What's New on the Rialto
Charlotte Rae Has Her Say
By Rob Lester
"... every subtle nuance of the living performance has been captured in the polished grooves of this long-playing record to enhance your listening pleasure." So it was stated on a long-playing album that came out back in 1955, on the Vanguard label, Charlotte Rae Sings Songs I Taught My Mother: Silly, Sinful & Satiric Selections. Just reissued on CD by PS Classics, the nuances (and broad comedy) remain. And she's still in the groove herself, and the listening is indeed still a pleasure, as it is to see the actress on stage, film or television, and to speak with her in person, in New York for a theater role.
Charlotte reminisced about the album, which contains such things as two comic gems by Cole Porter ("The Physician" and "When I Was a Little Cuckoo") and Rodgers and Hart's ballad, "Why Can't I?" Fans of that songwriting team know that Charlotte made another rare but rewarding trip to the recording studio to sing their work as part of Ben Bagley's Rodgers & Hart Revisited. Unlike that one, this solo album had never put on CD. "The record company had gone under years ago and I felt sad about that, because it was
The reissue of Songs I Taught My Mother came about because of a conversation at a benefit in 2004. "They flew me in to do a benefit for an opera company and also to honor Sheldon Harnick for his 80th birthday. Barbara Cook and a whole bunch of people were doing stuff; Glenn Close did something." Songwriter Harnick is an old friend, and the most represented on the album, with four numbers. "And so, one of the prizes they gave - I guess they had a raffle - was my old album, the LP of Songs I Taught My Mother. And so I mentioned to someone who said that he had it and loved it, 'Well, I have the master. Do you think that people would like to hear this stuff again?' " She'd bought the rights years ago. It got her to thinking. "So I mentioned this to Sheldon and he said, 'Well, Tommy Krasker did [the recent Broadway revival cast album of] Fiddler on the Roof and he's a nice guy.' And so, he called him." Soon enough, PS Classics, which is generally not in the reissue business, eagerly agreed to reissue the album on CD.
How did she meet the man who wrote words and music to "The Shape of Things," another number she did in The Littlest Revue, Sheldon Harnick? Her face lights up. "Oh, wow. Well, it goes back to college. We went to Northwestern and he was in the music department and I was in the drama department and the school of speech." She recalls that the man who would one day write the lyrics to Fiddler on the Roof "played the fiddle in the orchestra for the musicals. And I was in those musicals. And he wrote a number," for a school show. Since World War II was going on, that provided a theme. "So I was a factory worker in overalls and I sang ..." At this point, she bursts into song: "I've got those gotta-go-home-alone-tonight blues!" and giggles at the memory. "We got to know each other and then I went to New York when I graduated and we kept in touch."
She started going to musicals in the city. "I just felt that Sheldon belonged here. And I told him so. I said, 'Really, you're a first-rate lyricist and songwriter.' And I sent him a copy of Yip Harburg and Burton Lane's Finian's Rainbow. And he listened to that musical and he said, 'That's what I want to do.' And he came to New York." Reflecting on the motivating gift, she remarks, "It's nice to know that I had something to do with his future."
Their futures blended nicely. "I needed to showcase myself and earn a living, and so I wrote some numbers and I needed some more numbers." She recalls wanting a piece of specialty material about the Gabor Sisters (Zsa Zsa, Eva, Magda) "because they were very hot then, and so we wrote it together." That is a spoken piece called "Gabor the Merrier" that lets Charlotte speak in a broad Hungarian accent as one of the sisters recalling her mother's sage advice that no matter how many times one is divorced, "Alvays keep ze house." Charlotte had a nightclub act where she did these songs, "but Broadway was what we were all interested in," and club work was a way to be seen. "I started at the Village Vanguard. I was there a long time. And then they shot me up to The Blue Angel. And I'd go back and forth. I went to Cafe Society and The Bon Soir quite often."
Charlotte's Broadway debut came along in 1952, with Three Wishes for Jamie, but her first Broadway appearance was almost in another show. "I was supposed to be in New Faces of 1952 and I was doing backer's auditions for it with Ronny Graham [one of the performers and writers] and Abe Burrows came to one of the backer's auditions and he whisked me away for Three Wishes for Jamie. I really wanted to stay with New Faces, but my agent at William Morris - Charlie Baker, really nice guy - said, 'A job in hand is better than ten in the bush. Take it.' And so I took it without even reading the script or hearing the songs. And then New Faces became a hit and we lasted about two and a half months."
But she had landed on Broadway. "I played a fifteen-year-old little Irish girl." I mention that it's a coincidence that just a few months ago, the original cast album of that musical was also reissued on DRG Records and around the same time a DVD of a season of her long-running TV sitcom, "The Facts of Life," hit the market. "Yeah, it's a festival!" she laughs, looking at me with a grin and then closes her eyes.
