DIVA TALK: Chatting with Gypsy's Lenora Nemetz Plus News of LuPone and McDonald

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Gypsy's Lenora Nemetz Plus News of LuPone and McDonald
 
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Lenora Nemetz
Lenora Nemetz

LENORA NEMETZ
Between the City Center and Broadway productions of the current, acclaimed revival of Gypsy, Patti LuPone — who just won her second Tony Award for her thrilling performance as Rose — told me, "I am so happy that Boyd [Gaines] and Laura [Benanti] and, in fact, the entire class [will be transferring to Broadway], minus Nancy Opel, which is sad, but she's replaced by the very brilliant Lenora Nemetz, so I'm really happy about that. Lenora's back on Broadway!" Nemetz and LuPone have been friends since the two appeared in the short-lived 1979 musical Working, and now they are sharing the stage again in the Arthur Laurents-directed revival of the classic showbiz musical at the St. James Theatre. Nemetz, in fact, plays two roles in this Gypsy: the quick-witted secretary Miss Cratchitt in the first act and the equally sarcastic stripper, Mazeppa, who knows a thing or two about trumpets, in the second. The triple threat is equally wonderful in both roles; she's so convincing as each character that most audiences don't realize it's the same actress until they read their Playbills. Earlier this week I had the great pleasure of chatting with the multi-talented performer, whose Broadway resume boasts the original productions of Cabaret and Chicago. Even by phone, I was struck by Nemetz's great spirit, her wonderful sense of humor and her sincere joy about being back on the Broadway stage. And, good news for Nemetz fans: She also hopes to perform her cabaret act — which features some of Bob Fosse's legendary choreography — for New York audiences. My interview with the actress follows.

Question: How did your roles in Gypsy come about?
Lenora Nemetz: My mother passed in December of 2006, and it was quite sudden, so I was really depressed and working in Pittsburgh. A friend of mine called me and said, "You know, they're looking for someone to play Drowsy in The Drowsy Chaperone on the tour. Why don't you come in and audition?" And I said, "Oh, I don't know." And I thought, "Well, you know, I just feel so crappy that maybe I should. Why not?" It was just a terrible time in my life, so I said, "Why not?" I came and auditioned for that. On a Saturday night I went to City Center. Judy Kaye was doing a show there. It was delightful. I opened up my program, and a picture of Patti fell out. It said, "Patti LuPone. Three Weeks Only. Gypsy!" Well, I said to my friend Norman, "If she's playing Momma Rose, I'm playing Mazeppa, and that's all there is to it!" As it turned out, a series of events happened, and I ran into a person who was assisting [choreographer] Bonnie [Walker]. [Casting director] Jay Binder called and said, "We want to see you for this." And, wouldn't you know it, I didn't cut it, and I didn't get The Drowsy Chaperone either! The person who got the City Center job, [Nancy Opel], also got the Drowsy tour. [Laughs.]

And, then all of a sudden, the ironies of life… That's what Arthur [Laurents] said to me, "Ah, the ironies of life. Aren't they wonderful?" [Laughs.] [Nancy Opel] couldn't do [the Broadway transfer because she was doing the Drowsy tour] and Arthur said, "I have my Mazeppa." And that's how it came about. I got a phone call that said, "You've got the job." ...And, boy am I grateful for it because I'm playing Miss Cratchitt and Miss Mazeppa! And who would have thought… If you would have asked me at this time last summer what I would be doing, I would have never said to you I'd be on a Broadway stage every night bumping and blowing a trumpet...

