Carolee Carmello concludes her run in William Finn’s Elegies this weekend, and, thankfully, that moving evening of song will be recorded by Fynsworth Alley. Carmello is also scheduled to return to Broadway April 29 as Penelope Pennywise — replacing Victoria Clark in the role originated by Nancy Opel — in the award-winning musical Urinetown.
For me, it was Carmello’s work in the much-too-short-lived musical Parade that truly illuminated her remarkable gifts. I had enjoyed the singer-actress’ performances over the past decade both on and Off-Broadway, where she often demonstrated her comedic abilities (in Falsettos as one of the "lesbians next door") and vocal prowess (in the two-person, Off-Broadway musical john and jen). However, with her leading role in Parade, she made that great leap to divadom and musical theatre star. Providing one of the core performances of that Hal Prince-directed musical, Carmello brought an emotional honesty to her work that was completely stirring. In fact, whenever she took to the stage in that wonderful and haunting musical, your eyes were riveted on her every move, as a warmth and sincerity spread out over the audience. The Obie and Drama Desk Award-winning actress also possesses a powerful voice that she controls with exquisite precision. There is virtually no break in her voice as she moves from chest to head tones, and her belt range is expansive. Take a listen to the beauty of her singing on the Parade cast recording; she is particularly effective on “You Don’t Know This Man,” “All the Wasted Time” and “What Am I Waiting For?”
I had the chance to speak with Carmello last week as she was driving from her home in New Jersey to her Urinetown costume fitting (“I have my headset on. I’m all legal,” Carmello joked). That interview follows:
Question: I’ve heard that you’ve never taken voice lessons. Is that true?
Carolee Carmello: It is true. Q: That’s amazing because you have such remarkable placement.
CC: Thank you. I don’t know, I never really planned on doing this as a career. I wasn’t one of those kids who knew I was going to do this all along, so I didn’t go to college for theatre. By the time the idea of voice lessons was presented to me, I was already in New York and working, and I didn’t have the time or money to do it. And, now that I could probably afford to do it, I just kind of think, ‘Well, why do it now?’ . . . Sometimes I think it would help, and sometimes I think it might mess me up.
Q: Do you have any warm-up routine that you do?
CC: Not really. It depends on the show. I just did a show in L.A., On the Twentieth Century, where I had to sing more in my head voice. It was a little more soprano-y than I’m used to doing. And, so, I had to warm up a little bit for that because the first song was a little higher than I was comfortable with. So, in that case I did a little warming up, but usually I just don’t. I think that talking all day kind of takes care of it.
Q: You’re on your way to rehearsals for Urinetown?
CC: Well, actually, I am, but first I have to stop at a costume fitting for Urinetown, so I’m, indirectly, on the way.
Q: Have you started rehearsals yet?
CC: No, this is my first day. First day of school!
Q: How did you get involved with the show? Had you seen it originally?
CC: No, I hadn’t. It’s very hard for me to get to see shows when I’m working — with my kids — because I feel bad if I’m away six nights a week. I feel bad to take my other night and go see a show and not spend it with my children. So, no, I didn’t get to see it. And, when I got the offer to go in after I auditioned for the show, I said, ‘Well, I better go see it and see what they’re asking me to do here!’ [Laughs.] I just saw it like two weeks ago for the first time.
Q: And what did you think?
CC: I thought it was hysterical. I never saw it in the other space, but I think it’s great in that theatre. It’s very funny and witty. I thought the cast was great. Most of the original cast is still there, and they were wonderful. I thought the writing was just really clever.
Q: Will you work with the show’s director — how does it work stepping into a role?
CC: I think, as far as I know, that most of the show will be taught to me by the stage manager, and then, like the last few rehearsals that I have, [director] John Rando will come in and kind of fine tune it a little bit.
Q: Do you find it more difficult stepping into a role rather than being involved in the original rehearsal period?
