Ever since Judith Blazer made her Broadway debut in Me and My Girl — succeeding Ellen Foley in the lead role of Sally Smith, the part created by Tony winner Maryann Plunkett — the singing actress has been a prominent presence on the Great White Way. Some roles have been larger than others, but one can't but help take note of the gifted performer, who always brings a fierce dedication to her work. Take her current job: Her characters in LoveMusik are simply titled "Woman on Stairs" and "Brecht's Woman," yet Blazer — with her period look (and beautiful voice) — lends an authenticity to the musical that explores the stormy relationship between Kurt Weill (Michael Cerveris) and his muse Lotte Lenya (Donna Murphy). "When Hal calls, you come. It's that simple," Blazer recently explained about her decision to be part of the LoveMusik company. "He said, 'I'm gonna do something special for you one day,' and I said, 'Hal, don't worry. You don't have to make me any promises. I'm just happy to be in the room with you.'"
It's an especially busy time for the actress, who is also the artistic director of Artist's Crossing, a theatre company and school that offers a variety of classes, workshops and readings each year. Blazer, whose Main Stem credits also include A Change in the Heir, Titanic and 45 Seconds From Broadway, will be part of The New York City Gay Men's Chorus' June 18 concert, The the A Train: NYCGMC Sings Billy Strayhorn. Written and directed by Joanna Gleason, the concert will be presented at the Nokia Theatre beginning at 8 PM and will boast Blazer and Darius de Haas as special guests.
I recently had the pleasure of chatting with the intelligent and refreshingly candid Blazer about her many roles; that interview follows.
Question: How did you originally get involved in LoveMusik?
Blazer: I was called in to do a workshop.
Question: When was that?
Blazer: Over a year ago. They've been working on it for quite awhile, Alfred [Uhry] and Hal [Prince]. Question: Were you playing the same part at that time?
Blazer: Yes, and I'm sort of mystified, because I thought, "Gosh, this isn't a part." I've always played a part . . . but I'll tell you, it's been an interesting learning experience. I've never been in any kind of ensemble before. It's challenging.
Question: Had you worked with Hal Prince before?
Question: What has that experience been like? He's so revered.
Blazer: Yes, he is, [although] we spent very little time with Hal because our stuff was all with [choreographer] Pat [Birch]. Hal worked primarily in the mornings with Donna [Murphy] and Michael [Cerveris], and we really were dancing in the other room.
Question: Had you been a fan of Kurt Weill's music?
Blazer: Yes. I did Street Scene when I was in college. I played Rose, the ingénue, and Lotte Lenya came. In fact, I have a picture of all of us with her. I didn't realize the extent of who she was at that time, but got to know it through the years. To me, I really don't know why we don't have a revival of Street Scene. That is a mystery to me. Of all the pieces, that one is so New York. It takes place in a brownstone — it's one set. I just really wish they'd bring that back. It's got some real bluesy, jazzy music in it . . . . Opera companies tend to bring it back. But nowadays with Piazza and stuff like that going on, you think, "Well, they can [pull it off.]" The other [Weill] I did was at Sundance — I did Happy End, and that was working much more with the Weill and Brecht estates in an attempt to maybe bring it back. It never happened, but I found that piece to be fascinating, too. I did the ingénue in that, Lillie, and then I've sung different pieces of his. I'm definitely of that ilk — I'm more of a Kurt Weill type than I am classic American standards.
Question: Do you find Weill a challenge to sing?
Blazer: It's comfortable for me. It fits me, you know? How can I put it? It's like the difference between the way I look in Boho clothes versus a nice Ann Taylor suit. I look better in Boho. [Laughs.] So it fits me like that — vocally as well. It's good — I use all my chops in the show. I sing very low, and then I sing — not extremely high, but I'm definitely using my higher soprano, and that's a good thing — when you're doing eight a week and you're using your whole instrument.
Question: Do you think it doesn't tire your voice as much if you're using all different parts?
