DIVA TALK: Chatting with [title of show]'s Heidi Blickenstaff Plus Heights and Pacific on CD

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Chatting with [title of show]'s Heidi Blickenstaff Plus Heights and Pacific on CD
 
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Heidi Blickenstaff
Heidi Blickenstaff

HEIDI BLICKENSTAFF
[title of show], the joyous, sometimes hilarious and surprisingly moving 90-minute musical about the creation of a new musical — which debuted in 2004 at the New York Musical Theatre Festival and has since traveled to the O'Neill Center, Ars Nova, Off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre and, finally, to Broadway — is currently in previews at the Lyceum and stars its original four players: co-creators Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen as well as their leading ladies, Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff. The little-show-that-should also boasts vocal cameos by a host of diva favorites, including [SPOILER ALERT] Kerry Butler, Marin Mazzie, Victoria Clark, Christine Ebersole, Sutton Foster and current Gypsy star Patti LuPone. Two days following the explosive first preview of [title of show], I had the pleasure of chatting with the humorous Blickenstaff, who was recently seen in Disney's The Little Mermaid and boasts a beautiful, textured and rangy Broadway belt. Blickenstaff's co-star Bell told me earlier this week, "Basically, Heidi is a rock star. What constantly amazes me about Heidi is not only is she beautiful on the inside and out and can sing her face off — that voice is stunning — she is a hell of an actress: so smart and constantly making smart choices and adjustments in her performance. It's been a tall order to play this character that is based on her life but tweaked for dramatic effect, and Heidi is constantly surprising me and amazing me in how she comes to life each night on stage. Plus, she's super funny and super sweet — pretty much the whole package I'd say. And for the record, it's about time I read about my girl in Diva Talk! Just sayin'!" Read on, Mr. Bell. . .

Question: Tell me about the first preview, which I heard was quite exciting.
Blickenstaff: I have never, ever been a part of anything like that. It was totally off the chain, mayhem, craziness! I think we're all still quite stunned about it. If you go to the ([title of show]) blog, there's a video clip of us with the fans who came to the stage door after, and it looks like…it's total mayhem. It was amazing. There were hundreds of them. We were packed to the rafters, and it was just all of our super fans, who know every nuance of the show. They were just so with us — just every joke, every everything. It was for the most insider-y insiders. It was a big love fest. After "Nine People's Favorite Thing," there were like two minutes of applause, and they stood up before the end of the show. It was crazy! I was telling my boyfriend, who is also an actor, "May every actor have that experience." It's really overwhelming. Every human being should have that moment where you're just standing there and…

Question: …people are screaming.
Blickenstaff: Yeah! It's so freaky and amazing. My eyelashes were singed. It was amazing.

Question: What was going through your mind when people continued applauding?
Blickenstaff: This group of people is very unusual. Not that I haven't worked with actors who are grateful, but this group of people is just shocked and overwhelmed by everything that has come our way, the bounty of it.… All of us talked about [the response to the first preview] briefly when we had a moment the next day. Every second of it, I know I was really trying to take it in and not take it for granted and just really trying to feel it. I'm very aware that this could never happen to me again in my lifetime. [Laughs.] It is the culmination of a lot of hard work and many years of kind of machete-ing through this whole process. And, also, I'm not a youngster. I've been in this business for many, many years and have had wonderful nights, but nothing like this. I was just really focused on breathing and trying to take it all in and trying to store it in my hard drive forever.

Question: Is it one of those moments that just catches you again when you think about it?
Blickenstaff: Yes. Absolutely. The subsequent performances have also been very overwhelming… not quite like that [first night], but in the memory of that specific moment after "Nine People's Favorite Thing" when everybody stood up, it was breathtaking. When we get to that point in the play when we had subsequent performances, I do remember that moment the first night, and you feel it. There is an energy that hits you and a memory that hits you of that. This sort of sounds presumptuous, but I think in that moment, we're so lucky that the crowd is loving it, and it's all great. But I think that they're not just cheering for us. I think there's something about the play — this is the presumptuous part — where I think that they see themselves. I think that for anybody that's had a dream, they think, "I can do that, too." They root for us, but I think they also root for themselves, and it's just a big universal moment of "some normal person made it."

