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Laura Bell Bundy

By Beth Herstein

I recently had the pleasure of talking to Laura Bell Bundy, the effervescent performer who will premiere her show, Shameless! The Life and Times of Laura Bell Bundy, at Joe's Pub in early October. Bundy is only 23 years old, seemingly young for a retrospective. However, she is already a seasoned veteran of stage, screen and television, with the Radio City Christmas Show and a few years in the popular soap opera "The Guiding Light" to her credit.

Bundy is also well known to theater fans. She first won accolades —and garnered several major award nominations —over a decade ago, in the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle award winner Ruthless!. More recently, she created the role of Amber Von Tussle in Hairspray and served as Kristin Chenoweth's standby in Wicked. She also writes and performs music with her childhood friend and writing partner, Amber Rhodes.

Bundy, who was in Los Angeles at the time, talked to me by telephone. Her warmth and charm were evident throughout our conversation, as were her her maturity and confidence. She discussed Shameless!, her career so far and her plans for the future.

Talkin' Broadway:  What can you tell me about your upcoming cabaret show?

Laura Bell Bundy:  It is called Shameless! The Life and Times of Laura Bell Bundy. I wanted to call it If Jon Bonet Had Lived, but people were afraid that was a little too off color. Shameless! is kind of a spin-off on Ruthless!. And I call it Shameless! because I have no shame. I hope I don't offend anybody, but I might. It's not a regular cabaret show, where the performer sings a few songs and has some patter. I play characters - whether it's myself at eight, or my mother, or Julie Andrews, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, hookers. I'm playing all of those people while they are or I am explaining the story of my life.

I think the only thing you have to offer, if you're doing a show like that, is a really great idea or else your own personal story, and then making that interesting and entertaining. So, hopefully it will be entertaining. It will be very high energy. I don't know exactly what will happen. I'm the kind of performer who, when I get out on the stage - whatever it is I rehearsed, gets exaggerated or turned around. I really get a kick out of spontaneity. It's like a drug. So, who knows what will happen!

TB:  Especially before a live audience. Joe's Pub is a great space, very intimate.

LBB:  There's nothing like being stuck out on the stage, with everybody watching you, expecting to be entertained. You've got to think of something to do! I started out so young that my comfort zone is on the stage. Just stick me on a stage and I'm comfortable. That's a nice thing to have if you want to be an actor.

As for the show, it's definitely a challenge. I take the parts of my life experience that will be entertaining. And how will they be entertaining? They won't be if they're all told by Laura Bell Bundy, and if they're all sung by Laura Bell Bundy. But, they will be entertaining if Judy Garland is singing about them, or Julie Andrews, or Elaine Stritch.

I sing lots of songs, I do parodies. I do a parody based on Hairspray. I do a parody of me as a little girl doing Ruthless!. I do a medley of all the people I admire - being them, actually. And, I touch on my parents splitting up. As if I were an old lady and looking back on my life.

My grandfather was a radio announcer and a D.J. in the forties. I learned about all the great old music from him - people like Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney. In Kentucky this was ... you know, a five-year-old singing "I've Got Rhythm" and "Good Morning Heartache" ... it was a little weird.

TB:  These were the grandparents who were married for over 50 years?

LBB:  Yes, my grandparents have been married, I believe 53 years now. And, you know what? They're still in love. He still calls her "his bride." To me, that is really something to aspire to. In my show, I touch briefly on being a product of a broken home. I do the whole "I'm a rebellious teenager" in my show - as Britney Spears. The thing is that, especially in the time we live in, there's almost an assumption that you'll get married until you get divorced. And it's really nice to have a good example of a long lasting love. My parents split up when I was 14 and divorced when I was 16, and my career took a toll on their relationship.

TB:  Your mom moved with you to New York and your dad stayed in Kentucky.

