Anyone alive in the U.S. in 1977 at some point and time heard Debby Boone belt out the Academy Award-winning song "You Light Up My Life." It was that rare phenomenon, a national hit song that bridged all age groups and musical tastes. Boone was everywhere in the year or so that followed the release of the song and movie of the same name: on the Grammys, the Academy Awards, countless talk shows and even the Battle of the Network Stars. The pop ballad, which featured Boone's lush vocals, even earned the singer a Grammy Award for Best New Artist.
Since that heady time, the daughter of Pat and Shirley Boone has appeared in films and television movies, recorded several albums and even made two Broadway appearances — in the short-lived musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and as Rizzo in the most recent revival of the audience favorite Grease! Her stage work, however, extends well beyond her Broadway gigs: Boone has appeared in productions of Meet Me in St. Louis and The King and I, and she also starred as Maria in Lincoln Center's 30th anniversary production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music.
Now, the talented performer is set to conquer another performing venue, the intimate confines of a cabaret. In fact, Boone makes her cabaret debut this month at New York's Feinstein's at the Regency. From May 10-21 the singer-actress will offer Reflections of Rosemary, a personal tribute to her late mother-in-law and the grandmother of her four children, Rosemary Clooney. The engagement — directed by Richard Jay-Alexander — will feature many songs from her first recording on the Concord Records label, which is also titled "Reflections of Rosemary" and includes Boone's renditions of "Blue Skies," "The Best Is Yet to Come," "It Might As Well Be Spring," "The Music That Makes Me Dance" and "Time After Time," among others.
I recently had the chance to chat with the charming Boone, who sprinkles her conversation with much laughter. The singer-actress admitted that she's a bit nervous about her cabaret debut — "I've lay awake a few nights" — but she is mostly "excited and thrilled" about this new facet of her career. My interview with Boone follows. Q: How did the idea of this show come about?
Boone: The show stems from the new CD — Allen Svirdoff, who had been Rosemary's manager and producer for 20-something years, [and I] had been talking at length about what kind of record I might want to make for Concord. Concord was interested, but they didn't know what the first project should be. We'd been batting that idea around for a couple of years, and it really wasn't until Rosemary's tribute, which was about six months after she died.
There was a benefit concert at the Beverly Hilton Hotel to raise money for a foundation [Rosemary] had established for lung cancer research at the Mayo Clinic. Everybody was invited, and everybody accepted to be at this special event to honor her — Tony Bennett, k.d. lang, Michael Feinstein, Diana Krall, Linda Rondstadt, Keely Smith, Mimi Hines. Everybody came out because everybody loved her so much, and I was supposed to be on the line-up that night to sing. It was this strange sort of conflict of feelings and emotion: "I'm up there with the cream of the crop, and what do I want to do to honor her and that's true to me and will hold its own?" It's almost shameful in a way when you're doing a tribute to somebody that you love [and] you're thinking how [you are] going to come off, but that's show business. [Laughs.]
I was really struggling trying to think what to sing. I was sitting, literally, in my closet, which is where I read in the morning and have my spiritual centering time, and I was thinking about Rosemary and missing her terribly, and I suddenly remembered that I had saved for many, many years a cassette recording that she made for my son Jordan when he was just a baby, a toddler. . .
She used to sing him the song "Blue Skies" and would call him from the road if she wasn't around for a long time, and he would immediately just beam with delight when he'd hear her singing over the phone. So, she finally made a little cassette recording of it for him, so he would always have her singing it whenever he wanted it. She just sang it a cappella into a little hand-held cassette recorder and gave it to him. When I was remembering it, it was like I could hear her singing those words, and suddenly they took on an entirely different meaning to me because it was like she was singing right out of heaven. It sounds sort of sappy, but it happened, and it was so powerful for me and comforting to me, and I knew that that was the song that I would sing [at the tribute]. And, in telling that story, Allen went to Concord and said, "Since Bette [Midler] already did the [Rosemary] hits [recording] — which was great and appropriate — why doesn't Debby do a much more personal recording of songs that tell stories about who Rosemary was . . . and who she was to [Debby]?"
Q: Rosemary Clooney recorded so many songs. What was the process like going through her repertoire and picking the ones you would record?
Boone: People that knew I had inherited all of Rosemary's arrangements, I think they expected that the album would be an album of her arrangements, but we specifically did not want to do that on the first go 'round. I'm delighted to have those arrangements, and I used a few adapted arrangements on the CD and I will be using some others in my show, but because we wanted it to be personal and my interpretation, we really didn't want to go headlong into things that people identified so strongly with her.