Heidi Blickenstaff with Jeff Bowen in [title of show]
photo by Carol Rosegg

Question: One of my questions was actually going to be, "Why do you think this show has had such an appeal to a certain group of people?"
Blickenstaff: When the show starts, a lot of people that I know that have seen it have said, "You know, it's just this great little story and you guys are great and we really want you to succeed." But somewhere in there, around the middle of the show — and generally people say it's around "Die Vampire, Die!" — people stop sympathizing, and they start empathizing. They start seeing themselves. Even if they are not in showbiz, everybody knows what it's like to wish for something, to have a dream, to do something. Somewhere in the middle of the play, the people that are going to take the ride really get on and commit to taking the ride at that point, and they start feeling things for themselves and not just for us. I think a lot of people are reminded about the things [they dream about] — a lot of New Yorkers are like, "Why did I come to New York? What brought me here? Was it that I wanted a big career in business or I wanted to be an actor?" Whatever it is — because New York is just the center of the universe. [Laughs.] Whether that happened for them or not, I think they're reminded of those first dreamy feelings. I think it's something we all share. Question: How did you originally get involved with [title of show]?
Blickenstaff: I got involved because, like the play states, Jeff Bowen and I did a tour of The Who's Tommy many, many years ago. We're going on like 10, 11, 12 years ago now. We stayed friends and just always were really cut from the same cloth. Jeff and Hunter had had this idea, and Susan was helping them shape it, and they brought in Michael Berresse as the director and an outside eye to help them shape it, and they needed someone to help them sing it. Jeff gave me the script, and I read it, and I thought it was crazy… but, like, awesome crazy! It was just a shred of what it is now, but the heart was totally the same. It was all these weird fragments. So much strange stuff was in there, but I definitely saw that golden heartbeat, and I was like, "This is weird and awesome." I called Jeff back and I said, "Yeah, totally. I'll come in and sing some stuff, and we can all feel each other out and see if it might be a good fit." So I went in and sang a little bit with them, and it was pretty instant. It was just a really great fit, and Cupid kind of flung an arrow, and it didn't take long for me to get engrained into the fabric of the whole thing. And, then we just started [working]. All of us worked on it for free, essentially, for a solid three years. We did it first at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, and then we were optioned by Kevin McCollum. From there Kevin encouraged us and helped facilitate to get us to the O'Neill Center, along with Michael Bush. We went to the O'Neill Center to develop it, and that's where a lot of the show got written.

That's such a wonderful place. It's like camp for actors. It's like sleep-away camp for adult actors. It's just this amazing place where you literally write under an oak tree, and you have lunch with Penny Fuller, who is working on her cabaret piece, and you swap ideas and you sleep in these tiny little rooms with no air conditioning. You really are kind of set free to just develop your piece and, at the end, you share with everybody. That was our first glimpse of "Wait a minute, what's going on?" because when we did the piece at the O'Neill, everybody's head popped off. The audience went crazy. And all of those kids, the college kids that were interning for the summer, that was when we first sniffed that we were connecting with younger people, and that was exciting. When you're in college, that's such an important time when you're figuring out who you are and what you want to do, and there are a lot of people — your parents, your teachers, society — telling you what path you should be on. Our show kind of says, "Yes, totally listen to those people, but also don't be afraid to listen to yourself. If you have passion for something, that's a really important voice you need to listen to, too." At least for us in our little [title of show] family, we've all been poor, and we've all done terrible jobs, all so that we can continue pursuing what we're passionate for. Our show says that's okay, and a lot of college kids are like, "I like that idea." That was sort of the beginning of the love affair with college kids and older high school kids.