LBB:  My dad owns a company back in Kentucky, and he had his business to attend to. So he would come back and forth, and we would go back and forth. And, that went on for around four-and-a-half years, from when I was nine until I turned fourteen. My career was kind of going crazy and I had to have a parent with me, so my mom stayed with me. What do two parents do when they have a child starring in an Off-Broadway show? It's a very weird position. You don't want to take that opportunity away from your child, who is the most important thing in your life. But, your marriage is important too. How do you balance that?

TB:  You made the decision to return to Kentucky when you were 14, so that you could attend high school with people who weren't in show business.

LBB:  I had been going to the Professional Children's School in New York, and it's a great school, but everyone there is a professional. Professional musicians, professional dancers, professional ice skaters, chess players, actors. I wanted to go to school with football players and normal kids who were going to go to classes and go to dances. I wanted to go to the high school that you see in the movies. And I got that for sure, the complete experience. I also wanted to be with my dad again. I wanted my family back together and my mom really wanted that, too. I think they both did. But I got home and two months later they broke up. So, there went that. It was kind of difficult to deal with.

TB:  At the same time, it sounds like you had a lot of maturity and presence of mind at a young age to be making decisions in a mature way —about your career, and about how to keep a balance in your life.

LBB:  I have older sisters, but the youngest is around 12 years older than me and the other is 19 years older. They were never really around. So I was around adults. I was around my mom and dad and my grandparents. I was also around gay men in Chelsea, and all the directors and other actors I worked with. Also, I was a professional. I had to be a grown up. In any child actor, you'll see this part of them that is very mature. They talk like adults, they carry themselves like adults, and they're very responsible when it comes to thinking and talking and making plans for themselves. It's really bizarre, actually.

Because I had that professionalism at a young age, my parents never treated me like a child. I mean, I was always my mom and dad's little girl. And I played with Barbie. I was - well, I'm still a kid. I'll never grow up. Because I like being a kid. But, because I had a sense of responsibility at a young age, my parents respected me enough to treat me like an adult and ask me how I felt about things. They didn't discard my opinions because I was a child. I am really happy for that, because I trust my own instincts now and I trust my decisions. I'm fearless. My parents instilled that confidence in me. It's really one of the best things that I got out of being in the business as a young child.

TB:  You've worked with people like Marie Osmond (in The Sound of Music) and Deborah Gibson (in Gypsy), who started out pretty young also. Did you find that you had a lot in common?

LBB:  When I worked with Marie, I was younger than she was when she did the Donny and Marie show. I think she had empathy for all the kids in that show. She is such a jokester and such a big kid, and she was really good to all of us. She would have us come on her tour bus if we didn't want to take the flight, and we would all stay in these little beds on the bus and watch old episodes of Donny and Marie or anything else we wanted to do, and she would take us to movies. I think she was trying to make sure we managed to have a childhood while we were on the tour.

TB:  And Ruthless! - what did that part meant to you?

LBB:  Ruthless! was a monumental part of my life. I didn't ever audition for it. I was nine, and I was doing the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular, the first professional theater gig I had in New York City. Marvin Laird was the musical director. I was the principal girl who did Clara in The Nutcracker and sang the songs, and this, that and the other. When Marvin met me, I remember him taking me over to the piano and having me do scales. I was going all up and down the piano. Because I had been a mimic as a kid, I could mimic an opera singer and it would sound like an opera singer. Very bizarre. So, right away, he said, "There's this show I've been working on that you'd be perfect for. It's based on The Bad Seed. I have to introduce you to the writer and director. So, I met with the writer and director, Joel Paley, and I started working on this show called Seedy, which eventually became Ruthless!.

We did readings of it when I was nine, and when I was ten, and we workshopped it. We opened Off Broadway several months later. The experience of being nominated for the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards - I didn't understand what the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards were. It wasn't a Tony or an Academy Award, so I didn't get it. Now, I think, "Wow, that was awesome!" But, then, I said, "Ok, that's cool. Now, where's my doll?"