That wasn't the object of this particular project, so it was about picking songs that we felt had interesting stories to tell — via the liner notes — about her, about family, inside stories. [For example], she rarely, if ever, vocalized before a show — the difference between how I approach [vocal warm-ups] and how she approached them. That story was for [the track] "The Best Is Yet to Come," [which features] John Oddo's brilliant new arrangement. The extent of her warmup was "ba-da, ba-da, ba-da," and then she'd cough and head onto the stage, and that was it! And, I'd be in there for 45 minutes with a vocal warm-up tape [Laughs.] It's those kind of little anecdotal stories or really touching stories, and we'd pick the songs to go with them whether she ever sang them in her life or not.
Q: Are the songs in your upcoming cabaret show the same as the ones on the album?
Boone: We'll do a lot from the album, but we'll also be doing some of her arrangements added in there. I think there will be some surprises for people. Even the way it's developing as I work with [director] Richard [Jay Alexander], which has been fabulous. [Laughs.] Oh my God, it's a whole new world for me!
Q: In what way?
Boone: First of all, he has the most interesting ideas. And, he has this amazing ability to humiliate you and encourage you at the same time. [Laughs.] It's wild. I've just never been through something like this where he busts me for little habits that don't serve me, and he'll mime them back to me, and I'll go, "Oh my God, that's what I'm doing? That's what I look like!" [Laughs.] And then he'll go, "Well, let go of that, you don't need that. Do this." And then you do what he's asking you to do, even if it feels awkward, and you find this whole new comfort level, and he's so supportive. He's building me up as he tears down the stuff I don't need anymore. I'm finding it just exhilarating.
Q: What do you think made Rosemary Clooney so special as a singer?
Boone: I really think that she knew very intuitively how to make a song her own expression without losing the integrity of the song. In my liner notes — because I think you just can't say it better — [I mention that] she received an ASCAP Award, and on the plaque it said, "The best friend a song ever had." I think she made friends with these songs . . . [there was] such a perfect connection of her taking the song into herself so that when she sang it, it was so honest and from the core of who she was that it communicated to other people where they live, because we all have the same feelings, hurts. . . We all have such common ways to identify with each other, and I think when you approach music in that organic way, it's almost indescribable how it connects human to human and heart to heart.
Q: I wanted to touch a little bit on your Broadway experiences in Seven Brides and Grease! and was wondering if you'd like to return to Broadway.
Boone: From your mouth to God's ears. [Laughs.] I loved it, and . . . I also did the 30th anniversary of Sound of Music at Lincoln Center, and that felt like Broadway because I was in New York — that was actually the most thrilling of my New York theatre experiences. To be at Lincoln Center with the New York City Opera [company] as the nuns [laughs], it was just amazing, and it was a beautiful production. Doing Seven Brides I made the best friends of my life traveling around the country for a year before we came in and died a quick death. But that's when I knew that musical theatre would be something I would want to do for the rest of my life. It was just joyful. To me, working with a company is just so satisfying. It's different every night because there are so many variables with the different people. Somebody will play their part slightly differently and you respond slightly differently, and you never know what's going to unfold in the evening as you tell your story. And the fun afterwards! [Laughs.] It's just great. I've gotten along with every company I've ever worked with and made great, great friends forever.
Q: Do you have a favorite role?
Boone: So far, the best role for me was here on the West Coast doing The King and I. I only got to do that for about five or six weeks, and that wasn't enough. . . It's such a well-written show. There are so many dimensions to [Anna's] character, and for me, I think one of the reasons I really loved it is that every other show that I've done I've been playing so young, and so [there was the] depth of being able to really hit the stage as a woman instead of [as] Maria or Rizzo.
Q: I also wanted to discuss "You Light Up My Life." I remember I was a kid when that song came out. Looking back at that phenomenon, how do you remember it?
Boone: You know, it was Mr. Toad's Wild Ride! It really was. [Laughs.] I was asked to do the song, and I flew to New York so excited, thinking, "This is the beginning of the long, hard climb. I'm finally doing, literally, my first solo recording." I didn't have any idea, not an inkling, that it would be successful. I just liked it, went into the studio, did my best and walked out really not expecting much. I knew it was from a movie, so I figured at least people will hear it as they advertise the movie. But I just had no idea. I was out on the road with my family — doing the "Pat Boone Family Show" — and ["You Light Up My Life"] hit the charts, and it started ascending quickly. We put it in the show, and every week it got more and more exciting. And, suddenly, it's number one, and then it's number one for ten weeks, and I'm pinching myself going, "Is this true? Am I dreaming? Am I going to wake up from this?" For two years I felt like that because it was just a whirlwind of this variety show and that guest appearance and Academy Awards and Grammys, and I'd only ever had the experience of singing with my three sisters! So, it was scary and exciting and wonderful. It was just an amazing experience.
Q: I was trying to think this morning whether that kind of hit is possible today, where every person in the country heard and knew the song. That kind of hit doesn't happen so much anymore.
