For over two decades, the comedy trio Fascinating Aida has been delighting audiences with their tight harmonies and vicious wit. While they describe themselves as "Absolutely Fabulous meets Noel Coward, as sung by the Andrews Sisters," their blend of social satire and heavenly vocals are truly unique. One of their songs, "Shattered Illusions," has become a staple of Patti LuPone and Bette Midler but nobody can compare to the originators. Currently in New York as part of their farewell tour, Absolutely Fascinating, the three women and their musical director, Russell Churney, took a few moments to reminisce with Talkin' Broadway.
Jonathan: Dillie, you are the one who started the group, correct?
Dillie Keane: Yes, you can blame me since I started it twenty-one years ago. Fascinating Aida started as a series of accidents, really. I play the piano as well as being an actress and my various performing friends would beg me to run through songs with them or go to auditions with them. For our own amusement, we would do some close harmony singing as well. In between acting jobs, I got a series of cabaret/bar jobs in London. My local cabaret/bar was really nice and I mentioned to them that I was really bored performing the same set of songs in different places every night and since I had some girlfriends who were singers as well, would it be all right to bring them along. They thought it was fine, but were very careful to warn me that there was no extra money for them (laughs). We started performing Friday nights at my local cabaret/bar, which was a fifty-yard stagger from my house.
JF: Was the group a trio as it is now?
DK: It would be me and two or three or even four others. It was an eclectic group; basically anybody who could sing or play anything. We even had a heavily bearded Australian saxophonist of seventy-four with us at one point
JF: Where did you come up with the name Fascinating Aida?
DK: A friend of ours chose it and we were in a hurry (all laugh).
JF: That is probably the most concise and honest answer I have ever received in an interview.
A year later you joined, Adele.
Dillie Keane, Liza Pulman, and Adele Anderson
Adele Anderson: Yes. The first soprano in the group was Canadian and left to go back to Canada, and the next soprano didn't work out for various reasons we needn't go into now. At the time, the group was directed by a woman named Nica Burns, who is now the right hand person of Sir Lloyd Webber. At the time, she was running the Donmar Warehouse Theatre, which was doing a series of late night cabaret shows. One of the performers there was an American singer named Bertice Reading and during her shows, various friends of hers from the West End would pop up and join her. I went to see her perform one night with some friends and thought, "Oooh, I could do that." I wasn't actually working in the theatre at the time ... I had trained in the theatre but got sidetracked and became a civil servant.
So a friend of mine went up to Nica and informed her that the fabulous jazz singer Adele Anderson was in the audience and that it would be wonderful to hear her do some of numbers. Nica asked the general manager if he had ever heard of a jazz singer named Adele Anderson, since she hadn't and the two of them knew everybody on the circuit. It was decided that it was either a wind up or somebody who was really hungry to perform, so she came up to me and said that she couldn't let me perform that week, but if I returned the following week she would let me. So I did!
I must say that I was very unformed in those days ... but she must have seen something in me as she asked me to audition for Fascinating Aida. I went over to Dillie's flat and she made me sing all the parts, because she hadn't worked out who was going to sing what part at the time. We got along very well and after the auditions she asked if I wanted to stay on for a drink, which I thought was a marvelous idea. Then she looked around in her cupboards and appeared to only have an elderly bottle of cooking sherry that was given to her by her sister the previous Christmas. I told her that that would be fine, so ... that was it!
JF: You and Dillie have written the majority of the songs together, correct?
AA: Yes. Dillie is the architect of the group and has written a lot of the songs on her own. When we work together, Dillie usually writes the music and we collaborate on the lyrics. But I have written the occasional tune as well.
JF: The two of you have been doing Fascinating Aida pretty much non-stop since the start?
AA: We've been doing it for years, darling, yes. Dillie has never managed to get rid of me.
JF: The third member of the group has changed a lot over the years, though. Is this your first time with the group, Liza?
Liza Pulman: Yes. I joined in March of this year, so I'm very new to it. We have done a few shows together, so New York is not my first time.
JF: You join and they announce that this is their farewell tour ...
LP: (Laughs) I think they announced that before I signed on, actually!
JF: Fascinating Aida has had quite a few farewell tours, though, already ...
DK: Only two!
JF: I read an article that mentioned four ...
DK: The lying toads!
AA: We had one in 1989 and one last year.
JF: Is New York your last stop then?
AA: We're hoping to be taken up by someone who would want to put us on tour in America.
DK: While we were putting together our farewell tour last year, we had this trip to New York planned and thought it would be a great way to end the tour as everybody wants to come to New York ... except for our soprano, who decided to do a tour of Footloose instead.
Basically, our thought right now is for the group to work abroad rather than in England as we feel that we have worked England to death. In two or three years, after we have put a new show together, we would be able to go back. But right now I don't feel that we can tour around England performing twenty-year-old songs ... I would like to write some new material before going back.
JF: And your songs are very fresh here in the States ...
LP: Funny enough, as the new girl on the block, the songs are new to me as well! I understand what Dillie is saying, but for me the songs are all new and very exciting.
JF: They are wonderful and I have been enjoying your CDs for years now. We just don't have stuff like this in America.
DK: You have Capitol Steps!
JF: Yes, but they are more parody, whereas your songs are all original.
In preparing for the interview I was mulling over the fact that Britain has given us Monty Python and Fascinating Aida, Canada has given us Kids in the Hall, Australia has Dame Edna ... why are we the only colony devoid of this style of humor?
AA: You gave us Tom Lehrer.
