DIVA TALK: Chats with Carmello, Fields, Lawrence, Leavel and Withers-Mendes Plus LuPone Ignites Her Torch

By Andrew Gans
26 May 2006

Q: And you also get to be in the scene that's not in the show.
Leavel: The Nightingale. Isn't that amazing? That's really fun. It's fun now - now that we know how to do the costume change! [Laughs.]

Q: Did you know that Drowsy Chaperone was going to be a hit before you came to New York or are you surprised that it's a hit?
Leavel: I'm not surprised it's a hit. I like to think that every show I'm ever cast in is going to be the hit of a lifetime, but you know what, it doesn't really work out that way. [Laughs.] After we were in Los Angeles for a while, it became really obvious that it was really special and the audiences were just loving it, so I'm not surprised now. It's a little gift.

Q: How long are you contracted with it?
Leavel: For the rest of my life! Do you think that's bad? [Laughs.] I cannot imagine anything giving me more pleasure.

Elisabeth Withers-Mendes
Nominated for her performance as Shug Avery in The Color Purple at the Broadway Theatre.

Question: How did you find out you were nominated?
Elisabeth Withers-Mendes: My management company, DAS Management, called me and said, "Congratulations, Elisabeth." And I said, "Congratulations?" And I'm feeding my daughter in bed - I think it was like 9 o'clock in the morning. "On the nomination." And I hollered! . . . He tells me that he was watching [the nominations] on television. And I said, "They announced my name on TV?" And he said, "Yeah, Elisabeth, they announced your name for Featured Actress [in a Musical] on Broadway."

Q: What does being nominated mean to you?
Withers-Mendes: It means being part of a legacy. For me, it's like Christmas. It's like somebody asking what do you want for Christmas, and me just giving an incredible wish list, and then on Christmas Day, God blessed me with every thing I ever asked for and more. . . . I've always had a dream. I remember being like six years old and pretending to give my Tony speech as a kid in my bedroom, but then to actually get [the nomination] is respectful of the legacy and the award.

Q: I was amazed that this was your Broadway debut. You seem like you've been onstage your whole life. Have you had other theatre experiences?
Withers-Mendes: [Laughs.] Thank you. The only theatre experiences I had was playing a fairy in Midsummer Night's Dream when I was in high school, and right after that I did Dreamgirls when I was just coming out of high school at a junior college, and I played [the] Diana Ross [role, Deena Jones]. But that was ages ago. This whole experience has just been an amazing journey. It's like, "My God, how has it all happened?" I don't stop long enough to even ask the question because it's just a huge blessing.

Q: How did this role come about for you?
Withers-Mendes: Quincy Jones had called Valerie Simpson and said, "We're looking for a Shug," and she said, "Well, I don't know anybody, but I'll talk to you later." The conversation was ended short, and then Nick Ashford of Ashford & Simpson said, "Wait, what about Elisabeth?" And then a light came on, unbeknownst to me - they ended up telling me this later - they said, "Oh yeah, she'd be perfect for that." So they called me, and I had just had my daughter three months prior. They said, "Elisabeth, we recommended you, and you'll be getting a call from [co-producer] Scott Sanders' office." . . . And I was like, "You remember now that I just had my daughter?" . . . They said, "The role is perfect. It's gonna require just a short kiss and a nude scene." And I said, "Remember now, I just had a baby!" [Laughs.] So, that's how I found out. Ashford and Simpson recommended me for the role.

Q: And then you auditioned?
Withers-Mendes: I actually had three auditions. The first audition they asked me to come back and read through a couple of sides. I did my sides, and then they asked me to come back that Friday. A matter of fact, I didn't even think I was going to get it. My mind wasn't even on it - I was really on my family and taking time off [to be with them]. And when I finished the audition, Scott Sanders and [director] Gary Griffin and some of the writers came out and said, "Elisabeth, congratulations." And all I was thinking about was "My husband's gotta move the car. I know we're gonna get a ticket. My baby, is she all right? Did she eat?" . . . I was not hearing a word they were saying. All I know is I just started crying. Then Gary said to me, "Did you hear what I said?" And I said, "Just say it again." And he said, "Congratulations, I look forward to working with you," and, child, I cried. I told him, "Gary, this is the best news, other than my prayers at night and marrying my husband and having my daughter."

