Perhaps it's because I grew up watching "Alice" — the funny, often touching seventies sitcom about a working single mom/waitress/occasional singer and her young son that was based on the Oscar-winning film "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" — that chatting with Linda Lavin earlier this week seemed like conversing with an old friend. Or, perhaps, it's because Lavin seems to be at such a great place in her life — newly married to drummer Steve Bakunas, who accompanies the singing actress on her gigs throughout the country — that she is so friendly and refreshingly candid in conversation. Either way, talking to Lavin — whose Broadway resume boasts a Tony Award for her work in Broadway Bound as well as Tony nominations for Last of the Red Hot Lovers, The Diary of Anne Frank and The Tale of the Allergist's Wife — was a complete delight. The acclaimed actress, last on Broadway in the much-too-short-lived Carol Burnett-Carrie Hamilton opus Hollywood Arms, will be back on the New York stage next month when she plays a week-long engagement at Feinstein's at the Regency. Lavin has titled her program The Song Remembers When, and her evenings will feature musical director Billy Stritch on piano, husband Bakunas on drums and Saadi Zain on bass. Lavin spoke with me about her upcoming cabaret turn, her work on Broadway in Gypsy and Hollywood Arms as well as her thoughts about the late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein. That interview follows.
Question: This past summer you performed a one-night engagement at Birdland. How many years had it been since you had last performed in a Manhattan club?
Linda Lavin: That was the first time in about 100 years. [Laughs.] I started in clubs in the early sixties in New York while looking for jobs in the theatre. At one point I did have a job Off-Broadway. It was a show called Kiss Mama with Julius La Rosa. I would go from the Actor's Playhouse right over to the Downstairs at the Duplex or the Downstairs at the — they all had the word downstairs in them, all the clubs I played. Most of the time it was between theatre jobs or looking for theatre jobs that you could always work in somebody's club, especially if the fabulous Jan Wollman was running these clubs. She gave us work — she gave me work, she gave Joan Rivers work.
Q: What was your act like in those days?
Lavin: My act was the most tragic songs of the twentieth century. I was a tragic figure. I saw myself coming out with a rose between my teeth, a dead rose actually, and I sang all the little-known songs of Dietz and Schwartz, anything that was remotely unrecognizable because I wanted to be unique. Actually, I really wanted to be Bobby Short. I had listened to Bobby Short and Don Shirley, and during college I had built a repertoire of fabulous songs that weren't all that popular. And, also, they were very, very sad. I remember I wore a one-piece lace bodysuit and a feather boa. There were moments of comedy because people would say, "You have to put something light and comical in." So, I'd sing "You'd Better Love Me [While You May]" and walk off. I would do quirky, little things and then just sing about how tragic my life was. I thought that would involve people. [Laughs.] But nobody came to those clubs anyway, so it didn't matter!
Even though I'm excited and nervous, it's scary to do. . . . I think everything we try to do as artists and performers is to break down the past and walk through a new door, break down the wall of comfort and say, "I'm going to try this now." For me to be trying it now is to say, "This is who I am. This is where I've been. This is what I know for now" and to be willing to share it and connect with people. The connection is very important for me, so I am now really singing with my eyes wide open. I am looking at people. And, it actually lessens the fear. It's amazing. You are in fear when you're not willing to look. [Laughs.] Somehow, just seeing them and looking at them and talking to them through the songs that I'm singing — that's what's important to me is the connection.
Q: Tell me a little about the show you're going to be performing at Feinstein's.
Lavin: The show is called The Song Remembers When. My friend Jim Caruso played that song for me on a CD of Trisha Yearwood's, and I said, "I've gotta do that song, and I'm going to call the show that title." This is a memory piece. It's really a recollection of my life through songs, little stories that I tell. Songs that locate me in time, the way they do locate us when you [think], "Oh my God, I know where I was when I heard that song." Songs that tell a story, rather than me just standing up there and doing stand-up. I can burst into a song that tells what I'm trying to say [with] somebody else's words. It's a collection of songs — it's not a theatre show. It's not Broadway show tunes. And that's a choice I've made. So, when people scream, "Sing something from Gypsy!" I just say, "Be quiet." [Laughs. Lavin, thankfully, has agreed to share a little of her Momma Rose with audiences at Feinstein's.] But I do sing "You've Got Possibilities" because there's a great story with that song. But I don't try to sing it the way that I sang it 1965, the young, belting, loud, brassy girl. It has its place now in my life as a retrospective and as a wonderful song that still makes sense on an emotional level. I sing "The Boy From. . ." from The Mad Show, which was my song. I remember the day that that song was written for me, that it was brought into rehearsal. That's a piece of my life, which is why it has to be sung — also, it's just a great pastiche song. Billy Stritch is my musical director.
Q: How did you get hooked up with him?
Lavin: I've known Billy as long as I've known Jim Caruso. They came to see me in The Sisters Rosensweig, and we've been friends ever since, and we've been singing in one living room or another since then together. Billy was available, and he wanted to do this, and I wanted him to do this, so he's on board and has been for the last several months. I started with somebody else — I've been doing this now for two-and-a-half years. I started in the Poconos, I went to Atlanta, I went to Philadelphia. I went to L.A. with Billy, I went to San Francisco.
