Spotlight on Judy Kaye

by Alan Gomberg        

Judy Kaye in Souvenir
Carol Rosegg

Judy Kaye recently received wonderful reviews for her performance as Florence Foster Jenkins in Souvenir at the York Theatre Company, a role she will be playing again this summer at the Berkshire Theatre Festival. But she's not taking a vacation before then.

On Wednesday, February 16, she will be singing (along with Jason Graae, Jennifer Aylmer, and James Martin) at Merkin Concert Hall in Fats and Fields, a New York Festival of Song concert devoted to the music of Fats Waller and and the lyrics of Dorothy Fields. In March she appears at New York City Opera (where she has played Babe in The Pajama Game and Meg in Brigadoon) as the Old Lady in Candide. In May she returns to Merkin for another New York Festival of Song concert (with La Chanze, Bruce Adler, and Darius DeHaas) titled The Lost Tribes of Vaudeville. (For more information on the NYFOS concerts, visit

Ms. Kaye got her start playing Lucy in the Los Angeles company of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown for two years starting in 1968. After working steadily around the country in stock and tours for several years, she was the first Rizzo in the national tour of Grease, and later played the role on Broadway. Shortly after that, she took the role of the maid, Agnes, in On the Twentieth Century, along with understudying the leading role of Lily Garland. After two months, she took over as Lily Garland, playing it for the rest of the Broadway run and on the subsequent national tour.

Other Broadway appearances have included The Moony Shapiro Songbook, Oh, Brother!, her Tony-winning performance as Carlotta in Phantom of the Opera, Emma Goldman in Ragtime, and her Tony-nominated Rosie in Mamma Mia! She has played a wide range of roles around the country, from Maria in The Sound of Music and Nellie Forbush to Annie Oakley, Sally in Follies, Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, and Rose in Gypsy. She has shown her versatility in opera and operetta, singing The Merry Widow, Musetta in La Bohème, Lucy in The Beggar's Opera, Eurydice in Orpheus in the Underworld, and Dinah in Trouble in Tahiti. In plays her roles have included Shirley Valentine, Maggie in The Man Who Came to Dinner, and Penny in You Can't Take It With You. She has made four solo albums, and can be heard on a number of cast albums, recordings of classic Broadway musicals, and various collections.

I caught up with the seemingly inexhaustible Ms. Kaye after she had spent the day rehearsing for both the Fats and Fields concert and Candide.

Alan Gomberg:  Thanks so much for taking the time to do this. I know it's very busy for you right now.

Judy Kaye:  I'm sort of chasing my tail. But in a good way. I'm not complaining, I just hope that my brains hold up and that I can do a proper job of everything.

AG:  I'm sure you will. Let's start with the Fats and Fields concert. You've done a lot of concerts with the New York Festival of Song (NYFOS).

JK:  I got together with them when they first started, fifteen or sixteen years ago. Out of the blue I got a call from Steven Blier. He and Michael Barrett were working with Leonard Bernstein on a possible concert or album of the Arias and Barcarolles, which was a piece that Bernstein had been working on for a lot of years. I love to learn new things and it seemed like a really worthy thing to do, so I got together with them. And it's turned into sixteen years of concerts. I can't even tell you how many of these I've done. It's been one of the best things in my professional life, in my life altogether. Steven and Michael are extraordinary musicians and wonderful guys. Every time I do one of these concerts I'm just delighted. They're always interesting and varied and somewhat risk-taking. Steven is a fabulous raconteur and does exhaustive research so that he's on top of everything.

AG:  I've been to a couple of the concerts and they were really terrific. Are the concerts always without amplification?

JK:  Always. They make sure to do them in a space where we can do that. I think it's important because we're talking about song and the human voice. It's meant to be an acoustic affair.

AG:  And you've done a couple of CDs with them. First, there was the Bernstein CD, and then the Gershwin. Did that come out of a concert?