Joel and Marvin were great. I don't think you can teach someone comedic timing, but I do think you can make it grow and bring it to life and make it something. Whatever it was, they made that happen, especially Joel Paley. He was giving me new monologues to do every night - he was constantly changing the show, but he trusted me.

Looking back at it - I know I was a kid, but I remember it as if I were an adult then. Even though I didn't quite understand it, I enjoyed doing the show. I didn't do it because of my career, but because I loved doing it. I never called in sick. I did go off to make two movies. One of those times, Britney Spears came in and did my part for a week.

Ruthless! in general was the beginning of my learning how to do musical comedy, and it has really shaped who I am as an actress. I have to attribute my bitchy comedy to Ruthless!. I went into my audition for Hairspray, and Ruthless! was mentioned. I think it helped me. They thought, "Oh, that's the little girl from Ruthless!, she's perfect for Amber von Tussle. It's that same evil child who smiles and then grits her teeth and says something completely off color.

TB:  You were with Hairspray from early in its development.

LBB:  It was just after my nineteenth birthday. I was doing the soap opera "Guiding Light" at the time. I did the first Hairspray reading in May of 2000. It was a blast. I knew then that the show was going to be a hit.

When the show opened and all of the success happened, I thought, "I know I'm going to take the experience for granted." I knew it, because it was my first Broadway show. I was starring as a supporting lead character, and the show was huge. It moved right into pop culture. And I took so much pride in it because I'd been in it from the beginning. When you're in a role early on in the development, you're part of the creative process.

Also, I'd gotten to know a lot of the people from the three years before, so there was a family and a unity there. You take a part that you've created, you take your first Broadway show, and you already love the people you're working with before the show opens, and it's a hit! You think, this could not be better. [Laughs.] Except I could be making more money. Really, though, Hairspray was a show that I would have wanted to do for free.

TB:  It also sounds like you found a collaborator in Kerry Butler. You're out in L.A. with her now, pitching a show?

LBB:  She was here last week, and we went to several studios to pitch a few ideas we have for television shows. I'm also working on some other TV ideas and I'm developing, as a producer, a Broadway musical that I'm not participating in. I want to completely focus my energies on making the show come to life, as opposed to being an actor in it. There's not really a role for me in it, anyway. It's based on the music of a very well known Grammy Award winning band and I've been meeting with the band and working on it. It's a little too soon to speak more about it, but it's really exciting, because in my heart it's like my next Hairspray. It's something I'm really passionate about and I believe in.

TB:  Earlier, you mentioned that you were on "The Guiding Light." How did it prepare you for the theater?

LBB:  It's the best training you can ever get! There's nowhere else where you're going to have to memorize forty pages of lines a day and be pretty and cry on cue. A lot of people think there are teleprompters. There are no teleprompters. And, unlike film, you don't get to do it twenty times until you get it right. You sit down with it, dress rehearse it and then tape it. If you screw it up they go back and pick it up. But, that's it.

On top of that, your character is making out and dancing on bar counters. She gets kidnaped and she dates a Mafia member. Her parents are getting divorced; she's in an earthquake. It's ridiculous, all the things that happen. You play about 50 characters while you're on the show, because of all those story lines.

The other actors on the show were so talented. Like Kim Zimmer and Robert Newman. Kim Zimmer is like the Atlantic Ocean. She can turn those waterworks on and off on cue —and they're so real, they'll make you cry in the middle of the scene, even if you're not supposed to. From that experience, I was able to get in touch with a deeper side of my emotions, and my work became more grounded as a result. There were times on the soap when I got carried away and I became that person. You really get deeply into it; there's no better training than that.

Another thing that acting in a soap opera does is give you confidence. If you have 12 pages of lines to learn for an audition, you go, "This is nothing! I'm learning 30 pages every day." You go in very relaxed and very comfortable, and when you do the scene, it's like all the other scenes that you have done. So you have one up on people just in the sense of confidence. Which is a huge deal. Linda Hart (who played Bundy's mother in Hairspray) told me once, fear is 50 per cent of acting. Being fearless, that is. If you go into an audition and you can't move because you're worried about not getting the job - you won't get the job.