Boone: It doesn't seem to, and this was really one of those phenomenons, which, as I said, was Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. On the way down, it was pretty frightening, too. "Hold your breath, here we go." You're going to go long and hard down because there's no way to recover from something like that. Anything you put out after that cannot be as good, so you're already losing ground — and rapidly. [Laughs.] So that was an adjustment because you think when it's that successful that your next thing is going to be successful. And my next many things were not successful. It was a rough adjustment, but then, when it got quiet again, I was able to get the kind of experience I needed. I started my career feeling secretly apologetic, "Are they going to figure out I have no earthly idea what I'm doing here?" And that, I think, is what makes right now so exciting, that I don't have that feeling anymore. I've had so much work. Even though I'm raising my four kids, and I haven't had the kind of career some career strategist [might suggest], I've done theatre, I've written books, I've done some acting in film and TV and traveled all over with theatre and concerts, recorded a lot of albums, worked with Rosemary for many years, so now I have weight to what I do. It's grounding me. I'm not feeling like I'm dangling on the edge of a cliff.
Q: Do you have any other projects in the works?
Boone: Well, we're building on this [CD and show]. I'm so excited to be doing something that I have never done, which is cabaret. I think that I'm going to be crazy about this much more up-close-and-personal way to sing my songs, not up on a big stage where I don't see anybody but right in the middle of people singing these kinds of songs. So I want to do that a lot more, and I am hoping and believing this album will lead to the next album.
Q: One last question: What do you think Rosemary Clooney would have thought about this show?
Boone: It's always awkward to put words in somebody else's mouth, so I won't put words in her mouth, but I know that she would be incredibly moved at the depth of this. . . This is so personally directed toward letting people know what an incredible woman, what an incredible singer and incredible mother-in-law and grandmother Rosemary was and how grateful we all are [to her], and that is in every song that I sing on that CD. I think she'd be very, very moved, and I know she'd be proud of the musicianship of it, what John [Oddo] and the guys did. The tracks are phenomenal, and I think she'd be really proud of what I did, too.
[Debby Boone plays Feinstein's at the Regency (540 Park Avenue) May 10 21. Show times are Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8:30 PM with late shows Friday and Saturday evenings at 11 PM. All shows have a $60 cover charge and a $40 minimum; call (212) 339-4095 for reservations.]
As plans continue for the upcoming Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd, another production of the Stephen Sondheim musical has been announced with an equally high-profile cast. Tony Award winners Betty Buckley and Shuler Hensley will play, respectively, the pie-baking Mrs. Lovett and the knife-wielding Sweeney Todd in a production of the award-winning musical in Odessa, TX. Jonathan Tunick will conduct the orchestra for the July Sweeney Todd engagement at the Ector Theater; Tony Georges directs. Sweeney Todd replaces the previously announced Little Shop of Horrors and will play the Ector July 7-24. The Ector season also features Beauty and the Beast (June 2-19), Bernadette Peters in concert (Aug. 5) and Gypsy (Aug. 11-28). The latter will star Olivier Award winner Maria Friedman as Momma Rose. For tickets or more information call (432) 337-9595.
Original Little Shop of Horrors star Ellen Greene will make her eagerly awaited London concert debut next month. Greene and Christian Klikovits will present a week of Torch! songs at London's New Players Theatre, June 18-27. Greene will offer preview performances June 18 at 9:45 PM and June 19 at 8 PM before her official opening 8 PM on June 20. She and musical director/pianist/arranger Klikovits will then play June 22-25 at 9:45 PM and June 26 and 27 at 8 PM. Concertgoers can expect to hear tunes from Greene's critically acclaimed debut solo recording, "In His Eyes," which features such songs as "Pretty Pretty," "Winter," "When Love Is Gone" and "Throwing Stones." The actress- singer — backed by piano, bass and cello — will also perform her signature tunes from Little Shop of Horrors, "Suddenly Seymour" and "Somewhere That's Green." The New Players Theatre is located in London at the Arches, Villiers Street. Reservations can be made by calling 0870 033 2626.
Stephanie D'Abruzzo, the Tony-nominated star of Avenue Q, will cross Eighth Avenue to make her solo cabaret debut May 23 at Birdland. Part of Jim Caruso's "New Season," D'Abruzzo will present her program at 7 PM. Alan Muraoko is set to direct the evening, which will feature musical direction by Altar Boyz co-composer Michael Patrick Walker. Cabaretgoers can expect to hear tunes by Cy Coleman, Burt Bacharach, Neil Sedaka, Phoebe Kreutz, Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker. Birdland is located in Manhattan at 315 West 44th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. There is a $25 cover charge and a $10 food/drink minimum; call (212) 581-3080 for reservations or visit www.instantseats.com/birdland.
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to email@example.com.