Lenora Nemetz as Miss Cratchitt
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Because you took over in the roles, you were the one new person to join the cast when it went to Broadway. Was that at all difficult?
Nemetz: No, not really. Everybody welcomed me with open arms. The cast is amazing. The girls that I work with, Alison [Fraser] and Marilyn [Caskey], welcomed me with open arms. They were just, and still are, great — my two fellow strippers, I love them dearly. And, of course, Patti, she's been my friend for 30 years. We've known each other since Working. We've always been there for each other, and it's so much fun to be working with her as well. Question: Tell me about working with Arthur Laurents as a director. What was he like to work with?
Nemetz: It was like having a master class every day. If you're lucky enough to have had him touch your life and be a part of it, then you know that you've learned something about the theatre. Arthur makes you really dig deep down inside and find the reality of it all. I'll tell 'ya, a lot of blood, sweat and tears went into these parts. That goes for every character on that stage. The stakes are high for everybody. That's why the show is so brilliant, you know? Working with Arthur is like having a mater class every day, and I am so grateful to have had him touch me and to be a part of my life and my heart. Question: Do you enjoy that you get to play two different characters?
Nemetz: You know what's so much fun? The audience doesn't know that I'm Miss Cratchitt! [Laughs.] It's really fun, they don't know! They don't know that I'm her, and it's great. She was a surprise. I thought I was just coming to play Ms. Mazeppa, and then he was looking for Cratchitt. I read for it, and he gave it to me. I had to work on it. After I got it I thought, "What am I doing? What am I doing?" And then, all of a sudden, it happened. Like I said, he makes you work hard. He makes you work. The stakes are always high, and that's what's so wonderful about working with Arthur Laurents. I wish everybody could work with him. It's really an experience in itself. And I've been lucky because I've worked with the greats.

Question: The last time you were on Broadway was in The Rink in 1984. Talk about the break between The Rink and Gypsy. What were you doing in between?
Nemetz: Well, I was engaged in Pittsburgh. It was like Nathan and Adelaide. I was engaged for 14 years, never got married! But I was engaged, and eventually we realized that the only thing that was keeping us together was that we really didn't like each other. [Laughs.] So that was the end of that.… I did the national tour of Sweet Charity in '87. That was my last time working with Bob [Fosse] and Gwen [Verdon]. I worked with Tommy Tune. I did Bye, Bye, Birdie in '91 and '92. That was a national tour. I replaced Annie Reinking. . . . I did The Pajama Game at Lincoln Center in 1990, and I did a national tour of Cabaret, this last revival. I did a lot of national tours, and I did a lot of shows in Pittsburgh, and some outside of Pittsburgh in different regional theatres, and I taught and kept very busy. I had my own cabaret act, which I hope to do someday here in New York.

Question: You should.
Nemetz: First I have to get settled here. I've only been here for five months. It's crazy coming back to the city. It really is — to get adjusted to it again.

Question: Have you moved back full-time?
Nemetz: Well, I'm here full-time. I'm hoping to stay. What else would I do? [Laughs.] There're no coincidences in this life. There's a reason why I'm here. I'm so grateful to be back on Broadway.

Lenora Nemetz as Mazeppa in Gypsy
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: What's it been like getting back into that eight-performance-a-week routine?
Nemetz: It's exhilarating, you know? It doesn't matter what happens to you in the day. It doesn't matter. When you're there and you're doing the show, that's what it's all about — being an artist onstage and being a part of a great, great show. What did Arthur say about the show? He said it was a history-making show. The show was a part of history, this particular production. Question: I know you had the chance to go on one night as Rose. What was that like?
Nemetz: That was an afternoon, and I had two hours notice, and it was crazy! It was really crazy. But afterwards it was fun, just to reflect on it. I'll tell you what was really cool about that day: When the Overture was playing, I got to watch it from the back of the house dressed as Rose. I wish everybody in the cast could just do that once. Just to watch the orchestra play the Overture, and then to see that scene happen and to be able to walk down the aisle and say, "Sing out, Louise!" It's very empowering. [Laughs.] To say the least. It's really fun. It was very exciting. I had a great time doing it. I really did.

