DIVA TALK: Chatting with Traffic's Klea Blackhurst, Hair on CD and News of Peters, Minnelli

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Traffic's Klea Blackhurst, Hair on CD and News of Peters, Minnelli News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Klea Blackhurst
Klea Blackhurst

KLEA BLACKHURST
Klea Blackhurst burst onto the cabaret scene in 2001 with her critically acclaimed Ethel Merman tribute, Everything the Traffic Will Allow: The Songs and Sass of Ethel Merman, which she has gone on to perform around the country and in Europe. Since that time the intelligent vocalist with a wry sense of humor has also offered shows that salute the work of Vernon Duke (Autumn in New York) and, with Billy Stritch, the songs of Hoagy Carmichael (Dreaming of a Song: The Music of Hoagy Carmichael). Blackhurst — who can be heard on the Ghostlight Records discs "Everything the Traffic Will Allow, "Autumn in New York" and "Dreaming of a Song" — is also an experienced actress; in fact, next month the Utah native will head to San Francisco to portray the "Hostess With the Mostes' on the Ball," U.S. Ambassador Sally Adams, in 42nd Street Moon's production of Irving Berlin's Call Me Madam. But, for now, audiences can enjoy Blackhurst's reprise of her wonderful Merman tribute, Everything the Traffic Will Allow at the Snapple Theater Center through Sept. 5; my recent interview with the candid, thoughtful Blackhurst follows:

Question: How did you originally get interested in creating a show about Ethel Merman?
Klea Blackhurst: Well, basically I've been in New York a long time. I moved to New York to be in Broadway shows. That's my thing. I'm like that kid from Salt Lake City, Utah.

Question: What year did you get here?
Blackhurst: I can't tell you, but it's been a couple of decades now. It's a good, honest, fair attempt. It wasn't my time. You know what I mean? I got sort of antsy around 2000 and 2001, and I thought, "I'll write something and give myself the starring part." [Laughs.] So another kind of old-showbiz legend played out. Everyone's like, "Write what you know." At that point that's what I felt I knew. I've just always loved Ethel Merman since I was a little kid and grew up with my mom's show albums. I'd been exposed to it as a little kid. If you like musical theatre and you like original cast albums, those are the ones — Gypsy and Annie Get Your Gun — that right out of the gate were transcendent. And my mom is a community theatre actress in Salt Lake as well, who is a big belter. I just thought that's how women sound. That was sort of the genesis of [the show], and people really responded to it. A lot of people were like, "Don't do that, you don't wanna be in the Merman world." I said, "Well, wait and see how I'm gonna do it. I don't play her, I don't impersonate her." It's just me paying tribute to the greatest theatrical personality, in my opinion, of all time.

Question: Did you do a lot of research for the show?
Blackhurst: I did tons of research. And Merman's really almost embarrassingly easy to research. Her career actively on Broadway spans 1930-1970. And then, of course, she lived until 1984 singing with orchestras and all those television appearances late in her life. But in terms of theatre, in terms of the American musical, she's right at the center of the storm of every important person: from George Gershwin to Cole Porter to Jule Styne to Stephen Sondheim. Name a star or a personality and somehow it connects through her. I did a lot of my research — I live right by the Strand annex. I would go in there and look at books, buy them most of the time, but even if you look at an index of almost anybody in the 20th century that is involved in theatre, you can find two to 20 entries for Ethel Merman. And then you cross-reference them. Eventually, if Ira Gershwin tells the story this way and Vinton Freedley tells it this way and Ethel Merman tells it this way and George Gershwin tells it this way, by the time you put all of their versions together, you can usually arrive at what I think is the truth.

