Stephanie Pope has long been a treat for the eyes, thanks to a dynamite combination of phenomenal dance ability and statuesque beauty. Now she is providing a treat for the ears as well, with a sultry debut album, Now's The Time To Fall In Love, in which she takes the songs from Bob Fosse's last show (and her first Broadway show), Big Deal, and gives them a jazz/R&B spin. I had the pleasure of chatting with Stephanie as she was gearing up for her cabaret appearance at Arci's in New York.
Jonthan Frank: First of all, I want to say how much I have been enjoying your CD, Now's The Time To Fall In Love.
Stephanie Pope: Thank you!
JF: What I really love about it, aside from your sexy, sultry vocals of course, is that you have managed to take all these songs from the '20s and '30s, give them an up-to-date spin, all the while allowing them to retain their original souls.
SP: That was what we were trying to do, even in regards to how we did the cover of the album. We wanted to bring these great old songs a little more to the present but still give them a retro feel ... so thank you for saying that!
JF: Did you come up with the ideas for the arrangements and the overall feel of the album?
JF: ... you turned it into a scat improv number rather than using the lyrics.
SP: Right! That was totally Daryl's idea. But the ideas behind most of the arrangements really were a collaboration between the two of us.
JF: Had you worked with Daryl before?
SP: Very briefly. This album came about as a result of a gazillion benefits that I had participated in, where you just give of your gifts for a cause and you never expect anything back. When I was doing Fosse I remember always being so exhausted because on my days off I would be doing these benefits, which I felt were things I should do and wanted to do. I had done several benefits for the Genesius Guild, which is an organization that develops new works ...
JF: So that's how it's pronounced! [Gen-EE-see-us] I always mentally read it as 'Genesis' ...
SP: No, it's named after St. Genesius, the patron saint of the arts. Don't worry ... even my mom thought it was Genesis! Anyway, I had done some benefits for them, and they decided that they wanted to record a compilation CD of some of their favorite performances from the various benefits ["Our Heart Sings"]. Daryl did a lot of the arrangements and production for the album and John Jerome executive produced it for his new label Jerome Records. The song I recorded was titled "Who Needs Romance" written by Michael Colby and Steve Silverstein. I had not met either of them until I went in to record that song. Daryl ended up playing for me and John happened to be there that day just by chance. This was in the early stages of John forming his label, and he was trying to figure out what artists he was going to have on it. I guess he and Daryl had a bit of a conversation and the next thing I knew they called me up and asked if I would be interested in doing a CD. And the rest is history.
JF: Speaking of benefits, I also enjoyed your track on the Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens album, which was recorded at the live benefit concert.
SP: Thank you! That was a lot of ... I'm not sure if 'fun' is the right word for it. It was a moving and memorable experience, and it was really exciting to be a part of it; I am really honored that they asked me to participate in it.
JF: What made you decide to record the songs on your CD?
SP: Well, they are all songs which were part of the musical Big Deal, which was the last original musical Bob Fosse worked on before he died. It was my first Broadway show, so it always had a great deal of sentimental value for me. I was involved with it from the very beginning so I knew it in all of its phases. The show only lasted two months on Broadway and we closed a week after the Tonys. Big Deal always had a special place in my heart, since it gave me the chance to work with Bob on an original piece.
In trying to decide what we should do for the CD, John and Daryl were both leaning towards it being very commercial ... kind of an R&B/Pop kind of a thing. And I really shied away from that, because I wanted this first CD to speak to what I'm about and how people know me, which is through musical theatre and Bob Fosse, since I have done four or five of his shows. So we thought and thought and thought, and I remembered how Big Deal had never been recorded and that I loved the songs. I was singing "Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries" eight times a week in Fosse and I thought it would be a fantastic kind of segue for the album.
JF: What songs on the album did you perform in Big Deal?
SP: Well, I understudied Loretta Devine in the show. Bob had such faith in me that he had me understudy everything; if I could have understudied the men, he would have made me! (Laughs). I was very young, very inexperienced, and here I was understudying the great Loretta Devine, who sang "Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries." I just prayed that I would never have to go on for her! (Laughs!) And my wish came true!
JF: And you've been cursing that wish ever since!
SP: I would work on "Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries" in understudy rehearsals, and it has come full circle because I got to sing it every night in Fosse. "Now's the Time to Fall in Love" was a dance number I was in ... "Happy Days are Here Again" was an ensemble number ... Loretta sang "I'm Just Wild About Harry," I understudied one of the shadows in "Me and My Shadow." Cleavant Derricks sang "Charley My Boy." "Pick Yourself Up" was sung by all the leading men; most of the songs in the show were done by the leads.
JF: Big Deal wasn't your first Fosse show, correct?
