DIVA TALK: Chatting with Thunderbird's Suzanne Somers Plus News of Peters, Callaway and Menzel

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Thunderbird's Suzanne Somers Plus News of Peters, Callaway and Menzel News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Suzanne Somers
Suzanne Somers Photo by Jeff Katz

SUZANNE SOMERS

In a career that has spanned more than three decades, Suzanne Somers — perhaps best known for her role as Chrissy Snow, the ditzy blonde with a heart of gold on TV's "Three's Company" — has flourished in most every area in and out of show business. The actress and entrepreneur has triumphed on the big and small screen; has published five New York Times bestsellers, including her autobiography "Keeping Secrets"; has created an entire Somersize brand, which includes beauty, fitness and weight-loss products; and has performed an award-winning concert act in Las Vegas and around the country. Now, Somers, a breast-cancer survivor, is ready to tackle another challenge — the Broadway stage — when she begins performances July 8 in her one-woman musical show The Blonde in the Thunderbird at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. Penned by TV veterans Ken and Mitzie Welch, the show, which will play a limited engagement through Sept. 3, takes its title from the 1973 cult classic "American Graffiti," which featured Somers as the mysterious blonde driving a white Thunderbird in the George Lucas film. I recently had the chance to chat by phone with Somers, who comes across as good-spirited, thoughtful and well aware of the ups and downs of life in and out of the spotlight; that brief interview follows.

Question: How did the idea for The Blonde in the Thunderbird come about?
Suzanne Somers: In the best way possible — it was not part of the agenda. [Laughs.] I hired Ken and Mitzie Welch, who are the last of their kind. If you ever loved "The Carol Burnett Show," they wrote all those great musical numbers — that great "Gone with the Wind" [sketch]. They won 16 Emmys between them . . . they're just fantastic. In fact, Ken Welch was the first person that ever put Barbra Streisand on television, so these people go all the way back. I had hired them 15 years ago to punch up my [Las Vegas] act. We sat and talked and sat and talked, and they came back and they had written me this 15-minute production number of my getting the part in "American Graffiti." And, it was fantastic, except that I was doing a jazz act. It was so Broadway-esque that I couldn't slug it into my act. It just didn't work, so I put it on the shelf. And, several years later they started working with Barry Manilow, who is my best friend, and he called me one day and he said, "They played me that piece they wrote for you. If you just did that . . ." [I thought] I should hire them to do a whole act around that. So we sat and talked for days, weeks, months, and they started turning in material to me. One day I said, "This isn't an act. This is a one-woman show!" And, we all kind of realized that it is, and that's how this came to be, and it's just been the past intense four years of working on it — this labor of love and joy and creativity. And it's exciting. I love this piece so much!

Q: Did the Welches base it primarily on your autobiography?
Somers: We sat and talked, but they read both of my autobiographies. I think I still have another couple in me. [Laughs.] And then [there was] a lot of dialogue. Do you know what a schmo is — those punching bags? My brother had one when he was a little boy — it's a life-size punching bag, and it's got sand in the bottom. When you punch it, it goes down and bounces back up. You punch it, it bounces back up. Even if my brother and I would jump on it and lay on the floor and hold it down, as soon as we would get up, it would bounce back up. And that's pretty much how I liken my life to that. I've had a lot of knock-downs, a lot of fists in the gut like we all have, and somehow I've landed on my feet, and I'm happy. It's such a story of it doesn't matter where you come from, what happened to you, if you're willing to do the work, you can change your life and make it anything you want it to be. I didn't come from any kind of background where I should have the life I have today, do any of us. I like to tell this story in a way that everybody sees their own lives in my story and also sees the possibility in their own lives. If she can do it, I can do it. Q: You also sing in the show as well . . .
Somers: I sing, yes. In fact, for all those years that I've been singing in Vegas, I crooned. I sang jazz. I loved it — "Fever" and "New York State of Mind," those kind of songs. I studied for the last two years with Ron Anderson, who's an opera teacher, and I relearned how to sing for this — to be a belter in a Broadway [style, while] maintaining my personality. So there's a lot of original music written by Ken and Mitzie Welch. There are two or three pieces in there by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, who came to see the show. After the show, Marilyn Bergman looks at me and said, "Who knew?!" [Laughs.]