After the O'Neill we did it a couple of times at Ars Nova. I think we had like nine performances. And that was crazy…Stephen Sondheim came! Suddenly, all these people were coming and we were like, "What is going on?" And then we got the green light to go to the Vineyard. Doug Aibel came and let us have the Vineyard space, which was amazing. We first were in the season at the Vineyard, and we were such a hit that we ended up having a commercial run there when the Vineyard is actually dark, when their season was off. Doug gave us the space for the rest of the summer to continue doing a commercial run. And, then we had kind of a blue period where the Off-Broadway show had closed, and we all went on to different things. Life continued even though we all were very much longing for [title of show] to have another life, whatever that would be. But we all had to continue to feed ourselves and pay rent, and so I took a couple of other jobs, including Meet John Doe in DC at the Ford and Little Mermaid.

Heidi Blickenstaff with the [title of show] cast
photo by Carol Rosegg

Question: When you were Off-Broadway, was Broadway in your mind? Did you think that was a possibility?
Blickenstaff: That's an interesting question because I think all of us were so thrilled at how far we got, period — even just making it to the Vineyard. I don't think any of us were ever like, "The pinnacle is Broadway, and we're not going to stop until we're a Broadway show." I do think that all of us thought, "Is this a Broadway show? It's so small. Will people come? If it were a Broadway show, would we have to change everything? Would we have to make compromises? Would we be willing to do that?" I think, at the time, we were just so thrilled that we got as far as we got. This really was a writing exercise to get the boys off their asses. [Laughs.] That is true. They were unsatisfied creatively, and they were like, "Let's just write what makes us laugh." And then Susan and I were brought on board, and Michael and [pianist] Larry [Pressgrove], and it just, for some reason, started connecting with people. We never were like, "We're not stopping until we get to Broadway," but the dream when you're a kid is — not to say that Off-Broadway is not awesome, but the dream is, "I wanna be on Broadway." So there was always that golden nugget inside of us, and it's kind of like we didn't seek it. Like, "He whose name shall not be named" or whatever that is. Of course, that was always the dream. It's just sort of miraculous that we got it. Question: What stands out in your mind the most about the Off-Broadway run?
Blickenstaff: Lots of things. The first thing that comes to mind is how much I love that staff at the Vineyard. That is a tremendous group of people, and that was the perfect place for us to go. Doug Aibel and his staff there — Sarah Stern and Rachel Ayers and Jenn Garvey-Blackwell — all of those people were such great shepherds for us and never, never wanted us to be anything but who we were. A lot of people who wanted to get their hands on this show had big ideas for us to add a big orchestra and for us to add moments of — even if it was a joke — pyro and acrobatics, and we were like, "That's not [title of show]." Thank God for Kevin McCollum who optioned us at NYMF and everyone who has helped us along the way. We were fortunate enough to get in bed with people who have the same ideology that we did. The Vineyard staff was definitely along those lines. It was the perfect space for us. It was the right number of seats that we could fill. . . . It was just a great place for us to cut our teeth. Also, for me — not that I don't love doing Broadway shows, because I do — I think the intimacy of the Vineyard is really special. That's a very Zen space, and I loved being able to develop that show looking into the audience's faces. That's a really great space and for [title of show], because I do think people see themselves in us so much, the audience is absolutely the fifth character in the show. Seeing their reactions, really being able to connect with people and look into their eyes, was really important.

Question: When did you find out that the musical would be transferring? I know there were a lot of rumors, but when did you actually find out Broadway was happening?
Blickenstaff: Not for quite awhile. I think it was in March or April. I was still in Mermaid.

Question: Did you have it in your Mermaid contract that you could get out if that was to happen?
Blickenstaff: I did. That was something that I had always planned for. As much as I loved my Mermaid experience and I love those people and I will always be totally grateful and just have nothing but lovely things to say about that group of people as well, [title of show] is my heart. I always knew that, even if [title of show] would have gone to Peoria, I would have gone with it. How often do you get something that is this special? Not that Mermaid's not, but this is … I'm playing myself — this is important for me. I always knew that whatever was next for [title of show], that's where I would be going.