Klea Blackhurst

Question: Have you changed the show over the years?
Blackhurst: It's pretty much the same. It's just kind of a rock-solid script. Over the years we've developed some different versions of it. There's been a theatrical version that had an intermission with a new opening and closing of Act One and Two. For the most part this version that we're doing now — it was just meant to be, in a way, for me. We opened it early in 2001, and I think that night there were two things actively that I changed. I had "Gee, But It's Good to Be Here" as the second number, and I told a really long story about Dody Goodman that people just didn't laugh at. It took me awhile to figure out why. I would tell this story in real life, and people would laugh uproariously. I told it in the show, and they just didn't laugh. And I think it was because by that point in my show, they liked Ethel Merman. It was a thing where I was telling a story on her, and they just didn't like it: "Wait a minute, we like her. Don't make fun of her right now." So I cut that story down to nothing, and I took out "Gee, But It's Good To Be Here" because I just didn't think I needed it. With those two exceptions, with the reaction of the first-night audience and my experience, from that second time on, it has just been what it is, and it works. It's really fun. Arguably she introduced more standards than anybody. Maybe Fred Astaire in the films beats that number, but otherwise all that you have to do in a straightforward way is present that material and you've got priceless stuff. Question: Was there any song that you wanted to include that you just didn't have time for?
Blackhurst: Listen, there's about five evenings worth of stuff! There really are. I love "Eadie Was a Lady." I love that song. I kept trying to put it in and put it in, and then I just decided that "Sam and Delilah" from Girl Crazy fit what I needed a little bit better. . . . Right now I'm going to go star in Call Me Madam in San Francisco in September and October. So I'm working on that score, and I think, "Oh this song is so brilliant," or "this song would be so cute!" What I did is say, "I'm going to put one song from each of her 13 Broadway shows." And she was the last Dolly in Hello, Dolly! so I put in one of the songs Jerry Herman wrote for her in that. I cheat on that rule a little bit. There's both "I Got Rhythm" and "Sam and Delilah" from Girl Crazy. For the most part it's just kind of keeping myself to the one song from each of the 13 shows. They're all great, so I just picked the ones that made the most sense to me.

Question: How has the show been going at the Snapple Theatre?
Blackhurst: It's going fantastic. I love having a tribute to Merman in a theatre first of all. It's just right. And the fact that it's right there on Broadway doesn't hurt my illusion that the tribute's in the right place. Audiences respond so warmly to this show, so it's just great to have it back. We haven't really had it in town since 2001, so this is kind of its big comeback. I do it all over the country, and I've done lots of things in between, but somehow if I've never performed somewhere, this is the show they want. Once I've done it, they'll sort of open their minds to the other stuff I can do. I stopped resisting that. I thought, "There's a lot worse that can happen to me than that I have this Merman connection." I sort of paraphrase — she said, "Broadway's been very good to me, but I've been very good to Broadway." I try to kind of live the same thing with her: "She's been very good to me, but I feel like I've been very good to her." . . . I am sort of a 21st century Merman. In other words, I can use a microphone and be kind of quiet when I need to be. It's evolved a little bit from just that planting your feet centerstage and being heard at the back of the house. There's a little more nuance than that because that's what our time requires. I'm not her, that's the main thing. I don't try to [imitate] her. I'm just Klea Blackhurst doing my thing. [Laughs.]

Question: What do you think would be Merman's reaction to your show if she were still alive?
Blackhurst: I used to think she'd smack me and say, "She's alright if you like talent, but get your own songs, kid!" [Laughs.] Several very close friends of hers have come over the years, sort of snuck in to hate me, and they always end up revealing themselves and saying, "I think Ethel would've really loved this." She was not a really complicated woman. When I tell stories about her and when I talk about her, I like to think that she would enjoy the way I tell the story. I try to walk this line — I don't really comment on the [stories.] I tell a story about Stephen Sondheim and Ethel Merman and Gypsy. She's not greatly nuanced in her understanding of things. I chose to tell all the stories from the point of view that if Merman were sitting there watching it, she would enjoy it. But if you're in the know and you have sort of another sense of her, you will also enjoy this story. They kind of walk the line but are always very respectful to her, as she deserves. For me, when you come out doing a tribute to somebody, that's not the moment [to bring the person down]. I don't have an ax to grind with her, and I don't want to make fun of her. That's a whole other show that I could do after 11 almost any night, Ethel Blue or something. But this isn't it. This is just my valentine.

Question: If you could go back in time and see one Merman musical, do you know which one it would be?
Blackhurst: It would have to be a toss up between two, because time travel is so fascinating. It would either have to be the opening night of Girl Crazy in 1930 or it would have to be Gypsy. I just think they must have both been absolutely fascinating. The orchestra for Girl Crazy has Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Glenn Miller — this is the pit band of this show! She comes out and sings "I Got Rhythm" and we read about four, five encores. The audience is going absolutely crazy for her holding that note over the chorus. I can't even imagine that. I can't imagine what that would have been like that night. If I could go all the way back to there, I'd see that. And I just think Gypsy must have been a real tour de force, a priceless thing. And to think that her career goes from that range — from 1930 to 1959. You've gone from when shows were these quaint, creaky little things that set up the songs to this fully integrated modern musical. It's just an interesting life.

