Lauren Kennedy has played leading roles on both sides of the Atlantic — Sunset Boulevard, Side Show and Les Misérables on Broadway and South Pacific for London’s Royal National Theatre — but she recently won what may be her highest profile, and perhaps most challenging, role to date: The Lady of the Lake in the 2005 Tony-winning Best Musical Monty Python’s Spamalot.
Kennedy succeeded Tony Award winner Sara Ramirez in the much-acclaimed musical Dec. 20, the same day a new King was crowned, when British actor Simon Russell Beale began his run as King Arthur, the role created on Broadway by Tim Curry. “I’m having the best time,” Kennedy says about her return to The Great White Way. “It’s such a fun show to do. Everyone’s so great and has been so supportive of the cast changes. Simon and I are obviously very different from Tim and Sara, and that’s been welcomed.
“I’m so happy to have the opportunity to play a part where I’m getting to stretch myself a little bit,” Kennedy adds. “It’s an absolute challenge every night. I’m getting to do some things that people don’t always cast me to do, and I’m thrilled.”
The Raleigh, NC, native admits, however, that she almost passed on the Lady of the Lake audition. “I hadn’t seen the show, but I knew Sara’s performance from the Tonys and I thought, ‘Really? Me? Am I right for this? . . . I’m not what they’re looking for.’” But, Kennedy explains, “the breakdown [for the role] said they weren’t looking for any [specific] ethnicity: Caucasian, Asian, African-American, Latino. It didn’t matter.” So, she auditioned, was called back and nabbed the role. When asked what is her favorite onstage moment in the Mike Nichols-directed production, Kennedy pauses and says, “Literally, they’re all my favorite for different reasons. I love the skits so much. ‘The Song That Goes Like This’ is so fun for me because I’ve done Andrew Lloyd Webber — I’ve done those shows. I also love the fact that the character — and I say ‘character’ loosely because she’s such a device — really moves the story in the show along. She’s sort of like the Puppet Master and Glinda the Good Witch all wrapped up in one! . . . And then she gets to come on in the middle of Act 2 [in ‘The Diva’s Lament’] and [say], ‘Alright, excuse me, but where am I?’”
Kennedy, in fact, has had the chance to sing several different lyrics in the aforementioned “Diva’s Lament,” where her character breaks the fourth wall to address the audience. During the second verse of the tune, the original Eric Idle-John Du Prez lyrics stated, “I am sick of my career/ always stuck in second gear/ up to here/ with frustration and with tears./ I've no Grammy, no rewards/ I've no Tony Awards/ I'm constantly replaced by Britney Spears.” Once Ramirez won the Tony, the creators updated the lyric to reflect that fact. “Eric had written me some new lyrics to sing,” says Kennedy. “My first couple weeks I sang, ‘My predecessor won awards, and now she’s in Betty Ford’s,’ which worked for [a while], and then I started to get a sense that people didn’t know what I was talking about. So then I went back to the original ones, ‘I have no Grammys, no rewards,’ and now I’m singing, ‘All our Tony Awards won’t keep me out of Betty’s Ford’s.’”
Although the singing actress says the role is quite demanding physically and vocally, Riley — her 22-month-old daughter with husband Alan Campbell — has actually helped her meet the challenge. “Vocal rest is not [a possibility.] I’m singing ‘Ring Around the Rosie’ with her every morning at 7 AM,” Kennedy laughs. “I have to say, in a way, because of that and because I really can’t worry about it, it’s actually made it easier. I think sometimes the more you fear vocal fatigue, the more you’ll get it. . . . But I definitely am stretching myself vocally more than I have with any part I’ve ever done. . . . The range is so wide, having to sing the high A at the end of the first song, and then to be riffing and be gravelly. It’s why it’s so fun, but it definitely can be exhausting.”
Kennedy says she didn’t know too much about Monty Python before she auditioned for the role, although husband Campbell “forced me to watch ‘The Holy Grail.’ . . . He sat me down one night to watch it, and I thought it was hilarious, irreverent and fantastic. But that was a couple of years ago. To be perfectly honest, I hadn’t seen Spamalot until the night before my callback. I wasn’t dying to see it because I didn’t know if I would get it or understand it. I think that the amazing revelation for people who come to see the show is that it’s not just for people who are Monty Python fans. It certainly has that element, but it’s also for the people who come to see it and [think], ‘I don’t know if this is going to be for me.’ They just absolutely love it because you don’t have to know all those skits. There are all the Broadway gags and making fun of itself, which reaches a whole other audience.”
While Spamalot will bring Kennedy’s name to thousands of theatregoers, she has been happy over the years to champion the work of composer Jason Robert Brown, whom she first encountered during an audition for his acclaimed two-hander The Last Five Years. “[At the audition], he gave me a demo of a couple of the songs to learn [from the show]. I heard that music and just freaked out. I hadn’t been that moved and excited about material in a long time. I remember listening to it over and over again thinking, ‘Oh my God. I love this song!’ I just wanted to call people and say, ‘Listen to this. It’s amazing!’