JK:  That one did not come out of a concert. It was a follow-up CD to the Bernstein.

AG:  Is working without amplification a big adjustment?

JK:  No, it's a pleasure. If you ask pretty much any singer worth their salt they're gonna say, "Oh, thank God I'm not wearing a mike." The only time I feel the mike is my friend is on days when I'm sick or absolutely exhausted or if the instruments are amplified. But we never work that way with NYFOS.

And I can tell you that 99 percent of the people I've ever worked with have got serious equipment. Most of them do not need the mikes that they are wearing. The mikes on Broadway are a very dangerous thing because they can cause you to start to hold back and ergo to stop supporting properly and singing properly. They can be quite destructive.

Judy Kaye
With Karen Mason and Klea Blackhurst
Photo courtesy of Maryann Lopinto

When we were putting Mamma Mia! up, the sound people said, "Sing regularly. We don't want you holding back." So that's the intent. But what often happens, especially if a show is hugely amplified, is that you start to have an awareness of the amplification and that causes you to recede a little bit. For me it certainly does. I'm getting to the point where I don't want the personal monitors on for me. Rather than make it easier to hear myself it actually makes it more difficult, in an odd way. I certainly want them to take off all the echo, all the reverb, because if they don't I never know where the heart of the pitch is.

Anyway, at New York Festival of Song, we just sing.

AG:  Now in the Fats and Fields concert, you'll be working with Jason Graae, yes?

JK:  Yeah, it's always so much fun working with Jason. We always get together somehow at least once a year. And I'm ingesting lots of new material right now, we all are, we're working overtime on this one. The work of Dorothy Fields is so literate; she wrote such funny, touching, witty lyrics, so you want to get them right. And then Fats Waller's music is kind of revelatory. It's quite beautiful. And of course it's rhythmic and a lot of fun, but there's some big music.

AG:  And then you're doing another concert with NYFOS in May.

JK:  We're redoing a concert that was so successful last year that they had to program it again. And that's called The Lost Tribes of Vaudeville, which is about black and Jewish vaudeville and the intersection thereof. We're doing it again in May in New York and then again on May 17th down at the Library of Congress. Every year they take one concert down there.

AG:  Can you tell us what you'll be singing?

JK:  There's one number that I've done before, called "The Sheik of Avenue B," a Kalmar and Ruby number that was written for Fanny Brice, and there's some Yiddish theatre material and some other stuff.

AG:  So you'll be singing in Yiddish?

JK:  Oh, yeah, we sing in Yiddish and the black performers also sing in Yiddish. And there's the Cab Calloway stuff, all the stuff that crossed over between the races. It's great fun, there's a lot of love in that particular concert, a lot of love and appreciation between all of us. Well, there always is. We always have so much fun doing these. They're very hard work but they're so rewarding.

AG:  And before that you'll be doing Candide. Singing Bernstein again, which you do so well.

JK:  Ah, Mr. Bernstein. The score of Candide is so exquisite and it's attached to such a wonderfully silly play and the production is particularly lunatic. I'm having fun doing it and watching everyone else find these funny little moments.

AG:  And you're working with John Cullum again.

JK:  I am, and that's lovely, it's old home week.

AG:  I was hoping to also talk a little about the earlier part of your career. You were born in Phoenix, is that right?

JK:  I was.

AG:  When did you first think you might want to be a performer?

JK:  It's fuzzy. I loved performing, I loved being in plays and musicals and hanging out with the theatre people, but I don't think I seriously considered it as a possibility until I got to UCLA. If I'd thought about it before, it was a total fantasy. Of course, the night that I watched Barbra Streisand do Funny Girl from the mezzanine of the Winter Garden, I'm sure it crossed my mind: "Wow! What would it be like to be up there on that particular stage doing what she was doing?" But I didn't get serious about it and really think, "I could do this," until I went to school and threw my hat in the ring. I got the trade papers and started going on auditions. In pretty quick order I started getting jobs, and I thought, "I guess this is what I'm gonna do." And I kept doing it and never really had to do anything else, although there were some slim times, and there are still are sometimes, but it's what I do.

