DIVA TALK: Chatting With Scene Stealers Bartlett, Buckley, Graff, Gravitte and Monk

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30 Mar 2007

(from top): Bartlett in <I>Night Music</I>, Buckley and Ken Howard in <I>1776</I>, Graff in <I>City of Angels</I>, Gravitte in <I>Jerome Robbins' Broadway</I> and Monk in <I>Steel Pier</I>
(from top): Bartlett in Night Music, Buckley and Ken Howard in 1776, Graff in City of Angels, Gravitte in Jerome Robbins' Broadway and Monk in Steel Pier
Photo by Martha Swope (Night Music, Jerome Robbins' Broadway, City of Angels); Joan Marcus (Steel Pier)
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

A few months ago I was honored to be asked to write the liner notes for two forthcoming CDs on the Broadway Masterworks label, "Broadway Scene Stealers: The Women" and "Broadway Scene Stealers: The Men," which both arrive in stores April 3. The new recordings — created in partnership with Playbill — draw from the immense catalogs of Sony Classical/Columbia Masterworks and RCA Victor and are the first in a series of "Editors' Choice" compilations.

As much as I enjoyed writing the notes for "The Men" collection, it was, of course, the CD of "The Women" that was more exciting for this diva lover. Although I was familiar with most of the wonderful tracks, there were a few that were new to me, including the "Ooh! My Feet" of Susan Johnson, whose voice throbs with emotion and warmth; and Linda Hopkins' soulful sounds on Inner City's "Deep in the Night." After listening to the 12-track recording several times, I decided that "Scene Stealers" are really those actors who inhabit a character and a song so completely and with such originality that it's hard to imagine anyone else playing that role.

It was also a true pleasure to get to chat with five of the women featured on the new collection for this week's column: D'Jamin Bartlett and Tony winners Betty Buckley, Randy Graff, Debbie Gravitte and Debra Monk. Those interviews, which offer a look back in time at the songs featured on "Broadway Scene Stealers: The Women," follow.

* * * *

The Scene Stealer: D'Jamin Bartlett
The Show: A Little Night Music
(Shubert Theatre, opened Feb. 25, 1973)
The Song: "The Miller's Son"
The Story:

Next to Company's "Getting Married Today," A Little Night Music's "The Miller's Son" may be the most harrowing challenge for any musical theatre performer. Take a look at one of the several verses of this Stephen Sondheim tongue-twister:

"It's a wink and a wiggle and a giggle in the grass
And I'll trip the light Fandango,
A pinch and a diddle in the middle of what passes by.
It's a very short road from the pinch and the punch
To the paunch and the pouch and the pension.
It's a very short road to the ten-thousandth lunch.
And the belch and the grouch and the sigh."

D'Jamin Bartlett, who made her Broadway bow as Petra in A Little Night Music, debuted "The Miller's Son" on Broadway, earning both a Theatre World Award and a Drama Desk Award for Most Promising Performer for her work in the musical suggested by Ingmar Bergman's film "Smiles of a Summer Night."

Although she never forgot the Sondheim lyrics on Broadway — "I think God was truly sitting on my shoulder," Bartlett says — she does admit one performance in the musical's national tour that she will never forget. "It was one of the tours with Jean Simmons playing Desiree Armfeldt," Bartlett remembers, "[and] I re-created Petra, and it was in the round [where] people have a tendency to talk — it was part of the tent circuit. There was a woman in the front row, and I started the song, and I hear her say, 'Oh! That's the girl that did it on Broadway!' Well, my brain turned to guacamole, and I started doing [gibberish lyrics] — whatever could come out! I had no idea what was coming out of my mouth. She immediately turned to her partner and said, 'Oh, now she sings it in Swedish!'

"That's an absolute true story," Bartlett says with a big laugh. "Jean Simmons laughed so hard, she couldn't even come back out onstage. She was just convulsing. . . . And the poor guy under me, the [actor playing] Frid, he was choking to death! We crawled offstage; we were both hysterical. And then, after the fact, I got totally hysterical and cried in my dressing room, but I think it made theatre history."

Bartlett was actually not the first actress cast in the role of Petra. "I replaced a young lady who was having difficulty with the song," she explains. "It is a very hard song. It's really not her fault. It's a real mother [of a] song to try to pull off," she laughs.