JF: That's true. And if we combine him and Bette Midler we begin to approach that level of twisted zaniness.
How long have you been involved with the group, Russell?
Russell Churney: I've been involved with Fascinating Aida for about a year. Prior to that, I had been working with Dillie on her solo work since about 1996. When she was putting together the farewell tour together she asked if wanted to join in.
JF: I feel that I need to point out that, liner notes to the contrary, you, in fact, do not have twelve fingers ...
RC: No, I'm not a literal freak as such (all laugh).
DK: It's just that the speed of his fingers during his playing can only be explained by him having twelve (laughs).
JF: Is there any bitterness that you came up with a song about Jerry Springer ["Mr. Springer," on the 1999 album Barefaced Chic!] long before the opera became a hit?
DK: I hadn't thought of it until now ... and now I'm really bitter and angry, so thank you for bringing it up!
JF: You received an Olivier Nomination this year for Best Entertainment.
DK: Our third ... always the bloody bridesmaid.
AA: We have yet to win one.
JF: So, you are the Susan Lucci of the West End.
LP: And we have just missed the Tony nominations.
AA: So we'll have to stick around for next year!
JF: You have a wonderful website, www.fascinating-aida.co.uk, that is not only highly informative, but allows people to order the sheet music to your songs over the web. Do you have a songbook of your material as well?
AA: We used to. Dillie wrote The Joy of Sequins, which was a songbook that contained stories about each song.
DK: The thing about songbooks is that they just aren't financially viable as it takes an enormous amount of time and money to get them ready and to print them.
AA: Buskers in the London underground aren't clamoring to perform Fascinating Aida songs.
DK: So I came up with the idea to have them available for purchase online. I need to add more songs to the site, and I hope to do it while I'm here.
JF: You have another book as well, correct?
AA: Yes. We have an autobiography, Fascinating Who?...
DK: (Whispers) Which is just dreadful!
JF: And you have released a few videos.
AA: Yes, three of them. It, Wit, ... Barefaced Chic ... and an early one that was a bootleg...
DK: Which was dreadful! I had forgotten that one!
RC: And you should forget it exists too!
AA: Two - we've only had two!
JF: Aside from your delightfully twisted songs, the aspect of your performance I enjoy the most are your gorgeous harmonies. Did you all train in choral performance?
AA: I used to sing in choirs a lot ... I used to be more religious when I was younger.
DK: I sang in a choral company when I was at University. I love harmony singing; it's the most thrilling thing for me. You have to work with people who understand how to blend voices and listen for volume and tonal matching. Since Liza has a different vocal quality than our last soprano, we've had to relearn everything to to match her, especially since she usually carries the melody.
LP: I had an act with my sister called "The Pulman Sisters" in honor of the Andrews Sisters and other sisterly groups. Music was a big thing in my family ... especially the songs of the thirties and forties. We used to sit around the piano and sing close harmonies. To come here many years later is like coming home in a funny sort of way as it is what I am used to; that sound, as Dillie said, of women's voices in close proximity is very specific and thrilling.
DK: We even have Russell harmonizing in the show.
JF: That is you, then, supplying the more ... basso profundo notes on the latest CD, One Last Flutter?
RC: I've been roped into singing as well, yes. I'm on "Yes, But Is It Art?"
AA: And "Stick Your Head Between Your Legs"
JF: Speaking of your latest CD, I love the fact that, in addition to the irreverent songs that have become your hallmark, you have included several truly beautiful and emotionally poignant songs. I especially love "Little Shadows," a truly heartrending song sung by a woman regretting never having children.
DK: Thank you. "Little Shadows" is in our show, Absolutely Fascinating.
JF: Good. Is the show at 59E59 Theatres going to be a mix of old and new, then?
DK: Yes. We hopefully have picked the songs that travel the best.
JF: I'm looking forward to hearing them. Although I have never found your songs to be too obscure. Even if I have no idea who you are talking about, the humor of the songs always come through.
LP: I was surprised that you mentioned loving "Ealing Broadway Baby" before the interview. The song made sense to you, then, even though you probably have no idea what or where Ealing is?
JF: To be honest, when I first heard it I thought you were saying "Ailing Broadway Baby" as I was listening to the song on the subway on my Ipod, and that made perfect sense to me!
DK: (Laughs) That makes perfect sense to me, too! Ealing is a place, actually ... it's the end of the Tube line. It's not a usual tourist destinations.
AA: It's where they used to make the "Ealing Comedies" years ago. Ladykillers, which just got remade in America with Tom Hanks, was filmed there, as were a lot of Peter Sellers movies.
LP: Also Alec Guinness' Kind Hearts and Coronets.
DK: Ealing was interesting once ...
RC: (whispers) but not any more!
JF: Do any of you have solo gigs scheduled after the tour is over?
(Extremely long silence)
JF: And a depressing silence descended on the room...
DK: I'm going to be going around to all the bars asking if they need a pianist.
JF: This isn't your first trip to New York. You performed at The Firebird not too long ago.
AA: Yes. We were there twice in 1997. And before that we were at The Ballroom in 1988. It had just been refurbished. We went on after Blossom Dearie, in fact. So it's great to be back in New York ... and in an actual theater this time!
DK: That is very exciting! It's a 200 seater, which is nice because we are really more a theatre show disguised as cabaret.
JF: How long are you performing Absolutely Fascinating?
LP: Four weeks - June 13th is our last show. That will give us a nice chance to settle in!
JF: And hopefully it will lead to a U.S. tour.
JF: Well, I wish you all the best of fates and I can't wait to see you in action.
AA: Thank you.
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