AG:  Did you go to UCLA as a theatre major?

JK:  Oh, yeah. If I'd gone to USC, I would have been a voice major. But I was accepted into a program that UCLA had at the time called The Acting Specialization, which was a conservatory program within the major. And that was terrific because we had all of the conservatory sort of classes: Classical Scene Study, Shakespeare, Mask and Mime, Stage Combat, Voice and Diction, Style.

You're a Good Man Charlie Brown
You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown
L.A. cast: Nicole Jaffee, Hal James Pederson, Russ Caldwell, Judy Kaye, Robert Towers and Gary Burghoff

AG:  And while you were there you were cast in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, is that right?

JK:  I went on an open call at the Ivar Theatre, which had been a burlesque house in downtown Hollywood, and sat with hundreds and hundreds of people and by some chance I got the job of Lucy Van Pelt. I got my Equity card.

AG:  And did you continue to go to UCLA while you were in Charlie Brown?

JK:  Yes, I did. It got harder and harder but I did.

AG:  After Charlie Brown?

JK:  I worked all over. I was given some time off during the two years I was in Charlie Brown to go Hawaii and do my first Fiddler on the Roof and then I came back to do Lucy some more. When Charlie Brown closed, I did I Do! I Do! with John Davidson at the Dallas Summer Musicals. I had a small, recurring part on a series called Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, I did lots of commercials and did shows up in Sacramento, which is the sort of main stock place on the West Coast. And then I got road companies that took me away. I did Hodel in Fiddler a lot, I did Mary Magdalene in Superstar a lot on the road and in various venues like Casa Mañana in Fort Worth. And what else did I do? Oh, I've been doing this a long time!

AG:  But you never went to New York?

On the Twentieth Century
On the Twentieth Century with Kevin Kline and John Cullum
Martha Swope
JK:  There were people who said, "You know, you really should go to New York," but I kept getting work in LA and my home was there. But finally I started coming to New York to sleep on somebody's couch and go on a couple of auditions. If I got the job, nine times out of ten they were road companies that took me out again. That's how I got the first national company of Grease in 1973. In '77, I was hired to do another Superstar at Paper Mill, and after that I came in and did several months of Grease on Broadway. I was still living in sublets.

Then the Hal Prince office called about On the Twentieth Century. I was not gonna do it. I was getting pretty homesick. Finally, after much coaxing, I decided, "OK, I'll be an understudy, I will embrace this." Though I was very scared that if I was half-good at being an understudy, that would be my life. And I thought, "I don't know if I can do that for my life. I think I've got too big an ego." So then I got the job as Lily Garland, and I said, "You know, I think I'll put down roots here." I managed to buy an apartment, because I was used to buying things; I'd bought a little house out in California and I didn't like paying rent anymore. I was bicoastal for a while. And then that stopped working because my life was getting more Eastern by the minute. Finally, in 1980 I sold the house in California.

AG:  Was it scary the first time you went on in Twentieth Century? I would imagine that you hadn't rehearsed very much.

JK:  Well, I had rehearsed a bit, and I'd certainly thought about it a lot. I had no time to be nervous. I didn't know I was going on until I walked in the door of the theatre. My watch was screwed up and I was actually five minutes late. The entire cast was standing there waiting for me, saying "You're going on." I was whisked upstairs, the costumes were thrown on me, Imogene Coca had to give me a set of eyelashes because the character I was playing, the maid, didn't wear eyelashes. I had done one smart thing. I had thought, "If I ever have to go on, I want a comfortable pair of shoes," so I'd bought a pair of shoes, sort of all-purpose pumps that I could wear, and I went on. And it was absolutely all instinct and all of the thought that I had given it.

