DIVA TALK: Ann Hampton Callaway Chats About New CD, TV Pilot and Movie Musical

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Ann Hampton Callaway Chats About New CD, TV Pilot and Movie Musical News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Ann Hampton Callaway
Ann Hampton Callaway

ANN HAMPTON CALLAWAY

2006 may prove to be one of Ann Hampton Callaway’s most exciting years. The 14-time MAC Award winner — who boasts a smooth, smoky alto that she uses with equal dexterity whether she’s swinging, singing jazz favorites, belting out Broadway standards or interpreting her own heartfelt compositions — is currently playing a limited engagement through Jan. 8 at the famed Blue Note Jazz Club on West Third Street. Backed by the all-female Diva Jazz Orchestra, Callaway is performing songs that will be featured on her upcoming CD, "Blues in the Night," which will be released this spring on the Telarc International label. Concertgoers can expect to hear Callaway’s unique takes on “The Glory of Love,” “Time After Time,” “Lover, Come Back to Me” and “Swinging Away the Blues.”

The multitalented performer, who received a Tony nomination and a Theatre World Award for her Broadway debut in Swing!, can also be heard in two of this season’s new films, singing “Isn’t it Romantic?” and “The Nearness of You” in Queen Latifah’s “Last Holiday” and pouring her heart and soul into “Come Rain or Come Shine” in Robert De Niro’s “The Good Shepherd.” She also makes her screen debut in the latter, singing the Johnny Mercer classic while Angelina Jolie and Matt Damon dance to her sultry tones. Callaway will continue playing concert halls around the country — including a few dates with sister (and Broadway favorite) Liz Callaway — and she also has two other exciting projects on the horizon: a movie musical that she is penning for DreamWorks and a TV pilot about singer-songwriters that she will host for PBS. The good-humored Callaway took a few minutes out of her extremely busy schedule to chat with me earlier this week; that interview follows.

Question: How did your first night go at the Blue Note?
Ann Hampton Callaway: We had a great night. I wasn’t sure when I accepted this engagement what kind of houses we would have for the first week of January right after all the holiday hoopla, but we had two packed houses, and it was really fabulous.

Q: Had you played at the Blue Note before?
Callaway: I was there last year in January for the Harold Arlen revue, but this is my first time headlining there, so it’s a real honor. I’ve had so many memorable nights hearing some of my favorite singers and instrumentalists there, so there’s a lot of sense of history when I’m singing up [on that stage]. Q: Who have you seen perform at the club?
Callaway: The most memorable — I got to see Sarah Vaughan’s last performance there before she died, and it was just an incredible moment. I remember so many revelations as I heard her sing.

Q: You get to perform in so many different venues — do you have a favorite club or clubs that you enjoy playing?
Callaway: I have certain clubs that I like for different reasons. Because I’m sort of a multifaceted person, I appreciate different aspects. I love Birdland because it’s that classic nightclub [with] tiered seating, and it’s open with high ceilings. There’s a sense of warmth and expansiveness at the same time. The Jazz Standard is another club I enjoy playing. When I first moved to New York from Chicago, I would go to the Village Vanguard, and I heard Bill Evans, who was my favorite jazz pianist growing up, and going downstairs into a jazz club feels like a real jazz club. . . . I love going to the Vanguard for hearing Bill Charlap and Carol Sloane and some of my friends. And I love the new Dizzy’s [Club Coca-Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center] — that’s a really fabulous club. We played there with [the Diva [Jazz Orchestra] in September, and we had a fantastic time. I’ve played all the rooms [at Jazz at Lincoln Center], and they’re all sensational, so that’s a great addition. Of course, I love singing at Feinstein’s [at the Regency] and the great cabarets of New York. And, I’ve closed many of them as well. [Laughs.] I think about the history of my career so far — I’ve been singing in all kinds of interesting places. And, I love the expansiveness of singing at Carnegie Hall and bringing intimacy to a place that big. That’s one of the things, as somebody who’s steeped in the cabaret tradition, I really enjoy — giving people the feeling that even though they’re in Carnegie Hall, they’re in this little, tiny nightclub and I’m singing just for them.

Q: That’s difficult to do in that hall. . .
Callaway: It really has to come from an emotional intention and a way that you communicate with the audience. I watched Bette Midler do that at the Metropolitan Opera House many years ago, and I thought, “I feel like I’m in the bathhouse. It’s so wonderful. She’s transforming this glitzy, serious place into this great, intimate, wonderful bathhouse.” [Laughs.]

