DIVA TALK: Buckley, Greene, McArdle and Peters Remember Carson; Q Gals Reminisce as Tartaglia Departs the Avenue

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Buckley, Greene, McArdle and Peters Remember Carson; Q Gals Reminisce as Tartaglia Departs the Avenue
 
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Carson's gals: (from top) Bernadette Peters, Andrea McArdle, Ellen Greene and Betty Buckley
Carson's gals: (from top) Bernadette Peters, Andrea McArdle, Ellen Greene and Betty Buckley

JOHNNY CARSON

In 1993, the late, great Nancy LaMott had this to say during a solo concert at the Russian Team Room: "Has anybody else noticed that the world has gotten a little strange lately? I mean, in the last year things have gotten really odd — Waco, Yugoslavia, Buttafuco. I noticed that things have really gone haywire lately, and I also noticed — just think back if you will — that all of this started happening about the same time that Johnny Carson went off the air. I don’t know, but I think that maybe he was the glue that held us all together. He was the anchor, and now we’re all like a bunch of free radicals floating around and around and doing weird things."

LaMott may have had a point. Life certainly seemed a lot simpler during Carson's reign as the king of late-night television. Like much of the country, I was surprised and saddened this past Sunday to learn of Carson's death. I have vivid memories of being introduced to "The Tonight Show" and its witty host by my late grandmother during a weekend stay at her home in Toms River, New Jersey. And, as I became more and more a fan of Broadway and the musical theatre's dynamic singing actresses, I would always make sure to scan the daily TV listings to see if any of my favorites would be appearing on the Emmy-winning NBC chat show.

Among the many who graced "The Tonight Show" set during Carson's lengthy run were such theatre folk as Karen Akers, Sarah Brightman, Betty Buckley, Nell Carter, Randy Graff, Ellen Greene, Jennifer Holliday, Andrea McArdle, Ethel Merman, Andrea Marcovicci, Maureen McGovern, Bernadette Peters, Frances Ruffelle and Helen Schneider. Carson, in fact, was the last late-night host to champion those who made their fame on Broadway, and he always seemed truly excited by these great talents. This week I went back and watched several "Tonight Show" episodes and enjoyed Carson's reactions to many of these multi-talented performers. After Betty Buckley finished belting out the "Tender Mercies" ballad "Over You," Carson said, "That was wonderful! That was marvelous. What a thrill to hear you sing!" And, a few minutes later, after she finished her signature tune, "Memory," Carson gushed, "You’re just marvelous. That was thrilling. You have a marvelous, marvelous voice. What tone and feeling."

This week I also spoke to a few of the actresses — Betty Buckley, Ellen Greene, Andrea McArdle and Bernadette Peters — who had the chance to impress Carson with their unique talents. Below are some of their thoughts about John William Carson. Betty Buckley: "Johnny Carson was so good to me. He treated me so kindly. My first appearance on 'The Tonight Show' was actually with Joan Rivers as guest host. It was the first time I'd sung 'Memory' on the show, and we ran out of time, and I got cut off in the middle. They received so many phone calls and letters that they invited me back. And, Carson presented me like I was this special young artist. He was so dear and sweet to me. I sang 'Memory,' and was very well-received. He was just unbelievably generous to me. He treated me very gently because I think he perceived that I was a shy person. For a while, they kept calling me to come back on the show, so I went back another time and sang again. I didn't know that I was getting special treatment at the time. I didn't know that it was sort of extraordinary that they kept calling me back. When Cats happened, there was so much going on — with the Tonys and the media — and I think I was afraid to step out and accept all the attention I was getting. I recognize all these things now, but when you're young, you sometimes don't get it. I was just really amazed about being on 'The Tonight Show.' You're kind of like a deer in the headlights — I was so starstruck by him. He was just an elegant, lovely person, really human, very generous of spirit, very kind and, of course, had a tremendous sense of humor."

