DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Young Frankenstein's Beth Leavel, Plus News of Kuhn and Cook

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Young Frankenstein's Beth Leavel, Plus News of Kuhn and Cook
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Beth Leavel
Beth Leavel

It's been a busy few months for Tony Award winner Beth Leavel, who played musical theatre writer Lili in the March world premiere of Dancing in the Dark at San Diego's Old Globe and Lucille Early in the City Center Encores! production of No, No, Nanette in May. The actress, who possesses a true gift for comedy as well as a big, rangy Broadway belt, is now back on The Great White Way in the new Mel Brooks musical Young Frankenstein at the Hilton Theatre, Leavel's home for nearly two years when she succeeded Tony winner Christine Ebersole as Dorothy Brock in the award-winning revival of 42nd Street. Leavel, a Tony and Drama Desk Award winner for her triumphant work in the title, larger-than-life role of the humorous and touching musical The Drowsy Chaperone, is now succeeding another Tony winner, Andrea Martin, in the role of Frau Blucher. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Leavel, who spoke about her recent work, her current role and her post-Frankenstein future; that brief interview follows.

Question: How did the role of Frau Blucher come about?
Beth Leavel: It was so out-of-the-blue. I had just gotten back. I was in San Diego for three months right after Drowsy with Dancing in the Dark. The day after I got back from that, I did No, No, Nanette at Encores! The week after that my agent called and said, "Are you interested in going in to replace Andrea Martin?" I said, "Yeah! I'm not doing anything else for awhile." [Laughs.] I went in, and I sang for Mel Brooks and [Susan] Stro[man] and a whole table full of about 90 other people.

Question: What was that experience like?
Leavel: You know what? It's Mel Brooks. You have to stop being intimidated by the fact that he's sitting behind the table. Stro and I go back to Crazy for You, so it was so delightful just to see her again — like family. And, a lot of the Crazy for You people were still there, still with her, so it was a mini-reunion. Then I went back one more time, and I was offered the job. They said, "Can you start next week?" I said, "Yes. Yeah I can." And then I opened last Tuesday [July 15].

Question: What was the rehearsal process like? I know sometimes it's quick when you're joining a show that's already up and running.
Leavel: Oh, yeah, it's really quick. I had a little under two weeks, which I think is ample time. I keep trying to put it in perspective. Every time you do a stock job or if I go to Pittsburgh CLO, you have a week. I learned A Little Night Music in seven days. If I can do that, I can do anything! And, I didn't know it, so I was going home every night and just studying Sondheim. [For Young Frankenstein], I would meet Chris Peterson and Steve Zweigbaum, who are [Stroman's] choreographic director and Mel's [associate] director, at Ripley Grier studios with a couple of folding chairs and props. They would say, "Here is this tower…" It was like Young Frankenstein Lite. You learn the blocking as best as you can, you go home and you memorize your lines, and then I would sit and watch the show.

Question: Was Andrea Martin still in it at the time?
Leavel: She was in it the first week, and then Linda Mugleston was in it the second week. Question: What was it like seeing two different performances of the character while working on your own version?
Leavel: Fantastic! You keep going, "What can I steal?" [Laughs.] "Oh, that's good!" If it ain't broke, I'm not gonna fix it, so I lovingly stole from both of them …. When you go in to replace someone in a show, it's an existing, luscious creative machine. You just have to figure out how your cog fits in the best way to this machine without disrupting the machine, yet putting your own little spin on whatever part of the machine you can. I'm still trying to learn that, but it's so much fun! The audiences are screaming at the end of the show. They just love it.

Question: What was that first performance like for you?
Leavel: Terrifying. It's almost the first time you're on the set, and it's definitely the first time you're on the set in the dark. I remember there is one entrance I make before my number, "He Vas My Boyfriend," where I knew I had to sneak behind a curtain and stand on a settee. I wasn't able to do it until the first time I was onstage, and do it in the pitch black! I was groping around, cursing… Now I know how to do it, but you just don't learn any of that stuff until [you're onstage], and I knew that's what it was going to be. You're just not going to know some of the other stuff until you're there doing it in performance mode. That's your rehearsal — in front of 1,700 people. "Hi, sorry, just bear with me, people!" [Laughs.]