Blazer: I think it keeps your whole voice active. I teach as well, and have a company and a school. I work a lot vocally with young women, and the demands of today's Broadway is that you sing everything. When they come to me and they say, "Well, I'm a belter," or "I'm a soprano," I say, "No, you're a singer." A dancer doesn't warm up part of his body. I say, "Girls, pull up your bootstraps because we're going to use your whole instrument everyday." That way the whole instrument is there. If you increase your range, then where you do live is healthier.
Question: Where do you teach?
Blazer: I have a company called The Artist's Crossing, and we have a website. It's www.artistscrossing.com, and we have...links and pictures of our events and some of the stars that have come and worked with us and [the] students. . . . . In a way, I like to keep it Ma & Pa Kettle because it's inspired by the house I grew up in, which was European and Jewish. My mother and father met during the war. My father's a first generation Polish-Jewish American, a Brooklyn kid who went to Juilliard and then went to war. My mother was a rather renowned singer in Italy in the classical field, mostly recital work: art songs, oratorio — and the same with my dad. Anyway, they met during the war, and they began performing together and eventually they married and came here. The house that I grew up in was a mesh of every imaginable kind of artist coming over and interacting and rehearsing. It was delightful.
I realized my parents were my teachers. They were my mentors, they were my friends, they were everything. And so I thought, "I want to re-create this kind of home with my friends." I grew up in an old Victorian in Montclair [NJ]. It was big and full of people always — always music 24 hours a day, and I thought, "That's the way I'd like to go out." Like a good Hebrew, I worked backwards. I thought, "Where do I want to die? How do I want to die? And let me start building that now." [Laughs.] And so it was partly selfish, but I also thought, "There are so many young artists right now in Manhattan [who are] talented. And there are kids in different parts of this country that are going to come here, that are going to become tomorrow's big, great artists." And when they come, they're young, they're confused, they're lost, they're scared. . . . I've been here all my life, but when you come from Wyoming, it's overwhelming. So, I wanted to build a home for them, but also for all my colleagues, my generation of Broadway people, and all the composers that I work with: the Michael John [LaChiusas] and the Adam Guettels and the Ricky [Ian] Gordons, and that sort of group of crossover composers. I thought, "We need to give something to them; we need to feel useful." Actors in my generation want to feel renewed on occasion, and the best way to renew anybody is to give something you know, to pass something on. Otherwise we can feel a little bit undervalued — just not appreciated the way we would like to be. We don't have the opportunity to always use our chops the way we like.
Question: Do you enjoy teaching? Has it been fulfilling the way you had hoped?
Blazer: Crazy about it! Tell you the truth, my parents were teachers, [and] I swore I would never do it. I was a violinist growing up. I said, "I will never be a singer." And they were singers, so, "I'm never going to be a singer." Then I said, "I'm never going to be a teacher." Now I say, "I'm never going to be old," and they got old. [Laughs.] So I guess I am completely following in their footsteps. But also, I wanted to create a company where all of these artists could come and say, "I need to do a reading of this or I have a play that I want [to do]." I'm directing a lot now — I'm producing some readings of things and trying to get them out there, and I want people to have a fertile pad to come and do their work, besides just teaching and studying.
Question: Your parents' story sounds interesting. Have you ever thought of putting together some sort of cabaret act or show tracing their relationships through the music they performed?
Blazer: I really should. If I could find ten minutes to myself, I really would like to do that. I would love to have a collaborator that would help me do that. My dad passed two years ago, and my mom is 90 and lives by herself in Tennessee, and she is coming up to be with me for about three weeks, which is just a thrill. She lives in Tennessee because that's where my brother lives. When my parents got really elderly, they had to leave the house in Montclair, and they decided to go live near my brother because my dad had a heart condition and my brother is a cardiologist. . . . Anyway, I taped their story one day. . . . It was my birthday, and I said, "Okay, it's my birthday. I want to hear the whole story of how I got here." And I recorded it all. I had heard the story many times and, in fact, I was just with Rebecca Schull, the actress. I did 45 Seconds From Broadway with her, and she's a magnificent actress — mostly film and television — beautiful woman, and she came to see the show the other night. We went out afterwards — her husband Gene was there — and she said, "Tell Gene the story of your parents," and I did. Everybody says the same thing when they hear the story because it's got a lot of twists and turns in it, and has a very serendipitous surprise ending. Everybody says, "This is a film. You've gotta write this story." So if you know any great writers that want to help me, I'm there!