Question: When you did find out that you were going to Broadway, do you remember your reaction?
Blickenstaff: It was funny. We had heard lots of rumors, but one of the things with [title of show] was there was always talk — there was always gossip about what was happening next. Even back when we were doing Ars Nova, we weren't sure if we were going to be able to have the Off-Broadway run, so every step of the way when we had a landmark, we would hear things before we would hear for sure. The same thing happened with the Broadway run. I kept hearing rumors, but my agent never made the phone call to me because they don't want to make those phone calls until it's for real. I was over at my boyfriend's house, and I woke up and got a text message that said, "Look at Playbill.com." I went to Playbill.com, and there was a [story] saying, "[title of show] is going to Broadway," and I screamed! I woke my boyfriend up and I couldn't believe it! I was like, "How could Playbill.com know before I know? How is that possible?" [Laughs.] And I was like, "I gotta call the people at Mermaid, so they don't freak out and get mad at me." But they had known all along. They were very supportive of all of this. They knew it was coming, so it wasn't a total shock to all of them. But I found out sort of as everybody else found out.

Heidi Blickenstaff with [title of show] director Michael Berresse
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Question: Earlier you had mentioned the intimacy of the Vineyard. I wonder what it's like playing the Broadway house in comparison.
Blickenstaff: One thing I will say about the Lyceum, which I absolutely love and shocked me, is the intimacy of the Lyceum. When I'm singing "A Way Back to Then," I am able again to look into faces, and I love that. I can look into faces almost to halfway up the orchestra. That's really important to me because, as an actor, I long to really not just connect with my body and my voice, but I like to look at people. Sometimes that really grounds me in a way that nothing else can. Sometimes I'm a "Nervous Nellie," and when I can really look at somebody, I tend to calm down, and I feel something very real is happening. I really do love that about the Lyceum, but we're talking about almost a thousand seats compared to the hundreds of seats that the Vineyard was — 300 seats, if that. I think the first time we got in [the Lyceum] and did a run, I thought, "Whoa, this is different. Now this is happening. This is really different, and we're going to have to really adjust." Also, the Lyceum has three tiers. . . .Those seats are so high up in the air. We really have to crank our chins up to get to those people, so it's a really different experience playing this house. It is intimate, but it's also high, so that's totally an adjustment. I had a "vampire" — to steal from the show — about whether or not the show was going to feel right in a Broadway theatre: if suddenly sharing it with a much larger group of people in a much larger space, if that was going to fit, if that was going to make sense. And, on the night of that first preview, when that audience was in there, that was immediately dispelled for me. I felt like, "Yep, this totally works, this makes sense. We're not a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. This feels really, really right. Just because we have a keyboard and four chairs is no reason to worry. It totally makes sense, the story makes sense, we don't need anything else." I don't know, there's just something about it that really fits for me. Question: I often find that sometimes the Off-Broadway shows wind up working better in the bigger houses. I liked In the Heights better on Broadway, and Avenue Q I thought worked just as well if not better. You never know.
Blickenstaff: You do never know. It's sort of like the great experiment.

Question: How much has been changed for the Broadway run?
Blickenstaff: Well, because we essentially had almost two years off — it was like a year-and-a-half off because we closed in October of 2006 — we had to incorporate all of that waiting, so the back third has been completely restructured to include the last year-and-a-half. The show's not any longer. It's still 90 minutes. We were able to kind of give the show a haircut and take off the parts that didn't quite work or that we wished we could make a little better, we made better. We changed some things, and then we added the last year-and-a-half to the back third.

Question: Is it ever strange playing yourself or a version of yourself?
Blickenstaff: Yeah! [Laughs.] It is. It's totally weird. It's the easiest thing and the hardest thing because I don't have to do a huge character study because I know what happened to me when I was five. But even though I am playing myself and it absolutely is me, we always say that these characters are kind of a "concentrated version" of us. There are choices that the character of Heidi makes that I wouldn't necessarily make, but in 90 minutes, there are certain things that are more entertaining. [Laughs.] There are some liberties that are taken, but she is me. It definitely is me.

