One More Life to Live for Broadway & Daytime TV Vet Shelly Burch
Also see David's review of Cats
If you watched daytime TV in the 1980s, the stunning, leggy brunette who played Delila Buchanan on ABC’s "One Life to Live" was hard to ignore. For myself, the surprise came a few years later while watching a PBS broadcast of the Paper Mill Playhouse’s staging of Show Boat - the lady playing the hard luck mulatto Julie LaVerne was one and the same. She’d begun her Broadway career with Stop the World I Want to Get Off with Sammy Davis, Jr.; the original production of Annie, succeeding Laurie Beechman as the Star to Be; doing double duty in the original cast of Tommy Tune’s Tony award winning best musical Nine, creating the role of Claudia and introducing Maury Yeston’s haunting standard “Unusual Way”; and in the same year joining the cast of "One Life to Live". By the late '80s, Shelly Burch deserted Broadway and soaps for Florida, marriage (and divorce) and becoming a devoted soccer mom to three kids.
Burch never stopped performing, and after recently relocating to Seattle with her family and the man in her life, Broadway lyricist and director Martin Charnin, she is returning to the stage, this time in a very personalized one-woman cabaret entitled There’s Always One More Song to Sing, directed by Charnin and consisting of fifteen of his new and pre-existing songs. Shelly met with me recently; running in from a muddy, rainy soccer game, she struck me instantly as a warm, open and optimistic person.
DEH: You have had a really fascinating life and career. The new show is called One More Song to Sing, but I think it could just as well have been called One More Life to Live eh?
SB: At least ... if not several.
DEH: Do you miss Florida?
SB: No. Not at all! We love it here and couldn’t be happier. Life is short, and after you are a grown up and have lived lots of different experiences, there’s just no time to not be happy.
DEH: You came from a family in which your Dad was a main mover and shaker of the Republican Party. What was that like?
SB: I was born in Tucson, where I also grew up. My Dad, Dean Burch was a protégé of Goldwater’s, so we were very Republican. He was Chairman of the Republican Party in 1964, and he actually ran Goldwater’s campaign. We lived in Washington, D.C. for that year. The party, I think - and he would have said - has changed quite a bit since then; my father was the most honorable man alive, just full of so much integrity and honesty. After he finished running the campaign we were back in Tucson, and he was in private practice there until 1969 when Nixon asked him to come and be chairman of the FCC, which he ran till ’73, and then he worked at the White House for just the last six months of Nixon’s term. He stayed with President Ford through 1974, then went into private practice, and in 1980 he was Chief of Staff of the George Bush Vice Presidential Campaign and Senior Advisor to the Reagan-Bush Committee.
It was some life growing up in Washington, D.C. Though I was so proud of my father, I knew, when I saw my first show at 14, that I didn’t want to live in Washington. I just knew that was something that was not me. I started hanging out with all these wonderful theatre people, who were my best friends forever, and I knew that I wanted to do theatre. I did theatre, and dinner theatre there and that was the start.
DEH: When did you go to New York?
SB: I had gone to Carnegie Mellon for a year after high school. I had no patience and just wanted to be famous, fast! I look back and tell my kids, yes, you should go to school and get a degree. But there I was in New York at 19, and I wasn’t afraid. I was just gonna do it, and make it, and after eight months I was cast in Stop the World as Sammy Davis Jr.’s daughter. My first Broadway show! I was just 20, but I was so focused and fearless.
DEH: You have to be, and even more so now if a young person tries to “make it” in New York.
SB: Now they aren’t willing to discipline themselves. At 16 I was taking acting classes, voice lessons, and studying dance every day, and then in New York I took hours of daily jazz, ballet and was studying acting at Circle in the Square. Even when I was in Annie, I had a cabaret show that I did after the show on Thursday nights, and on my nights off. I really worked to make sure I could be able to do it all. I studied opera! I would come and sing Aida, and my voice teacher would kill me because I was belting “NYC “in Annie eight shows a week. I just knew that I had to be ready for whatever, at any given time.
Now people want to be famous, but they don’t want to know how hard it is, and how difficult it is, and that it doesn’t happen overnight. After my first Broadway auditions, for a tour of Mack and Mabel and then A Chorus Line, I left them and thought, I can either be really depressed and go home, or know now how hard I have to really work, and that’s what motivated me. And you don’t have to be in New York, unless you only want to be on Broadway. That’s why Martin and I moved here. We think Seattle is just a great place. Packed not only with theatre, but just the whole atmosphere is artistic.
DEH: When did you debut on "One Life to Live"?
SB: It was in 1982, and I was cast while I was enjoying the gift of being in Nine on Broadway. Within two weeks of airing I had people who were stopping me on the street. It was really amazing, the power of TV, and soap operas were it! I had screen tested for "Dynasty," twice for "Search for Tomorrow" and for "As the World Turns" before I got "One Life to Live." You don’t just get cast on a soap opera anymore than you just get a Broadway show. I auditioned for two years, and then at 24 I was there, working every day, with the Broadway show at night. I did that for about six months and then finally left Nine. It was way too hard, though it killed me to leave and to have to tell Tommy that I really had to go, but it was time.
