KT Sullivan is certainly one of the most sensual performers in cabaret; she literally is a treat for all the senses. Her shimmering soprano (itself a rarity in a genre largely populated by altos and tenors) is a delight for the ears. Her wardrobe and personality are equally iridescent, and when combined with her playful sense of innocent sexiness, provide a treat for the rest of one's senses. Couple all that with a subtle wit and keen intelligence and you have a delightful performer who puts together some of the most well-thought out shows in cabaret. She also is one of the hardest working performers in the business. Last month at the Third West Coast Cabaret Convention in San Francisco, she performed at three of the six Convention performances, the pre-Convention gala at Gumps, two brunches, one benefit, plus a solo show at The Plush Room. Luckily, she had a few hours to spare, one of which was spent with me at The Ritz, a most appropriate setting in which to interview this shining star.
Jonathan: Welcome to Talkin' Broadway, KT. May I say that you are looking especially glamorous today.
KT: Well thank you!
J: But then again, you always do. You are probably the most glamorous and best-dressed performer in cabaret.
KT: Thank you. I love clothes. When I was a little girl I used to have dolls that I could dress up ... now I can do it myself (laughing)!
J: And you are from where again? I remember it being a very oddly named town.
KT: Boggy Depot, Oklahoma.
J: Originally you were training to be an opera singer, correct?
KT: Yes. I studied opera at the University of Oklahoma, and then I moved to LA and trained with some wonderful teachers there. I loved learning the repertoire; learning Rigoletto and La Traviatta. I performed Die Fledermaus and La Boheme with small companies in Los Angeles and realized that I could not make a living doing it.
J: And you can in cabaret???
KT: Oh yes! People always laugh at that, and make all these jokes about not making any money doing this, but I am making much more money than I would doing theater. In cabaret, I can do private parties, country clubs ... and when you do concerts around the country, you get nice contracts for doing one performance. It's a much better deal than when I was doing eight shows a week, even when I was performing on tour.
J: What show did you tour in?
KT: Annie Get Your Gun. I had a good contract, but it was no where near what I earn doing cabaret.
J: What part did you play in the tour?
KT: I played Dolly Tate in the touring version with Cathy Rigby. It's funny ... on my new CD, the liner notes are by Ted Chapin. He's the head of The Rodgers and Hammerstein Foundation, and he first saw me as Dolly Tate in that production!
J: And you also went to San Diego to study Shakespeare ...
KT: I'm impressed! You really did your homework!
J: I spent last night visiting your website, http://www.citycabaret.com/ktsullivan/ since my reference library is in Seattle, and I'm in San Francisco ... .(laughing).
KT: That website helps! Yes, I love Shakespeare and I love opera ... I love the classics. I love them both because they are so historical and I love history. That is also why I love cabaret, because when you put together a show, you do so much research. I love research! So my love of history can carry over, and that's why I love doing shows on one composer.
J: You do seem to favor author themed shows and CDs ...
KT: I do. My last show was devoted to Jerome Kern, and before that was Noel, Cole and Bart, featuring, of course, songs by Noel Coward, Cole Porter and Bart Howard. And I have a live recording of In Other Words: The Songs of Bart Howard, and there's a Harold Arlen album, called Sing My Heart. My first album, Crazy World, is the only one that wasn't devoted to a single writer. I also recorded a Gershwin album with Mark Nadler called American Rhapsody.
Mark and I are going to perform in London at Pizza on the Park, by the way.
KT: August 7th through the 20th. On August 13th, our one day off, we will be performing at the Chitchester Festival.
J: And before that you will be at The Firebird in New York.
J: Is the show, like your new CD, devoted to the music of Richard Rodgers?
KT: Yes. I will be performing at 9pm with a second show on Friday and Saturday nights at 11pm.
J: Did you try out that show while you were here in San Francisco? I'm sorry I missed your show at The Plush Room, but ... I was conventioning!
KT: Understandable! No, I did my Ladies of the Silver Screen show.
J: Are there plans to record it?