Question: What's it like playing the Hilton? It's such a large space.
Leavel: It is. I did Dorothy Brock there for about two years [in 42nd Street]. Loads of the crew are still there, so I feel like [I'm] coming home a little bit. It's nice. I like playing that theatre. It's huge but still intimate. The audience isn't far, far, far away. The only thing is [that] I can't see the balcony and the mezzanine as well as I can in some other theatres, but the orchestra, I have a real sense of them.

Question: How would you describe Frau Blucher?
Leavel: She's a passionate, eccentric, wacky German housekeeper. I'm still getting to know her.

Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for her?
Leavel: I'm still discovering those. What was something I dreaded last week now has become my favorite moment because I know where to go and what it is. There's a moment in Act One that I sing a slight reprise of "He Vas My Boyfriend," but it's all serious, to the Monster. I love that. It's so out of character. It's such a tender moment in this wacky musical, and I get to do it, and it's really luscious. I love wearing that mole. Oh, come on! [Laughs.] She's very glamorous in a very untraditional way, which is really fun for me not to have to be so glamorous and beautiful and made up. Frau Blucher thinks she's glamorous, but she looks like this. But she thinks she's all hot.

Question: Had you been a fan of the film or a Mel Brooks fan?
Leavel: I am a big fan of "Young Frankenstein," but not like some of the other people. I couldn't quote the lines, but I certainly could quote, "Wow, what nice knockers!" The iconic lines, I know. But I don't own it or anything like that, so I'm not sure that I can wear the true badge of fandom. I mean, really, who's not a fan of "Young Frankenstein"?

Question: Has Mel Brooks been to see the show since you've been in it?
Leavel: Not that I know! [Laughs.] I hope he will, and I hope I make him proud.

Question: There have been some other cast changes as well.
Leavel: Yes. Sutton [Foster] left, and a wonderful actress named Kelly Sullivan is taking over her role. Megan [Mullally] leaves in two weeks. I think her last show is Aug. 4, and Michele Ragusa will be replacing her. She started rehearsal yesterday, so she's at the lovely studio with folding chairs and pretend props, learning choreography.

Beth Leavel with No, No, Nanette co-star Michael Berresse
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: You mentioned No, No, Nanette before. That was your first Encores! concert.
Leavel: It was my first Encores — speaking of shot out of a cannon. [Laughs.] Question: What was that process like?
Leavel: It was so informed by the fact that I flew in from California, got in Sunday night about ten o'clock at night, and started to learn "You Can Dance With Any Girl" the next morning at ten o'clock. Bless her heart, Randy [Skinner's] assistant Kelly was there, and by the end of the day she looked at me, and she said, "Darling, you're just full, aren't you?" I went, "Uh huh." I had just kind of glazed over. The fact that they were embracing my inner dancer again was terrifying and, ultimately, so rewarding and thrilling to be able to that dance number. I had the best time in that show. And when in doubt, you just look down at your script. I had to keep reminding myself of that.

Question: Was there any talk of Nanette transferring?
Leavel: Well, you hear this, that and the other. That would be nice, wouldn't it? But it's nothing definite, but I think Broadway would be ready for a revival of No, No, Nanette.

Question: And what about Dancing in the Dark? What's the word with that show?
Leavel: I wish I knew. I think there's going to be a life to it. I'm just not sure where it is in the process. It's kind of on hold right now. Last I heard, they changed it back to the title of The Band Wagon. I'm hoping that that just, out of the blue, surprises and delights all of us.

Question: What role were you playing in Dancing in the Dark?
Leavel: I was playing the Nanette Fabray role, Lily Marton.

