DIVA TALK: A Chat with Stage and Screen Star Dixie Carter Plus the Hair-Raising Benefit Concert

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: A Chat with Stage and Screen Star Dixie Carter Plus the Hair-Raising Benefit Concert News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
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DIXIE CARTER

Dixie Carter has triumphed on theatrical stages throughout the country and on television screens around the world during her lengthy, eclectic career, which includes five years as the spirited Southern belle Julia Sugarbaker on the Emmy-nominated "Designing Women" and a thrilling, moving performance as opera great Maria Callas in the Tony-winning Terrence McNally play Master Class. As wonderful as she is in these arenas, one gets the feeling that what Carter likes best is a small cabaret room where she has the chance to perform her favorite songs for enraptured audiences. In fact, Carter is currently charming audiences at New York's Café Carlyle with tunes by Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Frank Loesser, Johnny Mercer and Jerome Kern. During her latest gig at the famed nightspot, Carter shares the intimate stage with composer (and pianist) John Wallowitch, and three of the evening's high points are songs by the talented musician: "Come a Little Closer," "This Moment" and the comical tirade, "Cheap Decadent Drivel." The energetic Carter also has some fun with Al Yankovic's "One More Minute" and pays homage to two late femme fatales, Mae West and Marlene Dietrich. There is a great sense of romance that hovers around Carter, and one of the evening's sweetest moments is her delicious retelling of a first kiss gone awry, which leads into a recitation of William Butler Yeats' "The Clothes of Heaven." I recently had the pleasure of chatting with the charming actress, who will play the Carlyle through Oct. 9. That interview follows:

Question: How does it feel to be back at the Carlyle?
Dixie Carter: It feels wonderful. I hope the room continues to be full and lively. We had surprisingly big crowds on the weekend. . . . I believe it's the best show I've ever given, and I'm reunited with my dear friend John Wallowitch. We've performed on the road and we've done concerts, but we've never performed in New York together.

Q: When did you and John meet?
DC: We met when I first came to New York, right out of college, back in the sixties. We both lived in Greenwich Village, and he was my coach, and we've remained friends. I was dearest friends with his long-time partner Bertram Ross. We've been through a lot together.

Q: How do you go about choosing songs for your cabaret shows?
DC: Well, I sat down at the piano, and I played hundreds of songs. I kept thinking that we have all this turmoil going on in the world. There are seasons when something you used to perform and you used to love just doesn't come up through you in that fresh way. Every single moment that I'm in the show has to be one of absolute joy in what I'm doing because I do it eight times a week. So that's the criteria, partly, and partly what will be entertaining. I can't get lugubrious. I can't get into the sad, poignant and thoughtful moments and stay there forever. Probably 50 pieces of music I finally came out with and then back and forth — always with John Wallowitch. John came up with the Weird Al [Yankovic] piece. He read it to me on the phone, and I screamed laughing. I remembered years ago when John read his lyrics to me on the phone. When he read these lyrics, "Marlon Brando's 63, heaven so is Peggy Lee." All those people now have passed away, but when I heard that first line, I knew, "Oh brother this is so fantastic!" [Laughs.] I've performed that song with the changes in the names — since people have passed away — since 1983. But because of that, I couldn't use it this year. There were a lot of really wonderful pieces of material that I love doing that I simply could not bring back into the Carlyle. I thought, not having appeared here for six years, that I had to have a pretty much entirely new show. I've retained, I believe, five pieces that my audiences here at the Carlyle have heard before. "Come a Little Closer," of course, which I always do and always will, and the last piece, "This Moment," and then one of John's songs, which has been almost entirely rewritten, "Cheap Decadent Drivel."

Q: That's the song that mentions "American Idol." Have you ever seen the program? What do you think of it?
DC: I've seen it a few times. I just would rather not even comment. [Laughs.] My grandmother used to say, "If you can't say something good, don't say anything at all." I met one of the winners, [Clay Aiken], the really lovely young man who was the runner-up instead of the winner. I met him, and he certainly deserves a career and attention. I'm not putting down the fact that these young people are wonderfully talented. It's just the way that they're treated on that program to me is insufferable. It's just so callous.

Q: One of the songs that you often do and have brought back this time is Johnny Mercer's "When the World Was Young."
DC: Yes, I brought that back, and that's my third time to have done that in the Cafe. I've always before done it in a medley with "Young and Foolish." This way of doing it, I think, honors the song more completely — it's one of the more beautiful popular pieces ever written. I heard it when I first came to New York as a kid out of college. I was at the Bon Soir, and Felichia Sanders was singing late at night, and it drove an arrow into my heart that has stayed there all these years. It's the centerpiece of my show in a way.