SP: Well ... it's an interesting story. Technically, as far as setting my feet on Broadway, Big Deal was my first show. But prior to that, I was hired for the revival of Sweet Charity starring Debbie Allen and Bebe Neuwirth. The tour started in Los Angeles because Debbie was filming the television show "Fame" at the time. We performed a couple of months in Los Angeles and a couple of months in San Francisco and then we took a break and went back home until we were going to open on Broadway. During that hiatus, Bob was holding auditions for Big Deal and I decided to show up. I figured he wouldn't hire me, because I was already going to do Sweet Charity. I was young enough to actually enjoy auditioning at the time (laughs). So I went, and sure enough, he came over to me after the long audition process and asked if I had officially signed my contract for the next leg of Sweet Charity. I said, "No," and he said, "OK. Gwen is going to kill me, but I want you to do Big Deal." [Gwen Verdon was assisting Fosse on Sweet Charity]. While we were in Boston for try outs, Sweet Charity opened on Broadway without me and was a huge success. Big Deal finally came into New York and was not a big success and quickly closed. One of the dancers in Sweet Charity, Kim Morgan Green, got a leading part on the television series "The Colbys" and left for Los Angeles, and so Bob brought me back into Sweet Charity and I actually got to do both shows on Broadway.
JF: And got to originate work in Bob Fosse's last show to boot.
SP: That was the beauty of it. I not only got to be in this great revival of Sweet Charity, but I also got to take part in the process of creating an original show. Those were definitely special times for me.
JF: How was Bob Fosse to work for?
SP: Ooh. That's hard to put into words. It definitely was the most amazing experience I have ever had in my dancing/theatrical life. Just to be in the room with him and the veteran dancers that had worked with him before was definitely a learning experience. He was a man who believed in everybody that he hired and brought out the best in him or her. He definitely created 'stars.' Whether his dancers went on to be celebrated in that manner is another thing, but he definitely cultivated star quality in everybody that he worked with. He treated his dancers the same as he did his leading players and treated us all as 'actors.' I don't think I've experienced that since. He demanded 110% and you gave it freely and willingly because you wanted to be the best for him. It was definitely a blessing for me to have had that opportunity, because so many of my peers wish they could have had the chance. He died three years after I met him, which is such a short time to know somebody. But I learned a lifetime's worth from him in those three years.
JF: How was it going back to his dances in Fosse?
SP: For me personally, it was a little bitter sweet. He was so instrumental in moving me forward but then wasn't around to actually see my growth and development from 'new kid/dancer on the block' to starring in Chicago and Fosse. But the fact that I was able to do the shows and come full circle ... what can I say? I feel like my CD is a capper to it all ... it lovingly closes the book on my experience with Bob Fosse.
JF: What is your dance background?
SP: I was born and raised in Harlem and I first studied at the Dance Theater of Harlem when I was very young ...
JF: Is the focus there primarily classical?
SP: Yes. My mom was paying for the classes, which got kind of hard. We heard about scholarship auditions for Alvin Ailey and so I auditioned for that and was first accepted on a work scholarship and was later granted a full scholarship, which opened a whole new world for me on a lot of levels. First of all, Dance Theater of Harlem is located up on 152nd Street in the Heart of Harlem. Alvin Ailey was in the heart of Times Square in the old Minskoff Theatre building at the time, so not only was I learning modern and jazz, as well as ballet, I was also exposed to Broadway. Even though I was from New York, I really didn't know a lot about Broadway until I met friends who were either in shows or knew about them. My friends and I started 'second acting' shows, because we didn't have any money, and that gave me an even greater education. When I saw singing and acting combined with dancing ... that's when I knew that Broadway was what I really wanted to do, more so than 'concert' dancing.
JF: What was the show that made you fall in love with Broadway?
SP: Sophisticated Ladies. First of all, Judith Jamison, who was the star of the Alvin Ailey company at the time, was in the show. And Gregory Hines ... I studied at that time at another dance studio with a teacher who I owe so much to named Frank Hatchett, and anybody who was anybody on Broadway was in that class. I would be in that class with Gregory Hines and Maurice Hines and Vivian Reed ... all these veteran, black Broadway performers. You name it, they were there. So to be able to see all those amazing performers in Sophisticated Ladies ... That was the show that let me know, "This is what I want to do and this is what I can do!"
JF: Have you ever done a production of Sophisticated Ladies?
SP: I have never done Sophisticated Ladies, which is pretty ironic! I would absolutely love to, but the opportunity has never come up.
JF: Somebody has to do something about that and quick!
SP: I know!
JF: It's way overdue for a revival ... and somebody really dropped the ball somewhere since the 100 year anniversary of Duke Ellington's birthday was not that long ago [in 1999 to be exact].
Now you did get to work with Gregory Hines in Jelly's Last Jam ...
SP: Yes I did.
JF: And you've worked with a lot of other great dancers ... Ben Vereen ...
SP: ... in Jelly's Last Jam and Chicago. He replaced Keith David, who played the Chimney Man in Jelly's Last Jam, and that was my first time working with Ben. It was right after his accident, so it was pretty miraculous watching him work. And our paths crossed in Fosse.
