A few months ago I was honored to be asked to write the liner notes for two forthcoming CDs on the Broadway Masterworks label, "Broadway Scene Stealers: The Women" and "Broadway Scene Stealers: The Men," which both arrive in stores April 3. The new recordings — created in partnership with Playbill — draw from the immense catalogs of Sony Classical/Columbia Masterworks and RCA Victor and are the first in a series of "Editors' Choice" compilations.
As much as I enjoyed writing the notes for "The Men" collection, it was, of course, the CD of "The Women" that was more exciting for this diva lover. Although I was familiar with most of the wonderful tracks, there were a few that were new to me, including the "Ooh! My Feet" of Susan Johnson, whose voice throbs with emotion and warmth; and Linda Hopkins' soulful sounds on Inner City's "Deep in the Night." After listening to the 12-track recording several times, I decided that "Scene Stealers" are really those actors who inhabit a character and a song so completely and with such originality that it's hard to imagine anyone else playing that role.
It was also a true pleasure to get to chat with five of the women featured on the new collection for this week's column: D'Jamin Bartlett and Tony winners Betty Buckley, Randy Graff, Debbie Gravitte and Debra Monk. Those interviews, which offer a look back in time at the songs featured on "Broadway Scene Stealers: The Women," follow.
* * * *
The Scene Stealer: D'Jamin Bartlett
The Show: A Little Night Music
(Shubert Theatre, opened Feb. 25, 1973)
The Song: "The Miller's Son"
The Story: Next to Company's "Getting Married Today," A Little Night Music's "The Miller's Son" may be the most harrowing challenge for any musical theatre performer. Take a look at one of the several verses of this Stephen Sondheim tongue-twister:
"It's a wink and a wiggle and a giggle in the grass
And I'll trip the light Fandango,
A pinch and a diddle in the middle of what passes by.
It's a very short road from the pinch and the punch
To the paunch and the pouch and the pension.
It's a very short road to the ten-thousandth lunch.
And the belch and the grouch and the sigh."
D'Jamin Bartlett, who made her Broadway bow as Petra in A Little Night Music, debuted "The Miller's Son" on Broadway, earning both a Theatre World Award and a Drama Desk Award for Most Promising Performer for her work in the musical suggested by Ingmar Bergman's film "Smiles of a Summer Night."
Although she never forgot the Sondheim lyrics on Broadway — "I think God was truly sitting on my shoulder," Bartlett says — she does admit one performance in the musical's national tour that she will never forget. "It was one of the tours with Jean Simmons playing Desiree Armfeldt," Bartlett remembers, "[and] I re-created Petra, and it was in the round [where] people have a tendency to talk — it was part of the tent circuit. There was a woman in the front row, and I started the song, and I hear her say, 'Oh! That's the girl that did it on Broadway!' Well, my brain turned to guacamole, and I started doing [gibberish lyrics] — whatever could come out! I had no idea what was coming out of my mouth. She immediately turned to her partner and said, 'Oh, now she sings it in Swedish!'
"That's an absolute true story," Bartlett says with a big laugh. "Jean Simmons laughed so hard, she couldn't even come back out onstage. She was just convulsing. . . . And the poor guy under me, the [actor playing] Frid, he was choking to death! We crawled offstage; we were both hysterical. And then, after the fact, I got totally hysterical and cried in my dressing room, but I think it made theatre history."
Bartlett was actually not the first actress cast in the role of Petra. "I replaced a young lady who was having difficulty with the song," she explains. "It is a very hard song. It's really not her fault. It's a real mother [of a] song to try to pull off," she laughs.
"I was down in Washington, D.C., doing Godspell, which was actually my first real professional theatrical experience. I was at Ford's Theatre, and I got a call from the [Harold] Prince office to come up and just audition for the show — they didn't really go into details. So I flew up to Boston, where the show was premiering. . . . I went in and sang an audition piece for Sondheim and Prince and then landed the part. I went in with about a day's rehearsal in Boston, for the matinee. They were pinning the costume on me because I was trying to fit into somebody else's shoes, somebody else's clothing. So I did that, and then I did the evening show, and then went back to New York, and I believe we opened that Tuesday."