I also love doing "Bosom Buddies" with John, and I love doing the tribute to Bob Hope. That was a very momentous day for me when I was invited to attend. It wasn't a huge group of people who attended the memorial services for Mr. Hope, and they lasted all day long because there was a church service, and then there was a luncheon, and then there was a late-afternoon tribute in the theatre. Because I had performed on a show with him, his daughter, Linda Hope, included me in this group — people like Sid Caesar and Red Buttons. My husband and I were agog. We were so thrilled.

I wanted to bring John [Wallowitch] into [my current] show as more than the piano accompanist role. I wanted it to be clearly a partnership between the two of us. I thought we just needed to sing a few duets. I would have been happy to just stop and sit on the piano and watch John do one of his few numbers, but I felt like, right or wrong, that it would halt the momentum of the show. So we swerve in and out of these duets, and I just love it. I've never enjoyed doing a show as much as I enjoy doing this one.

Q: You also include a little tribute to Mae West and Marlene Dietrich, and I was wondering if they were influential performers for you.
DC: I'll tell you who was a tremendously influential performer for me was Charles Pierce. My husband and I were both tremendous fans of his and friends, dear friends. My husband used to always say that Charles didn't get his due as the great character that he was, which is why the impersonations that he did were so alive and so hysterically funny. They were powerful performances that he gave — just on any level you had to call him a great artist of the theatre. Through him I got to adore Marlene, Barbara Stanwyck, especially Mae West and, of course, his Bette Davis. I'm thinking now if the show continues to be received as well as it is, I may sling my leg up on the piano as Marlene and have Bette [Davis] come in and say, "Marlene, you tramp, what are you doing with your leg up on the piano? Get out of here!" I may, if I get up the courage, throw a third one in.

Q: What's great about your performance is your ease onstage and your ability to roll with anything that happens. The night I attended there was a little rip in your stocking, and you did a great doubletake when you spotted it. You're very free as a performer, which is great for the audience.
DC: [Laughs.] At that point in time, what are you going to do? It is a great feeling. Since I was a little child — I started performing for a quart of strawberries when I was two. I sang a song in Sunday school, and my reward was a quart of fresh strawberries. I don't know whether it had to with that or, probably, more with my parents being very loving individuals. I always come to an audience expecting that they're just gonna love what I have to do for them and [love] me, too. I'm scared to death and very nervous, but I love the audience, the people in the audience.

Q: Moving beyond the cabaret, what was your experience like playing Mrs. Meers in Thoroughly Modern Millie?
DC: Fantastic! Those young people — the cast. I loved working with Leslie Uggams and Susan Egan and every other member of the cast. . . Every single member of the cast was wildly, highly professional. The dancing troupe were able to change tracks with 15 minutes notice and take over somebody else's role that night if somebody in the dancing troupe was sick. I saw the highest level of excellence on an absolutely continual basis. There's nothing like Broadway. They don't keep it up there like that out across the country or, I'm sorry to say, in Los Angeles. You don't see a show where the quality of performing is that unbelievably high. These young people, every single show they hit it. Delta [Burke] couldn't quit talking about it when she was here. I can't quit talking about it. I've done Broadway shows before but not a great old big dancing show with all that technique that's required. . . It was hard work because I had to go in pretty fast, and I rehearsed with the stage manager, then had one rehearsal with the cast, and then — boom! — I was on.

Q: I remember thinking how terrific you were in Master Class when you succeeded Patti LuPone in the play. How did that role come about?
DC: Thank you so much. For years I had sung with records of Maria Callas, since my aspiration as a child was to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. I had a disastrous tonsillectomy when I was seven years old, and that wasn't going to happen. I wasn't ever going to be a great singer like that, but I had loved Callas, and I had studied singing and studied classical singing as if I were destined to have a career in grand opera. Then, I had had a chance to meet [director Franco] Zeffirelli. After Callas had died, I was going to make a movie, and Shirley Rich — the casting lady — had said to me, "I think you could get this role." But [Zeffirelli] left town when his movie "The Champ" got bad reviews, and I never got to meet him, and he dropped the project entirely.

But I, in my head, always thought that my friend George — my mentor from Memphis, Tennessee — who was Greek, and I would somehow pull together something, and I would do a stage piece about Callas. And, I wanted to do those years after she had met [Aristotle] Onassis and had lost her great career. I was so interested in [that period of her life], and then here comes Master Class, and I read about it, and Terrence had written this brilliant play, and Zoe Caldwell was playing Callas. And, I didn't want to go see it. My husband went to see it on a trip to New York and told me I had to see it. And I said, "No I'm not going to. I can't take it. I can't handle it. It's too much of a heartbreak." So he made me — he bought plane tickets and made me come. By this time, Patti [LuPone] was doing it. I saw it with Patti and went backstage to see her. I was blown out of the sky, so thrilled and deeply moved. I went backstage to see Patti and congratulate her. I didn't realize at the time that she was going to be leaving the show pretty soon to do [Master Class] in London.

