DIVA TALK: Chatting with Lestat's Carolee Carmello Plus Bernadette Peters Triumphs at Lincoln Center

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Lestat's Carolee Carmello Plus Bernadette Peters Triumphs at Lincoln Center News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Carolee Carmello; Carmello with Hugh Panaro in Lestat.
Carolee Carmello; Carmello with Hugh Panaro in Lestat. Photo by Paul Kolnik

CAROLEE CARMELLO

As far as I'm concerned, any season that brings Carolee Carmello back to Broadway is worth celebrating. Carmello boasts one of the most exciting belts in the business, yet she is also a consummate actress, one whose thrilling work I've enjoyed on Broadway in Falsettos, Parade and Mamma Mia! and Off-Broadway in Elegies and john & jen as well as in the Paper Mill Playhouse's outstanding production of Baby. Carmello is now back on the boards in the new Elton John musical Lestat — based on Anne Rice's "The Vampire Chronicles" — playing Gabrielle, the dying mother of Lestat who is reborn as a feisty, thrill-seeking vampire. In the Robert Jess Roth-directed musical, Carmello has the chance to wrap her powerful voice around three John-Bernie Taupin tunes, "Make Me As You Are," "The Crimson Kiss" and "Beautiful Boy," and those songs provide three of the highlights of the new musical at the Palace Theatre that stars Hugh Panaro in the title role. Earlier this week I had the chance to chat with the multitalented performer — who was recently nominated for a Drama Desk Award — about her latest Broadway endeavor; that interview follows.

Question: How did the role of Gabrielle come about for you?
Carolee Carmello: I auditioned for it — actually the first time I auditioned for it was about three years ago when they were doing the first reading in New York, and I didn't get it. [Laughs.] Then, I think I was doing Urinetown at the time, and I ran into [casting director] Jay Binder, and I asked, "How did that reading go?" And, he said, "It went okay, and they're probably going to do it again at some point." And I said, "Well, keep me in mind if they're auditioning again." And for the second go-round, they had more auditions, and this time they gave me the part. So, I did the workshop, which was about two years ago.

Q: What interested you about the role or being part of the workshop?
Carmello: I think before I knew much about the role, I knew that it was [based on] Anne Rice's [novels], and I thought that was an interesting choice to try to adapt to a musical. I think her writing style is very theatrical, and I think her characters are really interesting and complex. I also knew that it was Elton John and Bernie Taupin, so that interested me. And then I had to learn "Crimson Kiss" for the audition, so once I learned the song, I thought the song had potential, so I was interested in that as well.

Q: How has your role changed from the workshop through the tryouts and now to Broadway?
Carmello: I think the first incarnation, [Gabrielle] was closer to what she is in the book, which is a little more distant and cold and not as accessible to Lestat. As the writing has progressed and the direction, they decided that they wanted to make her a little more likeable. I think they felt that being true to the novel was great but that was maybe distancing her from the audience. So, they've tried to make her a little warmer, a little more loving toward her son. That's the biggest change. Musically, one song was completely replaced, so that was a big change for me because when I first learned the show, I had "Make Me As You Are" and "Crimson Kiss," which have pretty much remained the same, and then this first song that I used to have called "Nothing Here" was replaced with "Beautiful Boy" when we came back from San Francisco. "Nothing Here" was kind of a different song. It was sung to Lestat — he was still onstage for that — and I think they decided that it would be interesting to see what she was feeling after he left the house because he was so much her entire focus and her entire life, and I think the writers felt that that would be an interesting moment. I like singing it — it's a beautiful song.

Q: What were the out-of-town tryouts like for you?
Carmello: Oh, exhausting, as you might imagine. [Laughs.] It was really hard for me because I was away from my family for nine weeks, and that was tough. I try not to do that very often. It's far — it's not like even going to Washington or Boston for nine weeks, where you can try to get home on a day off. It's the kind of place where you really can't make any travel to the East Coast in one day. So, my kids and my husband came out for two weeks, but it was still tough. It was really tough on them, and I was missing them a lot, too. That was the hardest part. The work was non-stop. We were teching the show for a couple weeks, then we were previewing it and rehearsing it everyday while we played the show, so that's always hard. But I think the work process wasn't as hard as the separation from my family.