Bartlett, who currently resides in Florida, says her Broadway opening was especially exciting because as a film buff, she knew well Bergman's "Smiles of a Summer Night." "And, on opening night he was there," she says. "I got to meet Ingmar Bergman and [the woman] who had played Petra in the film . . . so I was just in my glory meeting those two. . . . [And], my parents were there, and they were so proud, and it was beautiful. . . . It was an incredible experience. I was very lucky, and I think the girl [who I replaced] went on to do some TV in Hollywood, so she was lucky, too. So that's how that story wound up."
Over 30 years later, Bartlett had the chance to revisit the song at the Standing Ovations IV benefit concert at Joe's Pub in October 2005 that was directed by Richard Jay-Alexander. "[Richard] kept saying, 'It's going to be wonderful, it's going to be fabulous — don't you worry a thing about it!' . . . I said, 'Look, Richard, I have to go back into this, and let me see [what happens].' So I was singing [the song] at home and [thought], 'Oh, I kinda remember this,' so I said, 'Okay, count me in!' I absolutely love him. He's been a good friend of mine for 32 years, and that's really quite an amazing feat, especially in our business, to really make a chum like that. . . . When they announced my name [at Joe's Pub] and the people were so kind when I came out, that's when the shakes started. Then you get nervous and you think, 'Now I have to do it! I have to live up to what they saw all those years ago! How am I gonna do this?' This is all going through your mind, and meanwhile, they're playing the first four bars. . . . It was so much fun actually, and the beautiful thing about it was it reunited [my] whole family."
The Sequel: Bartlett and her partner Mark Bornfield opened a music business in Florida several years ago. The duo perform at various functions and Bartlett says, "What's wonderful is learning all the different types of music — the Whitney Houstons and the Mariah Careys and Celine Dion, and getting to sing all of that stuff now. We do it with a six-piece band. . . . We go out as a duo, and we have all of that high-tech equipment that you would imagine. And it's a huge industry down here in Florida because our weather is so pretty. . . . We've been flown all over the world to perform as a duo, for conventions, for IBM, for Walt Disney. . . . We've been lucky again." For more information visit markbornfieldmusic.com.
* * * *
One would be hard-pressed to find a sound more beautiful than Betty Buckley singing the opening verse of "He Plays the Violin." It's no wonder that the Texas native landed her first Broadway role after her first Broadway audition on her very first day in New York City.
"I had an agent that signed me when I was a junior in college, and through his persistence I came to New York," Buckley says, "[and] on my first day in town, he had an audition for me for 1776, and I got the part!" The Tony-winning actress says her audition song was "Rose of Washington Square," and she was actually taught "He Plays the Violin" at that initial audition.
"[When] I sang ['He Plays the Violin']," Buckley recalls, "[I sang], 'And he bows [as in taking a bow],' as opposed to, 'Oh, he bows [as in playing a stringed instrument].' They thought that was very funny, and they also had to teach me how to say 'volume.' I had a lot of Texas accent issues that they had to teach me how to overcome!"
In order to play Martha Jefferson, Buckley also faced another obstacle: "Onna White, the brilliant choreographer, had to teach me how to float in my panniers," says the former Cats and Sunset Boulevard star. "In 1776 [there were] big panniers on either side of my dress. In my opening night in New Haven — I'm supposed to come sweeping through the door like this young, beautiful girl — and I got my panniers stuck in the door and . . . came falling down the stairs . . . [and] kind of lurched out onstage, and it was pretty funny. So they re-costumed me and changed a lot of aspects of the scene, and I remember long rehearsals where all I did was run across the studio back and forth, and [Onna] would be yelling at me, 'Float, Betty, float! You look like a track star. You're not running track — you're floating!'"