Question: You've also focused on the work of Vernon Duke and Hoagy Carmichael. How do you go about choosing a composer or a person to focus on for a show?
Blackhurst: In 2003 I did a little centenary tribute show at the Algonquin, and it had a number of people in it. I think it was Sammy Fain and maybe Bronislaw Kaper . . . . and Vernon Duke was one of those names. I just kind of went around and thought, "Well, I'll put a couple Vernon Duke songs in this." Some of them were easy: "April in Paris," "Autumn in New York." The big ones. "Taking a Chance on Love." I put that together, and it was a one-night thing and it was fine. Through the course of that, I just fell in love with Vernon Duke, and I fell in love with the idea that here's this brilliant guy and all the songs that were famous of his came from enormously unsuccessful, giant disastrous flop Broadway shows. That's the kind of hook that can really get me going. He just sort of emerged that way, like, "Oh my gosh, he doesn't need any help from me, but this is a fascinating career!" [Laughs.] So I just went through his life and did that.

Klea Blackhurst and Billy Stritch

Hoagy Carmichael, I do that show with Billy Stritch. We had a mutual friend who said, "You guys would be great together," which is kind of perceptive. "You'd be a fantastic team, and I think you should do Hoagy Carmichael stuff." This is our friend Barry Day, who is like a Noel Coward scholar. I don't know why he would take an interest in us, but he took us to lunch, gave us Hoagy Carmichael songbooks and said, "I think you should do it." And for some miraculous reason, considering everybody's calendars and all that stuff, we did it and we had a ball! So I, of course, just immersed myself in that. I've been into Johnny Mercer all year this year. Sometimes it's the hundredth birthday, sometimes it ends up going beyond that and I find a bigger hook than the 100 year. They take me a long time to write. My stuff doesn't wind up being quintessential club acts. I can't bear to sing a song like "Autumn in New York" without a context for it. I don't feel like, "I'm one of the most valuable voices, and wait'll you hear what I do with this." I feel like I gotta tell you the story of where it came from and why, and then I sing it for you and it's like, "Oh, that makes it a whole new experience." Especially modern listeners who just don't know what we're talking about. I go around and I think, "Oh, my God, these young audiences, they don't know who Ethel Merman is." And, that's okay. My show's good for that person, by the way, because we're all on the same page in about four minutes — the way we've structured it. But then I get sort of upset and ansty about that, and they have no idea who George Gershwin is anymore. It's unbelievable. So I decided a couple years ago, rather than take issue with it, I just kept rowing ahead with the way I structure shows, which is like, "You know what, it doesn't matter. I'm gonna make this painless and bring us all up into the same part of the story together." That really works for me. I enjoy doing that. Question: How difficult is it making a career in cabaret, financially and otherwise?
Blackhurst: It's a nightmare. I still just do a lot of acting in musicals. I'll go out and do Call Me Madam for six weeks. I've sort of branched out so I sing with orchestras a lot more so that these things can kind of grow up into, "Ahh, the orchestra's playing 'Sam and Delilah' for me." We have a chart — it's the same arrangement that I do in the show with the trio — but I have a big orchestral chart that's all big trombones and brass. I've sort of found that in this modern climate there are ways to take that and put it in different contexts that help you take care of yourself. Most of the great rooms have just dried up or the deals are so difficult to make money that I personally don't get to look at that as the main way that I make my living. It's more just getting to be in regular shows, which I love, and I'm still waiting for that Broadway show. I don't want anybody to count me out! [Laughs.]

Question: Since that was your goal, do you have a dream role?
Blackhurst: I have a dream role in the sense that I want it to not be a revival. I'd love it to be something new. Just anything. I don't care, I really don't! [Laughs.] As long as I got the part fair and square, I think I would be the most grateful company member of a Broadway show. It still just has that magic for me, so it would be very [exciting]. Come on, come and find me. I'm ready for you!

[Everything The Traffic Will Allow plays the Snapple Theater Center, which is located at 210 West 50th Street. Remaining show times are Saturdays, Aug. 22 and 29 and Sept. 5 at 5 PM. Tickets, priced $35 and $45, are available by calling (212) 921-7862 or by visiting www.ticketmaster.com.]

Caissie Levy, Sasha Allen, Kacie Sheik, Allison Case and Hair cast
photo by Joan Marcus

FOR THE RECORD: Hair
Looking back, it seems hard to believe that financial problems almost derailed the current, critically acclaimed Broadway revival of the '60s rock musical Hair, which won the 2009 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. The production, which has literally taken over the Al Hirschfeld Theatre — company members routinely perform in the aisles between (and sometimes on the chairs of) the audience members — began life in September 2007 as part of the Public Theater's Joe's Pub in the Park series, at the outdoor Delacorte Theater. That brief run was such a success that a full production was mounted in summer 2008 — also at the Central Park venue — as part of the famed New York Shakespeare Festival's Shakespeare in the Park series. Following those two hailed runs, the musical — under the direction of 2009 Tony nominee Diane Paulus — arrived on Broadway March 6 with a few cast changes. The Broadway production of Hair boasts one of the finest ensembles currently on the boards, and that company, who perform the Gerome Ragni-James Rado-Galt MacDermot score with an infectious energy, can be heard in the show's new cast recording, which is now available on the Ghostlight Records label. The single disc begins with what may be the musical's best-known tune, "Aquarius," which is performed by one of the vocal finds of the past season, singing actress (and Broadway newbie) Sasha Allen, whose rich, full tones brighten everything she sings. Another vocal standout is Caissie Levy, who performed the role of Elphaba in the Los Angeles production of Wicked, and lends her rangy, passionate alto to such tunes as "I Believe in Love," "Good Morning Starshine" and a particularly thrilling version of "Easy to Be Hard." The men fair equally well: Gavin Creel, who boasts a smooth, soaring tenor, is charming in "Manchester England," exciting in "I Got Life," moving in "Where Do I Go?" and riveting in "The Flesh Failures," while Will Swenson brings his easy charm to "Donna" and "Going Down."

Other highlights of the 37-track recording include the title tune, the back-to-back belting of Megan Reinking, Jackie Burns and Kaitlin Kiyan (in "Black Boys") and Sasha Allen, Nicole Lewis and Saycon Sengbloh (in "White Boys") and the emotional, haunting finale, "Let the Sun Shine In."

The new recording features a color booklet with dozens of production photos and liner notes by the Public Theater's Artistic Director, Oskar Eustis.

Bernadette Peters
photo by Kurt Sneddon

DIVA TIDBITS
The big news of the week concerns that two-time Tony-winning favorite, Bernadette Peters, who will make a rare New York City concert appearance this fall to benefit both Broadway Barks and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. On Nov. 9 at 8 PM, Peters will take centerstage at Broadway's Minskoff Theatre in an evening titled Bernadette Peters: A Special Concert for Broadway Barks Because Broadway Cares. Produced by BC/EFA, the evening will feature direction by Richard Jay-Alexander with musical direction by Marvin Laird. Concertgoers can expect songs from Peters' award-winning Broadway outings and recordings as well as pop tunes and selections from the songbooks of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jerry Herman and, of course, Stephen Sondheim. About the upcoming event Peters said in a statement, "I love to sing. When the opportunity came along to do a concert to benefit two of my passions, Broadway Barks and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, it was a match made in heaven. I have always been devoted to helpless shelter animals, especially those mixed breed pups that need a forever home. And, as a member of the Broadway community, I have seen friends and colleagues face some of life's roughest challenges. On November 9, all of this will come together at the Minskoff Theatre with a special concert for both of these organizations that I care so deeply about. It will be a beautiful evening: you, me, and a 30 piece orchestra — all sharing to benefit some of our best two-legged and four-legged friends — beauties all of them." For tickets call BC/EFA at (212) 840-0770, ext. 268 or visit www.BroadwayCares.org. An initial list of Kristin Chenoweth concert dates has been announced on the Tony Award winner's official website. The star of Wicked and the recent ABC series "Pushing Daisies" will play the Virginia G. Piper Theater at the Scottsdate Center for the Performing Arts in Scottsdale, AZ, Oct. 24; the Music Hall in Cincinnati, OH (with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra) Nov. 13-15; and the Civic Center Music Hall in Oklahoma City, OK, (with the OKC Philharmonic Pops) May 1-2, 2010. For more information visit www.kristinchenoweth.com.

Tony Award winner Liza Minnelli, recently on Broadway in Liza's at the Palace. . ., will perform at Las Vegas' MGM Grand in the fall. The famed singing actress will play MGM Grand's Hollywood Theatre Sept. 25-Oct. 1. Show time each night is 8 PM. For tickets, priced $75.35 and $113.85, visit www.mgmgrand.com.

Twiggy, the fashion model who starred opposite Tommy Tune in Broadway's My One and Only, will celebrate her 60th birthday with the release of a new compilation CD, "Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance." The recording, which features seven previously unreleased tracks, is due Sept. 14 on the Stage Door Records label. Twiggy sings the music of the twenties, thirties and forties on the 19-track disc, including tunes by Noel Coward, Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers. For more information visit stagedoorrecords.com.

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

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