DEH: I learned about multiple personalities from watching "One Life to Live."
SB: I didn’t know about that for a few years, when they brought that storyline back. I had never had time to watch soaps, but I would hear the gals talking about the in the dressing room at Annie and I was amazed they had time to watch them. Then when I got on the show, well it was big! It was the era of Luke and Laura on "General Hospital." Judith Light was in her last year on the show my first year, and Brynn Thayer who played Jenny, she was a wonderful actress and a friend. I got to know Susan Lucci from "All My Children", the queen of the soaps and just a lovely person.
DEH: Was it invaluable having to learn all those lines every day?
SB: It took some time. The terror when I first started, when the red light would go on - fear grips your soul when that light goes on, and the camera is on you. Luckily, I can memorize, though I get distracted in some areas, but it really was a good medium for me to learn how to act, and be consistent. Bob Woods, who plays Bo, was one of the first people who said “Shelly, you know you don’t have to be nervous. You just look at the other person and talk to them,” and I thought well gosh, that makes sense. But it was important to me to do a good job. And in those days it was better because they always shot in sequence. I learned how to hit my marks and do everything technically.
I was Delila for a long time, and I kind of lost my identity (she laughs), who the heck am I? So it was good to go back to do my cabaret shows, theatre, and nighttime TV. It was a good time, I have to say. The best part of the seven and a half years, however, was that I was a working actor, making good money for doing what I loved to do.
DEH: And then you left the show in 1989?
SB: Yes. I suppose I was just ready to be “normal,” whatever that means, have a family, and just make a change in my life.
DEH: Jumping back to Nine, did you see the revival a few years back?
SB: I didn’t. I was there and I went to see Chicago instead. I have such wonderful memories of “our” show; Tommy’s vision was a really simple concept and it just worked. Raul Julia was just a Guido, he didn’t even have to try. The show was fancy but it wasn’t slick, you know. So many shows today are slick, but empty. But I didn’t see it so I will never know.
DEH: Any regrets about moving to Florida when you did?
SB: No. And yes. Martin laughs. I knew him way back in Annie, before I pulled up stakes and left New York. I probably just needed a vacation, but if I hadn’t gone I wouldn’t have my kids. There’s a sequence we do in the show. I have the right kids, wonderful perfect kids and I just married the wrong guy. In ’89 it seemed like Orlando was going to be a second Hollywood, but ultimately it just really kind of died.
A theatre where I had done Aldonza in Man of La Mancha, and where I also played Patsy Cline, was doing Annie and they asked me to direct it. And that’s how I happened to call Martin and get in touch again. I was Disneyed out! I love to sing in church, and that’s big down there. But I wanted to get back to theatre and cabaret. Martin was going to do a show for me when I was 21. (Sighs purposefully) It just took a little while to kind of come around and do it, but it’s something I really love to do. Very contemporary, I can be myself, and it’s a form of theatre I just really enjoy doing.
DEH: Talk about your music in the show. Did he craft many of the songs just for you?
SB: He wrote several. He had done a CD, “Incurably Romantic,” with songs he had done through the years, and I wanted to do a lot of those songs. He ended up writing at least three, and found a couple that had never been done before. They were just in a box in storage. I don’t know if people realize all the big-time shows he did in Vegas - for Nancy Wilson, Leslie Uggams, Dionne Warwick, and Mary Travers, to name a few. He really has such an eye for everything in detail. But back to his songs - there’s one that was on Barbra Streisand’s “The Way We Were” album. It was a gold record, and the song is ... .
DEH: (Interrupting) “The Best Thing You’ve Ever Done”. I love that song!
SB: I learned it back 25 years ago when we were going to do my show. Then I picked up the music again, and I went, “Wait a minute! I know this song!” And there’s “It Would Have Been Wonderful” from Annie Warbucks. And from Lena Horne’s 1982 Broadway show, he wrote a song at her request called “Fly,” with a great Quincy Jones arrangement. The opening song he wrote for Diahann Carroll, and she made a demo then went to Hollywood to do "Julia" so it’s never been done. The songs he wrote especially for me come later in the show, I won’t give them away. You’ll be surprised.
Martin has always believed so much in me. I don’t know what I did to deserve it, but boy am I glad! The work we do is just a joy. He writes shows, and I do shows. It’s like that song from The Sound of Music; I tell him this all the time: I must have done something good!
DEH: You must have, and I look forward to seeing your show.
SB: I look forward to being seen! Thanks, David
There’s Always One More Song to Sing, written and directed by Martin Charnin, runs 11/18-12/31, Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m. (with dinner seating at 6 p.m.). $55 for dinner and show, $20 for show, $60 for Dec. 31 show; 206-623-4111.