Q: Are you enjoying the experience?
Lavin: I love it, I absolutely love it. My husband is my drummer. I live down here in North Carolina, and I met my sweetheart, Steve, six years ago. We got married last year, and he's a drummer. I didn’t start the act with him. He was a rock drummer all his young life. He would come with me all over the country when we were doing the act. He said, "I'd like to try doing this." So he started working with jazz drummers and started changing his style, learned the show, auditioned for the musical director, who was not Billy at the time, and the guy said, "Yeah, you should absolutely play this show."
So, we travel together. We've got our RV — we just came back from Florida where we played three weeks. So [we're] traveling together with the drums, with the costumes. Our life is just a lot of fun and made very rich by the fact that I can do this when I want to, and I don't have to do it eight times a week. And, if I do two weeks in one place, that's great, but it's a limited engagement, which is really how I want to work now unless I find a Broadway show that absolutely bowls me over — I don't want to work that hard anymore. [Laughs.] I love the variety of it, the freedom of it.
It's really like writing a show, to put an act together. Jim came down here with the-then musical director and we prepared for a show at the Poconos. We wrote this show in five days; we put it on its feet. By the time I did it at Birdland, there were new things in it; I had done it for over a year-and-a-half, [and] I'm comfortable with it. We have three new songs that are going in for [the] Feinstein's [run]. They're songs that I've known, I'm familiar with them. I'm not going to scare myself by trying to learn brand-new arias, but they're songs that I want to sing. I have a piano, bass and drum. We're traveling all over the country. I've got venues in North Carolina and Tennessee coming up. We're going to Georgia in March, we're going to New Jersey in April. It's fun because I get to have my life here and travel when it's good and get a paycheck at the end of the week. I absolutely love that part — I can pay my band, and everybody has a good time. And there's a lot to learn, and I'm learning it on my feet as I do it.
I'm also doing a concert here on March 25 with the Wilmington Symphony — I really love singing with orchestras. This is a fundraiser, and I offered up my services, and the conductor is arranging the orchestrations, and Billy's coming down, so I'll have my trio in front of an orchestra, which is a wonderful orchestra. We'll be doing that, and I'm looking for more gigs with orchestras. That was my dream to be the singer with the band, the one girl on the bus, and I've got it. My band is a little smaller than Glenn Miller's, but I'm still looking for that big-band experience, so wherever I can find it and sing with orchestras, that's what I'm looking to do. And, if not, I'm happy to sing just in front of my three pieces. I just love it — I really do.
Q: You mentioned before about appearing in The Sisters Rosensweig. I was hoping you could talk a little about working with Wendy Wasserstein.
Lavin: Well, Wendy was a very shy person. Wendy would sit and watch rehearsal and always let the director speak. She never jumped in to tell you how she wanted it or saw it, and the director, of course, was and still is the great Dan Sullivan. Wendy was shy and kept to herself, and when you talked to her, [she was] so sweet and so loving and so full of a sweet, gentle energy that you always wanted to talk to her. You always wanted to know what [she] thought, and she was extremely attractive to me in that way, that she was open and loving and sweet.
Last year, I went in to do a reading of The Sisters Rosensweig that she asked me to do for a fundraiser. I think she had started to be sick at that time. She had a baby about five years ago, a little girl named Lucy, and Lucy would answer the phone singing, and then Wendy's voice would come on. And, Wendy sent me her children's book about a little girl who goes to the theatre and whose life is transformed, and there was a little girl living in Wendy, together with her wisdom as a politicized woman — a woman who made a difference in the world through what she wrote and how she cared about our lives and how they were transformed in this century. She had the combination of that little girl and that grown woman in her that was extremely attractive and just very endearing. That's the word that comes to mind when I think of Wendy — she was very dear and she was very smart, and her loss is hard to believe and it's tremendous for all of us, not to have her voice anymore.
Q: You also mentioned Gypsy. I'm curious — when you replaced Tyne Daly, did Arthur Laurents direct you?
Lavin: Yes, he did.
Q: What was that experience like working with him?
Lavin: It was wonderful when he was directing me. He was very supportive and very loving and extremely respectful to me. He allowed me to do my own take on it because I really felt that this was a road movie. This was a story about a woman who really made a lot of changes in her life. She didn't start out the way she ended up. I thought she started out much more hopeful, much more innocent. I thought she was sexy and charming, and I wanted to approach it that way, and he absolutely allowed me to and encouraged me to. So that experience was very rich and exciting for me. To do that was a dream. I had played Rose Louise at the age of 20 with Margaret Whiting playing Momma Rose in Beverly, MA, one of those music tents in the summer. Years later I was finally playing Momma Rose, which was a dream come true.
Q: What about that role makes it so appealing for actresses who can also sing?
Lavin: It's the best role ever written for a woman in the American musical theatre because, if you take the music away, it's truly a great story, a great play, wonderful scenes and dialogue, very identifiable story about mothers and daughters, family, love affairs, dreams broken, dreams fulfilled, drive and fear and loneliness. The commitment of doing something — whether anybody believes in you or not. We all identify with that. And then put the music to it. I think the music — and I said this to Sondheim one night, "Did you write this to kill Merman?" [Laughs.] It's the hardest, most difficult score in the world.
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