Question: You're looking for someone to collaborate with?
Blazer: Yeah, let's put it out there. I'd ask Richard Greenberg, but he's too darn busy. He actually wrote a part for me in one of his plays that was based on my mother. Isn't that funny? The character didn't speak any English. My mother speaks English but didn't when she came to America, so he kind of took that and ran with it.
Question: When did you decide to pursue singing/acting? You mentioned that you were originally a violinist.
Blazer: I was terrible at school, really bad. I couldn't focus. Now I guess they have all kinds of names for that — back then they called it "a bad kid." [Laughs.] . . . I wasn't doing well in high school, but I knew what I wanted to do. I was 16, and I just wasn't coping well in high school. I had been doing a lot of theatre, and I loved it. I wanted to be onstage. In terms of going to a college for acting, I had spoken to Olympia Dukakis and Lou Zorich, who were good friends. I babysat their kids — their daughter studied with my parents, we were friends. So I consulted with them, and they told me what the requirements are of an acting student, particularly a ton of reading, which I'm not great at. So I thought, "What am I gonna do?" I just wanted to get out of high school. The entrance exam for a violinist at Manhattan School of Music was "scales, major, minor, diminished, Bach, unaccompanied sonatas, concerti. . . ." The requirements for a singer at Manhattan School of Music were an aria and an art song, which I learned in a day. I went in there and had this absurd response — all the teachers standing up on their feet and yelling, "Brava!" [Laughs.] This little 16-year-old singing… It was funny, but I had been exposed to [classical music] all my life, so I had a certain maturity that your average 16-year-old kid doesn't have. I sang like an adult. That began my four years at Manhattan School of Music, where I studied with my dad. He was my teacher. Then I went to Italy for awhile and sang a lot there because my parents' colleagues are all there [and] my family on my mother's side is all there. Because she was so respected and my parents were respected, I had a whole chain of tours and appearances in major cities in Italy. It was great! My brother was living there for eight years in med school, so he and I lived together in Florence. Then I came back to New York, and I didn't know what to do. I was too young for opera. A friend of mine was getting Backstage. He said, "It's great. You pick up this paper, and it tells you what to do and the range of the character, and the description of the character, and you go in and all you have to do is 16 bars." So I started auditioning for musicals. I really wanted to act, that was my dream anyway. . . .
The movie "Cinema Paradiso" is a wonderful film. I think it came out about 15-20 years ago. It's [about] a little boy in Sicily who helps work for this guy [who own] a little private movie house, and they show movies in the piazza. Italians lived for American movies — they lived through American film, and that was my mom. So her dream of America was all through these films that were always 10 years behind. They were getting movies that we had seen 20 years ago. But when I was growing up, my mom knew the name of every single American actor in every single old movie that you could possibly [name], so I became obsessed with old movies. And I would have dreamed to be an actress, but I never would have dared because that wasn't the family trade. So, with this musical theatre thing, I got to get closer to acting — what my instinct was heading toward.
Anyway, I auditioned [and] I got The Fantasticks. I got my Equity card, you know, Sullivan Street, the whole bit. Then I got sucked up — purely by accident — into daytime television on a principal contract. A casting person saw me at Goodspeed or something like that [and] thought I'd be right for daytime. I don't know how he made that [decision], but I became a daytime diva for three years and was married to Larry Bryggman, only one of the greatest actors we have. I didn't know who Larry Bryggman was. I was playing his wife, but I learned more from Larry Bryggman in three years than I would have in any acting school. Oh, he's a genius! And the way he works. Daytime is very hard work, and it's very fast work, and it's good training. So I did that for maybe two-and-a-half years, and then I started getting back into theatre, which is what I really wanted to do. And finally, several years later, I got Me and My Girl on Broadway. I replaced Ellen Foley, who had replaced Maryann Plunkett, and I played opposite Jimmy Brennan, who is the loveliest man on earth, and thus began the Broadway thing.
