An Interview with Judy Kuhn
Also see David's review of The Three Sisters
When Intiman Theatre's publicist asked if I'd like to interview Judy Kuhn, one of my favorite musical theatre vocalist's of the past 15 or so years, I leapt at the chance. Then I asked what show she was doing there and was told it was playwright (and Intiman associate director) Craig Lucas' new adaptation of Anton Chekhov's The Three Sisters. This was intriguing, to say the least, but not nearly as intriguing as speaking to the lady herself, on a lunch break from a long rehearsal day.
David-Edward Hughes: It feels a little funny interviewing you about your role in a straight play, when everything I know about you has been gleaned from seeing or hearing you in Broadway musicals. I'm sure that's a common reaction, and that you have actually done your share of straight plays ...
Judy Kuhn: I have done some, but not as many as I would have liked to. This year seems to be more going in this direction, so that's nice.
DEH: Which sister are you playing?
JK: Olga, the eldest sister, though they are all in their twenties. Age becomes relative in things like this.
DEH: Have you performed Chekov before?
JK: I haven't, it's my first time. But I am really happy that this opportunity presented itself. Every actor wants to do Chekhov before they die! It's really exciting, and rich, and it's a great company to work with.
DEH: And you're working with the Tony nominated director and playwright of The Light in the Piazza. Bart Sher is one of my favorite directors, here or anywhere. Everything he does has a wonderful freshness. And to have the chance to do a new play of Craig's. Had you worked with him previously?
JK: I have not. I have known him, our paths have crossed here and there, but I've always been a great fan of his, so that's great to work with him, as well as with Bart.
DEH: How would you describe what Craig's adaptation of The Three Sisters.is like? Obviously there have been many translations and adaptations over the years.
JK: I am still figuring out how to describe it. Partly because I am still getting to know the play, and understanding exactly what Craig has done with this adaptation. But, I would say, generally speaking , I think what he is doing quite successfully, is making the language more accessible to American ears and to contemporary ears as well, without making it sound contemporary. It's very much set in the time and place when it was written. Craig has made these characters so much more human. The girls refer to their Father, not as Father, but as Daddy, which is what he was to them, he was Daddy. This helps you get the affection they had for their Father. It just sounds more natural coming out of their mouths, and it's less that sort of arch "We're doing a classic turn of the century play." But it's still set in early 1900s Russia.
DEH: Do you come from Russian descent?
JK: My mother's parents were Russian immigrants. They were Russian Jews, not "Russian" Russian. They were living there at the time the play was written, though.
DEH: Are you parents around to enjoy your stage successes?
JK: Yes they are, and they will be in Seattle in early July to see this. I don't think they've ever missed anything I've been in.
DEH: That's wonderful. Who are some of the others in your cast?
JK: Kristin Flanders, Jay Goede, who was in Craig's The Singing Forest, Julie Dretzin who plays Masha, and a young actress named Alex Tavares who's just out of grad school here in Washington. And that's just the principal cast.
DEH: The Three Sisters isn't a comedy, and yet with Craig adapting it, and knowing his famous sense of humor, I just wondered, is this a more humorous rendition of the story?
JK: Oddly enough when Chekhov started writing this, he said he was writing a comedy. And then when it was first read by the actors at the Moscow Arts Theatre they said "We wept." And Chekhov said, well then I've done something wrong. But then he kept rewriting it and decided it wasn't a comedy, it was a drama. But there's an enormous amount of comedy in it, and I think there always is in Chekhov. I think that's what is so amazing about his great plays. When you watch them you're just seeing life as we all live it. And people are funny, people's behavior is funny, even when it's not meant to be. People are quirky. These characters can also laugh at their own tragedy, and there's an enormous sense of irony abut the sadness in their lives. I think that's why the material is so rich, and why it speaks to us now as much as it did a hundred years ago, because it's really about human beings, living in all times and all places.
DEH: Is this your first time working with Bart?
JK: I worked with Bart a year ago, now, on a workshop at Sundance Institute, at the White Oak in Florida. And we hit it off, and he said will you come do a play at my theatre sometime? And when he said he wanted to do Chekhov, I said yes, yes, yes! Please ask me! So, it was all very fortuitous when we met.
DEH: Where is home for you?
JK: New York. I was born in New York, but I grew up outside Washington, DC. But I have lived most of my life now in New York, so I feel more like a New Yorker than anything else.
DEH: Was The Mystery of Edwin Drood one of your first Broadway musicals?
