DIVA TALK: Chatting with Tony Winner Harriet Harris Plus Vintage Minnelli and Bassey

DIVA TALK: Chatting with Tony Winner Harriet Harris Plus Vintage Minnelli and Bassey News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Tony Award winner Harriet Harris.
Tony Award winner Harriet Harris.

HARRIET HARRIS

It's a busy time for Harriet Harris, the gifted actress who won a Tony Award for her comical portrayal of Mrs. Meers in the 2002 Tony-winning Best Musical Thoroughly Modern Millie. Not only is Harris currently filming additional scenes for her recurring role as Felicia Tilman on the hit ABC series "Desperate Housewives," but the good-humored performer is also in rehearsals for the West Coast premiere of Never Gonna Dance, which begins a limited engagement at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beach, CA, Feb. 18. Harris will play Mabel Pritt in the production, which is being directed by Larry Raben for Musical Theatre West. After the musical, which boasts songs from the Jerome Kern songbook, ends its run in March, Harris will turn her attention to the Kennedy Center's mounting of Jerry Herman's Mame, which will feature her Vera Charles opposite the Mame of Christine Baranski. I recently had the chance to chat with the charming Harris, who currently resides in Los Angeles; that interview follows.

Question: How did you get involved with this production of Never Gonna Dance?
Harriet Harris: Earlier this year I did On the Town with Reprise!, which was an awful lot of fun. A very talented and saintly choreographer named Lee Martino was working on that. She did fabulous choreography for everybody. She's just wonderful. She called me about this, and she said that my name had come up, and she thought it would be a great idea. So, I thought, "God, there's a choreographer who's actually willing to work with me twice in a row!" [Laughs.] I thought that was really nice. I'm going to give it my best shot, but it's a lot more dancing than I'm used to doing.

Q: Which role will you be playing?
Harris: Mabel. She's the sidekick. She's not Ginger Rogers, she's the other one! It's a nice role, and it's got a long of songs, and it apparently has a lot of dancing. [Laughs.]

Q: What songs will you get to perform?
Harris: "Shimmy With Me," "I Got Love," and I sing part of "The Song Is You." There are parts of other numbers that I'm in that at this point I'm unaware of what they are, since we just haven't gotten that far in rehearsals. Q: Are you a Jerome Kern fan?
Harris: I saw all of the Fred and Ginger movies when I was growing up and skipping school. I do love them. If you can be in a musical, you'd be nuts not to do it. It's just a great opportunity. I like the cast, and I've worked with some of them before, and I'm really enjoying it. But it's such hard work.

Q: Was it the movies that got you interested in becoming an actress or was it the stage?
Harris: I think it was the stage. I grew up in Fort Worth. When I was growing up, there was one venue, and that was Casa Manana. I saw a lot of musicals as a kid. They're just splendid. If you like 'em when you're a kid, it's sort of ingrained in you. When I was really a child, I thought I would grow up and be a musical comedy star. [Laughs.] Then I realized what it really took and I thought, "That's probably not going to happen for me." By that time I had gotten very interested in other things. I went to school and was exposed to a lot of other [possibilities]. I suddenly thought, "This is probably more where my talents are," and I kind of forgot about doing musicals, and I thought it was certainly no loss to the world and probably a good thing for me, because my strengths seem to be elsewhere. But there are certain parts [I can play] — it's a very generous world that will accept a lot of different talents, and sometimes I think I'm the right person for the job and sometimes maybe I’m not.

Q: It's funny, though, because you did win your Tony for a musical comedy.
Harris: Yeah, it was wonderful. That was a terrific [experience]. That was a production where some people could really sing, some people could really dance, some people could really tell a story. If I get to do more musicals, that's probably where I'll really get to do things. But in the meantime if people are willing to work with me, then I can learn. I can work on my dancing, I can work on my singing.

Q: What are your memories of working on Thoroughly Modern Millie?
Harris: I loved it. I was very fortunate to get the job. I had done the first reading of it, and that was a remarkable thing, and for a while I thought I was going to get be part of it [on Broadway], and then it morphed into this thing where they needed a star to be in that part, and then it morphed back out of that so it could be me again. . . . I play a lot of eccentric parts. I almost never have a partner onstage. I'm almost always the outsider, and in this role I was certainly the villainess, but I had these [two] unwilling henchmen. And Francis Jue and Ken Leung, they're just two of the most wonderful actors that you can find, and they are the most fun people that you can be with to create something like this. Francis had done musicals before, but I think it was as new to Ken as it was to me, and the three of us just had a ball together. And that was absolutely the best part — just showing up to work every day. It was almost as thrilling as being a kid out of acting school. We were there to amuse each other, to support each other, to challenge each other. So that was just thrilling and, of course, to get to be surrounded by all these people who had all this talent that seemed to accept what we had to offer. It was great to be surrounded by the music and the energy of all these highly developed talents that still thought there was room for what we had to give.