Question: You were also part of one of my favorite shows, Titanic.
Blazer: I'm glad you liked Titanic.
Question: The music in that show was so beautiful.
Blazer: It's lovely, isn't it? It really evoked that atmosphere, I thought.
Question: What was that experience like?
Blazer: In Titanic I had a leading lady role that I had trepidation about because the way she was written was rather uneven, and I had my questions as to whether she worked. Sure enough, she didn't. My whole song got cut, and the scene got cut, and Don [Stephenson] and I had this big duet, but they couldn't make the scene shift, and there were too many ballads. And then they wrote us a new song, which we had to do on alternate nights in previews. . . . So as great as the show ended up, it wasn't [what I thought it would be for my character]. I like to use my chops. It's like if you go to the gym to do a workout — I never go to the gym, so I don't know why I'm using this analogy — but it comes to mind. You go to the gym or a dance class to do a full body workout, and you end up just working your feet. And if you have to do that everyday, the rest of your body starts to die — it starts to atrophy. And that's what happens for me with my high energy if I don't really fully use what I have. . . . So I think Titanic was thrilling in that the show was powerful. The cast was unbelievable, and can I tell you, we all loved each other. Forty-four people in one small building, and we had such respect for each other, and we were constantly doing things together!
Question: It was an exciting year, too. I remember the cast was on "Rosie" a lot…
Blazer: Yeah! Well, thanks to Rosie — and really, only thanks to Rosie — that show not only stayed open but won five Tonys. I don't know if you remember, but our reviews were not good.
Question: Getting back to LoveMusik a bit, do you have a favorite moment for the character you're playing?
Blazer: I'll tell you what one of my favorite things is: watching Annie Morrison. Annie Morrison is an old Broadway veteran like me. She did Merrily We Roll Along — she was the original Mary. I've known Annie through the years. We did some recording together in England, and we rekindled our friendship a couple of years ago when she was doing a piece in Philly. Watching her — she has even more tracks than I do, absurd little characters that don't speak. We have names for all of them. Frequently I'm onstage with her or I'm off to the side watching her. I will tell you that is one of my biggest kicks in terms of moments in the show, is just watching her create these absurd, wonderful, diverse little characters. And also Rachel Ulanet who, can I tell you, my father Bat Mitzvah'd! How insane is that? My father was also a cantor at a temple in New Jersey by the shore . . . . So, Rachel was Bat Mitzvah'd by my daddy, and here we are in a show together. It's so delightful.
I [also] like my "Nanna's Lied" on the stairs — everybody laughs and calls it my 16 bars. I enjoy singing that. That music is very me. . . . I have to be honest: mostly, I change wigs and clothes. [Laughs.] That's really what I do in this one, but the backstage humor is constant hilarity, and that's fun. Oh, and the Pimp "Tango." I love doing the Pimp "Tango" — that's definitely my favorite besides "Nanna's Lied." Question: It's not a light piece. How has audience reaction been?
Blazer: Very mixed. People are, at times, confused by where the story is going, but they are nonetheless enamored by it. In other words, they're moved, but they don't always know why. They come out of sheer fascination and leave with that, but it has this sort of ephemeral quality that people can't quite articulate.
Question: You're also doing a concert on the 18th?
Blazer: Yes! Me and the gay men — love it! I'm just so thrilled about that. We did a radio show the other day, Joanna Gleason and Darius de Haas, who is probably one of the loveliest men on earth. Aside from being extremely talented, he's just such an elegant, sophisticated, warm person, and Joanna Gleason is my new favorite woman. I really just met her, got to talk with her for this radio interview. She's directing it, putting it together, and she is just the smartest, coolest woman. I've always loved her work, everything she does I love. And, ironically, her husband Chris Sarandon was in Piazza, and I wrote a lot of the Italian for Piazza.