It's odd playing yourself, for the audience in particular… We've got the greatest fans, and they're just these awesome college and high school kids and we love them so much, but because we play ourselves, I think that they have a very unique ownership of us. We also, on the [show's] website, we blog about crazy things that happen to us in our day, and our fans follow all of that stuff. . . . This is weird and stupid, but we all have this war going on about what organic peanut butter cereal is the best. There's Peanut Butter Puffins, Peanut Butter Bumpers and Peanut Butter Panda Poof. One of us blogged about that and how we had a taste test, and I can't tell you the boxes of cereal we've gotten from our fans! They'll grab onto stuff that is true and real about us, and they're like, "I'm going to make them happy because I know something weird and true about them." When we go and sign autographs — which is amazing, and P.S., I still can't believe that that gets to happen to me in my life — our fans are like, "Heidi, Heidi, Heidi…," and they tell me things that I'm shocked that they know. They feel like they know me, and I love that about them, but it's also crazy! [Laughs.] It's totally crazy. We have awesome fans, and that's kind of the magical thing about [title of show], too, is that our fans feel like they have such easy access to us.

Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for your character or for you?
Blickenstaff: I have two. One of them is "Die Vampire, Die!" I love doing that song, and I love listening to Susan. Susan is one of my favorite people on the planet, and I have a fierce love and support of her. She just moves me every night, and I love just being crazy and sassy in that number. Also, I can feel the audience shift during that number, and I love feeling the shift in the show when it goes from being this delicious little trifle to being something more than that. If you're going to take the ride, that's when it happens. And, then I do love singing my song ["A Way Back to Then"]. That is a very real thing that happens for me in real time every night. When we were developing that song, because it is so personal, I couldn't get through it without crying for about two months. We just kept plowing through it, and it was just the most public therapy. But eventually with Michael's help and with everybody's help, I got to a place where I could give it away instead of having it be all about me. It's not every show that you can look into people's faces. That's unusual. But during that moment, I can do that, and I see — again, for people who are on the ride — something really real happening for them, and I love sharing my story. I sort of feel like they're sharing their stories back to me. It's sort of this symbiotic, crazy fuel moment. I don't know if I'll ever get to have that again, so I really savor it. I'm very grateful for that moment. Just to be able to sing a song like that on a Broadway stage, I feel very lucky. Question: Since we've never spoken before, where were you born and raised?
Blickenstaff: I was born and raised in Fresno, California.

Question: When did you start performing?
Blickenstaff: When I was seven.

Question: Do you remember what that was?
Blickenstaff: Yes, I do. I was actually part of a theatre group that a lot of New York actors [were also in], including Audra McDonald, Dwayne Boutte, Andrea Chamberlain, Sharon Leal, Sarah Uriarte Berry, the list goes on. A lot of us are from Fresno, and we were a part of this group called The Good Company Players. We were in their junior company, and we did this 30-minute pre-show, like A Salute to the ABCs or A Salute to the Eighties. And, then they would have the big musical, Hello, Dolly! or whatever, after that. So it was just a 30-minute cabaret full of about 15 kids.

Question: Were there singers or actors you admired at that time?
Blickenstaff: I was kind of a weirdo. I was kind of a tomboy, and I played a lot of sports. I played soccer forever, and I was the only girl on a baseball team for years and years and years. When I was a kid, as soon as my mom threw the Annie [recording] at me, that was kind of it for me. It was over. [Laughs.] I kept playing sports, but I also found this passion for singing, and I was quite enamored of Annie and specifically Andrea McArdle. There were certain musicals that did capture my attention, but none quite like that one. Like so many people my age, I know every nuance of that score from the first oboe in the Overture. I know that score.… I didn't really listen to musicals much, unlike Hunter and Jeff. I listened to much more rock. Certainly in high school I was obsessed with Olivia Newton-John, Hall & Oates, Sheena Easton, and just learned how to shape things in more of a pop-rock world rather than in a musical theatre world, but latched onto musicals like Sunday in the Park with George. I loved all those Sondheim musicals, Into the Woods, but I always had more rocker influences…

