DIVA TALK: A Chat With Now and Forever's Linda Balgord, Star of Aspects of Love, Sunset Boulevard

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: A Chat With Now and Forever's Linda Balgord, Star of Aspects of Love, Sunset Boulevard
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Linda Balgord
Linda Balgord

Linda Balgord, whose seemingly endless Broadway belt has been heard in Main Stem productions of Passion, La Cage aux Folles and The Pirate Queen, also boasts a lengthy relationship with the music of Tony-winning composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. The gifted singing actress created the role of Rose Vibert for the national tour of Lloyd Webber's Aspects of Love, starred as the ill-fated silent-screen star Norma Desmond in the tour of Sunset Boulevard and was the last actress to bring to life the faded glamour cat Grizabella—and the torchy "Memory"—in the original Broadway production of the record-breaking Cats. Balgord, who also stood by for Patti LuPone in the most recent Broadway revival of Gypsy, continues her association with Lloyd Webber in the world premiere of the new revue, Now and Forever: The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, which is currently playing Chicago's Marriott Theatre through March 17. Directed by Marc Robin, the production allows Balgord the chance to revisit several of her previous triumphs while adding one tune to her repertoire. Earlier this week I had the pleasure of chatting with Balgord, who spoke warmly and with much laughter about her past and present theatrical endeavors; that interview follows.

Question: I know you've been associated with Andrew Lloyd Webber's work for a long time. Do you remember the first time you were introduced to his music?
Linda Balgord: Well, it was probably the Superstar concept album. That's the first memory I have. I mean, as many people of my age, I played that thing endlessly and knew every word of it!

Question: When was the first time that you sang any of his music professionally?
Balgord: That would have been at the Marriott. I got my Equity card doing the matinee Eva in Evita here. [Laughs.] Don't make me tell you what year! [Laughs.]

Question: That's got to be one of his most challenging roles vocally. Do you remember playing the part and what that was like?
Balgord: Oh, I do. I do! But, you know, I was young! [Laughs.] And, twice a week was not enough for me—I remember that. It was such a thrilling role to sing—the power you felt singing that role… It was quite remarkable, actually, how transformative singing that music was.

Question: Did you ever get a chance to do that part again?
Balgord: No, that's really one of my regrets. I always thought that I would get another chance, and I didn't, so I've always regretted that I didn't get another crack at her.

Linda Balgord and Ron Bohmer in Aspects of Love.

Question: After that was the Aspects tour…
Balgord: Yes, that would have been the next Webber show.

Question: What year was that?
Balgord: It was '91. I think we started rehearsals in Toronto in '91.

Question: That was one of your first major breaks, wasn't it?
Balgord: Oh, yeah… I lived in Chicago for three years, and then in 1990, I moved to New York and actually came back here to do a show, and when I was back here, I got the audition for the Aspects tour, the Canadian production/tour.

Question: Was Lloyd Webber involved with the tour at all? Did you get to meet him at that point?
Balgord: I did get to meet him. We opened the show in Edmonton, Alberta, because Robin Phillips directed that. That was his theatre at the time—out in Edmonton—and so Andrew came out there and saw the show, so that was the first time I'd ever met him, which would've been at the end of '91.

Question: Did you get to talk to him?
Balgord: Yeah, I did. He seemed very happy with the production and with my singing of Rose.

Question: I have a lot of friends who saw that tour and said you were wonderful.
Balgord: Oh, that's great! I have such fond memories of it. I know a lot of people really hate that show. It's very polarizing. [Laughs.] But it was an amazing experience for me, and I really loved what Robin Phillips did with it—simplifying the set. I think he did a really beautiful job.

Question: Did Broadway come right after Aspects?
Balgord: Well, let's see. We closed in June of '93, and then in the fall of '93 I got cast in Passion.

Question: You were understudying Fosca, right?
Balgord: Right, Donna.

Question: Were you also in the ensemble?
Balgord: Yeah, we were the maids in the huge brown dresses. [Laughs.] And, in the flashback I played Fosca's mother.

Balgord and Ron Bohmer in Sunset Boulevard.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Do you remember your first night on Broadway—how that felt or whether it lived up to what you expected Broadway to be like?
Balgord: Well, it was wonderful. You know, that show was quite controversial, the reactions… It was really interesting to be a part of that process and not be on the front line. [Laughs.] I guess is how I'd put it… Boy, that was hard. It was really hard on everybody, but I was not so much in the front of it. I definitely remember being terrified for my audition for the show. [Laughs.] I definitely remember that! You know, of course, it was what I'd been hoping would happen for many years, so it was thrilling—thrilling to be doing my first Broadway show.