CC: Yeah, a little bit because you have to fit into what’s there. But at the same time, you know a lot more of what the tone is of the piece. When you’re starting out with something from scratch, everybody’s finding their way at the same time, so it’s a little bit of too many cooks spoiling the broth sometimes. [Laughs.] And when you’re stepping into a show, the parameters are already established. . . . And I’m a big fan of having somebody tell me exactly what they want, as opposed to letting me flounder around and figure it out. So, I don’t mind. I’ve had the opportunity to replace in several shows in the last few years, and I don’t mind it. I’m grateful to have a job, and if somebody has established the part in a good way, I have no problem stealing all her good stuff! [Laughs.]
Q: What’s your take on the character of Penelope?
CC: Oh, gosh. Well, I have to say that since I haven’t — like I said, it’s only my first day of rehearsals, and I’ve only just seen it once. Whatever I say now will probably change in the next few weeks! [Laughs.] I think she seems like sort of a Barbara Stanwyck character from a 1930’s movie. She’s very tough as nails, the kind of fast-talking, sort of no nonsense broad that you saw in those old movies. But at the same time, you get to see a little glimpse of her humanity in the second act when she confesses her sins and her love for her daughter. I kind of see her as a throwback — I guess the whole show is, in a way, a throwback to that era.
Q: How long will you stay with the show?
CC: My contract is for six months. And, they said if the show’s still running, that I’m welcome to stay longer. So I guess it’ll just depend on what happens with the show, the economy and my life. It’s hard to tell beyond that, but I’ll be there for six months.
Q: Now, getting to the other show you’re doing. How did you get involved with Elegies?
CC: Bill Finn just called me and said, ‘We’re trying to put this together.’ This was about a year ago, and they did a reading of it before they did the version at Lincoln Center. And, pretty much, whenever Bill calls, I go. He says, ‘Jump,’ and I say, ‘How high?’ because I’m just such a big fan of his. And I sort of feel like anything he does is worth doing, even if it’s off the beaten track a little bit. ‘Cause I wasn’t sure with Elegies how palatable it would be when I heard about the subject matter. And I wasn’t sure if people would want to see it, and I wasn’t sure if it would have a commercial life, but at that point they were just doing a reading, and I said I’ll be in a room with Bill and [director] Graciela Daniele for a week, and what could be better than that? So I did that, and then, like a year later, they said they were going to do this Sunday and Monday thing at Lincoln Center, and it fit into my schedule, and I said sure. Again, I guess, for the love of Bill. [Laughs.]
Q: What’s so great about his work is he makes you laugh in one moment, and then switches to a really moving moment in the next beat.
CC: I love that about him because it’s not sappy. He can be nostalgic without being sort of corny and drippy sweet. I think there’s such good material in the show. I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that’s for everybody—you’re not going to get tour buses in . . . but for the people who love him, I just think it’s so well done.
Q: I really liked "Anytime (I Am There)" — the song you get to sing about the dying mother who says she’ll always be there for her children.
CC: Oh my God. That song, I can’t tell you. That is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my entire professional career.
Q: Because you’re a mother . . .
CC: I guess. I don’t know if I would have had the same reaction if I’d sung it eight years ago before my daughter was born; I’m really not sure. But, the first time I saw that song — when we did the reading a year ago — I literally could not get past the first page of it because I was just sobbing. Every time we would try to do it, I would have to stop and say, ‘I’m sorry, can you just skip to the next song?’ I mean, it was awful. I kept begging him to give the song to someone else because I couldn’t do it. I was really scared that I was going to get in front of an audience and just ruin it. It’s such a beautiful song, and it’s such a beautiful thought that I didn’t want to be up there sobbing, destroying the whole idea of the song, which is that this wonderful presence is always there, somehow peaceful and at rest. And, me standing there sobbing would have belied that truth. So, I finally, after weeks of rehearsal and just, I guess, crying it out, I just am able to get to a point now where I can get through it, but I’ll tell you, there hasn’t been a show where I haven’t come offstage and broken down into tears as soon as I stepped off the stage because I have to hold it in so hard. And it’s just one of those songs, for whatever reason, it just destroys me. And I know there are people who have seen the show, who have had a reaction to different songs in the show. It just hits them for their own personal reasons. And that song, that’s the one for me.