Q: Tell me about your current show. I know you’re preparing songs for a new recording.
Callaway: I just signed with Telarc Records, and I’m very excited about that. When I had such a great time with [the] Diva [Jazz Orchestra] in September, I asked them if they could be a part of the CD, and they were thrilled. The CD is inspiring a lot of the show. The CD is called “Blues in the Night,” and it’s probably going to be my gutsiest, most soulful album [where] I really sing out. One thing that will be a surprise for people is “No One Is Alone,” done as more of a jazz piece — I’m venturing into some new waters for myself. The show — I sort of parenthetically call it “Swinging Away the Blues,” and it’s the title of a song that I just wrote and premiered last night. Tommy Newsome, who’s the great arranger who did all the charts and had the big band on “The Tonight Show” back in its heyday, is the main arranger for Diva, so they hooked me up with him, and he just did some phenomenal charts for me. A lot of the songs have the feeling of — and the CD as well — blues and swing, around the idea of happiness — how do we find it and how do we lose it and how do we struggle with it. It’s singing the blues and letting stuff go so that you can get to the happiness that’s waiting for you. One of the songs that I wrote, which will be on the CD and that we do in the show, is called “Hip to Be Happy,” and it’s my response to the idea that artists must suffer. I think it’s kind of a cliché that needs a little bit of a dare, and I think that art comes from all kinds of experiences, so I wanted to advocate the possibility that happiness could be inspiring! [Laughs.] It’s a really fun bee-bop song, and we got a great response from the audience. Then I do “Lover, Come Back to Me,” which is at a killer pace, [a] virtuoso piece for the band and myself with a lot of scat.

Q: Tell me a little about the Diva Jazz Orchestra.
Callaway: They have 16 members. Sherrie Maricle is the leader of the band. She’s the drummer — she’s phenomenal. These women are from all over the world. The head saxophonist is from Tel Aviv, and we have several people from Australia and women who flew in from California yesterday to be there. It’s a very interesting array of very strong soloists. They have such a great group energy about them. They’re phenomenal musicians, and they have a lot of fun. I think that a lot of the boy bands tend to take themselves very seriously, and this band, they’re incredible musicians, but they also have a great entertainment vibe about them. When you hear them, you know you’re going to have a great time. They do some incredibly challenging charts and make it seem like it’s nothing. So I’m thrilled to be with them.

Q: What do you aim for when you’re putting a cabaret evening together? Do you work with a director or do you arrange the show yourself?
Callaway: This kind of setting at the Blue Note, I think of it more as sets. If I’m putting a cabaret show together, then it’s around a theme, and I will probably work with a director. But when I’m putting sets together for a jazz club, I use my own instincts and my years of experience and how songs complement each other. Just the way a chef will put a meal together — how does this complement the next piece and the kind of journey that I want to take people on. I certainly use my sense of musical and emotional adventure in a show whether I’m playing in a jazz club or a cabaret. It’s definitely more about the music, and I don’t talk quite as much in my jazz sets, but it’s definitely a warm show. One of the things I do in all my shows is my improvisation at the piano. It was hysterical [last night] because the people who come to the Blue Note are from all over the world — we have Japanese people, Brazilian people, Italians, Spanish people — it’s a great array. It’s like singing for the entire world in one little place. And, so I made up a New Year’s song in the second set . . . and the entire band is playing by the end of the improv, so it’s very exciting to fall off a cliff and hope that you fly.

Q: A few months ago you wrote “When the Saints Come Marching” after Hurricane Katrina.
Callaway: Yeah, I wrote two songs in response to Katrina. It’s just so unthinkable what the devastation was and how it was handled. I’m grateful to be a songwriter. . . . I was able to raise over $20,000 for a wonderful group called the Prasad Project for the tsunami crisis, and I’m trying to get one of the Katrina songs to a major pop singer to try to make a lot of money for New Orleans — it’s going to take incredible amounts of money and effort to rebuild New Orleans. I feel more like an activist these days as a songwriter. Sometimes I just can’t live with myself unless I feel like I do something as a citizen. Songwriting and singing and benefits — whatever I can do. I think everybody feels these days that we need to do our share.

Q: What is the songwriting process like for you? Are you usually inspired by something that happens in the world?
Callaway: You know how in Broadway musicals a character will suddenly burst into song because words are not enough? That’s kind of how I live. My life is a musical. [Laughs.] I’m bursting with emotion about something, and I don’t know how to contain it. I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself, and so it has to turn into a song. It’s very funny how it works up in me. I’ll be reading The New York Times just furious about something, and suddenly this song [comes] — it’s like a wave that comes over me. Sometimes I’ll be awakened in the middle of the night by a melody or I’ll overhear words in a conversation on the subway or in a cab. I find inspiration comes in the most unusual, unexpected places. And, then occasionally, somebody like Barbra Streisand says [she wants] a song.