Question: Did you get to go on much for Donna?
Balgord: I think we ran about nine months, and I went on 18 times. I still remember that because I guess it's like when you're in high school and you count how many lines you have. I don't know! [Laughs.] But, I was so lucky. I did get to go on, and the first time I went on, it was planned. Donna had a family obligation, so I had a full put-in, and I had great preparation. I was not thrown on, which was a blessing. And, she took a vacation, too, so yeah, I did get to do the role.

Question: What was it like getting to play the part because that's such an emotionally draining role?
Balgord: Yeah, it is. It's extremely dark, but it's a wonderful role and such an enigma of a woman. I really liked playing it. I really did. If you can enjoy something like that… But it was such a great challenge, and Mr. Lapine was really terrific in knowing that I wasn't going to be Donna Murphy—that I couldn't be Donna Murphy—and giving me the room to do it certainly within the structure that was set, but not expecting me to do what Donna was doing. It was a great experience.

Question: You were rather young to be cast as Norma in the Sunset Boulevard tour. Was that a surprise to you that you got that role?
Balgord: Well, I had an involvement with it before I ended up getting cast. I think it was shortly after Aspects has closed, and I had auditioned to be Glenn Close's standby for the L.A. company. And, right after my audition, Andrew flew me over to England to sing at Whitehall Palace. Rupert Murdoch was launching his Sky satellite television channel, and Andrew was providing the entertainment, so there were four singers from his shows—Kevin Anderson sang from Sunset, the gentleman who was playing Phantom sang, the woman playing Cats in London sang. And, I flew over there, and I hadn't been offered anything, but I was introduced as the woman who would soon be playing Norma Desmond "somewhere in the world." [Laughs.] And, so I sang that, but I did not get the standby position, and I was told [that] Trevor thought that I was too young.

Question: It must've been surprising that you didn't get it, especially since they flew you over…
Balgord: I was disappointed, of course, because I thought I was going to get this amazing gig, and then I didn't. And, I thought I was young, too, but actors—you play parts, you play roles. Then, when the tour came up, I went in again, and I, of course, was told, "They're looking at names…" But it came my way at that time, which was amazing, and daunting! [Laughs.] Question: I think you were the only one, other than Patti, to sing in the original keys, right?
Balgord: I remember when I went into my audition, I had the music in the original keys, which I had sung for Andrew in London, and I was told, "Oh, the songs aren't being performed in those keys." [Laughs.] And, I said, "Well, please would you let me sing it in this key? This is the key that I'm familiar with it in. It changes a lot of…" Even when I was cast, it wasn't certain that I was going to be able to perform them in those keys, but that is what ended up happening.

Balgord as Norma Desmond
Photo by Joan Marcus

Question: What was it like playing that role? What were some of the challenges?
Balgord: Well, it's exhausting. It's a physically and vocally exhausting show. Again, emotionally—so much darkness. And, I think, although I stayed away—and, you know, there wasn't so much internet then—but USA Today entertainment headline was "Sunset Boulevard Hits the Road with No Star to Lead It," so I dealt with that everywhere. "Why didn't they cast a star in this production?" And, because Andrew had started it with a huge musical theatre star, and then a huge movie star. That was certainly something that never, never went away.

Question: That must have been difficult as an actor to deal with. You're up there putting your heart and soul into it…
Balgord: Well, absolutely, because I'm just a woman who walked in the room and won a role. That's who I am. It's kind of unfortunate… You get probably the biggest win of your career, and all anybody says is "You're not it." I mean, it's tough! [Laughs.] So, luckily, there was no internet, so I stayed away from it, but there were articles in Variety about them replacing me with Diahann Carroll. There was a lot of talk, and a lot of people think that's why the tour failed because, of course, RUG started falling apart… I don't know if that's true, and, yes, I can't quite bear if that were true! [Laughs.] But I had many people who were in a position say that that really wasn't it.

Question: Did you get to enjoy it at all because I always think that "As If We Never Said Goodbye" has to be one of the great moments to play?
Balgord: Absolutely. I did enjoy it. I think the first six months were really great, and after six months I started getting tired. I think I held up really pretty well for six months. When you're doing the show, you're doing the show. Unless you're losing your voice, you're not thinking about how tired you are, so I had an amazing time just inhabiting that world and being able to live in that mansion and wear the wardrobe and take that journey. It was amazing. It was just amazing. And, I did. I had a lot of fun—a lot of fun doing it—but certainly there were a lot of mitigating factors. [Laughs.]

Balgord in Cats.
photo by Carol Rosegg

Question: You were also in the final company of Cats.
Balgord: I was, yeah.

