DIVA TALK: 'Nothing Like a Dame' Event 1997

News   DIVA TALK: 'Nothing Like a Dame' Event 1997
 
There Is Nothin' Like a Dame" wrote Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein for their award-winning South Pacific , and almost 50 years later the song has become an anthem for women around the world.
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There Is Nothin' Like a Dame" wrote Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein for their award-winning South Pacific , and almost 50 years later the song has become an anthem for women around the world.

Mary Rodgers, Richard's daughter and the composer of Once Upon a Mattress, spoke briefly at the 2nd annual "Nothing Like a Dame" benefit Feb. 24 at Broadway's Marriot Marquis Theatre. She remarked, "If my father and Oscar Hammerstein had known that the song that they wrote for a bunch of randy sailors would turn into [such an anthem], they would be thrilled."

And, thrilling is perhaps the best word to describe the evening, which included performances from such Broadway heavy-hitters as Betty Buckley, Donna Murphy, Laurie Beechman and Barbara Cook.

The evening, which benefited the Phyllis Newman Women's Health Institute of The Actors' Fund of America, began with part of Helen Reddy and Ray Burton's "I Am Woman" and segued into the aforementioned R&H classic "Nothing Like a Dame," with chorus members from various shows strutting their stuff. Victor/Victoria's Julie Andrews walked onstage during the opening, dressed in her V/V tuxedo and announced, "I didn't have a thing to wear." Andrews spoke about one thing that "dames" have in common -- "We nurture." Andrews then introduced a bubbly Phyllis Newman, the woman responsible for putting the evening together; Newman thanked the audience for coming, and then the chorus concluded the opening song.

The first diva up at bat was Laurie Beechman, who spoke about all the joy that the past 12 months have brought her, including celebrating her fourth wedding anniversary; releasing her fourth solo album; reprising the role of Fantine in Les Miserables, which she hadn't played in six years; introducing the President of the United States at the second Inaugural Gala; and celebrating her eighth year surviving with ovarian cancer. "Twelve months ago" Beechman admitted, "I finally learned, thanks to Phyllis Newman, that the Actors' Fund of America is also for women." Beechman then delivered a slowed-down, jazz-flavored version of Stephen Sondheim's "Being Alive." Gossip columnist Liz Smith followed Beechman, with a touching tribute to the late Erma Bombeck, for whom Smith said she is often confused: "This is supremely flattering," Smith remarked, "because there was no one I admired more than the wonderful Erma Bombeck, the queen of all domestic goddesses. . . [but] Erma Bombeck dealt brilliantly with the dysfunctional side of modern life. Her venue was how to save your marriage, tame your children, overcome your in-laws while staying alive and making a great meat loaf. My venue, on the other hand, is rumor, scandal, adultery, property settlements, child support--staying alive dealing with celebrities. Erma Bombeck was a true all-American hero. . . she influenced millions of ordinary people; she gave them a lift everyday with her self-deprecating humor and her common sense. She had no meanness in spirit at all." Smith then introduced Tony winner Randy (City of Angels) Graff, who read a comical excerpt from Bombeck's Forever, Erma entitled "Becoming My Mother."

Mary Ehlinger, Lori Fisher and Mary Murfitt, who have become better known as the Cowgirls in Cowgirls, were up next with a rousing tune featuring Murfitt on the fiddle. Full Gallop's Mary Louise Wilson followed the "country/classical" band, delivering a Clark Gable anecdote in the persona of the legendary editor Diana Vreeland, whom she portrays in her one-woman show Off-Broadway.

Christine Pedi, from the acclaimed Forbidden Broadway Strikes Back!, impersonated Elaine Stritch with the song "Stritch" sung to Pal Joey's "Zip."

"I thought that I'd hit a low note
When I took a smaller bit in Show Boat . . .
Stritch
Nothing riles you or makes you turn red
Stritch
You're so deadpan people think that your dead.
Stritch
Would you like to work at Rainbow & Stars?
Stritch
They need someone downstairs parking the cars."

Pedi's deadpan delivery and right-on vocalisms brought cheers from the crowd, and while she was walking offstage in her Stritch wig, the real Elaine walked on to a tumultuous ovation. After chasing Pedi off the stage, Stritch burst into a humorous "Broadway Baby" from Stephen Sondheim's Follies, again eliciting cheers from the crowd, who savored all of the classic "Stritchisms" that Pedi had just satirized.

Brenda Braxton, from Smokey Joe's Cafe , followed the Stritches and repeated a number she had performed at this year's Gypsy of the Year Competition, titled "The Oldest Woman at Smokey Joe's Cafe. " Braxton emerged onstage as a haggard, old woman, still in the cast of Smokey Joe's in her 80s, and delivered a hilarious monologue about the evolution of her performance of the song "Don Juan" from that very show. It was a piece of expert comic delivery.