Q: What would you say has been the most enjoyable part of this experience?
Withers-Mendes: The most enjoyable part has been working with Gary Griffin and working with the creative team and working with the unsung heroes, the ensemble. They are so supportive. They are seasoned musicians, actors and dancers, and when I think of how supportive they've been with me throughout this entire Broadway experience - I couldn't have done my job to the maximum without their support. . . . They were so patient with me throughout this entire thing, and I'm blessed because of them.

Q: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for Shug?
Withers-Mendes: My favorite moment is when Shug finally realizes the beauty in Celie, and their relationship starts to develop - that sister-friend sincere friendship starts to develop. Celie has never really known - other than her sister - true love because she's been abused for so long. And as quiet as it's kept, [Shug has] been used and abused in different types of ways. And seeing that their friendship develops from a pure place, that's heartfelt and touching to me. The other part is when Celie looks at Mister and says, "I might be black, I might be poor, I might even be ugly, but I'm here." And that's like my anthem now! [Laughs.]

Q: Would you like to do more theatre now?
Withers-Mendes: I've been bitten by the bug. I would love to do more theatre. . . . Now that I've done The Color Purple, I would love to do a Josephine Baker story or a Ruby Dee story, something like that.

Patti LuPone in Concert
In a generous two-hour, two-act concert this past Monday night at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, current Sweeney Todd Tony nominee Patti LuPone probed the depths of torch songs with her singular style and her trumpeting voice that still amazes with its power and range. The Tony and Olivier Award winner's program ran the gamut from songs about lost love and the plight of "The Other Woman" to the joys of Paris, yet she was at her most moving in a beautiful, simple rendition of the World War II favorite, "My Buddy," which she dedicated to the memory of her late musical director Dick Gallagher. LuPone's voice was filled with emotion as she sang, "My buddy, my buddy, your buddy misses you," and there was a supremely touching break in her tone as she sang the final "you." The evening, a benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, also demonstrated that LuPone is one of the most gifted comedians in the musical theatre, drawings laugh after laugh with her witty asides and with her interpretations of the classic revenge song "I Wanna Be Around" and the "French chanson" "I Regret Everything." She also scored with powerful versions of Cole Porter's "So in Love," and the Gershwins' "The Man I Love," her high belt echoing throughout the theatre that housed one of her earlier triumphs, Anything Goes. The sold-out crowd, which rose to their feet on several occasions, demanded encore after encore, and proved that LuPone needs to record this eclectic mix of torch songs. Oh wait, she already has — the sublime The Lady with the Torch recently hit stores on the Ghostlight Records label.

Frances Ruffelle, who created the role of Eponine in the London and Broadway productions of Les Misérables, will make a rare New York nightclub appearance in June. On June 26 the Tony-winning actress will play The Supper Club on West 47th Street. Backed by the George Gee Big Band, Ruffelle will offer an evening of Big Band favorites, show tunes, pop songs and standards. Show time is 8:45 PM; doors open at 7:30 PM. Ruffelle's engagement will coincide with the release of her forthcoming solo CD, which was recorded live in London. The disc, due this summer, is simply titled "Live at Ronnie Scott's." The Supper Club is located in Manhattan at 240 West 47th Street. Call (212) 921-1940 for reservations.

With author Greg Lawrence, Tony Award winner Donna McKechnie has penned her autobiography. Entitled "Time Steps: My Musical Comedy Life," the new tome is due in stores in September from Simon & Schuster. Chapter titles include "A Make-Believe Childhood," "How to Succeed as a Teenage Gypsy," "Promises, Promises," "Company," "A Chorus Line," "A Choreographed Marriage and Other Singular Sensations," "Masochist's Lament," "Sweet Charity," "Inside the Music" and "My Musical Comedy Life."

Isabel Keating, who portrayed Judy Garland in the Hugh Jackman vehicle The Boy From Oz, will return to Broadway in June. Beginning June 6, the Tony-nominated actress will assume the role of Velma Von Tussle in the hit musical Hairspray at the Neil Simon Theatre. Keating succeeds Leah Hocking in the role that was created on Broadway by Linda Hart.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.