I've always maintained that Patti LuPone was my first — diva, that is. I discovered Evita and LuPone when I was 11, but this week I realized there was one other actress, though a non-musical-theatre-one, that I was a fan of before LuPone, Katherine Helmond. I was only nine when "Soap" began airing, but I was immediately drawn to the show's wacky comedy and the terrific cast led by Texas native Helmond, who played the lovable, if somewhat ditzy Jessica Tate. I'm sure I didn't quite understand everything that happened on the then-controversial show (I still remember asking my mom what a "fagalah" was), but I remained a fan throughout its entire run, never missing an episode. Helmond went on to have other TV successes, most notably playing Mona Robinson during the eight-year run of "Who's the Boss?" The actress has also played Broadway, making her debut in 1969's Private Lives and later earning a Tony nomination for her performance in Eugene O'Neill's Great God Brown. Her other stage work includes roles in Sarah in America, Quartermaine's Terms, The Madwoman of Chaillot, 'Night Mother and Steel Magnolias. Now, the Golden Globe-winning Helmond will bring her formidable talents to a work by Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel, The Oldest Profession, which begins previews at the Signature Theatre later this month. Helmond plays feisty madam Mae in the drama, which concerns five aging prostitutes — Marylouise Burke, Anita Gillette, Carlin Glynn and Joyce Van Patten — trying to survive in the world's oldest profession. Earlier this week I had the true pleasure of chatting with Helmond; that interview follows:
Question: How are rehearsals going for The Oldest Profession?
KH: Our gang is just wonderful! That's the nicest thing that you can ask for is when your whole unit is pleasant and hard-working and they don't bring outside problems to work. It's a play that's not been done before, so quite naturally that creates a lot of stopping and starting, questioning and trying to justify and have things explained. The actresses are full of questions in the beginning of a new play, so it's been going slowly but steadily. We're steadily moving forward. It's particularly difficult for the director when you have five people onstage for long, long stretches, almost the entirety of the play — to move them around. We're five ladies sitting on a bench, and so to try to get some movement and activity in that and have it justified so you don't just suddenly stand up and walk around for the heck of it. It takes a lot of going back over it and redoing and finding just the right place to rise and move. All that's by way of saying it's a slow process, but it is steady, and we have a terrific group of actors, and our director [David Esbjornson] has just been absolutely wonderful.
Can you imagine facing five ladies every day all day long full of questions? [Laughs.] It's a handful, but he's incredibly patient, and he's a person who can think very logically for each individual character. So, when we get stuck, he's very good about finding justifications, digging into the background. The background in a play, for the individual characters, is not necessarily on the written page, but . . . it's a subtext or a sublife that you carry with you. And you hope, through some kind of osmosis, that the audience sees all of that. [Laughs.] If they don't, at least you have it snugged away inside. Because in life we are all a piece of what we've been all our lives, from the time you were a kid up. We carry around [so much] in us. Not everybody sees it on the street or when you say hello. [Laughs.] But it makes us who we are. Q: How did you get involved with this production?
KH: My agent here, in New York, had had this play submitted. I think it was submitted to several agents, looking for older actresses that had had quite a lot of experience so that they can bring to the piece a kind of third dimension. I guess the several agents looked in their stable and said, "Oh, I think a part in this play would be good for this actress or that actress." And, then they sent a notice to my manager in California and said this was an interesting piece with an excellent theatre, the Signature Theatre, which is totally devoted to the writer, and is unique in that way. Also, a good director had taken it on, and they thought it was going to be an interesting piece because it was written by Paula Vogel. And the whole of this season will be devoted to her work. This particular one has not been done in New York, so we're starting the season with the unknown. [Laughs.] Then, my manager said it sounds like a special group, and they sent the script, and we read it and we thought that it would be a very interesting piece to do.
Q: I've heard that all the women in the show have a song or a number.
KH: Oh yeah! [Laughs.] . . . In this piece there are what's called interludes. Each one of the women sings or performs to some degree some kind of song. And the song reflects in many ways their characters, prior to this particular time. So, we each have a different kind of song, representing a different piece of the person's personality. We're also struggling with that. [Laughs.]
Q: Have you ever sung before onstage?
KH: I have done musicals, but I'm an actor that I hope can put over a song. But I would not say I am a singer, and I certainly don't read music, so it's got to be learned by rote. We have a wonderful fellow that plays piano for us. Poor thing has the boring aspect of it in that he has to sit there and sort of plunk it out, one note at a time. [Laughs.] I feel sorry for him because he's a wonderful pianist and so totally musical.