Fast-forwarding through her early years, she says, "Then I did a lot of stuff. Lots of Broadway. Tons of it. And off Broadway. Lots of interesting things. Then I did Shakespeare in the Park ..." I wondered if she'd regretted turning anything down. "There were a lot of times I turned things down. Lots of times. And in hindsight, I should have said yes, I think. That song that Fred Ebb wrote is so profound," she comments, recalling "Yes," the opening number of 70, Girls, 70 about saying yes to life's opportunities. "And today I say yes all the time. There were so many times I was hesitant instead of saying yes. And if you fail, you fail, but you learn and you grow." This brings us conveniently to that Kander & Ebb musical about senior citizens, a show she did three times, including once at The York Theatre (where we met, while she prepared for Plain and Fancy for the Mufti series), in California (where she played the lead), and this past year again in Manhattan, in City Center's Encores! series where she stopped the show with a duet with Marc Price, "Go Visit Your Grandmother." Commenting on the ovation she got, she seems surprised but grateful. "I couldn't figure it out. I was astonished." She thinks it wasn't just about putting over a show bizzy number. "I did it very real. Not just playing real - real." She didn't expect such a reaction. "I just thought I had a little part, a little song, and I didn't think about it."
Asked about the musical comedy Li'l Abner where she played the title character's backwoods ma, Charlotte's recollection is that there wasn't a lot of concern about turning a cartoon into a stage musical. "No. It was good, solid stuff." There are special memories of a much more serious musical, the 1954 New York production of Threepenny Opera where she shared the stage with Lotte Lenya, Beatrice Arthur, and Jo Sullivan, among others. (The English lyrics were by Marc Blitzstein who also wrote two of the selections on her album: "Fraught" about a case of frazzled nerves and "Modest Maid" which is actually about the joys of lechery.) She calls Threepenny "timeless" because of "the force behind it." She smiles. "That was a remarkable experience. I think that's one of the finest things. The writing is the whole thing. The writing, the writing! That's what I love about my album. I love those songs because they are so literate." She waves off a compliment about the precision of her comic timing and vocal characterizations making the humor on the album work so well as just a listening experience. "It's probably because the lyrics are so brilliant," she states. It reminds her of the clarity of the writing in The Threepenny Opera. The precision of the personalities on the cast album from that show she did in the 1950s comes through as well, she opines. "It's like Mrs. Peachum when she sings 'The Ballad of Dependency' and 'The Ballad of Survival.' It's strong, even though it's a recording. Don't you think?"
About the Mufti Plain and Fancy, she says, "Well, you know, Joe Stein called me in L.A. I had just come been in New York a couple of weeks before, doing the Shaw plays for David Staller." She wasn't sure if she should do it, but perhaps she thought again of the song "Yes" when Stein said, "I think you'd be just perfect for it." (Audiences seemed to agree, judging by the warm welcome and appreciative response she got when I caught the show a few days after we spoke.) "Well, it's just fast and furious," is how she describes the compacted rehearsal time of just a few days, "and I'm loving every minute of it." In plain language, Plain and Fancy strikes her fancy. "I just love Jim Morgan and everybody," she sighs, naming the company's artistic director, followed by praise for others involved. "It's a lovely show and the whole cast is terrific. Jack Noseworthy and I were also together in Pippin. When I mention that I know she also has a history with Morton da Costa, the director of the original Broadway production of Plain and Fancy, her face lights up with a big smile. "Oh, yes," she says softly, recalling that when she got involved with The Court Players, a summer stock company in Shorewood, Wisconsin, he was an actor and director with the company. "And so was Heckie - Eileen Heckart - she was also in the company. They were both older than I. I was sixteen and I was an apprentice. It was just thrilling to be with them."
Asked what advice she might have for actors starting out, she says, "The only thing that I would suggest to them is to really go to Sandy Meisner's technique, or Stella Adler, and really study. Study, study, study. And then work, work, work - wherever you can, for nothing, to get some experience under your belt. But so many people think they can get away with just being 'natural.'" She says the word "natural" with a touch of disdain, as if she's heard it too many times. "And they don't know how to project their voice, they don't know how to move, they don't know how to think and break down a play. And they just think they're going to get a television series and then everything is just going to happen from just being 'natural' and looking good ... if you really want to have a life in the theater and in film and television, you have to develop your instrument."
"The only thing to say is that you should just say 'yes' and just do things. And do 'em and do 'em. Don't debate should you do this or shouldn't you do it. Just do it and get the experience and the love of the thing that you love."
She still seems to love it. As her album came out, she was back performing in a salute to composer Jule Styne, a benefit for The Actors Fund. She loves performing for a theaterloving audience. "They don't miss a thing. They really get it."
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