Q: Which Bergman songs are included?
Somers: "That Face" and "Fifty Percent," which is from Ballroom. It fit perfectly into this show.

Q: What are your thoughts about appearing on Broadway? Is it something you've always wanted to do?
Somers: Always wanted to play Broadway. Have been offered many, many shows, many, many times, but always as a replacement or in a revival. And my husband said, "I'm not gonna disrupt our lives for you to go be as good as, not as good as, same as. If you can come up with a piece of material that's all yours, I'll move to New York with you." So I had to do it. My dream was never a one-woman show; my dream was just to be on Broadway. I feel like I'm going for all the right reasons. It's because I have to tell this story, and I love this story. And I love the pace of this show — it's 90 minutes long. It'll take you up, it'll take you down. Sometimes it gets you by a choke hold on the floor, [but] I don't keep you there very long. We bring you right back up again, but as we come near the end, you just soar higher and higher and higher. If I do my job right, you'll leave triumphant.

Q: You recently did a tryout in San Diego. How did that go?
Somers: Well, the reviews were like I wrote them myself. They loved it. I told everyone, "If my reviews are bad, I don't want to see them." I'm sensitive, it'll hurt my feelings. Even if there's one little bad thing in there, don't show it to me because it's all I'll think about when I'm doing the show, and I'm going out there with such freedom and such joy, I don't want in the back of my head, "Why'd she do the blah blah blah?" [Laughs.] It works on your gut. I actually haven't read reviews in about 15 years unless they are so smash, then my husband will drop it in front of me, and I'll go, "Yahoooo!" People could be saying awful things about me, and I really don't know it. [Laughs.]

Q: I know you're an advocate of healthy living and was wondering if that will be a part of this show, too.
Somers: No, this is "triumph of the human spirit." But I'll tell you, the thigh master is in there, Chrissy Snow is in there. I bring her to life, but in the big picture Chrissy Snow was just a blip of my life. It's not my whole life, I don't belabor it. We're all thrown the curves we're sent in life. I was sent quite a few, and it's not the curves that define you, it's how you respond to them. I decided long ago to make them work for me. We don't live in Kosovo, so when you use that as your base, everything else you can figure out.

Q: Is there a chance the show might be filmed for TV?
Somers: There's talk about that. Everybody wanted to make a deal before I did this. I said, "Let me just go do it first." If it's really a smash, I'll make a better deal, and if it's not, I won't make as good a deal. [Laughs.] Always the businesswoman.

Q: What other projects are in the works for you?
Somers: I have a nine-book contract with Crown. I've written 13 [in all]. I just turned in two, so I've got seven more books to write on this contract. I have kind of what we call the Woody Allen contract; they pretty much let me go where I want to go.

Q: Do you enjoy writing?
Somers: Love it. I don't like to be without it. When I don't have a writing project, I feel like my arm is missing. Every time I have some kind of event in my life or a problem, I write about it, and it seems like everybody else seems to have the same events and problems as me. We're all the same.

Q: How's your health these days?
Somers: As of a month ago, I'm five years [cancer free], and they say that's the magic number. And I feel great.

Q: One final question. When people hear the name Suzanne Somers, what would you like them to think?
Somers: "I tell you the truth." I do always, maybe it works for me or against me, I don't know, but it's all I know. And if you see this show, you'll know I wasn't always like that.

[The Blonde in the Thunderbird plays the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street. Call (212) 307-4100 for tickets.]