Q: Do the interludes have titles?
KH: Yes, every one has a title, and it's a reflection into their characters. They will all be done in a kind of different style. My song is called "The Fix-It Man."
Q: You mentioned the women you're working with in this play. Have you worked with any of them before?
KH: I worked with Joyce Van Patten before. As a matter of fact, she and I do quite a lot of readings of new material. Since it's so expensive to mount a play of any kind now, Joyce and I usually are called in to read plays — especially in California, where it's not exactly known as a theatre town. Here in New York you can always put together half-a-dozen actors who are quite willing to do it. But in L.A., we feel that the writers don't get enough opportunity to get in and work their material. So, actors who have been around a long time and have done summer stock and rep theatre, we volunteer so that the writer can sit with us and hear what we can bring to it. It's not memorized, it's read, but we usually do have a few rehearsals and a talk-through with the director, and we try to bring some kind of vitality to it. We sort of play up to pace and bring as much of our own humor to it or our own understanding to it, and at least it gives the writer a shot at just hearing it. And then there's usually a great discussion afterwards — where things they feel are off or where pieces could be lifted out. And that is really invaluable when you hear those comments.
Q: Switching gears a bit. I think I was nine when "Soap" first started airing, and it was my favorite show on television.
KH: And your parents let you watch it?! [Laughs.] It was supposed to be so shocking at the time. Now it seems almost quaint, doesn't it?
Q: It does in a way, although it's still very funny.
KH: I'll tell you why that it is. It was character development and storylines. Instead of relying on jokes or what was currently considered funny, it just stuck to the characters, the character relationships in the families and putting those people in a situation that brought out the madness of them.
Q: Was it an enjoyable experience?
KH: It was terrific. I think it was one of the best written shows on television. I don't now see any comedy to compare to it. It was farce also, which is not something that American writers go into very much. French and British writers have had that in their history, in their background, forever. But American comedy is a little more flat-footed, and for ["Soap" creator Susan Harris] to attempt to go into farce was very brave, and I thought she really succeeded — it came off wonderfully well. And, not to pat myself on the back, I thought it was an exceptional group of actors.
Q: Do you keep up with any of your co-stars?
KH: Oh, yes, absolutely. The fellow that played my husband, Robert Mandan, we are very good friends. We see each other a lot. And one of my best friends out of that show was Robert Guillaume, so I see him a lot, and we talk on the phone a lot.
Q: Did you get a chance to see Jay Johnson's show, The Two and Only, Off-Broadway?
KH: I did. I saw it in California. We went to this tiny little theatre, and the whole gang of "Soap" was there, cheering him on. That's a very clever show. What he did with his background and those — he doesn't like to call them dummies, he calls them his friends — was amazing. We benefited tremendously by it on "Soap." I have to tell you something quite charming, it's so like Jay. When we read the "Soap" scripts on Monday, he took his little friend out of the case, sat him on his lap and Bob [the dummy] read along with us with his head turning and his eyes turning and making little comments and laughing. If it was a funny joke — "ah ha ha ha" — and if it was a joke that didn't come off — "oh boy, oh boy." It was wonderful for us as actors because it added a kind of energy and fun to the reading. Also, we were very lucky in that when the ladies went off [the set] to change, he went into the audience with Bob and made jokes with the audience. And that entertained the audience, and when we came back on, they were still at a high level, and so that helped us tremendously. And, then he tried out material with them, which was a little bit more blue than our show was. He tried out his nightclub act, and so we came back on after changing clothes, the audience was really in a great mood. We also had the advantage of having Billy Crystal. He was, of course, a stand-up comic for quite a long time, and when the women took a long time to dress in between [scenes], he would go out and try his jokes on the audience, too.
Q: Any other projects in the works for you?
KH: I'm also presently working and have been for all through the years, from the beginning of "Everybody Loves Raymond." I play her mother. I will actually be doing a show in October. This is their last year, so I do that two-three-four times a year when it's a big family show, the Thanksgiving show, the Christmas show, when they drag the whole family in [Laughs.] That's been a terrific experience. They're a marvelous group, very funny and quite hard working, and the writer/creator I worked with on "Coach" before, so that was nice. And, a lot of the guest stars I've worked with before, so it's really like going in and seeing a little family when you're there. I've been very, very fortunate in that I have worked on shows where the casts were quite wonderful and also fun to work with. . . I was very lucky with "Soap" and "Who's the Boss," which was great fun, and then went on "Coach" and "Everybody Loves Raymond." I've been truly blessed, and the work has all been fun and a joy.