Q: Gabrielle is the only vampire in the show who seems happy about her transition from mortal to vampire. Why do you think that's so?
Carmello: I think part of it is because she has this stifled passion in the beginning of the show, and because of her position in life and in society and in this marriage that she's stuck in, she's not able to really express it at all. The transformation into being a vampire gives her this freedom that she was never able to capitalize on before. She suddenly has a chance to do things that she never could in mortal life.

Q: She and Lestat certainly have an interesting mother-son relationship. How do you view it?
Carmello: [Laughs.] I always thought from reading the novels that once Anne Rice's characters became vampires, some of their mortal traits remained, but others dissipated. And I think this idea of family ties is sort of morphed into — in the case of Lestat and Gabrielle — a kind of soulmate relationship. They're no longer mother and son, but they're sort of best friends. They travel together as companions and buddies. You can't really say lovers because in the Anne Rice world, vampires don't really become lovers. They're really just beyond sexual experience, I guess, in her view. Who knows what everybody else is taking away from this? [Laughs.] I do think there's a certain sexual tension between them, and I think that that probably just comes from their incredible bond. They're closer to each other than anyone else in the whole world.

Q: What do you think goes into Gabrielle's decision to leave Lestat and go off and have her own adventures?
Carmello: I think that's a really tough decision for the character because, as I said, they're so close and have spent — in our version of the story — about ten years together traveling and looking for Marius. I think at that point it's two things. Part of it is her wanting to not feel constrained as she did earlier in life, and she's starting to feel those same constraints traveling with Lestat and Nicholas. And, also, I think it's forcing herself away from [Lestat] so he can become more independent and understand his own choices. I think she feels — if you put it in twenty-first century pop-psychology language — like she's enabling him in a way. She's allowing him to stay in this depressed state and not experience life, and I think the way I try to play it, is that she feels like it's the best thing for both of them at that point.

Q: How demanding is the role vocally?
Carmello: The hardest thing about it is not the singing, interestingly enough, it's the screaming. I've always found that the yelling and screaming in a show is a lot harder than the singing. The singing is not especially hard. I don't think it's the hardest show I've ever sung, and it's certainly not a huge amount of stage time, so I definitely get to rest my voice in the second act. But the yelling and screaming takes its toll, and I definitely wake up a little hoarse after a two-show day.

Q: How do you go about protecting your voice to be able to do eight shows a week?
Carmello: I wish I could say that I can sleep a lot and I drink tea with honey and I don't speak until after 2 PM [laughs], but it's not true because I have kids at home, and I have to talk to them and I have to wake up at 7. It's not the ideal lifestyle for someone who has to sing for a living, but it's the life I've chosen, so I just make the best I can out of it. [Laughs.]

Q: It sounds like you knew the Anne Rice novels before the show. Had you been a fan of her work or of the film?
Carmello: I had seen the film, but I had only read a couple of the books. I still haven't read all the books, and I don't know if I'll have the chance anytime soon — family life prevents a lot of leisurely reading. But I do think she has a really interesting writing style, and I think she's a great storyteller. There are very few writers that I've read that have that ability to create this entire world with its own rules and its own boundaries, and I think she does that really well.

Q: Was she involved in the process of creating the musical?
Carmello: Not too much. . . . She relinquished control of what was going to happen in the writing of the musical. But she's very good friends with Rob Roth, the director, so he was keeping her informed about what was going on. I think if there was anything she didn't like, she was able to speak up about it. And she came to our opening in San Francisco, and she came to the opening in New York, and she's always been really supportive if not involved. She's always really enjoyed what we've done with it, and has been very sweet and sent this really long letter on opening night to the cast. She's been lovely. She wasn't around during rehearsals, but she certainly has made her presence felt.

