DIVA TALK: Catching Up With Follies Star Elaine Paige, Plus Karen Akers Sings Sondheim
By Andrew Gans
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Question: Welcome back to Broadway!
Question: Before we get to New York, tell me about your Kennedy Center experience. What stands out in your mind about DC?
We all arrived for the first day of rehearsal — such a huge company of people, none of whom I knew. Although, I think I had shared a dressing room at some point, some years ago, at the theatre in England when Bernadette Peters came over to sing for Cameron Mackintosh's 50th birthday. [Laughs.] So, I had met Bernadette before, as I say, briefly, so that was nice to see her again. And, then we were all introduced to each other, and we kicked off the read-through, the read-sing-through. The thing that stands out for me is how, rather like the opera world, a lot of the artists already knew the songs and the material really, really well, whereas I didn't know the piece prior to having been asked to do it. So, that was quite an interesting thing to observe.
Question: Tell me about the evolution of doing "I'm Still Here," which has changed from DC to New York.
First of all, before I came out to Washington, of course, I started my research and did a lot of research—googling all those American references, which I knew nothing [about]. [Laughs.]… Like "Five Dionne babies" and "Beebe's Bathysphere" and "Amos 'n' Andy" and "sleeping in shanties" and all of these different things. I just didn't know what any of it was about, so I had to Google all that, and then, of course, I had to make a decision as to how I felt about those various things that I'm saying. There was a lot of reading involved about J. Edgar Hoover—Herbert and J. Edgar, I beg your pardon. [Laughs.] So, that's how I started, and then, of course, [director] Eric Schaeffer and I discussed the song, and I felt that very much with the little script there is, that clearly this is a woman who's had men come and go in her life either with marriages and/or boyfriends. As she says, "There's the guy I'm with now. He's just a thing, but he's 26," so she clearly, you know, has men in her life, but, of course, says again in the script that she never gets to talk, so I thought that that was relevant and that she should be telling somebody this first part of the song… Well, in this production, I'm telling the young waiters. They're hanging on her every word because she, for a moment in her life, is holding court, and so, that worked rather well for me. And, then as the song progresses—this is the thing I found difficult. In fact, I didn't find it until I got to New York and spoke to Sondheim, himself, because there were various questions I had about the lyrics. One lyric, in particular… I have to say it all or else I can't remember it! [Laughs.] This is a long song. [Laughs.] When I say, "Been called a 'Pinko, commie tool,' got through it stinko by my pool"… This is the lyric that I didn't understand: "I should've gone to an acting school, that seems clear. Still someone said, 'She's sincere,' so I'm here"… and I thought that that was a new thought. The thought that "I should've gone to an acting school, that seems clear." I said to Stephen Sondheim, "Does she think she's a bad actress to make that comment?" And, he said, "No, no, no. It's not a new thought. It's connected to what you've just said about 'Been called a Pinko, commie tool, got through it stinko by my pool.'"… Stephen said that that line relates to [the McCarthy trials]. He said he wrote the song about Joan Crawford, which I didn't know, and he said that she was an actress both on and off the stage, and came to the McCarthy trials. She was holed up like a lot of other people, and he said that she was such a good actress that it left enough room for the fact that she might have been innocent. So, someone said, "She's sincere," so she responds, "So, I'm here… That's how I come to be here."
It's interesting, I don't think anybody would know that unless you got it from the horse's mouth. I think anybody listening to the song would not know that. You would automatically, I think, think that it was a new thought, but according to the author-composer himself, that's not the case, and that line, "I should've gone to an acting school, that seems clear. Still someone said, 'She's sincere' so I'm here" is connected to the earlier line of being called a "Pinko commie tool." So, that, I thought, was absolutely fascinating. So this song has evolved very much so, for me, through understanding of it, really, and playing it as well. And, I think having spoken to Stephen, himself, about it as well, that has been one of the great joys working on this, that we had the author-composer there to ask, to talk to, should we need, and it's proved absolutely invaluable, really.
I think now, the song for me now, is much more introspective, as if I am thinking of it as my memories, and I'm going through it…I'm now singing it as a memory, something that I am remembering for myself, rather than a performance, that's how I'm trying to do it anyway… There are so many different interpretations I imagine one could put on it, but there is so little in the text for you to be able to discover who this character is—who she is—so, for me to be told from Stephen Sondheim that he wrote it about Joan Crawford [was helpful].
