There are few who possess a voice as glorious as the one belonging to Judy Kuhn. In fact, Kuhn's silvery, vibrato-filled tones and her gifts as an actress place her in my top ten of musical theatre actors currently performing on stages around the country. A three-time Tony nominee for her work in Les Misérables, Chess and She Loves Me, Kuhn returns to the New York concert stage Jan. 19 in Lincoln Center's American Songbook series at The Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Kuhn will wrap her rich voice around the songs of Laura Nyro, a composer she first explored in the Obie-winning Off-Broadway production Eli's Comin'. Featuring musical director Jeffrey Klitz on piano, Serious Playground: The Songs of Laura Nyro will boast seven other musicians: Zev Katz on bass, Scott Neumann on drums, Ira Siegel on guitar, Aaron Heick on reeds, Barry Danielian on trumpet, Larry Farrell on trombone and Alan Stepansky on cello. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Kuhn about her new concert, her Broadway experiences and her work at the Kennedy Center.
Q: How did you come to decide to perform an all-Laura Nyro program for the American Songbook series?
Kuhn: Well, actually, it was Jon Nakagawa, who is the producer of the Songbook series. It was actually his idea. When he asked me to do the evening, I said, "Oh, what should I do?" and he said, "Well, we had an idea actually!" [Laughs.] So, he suggested it, and I thought about it and thought that it was actually a really great idea. At first I thought, "Well, I've done Laura Nyro," and then I thought, "Well, you're never really done with Laura Nyro." But, also, it feels like a very important songwriter to be included in the American Songbook series, a series whose mission is to really explore and present the kind of breadth and history of American songs. She was a really important songwriter in contemporary songwriting.
Q: What do you think it is about her songs that appeal to you as a performer?
Kuhn: The thing that always appeals to me most about songs are [the] words first and foremost. And I think she was an incredible poet. She used language in a really original way. She invented words — she was a great inventor of words — and she understood the music in language. So she used words, I think, in a very musical way in terms of how they sounded. She put odd words together, but you kind of get what they mean. I just also think she expressed such a range of human emotions — from complete joy in life to really getting into some of the real sadness of life, too.
Q: What are some of the titles you're going to perform?
Kuhn: I'm going to do some of the hits that will be familiar to people, like "Stoned Soul Picnic" and "Sweet Blindness" and "Stoney End." And, then [I'll do] some songs that might not be familiar except to her real die-hard fans, like "Been on a Train" and "Buy and Sell" and "Mother Spiritual."
Q: How many musicians will you have?
Kuhn: I'm going to have eight musicians and two backup singers. Q: Who are the backup singers?
Kuhn: Jamie Leonhart and Victoria Cave.
Q: I remember the first time you performed at the American Songbook series, you said that it took you several years to say yes to it. Did you end up enjoying that night?
Kuhn: [Laughs.] I did, I had a great time! It's still a form that I'm getting used to because I don't do it a lot. But the evening that I put together for that, I kept working on and doing in other places, so I have gotten more used to it I would say. I don't look at it with dread anymore. [Laughs.]
Q: How does the cabaret or concert medium compare to doing a theatre show?
Kuhn: First of all, the solo nature of it is obviously different. You're not sharing the stage with other actors — you're basically in dialogue with an audience, which feels to me very vulnerable. You also don't have a character to hide behind or hide inside of. It's you and your audience, and I feel very vulnerable in that position. But I think I've learned that, in a way, nothing can really go wrong because the audience is basically with you. I also am starting to enjoy the somewhat free-form nature of it. Obviously, when you're doing something like this, you can do whatever you want. You don't have to do what a writer or a director tells you to do, so that's fun. [Laughs.] But also [with theatre], I love the collaboration with other actors and director. I'm an interpreter, so it's hard to be both the interpreter and the writer and the producer and the director and everything else. [Laughs.] Which is kind of what you wind up being when you put an evening like this together.
