BWW Interview: Eddie Shapiro Takes Center Stage with Great 'Dames'

Bitten by the theatre bug at a tender age, Eddie Shapiro ranks top billing among the highest echelons of the Broadway and theatre obsessed. Well known for his scintillating theatre writing, the collection of superstars he has interviewed reads like a theatre maven wish list. This time, I got to interview him - about his newly minted book, Nothing Like a Dame: Conversations with the Great Women of Musical Theater (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00J8G6TYI?btkr=1).

EM: You've attended 1200 performances on Broadway? How ever did you become so passionate about theater?

ES: Oh, I guess in the same way anyone gets passionate about anything; I got bitten. I loved going for as long as I can remember. I used to like to separate from my family and sit alone because I didn't like the distraction of having them around me while I watched shows. Weird, right? I have two real passions, actually - the theater and Disney, which would suggest that I have a thing for escapism. You might want to follow up with my therapist.

EM: What was your journey from Broadway maven to theater journalist that led to this book and your conversations with these iconic theater women?

ES: I figured out a long time ago that if you can turn the things you love into the things you do for a living, you're well on the way to happiness. Or at least I am. So that's why I first started writing about theater (and Disney) and why I decided to write this book. Spending my time on the couches of these women seemed like an awfully good way to spend my days.

EM: Maybe even better than therapy. The obvious question: Why did you write this book?

ES: The impetus actually came from watching Barbara Cook concerts. As I am sure you know, Cook peppers her sets with anecdotes about working in the golden age of musical theater. She always had stories about amazing people and the creation of fabulous shows during a time that is no more. I thought "Wow, there aren't really too many links to that golden age left and I want to capture those stories while I still can." So I asked Barbara if she would like to collaborate on her autobiography. She politely declined. But then I thought, "Why stop there? Why not ask more women?" I went back to Barbara first and this time she said "yes." (Of course, as luck would have it, she's not actually in the book - by the time I was ready to publish she was working on her own book and asked me not to include her chapter. But the idea for the whole thing still started with her).

EM: Carol Channing is 93! Speaking of "pinch me" moments, my first gig as a freelance violinist on Broadway was a revival of Hello Dolly with her. As the most "advanced in age" of these women, did Channing impart any particular wisdom that stood out for you?

ES: Absolutely. It was actually what she did more than what she said. I spent a day at Disneyland with Carol and her late husband, Harry, and I thought we'd have a nice, quiet day. Nothing doing! They wanted to do it all. We tore up the place. At that time, my own mother had been struggling with the depression of aging. It was very painful to witness. So it was so inspiring to watch these two, determined to squeeze every ounce of juice out of life. If there was something to do, they wanted to do it, to live it. And I was reminded that the way we age isn't always our choice, but the way we approach it is. I will always be grateful for the lesson.

EM: I say "Brava" to that diva. Have you ever thought of writing fiction about the Broadway and theater world?

ES: Not until now!

EM: What brought you to the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center for this celebratory event?

ES: The Jewish Book Council is a wonderful organization that connects authors with places like the Lawrence Family JCC. I am going to about twenty other places like it, but I am especially excited about Lawrence and San Diego because of the rich theater history there. I have seen a LOT of shows at La Jolla and The Old Globe, and, of course, it was in San Diego that Sutton Foster went from being an ensemble member to the starring role in Thoroughly Modern Millie. We talk, in the book, a lot about that. I am very happy to have the opportunity to be there, in a real theater loving community.

EM: And we are thrilled to have you here. Your book has been lauded by the likes of Oprah, Alan Cumming and John Kander. Have you met any or all of them, and if so, what were those encounters like?

ES: Alan Cumming is a love of a man, who, when I asked him if he'd write a blurb, said "Yes, but I don't know when I will have time." He was appearing in Macbeth on Broadway eight times a week. But he STILL got me something within a week! And John Kander? Also a love of a man. I am still so tickled that he read my book! There are so many nice things about him said in it, I am glad he got to see them. I haven't met Oprah but I will take the call if she calls, I promise.

EM: I'm sure she'd be glad to hear that! I know this is difficult because there are so many gems among them, but would you share with Broadway World readers a few of your favorite highlights from these interviews?

ES: Oy! That's like Sophie's Choice!!! There really are so many. Carol Channing, Leslie Uggams and Donna McKechnie reflecting on Ethel Merman; Patti LuPone talking about coming face to face with Glenn Close; Audra McDonald admitting her own insecurities ... actually they ALL admit to their insecurities and I felt so grateful for their candor. And then there are just moments that stick with me. Angela Lansbury tearing up at the mention of Bea Arthur; Elaine Stritch promising to send me a year's supply of English muffins (what exactly is a year's supply????); watching Patti LuPone cook dinner; Kristin Chenoweth talking to me with her feet in my lap. It was sometimes intimate in ways that I still can't quite believe. These women gave so much. Although on reflection, it shouldn't surprise me - it's the fact that they give all of themselves on stage that makes them truly great.

EM: I can easily picture those tiny Chenoweth feet in your lap! Finally, I'm dying to know which "few stars" attended your book launch at Oxford University Press in New York on Jan. 27 of this year.

ES: Laura Benanti, Debra Monk, Judy Kaye, Lillas White, and Karen Ziemba were all there, along with my first choice for the next volume - Norm Lewis.

EM: Next volume! I'm on it. Eddie, this has been marvelous!! I loved every word. Thank you so much.

ES: Thank you!!!

Meet author Eddie Shapiro for a discussion of his book, Nothing Like a Dame, on Sat., Nov. 15 at 7:30 at the Lawrence Family JCC in La Jolla, CA (http://www.lfjcc.org).

Photo Credit: Michael Paternostro

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From This Author Erica Miner

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