At any rate, my husband, four years before, had called [producer] Robert Whitehead and said, "My wife is doing Blanche in Streetcar Named Desire in Memphis, and I believe it's something you should come to Memphis and see." Mr. Whitehead hadn't been able to come, but he remembered that Hal Holbrook had thought enough of that performance to call him and suggest it. The [Master Class] casting director had thrown my name out because he had remembered when I was in New York working for Joe Papp, and Mr. Whitehead had responded very, very well to that name. And then [director] Lenny Foglia had heard from someone that I had done some very strong work on the stage here before I became known as a sitcom performer. So a decision was made to call me. I remember when the call came in because I sat on Hal's legs in his study and put my head on his shoulder and wept.

Q: Did the experience live up to what you had hoped?
DC: More than. I can't even talk to you about it. [Laughs.] For that woman, that particular woman's voice to come out, roll out over me into the audience. And it was me — for two hours it was my voice. So all my dreams, all my longings that had had to be tamped down and dealt with. All those enormous yearnings and longings to have a great career in this particular field. If I had had an operatic career, maybe I would have been a Grace Moore . . . I would never ever, ever achieved the one and only [Callas]. I could never ever have had that, and for six months I was she. So, there's no way to thank Terrence McNally or anybody else involved enough for that experience. It nearly killed me. I would come off stage at the end of the first act and literally be unable to climb the stairs to get to my dressing room without leaning against the wall and just breathing. But it was glorious.

Q: Do you have any other theatre projects in the works?
DC: Hal Holbrook and I have two — and now a third — play that we are going to try, want, hope to do together. These plays would be Broadway bound. They're new plays — the first play, I don't think I'm allowed to say anything about it. The first one is not a two-character play, but play number two and three are two-character plays. It's very exciting. This play that we will be able to talk about in another month will tour, and if it tours well, it will come into town, and Hal and I will be thrilled to be onstage together. . . This spring Keith Baxter's coming back over from London to direct Lady Windermere's Fan, and I'm doing the great role of Mrs. Erlynne for Michael Kahn down at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. That will open in June, playing June into July.

Q: Final question. When people hear the name Dixie Carter, what would you like them to think?
DC: I would like them to think that I'm a good girl. [Laughs.]

[Dixie Carter is currently offering shows Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8:45 PM with late shows on Fridays and Saturdays at 10:45 PM. There is a $55-$65 cover charge but no minimum. Café Carlyle is located in Manhattan at Madison Avenue and 76th Street. Call (212) 744-1600 for reservations or visit www.thecarlyle.com.]

HAIR
Seth Rudetsky and the Actors' Fund of America is four for four. After spearheading the all-star concerts of Dreamgirls, Funny Girl and Chess, the Rudetsky/Fund team put together a star-studded concert of the famed sixties musical Hair, which was presented Monday night at the New Amsterdam Theatre. The Sept. 20 evening began with remarks by Actors' Fund Executive Director Joseph Benincasa and new Actors' Fund President Brian Stokes Mitchell. Tony winner Mitchell joked to the sold-out crowd, "We all know why we're here tonight — to see naked people onstage! And to help the Actors' Fund," he continued, "and to see Hair." Mitchell also acknowledged some of Hair's original Broadway and film cast members, who were in attendance. The curtain then rose on the likeable Harris Doran (as Claude), standing centerstage clad in white T-shirt and jeans. While he burned his draft card, the stage also revealed the small onstage orchestra, which was divided into sections by three staircases. As Lillias White, decked out in a large afro and sixties-era attire, began belting out "Aquarius," members of the chorus — standing on chairs in the audience — rushed to the stage in a burst of energy. Two large screens were also part of the stage design and projected various timely images throughout the concert.

