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An Interview with Judy Kaye


Judy Kaye is currently performing her new cabaret show "Solo" at Arci's Place , 450 Park Avenue South (between 30th & 31st) at 9:00 PM Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8:30 & 11:00 PM Fridays and Saturdays through December 2nd. There is a $30 cover and $15 minimum at all performances except Thursday, November 23rd. A special Thanksgiving Day event will be announced. Reservations (212) 532-4370.

With direction by David Green and musical direction by Michael Horsley, songs will include: "Taking a Chance On Love," "You & I" and "You'll Never Know."

Judy Kaye was honored with a 1988 Tony Award for her portrayal of the prima donna Carlotta in The Phantom of the Opera. In 1978, she understudied Madeline Kahn in the role of Lily Garland/Mildred Plotka in the Broadway production of On the Twentieth Century, performing the role several times in the first two months of the production. Shortly afterwards she took over the role permanently. Judy Kaye most recently starred on Broadway as Emma Goldman in Ragtime.

Nancy Rosati:  I understand you went to UCLA. Did you grow up in California?

Judy Kaye:  I was born in Phoenix, Arizona. I had lots of relatives in California. I did a lot of growing up there and I lived out there for a long time.

NR:  In that case I'm wondering what made you decide on theater instead of TV or film?

JK:  You wake up in the morning and you know who you are. What I am is a "theater animal." I'm grateful for any work I get on television or in film. I've done a bit of each and would do more, but where I really get my joy is a Broadway show - a wonderful Broadway musical.

NR:  Why is that?

JK:  Because that's what defines me as an artist, and in a lot of ways as a person.

NR:  It's different feedback between those mediums.

JK:  Totally different feedback. But it's not JUST the immediacy of an audience telling you right away whether you're on the money or not, it is that ephemeral "you get one shot at it today" kind of thing. "What are you going to do today? You don't feel like going into the theater? Tough. You gotta work. What are you going to come up with today? Where's your mind, where's your soul, where's your intellect going to take you today? Where's the playwright going to take you today?" Peeling back the layers of a lyric, of a monologue, of a scene with other actors. I love the learning process. It really is a daily discovery.

NR:  That's excellent. Everyone should feel that way about their job.

JK:  That's why we're really lucky people. As they say in this business, "You can make a killing, you just can't make a living." When you are making a living at it though, and it's not just about running around to auditions and taking rejection, what it's about is that constant discovery.

NR:  You had that totally bizarre situation with On the Twentieth Century all those years ago, and I'm sure you've answered questions about it hundreds of times. Do you look back and see that that was the turning point for you?

JK:  Unquestionably. I had a career before that. It was a nice career. I worked all the time. I worked in Los Angeles. I had just done Grease on Broadway. But it is what turned everything around. The morning after I took over the role, I was on the front page of the New York Post ... and I hadn't killed anybody! Of course by the evening of the morning that I was on the cover of the New York Post, I was on the floor of the IRT. That's the reality of all of this. The only thing that really lasts is the work. The rest of it is wonderful recognition, and hopefully helping people come in and sit in the seat and share the discovery with you.

NR:  Do you think you view understudies differently after that?

JK:  Absolutely. I had not wanted to understudy. I understudied in college once and it was not a happy experience. I had always tried to be very cordial and as helpful as possible, and I still do that with people who are covering me, because it's a really terrible job. As I've said on other occasions, usually you're waiting for someone else's misfortune, i.e. they get sick or they break a leg, for you to get a chance to do your job. That's not a happy way to live. But, an addendum to that, you serve a very important purpose. You keep the curtain up. You try to be there for the other actors so that there shouldn't be a hole in the middle of the play. Especially if it's a wonderful, special, unique performer, it's a tough thing.

NR:  Then you went on what you described as the "bus and truck tour from hell."

JK:  (laughing) Yes.

NR:  And that's when you met your husband.

JK:  Yes I did. It was a period when there wasn't a lot going on. I didn't see a lot in the foreseeable future, so I thought, "Ah, heck, they want to pay me a lot of money." And of course I loved the part. You can't do anything on a "bus and truck." All you do is sit on the bus and then do the shows. You can't spend the money, so you save it, so it had its points.

David (Green) and I met the first day of rehearsal, having seen each other's work before. He had been in an Off Broadway revival of On the Twentieth Century at the York Theatre. He was, for me, the singular person on the stage when I saw it who knew what the play was about. He was playing Oliver. He wasn't playing Oscar, he was playing one of the Henchmen. But it was so clear to me that there was this actor up there, really doing appropriate things and adding a wonderful period flavor to what he was doing. It was really good work. For our tour, he was hired to play Oliver. The first day of rehearsal I went up to him and said, "I looked for you backstage after the show and I couldn't find you, so I'll tell you now. I thought you were just so great in the production." He had seen me when I had done the show with Rock Hudson when we toured right after the Broadway run. That was the first time that we really met. Five weeks later he proposed to me on a 19-seat plane flying from Denver to Pueblo, Colorado for one of our one-night stands. He almost didn't get the sentence out. My grandmother had passed away the previous summer and she had so wanted me to find someone. Right at that moment I swear I felt her presence so strongly up there in the clouds. She said, (whispering) "Do it!"