Q: It’s such a great cast, too. Are you all having fun doing it?
CC: Yeah, we are. It’s been sort of odd because we don’t do a regular week of shows. We don’t see each other for six days, but it’s a wonderful group, and everyone has such a very unique persona that when you kind of mix the five of us together, I think it’s a really interesting little tapestry of people.
Q: Let’s talk a little about Parade, which I really loved.
CC: I love it, too!
Q: With the success of ‘Chicago,’ do you think Parade would make a good film?
CC: Wow, that’s an interesting question. Gosh, certainly it lends itself to that kind of filmic take where it’s slicing back and forth — huge, sort of mob scenes and kind of close-ups on a face, those sort of things you can’t do on a stage. I would love to see that happen, but I would love to see anything happen with Parade. It’s just one of those scores that when I first heard it I said, ‘Wow this is one of the best things I’ve ever heard,’ and it was in the very first reading of the show, and I was just sort of stunned by it. I think I’m a little biased, but sure, I’d love to see them do that. That’s a great idea.
Q: You’re one of the few women in the musical theatre who doesn’t have a solo album. Do you have any plans for one?
CC: No. [Laughs.] I don’t have any burning desire to do one. I don’t feel like I’ve figured out what I would want to do with it. And I don’t want to do an album just to do an album. If I come up with an idea of something that I think hasn’t been done before or something that I could do in a different way than anybody else, I’d probably do it. But right now I kind of feel like it’d just be me singing some songs, and who cares, you know? [Laughs.] I don’t really want to do an album before I really have something to say.
Q: I had also heard that you and your husband [actor Gregg Edelman] were interested in doing Sunday in the Park with George at the Paper Mill.
CC: We did talk about that, and I don’t know. I guess it’s kind of up to them. We were sort of throwing that idea around, and there were some other ideas, too. But no one has said anything official to us, so I don’t really know [what’s happening at this point].
Q: Do you and your husband enjoy working together?
CC: We’ve had the chance a few times, not so much recently. When we first worked together — we met doing City of Angels, but I wasn’t there very long, so we didn’t even really get to know each other. We did a production up at the Goodspeed Opera House, which is where we sort of connected, and that was a musical version of the movie ‘Arthur,’ and we were playing opposite each other there. Then we did Falsettos together — we did a tour of Falsettos, and we did 1776 on Broadway together. We’ve done a lot of concert things together, but we haven’t done a book show, where we play opposite each other in a long time, so it would be fun.
Q: What’s he up to these days?
CC: He’s doing a recurring role on a TV show called ‘Hack,’ which shoots in Philadelphia, and he’s also got a little filming this month on the sequel to the ‘Spider Man’ movie. He’s doing a small part in that. . .
Q: Is it hard managing a career and being a mom?
CC: Yes, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done — besides singing that song in Elegies! [Laughs.] It’s unbelievably hard, so hard, that I can’t even put it into words. I wouldn’t trade it though. I wanted to have kids all my life, and I didn’t know if it was possible to do that and have a career in this business, because it’s such a kind of crazy, unpredictable life. But I think we’re managing. We go through periods where it’s impossibly hard, and we say, ‘What are we doing?’ and ‘Why did we think we could do this?’ But then other times, we just sort of figure it out. It’s just a big juggling act.
Q: It was amazing being in the audience, but I was wondering what the Funny Girl benefit evening was like on the other side of the stage.
