Judy Kuhn is a familiar figure to Broadway audiences, who have seen her belting her heart out in such mega-musicals as Chess, Les Miz and Sunset Boulevard, as well as classic material such as She Loves Me. But chances are that her appearance in the Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of the new Mike Reid-Sarah Schlesinger musical The Ballad of Little Jo marks the first time many Chicago theatregoers have laid eyes on her. The show is the first Steppenwolf-produced musical ever and (if all goes well) it may prove to be the first Steppenwolf-produced musical to travel to Manhattan. Little Jo is also the latest in a string of more experimental outing for Kuhn, which began with The Drama Dept.'s pared-down Off-Broadway version of Irving Berlin's As Thousands Cheer and continued with Tina Landau and Ricky Ian Gordon's Dream True at the Vineyard Theatre. Kuhn spoke to Playbill On-Line about her latest adventure in the world of musical theatre.
Playbill On-Line: The Ballad of Little Jo is an unusual assignment for you, given the originating theatre and the subject matter. How did the job come about?
Judy Kuhn: I actually got involved three-and-a-half years ago when they did a workshop. We did it in North Hampton and I guess they were casting and they were looking for someone to play the title role and somebody in it, whom I had worked with before, suggested me and they set up a meeting. And that was that. They were at the point of putting the work out there, but didn't have plans for production. We did another reading about six months after that one. At that point, they were interested in trying to get someone to produce it. Michael Gennaro, [sp] [executive director] of Steppenwolf was there and they began their discussions.
PBOL: Did you get the impression that Steppenwolf, venturing into musical territory unfamiliar to it, was reaching out to an experienced player in casting you. Did you find yourself solicited for advice and acting tips by the fest of the cast and crew?
JK: [Laughs] Me? No. The cast is as experienced with musicals as I am. The company planned itself very well. I'm sure there were challenges along the way that I'm not particularly aware of. I think they've handled it well and they've been incredibly supportive of the piece.
PBOL: Tina Landau is among the unconventional directors specializing in the "new theatre music" these days. How is it working with her and in what ways is it different?
JK: Not any more than every director is different from every other director. I think that, because of Tina's background—she's done so many different kinds of work; she's done everything from revivals of old musicals to original, avant-garde pieces; she's written plays that she's directed herself; she's written musicals that she's directed herself. She's so flexible and such a collaborator. She sees herself in the role of taking everybody's ideas and focusing them to one end. Every person in every aspect of the production has to contribute. Particularly when she's working with actors. She has so much respect for actors and their input. I really feel like a collaborator, not just an instrument, just saying the words of the piece and being moved around where I'm told to.
PBOL: How does this show compare with your other musical experiences?
JK: Well, it's not like any part I've done, that's for sure. PBOL: How much of the show do you spend as a man?
JK: All of it except for the first few scenes. It's really an interesting challenge. There are so many layers. It's probably one of the most physically challenging parts I've ever done. Aside from have to physically do things on stage that men usually do, and these days don't do much, like swinging a pick-ax. I have to do a lot of lifting and carrying. The set is basically like the side of a mountain—dirt and logs and rocks. There's a lot of climbing up and down. It really wreaks havoc on your body. And also, I suppose we actors are always in disguise when playing a part, but playing a person who is also in disguise, and in a rather extreme disguise, it's a real challenge.
PBOL: Does the music change in range for the songs you sing as a man?
JK: The two songs I sing in the beginning of the show when I'm a women are definitely more in a soprano kind of range. But almost all of the time when I sing, I'm by myself with my own private thoughts and nobody is listening. There is one exception to that and it's staged like you could actually think I'm singing my own thoughts. But there's so much suspension of disbelief in a piece like this anyway, that there is a willingness to accept whatever voice comes out of my mouth.
PBOL: What are the plans for the show?
JK: I know that the company has talked to Tina and Mike and Sarah and talked about how they very much want to bring the piece to New York. It's not going to happen right when it closes here. I think they want to develop it and produce it again. I think there's talk of putting together another production next summer and bring it in [to New York] next season. But I don't know the specific plans.
PBOL: What are your specific plans?
JK: [Laughs] To go home. To see my family. I don't work away from home that often anymore, so I'm looking forward to going home for a little bit.
—By Robert Simonson