Because she was one of the few characters not in the pivotal Continental Congress scenes, Buckley feared that after her New Haven pannier experience, her part might be cut. "There were three parts that were separate from the Continental Congress," Buckley says. "One was the 'Doozy Lamb,' which was played by Carole Prandis, who was married to Stephen Schwartz, and the other was the drummer boy [the Courier], played by Scott Jarvis, [who sings] 'Momma Look Sharp.' And then there was Martha Jefferson, and so all of us were very concerned that our parts were going to be cut. After that night in New Haven, I was just humiliated, and [producer] Stuart Ostrow came to me and said that my job was secure and that the costume would be fixed and the [song] was going to be re-orchestrated. In the end they did cut the Doozy Lamb, the prostitute that had a scene with Benjamin Franklin."
After New Haven, things only got better for Buckley. "They changed everything by the time we went to Washington, D.C. The scene was different, the orchestration was different, the costume was different, the wig was different, everything was different. It became very charming in Washington, and then we got rave reviews in New York."
And, what does Buckley remember about her first Broadway opening? "The first night was really exciting. [Director] Peter Hunt and [producer] Stuart Ostrow gave us this pep talk. . . .The opening night was really a thrill. [After the show], I came running across the stage as the hairdresser was getting my wig off and helping me get ready for the party, and I ran into Katharine Hepburn, and I [thought], 'Oh, my God!' Literally, I came running across the stage, and there she was, and I was like, 'Oh, my heavens. This is pretty neat!'"
The Sequel: Buckley is currently dazzling audiences during a two-week engagement at Feinstein's at the Regency in a show simply titled Singin' for My Supper. "We're also working on a new collection of music for the Seattle Symphony," Buckley says. "We're doing five performances with them in early May." For more information visit www.bettybuckley.com.
* * * *
The Scene Stealer: Randy Graff
The Show: City of Angels
(Virginia Theatre, opened Dec. 11, 1989)
The Song: "You Can Always Count on Me"
"Cy and I just wrote you a showstopper!"
Those are the words that lyricist David Zippel uttered to Randy Graff a month before she started rehearsals for Zippel and Cy Coleman's City of Angels. "He actually said that," Graff recalls with a laugh, "and I thought, 'Oooh, no pressure!' I was excited, but I thought, 'Okay, I'd better deliver. They're calling it a showstopper, so I'd better come up with the goods!'" And, deliver she did. In fact, Graff won the 1990 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her performance in the dual roles of Donna and Oolie and, most notably, her comedic, thrilling rendition of "You Can Always Count on Me."
It was during her callback for City of Angels when Graff first had an inkling about the song that would become her signature tune. "Cy asked me if I knew 'Nobody Does It Like Me,' and I said it was the first audition song I ever learned. I couldn't remember the words — this was before 'You Can Always Count on Me' was written — and I think he knew what he was going to write and that 'Nobody Does It Like Me' was the prototype for it. So I remember singing it on the stage and not remembering the lyrics and him calling them out to me from the audience," she laughs.
"The first time I was given ['You Can Always Count on Me']," Graff continues, "Cy sang it to me, taught it to me and gave me little hints on phrasing that, till this day, whenever I sing this song, I still phrase it the way I heard him sing it . . . just emphasis on certain words and dragging certain words that really stayed in my memory. He's such a jazzer, you know, so he was really giving me that sense of the song when he presented it to me. But the song [originally] didn't have a verse. It didn't have, 'I'm one of a long line of good girls…' It didn't have that verse for the longest time."
In fact, it wasn't until technical rehearsals prior to the musical's Nov. 21, 1989, first preview that the verse arrived. "We were in tech," Graff says, "and I was onstage, and Cy and David were kind of noodling on the piano in the pit. They said, 'Randy, come on down here. Just try this,' and they were writing the verse. We just sang through the verse, and that's how it was born. They wrote it in the middle of the tech rehearsal. . . . I was excited because it was exactly what the song needed. The melody was just so pretty, and it just tied everything together."