Q: One final question. When people hear the name Katherine Helmond, what would you like to think?
KH: I would like for them to think that's a decent person who does a good job.
Isabel Rose, who starred Off-Broadway in Beau Jest and in the film "Anything But Love," will bring her concert act to the 92nd Street Y's Makor Aug. 12 at 8 PM. Rose, a Williamstown regular who has appeared there in productions of Forum, Threepenny Opera and Marat Sade, will offer a mix of pop, theatre and jazz tunes at her one-night-only concert. Attendees can expect to hear such songs as "It's a Lovely Day Today," "Love Me or Leave Me," "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," "You're Gonna Hear From Me," "Love Will Keep Us Together" and "Hot Stuff." I recently had the chance to chat with Rose; that brief exchange follows:
Question: There are so many aspects to your career — actress, singer, writer and, now, cabaret performer. Tell me a little about your venture into the cabaret world.
Isabel Rose: Well, let me first clear something up — I'm not a cabaret performer. While I enjoy cabaret, it's not my aspiration. I'm a different breed. I like noise, pizzazz, sequins! I like pop, jazz, standards, blues all in the same playlist. I'm a showgirl. I'm a chick singer. I'm first cousins as a performer to Ann-Margret, Nancy Sinatra and Bette Midler with a touch of Doris Day and Peggy Lee thrown in. I sing with an eight-piece band — piano, bass, drums, guitar, percussion, trumpet, sax and trombone. It's a blast. I also have two back-up singers and use them when I feel the arrangement needs it. I'm not aiming for the Algonquin, although I'm sure I could put on a fine show there. I'm hoping they'll book me at the Copa. I'm hoping the Stork Club will make a revival on my behalf. I'm aiming for Radio City with a troupe of back-up dancers. But as far as my "venture" into the performing world goes, I consider it a natural extension of my creative life. I've always wanted to do this. It just took me a while to realize that I didn't have to do cabaret and I could do my own thing. So that's what I'm up to. People are responding, so I'm going to keep on doing it. It brings me tremendous joy, which, at the end of the day, is my ultimate goal.
Q: How do you go about choosing songs for your show? Does your musical director make suggestions or do you primarily pick the tunes?
IR: I primarily pick the tunes, although I'm always open to suggestions. Jeff Klitz, my musical director, has introduced me to some songs, and I'm singing some of his original material, too. And Carl Andress, my director, makes suggestions. But I'm a pretty opinionated person, and I have very strong convictions about which songs I want to do and why. I usually pick the tunes, but Jeff and I work closely together on how we reinterpret them. Jeff and I really balance each other out. I'm coming from a musical theatre/cabaret background, and he's a real jazz cat. Somehow we've found a great middle ground.
Q: Do you have any other projects in the works?
IR: I'm spending most of my time right now perfecting the manuscript of "The J.A.P. Chronicles," which is due at Doubleday any minute now. It's coming out next spring. As soon as it's in, I'll start my second book for them since I signed a two-book deal. Plus, I'm doing a run at Judy's in November. I always have TV and film stuff in the works. Plus, an album I wrote for kids that I want to get some big stars to record — like P. Diddy and Missy Elliot and Madonna and the like. The list is long of all the projects I have on the back-burner. I just need to pray for a long life!
[Tickets for Rose's concert, The Single Life, are priced at $12 and can be purchased by visiting www.92y.org or by calling (212) 415-5500. Makor is located in Manhattan at 35 West 67th Street.]