“We just struck up a great working relationship, a great friendship, [and] we seemed to speak the same language. Then I got to do The Last Five Years in Chicago before it came to New York, and we continued to build on this great foundation we had — of friendship and mutual respect. When I was unable to do [Last Five Years] when it came to New York, I just thought, ‘I can’t let this go. I have to keep working with him’ because so much of his music does speak to me, and it’s the kind of stuff that I really want to say. His style is something that I felt really fit me, and I didn’t want that to be over, and I certainly wanted to be a part of what he’s about. And when people go look through his canon of music, I wanted to be a part of that.”
Kennedy, in fact, decided to spotlight the songs of Brown on her debut solo recording, which was simply titled “Lauren Kennedy: Songs of Jason Robert Brown.” About that critically hailed disc Kennedy says, “I’m so proud of it. I’m really so proud of all my work with him. I love going out and doing concerts with him and introducing his music to new audiences and also singing it for people who know him really well. It’s just so rewarding working with him because he sets the bar really, really high. He’s always going for the best musicians and the most intricate arrangements. The lyrics are just so clever, and the music is so fantastic. He really writes for singers. He writes great for himself, he writes great for women. I feel like I’m so taken care of when I’m with him.”
What prevented Kennedy from being part of the New York cast of Last Five Years — her role eventually went to Sherie Rene Scott — was the Royal National Theatre production of South Pacific, which she says was “an amazing learning experience — playing a part like Nellie Forbush on that kind of level, this institution. It was fantastic getting to work with [co-star] Philip Quast and [director] Trevor Nunn. I felt like I was going to acting class every day.” Though she says she was a bit intimidated at the beginning of the process, Kennedy says that “once you get into the rehearsals, into the spirit of it, all that goes away. You just are working on the piece and connecting with the other people, and it becomes like anything else. It doesn’t matter where you do a show — if you do it at the National Theatre, if you do it on Broadway, if you do it in regional theatre, you’re still just a bunch of actors and directors and creative people sitting around trying to tell a story. . . . I love dispelling all that sort of hype about working at these amazing places and on this high level, because it’s really just exactly the same as performing anywhere.”
Another favorite experience for the actress was Side Show, the Henry Krieger-Bill Russell musical about the difficult life of conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton. Kennedy was the standby for Emily Skinner, who created the role of Daisy Hilton, and had the chance to perform that role opposite Alice Ripley on several occasions. “It was the perfect standby situation for a number of reasons,” Kennedy relates. “I loved the show. Those two girls were just great parts. And, Emily and Alice were so fantastic in those roles. Emily was so supportive and so incredibly gracious to me, and we’ve continued to stay good friends and worked together a number of times since. Talk about a demanding role — that was belting your face off all night! . . . And, Alice and I had had a friendship before from Sunset Boulevard, so we had a built-in sisterly vibe. I loved being a part of it. It was too short lived, but maybe it will have more of a life somewhere down the road.”
Kennedy, who says she was five when she performed in her first musical — Carousel — said she was bitten by the acting bug early. “My parents loved theatre — they were always big supporters of theatre and loved Broadway and would bring us up to see shows every year at Thanksgiving. We’d see five shows in four days and do these marathons. It just was really, really ingrained in me and just part of my lifestyle, and so there was no question for me. It was absolutely what I wanted to do.
“When I got to be about 12, I thought, ‘Oh, people [can] actually get paid and do this for a living, and it’s not just some fun extracurricular activity,’ and that’s when it started dawning on me that it was how I wanted to spend my life. I was so fortunate to have an Equity theatre in my hometown, the North Carolina Theatre, which is where Terrence Mann was artistic director for a while. I grew up doing their summer program and started doing shows on the mainstage when I was about 12 and got to work with professionals, [and] some people I work with now. I did a show with Casey Nicholaw when I was 18, and now he’s a choreographer and a director, [and I’m] working with him on Spamalot. I was so lucky to have that because so much of it has come full circle. I got to do Les Miz with Terry [Mann] at the end of the run. I’ve known him since I was 13. It’s amazing how that really played such a huge part in my education.”
And that education has certainly paid off. The multitalented performer has a career she loves and says she is equally in love with her newest role as mother to young Riley. “I love being a mother so much, and I love being an actor so much, so I feel really full. And I also have an amazing husband, who is an amazing father and is very much a 50-50 partner. . . . [Riley is] just so smart and so funny, and I feel like we’ve learned a lot from her. She’s teaching us so much about ourselves and being human beings and what’s important. I really think it’s only made me better, made me stronger.”
As for the future, Kennedy says she and husband Campbell hope to do more onstage work together. To further that goal the couple has created a concert act entitled Beyond Broadway. “We did it down in North Carolina and a couple other places,” Kennedy says. “Just last week we did a presentation at a cabaret conference, and we’re hoping to go out and do concert evenings starting next fall as we much as we can because we love working together. Any time I can get onstage and sing with him is just great because we have a great comfort zone, and we have chemistry, and it’s really, really fun.”
[Spamalot plays the Shubert Theatre, 225 West 44th Street. For tickets call (212) 239-6200.]