I remember when the show came back from Boston, we were back at the Minskoff rehearsal studios for one run-through. Madeline was under the weather and wasn't there. Hal said, "Do you want to do it?" And I said, "Sure." So I had done a run-through. I hadn't had any formal rehearsal because they don't rehearse understudies until after the Broadway opening, there's no time for that. If an understudy has to go on, they just have to have done the work themselves, and that's what I had been doing. I had plenty of free time, and they didn't bar me from rehearsals so I was able to watch what was going on and ingest it. And dear George Lee Andrews, who was understudying John Cullum, he and I would go out in the hallway and go over the lines so we were up to date with the script as it was being performed.

Anyway, during this run-through, dear sweet Kevin Kline would grab me whenever I wasn't on and take me out in the hallway to go over stuff with me so that I could do my best in this run-through and he'd have somebody to play off of who was ready to work with him. And it went pretty well.

AG:  So I guess they weren't too surprised when you went on the first time and were terrific.

JK:  Well, I think they felt secure that the curtain would be kept up.

AG:  You did some extra vocal things, threw in some extra high notes. Was that planned or did it come gradually over time?

JK:  Well, I'd be in the dressing room and I'd listen over the PA and I'd think it would be fun to do a little something more in a few places. There are theatres where somebody might yell at you for doing that, but they were very encouraging, they were open to it. I had had a few music rehearsals. I would grab the piano player and the musical director if there was time and we would go over stuff. And I was encouraged to enjoy myself in that way. And Cy was happy to hear some of those high notes there.

I think the job of understudying is a sort of mental exercise, you have to delude yourself in some ways. You have to decide that you will be as prepared as possible and even have an idea or two or three of what you're gonna do if you get up there. You have to even imagine yourself up there doing it so that if you have to put on the clothes you're not going to be totally poleaxed. But on the other hand in order to keep yourself sane you have to convince yourself that you're never going to go on.

Otherwise you're sitting around waiting for - well, you're waiting for someone else's misfortune. For them to get sick. Of course, you hope that they get a wonderful job or they take a vacation, but generally in those cases they won't put in the understudy. They'll bring in another name.

AG:  It sounds like you were never made to feel that you had to imitate Madeline Kahn.

JK:  Well, they don't want you to imitate. I think there's a misconception. Understudies are not supposed to imitate. What they're supposed to do is to physically be where they need to be to not disrupt the regular actors' performances. I mean, they need to hit the marks close enough so that they're not going to disrupt what the actors who are on eight times a week in the other roles are doing. Having said that, it's not bad for those people to have new blood there because that engages them and enlivens their performances.

AG:  On that subject, I was wondering how you feel when you play the same role in different productions with different actors, which you've done a lot. For example, you've played Mrs. Lovett several times, and each time with a different Sweeney. I think that you're the only person other than Angela Lansbury to have played the role opposite both Len Cariou and George Hearn. In the case of Mrs. Lovett, for example, did your performance alter a lot when you were doing it with different actors?

JK:  Absolutely. You know, a portrayal of a character is not written in stone. Good actors don't decide how they're gonna read the lines and then go out and do it that way every night. You've probably heard that acting is reacting, and it really is. We're listening to the other actor and we're responding in kind to whatever we're given. And it's that wonderful give and take that makes a performance alive, it's what makes the story breathe and makes it real.

And I just stand in awe of these men I've done Sweeney with. George was so wonderful to work with. He's one of the glories of the American theatre. His wonderful voice, his wonderful commitment and honesty, he's just a beautiful soul. And then to get to do it with Len in London was a dream come true. There's no one on a stage like Len Cariou. He's a force of nature, an actor's actor, so it made me better. It was just too damn short, it came and it went so quickly. But the best part was that I got to rehearse with him for a couple of weeks over there. And we're buddies and neighbors so it was a total gift to me.

AG:  Going back in time again, after Twentieth Century you appeared in a couple of shows that closed pretty quickly.

