DIVA TALK: Chatting With Forever Dusty Star Kirsten Holly Smith

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04 Jan 2013

Kirsten Holly Smith
Kirsten Holly Smith
Photo by Thom Kaine

News, views and reviews about the women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Kirsten Holly Smith and Jonathan Vankin's new musical Forever Dusty, about the life of the great soulful pop singer Dusty Springfield, casts Smith, who has been seen in productions of Three Sisters, The Foursome, Of Mice and Men, Twelfth Night and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, in the title role. Directed by Randal Myler, the company at Off-Broadway's New World Stages also features Christina Sajous, Coleen Sexton, Benim Foster, Sean Patrick Hopkins, Ashley Betton and Jonathan C. Kaplan. The 95-minute musical about the life of Springfield, who was born Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O'Brien, tracks the late singer's often-moving story and utilizes songs from her many recordings, including "Son of a Preacher Man," "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" and "The Look of Love," among others. A few weeks ago, I had the chance to chat with writer-actress Smith, who spoke about her affection for Springfield and the musical's long road to the New York stage; that interview follows.

Question: When did you first become aware of Dusty Springfield?
Kirsten Holly Smith: I first became more acutely aware of her when I met with Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic Records. I was such a big Atlantic Records fan, and I knew of ["Dusty in Memphis"], but didn't become more obsessed with it until a friend of mine gave it to me. [My friend] said, "You have to listen to this," and that's when I started listening to "Dusty in Memphis," which is sort of the classic album that you start with with Dusty Springfield… Also "Pulp Fiction," which featured "A Son of a Preacher Man," also brought her to my attention. [When] I decided to do this project, [I] became more and more fascinated with her as time grew. I was looking at her and thinking, "Wow, what an amazing voice," and that's what drew me in first…the sound of that soul and what it was. What was that grit behind that voice, and where did that come from? And, that was the first thing that really pulled me into who she was. I didn't become obsessed with her [laughs] until I started researching her, and until I started learning about her story and learning about her music. That, to me, was more unbelievable than anything else—the choices that she made and who she was at a time [that] sort of intercepted with civil rights—making the choice to stand against apartheid in South Africa and her love of soul music, her love of R&B music, and being the first to produce a Motown concert in the U.K. She brought that sound to the masses, in a way, because it was produced on television in the U.K. That, to me, was just incredibly fascinating… She fell in love with this music and she was so inspired by it, and really so was I—always. I always felt that way about soul and R&B music, and I think that's why I'm so drawn to her in a lot of ways. I have a similar feeling about music and about life, and the choices that she made are probably choices I would have made, too, in a lot of ways if I were in her position—minus all of the, of course, kind of terrible things that she had to go through later in life with her addiction.

Smith as Dusty Springfield
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Had you ever performed her songs prior to working on this project or was this the first time?
Smith: I started to work on it seven years ago, and what I did was I sang her songs at the Gardenia Club in Los Angeles at open-mic nights. I would go there once a week, and I would work up a song, and I would sing whatever song it was that week. And, slowly but surely, I started to do research on her—as much as I could get my hands on—and I would start to write monologues about her life. I would start to write monologues and think, "Okay, what song would go with this story?" That process was very organic. I was at the University of Southern California at the time, and I was in the screenwriting division working, and they had proposed a grant. And, I applied for the grant, and I won the grant, and it was a small grant, but it was enough of a grant to get the charts done for a musical. At the time, I wouldn't call it a musical, but it was sort of the genesis of the musical. [Laughs.]… I guess you would call it a one-woman musical, and that was the genesis of this project, and I had a deadline to perform it at USC, and I did, and that was in 2005. Jorja Fox, who was on a TV show called "CSI," was in the audience, and she decided that she wanted to help in any way she could. We brought the project to the Lily Tomlin Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center, which is part of the Gay and Lesbian Center in Los Angeles, to Jon Imparato there, and they decided to produce it, and that took about a year for us to produce it there… It was a one-woman musical with backup singers on stage who rotated in as characters, and then there was a rock 'n' roll band, and it went very well. It was very well-received—critically—and audiences loved it as well, and it was just a really wonderful experience. The way that audiences have responded to this piece, even from the USC workshop, I knew that there was something in the story. People are moved by it, and I knew that there was something there, and I wanted to keep going. I didn't know exactly what that looked like at the time, but I knew that I wanted to keep going with it. Obviously, bringing it to New York is the final frontier with theatre, and I set my sights on doing that. I wanted to come to New York, and it was four years from the time that we produced it in Los Angeles… It was a long, hard and very challenging process, but I'm very proud of myself for hanging in there and not giving up. I could have given up very easily many times, and I didn't. That's something that I am incredibly proud of. There were so many obstacles that I couldn't even begin to share. [Laughs.] But it was really an exciting time for me, even though it was challenging, and it's especially exciting now since it's up in New York. It's just been an amazing experience, and it's a dream come true, really.


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