KT: We did a live recording of it at The Algonquin. We haven't gotten it packaged yet, but it is ready to go.
J: I can't wait to hear it. I love your last live recording which was of your Bart Howard show. It's one of my all time favorite live CDs, and I love the fact that it introduced me to a songwriter I was not familiar with.
How did you get to know Bart Howard?
KT: The first time I saw Bart Howard was at Mabel Mercer's memorial. A friend called me up to say "I have two tickets for the memorial, would you like to go," and thank God I didn't say "Who's Mabel Mercer?" Bart was performing along with Elaine Stritch, Barbara Cook, Bobby Short, Cy Coleman ... an incredible array of people. And Buddy Barnes was playing. Later on, when Buddy played for me, he introduced me to Bart's songs. He played "You Are Not Ny First Love," and "My Love is a Wanderer" and I fell in love with Bart's music. The lyrics touched me ... I felt like he was speaking through me; that I could have written those lyrics. They expressed exactly what I feel! He has a great sensitivity and in many ways writes from the female's point of view. As you know from listening to my CD, when I introduce the song, "Perfect Stranger," I mention that it's as if Bart had been reading my diary! So I really found my voice through his songs.
Buddy invited Bart to see my act, which had a couple of his songs. At the time, Bart was doing a revue of his songs with Rita Gardner, who was leaving the show. After my show, I walked up to Bart, and was very nervous to meet him. The first thing he said to me, before he even said "Hello, how are you," was "For the first time in my life, I wish I were younger and straight!" And I knew I got the part! And that's how I got to know Bart Howard.
J: Well, your Bart Howard CD and Crazy World are in rotation on my 200-CD CD player.
KT: I love Crazy World ... this new CD is my favorite one since that CD actually. I love the Bart Howard CD because it's so personal, but with the patter and all of the obscure songs, I don't think it's as accessible as the Richard Rodgers one. It has some obscure songs, but ...
J: Well personally, I love the obscure.
KT: I'm so glad! My producer does as well, which is a wonderful thing ... he's not somebody who keeps saying "do the hits!"
J: Out of curiosity ... did you have a good audience at The Plush Room this week?
KT: I did. It's funny ... it's all due to my brother-in-law. I got married in November, and my husband has a brother who has a vineyard in Sonoma. He sent out a letter to 140 friends to come see me perform at The Plush Room, and over 70 of them showed up! So that was a nice block to have ...
J: That's good to hear! I had been wondering if doing a show here during the Convention hurt audience sizes, since so many potential audience members were at the Convention.
Since you brought up your recent marriage ... I had heard a horrible rumor last year that you were planning on retiring after you got married ...
KT: Isn't that funny? I wonder how that got started?
J: I don't know, but I heard it from several sources!
KT: That's hysterical. Especially since in my patter last night, I mentioned that there was a rumor that I had married for money; a rumor which has since been proven to be false (laughing). But now a rumor has started that I actually married for mailing lists. Especially since the next Cabaret Convention is supposed to take place in Chicago, and my husband has a brother who lives there as well!
J: Too funny!
Since this is Talkin' Broadway, let's dive into your Broadway credits. You played Lorelei Lee in the recent Gentlemen Prefer Blondes revival on Broadway.
KT: Yes ... and in fact there's a CD of that out as well ...
J: I know ... I have it! I bought it before I even bought the Original Cast Album.
KT: You did? I'm honored!
J: You also did Threepenny Opera on Broadway with Sting ... along with some other wonderful cabaret singers, Anne Kerry Ford and Maureen McGovern. Are there any other Broadway credits?
KT: I was in a show that ran for a week called Broadway that was directed by George Abbott, which started at the Great Lakes Theater Festival when he was 100 years old; it was a 100 year birthday present for him. I was also in the workshop of Easter Parade with Tommy Tune and Sandy Duncan, which hasn't come to Broadway yet. I played the gossip columnist with a great Ethel Merman-type number ... she was a Hedda Hopper-type character who kept people up to date as to what was going on throughout the show.