It was interesting because when I went back to England between Washington and New York, I was invited to Kensington Palace for a summer garden party by Princess Michael of Kent, and there, at the party, was Joan Collins. Not Joan Crawford. [Laughs.] That would be a worry. I would've had too much to drink if I thought it was Joan Crawford. [Laughs.] But, it was Joan Collins, and she was standing at the other end of the garden and I could see her… She's not quite from the same era as Joan Crawford, but there is a demeanor about Collins that is of the old school, the old movie school, if you see what I mean. When I looked at her standing miles away, standing quite proudly, surveying the scene, I thought, "Ah!" Something clicked in my head, and I thought that Carlotta would have had that kind of assured demeanor, even though possibly that isn't true, she would give off that aura of the old-movie Hollywood days of glamour, and that's also why we changed the costume somewhat and the wig. In Washington my hair was down, and I didn't feel right — I felt too young and girly. So, I said to the costume designer, Gregg Barnes, that I wanted to up the ante with the costume because in the first scene Ron Raines as Ben says to me, "It's not much of a ball to be the belle of, but congratulations anyway, that outfit is a triumph of restraint." So, I wanted to add to the character something to make it a bit more over the top, so we added a slit in the skirt up to my thigh, and we added a fur collar and cuffs because I thought that was rather starry and rather grand and Hollywood of that era. It's very of that period… And, also, I discussed the fact that I wanted my hair — the wig — to be up, so I looked to old photographs of Brigitte Bardot, who I've always admired, [laughs] and saw a wonderfully, glamorous shot in her youth with her hair all piled up on top. So, we went with that idea — that whole costume change is very relevant because it makes me feel as if I have more gravitas than I did in Washington, so there's been a huge evolution in this character for me.
Question: What is it like working with Sondheim? Is it intimidating?
Question: The night I went, the audience just erupted after your song. Is it like that every night?
Question: It's like a rock concert in a way.
Question: I know when you're doing a role like Evita or Norma, there is such concern about your voice. Does this role let you have more of a life?
Question: What does it make you think for the future? Do you like this size of a role or would you want to do larger parts again?
Question: Tell me about the night the lights went out.
Question: If they were to revive Follies in London, would you be interested in doing the show there?
Question: I don't like to hear that you won't do another musical, but I definitely understand the demands of a show.
Question: Any chance of a New York concert while you're here?
Question: How did the Follies recording session go?
We were in the studio all day Monday, and some of the leading players had to go back Tuesday to do their big ballads and so on. We did it live with the orchestra. The orchestra was there just as we do it in the show really, only without the audience. I basically sang it through twice and hope that one or other of those takes will be good enough. God knows! I haven't heard it back, so I don't know. I hope it will be all right, but it was great fun. Everybody was there all day long, and the spirits were up and nobody got crotchety or so tired, although everybody was pretty knackered, you know. Without the day off, especially for the leads, it's difficult. But, no, it was great fun, and we got it all done in two days. That is amazing! I think it's coming out in November. I've never heard of such a thing ever before in all my years at the theatre… The quickest turn-around I've ever, ever known!
Question: What's the thought for the next solo CD for you?
[For tickets to Follies, phone (877) 250-2929 or visit Ticketmaster.com.]
That was just one of the many highlights of the singing actress' generous evening of Stephen Sondheim tunes that is now playing the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel. Entitled Live, Laugh, Love: Akers Sings Sondheim, the performance features no less than six tunes from Sondheim and Goldman's Follies — her title tune, which served as the theme of the evening; a belty "Broadway Baby"; a heart-piercing "Losing My Mind"; and three songs written for the character of Phyllis Stone, "The Story of Lucy and Jessie," "Ah, But Underneath" and an especially trenchant "Could I Leave You?" — as well as songs from Passion, Sunday in the Park with George, Merrily We Roll Along, Into the Woods, A Little Night Music and more.
Akers' enunciation is so crystal clear that many of the evening's songs were heard in a new light. I was particularly taken with her rendition of "Moments in the Woods," where every "and" and "or" got their full due, and it made one hear and feel the song anew. The singer, who performs with a sense of freedom and emotional abandon like never before, also shone with a wonderfully comic version of "More" from "Dick Tracy" and a gorgeous pairing of Sunday in the Park with George's "Beautiful" and "I Remember" from TV's "Evening Primrose."
It may have been, however, the final section of the evening, the songs of love, where Akers was most powerful. In addition to the aforementioned "Water Under the Bridge" and "Losing My Mind," the Tony-nominated performer also delivered passionate versions of Passion's "Loving You" and "I Wish I Could Forget You," Merrily We Roll Along's "Good Thing Going" and "Not a Day Goes By" and A Little Night Music's "Send in the Clowns"; the latter was especially moving.
Akers concluded her Sondheim exploration with the master's ode to New York City, "What More Do I Need," before returning with an encore of "Goodbye for Now." (Prior to her encore one fan yelled out a request of "I'm Still Here," to which Akers responded, without missing a beat, "I'm glad," which drew one of the evening's biggest laughs.)
Mention must also be made of music director Don Rebic's masterful orchestrations, which beautifully surround Akers' dark, buzzing contralto. Her sound is so unique and haunting that it stays with you for days after the concert, and this show is a must for both her fans and Sondheim devotees.
Performances continue through Oct. 29. The Oak Room is located within the Algonquin Hotel at 59 W. 44th Street. For reservations call (212) 419-9331.
[To read my recent interview with Karen Akers, click here.]
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