I’m writing several songs for a movie musical right now. I love working that way as well where I have characters to write for and very specific needs to try to fulfill. Writing with Carole King was amazing because she didn’t want to write a song together until the day of the recording, and so we got together and in two hours wrote a song. We didn’t even know each other, so that was a phenomenal experience. [The song was] called “Tonight You’re All Mine,” and it’s on my latest CD, “Slow.”

Q: You mentioned you’re writing for a movie musical. Can you talk more about that?
Callaway: It’s a movie called “State of Affairs.” It’s an incredible script. I’m so excited to be a part of this. My songwriting partner, Mark Chait, we’re working on creating the beginning of the score. We may be singing it at Johnny Depp’s house for DreamWorks later on this month. We’re going to do a whole presentation for them. The producer is extremely excited about it, [and] Phil McKinley is directing the project. It’s always been a dream of mine to work in film, so not only am I writing a movie musical, I’m also being heard in two movies and being seen in one of them. It’s been an interesting 2006 with the whole new movie chapter opening up.

Q: Tell me a bit about the two other movies.
Callaway: Queen Latifah’s new movie “Last Holiday” is coming out next week, and I got to sing two songs on that, “Isn’t It Romantic?” and “The Nearness of You.” From seeing the trailer, it’s going to be a really fun movie. I happen to like her as a singer very much, [but] I don’t think she’s singing much in the movie. That’s my feature film singing debut, and then I got to record “Come Rain or Come Shine” in the studio with Bob De Niro directing me, and he liked me so much that he decided to put me in the movie “The Good Shepherd,” so I got to be fitted in about two days for a dress by Ann Roth and be on the set with Angelina Jolie and Matt Damon and Bill Hurt. It’s going to be an incredible film — a very big undertaking to follow the life of the first CIA director. It’s a very powerful movie, and I’m thrilled to be in one of the pivotal scenes in the movie where it’s a turning point in the plot and singing “Come Rain or Come Shine” with a slew of fabulous people dancing in front of me!

Q: About a year or so ago, you and your sister performed “Relative Harmony” at Feinstein’s, and that was the first time I heard you and Liz sing together, and the blending of your voices was just so beautiful. I wonder what it’s like to perform with your sister.
Callaway: Thank you. There are not words to describe what it’s like singing with Liz. She’s the person I know more than anybody else in the world. She and I have been through so much as sisters, and we’re so different. We’re complete opposites, and yet we have this incredible love and awe for each other. And, the things that I don’t understand about her and she doesn’t understand about me, it all goes away when we sing. And even though . . . I have a moonlit voice and she has a sunlit voice, when our voices come together, there’s something that happens that’s like a voice together that’s better than either one of our voices. The other thing is we’re sort of psychic when we sing together. We breathe together. If I forget a lyric, she somehow knows that I’m going to forget the lyric and sings the wrong lyric with me. We have a lot fun, and we’re going to be doing more shows. Hopefully we’ll record “Relative Harmony,” but in the meantime I’ve asked her to do the duet I arranged of “Stormy Weather” and “When the Sun Comes Out” on [my] new CD.

Q: Tell me a little about your Broadway experience in Swing!
Callaway: When I moved from Chicago to New York, I had been an acting major at University of Illinois, and it was really a dream to be in a Broadway musical, [but] all the agents when I arrived were like, “Well, you’re 5’10” and you have this sort of Rosalind Russell ‘40 and I’ve lived' quality, and you’re 20, and we don’t know quite what to do with you, so come back to us in ten years.”

I didn’t realize that 21 years later I could become an overnight sensation. [Laughs.] But it was a phenomenal experience. Liz had always talked about the feeling you have of family with a cast, and it was a fantastic cast of just incredible people. And Everett Bradley, my co-star — I can’t imagine a better person to spend a year with. We actually spent about three years together creating the show. I didn’t realize when I accepted the job of being in a Broadway musical that I would be creating it as well, and that was an unexpected surprise and a great artistic opportunity for me to select the songs, arrange them and really create something special with these marvelous people. I remember the last show, we had this applause that I think went on for about 20 minutes, and it was a phenomenal experience, and I just thought, “There’s no way I’m not coming back and doing this again.” I’d love to do a book musical. I don’t think I’ve really had an opportunity to show the actress part of myself the way that I know is inside of me, and so I look forward to [doing that]. I have a great concert career, and it’s demanding and booked ahead, but if the right part comes along, I’m definitely going to take it.

Q: Who were your biggest musical influences?
Callaway: As you know, I have a very diverse musical sensibility. My father is a great lover of jazz, so he would be playing Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan and Miles Davis. My mother was more of the musical theatre, classical music side of my influences. And, she was a very important influence. She’s a great singer and a wonderful voice teacher, and I learned so much from her. Judy Garland is certainly one of my favorite pop/theatre singers. Nobody can touch her. And, Streisand, of course, was a big influence growing up. And then there was the whole slew of singer/songwriters like Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell and Carole King.