Q: Have you had any thoughts of recording one of the concerts?
Kuhn: I would love to do a recording of this Laura Nyro material, so if there are some angels out there who would like to help me do that... [Laughs.]
Q: I was also wondering, since you were a part of the original cast of Les Miz, if it's at all strange for you that there's already a revival now.
Kuhn: [Laughs.] Well, it was awfully soon! But I guess people probably were calling the box office assuming that it was still on, so they thought they'd better put it back on.
Q: Have you gone to see it?
Kuhn: I have not — I haven't had a chance to. My daughter really wants to see it, so I think I should bring her to see it.
Q: How old is she now?
Kuhn: She's 12.
Question: Does she enjoy your singing now?
Kuhn: Yes, she seems to be okay with it!
Q: I remember you once said that when she was a baby, she would cry when you sang.
Kuhn: [Laughs.] Yes, she did, but she got over that. Now she wants to sing with me. She volunteered to be one of my backup singers, but I think I'll wait a few more years for that.
Q: What has it been like combining motherhood with working?
Kuhn: It's fine [though] it narrows your choices a bit. Right now, the age that she is, I don't want to go away. I really don't want to work out of town. If something came along that I felt like I really had to do, I'd figure it out. But I'm not pursuing work that's out of town, so obviously that limits what I can do. I like being a working mom — I think it's good for a daughter to see her mom working. I think that's a good role model, but I also like to be around.
Q: Would you consider doing a Broadway show at this point?
Kuhn: Yeah, absolutely.
Q: I know last year you were going to fill in for Maria Friedman [in Woman in White], and then they announced that the show was closing. How far along were you in rehearsals?
Kuhn: I had rehearsed for about three weeks. We were a week away from my put-in rehearsal. We were starting to work onstage with the full company and with the crew and learning how the set moves and all of that. I had had [costume] fittings, and I think they were making clothes for me. I was pretty close.
Q: Was that disappointing?
Kuhn: Well, it was disappointing in that I had done all this work, but at this point in my life I just roll with the punches. [Laughs.] But it was fine. It seems like so long ago now! I guess it was a year ago.
Q: What was the experience like doing The Highest Yellow? That sounded interesting, but I didn't get to see it.
Kuhn: It was great. It's such a challenge to do a new musical in a regional theatre because you just don't have time to really work on the material. So it's always a challenge, and that was a very challenging piece. I loved working with [composer] Michael John [LaChiusa], and I love [director] Eric Schaeffer, and I love the Signature, and we had a great company, so it was really fun. I don't think we had enough time to do the material justice. I think Michael John is still working on it. I'm not really sure what will happen with that piece, but it was a really interesting piece.
Q: Do you think there's any chance that it might have a life in New York?
Kuhn: Michael John is always working on about ten things. I don't know if he's put it aside because he had two other pieces that were about to be produced when we were working on that. He had See What I Wanna See, [which] was about to happen at the Public, and then Bernarda Alba.
Q: I also want to talk a little bit about Chess, which has one of my favorite scores. Looking back on that experience, is there anything that stands out in your mind?
Kuhn: Oh my goodness. Well, many things. I mean, it was such a huge deal for me. It was my first starring role in a Broadway show, and it was such a huge show that it was a big deal. And, of course, it had its very high moments, and it had some very difficult moments. It was a great experience — it was just a fantastic company, and it was a great piece. I love the score, I love the story that it told, [and] I think the biggest difficulty that we had was with the sets because it was so complex. I think that it would have been good to maybe do the show out of town to find out what worked and what didn't. It was a difficult preview period because there were a lot of kinks to work on. We spent a lot of the time on technical stuff, so it was hard to get to the acting and the writing, but I had a great experience doing it.
Q: Do you have a favorite theatrical experience?
Kuhn: I suppose, [my] favorite recent theatrical experience would have been doing Passion at the Kennedy Center. She Loves Me was definitely a high point for me — that wasn't so recent anymore. [Laughs.] Q: What was it like working at the Kennedy Center?