Graff also remembers the very first day of rehearsals for City of Angels, which boasted a cast that also included James Naughton, Gregg Edelman, Dee Hoty and Rachel York. "[Cy and David] sang through the entire [score]," Graff says, "and I knew that I was a part of something really, really special. It was just so sort of old school, the way they presented the whole score to us. I'd been in other shows, and I never recall [that happening] … Well, the only other original show that I [had been in] was Les Miz, but we all knew that score from London. So I think I thought, 'Well, this is the way it's always done! When you do a brand-new Broadway show, the composer and the lyricist just [sing the whole score].' It was very kind of Betty [Comden] and Adolph [Green]. It was really old school, it was very cool. And let me tell you, Cy does a really great job with 'With Every Breath I Take.'"
And, what about Tony night? "I remember making my speech and being so preoccupied with the fact that I had to change quickly into my Oolie outfit so that we could [perform] 'What You Don't Know About Women,'" Graff says. "We actually used to rehearse it and time it at the theatre. I would run from my dressing room down the stairs, all the way down to the basement into the Green Room, and do the change down in the Green Room and see how long it took us to do it — and we had it down! And, it wound up that Kevin Kline took a lot more time with his Hamlet monologue, so we had much more time than that!
"It hadn't really hit [me that I'd won the Tony] until we performed the Finale, and Dee Hoty, who is a very dear friend, turned to me and said, 'Randy, you just won the Tony!' . . . I remember after getting the award — they take [the Tony] from you right away — and you go through this crazy line of press. I wound up outside and couldn't get back into the theatre, and I was banging on the door saying, 'Let me in! I just won a Tony — you have to let me in!' So that was funny. It was a great night."
The Sequel: Graff is currently out in Los Angeles for pilot season and is also looking for her newest theatre project. Meanwhile, fans of the talented actress can check her out in April when she begins a recurring role on the new ABC series "Notes From the Underbelly," which stars Wonderful Town's Jennifer Westfeldt. "I play her boss," says Graff. "I'm the principal of the Beverly Hills high school where she works as the guidance counselor."
* * * *
The Scene Stealer: Debbie Gravitte
The Show: Jerome Robbins' Broadway
(Imperial Theatre, opened Feb. 26, 1989)
The Song: "Mr. Monotony"
The Story: Debbie Gravitte was in Los Angeles when she received a call to audition for Jerome Robbins' Broadway, the musical that would earn her a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. "Beau [Gravitte] and I had gotten married, and we decided to go to L.A. I got a call about the show, and they said they would see me in L.A. I believe [the audition was for] Cynthia Onrubia and Jerry Mitchell, and I had to learn three songs — and one of them was 'Mr. Monotony.' I learned the song from John McDaniel, who was just a pianist at the time. . . . I went in and I sang the songs, and they were like, 'We're gonna fly you to New York!'"
Gravitte returned to New York, where she learned yet another song plus four dances and three scenes. "I had to keep learning more and more material," she laughs. It was at that New York audition where she first performed for Jerome Robbins, whose musical history was saluted in Jerome Robbins' Broadway, a show that offered musical numbers from shows that had been directed and/or choreographed by the late Tony winner: Look Ma, I'm Dancin'; High Button Shoes; The King and I; On the Town; Billion Dollar Baby; A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum; Gypsy; Fiddler on the Roof; Peter Pan, West Side Story and Miss Liberty.