JK:  You know, those were really good shows.

AG:  People loved those shows. I didn't see Oh, Brother! but I loved The Moony Shapiro Songbook.

JK:  I don't know why that didn't work, except that critics were very anti-British at that time and decided that it was meant to be some kind of an insult. But it wasn't. It was a very loving paean to American music and American sensibilities, and it also sort of explored the history of the world over five decades. And, of course, one of the writers wasn't British but was an American who'd been living in Britain for many years.

AG:  It was a wonderful show. And I know that people loved Oh, Brother!

JK:  Oh, Brother! was very funny. But you know, things began to get very troublesome around then. Our poster said, "Musical comedy breaks out in the Middle East." Even critics who were seen to be laughing their asses off - in fact, I know people who were with critics who were having the best time - went back to their desks and panned the show. Political correctness had begun even then. And there was nothing about that show offensive to Islam or to Arabic countries. It's a shame.

AG:  It's a terrific score, it made a great recording. So was that a tough time for you, doing these two shows back to back?

JK:  Well, I wasn't real happy. Those of us in the theatre, we invest completely in what we're doing, but always there's a little piece of you that has to think, "Well, if this doesn't work, I'm not gonna die." It's hard to do. It's the same thing that functions when you go on an audition - you put it out there with all your heart and then you've got to walk away and forget about it because it's out of your hands, you've done the best you can do. If you don't get the job, you can't crawl under a rock. You've got to get up the next time with the same belief in yourself and do it again.

Annie Get Your Gun
Annie Get Your Gun
AG:  That's great advice. Moving on a little further. Both Lily Garland and Carlotta in Phantom are very vocally demanding roles, as are some of the roles you've played around the country, like Annie Oakley and Rose in Gypsy. Is it very difficult to do those eight times a week? Or do you sort of get into a groove with it?

JK:  Both statements are correct. You do get it in your voice. As you work on a piece, your muscles, the muscles in your throat, start to adjust to the demands of the song and the role. Having said that, it's like running a marathon every night. Each of these shows in its own way, for different reasons and some of them for the same reasons, is physically very arduous. I mean, if playing Rose is like playing King Lear, then Annie Get Your Gun is like a triathlon. You just have to run that race all that night. The show's resting on your shoulders and you have a huge responsibility. And it's exhausting. I mean, if you do Mamma Mia!, you can eat anything because you're gonna burn it off.

AG:  And speaking of Rose, is that one of your favorite roles?

JK:  I think it's got to be up there. I only did it for three weeks, and I haven't even scratched the surface of it. I would love to do it again at some point because you don't work that hard to do it once. It's a brilliant, brilliant script as well as score, and you want to do it justice, and you can't do it justice in such a short time, you just can't.

AG:  Do you have any other particular favorite among your roles?

JK:  Well, I loved doing Sally in Follies, and Annie Get Your Gun, of course. Boy, I love all of them. I've been really lucky, really blessed, to get to do all this wonderful stuff. And I have to say that probably the best role I have ever, ever had was Florence Foster Jenkins.

As an acting piece, in many ways it asks as much of me as Rose did. It's really an incredible journey. At first sight, I would not have believed that it was going to be that. It was really a wonderfully consuming piece of theatre to do, to sink into that part eight times a week. I loved it.

With Jack F. Lee in Souvenir
Carol Rosegg
AG:  Speaking of Souvenir, you haven't done that many plays, though you've done some.

JK:  That's only because most of the time people won't let me talk.

AG:  So you do enjoy doing plays?.

JK:  Oh, yeah. I don't have to vocalize. Though I did have to vocalize for that show. You wouldn't think so but I had to.

AG:  When you do a role like Florence Foster Jenkins or Emma Goldman, someone who really lived, do you do a lot of research? In a case like Emma Goldman ...

