Cabaret

Interview with
Lea DeLaria

by Jonathan Frank

Jonathan:  It's good to meet you!

Lea:  It's good to meet you as well.

JF:  You are the first person whom I have interviewed that I've seen naked, by the way ...

LD:  (Gasp) You must have seen The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told ... that would be my guess!

JF:  I did, I did, I did!

LD:  I wasn't fully naked ... it wasn't full frontal nudity, just breasts ... just breasticles.

JF:   Did I read in your press kit that it was videotaped for Lifetime? There was something in there about you winning an Emmy for Fabulous Story ...

LD:   No, no, no! It was for The World According to Us. It was a show I did on Lifetime, and yeah, I won a regional Emmy for it. I played Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas as Ralph and Alice Kramden.

Play It Cool
Song Clip Click for
"The Ballad Of Sweeney Todd "
In RealAudio

JF:   Sounds crazy and fun! I have been listening to your CD, by the way, and I have to say it is shaping up to be one of my favorite CDs of the year.

LD:   That's great! That makes me so happy.

JF:  I wasn't shocked to discover that you could swing since I saw you jazz it up in Seattle last year. But it was quite the surprise then!

LD:   I like to keep people guessing!

JF:   Yeah, it was like "Oh my God ... is there anything this woman doesn't do?"

LD:   Dick! (Laughs) Other than that ...

JF:   To paraphrase your song from On the Town, do you cook too?

LD:   I cook really well actually ...

JF:   And you love showtunes too ... my God, Lea, if you were a man I'd marry you!

LD:   Yeah, I'm sort of a fag ... I cook, I clean, I know every Judy Garland movie ever made. I know every showtune and I love jazz, which is my first love. I guess inside this big old dyke body beats the heart of a vicious queen!

JF:   What got you into jazz?

LD:  My father's a jazz pianist so the first thing I ever did was jazz.

JF:  Did he perform all over the country?

LD:  No, he was a sideman in East St. Louis where I grew up, so that's what got me into it.

[At this point the waitress brings us our drinks; Stoli and Tonic for me, and a beer for Lea]

I'm having a beer because Audra McDonald told me that a beer between shows relaxes your vocal chords. You should have your glass of beer and then you should drink a lot of water afterwards because beer also dehydrates your voice. Alcohol is really bad for your vocal chords but when Audra said that to me ... what, am I going to argue with one of the greatest instruments on the planet??? I don't think so! Who also happens to have perfect pitch ... did you know that about Audra?

JF:  No, I didn't ... but it doesn't surprise me.

LD:  Audra's so great. So I'm having my beer ... normally I'm not one of those people who drinks before a show ... I do it on Sundays because ... when you see Rocky Horror, you'll notice that my parts are very rangy; they really are the hardest parts to sing in the show, believe it or not. Dr. Scott in "Eddie's Teddy" belts to 'G' and then goes down to ... you know, I've never checked, but I'm sure it's a low D flat. I'll have to look ... [Sings "a-a-and she did"] So I have to hit that thing, and then I have to belt a 'G' which I won't do in here since it's really loud.

JF:  Did they change the keys for you?

LD:   No, I'm doing the parts in the original tenor keys. Dr. Scott is a Roy Orbison kind of tenor and Eddie, to compound the interest, is a real hard core rock-and-roll tenor.

JF:   I have the CD of your production. And I liked it. I especially like the new arrangements ... it's what made me decide to go see the show while I'm in town.

LD:   Cool! It's better than the original Roxy production ... sorry! Kudos to everyone who was in it, including Meatloaf, who also played both Dr. Scott and Eddie, but I think our production is way better than the original. The set's beautiful and Tom Hewitt is a God! People were asking me if I was worried about stepping into Meatloaf's role ... I really wasn't. First of all, I'm not a man, so that relieves a lot of the pressure. Did you hear the woman outside of the show say to me, "I lost a bet 'cause I thought you were a man."

JF:  No I didn't!

LD:  I get that all the time! Rosemary Harris came backstage and went on and on and on about Dr. Scott and how funny he was and how much she loved him, and then she said, "And where's that nice young man who sang 'Hot Patootie'?" She knew it was me playing Dr. Scott but didn't realize I was doing Eddie ... it was very funny! That was a great compliment to me, honey, because she's a great actress!

We're having a lot of fun with Rocky Horror. But my solo CD is what I'm living and breathing right now. It's already getting a lot of radio play on the straight edged jazz radio stations, which I'm very excited about. I don't think it will get a lot of play on the Broadway stations, but we'll see ...

JF:  I don't see why it wouldn't. All but two tracks are Broadway tunes, after all ...