Q: Did you get to work with Elton John much? I know with this show he went back and wrote additional songs, which is rare for him.
Carmello: He wrote three new pieces after we left San Francisco. Did I get a chance to work with him? Not so much. He came to the show, and he talked with us afterwards, but anything that he wanted done was always filtered through the musical director or the director. He never sat in the room with us and said, "Try this differently" or "I want to adjust the rhythm." There wasn't much of that. I think he likes to write it and hand it over.

Q: Will there be a cast recording?
Carmello: There was a lot of talk about it. I haven't heard any definite date, but they said that we are doing one. I hope that's true. I think if it's going to happen, it will probably happen in the next couple of weeks.

Q: How long are you contracted with the show?
Carmello: I'm contracted through the end of the year, and then I guess we'll see what happens to the show and what happens to me at that point.

Q: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for your character?
Carmello: I have a couple, but I think the one that comes to mind is Gabrielle's first kill after she becomes a vampire and goes out into the streets of Paris with Lestat and attacks her first victim. I think there's a certain satisfaction about that moment after the life that she's led up to that point, and it's kind of a release. It always feels really good, and it gets a nice laugh.

Q: Do you and your husband [actor Gregg Edelman] look for roles together or do you try to keep your professional lives separate?
Carmello: Yes and yes. We both love to work, so we love working whenever the opportunity presents itself, but every once in awhile we say, "Gee, what can we do that's together?" We've always wanted to do Sunday in the Park [with George], and I've always wanted to do Bells Are Ringing with him, although I don't think he's so keen on that. We do try to look for things, but nothing has come up in the last couple of years, so we just pursue things individually, but we'd love to work together. . . . We do little things together — concert things. We did the "Wall to Wall Sondheim" concert. Years ago, we decided we would do an album together, but that never materialized, but we hope to do that someday, too.

Q: Who were the singers that you admired growing up?
Carmello: I was never a kid who wanted to be in show business when I was little. But we had maybe a handful of cast albums in our house, and I can remember listening to Julie Andrews in Sound of Music. And, I think we had the album of the movie of West Side Story, and I remember singing along with cast albums, but it was never something I thought of seriously as a career or even as a hobby really. I never did shows as a kid.

Q: When did that change? When did you start performing?
Carmello: I think college. I went to college for business administration, and when I was there, there were some amateur productions on campus that I auditioned for just because I thought it would be fun and would be a silly distraction from my studies. I think the first one I did was Oliver!, which was performed in the cafeteria of my dormitory. I think that was my freshman year in college — that was sort of the beginning. And then my sophomore year I auditioned for a production of Sound of Music, which was off-campus, and that was a big deal because I had to walk across the campus to this hotel on the other side of the highway, and there was a dinner theatre there where we did Sound of Music. I guess that was the beginning, but I was already halfway through college at that point.

Q: When do you think you decided you wanted to act as a career?
Carmello: I still haven't decided. [Laughs.] Every once in a while I think, "Is this what I do for a living? I guess it is." I think after I finished college, I did a summer-stock job up in the Adirondack Mountains. [But], even at that point I didn't think, "Okay, I know what I want to do with my life now." What I thought was, "I better get this out of my system because I have a feeling I'm going to wake up one day and be 55 and think, 'Gee, I could have been on Broadway.'"

So I moved to New York after that summer — that was 1983. I moved thinking I would stay there for a year or two and realize how hard it was and realize that there was no chance I was gonna make a career out of this, and then I'd go back and go to law school or go back to my business degree. I was lucky enough to get some jobs, and every time I was ready to give up and move back to my business career, I would get another job that would kind of suck me back in. [Laughs.] So, I think it just sort of happened little by little until I was a member of all the unions and I was working year round as an actor, not having to sell perfume at Macy's anymore.