JF: You certainly have been blessed by working with some the greatest dancers of our time ... you were the standby for Chita Rivera in Kiss of the Spider Woman ...
SP: And I worked with Gwen Verdon when I did Sweet Charity ... Ann Reinking joined Sweet Charity after Debbie Allen left, and I would stand in the wings every night to watch her. I have been very lucky!
JF: How was doing Smokey Joe's Cafe in London?
SP: That was a lot of fun and exciting! I came right from doing A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum with Nathan Lane on Broadway, where I played Gymnasia and had only one line, so jumping into this amazing musical revue was incredible. I got to go to London because Brenda Braxton was not available to go as she had founded a mentoring group for girls and didn't want to take time off from it. We didn't know how British audiences would respond to the songs but they loved it! We only got a chance to do it for two months, since they wanted to open it with American performers and then gradually hire British performers to replace us.
JF: Now there were two shows listed in your press materials that made me do a bit of a double take. You played Dorothy Shaw in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which provided one of those "How interesting, but also what a great idea" moments ...
SP: (Laughs) I had so much fun doing it. I did it at North Shore Music Theatre and they are very committed to diverse casting, which is something I really appreciate about them. It was my first opportunity to sing, dance and act in a leading part, so I'll be forever grateful for them for it! That's not really true, since I played Helene in the national tour of Sweet Charity with Donna McKechnie. But that was 1987, so it was many years before Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It was fun, because they didn't do the Broadway version; they restructured the movie instead.
JF: So you got to sing "Ain't There Anyone Here for Love?"
SP: Yeah, with all those boys! And the way they did the show was Robin Griggs, who played Lorelei, and myself were the only women in the cast. The rest of the company was men! It was great.
JF: Your other eyebrow raising part was Liliane La Fleur in Nine, since I associate the part so much with Liliane Montevecchi ...
SP: The reviews said I was a cross between Josephine Baker and Maurice Chevalier (laughs). It was another fun show. I loved working at the Papermill Playhouse.
J: Speaking of Josephine Baker ... you played Josephine Baker in the Encores! production of the Ziegfield Follies of 1936, which, knock wood, is coming out at the end of October. Have you ever thought about doing a retrospective on Josephine Baker?
SP: You know, I have. I idolize her and I think I've read every book on her. I would love to do something on her life. I include her briefly in my cabaret act as part of a tribute to my black divas ... my African-American theatrical role models. I would love to do a full-length piece on her life and I do have an idea sitting on the shelf waiting to be developed.
JF: It seems as if you would be a natural for the part, so let's keep our fingers crossed. Now, what got you into doing cabaret shows?
SP: I have done a lot of Broadway shows and I have loved every minute of it ... but when I was standing by for Chita in Kiss of the Spider Woman, who never misses a show ...
JF: Oh I don't know about that ... I saw a performance that she missed ...
SP: Oh! Did I go on?
JF: Not unless you did the tour in Vancouver!
SP: No, I didn't. Actually, I got the chance to go on two and a half times during the entire time I was on stand-by. In the scheme of things, though, it feels like you never got to go on because you never got a chance to own the part. So while I was sitting around not going on, I thought about doing a show of my own to introduce myself to New York audiences who only knew me through the shows that I had danced in. I think it developed out of my frustration in needing to perform. Billy Porter, who directed my first cabaret show, said to me, "Everybody is frustrated, but you have to find a way to turn it around and make it a positive experience that everybody can relate to." And it was from that that I developed my first cabaret show.
JF: I hear you! It's nice having a bit of your destiny in your own hands, rather than being strictly dependent on outside sources.
SP: Yes! It's so true. It's the scariest thing in the world to perform in your own cabaret show, because you have nobody but yourself to blame if it doesn't go well. But at the same time I feel that it is the most fulfilling thing that I have ever done. It's truly your baby. Good, bad or indifferent ... you own it and you love it. There's something really special about performing in that medium, and not everybody is capable or has the guts to put themselves out like that.
JF: You are going to be performing in Arci's in September, right?
SP: Right. I'm performing Thursdays through Saturdays, September 6th through the 15th. I will be performing with The Daryl Kojak quartet: piano, bass, drums and sax.
JF: Do you have any plans after your cabaret show is done?
SP: Well, as far as Broadway is concerned, I'm going to do what I feel is necessary, which is go to Los Angeles and get a television show! (laughs) Because unfortunately that seems to be the direction Broadway has taken. It used to be that you could work your way up from the chorus and then, with hard work, star in a show. But that doesn't seem to be the case any more ... you have to have a television show attached to your name. I'm going to spend some time in Los Angeles and try to make that happen so I can come back and do what I really want to do; theater. And I'm also gathering material for my next CD, which is going to be a bit more contemporary than the first. A sophisticated pop/R&B sound. Think ... . Vanessa Williams meets Anita Baker and runs into Basia along the way.
JF: Well, I for one can't wait to hear it! Best of fates.
SP: Thank you!
For more information on Stephanie and her upcoming shows, visit her website at www.stephaniepope.com.