Interview: Klea Blackhurst Brings Broadway History to Life at Chelsea Table + Stage

Tributes to Vernon Duke, Jerry Herman, Ethel Merman and more this spring and fall

By: Apr. 10, 2024
Interview: Klea Blackhurst Brings Broadway History to Life at Chelsea Table + Stage
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Singer Klea Blackhurst has long been doing tribute shows rich in song and Broadway history. Now, starting this Sunday, April 14th at 7 pm, Blackhurst will be revisiting each of these shows in a season-long series of “The Box Set” at Chelsea Table + Stage. The series will start with “Autumn in New York: Vernon Duke’s Broadway” on April 14, followed by “One of the Girls: The Words and Music of Jerry Herman” on May 5, “Dreaming of a Song: The Music of Hoagy Carmichael” featuring Billy Stritch, on September 15, “An Evening with Klea Blackhurst” on October 20, and concluding with a reprise of Blackhurst’s most-requested evening, “Everything the Traffic Will Allow: The Songs and Sass of Ethel Merman,” on November 10.

Tickets to the upcoming Vernon Duke show this Sunday are available here.

I spoke with Blackhurst about the upcoming series and what draws her to preserving and presenting Broadway history.

Where did the idea come from to do this series of tribute shows?

My producer, Denise Cooper, came up with the idea. We’ve been working together for over 25 years. It turns out she was nostalgic for a few of them. They are little theatre pieces. And aside from listening to the albums we recorded, we hadn't really given them any love lately. They are little musicals.  They have scripts and scores and it’s fun to take them off the shelf and let them come out again. I think they hold up beautifully. They are thrilling to perform and in some ways they are very challenging. The Ethel Merman show, Everything the Traffic Will Allow, is so brassy and then Autumn in New York: Vernon Duke's Broadway is so classy! I’m a little bit impressed, if I do say so myself, by the two sides of that coin.

What draws you to this kind of classic age of Broadway songs?

Oh, I’m just an old soul, I guess. They are just so smart and beautifully crafted. They have high standards. And so, we call them just that. Standards. I feel like we are losing our history sometimes. So many young performers don't know what happened on our Broadway stages before they got there. But I feel a strong pull to be a force, a living history book. 

How much research goes into these tributes? What is your process like of putting the shows together?

Much of the research happened before the internet was a super-computer burning a hole in my pocket. Which is really lucky. Not everything is on the internet, but we treat it like it is. Researching Ethel Merman was so much fun. That’s the earliest show written for this “Box Set.” I would spend hours at Strand Books. Because Merman is a twentieth century supernova, working with everyone in the theatre between 1930 and her death in the early ’80s, I would just look at the index of every rare book and work my way through. She was everywhere. I mean countless – hundreds of – entries. If you read George Gershwin’s account of the opening night of Girl Crazy, which is the night Merman becomes a star, then cross reference that with Ginger Roger’s version, take Merman’s own recollection into account, then factor in what the producer said, written accounts of members of the orchestra, Mel Brooks as a young boy in the last row of the balcony, eventually you get a sense of the truth and a completely thrilling night comes to life. That kind of thing just lights me up!

Out of all of these people you’re honoring, is there one you feel an especial affinity to?

I love them all. They bring out different sides of me. I was so obviously drawn to Ethel Merman being a young kid with a big voice. But after celebrating her amazing Broadway career, made up only of hits, I fell in love with Vernon Duke, who had an amazing Broadway career that was filled only with flops! Amazing to think that “April in Paris” and “Autumn in New York” came from giant Broadway flops, Walk a Little Faster and Thumbs Up! respectively. But then there’s Jerry Herman, who became a friend and champion. So you can’t really get an answer out of me! I don't want to hurt their feelings. I love them all. 

What have you been listening to lately?

Dolly Parton. Just catching up on the output of America’s most beloved icon. I have a hard time staying current, but Dolly had that new rock and roll album come out. I was proud of myself for listening to that and it just made me want to go all the way back to the early country recordings… of course Dolly went on record complimenting Beyonce’s new recording of “Jolene”! So, I’ll probably listen to that next.

Are you up to anything else coming up besides this exciting run of shows?

I am on my way to Goodspeed to work on a new musical called A Complicated Woman, directed by Jeff Calhoun. It’s my favorite thing in the world, working on new shows. I love singing songs that haven’t been introduced yet. I’m also preparing to play the Witch in Into the Woods for Opera North in August. I mean that’s a thrilling proposition. I’m getting into shape right now. Talk about classy – Sondheim with an opera company!

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I’m so happy to talk about “The Box Set.” Thank you. It’s fun to see it come together and I’m really looking forward to sharing them at Chelsea Table + Stage. It’s a perfect room for me. The ceiling is high. I do well in a room with high ceilings




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