Lea DeLaria, who bemoaned having to follow the vocals of White, offered a few off-the-cuff remarks to the audience before launching into "Donna." "Queer Eye" co-star Jai Rodriguez, sporting a long wig, sang about the pleasures of "Sodomy" and was followed by Taboo's Euan Morton, who delivered a somewhat lyrically revised "Manchester, England." Chuck Cooper's "Colored Spade" preceded Ana Gasteyer's belty "Dead End," one of the many highlights of the first half of the evening. Other Act I high points included Harvey Fierstein, who drew cheers with his raspy-voiced version of "Air"; Laura Benanti, who morphed from a prim-and-proper teacher into an LSD induced free spirit while she wrapped her glorious soprano around "Initials"; John Tartaglia and Christopher Sieber, who had some fun with an American flag and "Don't Put It Down"; Adam Pascal, who sported a shirtless open vest and let his rock-flavored tenor soar on "I Got Life"; Raul Esparza, who scored with the title tune; former "American Idol" contestant Jennifer Hudson, who raised the roof with a thrilling "Easy to Be Hard"; and Julia Murney, who managed to dazzle even with a cold, as she brought down the first-act curtain with "Where Do I Go," which began with a touching sincerity and climaxed in a Janis Joplin-style crescendo.

The second half of the concert got off to a rousing start with Toxic Audio's solo on "Electric Blues." That was followed by the exciting pairing of "Black Boys" — featuring belters Kathy Brier, Orfeh and Ann Harada — and "White Boys," with the equally belty Ledisi, Brandi Chavonne Massey and Shayna Steele. Annie Golden charmed with the gentle ballad "Frank Mills," and members of the chorus bared all during "Walking in Space." Other second-act notables: Billy Porter's gospel-tinged "Four Score"; Darius de Haas and Paul Castree, whose pure tenors blended beautifully on "What a Piece of Work Is Man"; Liz Callaway, who added class and simple, gorgeous tones on "Good Morning Starshine"; and Norm Lewis, whose rich, vibrato-filled voice echoed throughout the theatre on "The Flesh Failure," which segued into the wonderful finale, "Let the Sun Shine In."

In addition to the evening's stars, the large chorus also impressed with their exuberance and powerful vocals. One of the greatest moments featured tap dancing soldiers during "Three Five Zero Zero," and I was particularly moved by the on-screen projection during the finale that featured a close-up of Claude's name and then opened wide to reveal the scores of others who lost their lives during the Vietnam War.

The lengthy standing ovation that followed brought musical director Rudetsky to the front of the stage, who thanked all involved, including co directors and co-choreographers Devanand Janki and Christopher Gattelli, scenic designer Paul Weimer, lighting designer Jeff Croiter, sound designer Scott Stauffer, costume coordinator Michael Crowler, projection designer Elaine McCarthy and Tim Pinckney, who adapted the musical for this concert version. A visibly moved Rudetsky also brought Hair co creators James Rado and Galt MacDermot, who were in the audience, to the stage.

Although a specific show has not yet been chosen, the all-star concert tradition will thankfully continue next year with a fifth annual evening set for Sept. 19, 2005.

DIVA TIDBITS

"Think Carol and Julie in Carnegie Hall at Christmas, without Carol and Julie, Carnegie Hall or Christ." So reads the teaser for the upcoming series of concerts from two of the theatre's funniest gals, Hairspray's Jackie Hoffman and Forbidden Broadway's Kristine Zbornik. Hoffman, who has been enjoying a lengthy run of Monday nights at Joe's Pub in The Kvetching Continues, will join forces with Zbornik for an all-new holiday show entitled Together Again for the First Time. The duo will kick off their concert series Nov. 22 at Joe's Pub and will also offer performances Nov. 29, Dec. 6, 13, 20 and 27. Show time is 7:30 PM. The show, according to production notes, promises "an unprecedented evening of side-splitting, ear-shattering shtick." Directed by Michael Schiralli, Together Again features musical direction by Dave Brunetti. Joe's Pub is located within the Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Street. Tickets, priced at $25, are available by calling (212) 239-6200. Those wishing to dine before the show should call (212) 539 8778.

There are only about 30 tickets available for this Monday's (Sept. 27) Broadway Unplugged concert. Produced, directed and hosted by cabaret critic Scott Siegel, the evening at Town Hall will feature a host of Broadway stars singing without amplification. As of press time, the starry line-up is set to include Nancy Anderson, Christine Andreas, Stephanie J. Block, Michael Cerveris, Chuck Cooper, B.J. Crosby, Bill Daugherty, Darius de Haas, George Dvorsky, Debbie Gravitte, Ann Harada, Cady Huffman, Ludmilla Ilieva, A.J. Irvin, Alix Korey, Marc Kudisch, Norm Lewis, Euan Morton, Julia Murney, Alice Ripley and Mary Testa. Show time is 8 PM. Tickets for Broadway Unplugged are priced $25 and $50. The Town Hall box office is located at 123 West 43rd Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues. Tickets may also be purchased by calling (212) 307-4100.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

(Look for a condensed version of "Diva Talk" in the theatre edition of Playbill Magazine.)

Seth Rudetsky, with microphone, and the cast of <i>Hair</i>
Seth Rudetsky, with microphone, and the cast of Hair Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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