Interview: Theatre Life with Judy Kuhn

The off the charts performer on her work in Arena Stage's Unknown Soldier and more.

By: Apr. 15, 2024
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Interview: Theatre Life with Judy Kuhn
Judy Kuhn

Today’s subject Judy Kuhn is known to musical theatre aficionados from her performances in Rags, Chess, Fun Home and more on Broadway. Currently this off the charts performer is living her theatre life at Arena Stage in Unknown Soldier in the role of Lucy Anderson. The production runs through May 5th in the Kreeger.

When not performing in a show, Ms. Kuhn is an established concert performer. Her solo cds include the works of Jule Styne, Richard Rodgers, Mary Rodgers, and Adam Guettel.

You might remember her Fosca in Passion as part of the Kennedy Center’s Sondheim Celebration.

For Disney fanatics and lovers of Disney in general, Ms. Kuhn will always be known as the singing voice of Pocahontas. Yes, Judy Kuhn introduced “Colors of the Wind” and “Just Around the Riverbend” to the world.

We all know how hard it is for new musicals to get produced. Read on for what Judy thinks the solution is in order for new musicals to move forward.

Unknown Soldier is one of those shows that features a very interesting story with a stellar cast of performers and Brahms infused score. Judy Kuhn is part of an ensemble that can’t be rivaled for its talent to be sure.

Please consider seeing Unknown Soldier at Arena Stage. Judy Kuhn’s performance is one you will be talking about in a good way for “Days and Days” to be sure.

When Unknown Soldier was offered to you, what were your thoughts on the material after your first read?

It was the last show I saw before everything shut down. Opening night was just two days before. Everyone there was a little bit distracted and confused about what was happening in the world.  So, what I mostly remember is the anxiety of whether I should actually be in the theatre.

I had some conversations with our director, Tripp Cullman, and the book writer and co lyricist Danny Goldstein about the show after because I had some thoughts about it. They're so interested in what people have to say. They really responded to some of my thoughts. Danny did some rewriting and did so all through rehearsals.

Interview: Theatre Life with Judy Kuhn
Judy Kuhn in Arena Stage's production of Unknown Soldier.
Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Can you please tell us a little something about the show as well as something about your character?

Ultimately, I think the piece is about loss, and grief, and forgiveness. The jumping off place for this story is when Ellen, who is the granddaughter of Lucy Lemay after she goes to her house in which she was raised after her grandmother dies, and is sorting through her things and finds a picture from a clipping of Lucy, of her grandmother with this man who's called the Living Unknown Soldier.

She has no idea who he is or why she's with him hundreds of miles from where she lived. It starts a kind of detective story that she enlists a man who works at Cornell in Ithaca to try to help her find out the mystery. So, it goes back and forth between their sleuthing and this past of her grandmother as a young woman and then sort of looking in on her life as a child because there's also a young version of her when she's eleven interacting with my character as an older woman. In case you’re now confused I play the grandmother of Ellen who is now looking for the answers.

Interview: Theatre Life with Judy Kuhn
L-R Judy Kuhn, Riglee Ruth Bryson, Kerstin Anderson, and Lora Lee Gayer
in Arena Stage's production of Unknown Soldier.
Photo by Teresa Castracane.  

When working on a newer musical, do you find your preparation to be any different ahead of the first rehearsal versus going into a known piece?

Not really. You're going through the same process of trying to understand who your character is, what makes them, what motivates them to do the things they do, what their backstory is, how they talk, how they move through the world.

The only difference is when it's new, you have an opportunity to have an impact on the writing. If you're working with great people who are collaborative, they're really interested in developing your character, what is working and what's not, what might be missing and what they've missed. I find that aspect of working on a new piece or a newish piece is really thrilling.

You’ve been involved in several new musicals on Broadway over the years. Why do think Broadway nowadays is more interested in the jukebox genre of show over original content and do you think we will ever return to the days of musicals like Rags and Chess being produced on Broadway?

These are really difficult times for the theatre. It was tough pre-pandemic but now it’s even more of a crisis. I really believe the nonprofits should have federal funding. It’s crazy that we are a western nation that does not federally fund the arts when others do. I think it's really a shame.

I don't really understand the economics of the commercial theatre or Broadway

I think you always hope if something's good, it's going to break through. Fun Home ran a year and a half and recouped in nine months. It's always a gamble. I don't know what the path forward is, except just to keep moving forward.

Many people know you as the singing voice of Disney’s Pocahontas. There was a song in that film that was cut called “If I Ever Knew You” which had you singing a duet with Mel Gibson. Did you record the vocals for that song together?

No, everybody, records alone. I love that duet by the way, and it was sad that they cut it, but they just felt like at that point in the movie a ballad was not what was needed.

Your solo cds feature the works of some of the best composers to ever work on Broadway. Rodgers, Styne, and more. Assuming there are plans and I hope there are to record another solo cd, who would you like to record the works of next?

There are no plans as they don’t make money now. I do like to put together concerts and I am always thinking about what themes to explore.

Interview: Theatre Life with Judy Kuhn
Perry Sherman and Kerstin Anderson in Arena Stage's production of 
Unknown Soldier.
Photo by Teresa Castracane.

What would you like audiences to take away with them after seeing Unknown Soldier?

I hope they're moved. I just hope that people question and have conversations about what they've just seen. I hope they think about their own families and legacies I hope that people will think about why people do the things they do.

After Unknown Solider closes, what is next for you?

Titanic! The last in City Center’s Encores! Series. It's going to be directed by Anne Kaufman who is another director I love. It’s going to be a huge cast, huge orchestra, and some of my castmates are people who I also know, and love and I've worked with before. So again, I'll be in a room with people that I love. Really love and respect. It should be fun.

After that, I hope to have the summer off to enjoy myself and my family. It’s been a very busy year so far.

Special thanks to  Arena Stage's Lead Associate, Public Relations Anastasia St. Hilaire for her assistance in coordinating this interview.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.


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