I had a great time watching the promotional copy of Broadway's Lost Treasures II, which was sent to me early last week. The one-hour program, which will debut on PBS stations across the country Aug. 9 (WNET premieres the show at 8 PM ET), features 12 wonderful production numbers from past Tony telecasts. Divided into three sections — "The Leads," "Revivals and Record Breakers" and "All Singing! All Dancing!" — the hosts include Lauren Bacall, Bebe Neuwirth, Jerry Orbach and Brian Stokes Mitchell. Patti LuPone and the company of Anything Goes kick off the program with LuPone's belty, high-energy version of the Cole Porter title tune. LuPone is in terrific voice and was a perfect choice to start this terrific hour of show-stoppers. Other high points: Angela Lansbury and Bea Arthur revisiting their Mame duet, "Bosom Buddies"; George Hearn's powerful declaration of "I Am What I Am" from the Tony-winning La Cage aux Folles; the powerful first-act finale of Les Misérables, "One Day More," featuring such theatre favorites as Colm Wilkinson, Judy Kuhn and Frances Ruffelle; the talented stars of Ain't Misbehavin' — led by the late Nell Carter — on "The Ladies Who Sing"; Walter Bobbie and the cast of the Guys and Dolls revival belting out "Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat"; and thrilling performances by two stars now gone — Michael Jeter in Grand Hotel's "We'll Take a Glass Together" and Gregory Hines in Jelly's Last Jam's "That's How You Jam."
What a pleasure to catch Stephanie Block's Manhattan solo concert debut this past Monday night at Birdland. Block, who stars opposite Hugh Jackman in The Boy From Oz, is a good Liza but demonstrated that she's an even better Stephanie Block. Possessing a rangy, powerful Broadway belt that has a sweet, vibrato-filled middle range, Block offered an eclectic mix of tunes that started with an upbeat "The Sweetest Sounds." Among the high points of the 70-minute program were a terrific, toe-tapping medley of Petula Clark hits; a comedic number, "The Dieter's Prayer"; a self penned specialty number about Block's performing life thus far; Peter Allen's beautiful "I Could've Been a Sailor"; and two songs from Stephen Schwartz's Wicked. It was on the Wicked tunes where Block shone most brightly, proving her case for an Elphaba replacement somewhere down the line. Block, who stoodby for the role during Wicked's out-of-town San Francisco tryout, performed both the touching ballad "I'm Not That Girl" and the first-act finale, "Defying Gravity." She brought a tenderness to the former and a ferocity to the latter. She also scored with an impromptu encore, "He Touched Me." Though I would have rather heard a few more musical-theatre tunes and a few less jazz arrangements, overall it was a triumphant cabaret debut for this new gal on the Block.
I was also completely delighted by those multi-talented Avenue Q folk — Stephanie D'Abruzzo, Jennifer Barnhart and John Tartaglia — who went Empty-Handed for a third time Sunday night at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. The threesome, performing without their puppet friends, offered a mix of comedic and dramatic songs, many from the musical theatre. The Qers opened with a send-up of A Chorus Line's "Who Am I Anyway," featuring the actors holding photos of their puppet alter-egos: "Who am I anyway?/My puppet protege/The funny faces, funny voices that we throw./Tonight we're going to be/Jen, John and Stephanie/If you came expecting puppets, you should go./We hope you'll stay, and please enjoy our show." They followed with a terrific rewrite of the Harry Belafonte signature "Day-O" — entitled "Day-Off" — that gently poked fun at the numerous benefits and concerts they have taken part in on their one day off a week. The puppet-free evening then allowed D'Abruzzo, Barnhart and Tartaglia to shine individually: D'Abruzzo scored with belty renditions of Chess's "Where I Want to Be" and the tongue-twisting "If" as well as the comedic number penned by Q musical director Gary Adler, "If I Weren't Married. . ."; Barnhart also did well with two humorous songs, "Let's Talk Dirty in Hawaiian" (featuring a surprise appearance by Ann Harada) and "Drinking for Two"; and Tartaglia brought his charm and vocal stylings to William Finn's "I'd Rather Be Sailing," Stephen Schwartz's "The Spark of Creation" and what was the most touching offering of the night, Heisler and Goldrich's "Taylor, the Latte Boy." The threesome also reteamed for Avenue Q's 11 o'clock number "I Wish I Could Go Back to College" as well as "Make Your Own Kind of Music" and a terrific encore of "Time Warp." Mixing comedy, song and great talent, the Alan Muraoka-directed evening had a feel of the wonderful TV variety shows of days gone by. Bravo.
Next week: A Chat with Maureen McGovern, who is Broadway-bound in Little Women, which will co-star Tony winner Sutton Foster. McGovern will begin a two-week stint at Manhattan's Le Jazz Au Bar, Aug. 11. The new jazz club is located at 41 East 58th Street; call (212) 308-9455 for reservations. McGovern is calling her newest show, "Sultry Songs on a Hot Summer's Night."