick skin. Not everything's for everybody. My audiences for over twenty years have proved that I'm doing it right, so I don't pay too much attention to critics. It's great to have a great review. People call you, you have blurbs, but I don't enter that much into it, because it's one person's opinion.
Q: Rick, I know you once were the partner of Madame, the legendary puppet created by Wayland Flowers, and did the show "Madame with an E." Tell me about what it was like to get into character with Madame and how that experience is different from inhabiting Liza.
Rick: The experience is almost identical. I kind of "channel" my characters and so it is more of getting into a spiritual mindset that occurs before the show. With Liza I have 3 hours of make-up to do and use that time to get into her headspace. With Madame I had to work to make the hand and rod movements realistic, along with the mouth and body to make her breathe and come to life. On a good night I would sit back and watch Madame perform. On a good night with Liza, I just "AM".
Q. What is the strangest or funniest thing that has ever happened to either of you onstage?
Rick: In San Francisco with Madame one night, I felt the spirit of Wayland Flowers with me so strongly that it was as if he were doing the show and, when it was over, I sort of collapsed - like Madame Arcati after a séance - the audience cheered and Wayland's cousin said it was the best Madame show he had seen since his famous cousin passed away. It was frightening and exhilarating and wonderful. And some guy ran up on stage after "New York, New York" once and kissed me on the mouth. That wasn't as spiritual but it was scary, funny and gross at the same time. Tommy pried him off me and the show continued, but I was a little taken aback.
Tommy: Oh, my goodness! Well, one time when me and Hal were doing the Judy/Ann Miller show, he was doing a dance number and his wig flew off his head, because he was bald and when you don't have hair, you pin the wig onto your own hair. He had nothing to pin it on and it went flying! I broke up for about two minutes and said, "This girl's worked too hard. Let's go back and start from the top."
Q: What about your greatest or proudest moments?
Rick: I performed my show "A Slice O' Minnelli" at the 800-seat Apollo Theatre in London. A show that I wrote and nurtured had a huge marquee on Shaftsbury Avenue in between "Les Miz", "Cabaret" and "Frost Nixon"!! When I got home, a publicist called me and said, "I was just in London and turned the corner and there was your name 30 feet high!!" We won "Best Achievement in Performance" at the Dublin Theatre Festival and have played London many times since. It is always a thrilling experience.
Tommy: One of the coolest things a few years back [when] I did the show, I heard Sir Ian McKellen was in the audience and then after the show, I do my finale and I leave, going through the room. He's in the back, standing up. He grabbed me and kissed me on the mouth and said, 'Sing 'The Man That Got Away' for me." So I did. No way to close the show - with a torch song, but when Ian McKellen asks --- (Laughs).
Q: Where did you learn your comic timing?
Rick: My comic timing and my sense of humor have always been my own. I got it from my grandmother on my mother's side and my mom is a wonderful mimic and storyteller. I don't know anyone who is funny who learned it. They just ARE.
Tommy: I think timing like that is instinctive. I've always been really good at musical comedy. That's always been with me. You really can't learn that.
Q: Tommy, what is your personal connection to Judy Garland? Why do you think she endures as an icon on so many levels above so many other stars?
Tommy: I remember when I was like four years old, sitting on the stairs in my house with friends and we'd sing 'Over the Rainbow' together. I had always adored her since I can remember. I can't tell you the albums I started buying at like ten and twelve years old. She was such a survivor - of course, until she died. The woman came back from the dead I don't know how many times. People relate to that. Older people loved her when she was a child and watched her develop and deteriorate. In my opinion, she was the greatest entertainer of the 20th Century - I mean, even over Streisand. I love Streisand's voice, but did you ever see her live? I saw her in '94 at Madison Square Garden and she was so mannered, she was icy, she was so rehearsed. It wasn't spontaneous. When Liza does a show, when she had that voice, she put you in her lap. You have to be a really good actor when you're singing, because if you don't believe the lyric, your audience isn't going to believe it either. Judy had that talent and she connected with people from all walks of life. They related to her. Never mind the talent, but the perseverance. She tried as hard as she could.
Q: What does it take to endure in show business?
Rick: Stella Adler once said to me, "If anything I say can deter you - quit now". So, first, determination. Secondly, say "yes" to what comes your way and adapt and reinvent what you do as you go along. I always have goals, but I also manage to see a good fork in the road. Do things that interest you - I would not be doing the show I'm doing now if I had turned a blind eye to the opportunity. I have performed around the world because of this character - so that was a good bend in the road!!
Tommy: What does it take? Perseverance. I tell you something. Once you give up, like if you audition, people get sick of it, the rejection. The first audition you don't go on is probably the one you might've gotten. And you know it's like if you step out of the line, somebody else moves up. You have to have the love there. In my case, I adore Judy, so it's never a chore.
Q: How do you feel show people are different from other people?
Rick: There was a time when show people were separated from society blatantly and had a strong bond to the business because it was also the only level of society they could function in. Now, you have people from all walks of life who want to be famous etc. That doesn't make one a show person. I think we are dedicated to our craft and identify with the role of actor as it serves society. We serve a purpose and perform whether we reap huge monetary rewards or not. The money would be great, but we would rather be in a theater in front of an audience than anywhere - not home at dinner, not on vacation, not shopping. It's a calling and one that we love.
Tommy: Oh, very needy, very neurotic. Show business attracts a lot of damaged goods. It just does. People that weren't loved enough as a kid that have to get it from their audience - it's like you're adopting another family.
Q: Do you have anything special planned for the New Year's Eve show?
Rick: We do a TWO ACT version of the show in theaters and that is the version we do on New Year's Eve! We get to include a few more duets and I think I may do two new solos this year. I can't think of a better reason to ever sing "My Mammy" than in this show! And we do the count down in the front room of "Mama's" at midnight, which is great fun. We're in our fifth year now and our third New Year's Eve and I hope we go on for a long time to come.
Tommy: We're going to change things around - a lot of new numbers. Like last year, we started before dinner, then there was the break and we do the rest of it. It's a lot of fun there [and] the food is terrific!