Question: I didn't realize that.
Blazer: Yes. I wrote the Italian lyrics to the boy's song with Adam [Guettel]. . . . It was never intended to be in English. He had an idea of what he wanted to say, and so we did that. It was great fun. I loved it. Anyway, that's my association with her. I'm very excited about it, the music of Billy Strayhorn. They tend to do interesting gay artists of yesteryear and their music, but they've done more noted ones, and Billy Strayhorn is really an interesting story of a man who was always in the shadow of the greater people like Duke Ellington. But the Duke himself admitted that he couldn't do what he did without Billy Strayhorn.
Question: So what songs will you be doing?
Blazer: I'm definitely doing "Satin Doll," which I love. [Joanna] said I get to be the tomato of the evening. [Laughs.]
Question: You also mentioned you're working on some readings? Anything you can talk about?
Blazer: Yes. I've been working on a piece called Lady on a Carousel. Susan Schulman is directing, and we've done a couple of workshops of that, and we're doing some more. I think they're trying to bring it in.
Question: What's that about?
Blazer: It's very, very dear. In short, a kid from Bronx Science High School is encouraged to do his project with photography — shadow and light. He goes to the carousel in New York to take pictures, and he meets a woman that he doesn't realize is Marilyn Monroe. He befriends her, and his little school buddy, a little girl played by Natalie Paulding — Meredith Patterson has been playing Marilyn Monroe — plays his little sidekick, and she says to him, "This is Marilyn Monroe." And, so, it's all about their involvement with Marilyn. I play the boy's mother, and what I really like about the role is that when we see her, she's in a mental hospital. She's in a hospital for depression. It's around 1960, so depression was very differently regarded then, and she's getting shock treatment, which is how they dealt with it back then. This is how we see her. She's one minute very, very up and manic, and the next minute she's completely catatonic. This is how he knows his mother, but his father ends up explaining to him at a certain point in the show, he says, "You don't know who this woman was." And it turns out she was a baseball star in the women's league, and so there's a huge baseball number.
Question: Is it a musical?
Blazer: It's a big musical. We'll see where it goes. I know that they're working on it and, ironically, Marty Bell and Chase Mishkin are producers on it, and they're producing LoveMusik.
Question: What's the next plan with it?
Blazer: A reading in the summer. . . . I'll do the reading of Lady on a Carousel, and I'll sort of be hanging around with my mom a bit, and then I'm going to Cape Cod to do Lend Me a Tenor.
Question: So, you're busy!
Blazer: I'm good, I'm good. And, then I think I'm probably going to produce two readings at the end of September. I've been working on directing a show called The Deli, which we're going to try to get up. So it's kind of an eclectic career, but I like it that way. A friend of mine once said, "It's harder to shoot a moving target!"
[LoveMusik plays the Biltmore Theatre, 261 West 47th Street; call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com for tickets. Take the A Train will play the Nokia Theatre, 1515 Broadway at 44th Street, June 18 at 8 PM; call (212) 307-4100 or visit www.ticketmaster.com for tickets.]
FOR THE RECORD
"No One Is Alone" (Barbara Cook, DRG Records)
Barbara Cook, who will celebrate her 80th birthday in October, remains a wonder: Not only is her voice in top form, but the Tony-winning actress continues to perform in venues around the country. In fact, a quick glance at her official website lists concert dates through July 2008! She has also just released a beautiful new CD on the DRG label entitled "No One Is Alone."
