BWW Interview: Mark Cortale, with Seth Rudetsky, Presents Judy Kuhn in 'Broadway In New Orleans' Concert at NOCCA

BWW Interview: Mark Cortale, with Seth Rudetsky, Presents Judy Kuhn in 'Broadway In New Orleans' Concert at NOCCA
Judy Kuhn, 2014
Photo by Denise Winters

Lucky for all of us here in New Orleans, Mark Cortale is again bringing his Broadway in New Orleans series to the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) beginning tonight at 7:30pm. The first concert of the 2016-2017 series features an actor/singer who you may know from any number of Broadway shows such as LES MISERABLES, SHE LOVES ME, and most recently FUN HOME. Or, if you grew up in the 90s like me, you may know her as the barefoot running, Native American, Disney princess Pocahontas. Is "Colors of the Wind" anyone else's go-to road trip jam?

I couldn't be more excited to announce that Judy Kuhn will be gracing the stage at NOCCA tonight with accompanist and host Seth Rudetsky to share her extraordinary gift of song with us. She is as lovely over the phone as she is on stage, and took some time to share with me about her journey from child performing arts enthusiast to professional actor-singer-teacher-recording artist (she literally does it all!) in preparation for tonight's show.

I am so glad you are coming to New Orleans to do a show for us! I was going to ask if you've ever been to our city before, and then I remembered quite a long time ago you sang at THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME movie premiere and I was there!
Oh yeah! I don't actually count that as a visit to New Orleans because I literally was in a hotel, went in an underground tunnel to the Superdome, and then back to the hotel, and flew home. But, I have since then, a couple of years ago in fact. I went down for a long weekend with my husband just for fun, and we had a fantastic time!

Oh, I'm glad. It really is a fun city! And, by the way, I totally count that short trip for the premiere because I was so excited for that day and remember it well. So, I've learned a lot about Judy-the-actor, but I want to know more about you pre-acting career. Think back to elementary school, high school, whenever it was, and tell me about when you first started performing and how that developed into wanting to turn this into a living.
Well, let's see. I mean, you know, I think when I was a kid my parents took me to the theatre a lot both in Washington where I grew up and we lived for a year in New York. They took me to my first Broadway show, and, I don't know... there was just something about the magic of it that really got to me. I think there was something about... I was so transported by what I saw, but yet at the same time, I recognized that these were actors pretending, and the idea that these people could create a world that was so believable seemed like some kind of alchemy to me. I wanted to know what that was, and I wanted to be able to do that. I wanted to be part of that. After college I took a year and sort of did little things here and there trying to figure out what I really wanted to do, and somebody said to me... I was living up in Boston, and someone said to me, "Why don't you do Summer Stock?" I had never really heard of Summer Stock, but I found out about that and I did an audition that they do for all of the New England companies in New York... they audition people and they decide who they want. So I went up and did some Summer Stock, and I had such a great summer, and people there said, "Oh, you need to come to New York!" So I thought, ok if I'm ever going to try this I should try it now while I'm young. So I moved to New York and I called anybody that I knew who I thought might be able to give me some advice and guidance, and I started going to auditions, and I started working pretty much right away. I felt very lucky, and great things happened, and it sort of set me on my way and I never really looked back.

Did you ever have to do the seemingly typical work at a restaurant and then perform at night kind of thing? What sort of non-acting jobs have you had?
Well I did work in a restaurant when I first came to New York, and I worked as a cashier in a store in SoHo. But then I started working [as an actor], and once I started working I kind of gave that up because I didn't really need to do that anymore. I also was making money... I mean I pretty quickly started working. I got a national tour and then I got a Broadway show, and so it really kind of worked out really well... almost too well, because I got a little spoiled I think.

What is the most difficult part about having a career in the performing arts, because it's not an easy route to go?
Right, well, I mean there's many things that I consider challenging. Of course there's the uncertainty of it. You could be having a great time and get some great jobs, and then you can have a fallow time when your phone isn't ringing. There's a lot of economic uncertainty involved. I think the challenges change as your life changes. I have a family and that's been the challenge of the last few years for me when I've been working non-stop and doing some of the most exciting and best work I think I've probably ever done in my life. At my stage in my career and my age it's really a gift, but then my family sacrifices a lot. I never see my husband because he's a writer... he gets up in the morning and usually when I am waking up he's gone or about to walk out the door. And then I'm gone in the evening, so you know, that's challenging. Right now I have a little bit of a break so we get a little more time together. That's a challenge when... I have a daughter, now she's out of college, but when she was young it was a challenge always trying to figure out when I should be working and when I shouldn't be working, and was it ok to leave town for a little bit... those sort of decisions that you have to make. I think when you're younger the challenges are more about ego and dealing with rejection and then the challenges of the uncertainty. When I teach, which I do every now and then, I tell students just know that your career doesn't just go on an upward... it's not like success happens in a steady, upward way. It's very much an up and down thing, and you hope, kind of like the stock market that goes up and down, you hope that over the long haul it goes on an upward trend, but you never know. The thing is that we are a commodity so what you're offering up changes, and then it depends what parts are out there for you at that stage of your life. It's a challenging thing and I feel like I've been very lucky. I've gotten to work with amazing people and play amazing parts. I do feel very, very lucky.