J: I saw Sandy and Tommy do a mini-production of it in Seattle in '98. The full production had been scheduled twice to play at the Fifth Avenue Theatre, but ...
KT: I played at the Fifth Avenue Theater! Years ago I was in Desert Song ...
J: With Richard White!
KT: Right ... it's a beautiful theater!
J: Do you like playing the same character eight shows a week? Or has cabaret spoiled you?
KT: You know, that's interesting ... you do get spoiled in cabaret; we have so much variety in our lives. I can do Ladies of the Silver Screen one night and then do Noel, Cole and Bart the next, all the while working on my Richard Rodgers show and CD, and performing at Carnegie Hall with the Gay Men's Chorus. What a great life this is!
I used to live for the idea of doing eight shows a week, but there are so many elements of cabaret that are more fulfilling on a personal level. You're interpreting a song your way and speaking directly to the people in the audience ... you're singing to them and get the pleasure of seeing a man take a woman's hand during a certain line. And when the show goes really well and it's a hit, you're responsible; it's your baby. Of course there's the inverse as well ...
J: When the show doesn't go well, there's nobody else to blame!
KT: Right! It's all your fault! I do miss the camaraderie that goes along with theater, but long runs are not that much fun. Nine months doing Annie Get Your Gun on the road was diverting because I got to visit some wonderful cities, and I had a great friend in the cast with whom I would go to museums and have great lunches. But actually doing a show every night was rigorous.
J: It's funny; I think every cabaret person I have spoken to who has done theater has mentioned the exact same thing. They all thought that theater was what they wanted to do with their lives, but then they discovered ... not that it was boring but ...
KT: But that it's a grindmill ... it's a factory. We have such freedom in cabaret. This week I'm doing a Sondheim salute at The Plush Room on Saturday afternoon, Friday night I'm singing Cole Porter, Saturday night is movie night, I'm doing a Gershwin show in London ... isn't life interesting? Much more so than doing a show for five years ... and there are people who do the same show for ten years! They get attached to the paycheck ... want to buy a house ... .
J: It's like doing cruise ships.
KT: Yes. I have a friend who worked cruise ships for ten years. A wonderful singer, but now he's a graphic artist. He starred in a production of No No Nanette we did in Oklahoma in which I was 'Betty from Boston.' When I did chorus in Boys from Syracuse at Great Falls Theater Festival, he was the lead ... one of the Dromios. Then he got on the cruise ship grind. It's great money, and you see the world, but as far as getting a career ...
J: I've always wanted to do it for six months or so. Otherwise you lose all the contacts and career momentum you have developed.
KT: I was on one. I was on a leaf changing tour through Canada with Jeff Harnar. We did a Gershwin show to celebrate Gershwin's birthday. It was a nice experience.
J: I have what I hope is an interesting question. I have been talking to a non-performer lately who has been doing research for a book. One of the things that she was most interested in was the concept of an 'on-stage' persona. Your website mentioned that in LA when you first started to do cabaret, you worked with a director that helped shape and develop your on-stage persona.
KT: Not consciously ... I'm trying to think of what the website mentions that might lead you to think that. I had an ex-boyfriend who would go watch me perform ... he would help me choose things that were right for me because he knew me. And performing every week for a year helps you discover what works and what doesn't, because there are times when you just don't feel like doing a show, but you have to.
I think when you walk on stage, something happens ... you get that extra burst of adrenaline. I'm basically a shy person, but since I was trained in theater, I learned how to do things; you find the things that work for you, and that might be what develops that persona. When you play roles, you find that certain thing work for you; certain line readings, certain deadpan looks, they work for you, and you use them without even being aware of it. But it's not conscious!
J: Well, you are delightful on and off stage, my dear. I hope you have a wonderful run at The Firebird and in London!
KT: Thank you!
KT Sullivan's newest CD,KT Sullivan Sings The Sweetest Sounds of Richard Rodgers, which features guest artist and pianist Larry Woodard, contains the following songs: