DIVA TALK: Chatting with Annie's Kathie Lee Gifford Plus Buckley, Ebersole and O'Hara's Return

DIVA TALK: Chatting with Annie's Kathie Lee Gifford Plus Buckley, Ebersole and O'Hara's Return News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Kathie Lee Gifford
Kathie Lee Gifford

KATHIE LEE GIFFORD
"I'm stunned that I'm even performing again," singer-actress-composer Kathie Lee Gifford said by phone last week from her home in Connecticut. "I thought [that] was really a closed chapter in my life only because I'm loving the writing [of musicals] so much." Gifford has, however, opened that chapter, if only briefly, for a limited engagement as the child-hating, scheming Miss Hannigan in the Manhattan stop of the tour of the Tony-winning musical Annie, now playing a limited engagement at The Theater at Madison Square Garden through Dec. 30.

Annie lyricist Martin Charnin, who is also the director of the current production, had asked Gifford to play Hannigan for a previous incarnation of Annie a decade earlier. "That was the second time I turned down a wonderful opportunity," Gifford explains, "because my daughter was little. The other time was when Julie Andrews and Blake Edwards had asked me to do Victor/Victoria. I remember telling Julie, 'Julie, you know what, my daughter is one year old, and she will never be that [age] again, and I can't believe I'm saying no to Mary Poppins!' But she was so great, which is not surprising. She said, 'Kathie, I had to make those same choices when my kids were little. You'll never, ever be sorry that you put them first.'"

Now, a decade later, Gifford has agreed to step into the shoes of Miss Hannigan, the role created on Broadway to Tony-winning effect by Dorothy Loudon and later played on the silver screen by Carol Burnett and on the small screen by Kathy Bates. "Could you ask for bigger footsteps to have to step into? It just makes my neck hurt to think about it!," Gifford laughs. "But what I realized before stepping into Putting It Together" — Gifford played Tuesday nights in that Sondheim revue, allowing Carol Burnett an additional night of rest — "is that you just can't think about the role that way. You have to try to bring something unique and different to it. Miss Hannigan has been done a thousand times, so I just want to try and bring my particular neurotic bent to her, and hopefully the audiences will enjoy it."

The real challenge, says Gifford, has been joining a company that has been performing the show since May. "By the time [I] open [she began performances Dec. 6], I will have had only seven rehearsals with the cast in four separate cities, and I don't even get a dress rehearsal. Tuesday night we'll run my scenes with orchestra and tech and then I'm in! . . . [But] I love Annie. I loved it 30 years ago, [and] I think in a weird way it's even more timely now. The story of a little orphan in 1933 and her message of hope is every bit as timely now." And, she adds, "The little girl who plays Annie is absolutely spectacular. They're comparing her to the original, Andrea McArdle, who was, of course, brilliant in it. . . . [Our Annie] is a little Westchester girl named Marissa O'Donnell."

Gifford says that a friend recently asked her, "Aren't you sick to death of people singing, 'The sun'll come out tomorrow. . . '?" "You know what," Gifford confesses, "[I am sick of] the wrong people singing it, absolutely, but when a little 11-year-old girl who is an orphan in 1933 sings it with a dog that she’s just made friends with on the streets of Depression-[era] New York at Christmastime — no, I’m not tired of that at all. That I could experience over and over and over again. I think that’s the magic of Annie." When asked whether she's relishing the chance to play a nasty character, the former TV talk-show host says, "Every actress will tell you it's a lot more fun to play a villain, but the easy thing to do would be to play her as a one-note nasty human being. And that's, I think, a disservice to not only the role but to our audiences. Nobody's born like Miss Hannigan. She becomes like that, so what I'm trying to do, as an actress, is find why she went from being a precious baby — which every baby is — to this incredibly disappointed, nasty woman who takes [her frustrations] out on the less fortunate. . . . I believe she's a woman who had big dreams like every little girl does — and none of her dreams came true. And when she finds out that Annie, of all people, her little nemesis at the orphanage, is [having] all of her dreams come true, it's almost more than she can bear. It's what sets her over the edge. But [Miss Hannigan] had a rotten mother. When she and Rooster sing 'Easy Street,' they're describing their upbringing — a woman who told them, 'Go out, get to Easy Street, no matter who you hurt, no matter who you rape and pillage along the way.'"

When talking to Gifford, one gets the feeling that as much as she enjoys working in front of an audience or a camera, her real passion — aside from her family and family of friends — is her writing. "What I've been experiencing the last seven years," she says, "is having the thrill and the privilege of watching people of the echelon of talent [of Carolee Carmello and Ed Dixon] doing my work."

That work, to date, includes the Off-Broadway musical Under the Bridge, which was based on the Newbury Award-winning book "The Family Under the Bridge," and featured music by David Pomeranz; and Hats!, which features songs by a plethora of noted songwriters and is currently enjoying an extended world-premiere engagement at the New Denver Civic Center.

Gifford's two new writing projects are Saving Aimee, about the evangelist-celebrity Aimee Semple McPherson, which features music by David Pomeranz and David Friedman and will bow at DC's Signature Theatre this spring; and an original musical titled In Canaan's Eyes.

About Saving Aimee — "a true story of a woman who lived and changed the world as she knew it at the time" — Gifford says she has worked hard to remain true to McPherson's legacy: "Of all people to write stories of real people, I'm probably the best person because I know what tabloid journalism can do to one's legacy, and I'm really, really careful to be fair. I think you can take all kinds of dramatic license as long as you're fair. I know how it hurts when people aren't fair, as it's something I've experienced personally more times than I want to recount. Amy's 96-year-old daughter, I'm hoping, will be [at the Signature premiere], along with her 93-year-old son."

Previous readings of Saving Aimee have boasted the talents of Tony Award-winning Grey Gardens star Christine Ebersole — "she was spectacular in it" — and Mamma Mia!'s current leading lady, Carolee Carmello. Although Gifford isn't at liberty to confirm that Carmello will star in the Signature run, she does say, "I can't even imagine it without her in it. . . Oh God, I love that woman!" It was Carmello, in fact, who suggested that the role of McPherson, originally written for two actresses, be played by one. "I didn’t think anyone could play Amy from 17 to 54," says Gifford. "She's in almost every scene, and there's 22 songs, and she sings, I think, 19 of them. And it's a very difficult score. . . . [Carolee] knew the score at that point, and I said, 'Carolee, if you’re crazy enough to sing it, I am crazy enough to go back and rethink the whole thing.' So I think it was three or four years ago I did. I rewrote the whole thing, and it came to life. Her instincts were absolutely right. It's awkward to go from young child to [an adult] . . . but she's such a peerless actress, it just works."

Gifford describes her newest work, In Canaan's Eyes, this way: "[It's] a World War II musical, an ensemble musical. [Under the Bridge and Saving Aimee] are both star-driven musicals, and I just thought it would be so much fun to write something in the vein of Wonderful Town where everybody gets a big song. So it's four love stories simultaneously between two families in World War II. It's a rich industrial family from Chicago and a poor farming family from Ohio, and that was fun because that's the first time I've ever just written from my imagination.

"We're going to do a reading hopefully in January when Annie is done," Gifford adds. "I have it in my mind who I want to cast for it. I may not get the world's greatest names at that point because they're not star [roles], but I think what's missing, as far as I can see in opportunities for regional theatres, is more ensemble pieces where everybody gets to [shine]. Not every community has a brilliant performer who can carry a show, but every community has a bunch of people that are pretty darn good."

"After being in the spotlight for over 40 years," Gifford concludes, "I love putting a fire on and writing all day long into the night at my home here in Connecticut. That, to me, is a little piece of the promised land. But it doesn't come alive, of course, until someone else is saying your words and singing your songs."

