Dearly departed Tony winner Madeline Kahn's birthday is Sept. 29 (she would have been 73) and William V. Madison's new book, "Madeline Kahn: Being The Music, A Life," offers both die-hard "Kahn-heads" and those new to the work of the late actress, singer and comedienne an unprecedented look into her life and career. Madison's perspective as a former television and theatre producer, as well as editor for Opera News, affords a uniquely rounded understanding of the multifaceted Kahn, and his access to her private journal allows for rare intimacy and authority.
1. She took part in the famed New York nightclub circuit of the 1960s.
Although Kahn the star of the 1970s, 80s and 90s was not known for nightclub work, she was a regular in the fertile field of off Off-Broadway revues and parodies in the 1960s. Her silvery soprano and sophisticated delivery were ideal instruments for the satirical material associated with the era. Future stars Kahn got her start with included Betty Aberlin ("Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood"), Dixie Carter and Lily Tomlin.
2. She was basically a stilted opera singer. In retrospect, knowing Kahn for her iconic film role and Broadway and television performances, it's ironic how focused her early ambitions had been on opera. Her training and initial focus was primarily classical repertoire with the other work she ultimately became known for almost more of a side gig as she made her way in the world. Who's to say? If Kahn had been a bit more lucky in her early forays into opera, the world might never have known the comic genius we now remember.
3. She was fired from How Now, Dow Jones.
Kahn was hired to make her Broadway debut in the 1967 musical, How Now, Dow Jones, but was fired during the show's out-of-town tryout in Boston. It seems the creative team — legendary producer David Merrick, in particular — didn't know how to incorporate Kahn's somewhat cerebral process into their collaboration on this troubled piece. Broadway musical success remained elusive for her with her, as her Tony-nominated turn in 1978's On The Twentieth Century was besot with tensions.
4. She beat Bernadette Peters for the role of Goldie in for Two by Two.
Although Bernadette Peters went on to become one of the leading musical theatre stars of our era, Kahn won a role in the 1970 Danny Kaye vehicle, Two by Two, over her. In the difficult slog toward stardom, both actresses had to survive challenging stage productions and find film and television work before enjoying the kind of Broadway success they had been destined for. Their overlap was not limited to the theatre portions of their careers, either. Peters even took on a "Kahn role" in the Mel Brooks film "Silent Movie."
One of the first major productions of Candide after the original was a 1971 touring production with a new book endorsed by composer Leonard Bernstein. Legendary original star Barbara Cook auditioned, but no longer had the stratospheric Eb that tops out the aria "Glitter and Be Gay," leaving the role open for Kahn. Kahn won the part, but other than a New York concert performance, never actually performed in show, as film and television conflicts got in the way. An audio recording of her "Glitter and Be Gay" reveals her rare musical and comedic gifts in top form.
6. She sang in so many movies.
If a satisfyingly successful starring role in musical theatre sadly eluded Kahn throughout her life, she certainly sang in a lot of her movies. Mel Brooks made memorable use of the star's talents when he cast her as Dietrich-esque Lily Von Shtupp in his 1974 hit "Blazing Saddles," but apparently credit must be given to Kahn herself for incorporating an impromptu a capella rendition of "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life" into her performance in Brooks' "Young Frankenstein." Her vocals were also showcased in the films "At Long Last, Love"; "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother" and "Slapstick (of Another Kind)." Even in 1985's "Clue" Kahn can distinctive soprano can be heard in flitting counterpoint to the rest of the cast's rendition of "For She's A Jolly Good Fellow."
7. A Taste of the Great Cabaret Act That Never Was
For years, Kahn toyed with the idea of a one-woman-show to be called Kahn-cepts. Her passion for Kurt Weill informed many of her song ideas and one can only imagine the special material she would have created and/or commissioned. Sadly, this production was never to be and the world is left eternally Kahn-ceptless. There is, however, one small consolation. She performed one of her Kahn-cepts concepts, "The Moment Has Passed" (a song she didn't sing when she appeared in the 1965 Off-Broadway Promenade), on "The Tonight Show" in 1986.
8. She had an affair with David Marshall Grant.
In 1980, Kahn starred in a film adaptation of Albert Innaurato's play Gemini. Her co-star, David Marshall Grant would go on to star on Broadway as Joe Pitt in Angels in America and become an acclaimed playwright (Snakebit) and television writer ("Brothers & Sisters," "Smash"). The actor and writer also went on to become an out gay man, but not before engaging in a long romantic relationship with Kahn. He eventually came out to her and they remained close friends, but he was one of the great loves of her life.
9. "I want to assert this to you, but I don't want to be assertive."
Theatre critic and scholar Michael Feingold offered perhaps the single best summation of Kahn's essence when he described her vibe as, "I want to assert this to you, but I don't want to be assertive." Reading "Madeline Kahn: Being The Music, A Life," one is reminded (or made aware) of brilliant performance after brilliant performance in a substantial and varied career. Going back to watch Kahn essay these roles on video, something truly inspired and individual is evidenced and Feingold's words explain it perfectly.