"I was down in Washington, D.C., doing Godspell, which was actually my first real professional theatrical experience. I was at Ford's Theatre, and I got a call from the [Harold] Prince office to come up and just audition for the show — they didn't really go into details. So I flew up to Boston, where the show was premiering. . . . I went in and sang an audition piece for Sondheim and Prince and then landed the part. I went in with about a day's rehearsal in Boston, for the matinee. They were pinning the costume on me because I was trying to fit into somebody else's shoes, somebody else's clothing. So I did that, and then I did the evening show, and then went back to New York, and I believe we opened that Tuesday."

Bartlett, who currently resides in Florida, says her Broadway opening was especially exciting because as a film buff, she knew well Bergman's "Smiles of a Summer Night." "And, on opening night he was there," she says. "I got to meet Ingmar Bergman and [the woman] who had played Petra in the film . . . so I was just in my glory meeting those two. . . . [And], my parents were there, and they were so proud, and it was beautiful. . . . It was an incredible experience. I was very lucky, and I think the girl [who I replaced] went on to do some TV in Hollywood, so she was lucky, too. So that's how that story wound up."

Over 30 years later, Bartlett had the chance to revisit the song at the Standing Ovations IV benefit concert at Joe's Pub in October 2005 that was directed by Richard Jay-Alexander. "[Richard] kept saying, 'It's going to be wonderful, it's going to be fabulous — don't you worry a thing about it!' . . . I said, 'Look, Richard, I have to go back into this, and let me see [what happens].' So I was singing [the song] at home and [thought], 'Oh, I kinda remember this,' so I said, 'Okay, count me in!' I absolutely love him. He's been a good friend of mine for 32 years, and that's really quite an amazing feat, especially in our business, to really make a chum like that. . . . When they announced my name [at Joe's Pub] and the people were so kind when I came out, that's when the shakes started. Then you get nervous and you think, 'Now I have to do it! I have to live up to what they saw all those years ago! How am I gonna do this?' This is all going through your mind, and meanwhile, they're playing the first four bars. . . . It was so much fun actually, and the beautiful thing about it was it reunited [my] whole family."

The Sequel: Bartlett and her partner Mark Bornfield opened a music business in Florida several years ago. The duo perform at various functions and Bartlett says, "What's wonderful is learning all the different types of music — the Whitney Houstons and the Mariah Careys and Celine Dion, and getting to sing all of that stuff now. We do it with a six-piece band. . . . We go out as a duo, and we have all of that high-tech equipment that you would imagine. And it's a huge industry down here in Florida because our weather is so pretty. . . . We've been flown all over the world to perform as a duo, for conventions, for IBM, for Walt Disney. . . . We've been lucky again." For more information visit markbornfieldmusic.com.

* * * *

The Scene Stealer: Betty Buckley
The Show: 1776
(46th Street Theatre, opened March 16, 1969)
The Song: "He Plays the Violin"
The Story:

One would be hard-pressed to find a sound more beautiful than Betty Buckley singing the opening verse of "He Plays the Violin." It's no wonder that the Texas native landed her first Broadway role after her first Broadway audition on her very first day in New York City.

"I had an agent that signed me when I was a junior in college, and through his persistence I came to New York," Buckley says, "[and] on my first day in town, he had an audition for me for 1776, and I got the part!" The Tony-winning actress says her audition song was "Rose of Washington Square," and she was actually taught "He Plays the Violin" at that initial audition.

"[When] I sang ['He Plays the Violin']," Buckley recalls, "[I sang], 'And he bows [as in taking a bow],' as opposed to, 'Oh, he bows [as in playing a stringed instrument].' They thought that was very funny, and they also had to teach me how to say 'volume.' I had a lot of Texas accent issues that they had to teach me how to overcome!"

In order to play Martha Jefferson, Buckley also faced another obstacle: "Onna White, the brilliant choreographer, had to teach me how to float in my panniers," says the former Cats and Sunset Boulevard star. "In 1776 [there were] big panniers on either side of my dress. In my opening night in New Haven — I'm supposed to come sweeping through the door like this young, beautiful girl — and I got my panniers stuck in the door and . . . came falling down the stairs . . . [and] kind of lurched out onstage, and it was pretty funny. So they re-costumed me and changed a lot of aspects of the scene, and I remember long rehearsals where all I did was run across the studio back and forth, and [Onna] would be yelling at me, 'Float, Betty, float! You look like a track star. You're not running track — you're floating!'"