Question: When did you know that performing would be your career?
Blickenstaff: Early. Even though I always had other interests and really did play sports all though my childhood, once I hit that stage when I was seven, I was like, "Oh, I'm done for." I knew that this was it. My father's a lawyer, and I had a moment in college where I thought, "I'm gonna do that." But I think it was just because I had been performing since I was seven, and I needed to kind of rest. It didn't take long. I think I was not studying theatre for like a year, and I was like, "This is ridiculous," and jumped right back on. As soon as I graduated, I came to New York and entered the theatrical work force. [Laughs.]

Question: What was your first Broadway show?
Blickenstaff: My first Broadway show was The Full Monty. It was great.

Question: Do you remember stepping onto a Broadway stage for the first time?
Blickenstaff: Hell yes! It was crazy because I was a replacement. I had been on the tour, and the Broadway show had gone on. Because of September 11, they shut the tour down temporarily, and they sent all of the tour kids back to New York. They called me and said, "We've got a girl who is leaving the show. Do you want to take up your role on Broadway?" I was like, "Twist my arm, sure!" I was so thrilled that I was going to be going into my track, which was understudying Emily Skinner and being in the ensemble. I had two weeks before I was supposed to start, and the day after I found out that was happening, Nancy Harrington, the PSM for that show, called me. I was like, "Oh, she must be calling me with my schedule." She called me, and she said, "How do you feel about saving a Broadway show tonight?" I was like, "What?" There aren't that many women in the show. There only like seven women in the show, and four of them had called out that night. She said, "You pretty much are all we've got, and we need you to play Emily's part." I hadn't done that role much at all on tour. I had understudied Andrea Burns on the road, and she had been out just a couple of times. I knew my track really well, but I hardly knew the Vicki Nichols track. So I was like, "Suit me up, Coach. Yeah, I'll do it!" So I went, and it was a complete whirlwind. My Broadway debut was going on for Emily Skinner. And that was crazy, too, because Emily had been a huge influence on me. In college I listened to Side Show a lot and loved that whole cast album and loved her. When I heard her, I wanted to do that. So my Broadway debut, I'm being thrown into Emily Skinner's dressing room. I have Emily Skinner's mic on my back, and I'm thrown out [onstage]. I've never met any of the cast, and I'm kissing Marcus Neville onstage as I'm meeting him for the first time. It was bananas, it was totally bananas, and a moment I will never forget. My best friend Ryan Perry was the only one that I could reach to come witness it. I couldn't get a hold of anybody. My parents are in California, and I thought, "No one is going to witness this happening!" But my friend Ryan Perry came, and he said, "I'll be your witness!" So that was an amazing, amazing night, and that was such a great company, too.

Question: Will there be a Broadway recording of [title of show]? Is there talk of that?
Blickenstaff: No one's come to us about that. I think it would be great, but I haven't heard anything official about that. I would love to do that.

Question: Will you be doing any more [title of show] videos?
Blickenstaff: Yeah, definitely. We're just so busy right now, but we will always go back to "The [title of show] Show." We have a lot of fun doing that and that, again, opens us up to a whole viral audience that we never had before, people who can't come see the Broadway show. We've got fans in Australia. I got an email from a guy in the Philippines the other day. I was like, "That is the Internet!" Amazing!

([title of show] plays the Lyceum Theatre, located in Manhattan at 149 West 45th Street; call (212) 239-6200 for tickets or visit www.telecharge.com.)

Mandy Gonzalez and Christopher Jackson in In the Heights
photo by Joan Marcus

FOR THE RECORD
In the Heights
Last month, In the Heights, the new musical penned by Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda won four Tony Awards, including the top prize for Best Musical. Among those four wins was one for Miranda's score, which pulses with a Latin beat and is now available on a two-disc set on the Ghostlight Records label. The lavish recording, which features a color booklet with complete lyrics, also boasts two of the finest young belters in the musical theatre: Mandy Gonzalez as Nina, who returns home to her Washington Heights neighborhood after dropping out of Stanford University, and Karen Olivo as Vanessa, the hair-stylist's assistant who longs for a life outside of the Heights.