It was from the latter that "Mr. Monotony" — Gravitte's show-stopping song — was first dropped; it was later cut from Call Me Madam and the Judy Garland film "Easter Parade." As for the evolution of her big number in Jerome Robbins' Broadway, Gravitte says, "When I did 'Mr. Monotony,' I did a little, tiny bit of movement. And I kept doing the exact same thing, basically from my audition, [that] morphed into what I did, which was very little [movement]. Now we're in rehearsal, and [Robbins has] choreographed the dance that's going to follow it. I turned to him and I said, 'Jerry, when are you going to choreograph my song?' [He says], 'Oh, no, no, no! That's it! What you're doing, that's it. You've already done it.' And so that was it," Gravitte adds with a laugh.
Did she feel that was a compliment or did she want more movement for the song? "I'm going to say a little of both," Gravitte says. "As we got closer to opening, I knew [Robbins] better and better, so I ended up knowing where I stood. But at the beginning, you were like, 'He hates me, he loves me, he loves me, he hates me!' . . . [But] by a certain point on the timeline, I knew he loved me. . . . It just reminded me of when I was in high school. I was lucky enough to be the lead in the school shows, and [my teacher/director] . . . [would] always be working with the [male] lead. And I remember saying to him, 'Why aren't you helping me?' and he said, 'Because you know what you're doing. Because I don't have to worry about you.' But of course, to me, it felt like he didn't like me as much, and that's what it felt like [in the beginning] with Jerry."
Gravitte also remembers that during the lengthy six-month rehearsal process, Robbins often liked to end the day with Gypsy's "You Gotta Have a Gimmick," which featured Gravitte as Mazeppa, Faith Prince as Tessie and Susann Fletcher as Electra. "We rehearsed long hours," says Gravitte, "and he always wanted to do 'Gimmick' at the end of the day. When we were all so tired and ready to go home, he'd pinch me and go, 'Gimmick!' And we'd have to do it. And the thing about Jerry Robbins was there was no marking. You didn't casually do a song, you did it full out! So there we were, ready to pack it in, and we had to give a Broadway performance.
"He wanted to feel good, and he knew there were no problems with [that number]. He knew the casting was perfect, and he knew Faith was gonna make 'em laugh, and Susann Fletcher and myself. He felt great about that."
The actress, whose Broadway credits also include Les Misérables, Zorba and They're Playing Our Song, says she never forgot the words to "Mr. Monotony," although "the night they were shooting the B-role [footage], my zipper broke. So as I was singing, all I was thinking about was, 'Oh my God, is my f*&!*& dress gonna fall off me?' I haven't seen the B-role in a long time," she laughs, "but I think I have somewhat of a look of terror in my eyes."
As for Tony night, Gravitte says, "Oh, my God. It was great! Although I realized that my biggest faux pas was that I was so excited that I failed to mention my husband's name. I kinda went, 'and my husband!' after giving him my gum from my mouth! . . . But I never expected to win, so it really was thrilling — it was unbelievably thrilling."
When looking back on the experience and the chance to work with one of the legends of Broadway musical theatre, Gravitte says, "It feels really great. It feels amazing, and the caliber of that cast — I mean, that entire cast from Jerome Robbins' Broadway is like a footnote in history. They have populated most of the shows the last 15 years."
The Sequel: In addition to her concert work that brings her all across the country, Gravitte also hopes to bring Big Band Broadway to Broadway. "I have a producer I'm working with," she says. "My idea originally was to have Broadway guest stars every week, so it would be an ongoing thing that people could come see [again and again]." For more information visit www.debbiegravitte.com.
* * * *
Thank goodness for group sales presentations. Without them, "Everybody's Girl" — Debra Monk's scene-stealing song in Kander and Ebb's Steel Pier — may have never gotten its full due.
"When we did our first workshop [of Steel Pier]," Monk explains, "I did ['Everybody's Girl'] up on the bandstand, and it was a song that was interrupted by Kristin Chenoweth's character as she caused a ruckus . . . so the song was never finished — it just would stop. I remember being very frustrated by that, thinking, 'Wow, that's such a great song. It's too bad it's not finished.'