Ellen Greene: "Everyone tuned in for [Carson's] monologues because he was political, he was smart, he was sexy, and he had style. He was really bright and really powerful. There's nothing more of a turn-on than a man who is bright, and he was so bright. He was so sexy, and he had such a dear heart. And he loved talent. He loved pure talent, and that's why people were loyal to him. And, he also demanded it. You never could do his show and anybody else's, and if you did, chances are you wouldn't come back or you wouldn't get on right away. He demanded loyalty, and he got it because a shot on 'The Johnny Carson Show' changed everything . . . [One of his employees spotted me in the West Coast production of Little Shop of Horrors], and I came on as Audrey and did 'Somewhere That's Green.' Everybody who worked for Johnny were ultimate professionals. They knew what they were doing: the sound, the lights, the shots. It was run like a fine instrument. They were so organized. They wanted me to sing "Green," and they shot "Green" so beautifully. I don't usually watch my own stuff, but that was gorgeous. . . It was amazing to work with [Carson] because you never knew which of the questions [from the pre-interview] he was going to ask. It used to bother my agents [how I acted on the show]. They said, 'Ellen, you're so smart, why are you only acting ditzy?' [Laughs.] They wanted that side of me — they liked [women] who were kind of ditzy and funny and sexy. It was also exciting when they were pleased. When you landed a set-up for Johnny, you could tell. I got so much attention from that spot and from subsequent ones. I also want to give him one more [credit]. Because of the great camera work on the show and the lighting and the sound, I think that rendition of "Green" — me in my Audrey dress and my wig — I think that really helped convince Howard [Ashman], who championed me for the [Little Shop of Horrors] film, that I could take [Audrey] one step further and make it cinematic."

Andrea McArdle: "The first time I was on, I think it was May or June 1977. This was a couple months after Annie opened. My audition song for Annie was 'Johnny One-Note,' so I sang that on the show and 'Tomorrow.' After I got done with 'Johnny One-Note,' [the audience] went crazy [because] I looked like I was eight or nine, although I was really thirteen. After the song, [Carson] called me over, and I sat down, and he said, 'You can come back anytime.' I leaned over to him and said, 'Oh my God, can you get me another vacation day?' [Laughs.] Because it's unheard of in a Broadway show [to get a day off to do a talk show.] And, no kid knew the first act [to Annie]. They waited to teach the [other kids] the first act, so I'd have to be there for at least half of the show [because] we had no microphones, and we were just learning how to sing that loud. . . Later, I went back and did the show when David Brenner hosted, and then I went back again when I was filming the Judy Garland movie. I remember being so into Olivia Newton-John, and they pulled her 'Hopelessly Devoted to You' [set] right from the 'Grease' set — because it was Paramount also — and so I went and did that on the show with him. I also went back again and did 'Over the Rainbow,' and Liberace played for me."

Bernadette Peters: "The first time I was on [in 1970] I sang 'What'll I Do.' There was a good reaction afterwards, really wonderful. People started to notice me when I would appear on his show. That was the great thing about [Carson]. He loved new talent — he loved to present new talent. If you think about it, there's not really a place like that anymore . . . You had a pre interview before the show, usually the day before, to figure out what you wanted to talk about [the next day with Carson]. He was just so good at [interviewing]. You always looked good with him, and he always let you have a moment, and he had a moment, and you had a moment together. It was working together to make something happen. I remember the last time I was on. We were talking about shoes, and he took his feet and he put them on the desk, and he showed me his shoes, and I said, 'Oh, those are coming back!' [Laughs.] We had good chemistry together . . . Who does what he did the same way? He would take risks, and he would have a great time with the guests. You could talk about anything, and he loved presenting and discovering talent. So many people got their breaks on that show and got exposure on that show. I got exposure on that show. And, people tuned in and watched him. He had something that everybody liked: He had boyish charm, he had sexuality, he had that bad-boy [appeal], he was funny — he really had everything. And he was a writer — he loved to be a comic and make something happen and be funny. The last time I saw him was at one of the Kennedy Center Awards a few years ago. He was as charming as ever. It's really sad that he's gone."

I think so many people tuned in to the "Tonight Show" before they went to sleep because Carson was such a calming presence. He also made the nation laugh, yet fans could be sure their favorite stars would be treated with dignity and respect. In fact, it was always exciting to witness Carson's enthusiasm for people I also adored. One of my very favorite Carson comments followed Bernadette Peters' rendition of Irving Berlin's "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy" during her June 1987 appearance. Carson simply exclaimed, "Damn, you're good!" So were you, Mr. Carson.

