An Interview with Judy Blazer
It was a full ten seasons between Judy Blazer's first Seattle performance at the 5th Avenue Theatre as a beguiling Marsinah in 1993's Kismet in 1993 to her second visit, as a loverly Eliza in My Fair Lady in 2003. But for trip number three, the radiant stage presence and ravishing voice of this New York theatre mainstay (Me and My Girl, Titanic, Hello Again, 45 Seconds from Broadway) are deployed in the launching of a brand new musical, Yankee Doodle Dandy [see David's review], which may ultimately be Broadway bound.
After a day of costume fittings, and just prior to starting a week of arduous ten (hour) out of 12 rehearsals, Judy sat down with me in the lobby of the 5th to talk about the show, her most recent triumph as the Beggar Woman in Sweeney Todd at NY City Opera, and a new theatre organization that is very close to her heart.
David-Edward Hughes: Judy, I met you back when you were here in Kismet.
Judy Blazer: That's right. You have a good memory.
DEH: And I very much enjoyed you as Eliza in My Fair Lady, but this is something altogether different - creating a role, or rather two roles, in a brand new stage musical based on the life of Broadway legend George M. Cohan.
JB: Isn't that wild? It's a new show, about a man that we know so much about, and yet we don't really know the true story because he protected himself when [the 1942 Jimmy Cagney] movie came out, and it changed a lot of the facts.
Production-wise, I can tell all ready it's going to be astounding! Our costume designer Greg Poplyk's clothes are unbelievable. Just the beauty of them, and the detail. And we're starting to see the sets, just a tad of them. Very exciting, and the cast is just delicious. Sean (actor Sean Martin Hingson who plays George M. Cohan) is a very good friend of mine. We've known each other in for twelve years, which is when he had just arrived in New York from Australia. He is probably the biggest star who ever lived. Wait till you see him. This role is perfect because he gets to do everything. He's a great dancer, and he sings beautifully, but what I didn't know about him is he's a great actor too. He is also a great guy, just a love. And he's a Dad! He and his partner Brad adopted this beautiful girl from Mexico named Grace, and they and his Mom from Australia are all coming in to see the show. He's just a love of a man, funny and smart, and fiercely talented, He does it all, and so well.
DEH: He sounds like a throwback to the old M-G-M musical days. Like a Gene Kelly.
JB: He is like Gene Kelly. (After a pause) Only better!
DEH: In Yankee Doodle Dandy, you play both Cohan's first wife, and his daughter?
JB: I play Ethel Levy, his first wife. She sort of joined in with the Cohans and they all performed together. And she was in a lot of his shows, like Little Johnny Jones. And they had their daughter, Georgette, but their marriage ended. Ethel went on to perform more after their divorce, as she had been an established performer before they met. So I play Ethel with Sean's George, and then the grown Georgette with Richard Sanders (WKRP in Cincinnati) as old George. It's an interesting story. For us, the challenge is plugging into his story, because in comparison to what some of us have, the amount of work, the amount of scenes spans a lifetime. You really can't tell your whole story. You sort of have to carry it within you and plug into his story and accentuate the elements of your character that are told through his perception, if that makes any sense.
DEH: What brings you into the plot of the show?
JB: In my first scene, Ethel and George are already interested in one another, and he's giving her a song that he took from his sister Josie. I already have to play that something exists there, and it's Ethel's first entrance. That's the first time we see her, but it's quick because five weeks later he proposes. During an intermission. But you get the sense that's the way he really was. He was always operating. He was so in the moment. He was that kind of guy; he wrote, composed, directed, produced, starred. I guess you could say he was a megalomaniac.
I never really realized it, but he really did create Broadway. I mean there was Ziegfeld, he created the spectacle, but that was in the revue form. George M. really developed the book musical.
DEH: What do you think drew the creators of this show (co-authors David Armstrong and Albert Evans) to do a new musical about George M. Cohan? The 1968 stage musical George M! was a huge personal hit for Joel Grey, but it is seldom revived.
JB: I think that's not a very strong show in itself. I think what they wanted to do was to tell the truth of Cohan's story, and employ his music in the telling of it. George M's story is much more interesting when you know the truth of it. He was a very tough man, and to us nowadays we're interested in flaws. Cohan's shows didn't reflect the complexity of his own life. He had a big fight with the Actors Equity Association, which he lost and that's explored. And the whole angle about theatre families back then. I was looking at a fascinating book that starts with the late 1800s, George M's period, through the thirties and the end of vaudeville and burlesque. Everyone was a family: Fred and Adele Astaire, The Barrymores, Gypsy Rose Lee and June Havoc. Nowadays one member of a family goes into show business, and they are the black sheep. It's more common to see that. But theatre families were theatre families because if you did theatre you were set apart from other people. It wasn't necessarily considered a respectable profession. It was an outcast profession. Entertainers had to travel, they had tough lives. And it was an era when people stayed in the profession of their family, as opposed to the big American dream of you can be anything you want. My Grandmother was a pushcart peddler, my brother's Doctor. The American dream.