TB:  I read your ["Guiding Light"] character's life story. She had a pretty crazy life.

LBB:  Oh, my God! She was like a psycho. But, psycho's good.

TB:  Is it more interesting for you to play than balanced?

LBB:  Hell, yeah! I am way more a character actor. Psycho kind of goes with character. If you can do extremes well, you're a character actor. If a character is really even-keeled and balanced, to me it's really boring to play. And, it's also hard for me to play because I want to make them crazy. [Laughs].

TB:  What was your experience in Wicked like?

LBB:  We're talking about extremes and craziness in a character. Glinda was crazy. She was so afraid of herself. She cared so much about other people's opinions and thoughts that she was able to shut somebody out. But she was comfortable enough with herself and had enough of a conscience to let that person - Elphaba - in and teach her something. There's this whole element of friendship, and this element of wanting to be successful.

I used to say that Glinda was really a Munchkin, and that she had to prove herself to her family, which is what made her so ambitious. That was my backstory. There was a lot to her. This first half of the show, she's young, kind of fun and flighty - a little bit of a smart ass. And, she's sassy. Then, in the second half, she's grown up, she's got more depth, and her vulnerability is showing. To me, it was like playing two different characters who were only connected by story. And, that was really fun for me, because I was able to take from my soap opera experience the groundedness and connectedness at the end of the second act, and really be able to feel something for Elphaba.

TB:  How was it being a standby?

LBB:  I think it's the hardest thing a person could ever do. I have so much respect for a person who covers a lead actor - or covers a character, period. Anybody who's an understudy, standby, swing, whatever. You could be told that you are going to have a dress rehearsal or a tech rehearsal or a rehearsal with the rest of the cast before you go on, but that probably won't happen. I never had a dress rehearsal. When I was up in the bubble [from which Glinda descends in the opening scene], it was the second time I had ever been in the bubble. The curtains were opening; and, I was suspended above the air, in costumes I had never worn before, a wig I'd never worn before, in a bubble I'd hardly ever been in. My palms were so sweaty, I thought I was going to drop the wand onto the stage. Then I had to sing, and the first thing I had to sing was opera! [hums] The whole time I was thinking, "Holy shit! There are so many people out there!" I'm not thinking about what I'm supposed to be thinking about - which is what the character is doing and feeling. [Laughs] I wasn't acting at all, I was freaking out!

In one respect, being able to get through that experience made me more confident. Because, if I can do a leading role and continue to do it and have my timing get better without having rehearsals or anything, then I can do anything. I'm really glad that, as a result of having done it, I will never ever take those people who do this for granted. [Being a standby is] not so good on the ego. There's a comfort that the people in the cast have with someone they do the show with every day, and they never will have that with the standby. That always has to be understood. But that still makes it harder for the new person, because they will never be what the other person is used to. Now, I got nothing but support and love from the people in Wicked. I never felt anything that was weird or negative when I went on in the show. Also, people were happy with what I did. But, that isn't always the case. And, it's rarely the actor's fault. It's always that they weren't rehearsed enough, or they weren't cast correctly, or the other actors aren't responding to them. In retrospect, I'm so glad that I did it. Altogether, it was a good learning experience, and very valuable, even though I wasn't as connected to it as to Hairspray.

TB:  It sounds like the confidence you talked about earlier, that your parents instilled in you, gives you poise and a sense of boundless ability to try things. That is really admirable.

LBB:  Thank you. And, well, I have a lot of things going on, because I'm a lot of different people. I guess I'm not certifiably schizophrenic [laughs], but you know what I mean. Life is too short to not do everything!