LD:   They are all Broadway tunes!

JF:   Really? The Tom Waits song?

LD:  Oh yeah! It's from Frankie's Wild Years. It had a limited run on Broadway in a concert form back in the early '90s. Now what was the other one you didn't think was a showtune?

JF:   I hate to mention it now, since I'm sure I'm going to embarrass myself further ... the Randy Newman song ...

LD:  Honey, that's from Faust! It ran for five minutes on Broadway. They are all Broadway tunes. And that was the idea, by the way; to find an interesting mix of Broadway tunes. We wanted to do some tunes that people knew like "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," and have them go "What did she just do to that song???" And we also wanted to say, "Hey look! There's a lot of interesting things on Broadway." I was very happy to have two songs from Michael John LaChiusa's Wild Party on the CD. It was the hottest score I heard on Broadway in I don't know how long. I wish that we hadn't recorded the album as soon as we did, because I would have taken stuff from The Full Monty ... Yazbek has some fantastic stuff on that. Next album!

JF:  That's my favorite score of the year.

LD:  Without a doubt! It should walk away with a Tony for Best Score.

JF:  It better ... [Note: of course, it didn't!]

LD:   We were out and about after the Drama Desk nominations came out and The Producers got, what, 14 nominations, and Mel Brooks was pissed that it didn't get one for best score. And I was like, "Hello! Fourteen nominations? Shut up!!! I love you and you're a brilliant writer, Mel, but Yazbek!" There are very few like him in the world ... he's a genius with jazz and that's why I love him.

We went through a lot of shows trying to find these tunes. There's a lot of crap that has been written on Broadway in the last ten or fifteen years during the Andrew Lloyd Webber-ification of Broadway. I don't mean that Andrew's only written crap, because he's written some great stuff ... and he's written some crap, too. But all these writers who write these never ending so-ooo-o-o-ngs that go into the next never ending song ... no one can hum a fucking tune on Broadway any more. It used to be that you would go to a Broadway show and leave tapping your toes and humming a tune. Name a show that you leave doing that any more. You can't even do that at The Producers. I'm trying to think of a song in it that you can ... actually, you can with "That Face." That's a great tune. It's going to be one that gets lifted from that show. But you couldn't do that for a while. No wonder people wanted to see On The Town and Kiss Me Kate; who doesn't want to sing the songs from those shows?

JF:  What's your favorite show?

LD:  Oh God! Follies ... Company ...

JF:   So you're a big Sondheim fan.

LD:  Yes, but I like a lot of other shows too. I love Rent; it's one of the new shows that I absolutely adore. I have the Ethel Merman Disco album ... Carrie ... I love all that kind of stuff. I have Coco! I think it's time to redo Coco!

JF:   Since you have so many Sondheim songs on your album, we were having fun on the flight yesterday figuring out which of his shows you should do. We jokingly said "Mrs. Lovett!" And then we thought for a minute and said, "That's actually a good idea!"

LD:  I would love to play her. What I really want to do is play either the Witch or the Baker's Wife in Into the Woods. And of course, I have another ten years, but I am doing Company ... I am not going to the grave without singing "Ladies Who Lunch." I love you Elaine, but I'm taking your part!

JF:   Then we starting thinking about producing a rep season with you and Rupert Everett ... have you as Sweeney, him as Mrs. Lovett ... then have you play George and Rupert play Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf ...

LD:  Actually, Mary Testa and I went to Edward Albee to see about doing Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf as a lesbian couple with her playing Martha and me playing George, but he won't gender-bend the show. And George Wolfe was going to direct it ...

JF:  That would have been interesting! I have heard of people wanting to do a production with two men, but ...

LD:   I don't think it should be done with two men!

JF:  Really? You think two women would work though?

LD:  Yes, and I'll tell you why; it makes the betrayal of her fucking the guy so much worse when it's a lesbian couple. When it's two men, it's like "What's the difference?" It's not that much of a betrayal. Hello! I know faggotry! That happens all the time! It's par for the course for you boys. That's why I think it shouldn't be two men, but I think as a lesbian couple it would be very interesting.

JF:   I read in your press kit that you want to play Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire ...

LD:  Oh, I was mostly joking when I said that. But there was actually a moment when it almost happened with me and Cherry Jones.

JF:   I once saw a production with a man playing Blanche ... and did so as a woman. I didn't think it was going to work, but I was surprised ... it actually did. It didn't take long to forget that Blanche was actually a 'he.'

