DIVA TALK: Catching Up With Three-Time Tony Nominee and Passion Star Judy Kuhn

By Andrew Gans
June 7, 2013

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



Judy Kuhn
It's been a particularly busy season for three-time Tony nominee Judy Kuhn, who was not only critically acclaimed for her performance as the ill-fated Fosca in the recent John Doyle-directed production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Passion for Classic Stage Company, but also just released her third solo recording, the beautifully touching "All This Happiness" on the PS Classics label, and will make her debut at the new Manhattan nightspot 54 Below June 10 and 12 at 7 PM.

The recent, extended production of Passion, which co-starred Melissa Errico and Ryan Silverman, marked Kuhn's second time playing the sickly Fosca, who falls madly for the young soldier Giorgio (Silverman). The Broadway favorite had first taken on the role in the Kennedy Center's 2002 Sondheim Celebration opposite the Giorgio of Tony winner Michael Cerveris and the Clara of Rebecca Luker. "Oh my God it was amazing," Kuhn said last week about her chance to revisit the dark role Off-Broadway. "It was really amazing. I had such a great time working on it." She also said that the recent production gave her a chance to discover new facets about the obsessive character. "John Doyle gave the production and also the character a different kind of focus. I think in D.C. I focused much more on her illness and what it was. John was really more interested in other aspects of her character, like her changeability… He sort of challenged me to be kind of a different person in every scene — to keep Giorgio completely off guard so he would never know who he was dealing with, which I thought was a really interesting way of approaching the character. Also, I felt like because of the nature of the production and the lack of a real set, it became a much more animalistic and emotional, visceral production, which allowed me to find other colors in the character, too."

The intimate Off-Broadway venue, which features audience members on three sides of the stage, "was kind of fantastic and terrifying at the same time," Kuhn said with a laugh. "You feel very vulnerable and very exposed when everybody’s so close, but it also brings an intimacy and an intensity to the piece, which I feel it benefits from because it is a very intimate story about the most intimate things people experience in life —love and passion and the idea of beauty, all those things. So I think it was really interesting to do it so up close. I loved it."

Kuhn in Passion.
photo by Joan Marcus

Kuhn also loved working with director Doyle, whose Broadway resume includes the award-winning revivals of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd and Company as well as the debut of the new musical A Catered Affair. "He's just such a gentle, decent, caring person, and he truly respects the actors that are in the room – is deeply respectful," the gifted actress explained. "But he also wants you to take risks and basically just says, 'Bring it!' He actually said something really interesting to me about how he directs: by asking, not telling. He constantly is asking questions – 'When do you think the moment is that she falls in love with Giorgio?' and then you go, 'Oh!' Really specific things that you start to look for. He doesn’t want you to have a right answer – he never thinks there is a right answer. He wants you to always be searching. He’s not interested in doing the same thing twice ever. He really creates a great ensemble so that everyone in the room feels like they can’t do anything wrong. And, it creates this atmosphere of such creativity, and he also challenges you all the time to be better. He really finds very quickly the things you do to kind of protect yourself, and he subtly takes them away from you, so he makes you a better actor I think."

Although there was no recording of Kuhn's work in the Kennedy Center production of Passion, this time around she did get to preserve her layered performance as Fosca for release on the PS Classics label. Due to upcoming vocal surgery, co-star Errico had to bow out of the recording, but DC Clara, Luker, was able to step in at the last moment. "It was sad that Melissa was unable to do [the recording, but] it was so great of [Rebecca] to [join us] because it would have been so sad not to record it at all. … Because I’d done it with Rebecca, it wasn’t so odd for me; in fact, it was very nostalgic hearing her sing that music again. I’m sure it was much more of an adjustment for Ryan, who’d never even met Rebecca until we first got together and rehearsed, but he’s such an easygoing guy and Rebecca’s such an easygoing person that they hit it off right away. I think he loved working with her. It all went very well, and I feel very grateful to Rebecca for doing it, and she, of course, gave a brilliant performance." The Passion recording, the most expansive treatment of the Tony Award-winning 1994 musical to date, is due July 2.