If Cook's thrilling soprano isn't quite as rangy as it once was, her interpretative skills have only grown over the years. Just listen to the way she delivers Stephen Sondheim's "No More": She imbues the Into the Woods ballad with a dramatic intensity that makes the listener realize Cook truly understands the complications of a life filled with "witches," "curses," "wolves" and "giants." When she implores, "Can't we just pursue our lives/With our children and our wives?," it is extremely touching. There are also moving versions of "No One Is Alone" and "I Wish I Could Forget You" as well as a beautiful medley of "Long Before I Knew You" and "I Fall in Love Too Easily." The latter is especially poignant. She also tugs at the heartstrings in a pairing of two Sondheim gems: "One More Kiss" (from Follies) and the little-heard "Goodbye for Now" (from the film "Reds").
The 13-track disc also features a host of tunes that utilize Cook's natural sunniness and optimism, including the West Side Story favorite "Something's Coming," a syncopated version of Oklahoma!'s "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top" and a toe-tapping "Nobody Else But Me." The disc, which features musical direction, several arrangements and piano accompaniment by Eric Stern (with John Beal on bass and Jack Cavari on guitars), concludes with Leonard Bernstein's "Make Our Garden Grow." Cook is joined by The New York Virtuoso Singers and Broadway actors Kelli O'Hara and Sebastian Arcelus for a soaring version of the Candide anthem.
Curtains (Original Broadway Cast Recording, Broadway Angel)
Curtains, the new murder-mystery musical that received a 2007 Tony Award nomination for Best Musical, was recently released on CD on the Broadway Angel/Manhattan Records label. The musical comedy not only boasts a score by John Kander and the late Fred Ebb (with additional lyrics by Kander and Rupert Holmes), but also features a top-notch cast led by Broadway favorites Debra Monk, Karen Ziemba, Jason Danieley and new Tony winner David Hyde Pierce.
There are many treasures on the 22-track disc, the first new cast album of Kander and Ebb show music to arrive in a decade. Highlights include "Thinking of Him," a lovely trio for Ziemba, Danieley and Noah Racey; the triumphant ode to theatre, "Show People," that says, "It's an honor and a joy to be in show business"; the touching David Hyde Pierce-Jill Paice duet "Coffee Shop Nights"; the upbeat "Thataway"; and Debra Monk's show-stopping "It's a Business."
The score's most beautiful offering, however, may be "I Miss the Music," which seems as much a tribute from Kander to his late lyricist Ebb as it does a song about composer Aaron Fox (Danieley) missing his writing partner Georgia Hendricks (Ziemba): "I miss the music/ I miss my friend/ No need to ask me/ What I prefer/ I choose the music/ I wrote with her."
Tony Award winner Betty Buckley, who received raves for her recent "Singin' for My Supper" program at Feinstein's, will return to the Blue Note later this summer. The celebrated singing actress will play the famed Manhattan jazz club July 17-22 at 8:30 and 10:30 PM each night. Buckley will be backed by a trio that features musical director Kenny Werner on piano. There is a $20 cover charge at the bar and a $35 cover at the tables. The Blue Note is located in Manhattan at 131 West Third Street; for reservations call (212) 475-8592 or visit www.bluenote.net.
Hyperion will publish Julie Andrews' autobiography in April 2008. Variety columnist Army Archerd reported earlier this week that the Andrews tome will chronicle the Academy Award winner's life from childhood through age 27, when she began filming "Mary Poppins." Archerd says the book will be an open and honest account of her young life, as Andrews "unveils a childhood with abusive, alcoholic parents and her upward climb."
A concert version of Sweeney Todd will be presented next month to celebrate the reopening of the newly refurbished Royal Festival Hall. Directed by David Freeman, the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler work will play four performances July 5-7. Welsh opera star Bryn Terfel will head the cast in the title role with Olivier Award winner Maria Friedman as the pie-baking Mrs. Lovett. The cast will also include Adrian Thompson as Pirelli, Daniel Evans as Tobias, Steve Elias as The Beadle and Phillip Quast as Judge Turpin. The production will also feature the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Stephen Barlow, the Maida Vale Singers and the chorus from the Guildford School of Acting. For ticket information visit www.southbankcentre.co.uk.
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.