An Affinity for Fantine

An Affinity for Fantine TONY-WINNER MELBA MOORE STEPS INTO "LES MIZ"

TONY-WINNER MELBA MOORE STEPS INTO "LES MIZ"

A quarter of a century, incredibly, has come and gone since Melba Moore (out of the tribe of "Hair") stepped up to collect her Tony for "Purlie." From that podium/pinnacle, her life has spiraled dizzily downward--through two failed Broadway comebacks ("Timbuktu!" and "Inacent Black"), a failed second marriage, a two-year period where she was separated from her daughter Melba Charli and, in time, into an ugly finale of bankruptcy, welfare, eviction and relocation.

Her life is a work-in-progress--literally--and she has miraculously managed to musicalize the miseries above (and then some) into a club act. "The Moore the Merrier," it ain't--but she is calling it "From Minor to Major," as if her glass is half-full. The overriding theme is "Stormy Weather," but, with other stops, other tunes will follow--and doubtlessly other titles.

"I was trying to describe what was going on in my life to a reporter when I was touring the show," recalls Moore, "and he said, 'What is this? 'Les Miz?' "

This was, kindly note, before Cameron Mackintosh's main man, Richard Jay-Alexander, caught her autobiographical act in Hollywood, Florida, and concurred completely. "Exactement!" he seconded, signing her up for Broadway's "Les Misérables." "Anybody who knows Richard says he knows exactly what he wants right away, and he's very committed to that. He's not wishy-washy. He's zealous--extremely--about what he likes and what he wants. But he was very humble about it. He said, 'I know you've got other things to do, but would you consider . . . ' I said, 'Whatever you're getting ready to say, sir, whatever your name is--YES.' "

This month she begins a three-month gig as Broadway's 13th Fantine; if she seems "over rehearsed" to play the ill-fated factory worker who surrenders her illegitimate daughter to Jean Valjean's safekeeping--well, life's like that.

Certainly, Moore counts herself lucky to have landed one of "Les Miz's" most potent emotional components, a part that lets her sing her heart out. "Fantine's an attractive character. As far as having an affinity fïr the role, I'm looking forward to being directed to see what comes out. Her three songs are really wonderful, not only expressive in an acting sense but also so beautiful."

She's coming to the part in particularly good shape vocally, direct from a 30-month tour in a gospel musical play called "Momma, I'm Sorry." "What an absolute blessing that was! It allowed me to get my chops in shape better than they've ever been in before. If you know what it's like to sing gospel--pretty much ya gotta scream. That's the genre. Ya gotta holla, but ya gotta holla pretty."

At 50, having spent the last half of her life on the dark side of the moon, Moore is understandably euphoric about coming home again--back to Broadway. It looks, to her, like a clearing. "It feels as if I kicked the devil in the shins. I can't quite get rid of him, but he can't do me any harm right now."

New York City, her birthplace, is now beginning to look a lot like her rebirthplace as well. "It's a place, especially in terms of the arts, where you can start again. It's where things begin--not just entertainment but life--where you can get a fresh start. People, knowing what you are--good, bad or whatever--give you half a chance to start all over here."

Moore acquired her musical gifts naturally if illegitimately. Her mother--Melba Gertrude Smith, a singer who worked under the name of Bonnie Davis--and her father, jazzman Teddy Hill, ended their affair before her birth, and most of her rearing was done by a family friend, Lulu Hawkins. Moore graduated from Montclair State College and taught music education to Newark high schoolers before she decided she wanted to risk more than that "fallback position."

Heading for Manhattan, with the help of her stepfather, she made the rounds of agents and cattle calls, eventually winding up doing backup--and this is where she met Gerome Ragni and James Rado, who, sufficiently impressed with her abilities, asked her to do "Hair." She heard the invitation without the punctuation and promptly climbed on her high horse. "I told them, 'I don't have no bachelor of arts degree in music just to do somebody's hair.' They both laughed and told me that 'Hair' was the name of the show they were doing."

Moore made her Broadway debut in 1968 in that landmark musical as a member of the tribe--Dionne--"and, when Diane Keaton left to star in Woody Allen's 'Play It Again, Sam,' they had auditions within the cast as well as outside, and I got the role of Sheila. I was primarily singing in 'Hair,' not acting, and it really wasn't respected by other directors. They were quite vocal about that."

Her acting mettle wasn't truly tested till director Philip Rose picked her to play Lutiebelle to the late Cleavon Little's Purlie, and the demands of that role were so severe the whole experience feels like a detached hallucination to her--and that fog didn't lift when she went up to get her Tony Award. "I was in a state of shock all the time. I remember it always seemed so strange to be acting without any real preparation. Cleavon was wonderful to me--such a sweetheart--so cuddly and warm, but Novella [Nelson] was really the one I kinda relied on. She'd say, ‘It's okay if you miss a line. Just look at me. I'm there for you.' I don't know if she knows what it meant to me, but to the person who's scared it means everything."

The world has moved on--a bit bumpier for Moore than for most--but it has made her braver. "One of the reasons I would do a one-person play is that I'm mature. I know the ups and downs--the continual crises. I have no preconceived notions about anything--except that I trust the Lord wants me to be in this industry. If you'll just show me the way to go, I'll be honest and I'll keep trying. To have my play come up to where it is and be a real showcase is proof of it. It's so simple, so unfinished, but it showed me off."

Now, for a while, Melba Moore has put her act away and traded her personal woes for the epic ones of "Les Misérables." Richard Jay-Alexander won her over with a simple argument. "He just told me, ‘You should be acting. You should be doing this. We're going to have fun.' And he's absolutely right. I feel I am equipped, for the first time, now. I'm not afraid. I'm not distant. I'm right in the midst of it, and I feel that's exactly where I belong."

And when she takes her one-woman show on the road again, just look at the impressive musical postscripts which "Les Miz" will have provided!