Portia Nelson, the actress, cabaret singer and songwriter whose tunes were celebrated in the award-winning Manhattan cabaret show, This Life, in fall 2000, died March 6 at her home, according to friends and colleagues in the cabaret community.
Ms. Nelson, a Brigham City, UT, native, lived in Manhattan. Friends said she was 80 and had battled cancer in recent years, but recovered. However, her health had deteriorated recently. Ms. Nelson was not married.
Often called a renaissance woman, Ms. Nelson was an author and poet ("There's a Hole in My Sidewalk: The Romance of Self-Discovery"), a painter, an actress (she played Sister Berthe in the film, "The Sound of Music," and Minerva in Broadway's The Golden Apple), a songwriter, a nightclub chanteuse, an arranger and a recording artist.
In the 1950s, Ms. Nelson sang at such nightspots as Blue Angel and Bon Soir and traveled the world, performing live. She sang on five theatre albums for producer Goddard Lieberson at Columbia Records. She was heard on studio recordings of On Your Toes, Roberta, Oklahoma!, The Boys From Syracuse and on the original cast album of The Golden Apple.
"She was one of the great stars of Cafe Society in New York," said friend Deborah Tranelli, a singer and actress who sang in This Life at Don't Tell Mama last fall. "Portia was a soprano...people know her recent work with her singing in a lower register, speak-singing songs. Portia was so unique, she had a beautiful soprano voice; it was that wonderful blend, it had sort of a classical sound, and yet she loved jazz tunes and Latin rhythms. She was a unique sound. She was also a great interpreter of lyrics. She loved lyrics. That's something she impressed upon me and anyone who she worked with: Telling the story through the lyrics." Among her solo albums are "Let Me Love You: The Songs of Bart Howard," "Portia Nelson: Sunday in New York," "This Life: Her Words, Her Music and Her Friends," all on the DRG label. She hosted a New York radio called "Sunday in New York."
As a composer and lyricist, Ms. Nelson wrote "Make a Rainbow," which Marilyn Horne sung at Bill Clinton's inaugural ceremony. Her better known songs include "Sunday in New York" are "Confession of a New Yorker" (also known as the "Hate-Love New York" song). She wrote musicals for television and specialty songs for "The Carol Burnett Show." Ms. Nelson was also an arranger who created the sound for and produced an album for Elaine Stritch.
She also authored the famous poem, "Autobiography in Five Short Chapters" (which is also a song). As an actress, she appeared as Sarah Doolittle in the original "Dr. Doolittle" film with Rex Harrison, and again played a nun (Sister Elizabeth) in the movie, "The Trouble with Angels." She was a supporting character on "All My Children."
The cabaret show, This Life: The Songs of Portia Nelson, seen at Don't Tell Mama in fall 2000, won a 2001 Back Stage Bistro Award for Outstanding Musical Revue March 5. The cast included Tom Andersen, Terri Klausner and Deborah Tranelli.
A fund will be set up in her name at The Actors' Fund, Tranelli said. There will not be a funeral. Friends will plan a memorial service for spring.
— By Kenneth Jones