The recording begins with the catchy, opening title song where we meet the show's narrator, Usnavi — played with an ingratiating sincerity by Tony winner Miranda — and the majority of the characters who populate the always bustling Washington Heights area. "Breathe," one of the show's most arresting songs, follows and is delivered thrillingly by Gonzalez. In "Breathe," Nina, the "one who made it out," worries how she will tell her family and friends that she has failed to live up to their expectations. Equally thrilling are the powerful, rangy tones of Olivo, who belts out "It Won't Be Long Now" with ease. Other highlights include "No Me Diga" and "Carnaval Del Barrio," which both feature the sassy charm and rich sound of Andréa Burns as hairstylist Daniela; "96,000," the joyous song about the hope of a lottery windfall; Abuela Claudia (played by 2008 Tony nominee Olga Merediz)'s show-stopper "Pacienca Y Fe," in which the grandmother of the entire neighborhood recalls her youth and her struggles and shares her fears about winning the lottery; "Sunrise," a tender love song between Benny (Christopher Jackson) and Nina; the touching "Everything I Know," which Gonzalez builds wonderfully; and the musical's rousing "Finale."

South Pacific
Combine the vocal talents of one of the musical theatre's finest actresses (Kelli O'Hara) and a leading Brazilian opera star (Paulo Szot) with one of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II's greatest scores, and it's not hard to understand why the current revival of South Pacific won the most Tony Awards of any show of the past season.

The cast recording of the Lincoln Center Theater revival is now available on the Masterworks Broadway label, and it's a sterling reminder why the musical at the Vivian Beaumont remains a sellout. Whether she's admitting she's "A Cockeyed Optimist," promising to "Wash That Man Right Outa [Her] Hair" or singing the charms of a "Wonderful Guy," O'Hara is never less than superb, boasting a glorious soprano. Equally stellar are Szot's renditions of the score's best-known song ("Some Enchanted Evening") and its finest ("This Nearly Was Mine"). Another standout is Hawaiian favorite Loretta Ables Sayre, who is making her Broadway debut as Bloody Mary, and lends her lush belt to "Bali Ha'i" and "Happy Talk."

Phyllis Newman
photo by Aubrey Reuben

DIVA TIDBITS
Actress, writer, fundraiser and Broadway favorite Phyllis Newman is currently at work on a new theatre piece entitled The Last Time I Looked. Newman, who won her Tony Award for her performance in Subways Are for Sleeping, is co-writing the musical with Larry Grossman (composer of Minnie's Boys, Goodtime Charley, Grind), who had worked with her late husband, Adolph Green, on A Doll's Life. Newman and Green's daughter, Amanda Green, has just finished composing the title song for the The Last Time I Looked, which according to Newman, will "probably be a show for three women. It's a musical about the good times and the bad times we all go through with music and lyrics from a variety of composers — some well known and some original for this piece." A starry reading will likely be held in the fall. "I've been working on this project for quite awhile," adds the multi-talented Newman. "I thought of it as a book at first, and then a theatre piece, but the gypsy in me won out, so I want to do in front of a very live audience. Stay tuned!" An audio version of Seth Rudetsky's novel "Broadway Nights: A Romp of Life, Love and Musical Theatre" is now available. Rudetsky's tome, which was recently nominated for a Lamba book award, casts Rudetsky as the narrator Stephin Sheerin, a "struggling pianist on Broadway who finally gets his first Broadway show as a conductor and has to navigate his way around his narcissistic opera star mother, his hot boyfriend who's a dancer in Phantom and lives with his boyfriend, a cheap producer and a former alcoholic leading lady . . . amongst others." Lending their voices to the recording are a host of Broadway actors, including Hunter Bell as Jesse, the passive-aggressive co-star; Mary Birdsong as Dianne, Stephen's sister who is obsessed with Dr. Phil; Susan Blackwell as Karen, the no-nonsense stage manager; Jeff Bowen as Jackson, best friend and standby for the lead; Andrea Burns as Staci, the comatose casting director; Kristin Chenoweth as Francoise, fellow pianist and arch rival; Jonathan Groff as Mason, the sweet/cute director; Ann Harada as Bettina, the cheap/crazy producer; Andy Karl as Craig, the sexy dancer boyfriend from Phantom; Richard Kind as Ronald, the evil agent and Jackson's horrible boyfriend; Anika Larsen as Anike, the recovering alcoholic and leading lady; Andrea Martin as Mrs. Remick, the narrator's governess with a screw loose; Billy Porter as Kris, the sassy choreographer with the roaming eye; Jim Price as Vince, the non-Equity leading man; Sally Rudetsky (Rudetsky's mother) as the Broadway-flavor-of-the-month who's a great actress but can't sing; Emily Skinner as Roberta, the soprano who hates every show she's cast in; Rudetsky's partner, James Wesley, as Phil, the pianist who needs a sub; and James' daughter Juli Wesley as the Young Cosette wannabe, who demands to have her music transposed on sight. The audiobook, which runs ten hours and eight minutes, has a list price of $15.95. Visit www.audible.com for more information.