Kuhn as Cosette in Les Miz.
Photo by Michael Le Poer Trench

It should be noted that Kuhn is blessed with one of the richest voices in the musical theatre today; in fact, one suspects when God was handing out voices, she stepped into line twice. Kuhn not only possesses a rangy, glorious soprano that she used to dramatic effect as the original Cosette in Les Miserables and as Amalia in the revival of She Loves Me, but she also boasts a rich, thrilling belt that she first displayed in the Broadway debut of Chess, a production that garnered the actress numerous lifelong admirers, this writer included. That golden voice can be heard in its full glory on her new solo recording, the aforementioned "All This Happiness," which features an eclectic array of material including "Temptation," "Something Cool," "Losing You," "Goodbye Joe" and "Night Ride Home," among others.

One of the highlights of the new disc is a gorgeous pairing of Sondheim's "Happiness" and "In Buddy's Eyes," from the musicals Passion and Follies, respectively. When asked about the decision to group the songs together, Kuhn explained, "'Happiness' [isn't] a happy song, despite what the words say. That’s the genius of Sondheim. The harmonics and the way he sets those lyrics harmonically tell you, 'I don’t know if this is going to be so happy.' There’s a tension underneath it where he’s telling you this is not just a love song. There is a naiveté in that and misunderstanding about what love and what happiness is. I guess it was sort of my idea to put the two together, and then Dan Lipton did this brilliant arrangement. To me, to put the two together is sort of the arc of a relationship, the idea of that moment of passion you feel when you fall in love or meet someone you’re very attracted to and you have that wonderful, sexual beginning to a romance. And then what happens many years later in a marriage where that isn’t necessarily where it was in the beginning. And, because 'In Buddy’s Eyes' she keeps saying, 'I’m young, I’m beautiful. I’m still the prize.' And then Dan brought back the harmonics of 'Happiness' to the end as a reminder that while the character is thinking how [her husband] looked at her when she was young and beautiful, what that is like now and trying to hang on to that dream of that passion. That, to me, was what putting those two songs together was about."

And, what does the title of the CD, "All This Happiness," mean to the singer?

"I wanted it to be kind of ambiguous. Obviously, not all the songs on the CD are happy – there’s a lot of sadness and loss in there," Kuhn laughed. "The set and the CD sort of came together at a moment in my life when there was a lot of change and reflection going on. I was about to celebrate my 20th wedding anniversary, and my daughter was about to go off to college, and I was doing a lot of reflecting on my life and the relationships in my life. It’s kind of what I was just saying about putting together the two songs – what you think your life is going to be when you’re young, and you're looking ahead and what happens when you get to that point in your life when you're assessing, 'What did I get that I wanted? Did I really want that? What did I think was going to make me happy, and what really makes me happy now?' I think those things change as you get older. And, I think when you come to this middle part of your life when things do change and children grow up and you're looking at a marriage to someone you've been with for a really long time, who I still love very much, but relationships evolve and you start to look at different things. So when I say 'All This Happiness' – it’s a whole kind of stew of happiness and unhappiness and disappointment but triumph, and all these things that you hope your life will be."

Kuhn also spoke about her decision to fund the recording — her third, following the equally impressive "Just in Time: Judy Kuhn Sings Jule Styne" and "Serious Playground: The Songs of Laura Nyro" — via Kickstarter, the online platform to raise money for creative projects. "It was kind of amazing," Kuhn said. "When we were working on this music, I thought we really should record this. I certainly could not have afforded to pay for it by myself, and I didn’t know how to go out and look for investors, and I didn’t know that any label would pay for it because labels don’t often do that these days. I have a friend who’s a filmmaker, who’d raised money for a film on Kickstarter, and she had told me about it, and someone else said I should check it out. And, I thought there’s nothing to lose by trying!… I got help from friends and a young, talented actor-singer I know who has a sideline of doing web and social media stuff. He helped me kind of design the page and do a video and get the word out there. And then you just work it every day for a month. It takes a long time for it to get set up, and then once you launch it, you just work it constantly.

Kuhn in Rags.
photo by Carol Rosegg

"And, I’m still working it," Kuhn laughed. "Yesterday, I spent all day at PS Classics headquarters boxing, labeling and mailing CDs to all the people who backed the project. It’s a lot of work, but it’s so worth it. Frankly, I was so moved and humbled by the amount of support I got — from friends, family and fans. More than half of my backers were people I didn’t know. It was quite amazing, and I was very touched and moved by the support that I got."