[Tickets for Annie can be purchased by visiting the Madison Square Garden box office (Seventh Avenue at 32nd Street), by logging on to www.thegarden.com or by calling (212) 307-7171. For more information about Saving Aimee, visit the Signature Theatre's website at www.sig-online.org.]

DIVA TIDBITS
Jill O'Hara starred on Broadway in two musicals: She made her Main Stem bow in April 1968 as Agnes Nolan in George M! and then created the role of Fran Kubelik later that same year in the original Broadway production of Promises, Promises. O'Hara nabbed a Tony Award nomination for her performance, but it was to be her last Broadway role. The singing actress, however, will make an extremely rare public appearance on Dec. 10 in the holiday fundraiser for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, BroadwayWorld.com on Ice. Richard Jay-Alexander, who is directing the 6:30 PM concert at Joe's Pub, said the evening's title will become perfectly clear to those attending the starry to-do, which will also boast the talents of Michael Arden, Laura Bell Bundy, Natalie Toro, Jill Eikenberry, Michael Tucker, Felicia Finley, Mary Cleere Haran, Lauren Frost, Ruben Flores, Hugh Panaro, Christine Pedi, Craig Schulman, Nikki Renee Daniels, Jason Tam, Kurt Domoney, Josh Walden, The Plaid Tidings (Bobby Randle, Scot Fedderly, Christopher Youngsman and Rodney Peck) and Simply Barbra, aka Steven Brinberg. "Broadway Beat"'s Richie Ridge will narrate the evening, which will feature songs from shows about the holidays, works from musicals that featured holiday songs and productions that opened around holiday time. Concertgoers can expect to hear O'Hara re-create her performance of Fran Kubelik when she sings Promises' "Whoever You Are" as well as Michael Arden's rendition of Joni Mitchell's "River," Hugh Panaro's "I Don't Remember Christmas" and much, much more. Also, Laila Robins — currently on Broadway in Heartbreak House — will offer a special holiday reading. For tickets to the Robert Diamond-produced benefit, with musical direction by Ben Toth, call (212) 967-7555 or visit www.joespub.com.

The 28th Annual Kennedy Center Honors, which were presented Dec. 3 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, will be broadcast on CBS-TV Dec. 26 beginning at 9 PM ET. This year's honorees included award-winning composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, conductor Zubin Mehta, country singer-songwriter Dolly Parton, singer-songwriter Smokey Robinson and film director Steven Spielberg. The Lloyd Webber tribute featured the talents of two Tony Award winners, two actresses currently enjoying the roles of their careers and acclaimed vocalist Josh Groban. Betty Buckley, who won a Tony Award for her performance as Grizabella in Lloyd Webber's Cats, joined Sarah Brightman for a rendition of the Cats anthem "Memory." Elena Roger, the Argentine actress who is currently wowing London audiences in the acclaimed West End revival of Evita, performed a song from that Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical, and Christine Ebersole, who recently opened to raves in Grey Gardens, performed "As If We Never Said Goodbye," the second-act showstopper from Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard. Singer Groban was on hand to perform another Lloyd Webber hit, The Phantom of the Opera's "Music of the Night." Two Wicked Elphabas — Stephanie J. Block and Eden Espinosa — as well as The Light in the Piazza's Matthew Morrison and Two Gentlemen of Verona's Jonelle Allen will take part in An Evening with Andrew Lippa, Dec. 19 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, CA. The concert, which will include Lippa's songs performed by the composer and his special guests, will benefit the California Conservatory of the Arts, a non-profit training ground for aspiring artists. Tickets for An Evening with Andrew Lippa, priced $35-$100, are available by calling (949) 556-2787.

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

Jill O'Hara and Tony Roberts in <i>Promises, Promises</i>
Jill O'Hara and Tony Roberts in Promises, Promises Photo by Martha Swope