*

Diva lovers might want to check out the Johnny Carson website (www.johnnycarson.com), which features a detailed list of Carson's guests on "The Tonight Show" during his run on the Emmy-winning NBC production. The website also includes what songs the various performers offered — song titles aren't always accurate — as well as a few details of their conversations with the late Carson. What follows is a list of songs performed by some of Broadway and cabaret's leading ladies.

Karen Akers — Nov. 1983: "Maybe"

Sarah Brightman — July 1989: "Dreamers" and "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again"; May 1990: "Love Changes Everything" and "Music of the Night"; Jan. 1991: "Capped Teeth and Caesar Salad" and unnamed Aspects of Love song

Betty Buckley — Jan 1984: "Over You" and "Memory"; April 1984: "Over You" and "Memory"; and Feb. 1985: "Wind Beneath My Wings"

Nell Carter — July 1978: "Get Some Cash for Your Trash" and "Honeysuckle Rose"; Feb. 1980: "Mean to Me" and "Cash for Your Trash"; Sept. 1980: "Honeycomb," "Wild Women Don't Get the Blues" and "Moonglow"; Feb. 1982: "Leave Me My Heart"; Jan. 1982: "Never Been So Glad"; June 1982: "Take It Home," "Stormy Weather" and "Since I Fell for You"; Nov. 1983: "You Are"; Jan. 1985: "Be Mine Tonight"; July 1985: "Walking on Sunshine" and "Ain't Misbehavin'"; March 1986: "Be Mine Tonight" and "Stormy Monday Blues"; June 1989: "It Breaks My Heart" and "When I Grow Too Old to Dream"

Randy Graff — June 1987: "I Dreamed a Dream"

Ellen Greene — May 1983: "Somewhere That's Green" and "Suddenly Seymour" (with Lee Wilkof); Jan. 1987: song from Little Shop of Horrors; Feb. 1987: "Suddenly Seymour"; Dec. 1988

Jennifer Holliday — Jan. 1983: "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going"; Sept. 1983: "I Am Love" and "Let Me Wait"; May 1986: "We Can Work It Out" and "Dreams Never Die"

Andrea McArdle — May 1977: "Tomorrow"; Sept. 1977: "Tomorrow" and "Johnny One-Note"; July 1978: "Hopelessly Devoted to You" and "Tomorrow"; Sept. 1979: "Love Wings" and "Over the Rainbow"

Maureen McGovern — Feb. 1983: "I'm All Smiles" and "Right as the Rain"; Jan. 1983: "Spain"; June 1983: "Mr. Paganini" and "The Promise"; Oct. 1983: "Strike Up the Band"; April 1985: Two unnamed songs; April 1986: "I Got Rhythm"; and Feb. 1987: "I Could've Been a Sailor"

Ethel Merman — Sept. 1970 (no details for this appearance); Nov. 1972: "It's De-Lovely"; June 1974: "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and "I Get a Kick Out of You"; Oct. 1974: "Someone To Watch Over Me" and "Some People"; Jan. 1975 and June 1975: (no details for these appearances); Aug. 1975: Medley and "I Get a Kick Out of You"; Dec. 1975: "Some People"; May 1976: "Gee, But It's Good To Be Here"; Oct. 1976: "What I Did For Love" and "Sweet Georgia Brown"; April 1977: "Ridin' High" and "Younger Than Springtime"; June 1977: "Nothing Can Stop Me Now"; May 1978: "Gee, But It's Good To Be Here"; April 1979: "Tomorrow" Bette Midler — Aug. 12, 1970; Aug. 31, 1970; Oct. 1970; Dec. 10, 1970; Dec. 16, 1970; Jan. 1971; Feb. 1971; March 1971; June 1971; Oct. 1971; Dec. 1971; Jan. 1972; March 1972; April 1972; Sept. 1971: "Lullaby of Broadway" and "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy"; Sept. 1980; Nov. 1983: "Beast of Burden" and "Come Back Jimmy Dean"); Dec. 1985 ("Fat As I Am" and "Skylark"; Dec. 1988: "Under the Boardwalk" and "I Think It's Gonna Rain Today"; Nov. 1991: "Stuff Like That," "Every Road Leads to You" and "In My Life"; May 1992: "Here's That Rainy Day," "One for My Baby"