Those many supporters and more will have the chance to hear Kuhn perform this material live in her June 10 and 12 concerts at 54 Below. "[We'll also offer] something from my musical theatre background, a couple from my Jule Styne album, and then a couple other songs — songs that I like that didn’t make it on the album. We have a Cole Porter song in there, all still in the theme of love and happiness."

When asked how performing in smaller venues compares to working on a Broadway stage, the Tony-nominated artist answered with a laugh, "Well, [it's] terrifying. There’s something very terrifying about just standing on stage in front of a microphone as yourself. It helps to have a great band behind you, which I do, and great material to do, which I do, but it makes me feel very vulnerable. It took me many years to have the courage to do it, and I’m getting used to it and I enjoy it much more than I did when I started. But definitely, for me, it’s a more comfortable thing to put on a costume and play somebody else. There’s another kind of nervousness about that, but it’s not the kind of terror that I often feel when I get onstage to do these solo shows. But, as I said, I’m definitely getting used to it, and I enjoy it much more. I think these shows are going to be really fun. I love that room. I think this show is going to fit perfectly in there. The whole vibe of it is going to be great in that room."

And, since Tony night is upon us, what are Kuhn's memories of performing on the Tony Awards?

Kuhn and Ryan Silverman in Passion.
Photo by Joan Marcus

"Oh my goodness. Well, it’s always very exciting. It’s like being Cinderella and getting to go to the ball, which I guess is an appropriate metaphor this season in particular," Kuhn laughed. "But I’ve only performed on the Tonys once, but I did it twice in that night. It was the year of Les Miserables and Rags, so I was nominated for Les Miz and then I performed from Rags and Les Miz, and it was one of the most crazy, terrifying nights of my life. I don’t think I’d ever performed on live television before and the Tonys – it’s not like you do a run through and you know how much time you have between things that you’re doing. My category was up first, so I was sitting in the audience, and they said someone would come get me and take me backstage to get ready to perform the Rags number, but nobody came to get me! I finally just found my own way backstage and made it just in the nick of time. That was really terrifying and awful! They were like mad at me! But nobody came and got me — I had no idea how much time I had. They got me into mic, wig and costume so fast, and I was standing in the wings without a second to even think about what it was I was about to do. And, considering that it was a song I hadn’t done in a long time, since the show had been closed for many, many months, and it was a 15-20 minute song that they cut down to three-and-a-half minutes, and they kept changing the cuts….I actually did make a mistake in the middle of it—I jumped something. And dear, beloved Dick Latessa just hung by my side and got me through. And then I had to do a quick change just off stage into nineteenth-century France, and was back out on stage moments later, and the next day woke up not knowing what had hit me!"

On the horizon for Kuhn is another new musical, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron's adaptation of Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, which played a sold-out run as part of the Public Lab last season and will return with a full production this fall under the direction of Sam Gold. "I’m very excited about it," Kuhn said. "I think it’s a really beautiful piece. There’s a great cast and Sam Gold is directing it. It’s just such a wonderful, creative thing to work on. I just love everybody involved."

It would seem, as director Doyle wrote in the liner notes for Kuhn's new CD, that, indeed, the "best is yet to come" for the singing actress. When asked whether she feels similarly, Kuhn said, "One always hopes! You know, talking changes, transitions in life, I’m in a transition in my career because, obviously, I’m not an ingénue anymore, so different kinds of roles are coming my way. Sometimes those roles don’t get the same kind of attention, [but] they can be so much more interesting and challenging. Older people are more complex and have more problems than younger people, so to get to play those kind of parts are, I think, thrilling."

[Kuhn's new CD is available at the label's website, psclassics.com. (PS Classics discs and many other theatre recordings are also available at PlaybillStore.com.) … 54 Below is located at 254 W. 54th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue. For tickets, reservations and club information call (646) 476-3551 or visit 54below.com or ticketweb.com. The shows have a $35-$45 cover. There is an additional $25 food and beverage minimum.]

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