CC: Oh, my God, I was sick to my stomach! It was one of those evenings where I was so frustrated because I wanted to watch everybody because it was such an amazing group of people. I wanted to find a way to go out in the house and watch and enjoy these great women who were all onstage in the same evening. But all I could do was pace backstage because we were so underrehearsed, of course, as you could imagine. I think we all had like two hours of rehearsal. I happened to be given a song [‘The Music That Makes Me Dance’] that I found difficult in the sense that it wasn’t an easy song to sing, it wasn’t an easy song to act. I felt like I needed two weeks of rehearsal on this number. So, to be doing it after two hours of rehearsal and to be doing it after all these amazing women . . . I just kept getting more and more wired, so by the time I stepped onstage, I was literally nauseated. I was so happy when I got through it and I didn’t fall. I had to walk down those stairs in these heels and this dress that I had never worn before in a spotlight. . . . Walking down stairs when you’re in a spotlight is really tough because you have no depth perception. All the elements came together to make it a nerve-wracking night, but it was thrilling to be a part of it. I kept telling myself in the midst of it, ‘You’ve got to enjoy this because this is an amazing night.’ But, at the same time, I couldn’t because I was sick with worry. [Laughs.]
Q: One final question. When people hear the name Carolee Carmello, what would you like them to think?
CC: I guess in life I would like them to think she’s a great mom and a good person. I just want to be a good influence on my kids and a good person in the world. Professionally, someone once said something about me that I heard indirectly that I thought, ‘Wow that’s a really nice compliment and I’ll have to remember that,’ and it sort of fits this question . . . . Someone was trying to describe me to a person who didn’t know what I do, and they said, ‘She’s the Cherry Jones of musical theatre.’ [Laughs.] And I thought, ‘Well, that’s a really great compliment because she’s a brilliant actress,’ and I’ve always sort of thought in my life of growing up watching musicals that it’s hard to find people who are really good actors who do musical theatre, and I sort of hope that I’ll be thought of that way.
Elegies concludes its run April 19 at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater. Urinetown plays the Henry Miller Theatre, 124 West 43rd Street; call (212) 239-6200 for tickets.
RHAPSODY IN SETH
If my memory serves me correctly, Seth Rudetsky is the first male I’ve ever interviewed for “Diva Talk,” but since his one-man Off-Broadway show, Rhapsody in Seth (which was nominated for a GLAAD Media Award), deals so much with the grand women of the musical theatre, I thought a chat with the talented actor/comedian/musician was wholly appropriate for this column. Plus, so many of this column’s favorite women have commented on the show, how could I resist! Take a look at these comments — about Rudetsky’s show at the Actors’ Playhouse —from some of Broadway’s finest:
Betty Buckley: “Rhapsody is rapturous! So funny, so charming, so naughty! You must go see this show!”
Bebe Neuwirth: “Seth is f***ing hilarious! Get your a** over to his show!”
Rosie O’Donnell: “It’s like A Chorus Line, only bitchier!”
Megan Mullally: “Rhapsody is a scream-and-a-half. Seth is beyond funny! I love this show!”
Audra McDonald: “Amazing! I was laughing hysterically one minute and literally crying the next. I love, love, love it!”
Kristin Chenoweth: “Seth rocks! Moving & funny & beautiful & true!”
For those of you haven’t seen Rhapsody, don’t miss the chance to hear Rudetsky discuss — quite humorously, I must add — the difference between head and chest voice as well as the vocal prowess of such gals as Betty Buckley, Patti LuPone and many, many others. My brief chat with Rudetsky follows:
Question: How did Rhapsody in Seth come about? Is it something you had wanted to do for a long time?
Seth Rudetsky: I was doing my comedy act with Jack Plotnik at Caroline’s, and then I had the guest artists come on, like Betty Buckley, and my agent came to see it. A lot of the act was kind of reclaiming horrible things from [Jack's and my] childhood, and [my agent] said, "I know you think this is a comedy act, but I really see something about two guys that were outsiders, totally ostracized, and they took what ostracized them and became successful with that." I said to Jack, "That’s such a great idea for a play." And he said, "Well, that’s not really my story, that’s your story." So, I just sat down at my computer and just wrote it.