Kuhn: That was heaven. There really isn't a thing I would have changed about that experience. The only thing I would have changed is [that] I would have done more performances. You know, because there were six shows in rep, nobody got to do very many performances. I think we did 15 or 16 performances. I think it was one of the best things I've ever been in, and it was just a beautiful, beautiful production. I loved doing it.
Q: Was Sondheim involved with the production?
Kuhn: He was around, and he would come in and watch run-throughs, and he'd give notes. He was very much present and very helpful — I mean really helpful. He wasn't doing any writing, but he was definitely present and very, very helpful, so that was very exciting, too.
Q: Do you have any other projects in the works?
Kuhn: No, not right now. What I really want to focus on, after the 19th, is trying to do a recording and then booking this show other places.
Q: Would you do it in New York again, maybe at Joe's Pub?
Kuhn: Yeah, I'd love to. Definitely. I mean, to invest so much time and money and sweat and emotion into something and do it once — it just can't happen that way. [Laughs.]
[The Allen Room is located in the Frederick P. Rose Hall at Broadway and 60th Street. For tickets call (212) 721-6500 or visit www.lincolncenter.org.]
One of this column's favorite gals, Elaine Paige, will return to the West End May 14 in the London debut of The Drowsy Chaperone. The celebrated singing actress will star in the title role of the award-winning musical, which will officially open June 6 at the Novello Theatre. About her newest role, Paige said in a statement, "I saw The Drowsy Chaperone on Broadway and loved it and now I'm very excited about returning to the West End in this wonderfully funny, original new musical. I'm really looking forward to being part of a terrific ensemble piece and I think we're all going to have a lot of fun. I can't wait to get started!"
Someone Like You, billed as "a musical love story," will arrive on CD in the U.K. May 7 on the Sepia Records label. Featuring music by Petula Clark and lyrics by Dee Shipman, the studio recording boasts the vocal talents of Debi Doss, Andrew Derbyshire and Lewis Rae. Kenny Clayton, who penned the musical arrangements, is featured on piano and keyboards. The band also includes David Martin on guitar and Eric Young on percussion. Someone Like You debuted at the Cambridge Arts Theatre in October 1989. It was subsequently presented in London's West End at the Strand Theatre, opening in March 1990. Four songs from the musical — featuring Clark, Dave Willetts and Clive Carter — were released on a single by First Night Records. For more information visit www.sepiarecords.com.
Tony Award winner Sutton Foster will guest star on the Jan. 20 episode of John Tartaglia's children's show "Johnny and the Sprites." Foster, who is currently starring in the award-winning musical The Drowsy Chaperone, will appear in an episode entitled "Johnny's Sister Tina; Spritesgiving." The program will also feature an appearance by Tartaglia's Avenue Q co-star Natalie Venetia Belcon. "Johnny and the Sprites" — which teaches children "about magic in the world around them" — airs on the Disney Channel at 10 AM ET; check local listings. The upcoming episode is described thusly: "Johnny's sister Tina visits; all of the vegetables in Grotto's Grove have the Forgetful Fungus."
A host of Broadway favorites will take part in Broadway for Medicine, a benefit concert scheduled for March 12 at City Center. The evening, scheduled to begin at 7 PM, will benefit the National Foundation for Facial Reconstruction. Among those set to perform are Charles Busch, Tyne Daly, Manoel Felciano, Malcolm Gets, Deborah Gibson, Joanna Gleason, Debbie Gravitte, Julie Halston, Judy Kuhn, Andrea McArdle, Donna McKechnie and Rosie's Broadway Kids. The concert will feature Broadway songs under the artistic direction of Carl Andress. Grammy and Emmy Award winner John McDaniel will be the program's musical director. Tickets for the concert, priced $25-$120, are available by calling (212) 581-1212 or by visiting www.nycitycenter.org.
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to email@example.com.