Liza Minnelli — Aug. 1974: (no details for this appearance); Dec. 1975: "Lucky Lady" and "I Don't Want to Be Lonely Tonight"; April 1980: "I'm Old-Fashioned"; May 1981: "New York, New York"; Oct. 1985: "Boys and Girls Like You and Me"; Oct. 1986: Medley of "My Ship" and "The Man I Love"

Andrea Marcovicci — June 1988: "Two for the Road"

Bernadette Peters — April 1970, Sept. 1970, Dec. 1970, Jan. 1971, March 1971, Sept. 1971 and Nov. 1971: no details on these first appearances; Jan. 1976: Medley and "I Love You Too"; June 1976: "You'll Never Know"; May 1977: "Stepping Out" and "I Don't Know Why"; June 1977: "Everything Old Is New Again" and "Love Story"; Aug. 1977: "Wake Up and Live" and "Mean to Me"; Oct. 1977: "Broadway Baby" and "Ten Cents a Dance"; Dec. 1977: "Everybody's Talking" and "Help Me Make It Through the Night"; June 1978: "Not Much" and "Send in the Clowns"; July 1978: "Thank You for Being a Friend" and "You Can Have Him"; Oct. 1978: "Divorce" and "I Love"; Jan. 1979: "Feelin' Groovy" and "I Don't Know Why"; April 1979: "Wake Up and Live" and "Believe in You"; June 1979: "Let the Good Times Roll"; July 1979: "Wake Up and Live" and "Other Lady"; Jan. 1980: "The Boy I Love" and "Pearl's a Singer"; April 1980: "Gee Whiz" and "Other Lady"; Aug. 1980: "Gee Whiz" and "You'll Never Know"; Aug. 1981: "Dedicated to the One I Love" and "Don't"; April 1982: "Dedicated to the One I Love," "Gee Whiz" and "Other Lady"; April 1983: "Broadway Baby"; June 1987: "Broadway Baby" and "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy"; July 1989: "Making Love Alone" and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry"; July 1991: "I'm Flying" and "Unexpected Song"; April 1992: "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "What'll I Do?"

Frances Ruffelle— Nov. 1987: "On My Own"

Helen Schneider — Sept. 1977: "Until Now" and "You and I"; March 1978: "Valentino Tango" and "Until Now"; Sept. 1978: "Giving It All I Got" and "Let It Be Now"

AVENUE Q

This Sunday evening the Tony-nominated John Tartaglia will offer his final performance as Rod/Princeton in the Tony-winning Best Musical Avenue Q. I had the chance to revisit Q a few weeks ago, and I was again struck by just how engaging a performer Tartaglia is: As entertaining as he was when the show opened, he has grown more and more in his roles, and he now makes each and every moment work beautifully. To celebrate his last weekend in the show, I thought it would be a good time to chat with his wonderful co-stars, Stephanie D'Abruzzo, Ann Harada and Jennifer Barnhart, who have all been profiled in this column. I asked the Q gals to share their favorite on or offstage memories of working with Tartaglia — their reminiscences follow:

Stephanie D'Abruzzo:

"A favorite offstage moment: I think it was 2000 or 2001, while we were working at 'Sesame Street,' and we were walking back from lunch on Steinway Street in Queens, and Johnny starts talking about what he wanted for Christmas when he was ten years old. 'Guess,' he said. 'Guess what it was.' And I'm thinking, 'Easy-Bake oven, Malibu Barbie, sequined tube-top, what?' What did little gay-but-not-out-for-years Johnny want? And then he said, 'a fog machine.' And, I literally stopped dead in my tracks on Steinway Street, waited a beat and started laughing hysterically. I suspected it was so he could do his very own production of Cats in his backyard. I wasn't too far from the truth — it was for Phantom!