Q: Did it just pour out of you?
SR: A lot of it. A lot of it hasn’t changed. The major change was it was [originally] written almost like a book. I was doing little readings for friends, and the note that I kept getting from my agent was it was very hard to have sympathy for me about certain things that happened because I was telling it as a story. He said it’s hard to have sympathy for you because you’re so together, you’re so sassy — you really have to re create these moments as a child. I totally took his advice, and that was the big change. I think it made it much more theatrical, too, becoming my mom, becoming my father, becoming my guidance counselor, things I really resisted but now I really love because it makes it much more of a theatrical experience.
Q: Has it changed much since the Ars Nova run?
SR: Every time anyone asks that to me, I’m like, ‘Why should it have changed?’ I get very defensive! [Laughs.] No, it’s called transferring — to a better theatre!! [Laughs] I just took out a couple lines, added a couple sound cues. I changed the Liza Minnelli — I thought the Liza Minnelli belting section wasn’t high enough to merit really high belting so I changed it to the end of ‘Mein Herr,’ because that’s, I think, a D flat.
Q: Who’s the first diva you remember listening to?
SR: Susan Johnson, that’s the tape that I play of myself singing along with ‘Ooh! My Feet!’ when I’m three years old. The most amazing song ever. She’s f**n amazing, amazing singer. You know, she just died. It’s devastating, she was an amazing singer.
Q: When did you first understand the difference between head and chest voice?
SR: Holy sh**! Oh, very early on. Well, I didn’t really mind Ann Margret in "Bye, Bye, Birdie" [singing] "How Lovely to Be a Woman" because that whole thing is kind of in head. But I’m trying to think of when it really started to piss me off. [Laughs.] I hate to keep quoting from my own show, but I really think it was the The Pajama Game. I was just always disappointed when women really couldn’t go up to the last note in full chest. Pajama Game I began listening to when I was seven, I guess around seven my anger started bubbling. [Laughs.] Susan Johnson belted everything! Q: And who are some of the women who’ve come to see the show?
SR: Betty Buckley has seen it like four times. Kerry O’Malley was just in the front row. She was in Into the Woods, and I’m so happy that she was a big belter because Joanna Gleason used to sing [in head voice], "It justifies the beans" — it made me crazy. [Laughs.] I totally directed all my lines to [Kerry]. Also, Audra [McDonald] came, but I made Audra belt in Dreamgirls. She belted that E during the fight scene.
Q: What have their reactions been to the show?
SR: Most of the reaction I keep getting is [people are] surprised at how moving the show is: "We knew it was going to be funny." Audra was like, "I literally was crying." People, I think, are very surprised at the emotional depth of the show. And, on top of that, everyone is like, "Oh my God, that’s exactly what happened to me." Literally, everybody, man, woman, gay, straight. Everybody’s theatre teacher was totally mean to them. "You’ll never make it in this business." Everyone was obsessed with kind of the specific things I was obsessed with. Andrea Burns was like, "I also met a tenor Kevin at all-state chorus." [Laughs.] Just weird things, crazy specifics.
Q: Do you have a favorite singer now?
SR: I have to say ["American Idol"] Ms. Kelly Clarkson. I am obsessed.
Q: No! Really?!
SR: Are you kidding me? Have you heard her? She can f**ing sing anything. She can belt like an F! She’s an amazing, amazing singer. I’m getting her on Broadway. I’m literally writing a movie for her, I really am. I literally started crying when I first heard her on "American Idol." She’s so warm and ingratiating to her audience. I’m obsessed with her, and in terms of Broadway, there’s a lot. I’m obsessed with Shoshana [Bean]. You have to get the Godspell album. I’m obsessed with Sutton [Foster]. She used to belt a lot higher, but now that she’s doing eight shows a week, she’s much more nervous about it, but in my day she was belting Es!
Q: What cast recording do you think you’ve listened more to any other?