"I remember talking to [director] Scott [Ellis] about it," Monk continues. "I called him [and] very carefully I said, 'You know, I just want to say out loud [that] I think this is great song. I think we should finish it.' And he said, 'Well, you know, we're trying to tell the story,' and I said, 'I understand. I just want to say it out loud once, and I'll never say it again. I'll do whatever we want to do.' And then there was a group sales situation, and they wanted to do a presentation for group sales. Of course, that song hadn't been finished because it was supposed to be interrupted, and they decided, 'Well, for group sales let's finish it, and we'll do it and we'll just put Deb centerstage.' It got a great response and, after that, it was put in the show as a full song!"
Asked whether she thinks the song may not have been completed without that presentation, Monk says, "Who knows? These are really smart people. What I've found in this business [is] when you're working with smart people, you must allow them to try whatever they want to try. Even though you may think, 'Oh, I don't know why they're doing this,' you gotta try it, because you can't [always] see the full picture. And, like I said, these are really smart people, and when they tell me to do something, I always do it. And, many, many times, they're totally right. Even though I may not see it, they're right. Who knows what would have happened, if they would have changed it [later], but that did happen with that song. And it was just very exciting."
One thing Monk does know is that the late Fred Ebb is responsible for her wonderful performance of "Everybody's Girl." "This is the total truth," says the Tony-winning actress. "When I was first asked to do the first reading I did of Steel Pier, it was up in the Nederlander office, and Johnny and Fred always would sing the score. We were just reading the piece, and they would sing the score, and that's how they always did it. Fred sang 'Everybody's Girl,' and I remember thinking, 'Okay, this man is so brilliant,' and I just took everything he did — every single phrasing, every pause. . . . I did that song just like Fred did it! So, everything you hear in me with that song is a combination of what Fred taught me and any kind of move that [choreographer] Susan Stroman taught me. I mean, that was it. That's how I learned it."
Monk still enjoys singing the bawdy tune, which features such lyrics as "So, don't go rattling any sabers, exerting any labors. Just share me with the neighbors. I'm everybody's girl." "[I sing it] all the time, which is a thrill," Monk says. "I actually just sang it last week. John and Fred were honored at the Morgan Library, and I sang it there. I sing it all the time, and I love it. It's a great, great song."
The Sequel: Well, Monk is it again! She's currently stealing the show nightly at Curtains, the new John Kander-Fred Ebb-Rupert Holmes-Peter Stone musical at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. The song this time out? "It's a Business." "The fact that we actually got to Broadway is so exciting," Monk says about Curtains, which was completed after Ebb's death in 2004, "and hopefully we'll get a chance to run it. And, if we do, I happily want to be in it. I've signed for a year, so I hope I get to do it for a year. It'd be just great!"
* * * *
The complete track listing for "Broadway Scene Stealers: The Women" follows:
Susan Johnson: "Ooh! My Feet" from The Most Happy Fella
Nell Carter: "Cash for Your Trash" from Ain't Misbehavin'
Linda Hopkins: "Deep in the Night" from Inner City
Betty Buckley: "He Plays the Violin" from 1776
D'Jamin Bartlett: "The Miller's Son" from A Little Night Music
Jane Connell: "Gooch's Song" from Mame
Barbra Streisand: "Miss Marmelstein" from I Can Get it For You Wholesale
Dorothy Loudon: "Little Girls" from Annie
Debra Monk: "Everybody's Girl" from Steel Pier
Debbie Shapiro [Gravitte]: "Mr. Monotony" from Jerome Robbins' Broadway
Mary McCarty: "When You're Good to Mama" from Chicago
Randy Graff: "You Can Always Count On Me" from City of Angels
To purchase "Scene Stealers" online right now visit www.playbillstore.com.
For more information visit www.sonybmgmasterworks.com.
* * * *
To read about the men featured on the new CD "Broadway Scene Stealers: The Men," click here.
* * * *
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.