NR:  How long have you been married?

JK:  Thirteen years.

NR:  You've performed together, haven't you?

JK:  Yes we have.

NR:  Is that a good thing?

JK:  It's really a good thing. We have a lot of fun together. He's good. He's a wonderful actor and he's a very good director. I'm really pleased that he deigned to help me out here and be my "third eye," to watch the proceedings and guide me.

NR:  You were in the original Phantom and won the Tony for that. I remember when Phantom came in - the hype was incredible. It took a year to get a ticket. People were buying tickets and they didn't even know what they were buying tickets for, but they knew that it was "the show to see." Ragtime came in with something of a similar situation, but it also had the Internet. You lived through two very different experiences with those shows. How do you compare what they were like?

JK:  They were very different experiences. First of all, Phantom already had made its name completely and it was being sold as the "Hit from the West End." Ragtime was a brand new property. I had been through the workshop in Toronto. I had not played the show in the pre-Broadway run in Toronto, but Garth Drabinsky had decided, in a very unusual controversial move, to open a Los Angeles company of the show prior to the Broadway run. They were going to continue to work on the show out there, and the set that we were going to use in L.A. would be more like the set we would have on Broadway. They were going to work out kinks by doing it that way. That was very much still a work in progress. There were little fixes that happened in Phantom as well, but as we came around with Ragtime they were still working on the show a lot. That, in and of itself, made it a very different experience.

Garth, say what you will, in my opinion, is perhaps the last (I hope he's not the last) of the great showmen. Just leading with his heart and sometimes, unwisely perhaps, but he dreams big dreams. The business that he knew before theater was the film business, and in the film business you get out there and sell. You want to pre-sell. The idea is that if you sell enough, hopefully you will overcome any negative criticism that might come along. It worked for Phantom because, if you recall, the New York Times ripped Phantom up one side and down the other.

NR:  But they had sold so many tickets in advance that it didn't matter.

JK:  That's right. It is, as they say, if it is ever possible, "critic-proof." That's what Garth was trying to ensure as well. He spent a lot of money doing it. I think he probably annoyed a lot of people because of that, which was too bad. I think that was one of the burdens that the show carried, that we had to live up to that. I think we did, and then some. I think it's a magnificent show. It said so many important things in such a beautiful and artful manner.

I think it's a show that deserved really better than it got. It closed in the black. The show is still sitting in a warehouse, complete, in New Jersey. The plan was to move it to another theater. They had redone a design to move it to the St. James, everyone thinking that Swing! probably wasn't going to last. I was told by a very reliable source that they even tried to buy the Mark Hellinger Theatre, which of course wasn't available because it's now a church. It would have been incredible for that show. They were going to downsize because there wasn't any way to run that show with 62 people in the cast in this day and age. And by the way, if we had only been paying Ragtime's bills, we would have been fine, but the way the whole Livent thing was setup, we were paying the bills for all of the Showboat companies that were no longer paying off. Before Garth was eased out, that was a big nut. We had a big enough nut by ourselves, but we could have made that, and we would probably have made that for a time longer. But the roll of the dice decided that Jesus Christ Superstar was a solid seller, and you know what? Usually it is. I did that show years and years ago. Every time we ever played it it went clean.

NR:  Do you think the Internet helped Ragtime or hurt it?

JK:  I don't know. It's hard to say because I don't really have a feel for what that does. Slowly but surely I'm getting it. I'm online every day of course. I really don't know what the buzz was.

NR:  Did you feel more in the public eye because of that?

JK:  No. I do now since I have a website. A dear fellow by the name of Joseph Molnar came up to me while I was doing Ragtime and said, "I've started an unofficial Judy Kaye website. Do you want to go look at it? If you like it, maybe we could make it official?" (judykaye.com) When I looked at it, I thought, "Boy, I sure couldn't do this well. If it was up to me to put it together, it certainly wouldn't look this good. Sure. Why not?" In this day and age, it pays to advertise. I used to say, and I still do, that if I needed to, I'd put a sandwich sign on and I'd walk up and down Broadway to sell me or any show that anybody wanted me to. Essentially that's what I've done! (laughs) It's a little embarrassing. I have yet to have the guts to put it in my bio in a Broadway show.