DEH: What are some of your songs in the show?
JB: I do a great song called "Pick Up Your Dreams and Go" which Albert wrote the lyrics to from a Cohan melody, and it fits into the story. I do a signature song of Ethel's, "I Was Born In Virginia," and "So Long, Mary," which is really like a predecessor to "Hello, Dolly!". And I sing in a lot of the other numbers. Oh! And as Georgette I do a scene where she comes in and upsets things by singing a sort of scat version of "Yankee Doodle Dandy." Georgette is really a kind of a chip off the old block, which, when it comes to George M. means that she is really aggressive and self-involved. It's a fun challenge to play this mother and daughter.
DEH: Just prior to your starting rehearsals you had a pretty wonderful personal success in New York City Opera's Sweeney Todd. I read some real rave reviews.
JB: Oh thank you! I didn't really see them. I sort of heard through the grapevine. I'm so pleased. The best part of that was, I can't even say Mr. Sondheim because he said "Please call me Steve." I feel so funny referring to him as my friend Steve, but he was so accessible to me, and he was so pleased with what I was doing, and to me that's the biggest goal, to please the creator of the piece. That show was life changing. I didn't expect the Beggar Woman would be that for me. It's like a person that you knew of their existence peripherally for like twenty-five years, and knew that there might be something potentially interesting, but you never paid attention to them. And the one day you happen to engage in conversation and your soul connection to them makes you soulmates forever. And that's the way I felt about getting to know this Beggar Woman. She turned out to be one of my favorite roles, and I never would have imagined it.
When I got the call, "can you come in tomorrow," I was so blasé about it! I had to learn all this stuff, and Steve Marzullo, a wonderful Broadway conductor, coach, and exquisite composer whose music I had been working on ... I told him that I had just gotten faxed all this stuff, and I've gotta learn it and it ain't easy. He played it through for me, he knew it all, and I said, well I guess I can always have them bang out the notes for me, and he said, "NO! You must learn it perfectly. You're going to get this job," So, I did, and I did! And it was seven blocks from my house, at Lincoln Center. How nice is that? And it was just great. I loved the people, and it's a wonderful house to play in. That show is just wonderful. Distressing, and moving and funny. It's everything. And the joy of Sondheim, always is that there are so many levels to it, you can enjoy it on the first hearing, but the appreciation comes in being inside it and getting to know the excessive amount of layering an thought that comes through.
DEH: I would be very much remiss not addressing your new theatre education project.
JB: (Gleefully) I am so glad you brought that up! Tell everyone at TB to check into it at The Artist's Crossing. We named it that because it is going to be both a company and a school where actors and designers and writers and creators, people who are currently in the business working at their craft, step into the position of teaching and engaging with younger up and coming artists.
Oscar Wilde said "Older people want to be with young people because they want to see where they've been, and younger people want to be with older people because they want to see where they're going." I really believe in that. I believe in the old school family unit, which are generations of a family. Like the Cohans. Why was George M. so creative? Because he grew up in the theatre. I grew up in art with my parents, and I want to pass it on. I don't have children so these are my babies. I have so many exquisite colleagues and friends, and so by day we're going to teach, and by night we're going to get a rep thing going so we can all perform together. So that they're like apprentices who get to work and perform with their teachers.
And my tastes aren't that of conventional theatre. I want to help young people to be able to train, and have interest in, and understand many kinds of art forms, all of which fuel what ever its is they may end up specializing in. And, if you do end up being very diverse, how to do it without losing your core. And how to make a living too. You can't make a living in musical theatre, David, you really can't. It can't be done. So it's really important that they know how to use their instruments to make a buck.
So yeah, The Artists Crossing. It's about people crossing, crossing into different arts forms, crossing from being an artist to a teacher, and also one day it's going to be a place.
DEH: This is something I get the feeling is a longtime dream of yours.
JB: Yeah. I think it's a continuation of my parents dream too, so I really want to get it done in this lifetime.
Tickets are on sale now for the world premiere musical Yankee Doodle Dandy opening April 29, 2004, with subsequent engagements in Dallas and Atlanta directly thereafter. The show features an all new book by David Armstrong, additional music and lyrics by Albert Evans and is co-directed by Armstrong and Jamie Rocco. For more information go to www.5thavenuetheatre.org.