Question: How did that come about and what was that like getting to be part of a legendary run?
Balgord: It came about because of Sunset. That's why I ended up doing Cats. And, I had a great time. I really did. I love "Memory." I love singing that song. And, the older I get, the more impact it has for me. [Laughs.] It resonates in different ways. It was great. I have nothing but good stuff to say about doing it. I had a great time. Question: Getting to the revue that you're doing now. Which Andrew Lloyd Webber songs are you getting to do, and are there some new ones that you're getting to perform that you haven't done before?
Balgord: The only song that I haven't done before is from Song and Dance. I'm doing "Take that Look Off Your Face." … I'm singing "Memory." I'm singing "With One Look," and I'm singing "Anything But Lonely," so it's heavy lifting. It's all those tragic 11 o'clock… Well, "With One Look" is not an 11 o'clock number, but, you know what I mean… They're the big, big ballads, so they wanted to give me something that was a bit more playful and a bit lighter, so to speak. [Laughs.]

Question: How is the revue structured? Is it by show or is there a story?
Balgord: The songs are grouped, they're connected—and I don't mean connected like the people that sing them are not characters that are connected—but thematically there is a main idea running through… The Really Useful people are going to be at our orchestra rehearsal tonight because I don't think they've licensed the show to do it in this kind of a way before… I'm not sure, but I know that they're here because they had a very specific list of what we could perform and how we could perform it, so I think they're here to check on it, and we've been told that things might be changing… I think what's interesting, aside from, of course, the wonderful songs—and they've got amazing singers here—is there's a lot of dance in this show. They're doing a lot of the Variations from Song and Dance, and the choreography is really beautiful, so it's an interesting evening, in that it's not just, "Here comes someone singing a solo. Here comes someone singing another solo." There's great movement throughout it.

Linda Balgord in rehearsal for Now and Forever.

Question: What's it like for you revisiting "With One Look" and "Anything But Lonely"—songs that you've done before, but without the other show around it?
Balgord: I think that when you've sung a song for so long—you do a run for two years, a year, nine months, whatever—it really gets in you, in your body. And, there's just like an instant connection. Vocally, some of it is different. I mean, Aspects is 20 years ago… [Laughs.] It's interesting when your voice is not exactly how it was. But they're like great loves or dear old friends. I don't know how to say it, but those songs are, I feel like they're really a part of me.

Question: Is there any Andrew Lloyd Webber role that you'd like to play that you haven't or even a song that you've heard in this that you'd like to add to your repertoire at some point?
Balgord: Well, I do wish that they'd do the ageless Evita. I was reading about Marti Webb—because she recorded "Take That Look of Your Face," and I think she actually did Eva at 50 on a tour in England. [Laughs.]

Question: You also stood by for Patti in Gypsy. Did you ever get to go in that?
Balgord: [Laughs.] I did, actually. I did two shows one Saturday. It was like right before Thanksgiving. I went on those two times, and I think I was there seven months.

Question: What was that like, getting to do that part, because that's another mammoth role?
Balgord: Well, the great thing was that I started in June, and I didn't go on until November. [Laughs.] I had had a lot of understudy rehearsal by then, but I had never done it with Boyd [Gaines] and Laura [Benanti]. I had had a rehearsal with Arthur [Laurents], which was also wonderful… And, I knew that Patti wasn't feeling great, so I was prepared. The matinee—the first show I went on—was actually pretty great because I was there. It was not an out-of-body experience, which can happen in a situation like that. I was present, and that was great. Now, the audience could get their money back, obviously, because it's Patti, and her name's above the title, and they knew before they came in, but the Saturday night show, I just felt the arms crossed over the chests of the people in the audience. [Laughs.] I could feel that, and I didn't feel that in the afternoon. It could have been there, and my attention was just somewhere else. But the energy was different. Everyone was so generous, and I just had such a blast. It was an amazing experience. And, you know how fabulous that orchestra was on stage, and it was an unbelievable experience. It was great.

Question: Would you like to do that role again somewhere?
Balgord: Yeah, I think I would like to do Mama Rose. It's a beast, like some of these other roles we've spoken of, so I think it's daunting to take it on, but yes, I would like to do it. That and Mrs. Lovett… Mrs. Lovett is one I'm so dying [to do]! I would really like to have a crack at that now. Question: You've been in so many different productions. I'm wondering, when you look back, do you have one or two theatrical experiences that really stand out for you as favorites?
Balgord: You know, it's so hard because they all had their specialness, and the three or four biggies were just… There's been nothing like them. I don't know that we'll ever see anything quite like Sunset Boulevard again. It's just not happening anymore, so to know that you did something that you don't know if it will ever happen again… That certainly stands out as something that was totally unpredictable. [Laughs.] It really was unpredictable. I'm just so grateful that I've gotten to play these great women. So grateful.

[For more information, visit MarriottTheatre.com.]

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

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