My musical career is very exciting. I love writing in general - and I love writing music with my singing partner. Amber [Rhodes] is a brilliant songwriter and we have a country/rock/pop group and a band. We've played in Nashville, and, we're trying to make that something now. I'm not tied down at this moment to eight shows a week, which is weird for me. But it's nice because I don't have to worry about not being able to go to Nashville if I have to go - or shoot a pilot - or something like that.

The scariest thing is when you've created a lot of projects that are important to you, that aren't paying you anything. Like a music career or pitching shows or developing a musical. Those are things that pay off after they've happened. In the meantime, you put a lot of time into them and you have to be available for those things to work out. You don't want to sacrifice them, but it's also important that you eat. So, there's this balance. You ask yourself: Will this job help me along in my career, or as an actress, or with other projects - or will it stop me from doing those things? Will it prohibit me from doing the other projects that I care about? That's kind of how you have to make a decision.

I love doing music. The music industry is really hard to break into right now, but I'm not in a rush. If it's meant to be, it will happen.

TB:  Based on your years of experience, it's as if you're a little old lady. But, actually, you're a very young one. So you can take your time and see what happens with it.

LBB:  Yeah. But, even though I'm only 23, I have this drive to make things happen sooner than when they should happen, or when the universe will allow them to happen. I think that's because I've been working so long. People look and me and they go, "Wow, you've really done a lot for 23." And I say, "Yeah, because I've been working since I was six."

I'm so thankful for my head start. I would not be in the position I'm in right now without the knowledge that I have. It could have all happened, but I wouldn't understand the value of it if it had happened quickly. I had a mom who sacrificed a lot for me, so that I would not have to be waiting tables and going on open calls. I may still have to wait tables, but I won't have to go to open calls. That is a huge step.

A lot of people, straight out of college, ask me how to get started. A person my age getting started in the business has to get a job to get an agent. But, how are they going to get jobs without an agent? You have to go to every open call, do readings and do short films. You've got to hold two jobs, take acting and dance classes. You have to bust your butt.

TB:  To get around it, you have to keep chipping away, getting little things done. Also, you have to develop a thick skin. Because there are always going to be obstacles and rejections, or people who like or don't like your work.

LBB:  Yeah. You know how they say never to read your reviews? You can't. You were directed one way. And you don't argue with your directors - you have to trust them - and if you get a bad review, it's like, "Oh, well, onto the next thing." People might never forget your review, but it's very important that you forget your review - whether it's great or it's crap. Because, every job is going to be different, every character is going to be different. And, like you were saying, when you're getting started there are all these obstacles.

I would love to talk to young actors and help figure out a really good, solid plan for young people to pursue their dreams. Help them figure out what they need to do emotionally, fiscally, and in terms of training and auditioning. Also, how to find job opportunities if you're a musician or artist or whatever. It would be really nice for someone to be there for that. I mean, I'm sure there are programs out there. But, most of them are $1000 or more. Why can't someone just be nice and donate it? Maybe that's what I'll do!

TB:  I read that you deferred college to do The Guiding Light, but that you still intend to go back, and maybe study psychology.

LBB:  When I was in Hairspray, I went back to NYU and took sociology. I loved it. I loved psychology as well. I do want to go back to school —for business and philosophy. Even if it's when I'm 80 years old that I get the degree. It's really important for people to continue to educate themselves and be well read. Otherwise, you're not utilizing your mind. It's such a gift to be able to use your mind, and stay fresh and keep up with current events.

TB:  To have a retrospective show is an interesting choice at your age. It must be interesting for you as well. Do you feel like you're growing, learning things about yourself as you're putting the show together?

LBB:  It's like psychoanalysis! I mean, there are parts in the one-woman show where I'm afraid of being able to get through. But, I'll do it! I know I'll do it.

Shameless! The Life and Times of Laura Bell Bundy
Produced by Lynn Shaw
Directed by Jamie McGonnigal
Musical direction by John McMahon
October 4, 2004, 9:30pm
Joe's Pub
425 Lafayette Street (between East 4th Street and Astor Place)
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