The third annual Broadway Loves the 80's concert, an evening featuring Broadway actors performing their favorite eighties hits, will be presented at Joe's Pub in August. Directed by Jamie McGonnigal and Xanadu's Marty Thomas, the Aug. 10 performance will feature musical direction by Ben Cohn. Spelling Bee's Mo Rocca will host the 9:30 PM concert, which will feature the talents of Thomas, Kate Shindle, Nikki Renee Daniels, Jenn Colella, Eden Espinosa, Anthony Rapp and "Ugly Betty" star Michael Urie. Tickets for Broadway Loves the 80's Vol. 3, priced $25, are available by calling (212) 967-7555 or by visiting www.joespub.com. Joe's Pub is located within the Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Street.

The debut solo recording from British actress Kerry Ellis, who is currently making her Broadway debut in the New York company of Wicked, is now available. Dress Circle, the London show-biz shop, is currently selling Ellis' "Wicked in Rock." The new CD, on the Duck label, is also available on iTunes and is for sale at The Gershwin Theatre in Manhattan. The three-track disc includes two Wicked songs ("Defying Gravity" and "I'm Not That Girl") as well as "No One But You." Produced by Brian May, the single CD features a 60-piece orchestra with Taylor Hawkins on drums and May on guitar. The recording is priced £8. Visit www.dresscircle.co.uk for more information.

Betty Buckley

And, finally, congrats to Tony Award winner Betty Buckley, who scored raves for her sold-out Broadway By Request shows July 9-11 at Lyric Stage in Irving, TX. Directed by Richard Jay-Alexander and accompanied by Seth Rudetsky on piano, it's likely that Buckley will bring this acclaimed evening of song and story to Feinstein's at the Regency in the spring. Here are a few quotes from the wonderful notices: In the Star-Telegram Mark Lowry said, "It wouldn't have been a show without that ever-strong mezzo-soprano voice and a demonstration of Buckley's ability to lose herself in a character. From her gorgeous, introspective version of the 1776 song 'Momma Look Sharp' to the dramatics of Sunset Boulevard's 'With One Look,' Buckley transported the audience to places as large as the most expansive stage and as intimate as a front porch." And, in GuideLive.com, Lawson Taitte said, "Ms. Buckley began wowing Broadway audiences in 1969, at age 21. Miraculously, she hasn't lost a beat – or her belted high notes – in the years since. From the moment she took the stage with a song from Sunset Boulevard, 'As If We Never Said Goodbye,' you knew that Ms. Buckley still has the knack of creating a whole imaginary world within the scope of three choruses and the intervening verses." Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

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