Q: I remember in your Tony speech you dedicated the award to another actress, Meghan Robinson. What was her influence on you?
Harris: She was just a wonderful actress and an even better friend. She was my best friend, and she was hilariously funny. She did a lot of Charles Busch's plays. [One play] was going to be called Gidget Goes Psychotic, but I think they couldn't use [that title], so it was called Psycho Beach Party. She was in Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. She sort of had goddess energy. She was so great with Charles. He and Julie Halston and I were just in awe of what Meghan could do. She was just a terrifically wonderful person. We would call each other on the phone and say, "Oh this part's for you. You should be seen for this." We hardly ever crossed into each other's turf except for really big parts, really broad stuff. . . . I just thought that she was an inspired person, and it would have been a part she would have been great in, too.

Q: How did the role on "Desperate Housewives" come about?
Harris: I had done a series out here a long time ago called "The 5 Mrs. Buchanans," and that was ["Housewives" creator] Marc Cherry's show, too. And when he knew that Christine Estabrook had to die [on "Housewives"] — which I don't think anyone wanted to have happen — I played her sister before in another series, so I think I seemed like a natural choice to him for this.

Q: There's been so much written about "Housewives." What's it actually like performing on the show?
Harris: It's a very fun part. . . . I never have any talks with the producers or anything like that about what's going on or what I'm really up to or after. I just kind of have to guess. Sometimes I read the scripts and I'm really surprised. And sometimes I think, "I thought that's what's going on!" It's almost like a scavenger hunt because you're looking for things along the way. It's a lot of fun.

Q: What do you think of the character?
Harris: Well, aside from that it's wonderfully acted [laughs], I always think that even if she is a bad person, she doesn't think so. But I thought that about Mrs. Meers, and certainly she was a bad person.

Q: Do you find yourself being recognized more than ever since being on "Housewives"?
Harris: I think in certain places, yeah, but there's so many people out here — because I live in L.A. — who are involved in television. They know me from all sorts of different things. Certain places I would go, no one's ever gonna know who I am. [Laughs.]

Q: Have you always lived in L.A.?
Harris: No, I lived in New York for many, many years. I came out here with Paul Rudnick's play Jeffrey in the fall of '93. I was here for that big earthquake in '94, and called home and talked to my friend Henry Stram, who is a marvelous actor, and said, "Oh my God, what should I do?" And Henry said, "Are you working?" [Laughs.] I thought, "That's true." That kind of answered [the question]. There was work here, so I stayed.

Q: How do you find living in L.A. as compared to living on the East Coast?
Harris: It's completely different, but I really do miss both places. If I'm in New York, I miss being here, and there's so many things I miss about New York when I'm out here. But I'm very happy whether in New York or here.

Q: You're also going to play Vera in the Kennedy Center's production of Mame — another great part.
Harris: Yeah, I'm really looking forward to it. It's such an adventure and to be doing something completely different than you thought you'd be doing.

Q: How did that role come about?
Harris: Well, it was not an audition because I think people would be so non-plused. It was an offer, and I thought it would be an awful lot of fun. I can't wait to see what Christine does. I don't know her well, but I certainly know her work well, and I'm looking forward to working with her. I think that will be a blast.

[Never Gonna Dance will play The Richard and Karen Performing Arts Center, which is located at 6200 Atherton Street in Long Beach, CA, Feb. 18-March 5. Tickets, priced $25-$50, are available by calling (562) 856-1999, ext. 4 or by visiting www.musical.org.]

FOR THE RECORD

Shirley Bassey Live at Carnegie Hall
Fans of big, brassy belting can probably do no better than Shirley Bassey, the Wales-born singer-actress probably best known in the United States for her recordings of three James Bond themes: "Goldfinger," "Diamonds Are Forever" and "Moonraker." Bassey, who launched her career at age 14 in the tour of Memories of Al Jolson and later appeared in the West End revue Such Is Life, has tremendous fan bases on both sides of the Atlantic. And, in 1973 she gave a legendary performance at Carnegie Hall, which has now been reissued on CD by DRG Records, as part of The Broadway Collector Series. The single CD, simply titled "Shirley Bassey Live at Carnegie Hall," also features Woody Herman and the Young Thundering Herd and gets off to a rousing start with Bassey's no-holds-barred rendition of "Goldfinger." Just listen to the way she tears through the song, ending on a fabulously high note on "only goooollllllld!" The 18 tracks that follow are a mix of theatre tunes, pop songs and standards, and Bassey is in wonderful, thrilling voice throughout.

