Theater and cabaret star Karen Akers is in all probability the reason I am involved in cabaret. The cast album of Nine, on which she played Luisa and for which she was nominated for a Tony, was the first original cast album that I fell in love with. A live video of her show at Wolftrap was, for a while, a staple on PBS (and is available on videotape and should be required viewing for every performer interested doing a cabaret show) and the shock of recognition I had to that most distinctive of voices transferred that love of theater over to cabaret as well. She is undoubtedly one of the world's quintessential cabaret stars. Her shows are a perfect blend of theatrical cabaret, embodying the best of both worlds. Her new show, Theatre Songs, recently opened at the Algonquin's fabled Oak Room and I had the pleasure of talking to her before her show.
Jonathan: Welcome to Talkin' Broadway, Karen. I have been wanting to do this for quite some time.
Karen: Why thank you.
JF: I saw your show, Theatre Songs, on Tuesday and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was especially a treat hearing you sing three songs from one of my favorite shows, Nine.
KA: It was the first time I have performed those songs out of the context of the show. Actually, that is not quite true. I had done "Be on Your Own" twice: once at a one-night event for David Carroll, because he begged me to and I couldn't say no, and another time at a music industry AIDS benefit for Maury Yeston. However, I have never done the songs before in my own shows.
JF: Nine was the first cast album I fell in love with, in no small part due to your vocals.
KA: Thank you. You know that they are reissuing the original cast album in May.
JF: I do! I got an advance press copy. I love it ... it has so much previously unreleased material on it. I nearly drove off the road when the overture ended and all of a sudden I heard you say, "Guido, I have to tell you. This is not my idea of a successful marriage," something I had never heard before.
KA: I know! Isn't it neat?
JF: Makes me wonder why they didn't release some of this in the first place. But it is a treat to hear more from you, especially your scenes with the greatly missed Raul Julia.
Have you seen the revival?
KA: I have.
JF: Was it an intriguing experience seeing someone play a role you originated?
KA: Yes, it was intriguing. Naturally, I was very curious to see the show, and what I came away with was that it is virtually a completely different show ... a different creation, which is wonderful. It isn't our version, and I confess I miss our version, but we can never have our show again. I think it's marvelous that the show has been revived because it is a wonderful piece of theater. I've talked to a couple of people about it. Arthur Kopit said that it was apples and oranges; it's two completely different shows, each valid in its own right. Tommy Tune had a wonderful take on it. He had seen the Matisse/Picasso exhibit at MOMA and said, "That's how I think about the two versions of Nine: it's two interpretations of the same thing, creating two completely different entities.
JF: That's a lovely metaphor, especially coming from him. It's so easy to get nostalgic for a specific production of a show or way of interpreting a part and so hard to accept other viewpoints some times.
I know Nine was your first Broadway show, but was it your first theatrical show as well?
KA: I did a show called Bread and Roses, which was about women's history, and I was the guitarist. I ended up taking over for an actress that was sick but ... (laughs) Yes, Nine was my first real theatrical experience.
JF: So was being a singer was always your goal, then?
KA: Yes, I've been a singer all along. But a friend of mine, Paul Hect, came to see me many years ago and told me, "It's simple, really: you're an actress who sings."
JF: That's how I've always thought about you, because you are perhaps the most theatrical singer I have ever seen, in that you always treat a lyric as if it were a personal story.
KA: Thank you!
JF: I have to admit that I was surprised by something in your show on Tuesday. You mentioned that you had auditioned for Hair , which completely goes counter to the image I have always had about you.
KA: I also auditioned for Jesus Christ Superstar! I went to the audition carrying my guitar because I had dreams of playing Mary Magdalene.
JF: I read somewhere that you started out as a folk singer ...
KA: ... and was always mistaken for Joni Mitchell because I had long hair and bangs.
JF: Too funny. In one of Andrea Marcovicci's shows, she talked about her guitar playing folk singer days. Did the two of you ever perform together in those days?
KA: We knew each other then but weren't friends like we are now. At the time ... we were so young we believed there was not enough room for both of us in the world (laughs).
JF: I would have paid money to have seen the two of you strumming your guitars and singing a protest song!
KA: We did sing "Heart Like a Wheel" together, but that was when she was already here at The Algonquin.
JF: And I do have a recording of "Silent Night" that the two of you did for the Cabaret Christmas CD.
KA: Oh, my God, that's right! I had almost forgotten about that.
JF: I think it's about the lowest version I have ever heard, key-wise!
JF: I have to admit that I was more than a little bit surprised to learn that you are a native New Yorker.
KA: That's right. I was born in Doctor's Hospital, which is now part of Beth Israel, I think, over on the East Side.
JF: I'm sure it's a common misconception, but I always envisioned you being born somewhere in Europe.
KA: My father was, as were my mother's parents, but I'm a native New Yorker.
JF: What nationality was your father? I know he was royalty ...
KA: He was titled, but he dropped that when he came to this country. He was Austrian/Swiss/Italian.
JF: You have such affinity for French songs. Did you get that from your mother's heritage?
KA: On my mother's side, my grandmother is Russian, Norwegian and French and my grandfather is Scotch Irish. My father's side is Austrian on one side and Swiss/Italian on the other.
JF: You are practically the entire EC rolled into one! I have always enjoyed hearing you sing in French. Even though my understanding of the language is practically non-existent, you always manage to get the meaning of the song across to me.
KA: I don't speak French all that well, but I heard it from a very young age, so it comes naturally. My grandmother used to speak to my mother in French.
JF: Your shows and albums always feature an eclectic mix of material. What draws you to the songs you pick?
KA: It depends on what I'm putting together. Obviously, the lyrics have to be intelligent and seemingly true to me; I have to believe them. I look for songs that seem honest and speak to people. There has to be a reason for me to sing them. It's a bit hard to explain because it's an organic process. The music and the lyrics have to work together and touch me somehow, and seem absolutely necessary to each other.
JF: You always choose such wonderfully lyric driven songs, especially in this show, which is comprised of songs from the theater. I especially loved hearing the Craig Carnelia/Marvin Hamlisch song from Imaginary Friends.
KA: "Smart Women." Wasn't it unusual? When did you last hear a song on that topic?
JF: Never, or at least not in manner that wasn't at least slightly tongue in cheek. I didn't get a chance to see Imaginary Friends so it was nice to hear it.
KA: You wouldn't have heard it if you saw it in New York. It was in the show when it was done in San Diego but it was dropped for time constraints. This is the song's New York premier.
Are you still based in London?
KA: No. We left London a year ago July. We're in France now.
JF: Well, there goes my next question. I was going to ask if you were going to be doing West End shows if you were living there, as we are overdue seeing you on stage. Instead I'll ask if we have to wait until Tommy Tune and Liliane Montevecchi do another show on Broadway together to have you return, as the three of you seem to have a special affinity.
KA: (laughs) I was talking to Tommy the other day and he said he would love to. It all depends on where I'm living, I'm afraid, because I can't leave my husband. Doing the show here at The Algonquin for all these weeks is a long time to be gone.
JF: Well hopefully, I'll get a chance to see you on stage really soon.
KA: Thank you, Jonathan, I hope so too.
Karen Akers will be performing Theatre Songs at the Algonquin's Oak Room through May 24, 2003. Performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 9pm, with an additional show Fridays and Saturdays at 11:30pm. For reservations, call 212-419-9331. For more information on Karen, visit her website: www.karenakers.com