"My favorite onstage moment, and one of my favorite Q moments of all time: Near the end of our Off-Broadway run at the Vineyard Theatre, we performed a special student matinee exclusively for about 80 high school kids. Needless to say, it was our most boisterous audience to date. During 'Fantasies Come True,' when Kate and Princeton have a sweet little post coital moment, the girls were especially vocal. After Princeton gave Kate the penny and told her, 'Maybe it'll bring you good luck . . . it did for me. I found you,' all of the girls went, 'Awww.' It is at this point that Princeton is supposed to sing, 'I want you to know/The time that we've spent/How great it's been/How much it's meant.' And, it is also at this point that Jen Barnhart is manipulating Princeton while Johnny is working Rod on the other side of the stage. But after the girls all shrieked 'Awwww,' there was no sound coming from Johnny. And Jen is still lip-synching, 'I want you to know/The time that we've spent,' but Johnny isn't singing it! Princeton's mouth is moving, the band is playing, and Jen and I are looking at each other frantically, not knowing what to do. Finally, after lip-synching 'how great it's been,' Jen throws her already deep voice into an even deeper voice and sings out of the corner of her mouth, 'HOW MUCH IT'S MEANT.' And, then I have to start singing after that with tears in my eyes, trying not to bust a rib holding in the laughter! Afterward, Johnny explained what had happened: 'After the girls went "awwww," I thought, "Wow, it'll be tough to hear the next few lines," and then when I heard nothing, I thought, "What's wrong with Stephanie? She's supposed to be singing. What the hell is she doing?"' He never realized until Jen started singing that he was the one who had messed up!"

Ann Harada:

"It's funny because I just saw Avenue Q for the first time from the house on Tuesday night, after doing 500-plus shows and then taking my maternity leave, and I was just so excited by how great it was. You don't really know what it looks like when you're in it. And the whole time I was thinking about Johnny leaving the show and how long we've all been together, and I started to cry when he sang his last little 'everything in life is only for now.' Of course, I also cried during 'Fine Fine Line,' but I always do that. I'm sure I will be a mess at his last show. I will miss our onstage moment when Rod goes to Christmas Eve for advice and she comforts him — that is, for me, one of the sweetest parts of the show and a rare tender moment for Christmas Eve, and Johnny has always been so brilliant at investing Rod with vulnerability. That is one of the times that I don't even see Johnny. I just connect with Rod, and it always moves me. Offstage, there's a moment after the Republican joke when Johnny and I always discuss the audience response to that scene as if we were two old pros — I'm Debbie Reynolds and he's Ann Miller, and if it was a good response, he'll do a little layout and say, 'Debbie, we still got it!'"

Jennifer Barnhart:

"A recent off-stage moment that I think sums Johnny's spirit up pretty quickly. It was the holidays, and all of us were feeling the crunch of doing too many extracurricular activities, both for Avenue Q and elsewhere. Everyone was stressed out, behind in their own holiday preparations, and I, for one, was not feeling much in the holiday spirit. Here it was, a few days before Christmas Eve, and I hadn't done any cards yet, I didn't have a tree up, and I knew I was going to run out of time. I know that several other company members felt the same stress. The Sunday before Christmas, when I walked into the theatre and began the trek upstairs to the dressing rooms, I found that the banister had been strung with Christmas lights, there was garland and snow and more lights up on the first floor. The place was transformed! It was the cheeriest holiday sight I'd seen, and I couldn't imagine who had decorated the place with such care. I found out that it was Johnny, and I wasn't surprised. It's the kind of thing he'd do. He'd gone in early that morning, on a two-show day, having done a two-show day the day before, and shown us all a little holiday love. I know it certainly lifted my spirits. Johnny was always there with a smile, a hug, a joke and boundless energy. I am so proud to have worked alongside him on this amazing show. While I am happy that he's moving on to a new phase in his career and wish him the best, I will miss him at Avenue Q."

Next week: A chat with Tony Award winner Faith Prince, who is currently touring with Tom Wopat in Over the Rainbow: A Concert Celebrating a Century of Harold Arlen.

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

John Tartaglia with (l.-r.) Ann Harada, Jennifer Barnhart and Stephanie D'Abruzzo
John Tartaglia with (l.-r.) Ann Harada, Jennifer Barnhart and Stephanie D'Abruzzo Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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