Highlights of the recording include the Sweet Charity ballad "Where Am I Going?," a devilishly fast "Johnny One Note," a stentorian version of Leiber and Stoller's "I (Who Have Nothing)," the aforementioned 007 theme song "Diamonds Are Forever," the little-heard Leslie Bricusse charmer "You and I" and the Oscar-winning song from "Lovers and Other Strangers," "For All We Know."

Liza with a 'Z'

On March 7, just three weeks prior to its airing on the Showtime cable network, a CD of "Liza with a 'Z'"—the soundtrack to the acclaimed TV special originally broadcast on NBC on Sept. 10, 1972—will arrive in stores. The Columbia/Legacy recording features 11 tracks, a mix of Minnelli classics and a few the award-winning performer has rarely performed.

Highlights of the single CD, which boasts a young, vibrant Minnelli in terrific voice, include the infectious, upbeat opening number, John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “Yes”; a definitive version of Kander and Ebb’s story song "Ring Them Bells," which tells the humorous tale of Shirley Devore, who traveled around the world "to meet the guy next door"; a surprisingly effective rendition of the Dusty Springfield hit, “Son of a Preacher Man”; a jazz-flavored “Bye Bye Blackbird”; a Peter Matz arrangement of “My Mammy” that builds to an exciting, belty climax; and a wonderful Cabaret medley that features Minnelli’s takes on “Wilkommen,” “Married,” “Money, Money,” “Maybe This Time” and the title tune.

Liza lovers should note that Showtime will air the fully restored and digitally remastered version of Liza Minnelli's iconic 1972 concert, "Liza with a 'Z'," April 1. The concert, which was taped live at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre, won a Peabody Award along with four Emmys: Best Performance for Minnelli, Best Direction and Best Choreography for Bob Fosse, and Best Music, Lyrics and Special Material for Kander and Ebb.

DIVA TIDBITS
Tony Award winner Betty Buckley and famed jazz musician Kenny Werner will celebrate their 17 years of musical collaboration this month. An Evening with Betty Buckley and Kenny Werner, which will draw upon the repertoire the acclaimed duo has performed over the past two decades, will be presented in both Boston and Los Angeles. Concertgoers can expect to hear several tunes from Buckley’s critically hailed Smoke program as well as tunes from earlier collections. A one-night engagement at Boston’s Regatta Bar & Grill in the famed Charles Hotel is scheduled for Feb. 11; show times are 7:30 and 10:30 PM. Following the Boston performance, Buckley and Werner will head to L.A. where they will perform Feb. 15-19 at the Catalina Bar & Grill. Show times are 8:30 and 10: 30 PM. The Regatta Bar & Grill is located within the Charles Hotel at One Bennett Street in Cambridge, MA. For reservations call (617) 395-7757. Visit www.regattabarjazz.com for more information. The Catalina Bar & Grill is located at 6725 West Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, CA. Call (323) 466-2210 for reservations or visit www.catalinajazzclub.com.

Broadway favorite Andrea McArdle will perform a solo concert at Birdland Feb. 14. The Valentine's Day concert is scheduled for 7 PM and will feature McArdle's renditions of "Losing My Mind," "You Could Drive a Person Crazy," "Native New Yorker" and the Annie charmer, "N.Y.C." McArdle will be accompanied on piano by musical director Ben Toth. Birdland is located in Manhattan at 315 West 44th Street. There is a $40 cover and $10 food-drink minimum. Call (212) 581-3080 for reservations or visit www.InstantSeats.com/Birdland.

The 11th Annual Nothing Like a Dame concert — the annual fundraiser benefiting The Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative of The Actors’ Fund of America — is set for March 6. Presented by Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, the 11th annual Nothing Like a Dame concert will be held at the Imperial Theatre; show time is 8 PM. Those participating in the event will be announced shortly. Tickets for Nothing Like a Dame are priced $50-$5,000 and are available by calling (212) 840-0770 or by visiting www.broadwaycares.org.

Want to spend New Year's Eve with four-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald? Fans of the celebrated singing actress can do so when McDonald offers a concert Dec. 31, 2006, with the New York Philharmonic. Ted Sperling, who won a Tony Award for his orchestrations for Adam Guettel's Light in the Piazza score, will conduct the acclaimed orchestra. Show time is 8 PM. Avery Fisher Hall is located at 10 Lincoln Center Plaza. For more information visit www.nyphil.org.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.