Yes! You have got a lot of show titles on your resume that I love... LES MISERABLES, THE GLASS MENAGERIE, THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD, SHE LOVES ME, FUN HOME... and of course lots of people know you were the voice of Pocahontas, and, hello, I was a 90s kid so that's really cool to me! I know it's probably hard to pick favorites, but do you have a credit that you are most proud of or something that you feel has defined you?
I guess I would have to say the most profound and deeply satisfying experience I've ever had was FUN HOME for so many reasons. It was a great show. I've never done anything in which I was so involved from such an early stage of its development, so I felt like I was part of the making of it in a way that was really exciting. The creative team was truly an extraordinary group of people. The cast was an extraordinary group, and because so many of us were involved in the development we became a family. We worked together over the course of four or five years. But, also, because of what it was about and the material and how it seemed to reach beyond just being a job, just being a show, that it had this huge impact on people's lives. We were able to do a lot of social activism in relationship to the show. We went to Orlando in our last month and did a benefit concert for Equality Florida. There were all sorts of things that happened around the show that were very unusual, very profound experiences, and it just had a huge amount of meaning. I would say that's really... I don't expect to ever have an experience quite like it. While I'm sure that I'll have other jobs that I love, that was really unique.

I guess the other thing I would say is I got to do two productions of PASSION, and that part is just, you know, it's one of the best written for women in music theatre, and to have the chance to get to cross paths with Stephen Sondheim... I did two really amazing productions of it... one at The Kennedy Center in 2002 directed by Eric Schaeffer, which was beautiful and that I actually did with my FUN HOME co-star Michael Cerveris; and then, more recently, about three years ago now at Classic Stage Company with John Doyle directing, and a very intimate, striped down kind of setting, and that was also quite extraordinary. To have been able to play that really amazing part twice was also a great gift.

What is it like to be able to build a show from the ground up like you did with FUN HOME and to be a part of the original company as opposed to coming in to replace somebody?
Actually, I've never replaced somebody! I'm about to, actually, because I'm about to go into FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, which is running on Broadway right now. I've done revivals; I guess that's the equivalent of replacing somebody in that the material is already written. When it's a new piece it depends really on your collaborators and how open they are to what you have to say. This group of people [FUN HOME] was very collaborative. They were always interested in what people had to say, and I really trusted; but, if I ever felt like wow I don't really understand this scene or I feel like we're missing this part of the story, they really listened to you. The big song that I had in FUN HOME was really written on me. It was written for my voice and for what I was bringing to it. That's really special! Actors kind of live for that!

You mentioned earlier that you also teach. What do you teach?
I've taught a lot of vocal performance, which is basically acting songs and connecting language to music and how you connect to an audience and all of that. I've done master classes and workshops, and I taught at the Atlantic Theater [Acting] School. I taught their NYU students a couple of times. I really enjoy it a lot.

That's so cool! I teach high school theatre so from one teacher to the next, do you have any advice?
I sort of feel like so many times kids come across art teachers, performing arts teachers, or writing teachers who are so critical and I think it's so important to be... you know to not let students be lazy, but I think it's really important, especially when they're acting and they're so vulnerable, to give them encouragement and to let them know when they've taken a step forward, when they've done something new. I think it's also really important to check in with them to see whether they're feeling the changes and be able to articulate what they've learned and what's changed from one go at something to another. I also think that it's really important to emphasize craft and how important craft is... that you don't do things with your fingers crossed and hope it all works out... that you really do the work.

Aside from acting and teaching you also have quite a few recordings out there. You've got some cast recordings, but also some of your own. Do you write music?
No, no, no. I have four solo CDs. Three of them are actually celebrating particular songwriters. One was just a more personal collection of different songs that I love that I sort of put together. The most recent was really a celebration of a family of songwriters, which is Richard Rodgers who everybody knows, and his daughter Mary Rodgers who was also a great songwriter, and her son Adam Guettel who wrote FLOYD COLLINS and THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA and is kind of a genius. I think it's an extraordinary family legacy, and one that I don't think exists anywhere else in musical theatre.

Yeah, especially with writers! Well, can you give me a preview of some of the things that you may be singing at your show in New Orleans?
Well, Seth [Rudetsky] and I are still looking at that, but we just did an evening in Provincetown that we'll probably draw from a lot of the same material. It was a lot of things from shows I've been in, some things from the albums I've recorded, some of Seth's favorites that he always insists that I sing... just a variety of theatre songs that I love and that I'm associated with.

Awesome! Well I'm so glad that these concerts are going to be happening down here in New Orleans. The performing arts world is something we definitely have and it's growing in popularity. We get a lot of the national tours that come through, but this gives us another opportunity to be exposed to artists that we may not otherwise get to see!

Do you have any projects coming up that we can look forward to seeing you in?
I'm going into FIDDLER ON THE ROOF that's on Broadway right now that Danny Burnstein is starring in that Bartlett Sher directed. I start performances November 22. I'm just doing 6 weeks, it closes on December 31. I'm really excited about that, that'll be really fun. I have never done that show. I have some concerts coming up after the New Year. I'm doing my Rodgers/Guettel concert at a few places, and I think that's it for right now that I know of.

I am so excited for you being in FIDDLER. I wish I was able to get to New York before it closes because it's such a great show and it hasn't been on Broadway in quite a while.
Yes, thank you.

If you, like me, are stuck in the south and missing the opportunity to catch Judy on Broadway in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF before it closes in December - or just because she's plain awesome - check out her Broadway in New Orleans concert with Seth Rudetsky tonight at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. Tickets are still available at broadwaynola.com. See you there!

Coming up next in the Broadway in New Orleans series is Gavin Creel, star of THE BOOK OF MORMON, HAIR, and THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE.



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