LD:  People come and say that to me all the time; "Oh, I didn't think it was going to work having a chick playing Eddie," and I say, "Well you don't know this chick!" Because as soon as the news went out that I had the part, people we like "Of course Lea DeLaria's playing Eddie and Dr. Scott!" That's the point; it's all a piece of acting if you do it right. A guy playing Blanche as a woman; sure! Rocking! A really interesting idea! But I also think that it would be really fun to play Stanley and Stella as a lesbian couple; as a working class dyke couple ... [whistles] that would be interesting ... it would make Blanche hate them even more. And again, the rape of Blanche would be more violent.

But I don't want really want to do that ... I just think it would be interesting.

JF:  What other parts would you like to play then?

LD:  Oh, I'm gonna play Mama Rose. My problem is that everybody thinks that you need to be older to play the part and I think I'm at the perfect age right now. Because Ethel did it later in her life, people think of Rose as an older woman. But I think that being in your 30's would be good for Rose ... start out young and age rather than be old and play the first part young. We're talking about a time when people got married when they were 16 or 18. She had all those husbands but she's only got the two kids and they are young children at the start of the show. That means she would be in her 30's. Louise is only 18, 19, 20 at the end of the show, so at that point, Rose would only be in her 40's. [speaking directly into the tape recorder] I'm the right age!

I did "Rose's Turn" at the Hollywood Bowl last year. They wanted me to do "I Can Cook Too" and "Blue Skies, " since the version I did for the movie Edge of Seventeen was getting radio play. They insisted I do "Rose's Turn," and I was just, "Oh, I don't know!!!" I want to do the part ... but I didn't know if I was ready to do just the song with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in front of 17,000 people three nights in a row ... it was scary! But I did it and when I did was done I thought, "I can do the part!" Because if you can do "Rose's Turn" you can do the part ... it's all about that song. And the people loved it! It was me, Ann Miller, Alan Cumming and Charlotte Church. Ann was so funny; She kept calling me a 'broad,' which is better than 'sir,' which is what I usually get.

JF:   Are you going to be doing any shows to promote your CD?

LD:   I'm opening for Joshua Redman at the Monterey Jazz Festival, and I'm going to be taking leave of absences from Rocky Horror to do gigs all over the place.

JF:  When does your contract expire for Rocky Horror ?

LD:  Late fall I'm out of there. Then I'm going to sit in LA for a really long run and then New York for another long run.

JF:   Where in LA?

LD:  We haven't booked it yet, but we know where it's going to be ... that's all I'm going to say!

JF:   Do you have a website?

LD:   No. I believe that computers are evil on earth.

JF:   Oh dear ... did your people forget to mention that this was for a website?

LD:   I know, I'm joking! I'm having a website designed right now.

[Looking at watch] Oh good! We're so ahead of schedule. It takes a long time to become Eddie ... when you see him you'll understand. It's all done with acting and makeup ... I'm not wearing any prosthetics ... no fake chest, nothing. Little girls scream at Eddie.

JF:   Is he that horrific?

LD:  No, like rock-star screaming because they think he's so sexy. And then about half way through the song you see them really start looking at me ... and then pulling out their programs trying to figure out if it's a chick or a dude! It's really funny.

JF:   And you're going to do a number on the Tonys?

LD:   We're doing "Time Warp." It's not the way I wanted to make my first appearance on the Tonys ... dressed up like a man ... but I'll live! (laughing) Nor was it the way any of us thought I would first appear on the Tonys!

JF:   Yeah, that oversight still surprises me. It was 1999 when you were 'egregiously overlooked,' for On The Town, right?

LD:   That was the year. 'S alright baby. You know, I've said it before and I'll say it again ... if the worst thing that has ever happened to you is that you didn't get the Tony Nomination you were supposed to get, then you're probably living a pretty gifted, wonderful life! You should be able to thank God for that. I've won plenty of awards in my life ... I'm sure somewhere down the line I'll get a nomination for something.

JF:  For Mama Rose!

LD:   Maybe for Mama Rose.

JF:   In your press pack I read about a show you've been working on called I'll Be Damned. Anything happening with it?

LD:  Probably next spring. Right now we're going to try and go after that Grammy for my album so we have to focus on that for a while ... I want to get legitimately recognized by the music industry, and that is really progressing well. I had a fantastic profile in Billboard this week ... the music people are really stepping up to the plate and liking it.

JF:   I played it for some people who asked me if it was Diana Krall's new CD, by the way ...

LD:  Oh no! I don't sound anything like Diana Krall! That's weird! That must have been the first modern jazz girl that they could think off ... at least they didn't say "Jane Monheit!"

But next spring, I'll go back to I'll Be Damned.

JF:   You wrote it, right?

LD:   Yes, along with my writing partner Maggie Cassella, who wrote the book Lea's Book of Rules of the World and many other things with me.