JK:  Oh, yes, yes, I read Emma Goldman's two-volume autobiography. It absolutely informs what you're doing. And I did as much research as you're capable of doing with Florence because there isn't really a great deal out there. Nobody's ever written a book about her. You would have thought that somebody would have written something.

AG:  It sounds like she was a very private woman, except when she was performing.

JK:  Well, there were mysteries in her life, that's for sure, like her relationship with the actor she lived with all those years. Outside of that I don't know whether she was private or not. What I've read of her have all been things in newspaper clippings. And when she died, there were all these nephews and nieces who came out of the woodwork and wanted what was left of her money.

But there were people who came to Souvenir and had seen her and one who even knew her - a lady who had been a ballerina at the Met. She had the most wonderful things to say about Florence. This woman had been a teenager when she knew her. Florence took her under her wing and brought her to her parties. She was extremely gracious and generous with young artists. She supported young artists and young singers so in that regard she wasn't so terribly private.

AG:  How fascinating.

JK:  She was out there enjoying life. The main thing I got from my research was that in every picture I ever saw of her she was either portraying a character - she was "in costume" - or she just had a big smile on her face. She just loved her life.

AG:  I think you really captured that up there, there was a real warmth about her in your performance. And now we hear that Souvenir is coming back, it will be at the Berkshire Theatre Festival this summer.

JK:  Yes, it is. And with luck - well, we have a producer and he has some big plans for it that I'll be there for. We'll be working anew on the piece. There are some rewrites, and we'll start working on it again up in the Berkshires. That should be nice.

AG:  You've done some concerts up there, haven't you?

JK:  I did a benefit for them a number of years ago. It was called The Midas Touch and it was a Betty and Adolph evening.

AG:  And didn't you sing at Bernstein's last concert at Tanglewood?

JK:  I did. He was supposed to conduct the orchestral version of Arias and Barcarolles, but he was too ill. He did conduct the rest of the concert, but the assistant conductor, Carl St. Clair, conducted Mr. Bernstein's composition. We had rehearsed it with Leonard, and he just was not feeling well. He took us to his dressing room and he said, "Kids, I don't think I'm strong enough to conduct this piece. I haven't done it before. I'm sorry to let you down."

I was working at the Santa Fe Opera at the time, and I'd flown east to do the concert and I had to get right back on a plane. There was a party after the concert, and I said goodbye to him and I just had a feeling that ... We were supposed to do that concert, and he was supposed to conduct us in the piece with the New York Philharmonic a couple of months later, but he never made it, so Leonard Slatkin conducted it instead. Very tough. Very tragic loss.

AG:  He was certainly a great artist in every way.

JK:  Oh, yes.

AG:  A couple of final questions: You've made a lot of recordings. When you're in the studio do you make a conscious adjustment from the way you would do the same piece in front of an audience?

JK:  Well, depending on how they mike you, there is an adjustment. If you're in a booth with a mike right in front of you, you can't sing with the same force that you do on a stage. It's a much more intimate affair, even if it's big, powerful stuff, because it's you and the listener, presumably one person in a room. Now if you're doing an opera recording or if they're recording the way they record opera, which is how we recorded all the stuff I've done with John Yap and with John McGlinn, then you're in the room with the orchestra and the mike is many feet away. So you sing like you're singing on a stage. That's very different. It yields a different quality to the performance. But most of the stuff that I've done, it's you in a booth with a mike, and it's more intimate.

AG:  You've done some opera. Is that a big adjustment, when you go from something like Bohème to Mamma Mia?

JK:  It's probably less of a difference than you might think. When I first sang at the Santa Fe Opera - well, I sometimes think that people can't hear me. I had to be encouraged to not sing so much. I had to be careful not to push, which perhaps I sometimes do because I'm desperate that the audience will understand the words and really hear what I'm trying to do.

AG:  I think that you succeed very well at that. Well, thank you so much. This has been terrific. And I'm sure it's going to be a wonderful concert.

JK:  Thank you, Alan.

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