THE PUBLIC SINGS
The Public Sings, the Jan. 30 City Center concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Off-Broadway institution created by the late Joe Papp, was a wonderful evening that featured some of the most famous names of stage and screen. Seamlessly directed by James Lapine the two-act show, which paid tribute to the wide array of musicals that began life at the Public Theater, got off to a thrilling start with a bevy of young performers re-creating A Chorus Line’s opening dance audition sequence. After enjoying a few minutes of the late Michael Bennett’s dazzling choreography, Bring in ’da Noise/Bring in ’da Funk star Savion Glover and a few of members of his dancing troupe — featured on a raised platform — performed an exciting tap routine as the Chorus Line members watched. Eventually all onstage were dancing to the funky beat as the sold-out crowd burst into applause.
A large screen that was featured throughout the evening displayed an image of the late Papp, as Betty Buckley — flanked by back-up singers Norm Lewis and Cheyenne Jackson — delivered a spirited version of William Finn’s “Joe Pap”: "Joe Papp/never took crap/Even from Robert Moses. . ." As Idina Menzel began singing “Awaiting You” from Adam Guettel’s Saturn Returns, she was interrupted by screen star Zach Braff, who said the song was inappropriate at this point in the program. Instead, Braff — who was joined by Menzel, Norm Lewis and Rosie Perez — offered A Chorus Line’s tribute to the vocally challenged, “Sing!”
Billy Porter riffed his way through “Let Romance Die” from Finn’s Romance in Hard Times, and Chuck Cooper led a dancing and singing chorus in a passionate and poignant version of “Bring All the Boys Back Home” from Two Gentlemen of Verona. Tony winner Buckley returned to the stage with a powerful version of “Old Friend,” the touching ballad from I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road that insists “love is rare, life is strange, nothing lasts, people change.”
Several songs from Gerome Ragni, James Rado and Galt MacDermot’s Hair, originally billed as “an American Tribal Love-Rock Musical,” followed. Former Renter Daphne Rubin-Vega and an all-female chorus kicked things off with “Good Morning Starshine,” which was followed by Natalie Portman’s sweet rendition of “Frank Mills.” Powerful (and gender-reversed) versions of “White Boys” and “Black Boys,” led, respectively, by Destan Owens and Cheyenne Jackson, were a crowd pleaser, and Meryl Streep had a great time singing the virtues of “Sodomy.” Braff and Portman returned for a duet of “Initials,” and Rubin-Vega belted out “Easy to Be Hard.” The Hair segment concluded with a reprise of “Good Morning Starshine.”
Lea DeLaria scatted her way through On the Town’s “New York, New York,” and Donna Murphy received one of the evening’s biggest ovations with her intense, teary-eyed rendition of Threepenny Opera’s “Pirate Jenny.” Several songs from The Pirates of Penzance, which featured a delightfully hammy Marc Kudisch as the Pirate King, concluded the first act. The Pirates medley also boasted performances by Murphy, DeLaria and former artistic director George C. Wolfe, who made a surprise appearance singing revised lyrics to “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General.” Elaine Stritch, in her now-famous black leotard and white shirt, began the second act with her terrific opening number from Elaine Stritch at Liberty. Stritch, who said she was unexpectedly nervous, joked that she had just performed her show’s opening number and would now do the closing number — a touching “Something Good” — but we would have to pay to see anything in between. The crowd showered her with applause.
A stage full of talented children from the National Dance Institute lit up the stage dancing and singing their way through “Let Me Be a Kid” from Elizabeth Swados’ “Runaways.” Another young performer, In My Life’s Brynn Williams — unfazed by a technical problem that forced her to begin her song a second time — then delivered a beautiful rendition of Caroline, or Change’s “I Hate the Bus.”
“Sex and the City” star and stage veteran Cynthia Nixon had fun with A Chorus Line’s “Dance: 10; Looks: 3,” and Betty Buckley and Donna Murphy, both in drag, returned for a song from The Mystery of Edwin Drood. How exciting to hear the show’s original Drood (Buckley) and her successor (Murphy) belt out that show’s finale, “The Writing on the Wall”!
Idina Menzel finally had the chance to let loose the power of her vocals on Saturn Returns’ “Awaiting You.” When she finished, Ben Stiller came out from the wings and joined her for an encore of “Sing!” that also featured the return of Norm Lewis, Rosie Perez and Zach Braff.
Lillias White, backed by the Total Praise Choir of Emmanuel Baptist Church, raised the roof with a gospel version of “There Is a Shout,” and Eartha Kitt drew cheers with her Wild Party anthem, “When It Ends.” Adriane Lenox displayed the power of her voice on Caroline, or Change’s “16 Feet Beneath the Sea,” and Mary Testa, also in thrilling voice, offered “There Must Be a Miracle” from the Public’s recent production of See What I Wanna See.
Lenox, Menzel and eventually the entire company performed a spirit-raising medley of Hair’s “Aquarius” and “Let the Sun Shine In.” After that powerful finale, Mike Nichols and Meryl Streep offered a lovely version of On the Town’s “Some Other Time,” which was followed by Oskar Eustis’ thank yous and a brief, heartfelt remembrance of Wendy Wasserstein, the award-winning playwright who has left us much too early.
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.