JK: It was the first Broadway show I was in.
DEH: So you know Patti Cohenour from that time?
JK: Yes. Patti lives here now, right? I went backstage at Piazza in New York and ended up not seeing her, which was so sad. But I will go back and see it again when I am back in New York. I think that show is just spectacular!
DEH: Drood is one of my very favorite shows, to see or be in.
JK: It was a blast to be in. And for me, new to the business, and in New York for maybe a year, it was the most extraordinary collection of actors. Because I was an understudy I sat in on all the rehearsals. It was like being in school, watching everybody work. Everyone was so different, everyone brought their own special thing to the mix. I understudied both Patti and Betty Buckley.
DEH: Did you take over either of their roles when they left?
JK: No. I left to do Rags .DEH: One of those heartbreaking shows that has so much in it, but just didn't go over.
JK: It was a wonderful piece. You know? ( She sighs) Whatever. Show-biz!
DEH: And then came your British musicals era, in the Broadway premieres of Les Miserables and Chess.
JK: Despite the sadness of Rags closing so quickly, that gave me the opportunity to do Les Miserables which I wouldn't have been available for otherwise.
DEH: I saw you recreate some of your work in Les Miserables on the tenth anniversary celebration. That must have been quite an event.JK: It was. And I had to remember it all! "I don't remember that part - did I do that part?"
DEH: It was certainly one of the biggest shows of that era on Broadway.
JK: It was sort of the first musical as event. When we went into rehearsal, we didn't - really, it was Les Miserables, it wasn't Les Miz, we didn't really know what it would become. I mean, we know it had been a huge success in London, and it was directed and adapted by the RSC team that did Nicholas Nickleby. Everyone wanted to be in it, and it was an incredibly exciting thing to rehearse and to open, but we just didn't realize it would become a sort of phenomenon, and an institution. It defined a new era in musicals. And now that era has ended and another has begun, for better or for worse.
DEH: You were widely praised as Amalia in the revival of She Loves Me, but you didn't follow it to Broadway because you were residing in the L.A. premiere of another British spawned show, Sunset Boulevard, by then.
JK: Exactly. I had actually said I would do Sunset before I was cast in She Loves Me, which I did at the Roundabout. But I hadn't signed a Sunset contract yet, and, long story short, I thought She Loves Me might not move because they kept putting it off, so I went with Sunset. But that was a lovely show, with a great score.
DEH: And you were reunited with Howard McGillin with whom you'd worked in Drood.
JK: We have worked together a lot. We also did As Thousands Cheer and we have done concerts together. I love Howard, he's a great man. I've known him practically since I came to New York.
DEH: What stories do you have about Sunset Blvd..?
JK: It was pretty incredible doing the show, this archetypal story, in the city where it was filmed. We had our opening night on the Paramount sound stage and Billy Wilder was there, and Nancy Olson who played my role, Betty, in the movie. I have a picture of me with the two of them. And my best story - the house that I rented while I was out there was shown to me by a real estate agent. It had belonged to one of Cary Grant's wives. And the agent was showing me the place, and I told her who I was and what I was doing in L.A. Well, it turned out her last name was Von Stroheim. She had been married to the son of Otto Von Stroheim, who was Max in the film, and she had actually been on the set during the filming of Sunset Boulevard.
DEH: I just got chills.
JK: Isn't that something?
DEH: So then the show opens, Glenn Close and all of you got great notices, but when the show opened on Broadway, where was Judy Kuhn?
JK: I did it only in L.A., because I was expecting my daughter, Anna, by the time it came into New York. I gave birth when they were in previews. They tried to convince me to come to the Broadway opening, but she was about 10 days old at that point, so I said no way. I could barely stand up!
DEH: Does she have any theatrical aspirations?
JK: Well, I don't know. She's into some after school theatre program right now, very into it. But she's just as into soccer, and reading, and playing the piano. I don't think she's really made any career choices - yet.
DEH: I would be remiss not touching on the acclaim you received playing Fosca in the production of Passion during the Kennedy Center's Sondheim fest a few years back.
JK: That production was very special. It was very warmly received by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, not to mention the critics and audience response. It's a project I am honored to be associated with.
DEH: As we are honored to have the opportunity to see your work in The Three Sisters. Thanks for taking the time to join us on Talkin' Broadway, Judy.
JK: It was my pleasure.The Three Sisters.runs through July 9 at Intiman Theatre at Seattle Center, 201 Mercer Street. For more information go to their web-site at www.intiman.org.