DIVA TIDBITS

A host of Broadway favorites will take part in Broadway Barks 7!, set for Saturday, July 30 in Shubert Alley. Friends and Broadway Barks co-creators Bernadette Peters and Mary Tyler Moore will return as hosts for the event, which begins at 3:30 PM with the celebrity presentation of pets from New York City animal shelters scheduled for 5:30 PM. About the upcoming event, two-time Tony Award winner Peters recently said, "Mary and I are delighted that Broadway Barks continues to be such a popular event, and we are deeply moved by the enthusiasm and support from the legions of fans and animal lovers who attend the event every year. We are especially pleased to report that the euthanasia rate in New York has dropped 26 percent since 2003. That’s a very encouraging statistic. It means that people are rescuing thousands of New York City area dogs and cats each year by spaying and neutering or by adopting pets through shelters participating in events such as Broadway Barks." Among those scheduled to present animals during the annual dog and cat adopt-a-thon are Delta Burke, Victoria Clark, Billy Crudup, Erin Dilly, Ryan Duncan, Christine Ebersole, Mireille Enos, Harvey Fierstein, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Joanna Gleason, Jeff Goldblum, John Glover, David Harbour, Shuler Hensley, Crystal Hunt, Gregory Jbara, Cheyenne Jackson, Ginifer King, Alix Korey, Marc Kudisch, Andrea Martin, Madeline Martin, Marsha Mason, Jan Maxwell, Rue McClanahan, Maureen McGovern, Michael Mulheren, Denis O’Hare, Brad Oscar, David Hyde Pierce, Christopher Sieber, Frances Sternhagen and Jeffrey Tambor. Celebrity-autographed memorabilia is also available for auction on www.eBay.com using the key words "Broadway Barks." Proceeds from the auction and the July 30 event will benefit those shelters and organizations taking part in the fundraiser. Shubert Alley is located between 44th and 45th Streets, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue. In the event of rain, Broadway Barks 7! will be held Sunday, July 31 at noon. For more information call (212) 840-0770, ext. 477 or log on to www.broadwaybarks.com.

Idina Menzel, the Tony-winning Wicked actress, has added an additional concert at the Provincetown Theater due to popular demand. Originally scheduled to play the Massachusetts theatre Aug. 19 and 20 at 9 PM, the singing actress will now also perform there Aug. 21 at 8 PM. Tickets, priced $36 (advance) and $41 (at the door), are available by calling (508) 487-7487 or by visiting www.ptowntix.com. The Provincetown Theater is located at 238 Bradford Street; go to www.ptowntheater.org for more information.

Feinstein's at the Regency, the New York nightspot created by cabaret star Michael Feinstein, has announced its fall schedule. The 2005 season will kick off with Kitty Carlisle Hart. The veteran actress-singer will play the intimate boite Sept. 20-24 to celebrate her 95th birthday. Pizzarelli and Pizzarelli will follow, playing Sept. 27-Oct. 8 The evenings will feature the John Pizzarelli Quartet with special guest Bucky Pizzarelli. Tony Award winner Carol Channing will bring her new act to Feinstein's Oct. 11-22. Michele Lee, most recently on Broadway in The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, will play Nov. 15-26, and Michael Feinstein will return to his namesake club Nov. 29-Dec. 10 and Dec. 19 30. That month will also include a week of songs from Broadway favorite Rebecca Luker, who will play Feinstein's Dec. 12-15. Feinstein's at the Regency is located within the Regency Hotel at 540 Park Avenue at 61st Street. Most shows have a $60 cover and a $40 minimum. Call (212) 339 4095 for reservations.

Broadway belters Liz Callaway and Linda Eder will both perform several concerts with this Boston Pops this summer. Callaway, who can be heard on the new all-star Hair recording from Sh-K-Boom Records, will join Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops July 30 (at the South Shore Music Circus in Cohasset, MA), Aug. 6 (at the Durfee High School in Fall River, MA), Aug. 7 (at Town Green in Hyannis, MA) and Aug. 21 (at Meadowbrook in Gilford, NH). Jekyll & Hyde's Eder will also spend a few evenings with the famed orchestra: Aug. 10 (at the Mann Center in Philadelphia, PA), Aug. 11 (at Wolf Trap in Vienna, VA) and Aug. 13 (at Jetties Beach in Nantucket, MA). For more information visit www.bso.org.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! Be sure to look out for Diva Talk 'At Sea' next week! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.