SR: Evita. There’s no doubt about it. There’s nothing like it — that much belting that sounds that good. That much amazing music. I deigned to listen to the Julie Covington version, whatever. A lot of people have the power, but no one has that combination of amazing tone plus the power that Patti [LuPone] had. The bootleg of the Dreamgirls fight scene is the next [favorite]. I can listen to any cast. That’s what’s so great about Dreamgirls is there’s so much flexibility in the score, that there’s always some extra note that you don’t expect to happen.
Q: What’s happening with the next Actors’ Fund benefit concert?
SR: It’s very up in the air. There are five different [possible] shows. These are the favorites that I’m looking at: A Chorus Line, Evita, Chess and Hair. And Carrie. I don’t think Carrie will happen for September though. I figure we’ll make that more of a Halloween concert.
Q: Are you working on any new projects?
SR: Yes, I’m going to do the new Barry Manilow musical that’s supposed to come in to Broadway next January, Harmony. I’m going to do the vocal arrangements for that. I am writing a book about Broadway called "Subbing," a fictionalized account about subbing on Broadway shows — a lot of thinly disguised people in it. [Laughs.] It’ll be funny. I’m writing that movie for Kelly Clarkson with my friend Paul Castree. We are halfway through the script. It’s a musical movie. And I’m very close to getting my Chatterbox on the boob tube. I have these two great producers: I have a producer from NBC and the old producer from ‘Rosie’ — who did all the Broadway stuff — working with me. And we’re just trying to find out whether we’re gonna actually get a station behind us. But it’s much closer than it’s ever been. There’s a lot of interest. I’ve been dying to get Chatterbox on TV for so long because there’s no theatre talk show that really does a history of people. It’s more just like gossip of the minute, which is not really my style.”
Rhapsody in Seth plays the Actors’ Playhouse Fridays at 10 PM, Saturdays at 3 PM and Sundays at 8 PM. Call (212) 239-6200 for reservations. Seth’s Broadway Chatterbox — a weekly talkfest with Broadway stars to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS — Plays Don’t Tell Mama Thursdays at 6 PM; call (212) 757-0788 for reservations.
Betty Buckley in Concert:
Through April 19 in Elegies at the Newhouse Theatre in New York, NY
April 25 at the South Dakota State University PAC in Brookings, SD
May 31 at Benaroya Hall in Seattle, WA
Liz Callaway in Concert:
Now in The Look of Love at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre
April 28 in Richard Rodgers: Giving Back at the Kaufman Center in New York, NY
May 16 Broadway Showstoppers in Philadelphia, PA
Barbara Cook in Concert:
June 5-22 at the Kennedy Center for the Perf. Arts in Washington, DC
Sept. 7-8 at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago, IL
Sept. 13 at the Tulsa Opera House in Tulsa, OK
Sept. 20 in Bethlehem, PA; concert with Marilyn Horne
Oct. 3 at Symphony Hall in Boston, MA; concert with Marilyn Horne
Nov. 22 at Carnegie Hall in New York, NY
Patti LuPone in Concert:
Aug. 5 at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, PA ("Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda")
Oct. 25 at Symphony Hall in Boston, MA (“Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda”)
Nov. 7-9 with the Houston Symphony ("Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda")
Maureen McGovern in Concert
Through April 19 at Founder's Hall, Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, CA
May 30 - 31 at the Palmer Events Center with the Austin Symphony Orchestra in Austin, TX
June 7 at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, MN
Christiane Noll in Concert
April 21 Florida Philharmonic with Peter Nero
May 24 Williamsburg, VA with the Virginia Arts Festival
Aug. 28 San Diego, CA with San Diego Symphony
Aug. 29 San Diego, CA with San Diego Symphony
Aug. 30 San Diego, CA with San Diego Symphony
Oct. 11 Chattanooga, TN with Don Pippin
Dec. 31 Des Moines, IA with Des Moines Symphony & Brad Little
Well, that’s all for now. Happy diva-watching!