Q: Are there any current performers you admire?
Callaway: There are many current performers I admire. Besides my sister, it depends on the walk of life. I love Elaine Stritch. I will go anywhere to hear Elaine Stritch. She was in the first Broadway musical my sister and I saw, Company. We were fortunate that our parents took us to see that. I was about 12 or 13 hearing her sing “The Ladies Who Lunch,” and then I recently saw her at the Carlyle doing her first cabaret act and then my father interviewed her and told us all the stories about that. I love Sting. To me, he’s one of the great contemporary singer/songwriters. I’m interested in where people are going — someone like Nellie McKay, who I performed with at the Hollywood Bowl. She has tremendous wit about her, and she brings a very interesting imagination to her. I think as a songwriter, she’s somebody we’re going to want to look out for. There are so many people I love.

Q: Do you have any other projects in the works?
Callaway: I’m in conversation with PBS. We’re going to be putting a pilot together soon for a TV show that’s going to be like the singer/songwriter version of “Inside the Actors Studio.” I’ll be hosting and performing on that. We’re working with the people at PBS to get that going. Possibly in the fall, we’ll be hosting a pilot and maybe next year we’ll get the show launched. It’s something I really think is important. With the advent of “American Idol” [and] a whole new generation of people thinking that that’s only what singing is. It really scares me that some of the great singing that’s going on today that no one is going to understand what goes into it. You have people like Melissa Manchester, who comes up with a CD of great songs that really got no television attention at all. It really irks me that there isn’t more of an opportunity for new singers and new songwriters to be heard and discovered the way they were in the days of Ed Sullivan and the great variety shows. [Ann Hampton Callaway will play the Blue Note — 131 West 3rd Street — through Jan. 8. Show times are 8 and 10:30 PM. There is a $25 cover charge at tables and a $15 cover at the bar. For reservations call (212) 475-8952.]

DIVA TIDBITS
Debbie Gravitte’s third solo recording, and her first for the Jay Records label, is set to hit stores around the country this month. Entitled “Defying Gravity,” the 15-track disc was produced by John Yapp and recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra. About her new CD, Tony winner Gravitte told me this week, “I'm really proud of it... It has songs from seven of the eight Broadway shows I've done. And, of course, it also includes the first symphonic recording of ‘Defying Gravity.’” The complete track listing for the recording includes “Defying Gravity,” “Time Heals Everything,” “Blues in the Night,” “If He Walked Into My Life,” “Junk Man,” “Some People,” “Love Is Here to Stay,” “Mr. Monotony,” “When You're Good to Mama,” “Memory,” “I Still Believe In Love,” “Only Love,” “Sing for Your Supper,” “I Dreamed a Dream” and “Don't Rain On My Parade.”

In addition to Eden Espinosa (as Elphaba), Carol Kane (as Madame Morrible) and Derrick Williams (as Fiyero), the Broadway company of Wicked will also welcome a new Nessarose Jan. 10. Cristy Candler, who created the role of the Witch’s Mother in the hit Stephen Schwartz musical, will replace Michelle Federer as Elphaba’s wheelchair-bound sister. Candler has also been seen on Broadway in Aida and Off-Broadway in Girlstown and Rubberville.

A host of theatre favorites will perform Jonathan Reid-Gealt’s new song cycle, Forward, Jan. 16 at the Makor Theatre. Presented by Jamie McGonnigal, the 7 PM concert will feature the talents of Adam Armstrong, Kate Baldwin, Whitney Bashor, David Burnham, Bridie Carroll, Matt Cavenaugh, Max von Essen, Eric Imhoff, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Chelsea Krombach, Kasey Marino, Steven Pasquale and Marty Thomas. Michael Mosallum will direct. Forward, according to press notes, features “16 songs all sung by characters at different stages of their lives. Throughout the evening, as we meet each character, we learn about ourselves through their complexities. Forward illustrates the challenges we each face as we grow up, and in particular provides an inspiring tale of motion, change and growth.” The Makor Theatre is located in the Steinhardt Building at 35 West 67th Street. For tickets call (212) 415-5500 or visit www.makor.org.

And, finally, in just a little over a month in release, the Barbra Streisand DVD collection has gone platinum — five times! “Barbra Streisand: The Television Specials,” which come in a terrifically packaged set on the WEA/Warners label, boasts Streisand’s legendary TV appearances in the sixties and seventies. The five DVDs include "My Name Is Barbra" (1965), "Color Me Barbra" (1966), "The Belle of 14th Street" (1967), "Barbra Streisand: A Happening in Central Park" (1968) and "Barbra Streisand . . . And Other Musical Instruments" (1973).

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

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