Q: If you weren't in high school shows, when did you discover that you had the voice you have?
Carmello: I guess it was in those shows in college. I also sang in the choir in grade school, and I remember there was one sort of pivotal moment that I can recall when I was seven years old. There was a choir concert that we were doing for Christmas, and I was singing in this little trio with two of my friends. I forget what the song was, but the day of the concert my two friends were sick, and I was the only one there who was supposed to sing the song. And the teacher said to me, "You don't have to do this all by yourself. We can just cut the song." And I said, "No, I'll do it." I remember, at seven years old, deciding to step up to the plate and sing the song all by myself. I don't know if it was so much about the singing as it was about the bravery of it and trying to prove to myself that I wasn't scared. . . And then I didn't really pursue it. I sang in choir in middle school, and I sang in choir in college, but it was just for fun, it wasn't because I had a great voice or anything.

Q: Do you have any other projects in the works?
Carmello: The only other thing that's in the works right now is Joe Masteroff, who's a dear friend of my husband and myself, has written a musical based on Anna Christie, the Eugene O'Neill play. He wants us to do a reading of it, so I'm trying to learn the music from that right now while I'm doing the show. He wrote the book and the lyrics, and Ed Thomas wrote the music.

Q: Last question. Do you have any pre-show rituals you go through before a performance?
Carmello: No. [Laughs.] I think that I just try to make sure that I have some voice, but I don't do a formal vocal warm-up. I try to make sure that I don't sound like I just woke up, but since I've been up since 7 AM, I always feel like my voice has kind of warmed up anyway. I'm usually getting to the theatre in time to do the fight call, which is a required part of the ritual. I do the fight call, which is when we rehearse all the fights in the show. And, for me, it's that moment where I jump on Chris Peluso, who's the actor who plays the victim. Chris and I go through the attack, just to make sure we know what all the spots are that are dangerous. It's just a safety precaution they do whenever there's a fight in a show. . . And then I just put my make-up on, go get my wig, and clear my throat. [Laughs.]

[Lestat plays the Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway at 47th Street. For tickets, call (212) 307-4100 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.]  

BERNADETTE PETERS at Avery Fisher Hall

After opening with an upbeat, rhythmic version of Gypsy's "Let Me Entertain You," two-time Tony Award winner Bernadette Peters stood centerstage in a solo spotlight and delivered a haunting, moving version of the Into the Woods anthem "No One Is Alone" that underscored life's uncertainties and despairs, but more so, the possibility of a revitalizing human connection. The expression is overused, but, truly, one could have heard a pin drop as Peters gently caressed the Sondheim lyric, "Hard to see the light now/ just don't let it go/ things will be alright now/ we can make it so." Some ninety minutes later, with the house lights up, Peters offered her second encore, Irving Berlin's "Count Your Blessings [Instead of Sheep]," and that same pin would have echoed throughout the cavernous Avery Fisher Hall as Peters sang the simple Berlin sentiment with a touching sincerity. It's a testament to her many talents and the warmth that she exudes onstage that Peters can hold an audience so firmly in her grasp for as long as she chooses.

The sold-out May 1 concert was the first time Peters has performed before a paying New York City audience since the tragic death of her husband in September, and Peters seems to have weathered the storm remarkably well. Physically, she looks phenomenal, dressed to the nines in a form-fitting Bob Mackie creation. In fact, I've often thought she must occasionally sip from the Fountain of Youth — now I think she's been swimming in it. And, vocally, her voice is in fine form, her powerful belt augmented by her lovely soprano tones. That said, her performances of her more heartbreaking tunes are, expectedly, even more heartbreaking. When she sings Jerry Herman's "Time Heals Everything" or Stephen Sondheim's "Not a Day Goes By," there is an extra layer of emotion, an added poignancy and ache that is completely gripping. Yet, Peters, it should be noted, is still a playful entertainer, one who jokes with her audience, slinks her way through a belty "Nothing Like a Dame" or a sexy "Fever" — atop the grand piano — and offers pure joy in both Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Unexpected Song" and a lovely pairing of "My Romance" and "The Way You Look Tonight."