Question: You were in the original production of Chicago and you understudied both Velma and Roxie, right?
Nemetz: Well, I stood by for Gwen, and then I stood by for Gwen and Chita [Rivera] when Bob decided that I was to replace Chita, he gave me the standby for Chita as well. And then when Chita left the show, I replaced her. And one day I played both parts!

Question: Tell me that story. I've heard vaguely about it, but what is the real story?
Nemetz: One afternoon I played Velma Kelly. It was a Wednesday matinee. I played Velma Kelly. It was the first time I had ever done it. Of course, I had played Roxie several times because the show had been running for a year, and in Philadelphia I went on the last week. I did it for a whole week because Gwen had gotten hurt. . . . I played Velma that afternoon, and then at night I had a whole different perspective for Roxie. It added to the character. It was really a freeing experience. It taught me a lot about myself as a performer and so has Gypsy. It's taught me a lot, again, about performing. It's just really [about] trust and, boy, it takes a lot of courage to get there. I look at all the women that I admire in this business, and Patti is definitely at the top of the list. There are so many, like the two gals that I work with, and people like Karen Ziemba. They stuck around and they worked and they work hard, and I admire their courage. It takes a lot of courage to do that, to put yourself out there. . . . But if it's in your blood and it's in your bones and you're born with it, what do you do? You have to do it. But in New York it's tougher than anyplace else. The stakes are always high. All I can say is that I am so grateful to be back working with old friends and new friends… I mean, the production stage manager of our show, Craig Jacobs, was one of the stage managers in Chicago. And, in Cabaret I worked with Bonnie Walker. Bonnie Walker is our choreographer. And Cabaret, not the revival, the original. We're a big family!

Gwen Verdon and Lenora Nemetz in Chicago

Question: Do you have a favorite Broadway experience?
Nemetz: Every one is special to you when you're doing it, but I do think that probably Chicago because it was my first starring role on Broadway and, of course, working with my two idols, Gwen and Chita. And working with them, by the way, and standing by for them at 25, was like going to university. They were the most generous performers I've ever worked with and my favorite dance partners by the way. [Laughs.] They were amazing. Question: What are your memories of working with Fosse?
Nemetz: He was very generous to me as well. He opened doors that other people wouldn't have done. He really did. I'm basically a nobody from Pittsburgh. [Laughs.] I am! It's like Arthur giving me this opportunity, but Bob literally opened a door that nobody would have dared to have done. The producers wouldn't have put me in that part of Velma. They were looking to find a star, and Bob Fosse, fortunately for me, he was the selling point: "Bob Fosse's Chicago." "Bob Fosse's Pippin." He was that big, so he gave me that opportunity, and I'm eternally grateful for that.

Question: When did you start on Broadway? What was your first show?
Nemetz: My first show on Broadway? Cabaret. I played Fritzie the Kit Kat Girl.

Question: How did that come about?
Nemetz: It's funny, everything that's happened has not been just a coincidence. You can see all the signs leading to it. I was meeting someone at the Broadway theatre. This is a long story. You really wanna hear it?

Question: Yes!
Nemetz: It was a Thursday, and I was auditioning all day. First audition I went to was for a revival of Carnival. I got typecast out. Second audition I went to was for Come Summer with Agnes De Mille choreographing, and Ray Bolger was in it. I was 17 years old. I was a kid. I got typecast out. I was doing a show at the Club Bene [in New Jersey] called Gypsy — see, it all ties together, doesn't it? [Laughs.] It was at the Club Bene with this tiny little cast, but Vincent Gardenia was in that cast. He played Herbie, and Bob Fosse's first wife Mary Ann Niles played Tessie.