Because she was one of the few characters not in the pivotal Continental Congress scenes, Buckley feared that after her New Haven pannier experience, her part might be cut. "There were three parts that were separate from the Continental Congress," Buckley says. "One was the 'Doozy Lamb,' which was played by Carole Prandis, who was married to Stephen Schwartz, and the other was the drummer boy [the Courier], played by Scott Jarvis, [who sings] 'Momma Look Sharp.' And then there was Martha Jefferson, and so all of us were very concerned that our parts were going to be cut. After that night in New Haven, I was just humiliated, and [producer] Stuart Ostrow came to me and said that my job was secure and that the costume would be fixed and the [song] was going to be re-orchestrated. In the end they did cut the Doozy Lamb, the prostitute that had a scene with Benjamin Franklin."

After New Haven, things only got better for Buckley. "They changed everything by the time we went to Washington, D.C. The scene was different, the orchestration was different, the costume was different, the wig was different, everything was different. It became very charming in Washington, and then we got rave reviews in New York."

And, what does Buckley remember about her first Broadway opening? "The first night was really exciting. [Director] Peter Hunt and [producer] Stuart Ostrow gave us this pep talk. . . .The opening night was really a thrill. [After the show], I came running across the stage as the hairdresser was getting my wig off and helping me get ready for the party, and I ran into Katharine Hepburn, and I [thought], 'Oh, my God!' Literally, I came running across the stage, and there she was, and I was like, 'Oh, my heavens. This is pretty neat!'"

The Sequel: Buckley is currently dazzling audiences during a two-week engagement at Feinstein's at the Regency in a show simply titled Singin' for My Supper. "We're also working on a new collection of music for the Seattle Symphony," Buckley says. "We're doing five performances with them in early May." For more information visit www.bettybuckley.com.

* * * *

The Scene Stealer: Randy Graff
The Show: City of Angels
(Virginia Theatre, opened Dec. 11, 1989)
The Song: "You Can Always Count on Me"
The Story:

"Cy and I just wrote you a showstopper!"

Those are the words that lyricist David Zippel uttered to Randy Graff a month before she started rehearsals for Zippel and Cy Coleman's City of Angels. "He actually said that," Graff recalls with a laugh, "and I thought, 'Oooh, no pressure!' I was excited, but I thought, 'Okay, I'd better deliver. They're calling it a showstopper, so I'd better come up with the goods!'" And, deliver she did. In fact, Graff won the 1990 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her performance in the dual roles of Donna and Oolie and, most notably, her comedic, thrilling rendition of "You Can Always Count on Me."

It was during her callback for City of Angels when Graff first had an inkling about the song that would become her signature tune. "Cy asked me if I knew 'Nobody Does It Like Me,' and I said it was the first audition song I ever learned. I couldn't remember the words — this was before 'You Can Always Count on Me' was written — and I think he knew what he was going to write and that 'Nobody Does It Like Me' was the prototype for it. So I remember singing it on the stage and not remembering the lyrics and him calling them out to me from the audience," she laughs.

"The first time I was given ['You Can Always Count on Me']," Graff continues, "Cy sang it to me, taught it to me and gave me little hints on phrasing that, till this day, whenever I sing this song, I still phrase it the way I heard him sing it . . . just emphasis on certain words and dragging certain words that really stayed in my memory. He's such a jazzer, you know, so he was really giving me that sense of the song when he presented it to me. But the song [originally] didn't have a verse. It didn't have, 'I'm one of a long line of good girls…' It didn't have that verse for the longest time."

In fact, it wasn't until technical rehearsals prior to the musical's Nov. 21, 1989, first preview that the verse arrived. "We were in tech," Graff says, "and I was onstage, and Cy and David were kind of noodling on the piano in the pit. They said, 'Randy, come on down here. Just try this,' and they were writing the verse. We just sang through the verse, and that's how it was born. They wrote it in the middle of the tech rehearsal. . . . I was excited because it was exactly what the song needed. The melody was just so pretty, and it just tied everything together."


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