Idina Menzel and Fredi Walker, both dressed to the nines and looking fabulous, then waltzed onstage and performed the rousing "Take Me or Leave Me" from Jonathan Larson's Rent. The battle of the belters received a roar of approval from the crowd. Marcia Lewis, a performer from another hit, Chicago, emerged next to deliver another Erma Bombeck gem, entitled "Running Shoes," about shunning convention, putting away her high heels and wearing a comfortable pair of sneakers. Lewis, one of the funniest ladies around, could make an audience laugh reading a phone book, and her performance this night was no exception.

Amanda Green (daughter of Phyllis Newman and Adolph Green) and friends were next in a song that Green wrote titled "Running." Oscar winner Marisa Tomei followed "Running" by reading a letter from, as she put it, the "smartest person in the White House." The letter read as follows:

"Dear Friends:
It is my pleasure to send greetings to each of you attending the second annual "Nothing Like a Dame" which benefits the Actor's Fund of America's Phyllis Newman Women's Health Initiative.
Your efforts to address the issues affecting women's lives are commendable. The topics you discuss recognize that if women flourish, then their families will flourish. When families flourish, communities and nations flourish. The fortunes of women are inextricably tied to the fortunes of our communities. As you come together and share your commitment to the health and well-being of women in your community, you work to achieve a common goal of improving the lives of all women throughout the nation. Your efforts celebrate the essential contributions women make to their family, community and country.
Please accept my best wishes for an enjoyable and successful event.
Sincerely yours,
Hillary Rodham Clinton"

Judy (Chess, Les Miz) Kuhn followed, and despite lyric problems that forced her to begin the song again, she delivered a beautiful rendition of Craig Carnelia's soaring song "Flight." Kuhn remains one of the best singers around: with a voice that pours out of her, it's time for this talented lady to return to Broadway. One of the reasons I enjoy Kuhn's performances so much is her stillness. Simply standing there and singing, she moves you more than many performers who bounce around the stage with exaggerated gestures.

Tony winner Glenn Close delivered a comical, yet poignant portion of Wendy Wasserstein's Heidi Chronicles, and was followed by one of the theatre's grandest ladies, Uta Hagen, who spoke about her experiences during and after undergoing a mastectomy. The Master Class Tony winner, Zoe Caldwell, followed and reminisced about saving whales. "Remember when we were all saving whales? The sea creatures, not the country," she joked. She then went on to impersonate the sound of a hump-backed whale and a poem that she had written about the mammal and the ultimate message that we should all treat each other kindly.

Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk's Ann Duquesnay, backed by Kate Coffman, Terri Furr, Jennifer Smith, delivered a stentorian version of West Side Story's "Somewhere," a la Shirley Bassey. A speech from the president of the Commonwealth Fund, Karen Davis, preceded one of the most joyous acts of the evening, a group of women called "Rock Me Mama," which consisted of women dancers holding their adorable babies and dancing with them. It was a beautiful, funny and touching sight to behold.

Donna Murphy, this year's Tony Award winner for Best Actress in a Musical (The King and I), followed the "Rock Me Mamas." Murphy, who looked great in a black pantsuit, sang a comic and belty version of "One of Those Days," with music by Michele Brourman and lyrics by Amanda McBroom. The third excerpt from Erma Bombeck's Forever, Erma came next--radio personality Joan Hamburg read, "Let's Face It Not all Ruts Need Repair."

The always-dazzling Betty Buckley triumphed with a dynamic rendition of the bluesy "Since I Fell for You." Buckley looked great and sounded even better, filling the theatre with her penetrating sound. Kudos as well to accompanist Seth Rudetsky's great arrangement.

S. Epatha Merkerson, who currently stars in "Law & Order," gave tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, and then introduced another legendary singer Barbara Cook. Cook remarked that people often tell her, "They don't write 'em like they used to," but she pointed out that there are a few who still write 'em that way; one of them, she insisted, is Amanda McBroom. Cook then went on to sing a moving song that McBroom wrote entitled "Errol Flynn." Cook again demonstrated her ability to move an audience with her complete devotion to a song's lyric.

The evening's hostess, Phyllis Newman, returned to the stage with a list of thank-yous and then introduced Best Little Whorehouse composer Carol Hall, and the two sang "Brand New Dreams," a song they had written a few years back. Following this duo were two great all-women numbers from current Broadway productions: Bebe Neuwirth and company performing the "Cell Block Tango" from Chicago and Brenda Braxton, DeLee Lively and the terrific B. J. Crosby belting out "I'm a Woman" from Smokey Joe's Cafe. The evening concluded with all the great Dames returning to the stage for a final bow. There is nothing like a dame, indeed.

That's all for now. Happy diva-watching!

Coming soon: An interview with Sunset Boulevard's John Barrowman, star of the upcoming London musical The Fix. --

By Andrew Gans
e-mail me at andrew_gans@playbill.com

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