The concert, the final offering in Lincoln Center's American Songbook series, focused primarily on the works of Sondheim and Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Peters was equally at home whether singing the praises of "Mr. Snow," fretting that "The Gentlemen Is a Dope" or expressing the sentiments that "Children Will Listen" and "You Could Drive a Person Crazy." Other highlights included her riveting delivery of "Some Enchanted Evening," a beautiful take on the American classic "Shenandoah" (featuring sparse harmonica accompaniment by Robert Bonfiglio), a triumphant "Being Alive" and a definitive "Move On." Peters, whose solo evening was directed with artistic flair by Richard Jay-Alexander, also treated the audience to a newer Sondheim tune, Bounce's "Isn't He Something!"

After a lengthy standing ovation, Peters returned to the stage for her first encore. As she discussed the classic musical Gypsy, Peters donned the sweater and shoes she wore in that recent revival and transformed herself from the lovable singing actress into the stage mother of all stage mothers, Momma Rose. Her rendition of "Rose's Turn" was, simply, phenomenal, her final shrieks of "for me, for me, for meeeeeeeee!" instantaneously bringing the enthusiastic crowd once again to its feet. Without a doubt, this people's got it, and thankfully she's spreading it around.

DIVA TIDBITS

An evening celebrating the release of the new PS Classics disc "Jule Styne in Hollywood" will be presented May 22 at Birdland. The concert is scheduled to include performances by Maria Friedman, Leslie Uggams, Norm Lewis, Jeff Harnar, Eric Comstock, Johnny Rodgers, Klea Blackhurst, Sara Zahn and The Lascivious Biddies. Show time is 7 PM. Concertgoers can expect to hear such Styne tunes as "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," "Some People," "It's Been a Long, Long Time," "I'll Walk Alone," "You Make Me Dream Too Much" and "Put 'Em in a Box, Tie 'Em with a Ribbon." The upcoming CD, "Jule Styne in Hollywood," will be released on the PS Classics label May 23. The recording focuses on Styne's work for the movies, including his ten Oscar-nominated tunes. Birdland is located in Manhattan at 315 West 44th Street. There is a $30 cover plus a $10 food/drink minimum. Call (212) 581-3080 for reservations.

A showcase of music by writers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul will be presented May 14 at Joe's Pub. The 7:30 and 9:30 PM concerts, entitled Become: The Music of Pasek & Paul, will boast the talents of Laura Benanti, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Todd Buonopane, Megan Hilty, Cheyenne Jackson, Chelsea Krombach, Brandi Chavonne Massey, Steven Pasquale and Billy Porter as well as Whitney Bashor, Nick Blaemire, Anderson Davis and Rebecca Soler. Presented by Jamie McGonnigal, the two concerts will feature musical direction by Jonah Speidel. Pasek and Paul are up-n-coming musical theatre writers. Graduates of the University of Michigan, a revue of their work, Edges, has been presented in Washington, Philadelphia and New York City. A full-length production of Edges is slated for summer 2006. (A portion of the proceeds from Become will benefit the Wylie's Day Foundation, which provides funding for research of pediatric brain tumors.) Tickets, priced at $20, are available by calling (212) 539-8778. Joe's Pub is located within the Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Avenue. Visit www.joespub.com for more information.

Broadway Barks 8 — the annual adopt-a-thon created by pals Bernadette Peters and Mary Tyler Moore to find homes for pets from city animal shelters — will be held July 8 in Shubert Alley. More information about the yearly event, which benefits local animal shelters and adoption agencies, will be announced shortly. For more information visit www.broadwaybarks.com.

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

Bernadette Peters dazzles during her <i>American Songbook</i> concert at Avery Fisher Hall.
Bernadette Peters dazzles during her American Songbook concert at Avery Fisher Hall. Photo by Stephanie Berger
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