If you could somehow harness the energy that Debbie Gravitte exudes when she performs onstage, you might be able to illuminate every light on Broadway, if not the entire city. Gravitte, formerly Debbie Shapiro Gravitte, formerly Debbie Shapiro, achieved diva status in the award winning revue of Jerome Robbins' work, Jerome Robbins' Broadway. Gravitte herself earned a Tony for her performance in that show, which included a show-stopping version of the little-known Irving Berlin tune, "Mr. Monotony," a song she will reprise in her upcoming cabaret engagement this month at Rainbow & Stars.
Gravitte won the Tony in 1989, and some may wonder where she's been hiding since then. Aside from some concert work around the country and a role in the ill-fated musical Ain't Broadway Grand, Gravitte has been living in Los Angeles, producing another kind of sweet music, three children. She is now the mother of three, a five-and-a-half year-old boy and two-year-old twins (a boy and a girl). About motherhood, Gravitte relates, "I think it's been the best thing in the world for me. I think it's put my feet on the ground; it's made me a better person, a warmer person. I think it's the best thing for anybody in the world."
If raising three children weren't enough, Gravitte also found time during her extended California stay to star in the West Coast premiere of Neil Simon and Marvin Hamlisch's The Goodbye Girl. A few years back, she had attended the opening night of the Broadway production, starring Bernadette Peters and Martin Short, and thought, "I would love to play this role. I don't say that a lot," Gravitte explains, "but I did do it that night because I thought she should be a warm, mushy person." Although she received raves for her performance as single mom Paula McFadden, Gravitte admits, "I never felt embraced by [L.A.]. But in New York I feel completely loved by people, so this is clearly where I need to be and where I want to be. And, besides, we wanted to move back east for our family as well."
So, Gravitte (along with her husband and their three kids) packed her bags and returned to the East Coast this past February, where she faced the question, "How do I let people know that I'm back?" The answer: City Center's Encores! series. Gravitte had been approached on numerous occasions about starring in one of the Encores! productions, which present some of the greatest American musicals in concert over three weekends each year. "They called me about Chicago. They called me about DuBarry Was a Lady. I think they even called about one other show. . .I was always available, and then they went, 'Well, oh, no, Faith's doing it. Well, oh, no, Ann Reinking's decided to do it.' I was kind of salivating to begin with about the Encores! thing, even though I'd never seen one and didn't know anything about them." Cut to April of this year. "All of a sudden my agent calls and said I had an offer to do Boys from Syracuse." After a rehearsal period that Gravitte admits was "fast and furious," the production opened to raves. Aileen Jacobson in Newsday wrote, "The women are terrific, especially the kittenish [Rebecca] Luker and the lusty Gravitte," while Ben Brantley in The New York Times and just about everyone else who attended enthused about Luker, Sarah Uriarte Berry and Gravitte's delicious, show stopping rendition of "Sing for Your Supper." Said Brantley: "Just listen to the ecstatic roar that emerges from the audience after three comely young women finish stepping their perfectly synchronized way (and with close vocal harmonies to match) through a number called 'Sing for Your Supper.' There's both a giddy, sensual looseness and a mathematical precision in what the performers deliver here."
The Encores! engagement also coincided with the release of Gravitte's second solo album for Varese Sarabande. She chose to follow her album of songs by that Disney master, Alan Menken, with one that focused on the songs of the MGM songbook. "At first we started with torch songs, because I love to sing torch songs. So were going to do 'MGM Torch,' and then I thought that might exclude a lot of great things. Basically," she adds with amusement, "it was stuff that we liked, [producer] Bruce Kimmel and myself." What Kimmel and Gravitte wound up with was an eclectic mixture of songs ranging from the Gershwins' "Too Late Now" to a version of the "Theme from 2001" that beautifully shows off both the power and the sensitivity of Gravitte's creamy alto.
Influenced by legendary singers like Lena Horne, Doris Day, Peggy Lee and Rosemary Clooney--women who have graced concert halls and cabaret rooms all around the world--Gravitte now prepares for her own two-week stint at Rainbow & Stars, where she will sing "a little bit here, a little bit there . . . it's a little bit of my show-biz life." For anyone who has ever seen Gravitte perform, it is evident that she possesses one of the more exuberant stage personalities, infusing songs with a genuine sense of excitement that is completely contagious. When asked whether she has to tame her performing for a more-intimate cabaret setting, the Tony winner laughs and explains, "When I first started doing clubs, I had this phony, 'I'm in the club now. Here's my in-the-club character. . .I had been in Atlantic City, and I opened for Jay Leno. Jay and I were hanging out a little bit, and he said, 'You're so funny. Why aren't you like that in your night club act?" And I said, 'Don't I have to be a certain way?' And he said, 'No, be you. You're funny.' [Then] I went to London to sing, and I was there for two weeks, and these people don't know me from anything. All of a sudden I discovered how to be me [onstage], and it's much better now. So I don't really have to tame myself, I just have to focus!"
Gravitte hopes the Rainbow & Stars engagement might lead to an extended run elsewhere. "After doing Boys, I got this idea," says Gravitte. "I wanted to do a good, old-fashioned night-club act with dancing guys. . .I'm hoping that [Rainbow & Stars] goes well enough that someone will say, 'Come do it now in a bigger venue.'" Whether it's on Broadway, in an intimate cabaret setting, or in a large concert hall, just be glad that Gravitte is happy to "Sing for [Her] Supper."