JF:  The concept of the show sounds hysterical.

LD:  It's hilarious. I play a character who is having an affair with a Mafia boss's daughter . I break her heart, so he has me killed. But I don't know I'm dead at the beginning of the piece; it's something you find out during the course of the show. It's semi-Jelly's Last Jam, but funny. I think I'm doing a night club date but I find out I'm in a place that's neither heaven or hell because God thinks I'm too bad to go to Heaven and the Devil thinks I'm not bad enough for Hell. So we're trying to negotiate where I should go ... I, of course, want to go to Hell because there's nobody fun in Heaven. By the end of the piece I realize I've been a terrible womanizer and a drunkard and I need another chance so I challenge God and the Devil to a game of hopscotch in a scene which is a parody of "Luck Be A Lady Tonight." I win and get to go back to Earth. And that's the whole story of I'll Be Damned ... it's ridiculous! At this point George Wolfe is attached to direct, Elaine Stritch hopefully will be the voice of the Devil, and I'm trying to get Polly Bergen to be the voice of God ... I haven't had the conversation with Polly yet, but I'm hoping.

JF:  Did you like the revival of Follies?

LD:  Oh I loved it! You know what? I'll love anything that Blythe Danner does. You're talking to the world's biggest Blythe Danner fan. When I did As You Like It with Gwyneth, everybody was like "Oh my God! You're doing a show with Gwyneth Paltrow!" And I was like, "I want to meet her mother!"

JF:   What did you play in As You Like It?

LD:  Oh please ... Think!

JF:   Well, you never know with you! I wouldn't put it past you to play Touchstone.

LD:   I was Rosalind! (Laughs) I was Audrey and Mark Linn-Baker was Touchstone so it was nonstop physical comedy.

JF:  Was that your first time playing Shakespeare?

LD:  Yes, and I was terrified! I had a long conversation with George Wolfe about it, and he said, "Look Lea ... text is text ... you're funny. Just keep saying that to yourself." So that became my inner monologue! I was so freaked out about playing Shakespeare. But it came off great.

JF:   And now you're hooked and want to do more.

LD:  Yeah! I want to play the Gravedigger in Hamlet.

JF:   No reason why you couldn't.

LD:  The problem with Shakespeare is that you love doing it, but it's such a bore to watch! (Laughs)

JF:  I also read that you were working on a workshop of The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Anything going on with that?

LD:   It really needs a massive amount of book work, and unless they are willing to do that ... It's like Li'l Abner; the music's fantastic but it needs a lot of work on the book. That's another show where they did the gender thing with me ... I played Marryin' Sam. It was a fantastic cast and they should have recorded it ... that was a major mistake on Encore's part. Frankly, that's a show that could play on Broadway; it just needs some major book work. Since the estate is willing to let the book be worked on, somebody really should do it.

JF:  Any other male parts you want to play?

LD:   No. I'm done doing that. I don't mind doing gender-bending stuff, but I've played three males now. Enough. I don't want to get typed that way. Luckily New York doesn't tend to do that; Broadway lets you play a variety of parts. If we were in Hollywood it would be a different story. The next thing I think I should do is tackle a dramatic role; something very serious with no music at all. That's probably what nobody is expecting from me right now. I'd like to play a really evil, bad person that the audience would totally despise ... that would be so much fun!

JF:   You need to do a Bette Davis part! Who's Afraid of Baby Jane on stage!

LD:   They are doing a musical of that ... it's gothic ... it's legitimate ... it ain't gonna go anywhere! That's over on Broadway! What Ever Happened to Baby Jane Eyre! People really need to start looking at why shows like The Full Monty, The Producers, 42nd Street and Rocky Horror are hits. People are tired of the gothic crap. And I can't believe people are going to give the Tony to that girl from Jane Eyre over Faith Prince.

JF:  Do you think they will? [Note: Neither got the Tony]

LD:  They've given her everything else! If they do that to Faith ... I swear I'm going to boycott the Tonys for the rest of my life! (Laughs) The problem with Bells Are Ringing is the same with On The Town; the book is terrible. It was dated in 1958 when it came out! It needs a lot of book work! Things that were current in the 40s and 50s just aren't now. You've always got to tweak stuff when you revive a show. We tweaked the book of Rocky Horror quite a bit ...

JF:  You mentioned in an article that you hoped your dressing room partner, Alice Ripley, would be constantly doing her make up in the buff. Has that been happening?

LD:   Yes! My fantasy has been fulfilled and Alice Ripley walks around naked in our dressing room all the time!

JF:   Good for you!

LD:   Thanks!


For more news and information about the cabaret scene, visit: