PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Eddie Shapiro, Author of "Nothing Like A Dame: Conversations with the Great Women of Musical Theater"
By Ben Rimalower
Playbill.com chats with Eddie Shapiro about his new book "Nothing Like A Dame: Conversations with the Great Women of Musical Theater" and talking with Broaday's leading ladies.
Theatre journalist Eddie Shapiro's new book, "Nothing Like A Dame: Conversations with the Great Women of Musical Theater," is released Feb. 7 by Oxford University Press. The 384-page hardcover boasts extensive candid interviews with Elaine Stritch, Carol Channing, Chita Rivera, Donna McKechnie, Angela Lansbury, Leslie Uggams, Judy Kaye, Betty Buckley, Patti LuPone, Bebe Neuwirth, Donna Murphy, Lillias White, Karen Ziemba, Debra Monk, Victoria Clark, Audra McDonald, Kristin Chenoweth, Idina Menzel, Sutton Foster and Laura Benanti.
Shapiro knew some of the women, or had at least interviewed them before, but it was his early coup of convincing Chita Rivera to participate that helped him woo such an impressive group of subjects. These great ladies of the stage offer a funny, warm, informative and dishy look at the experience of life on Broadway.
Shapiro chatted with Playbill.com about interviewing the great women of the Great White Way and the surprising facts he learned about the actresses throughout the process.
I am astonished by how frank these conversations are. Did the women have a chance to edit or review their chapters?
Eddie Shapiro: Yes. And it's their words, so I wanted them be able to make changes and cuts. And some did. Or in some cases, I would say, "Are you sure you want me to print that?"
Did you see themes consistent in many of their experiences?
ES: It's so interesting. They've all gotten to the same place, but they all took such different routes to get there and they all experience being there in such different ways.
I read in the book that you interviewed Patti LuPone at her beach house and spent Thanksgiving with Elaine Stritch? Did you have to jump through any weird hoops to get to any of the women?
ES: I mean, with Patti and Elaine, I was thrilled. Those weren't hoops. They're all different, though. Some will just call me or email me. And then with others, it's always through an assistant or manager, some I met at their agent's offices. Once I'm there with them, it's always hugs and kisses, but some are more guarded, have more walls to get to that point.
You state in the book that many of the interviews were split up over several sessions. Was that part of the initial plan?
ES: Partly, I mean, some of those interviews went eight and ten hours long. For example, Donna Murphy can talk. I mean I can talk to her for two and-a-half hours and only get up to 1978. And then, like, one woman said initially, "I'll give you 90 minutes." So, of course, I said, "Okay, great," knowing that we would then want more time. Or with Sutton [Foster] I first talked to her in 2008 and couldn't schedule the rest of the session until 2009. But then she did Anything Goes, so I had to sit down with her again.
What gave you the inspiration to write this book?
ES: The inspiration, actually, came from Barbara Cook, from Barbara Cook concerts and listening to her talk about the great Golden Age and working with Rodgers & Hammerstein and working with Leonard Bernstein and Jule Styne. I would think, always, I wanted more, more, more, more! It also occurred to me she was getting older and wasn't going to be around forever and I wanted to capture some of these stories before they went away. So, that's kind of what started the idea and then I thought, "Well, why stop at Barbara Cook?"
And so why wasn't Barbara Cook included in the book?
ES: God, it makes me so sad, because that was one of my favorite chapters, but then [after completing the interview], Barbara asked me not to include it because she's working on her own book, and wanted to sort of save the stuff.
It's a testament to the intimacy you achieved with these women that she could think your chapter might supplant her own book in some way?
ES: These women were just shockingly candid, shockingly candid. Some of my preparation for the interviews with these women, I know their careers, I obviously know everything that they've done — and I've seen so much of what they've done, but I would still do a ton of research because I wanted to see what they had said to the press before, so that I wasn't repeating stories, or so that I would recognize a story they had told to the press before, at least, so that if I heard it, I could sort of twist the conversation in another direction. And I was amazed by how much I was hearing that I'd never seen in print before.
What did they say that most surprised you?
ES: I was so surprised by how insecure they still are, across the board. I mean, we're all insecure, but it's like, "You have three Oscar nominations — what do you mean you never made it?!" Or to hear Audra McDonald say, "I still wake up every day wondering if today's the day they're gonna think I'm a fraud." That's really eye-opening — or to hear Patti LuPone say, "— if I ever do another Broadway musical!" As if there's a chance she's never going to get cast again. It's all insecurity, and it's all very human.
Would you say the book changed your perception of these women?
ES: Absolutely. Individually, I would say, my perceptions changed in the way your perception changes when you actually get to know someone. People always surprise you. I was especially surprised by Bebe Neuwirth, when we did the edit, she wanted to do some changes, but she wanted to do it together. So, we sat down with my laptop and she was being incredibly, incredibly careful with me. She kept asking me permission to cut things and I said, "Bebe, these are your words — you can cut anything you want!" But she said, "No, I still want to ask." It was incredibly considerate. By that point, I knew Bebe well enough to not be surprised by that, but it's not necessarily what you think of, when you think of Bebe Neuwirth.
Were there women you wanted but who refused?
ES: There was another woman who pulled out, who actually did a chapter, and then pulled out because she thought that she didn't come off as intelligently as she wanted to, so that was a disappointment. And then there is one obvious glaring omission in the book, and she's not there because she first said that she would do it and then when it came to time for the deadline, she said, "Yeah, no, this is not really me. I don't love talking about myself." So she's not in there too and that was a big disappointment. And you know I get asked a lot, like, "What about Julie Andrews? And what about Liza Minnelli?" And I obviously would have loved to sit down with Julie Andrews or sit down with Liza Minnelli, but the criteria for the book, as I say in the introduction, is a career in musical theatre, so that's why I made the selections that I did.
Did it whet your appetite to do a second volume, maybe with different criteria?
ES: Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, there are so many people, I mean somebody like Andrea McArdle, who you know has the very rare perspective of having been on "The Tonight Show" multiple times as a child. Or the people who are the real journeymen of the theatre, who aren't necessarily the real superstars, the Beth Leavels or...
ES: Absolutely. What I really, really do hope for the book, and this is going to sound totally cheeseball and Hallmarky, but people like you and me, we grew up pouring over the backs of record albums and liner notes. And these kinds of books were like f*cking Manna from Heaven. You know it's not like I want to teach them, like I want them to learn how to be Audra McDonald. I want to feed them, with the exact same things that fed me. And I felt so fed by Martin Gottfried's "Broadway Musicals" and by Craig Zadan's "Sondheim & Company." And I want to help add [to that collection] for the next generation.
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