I don't get to look at my website as much as I should. I try once a week to sit down and go through the guest book and write people back. I've had moderate success at that. I'm going to try to do better at it. The wonderful thing is that through this, I have rekindled old, old friendships. It is so wonderful. They're all in my guest book, old and new. I go through there and I try to respond to some degree. It's really fun. It's hard, but I really appreciate that people feel that way and would take the time to let me know. Then there's an old roommate from college that I lost track of, and the daughter of an old friend who found me. It was great.

NR:  That's wonderful.

Let's talk about your cabaret show now. You haven't done one in a very long time. What made you decide to do it now?

JK:  John Miller, a dear man who owns Arci's, approached me and he was very persuasive. I walked in the room and I thought, "This is a very comfortable room." Some of them bother me ... like the Algonquin. It's a famous place. Everybody plays there but you have three people sitting directly in front of the bandstand, and everybody else is to the side of you. That's hard. The old Reno Sweeney's was a great room because everybody was right there. It's just a marvelous feeling and I get that feeling from this place too. They've taken a lot of care. The sound system is wonderful. He spent some money.

NR:  How do you compare doing one of these nights to your huge concerts, or a Broadway role? Cabaret is just you.

JK:  This is different. I suppose I've been bred for the Broadway stage and I've played some rather large venues. This is night-to-night learning how to shape it smaller and smaller for that space. I think I'm doing pretty well with it. I love looking in people's eyes and connecting with them.

NR:  Is it hard because it's just you? It's not a character - it's you.

JK:  It's me and it's a lot of characters. It's me in those little playlets. Some of those are entirely personal, and some of them are, as every character that you play is, a part of your personality.

NR:  Like what? Can you give me an example?

JK:  I'm doing a little of the Fanny Brice stuff. I hadn't decided to go out and do a Fanny Brice thing. One of the pieces is a song that was written for her by Cole Porter. I tell the story in the act so I really shouldn't tell it here. It's a very personal song for her. Another one is a piece of comic silliness that she used to perform. There I was with two pieces of Fanny Brice material. It wasn't really by design but they were just so good that I had to do them. Then it's a lot of songs I've wanted to sing.

NR:  Can you tell me any of them? (Judy hesitated.) You don't want to give any of them away, do you?

JK:  Well ... . I haven't wanted to give it away, but "My Shining Hour," a wonderful Howard Arlen/Johnny Mercer song, and a Kurt Weill song, "It Never Was You." Things like that. Some very beautiful music and some funny stuff. Some pathos - a little of everything. An hour of a journey, I hope, for an audience discovering the music. I hope they think, "Ah, I remember that one" or "That's an interesting way to get into that song. I like that."

NR:  Of all the people you've worked with through the years, and the list is just incredible, does anyone stand out as having the biggest impact, or having impressed you the most? Is there one you learned the most from?

JK:  I learned something from everybody because I've sort of prided myself on sitting at the knees of wonderful people and listening to them. Let's see ... I'm going to try to go way back, when I was in the chorus of a production of South Pacific Betsy Palmer was playing Nellie Forbush. This was a theater in the round in Anaheim, California and I remember standing on the big concourse in the back and watching her, being a sponge, just learning from her. I'm going back that far. I was 17 years old.

Gary Burghoff - I worked with Gary Burghoff in You're a Good Man Charlie Brown. I learned so much working with him. He's a wonderful actor. He really tried to assist me.

Directors. Pat Birch, on that same show and later when I did Grease. Working with Patricia Birch was just such a gift and always will be. I hope there are many more times.

Rock Hudson - one of the best friends I ever had in my life. How he helped me. He wouldn't do talk shows. He hated them. I always thought maybe he was worried he was going to be outed, or he felt that he had nothing to say. I don't know, but he wouldn't do them. We were in Chicago with Twentieth Century, and in order that I should be able to go on The Mike Douglas Show, Rock went on. They wouldn't have me on unless he went on. He was so lovely. He was like that. That was really sticking your neck out for a friend.

John Cullum - a wonderfully gifted actor, and nightly such an inspiration to me. Kevin Kline - generous, silly, dear, dear man. He's a brilliant intellect and actor. Madeline (Kahn) - I learned a lot from Madeline the evenings that she felt she had the courage to go out and do it, and the nights when she wasn't courageous and she was frightened, which were many. I learned positive and negative lessons. And I've learned from people whose names you will never know, some of whom are no longer here. From them I have learned the most important lessons of all, the greatest lessons on a stage or off.

NR:  What's next for you? Where would you like to be?

JK:  I would like to be in a Broadway show again. (Hint, hint!) I'd like to do a wonderful part in a big, new or old, Broadway show. I'd like to put on pretty clothes again. I don't want to wear a fat suit like I did in the past few things. In Ragtime they had me all padded up. Even in Phantom I was padded out. I had a bustle the size of a VW van stuck to me. I'd kind of like to look pretty in a show again. (laughing) And if it's a television series instead, am I going to complain? I don't think so.

NR:  I wish you luck. Thanks so much.

JK:  You're welcome.



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