Question: Who were you playing?
Nemetz: I was playing the rear end of the cow and Agnes! [Laughs.] There were only two chorus girls in it. It was really a small production of it. That was really my first job when I landed in New York out of high school. Anyway, we had a car that we all drove to the club in New Jersey. It happened to be parked in front of my apartment on 85th Street. I had the keys, so I was going to the Cabaret audition to drop off the keys to one of the gals in the show. I got to the stage door and asked the doorman where the ladies room was. He was this old guy. He said, "Just go in there. You can use that bathroom." It was Lotte Lenya's dressing room! So I went in and I used the bathroom. I came out, and the stage manager was there, Ed Aldridge, and he said to me, "What are you doing in the star's dressing room?" And I said, "Well the doorman told me I could use it." I tried to explain myself, and he didn't buy it, so I said, "I'm here to audition." It was an immediate replacement for Cabaret — there were 250 girls there, and he said, "Your number is one, go downstairs, that's where we dress." And I got the job! Isn't that funny? Question: Fate.
Nemetz: It's just the way it's supposed to be. Boy, and I'll never forget that. I came out of that audition. It was my first Broadway show. I went into the theatre around one o'clock, and I came out, and it was getting dark. This was in October. All of the lights were lit on Broadway — that was in 1968, and I felt like Ann Marie in "That Girl." She was real popular on TV at that time. I was very young and very naïve and just flying high because I had gotten my first Broadway show.

Question: And, now, it's full circle — from the Club Bene Gypsy to the Broadway Gypsy.
Nemetz: To the Broadway Gypsy with the master, Arthur Laurents. You don't get better than that!

[Gypsy plays the St. James Theatre, located in Manhattan at 246 West 44th Street. Tickets are available by calling (212) 239-6200 or by visiting www.telecharge.com.]

Gunn and McDonald at the Allegro recording session
photo by Carol Rosegg

DIVA TIDBITS
A starry cast — including Tony Award winners Laura Benanti, Norbert Leo Butz and Audra McDonald — has been assembled for the first complete recording of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's Allegro, which features a 50-piece orchestra. The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization confirmed earlier this week that principal orchestral and vocal work has been completed for the recording, which will be released on a date and label to be announced shortly. The cast of the recording boasts Patrick Wilson (The Full Monty, Oklahoma!) as Joe Taylor, Jr.; Nathan Gunn (Camelot) and McDonald (Ragtime, Carousel, Master Class) as Joe's parents; Marni Nixon (My Fair Lady, Nine) as Joe's Grandma; Judy Kuhn (Les Misérables, She Loves Me, Chess) as Beulah; Liz Callaway (Baby, Cats, Miss Saigon) as Emily; Benanti (Gypsy, Into the Woods, Nine) as Jennie; and Butz (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Wicked, Is He Dead?) as Joe's best friend, Charlie. The Allegro ensemble features Judy Blazer, Maureen Brennan, Ashley Brown and Kathy Morath as well as a full chorus and a children's chorus. Vocal cameos are made by New York City Cultural Affairs Commissioner Schuyler Chapin; All Souls Church Reverend Dr. Galen Guengerich; and Allegro's original production assistant, Stephen Sondheim. In fact, Sondheim once referred to Allegro as "the first really good experimental show." The orchestra, which recorded the original orchestrations penned by Robert Russell Bennett and Trude Rittmann's dance arrangements, was conducted by Larry Blank. Bruce Pomahac is musical director, and Ben Whiteley is the choral director (with choral arrangements by Crane Calder). Among the songs that will be heard on the new recording are "A Fellow Needs a Girl" (Gunn, McDonald), "Come Home" (McDonald), "You Are Never Away" (Wilson), "The Gentleman is a Dope" (Callaway) and "So Far" (Kuhn). The Allegro recording is produced by David Lai and Bruce Pomahac. Ted Chapin is executive producer. For more information visit www.rnh.com. Carey Anderson, most recently seen as Sophie in the Broadway production of Mamma Mia!, will join the New York company of the Tony-winning Avenue Q at the John Golden Theatre July 8. Anderson will assume the roles of Kate Monster and Lucy, which were originally created by Tony nominee Stephanie D'Abruzzo. Anderson will join a cast that currently includes Christian Anderson (Nicky, Trekkie Monster, Bear and others), Jennifer Barnhart (Mrs. T., Bear and others), Nicholas Kohn (Brian), Carla Renata (Gary Coleman), Ann Sanders (Christmas Eve) and Howie Michael Smith (Princeton and Rod). For more information visit www.avenueq.com. For tickets call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.

Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin
photo by Brigitte Lacombe

An initial list of dates has been announced for the concert evening starring Tony Award-winning actors and former Evita co-stars Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin. LuPone and Patinkin first presented An Evening with Patti LuPone & Mandy Patinkin in September 2002 at the Charles W. Eisemann Center in Richardson, TX. That evening featured duets from several musical theatre classics, including tunes from South Pacific, Carousel, Sunday in the Park with George, and, of course, Evita. The award-winning actor-singers also performed individually. Ann Reinking, who won a Best Choreography Tony Award for her work in the long-running revival of Chicago, choreographed the concert act, which was conceived by Patinkin and pianist Paul Ford and directed by Patinkin. Ford accompanies the actors on piano. Confirmed dates, according to a spokesperson for the tour, follow. Several more cities will be announced at a later date. March 7, 2009 at the Staller Center in Stony Brook, NY
March 10-15, 2009 at the DuPont Theatre in Wilmington, DE
March 29, 2009 at the NJ Performing Arts Center in Newark, NJ
April 22, 2009 at Centennial Hall in Tucson, AZ
May 5-17, 2009 at the Palace Theatre in Cleveland, OH

Speaking of La LuPone, I loved Alec Baldwin's recent blog on the Huffington Post, which was titled "What the World Needs Now Is Patti LuPone." Here is an excerpt: "I have worked in my business since 1980 and I have seen a lot of changes. One thing that hasn't changed is Patti. That year, the year I started, Patti won the Tony for Best Actress in a musical for Evita. And now, more than 25 years later, Patti is as heartbreaking and wicked and volcanic and gorgeous as ever. Maybe more so. Go see her in Gypsy on Broadway. Surrounded by Boyd Gaines and Laura Benanti (both also Tony winners for this show), Patti makes the story of Mama Rose worth seeing again and then some." For the complete blog, click here.

Broadway couple Lauren Kennedy and Alan Campbell will co-host Divas!, the upcoming benefit for the Hudson Stage Company in Yorktown, NY. The July 19 event will feature performances by Liz Callaway, star of Broadway's Baby, Miss Saigon and Cats; Ann Hampton Callaway, the MAC Award-winning performer who made her Broadway debut in Swing!; and regional theatre actress Mimi Bessette. The concert will be presented on the grounds of a private property on Baptist Church Road in Yorktown Heights, NY. Attendees are invited to bring picnics. The evening will begin at 7 PM with a cocktail party with wine and hors d'oeuvres, followed by a silent auction. The concert will begin at sunset and will be followed by coffee and dessert. For tickets, priced $100 per person, call (914) 271-2811 or visit www.hudsonstage.com.

Soul Deep: An Anthology of Black Music is the title of an upcoming concert at Birdland that will honor stage and screen star Phylicia Rashad and raise funds for Broadway Inspirational Voices, the gospel singing group. The Aug. 18 concert at the famed jazz venue will feature the talents of La La Brooks, Chuck Cooper, Lilli Cooper, Asmeret Ghebremichael, Chad Goodwin, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Justin Keyes, Adriane Lenox, Joshua Melvin, Elisabeth Mendes, Maurice Murphy, Harry Thompson, Destan Owens, Shayna Steele and Sophia Stephens. Show time is 7 PM. Singers will pay homage to such entertainers as Bo Diddley, Sarah Vaughn, Donny Hathaway, Sam Cooke, Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield and Public Enemy, among others. Birdland is located in Manhattan at 315 West 44th Street. Tickets, priced $25 and $50 (VIP), are available by calling (212) 581-3080 or by visiting www.birdlandjazz.com.

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

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