Question: Did you enjoy the role?
Leavel: Oh, yeah! It's so great to originate a role and to bring your creative "jeuge" and creative process. I have no idea how you spell "jeuge." It's such a technical term. "Ms. Leavel likes to bring her creative jeuge…" [Laughs.] It was fun and challenging and, unfortunately, with the contract at the Old Globe, you don't have the luxury of four weeks of previews to let an audience inform you of what works and what doesn't work. I look forward to bringing the show back out again. The songs are absolutely fantastic.

Question: What songs did you get to do?
Leavel: "That's Entertainment" and the triplet number from the movie... I don't get to sing ["Dancing in the Dark"], but I did get to watch all these luscious dancers do it. It's just beautiful songs.

Beth Leavel with The Drowsy Chaperone co-star John Glover
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: What are your thoughts looking back on Drowsy Chaperone? Do you miss playing Drowsy?
Leavel: Yes. I know it was time to move on, but boy does she hold a huge chunk of my heart. People stop me all the time and talk about that show and the role. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments that I hope happens again, but until then I'm so grateful for Drowsy. Question: I saw it four or five times, and each time I liked it more and more.
Leavel: I think the more time passes, the more people are going to see what a real treasure it was. I just can't wait to see the first high school production of Drowsy Chaperone! Come on! I can't wait. That's going to be fantastic.

Question: Do you have any other projects in the works?
Leavel: I do. I haven't signed a contract, but it looks like I'm going to be going back to Los Angeles, to the Ahmanson, to do The Night They Raided Minsky's — directed by Casey Nicholaw, written by Bob Martin, with music by Charles Strouse and Susan Birkenhead.

Question: What part will you be playing in that?
Leavel: I'm going to be playing Mazzie. She's the jaded dance director at the burlesque house.

Question: When will that be?
Leavel: I think we'll actually be out there January or February [2009]. They're hoping for a Broadway transfer, but I'm not sure when that will be. But when Casey Nicholaw and Bob Martin call, I go!

Question: How long will you be in Young Frankenstein?
Leavel: I'm hoping to make it through the beginning of the year. That would be great. I will stay with it until they kick me out or I have another Broadway show. [Young Frankenstein plays the Hilton Theatre, 42nd Street at Seventh Avenue; call (212) 307-4100 or visit www.ticketmaster.com for more information.]

Judy Kuhn, who was most recently on Broadway as Fantine in the revival of Les Misérables, will return to Joe's Pub in October. Kuhn will reprise her Laura Nyro tribute, Serious Playground - The Songs of Laura Nyro, for Joe's Pub audiences Oct. 6 and 7. Show time each night is 7:30 PM. Joe's Pub is located within the Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Street. Tickets, priced at $30, are available by calling (212) 967-7555 or by visiting the Joe's Pub box office. For more information visit www.joespub.com.

Tony Award winner Barbara Cook was in the recording studio July 30 to lay down the vocals for her latest DRG release. Entitled "Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder," the DRG recording is scheduled to arrive in stores Nov. 6. Grammy winner Hugh Fordin — president of DRG Records Incorporated — is producing "Rainbow," which features arrangements by Lee Musiker, who also conducts the band. The song list includes "Cookin Breakfast for the One I Love," "For All We Know," "Hallelujah, I Love Him So," "Harbour," "He Loves and She Loves," "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter"/"I Wish I Could Forget You," "I'm Through with Love"/"Smile," "If I Ever Say I'm Over You," "Lost in the Stars"/"No More," "Love Is Good for Anything That Ails You," "Old Devil Moon," "Sooner or Later," "There's a Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder," "Where or When," and "Lucky to Be Me." For more information visit www.drgrecords.com.

Ute Lemper
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Actress-singer Ute Lemper, seen on Broadway in the Tony-winning revival of Chicago, will release her latest solo recording in the fall. Entitled "Ute Lemper: Between Yesterday and Tomorrow," the new CD features songs penned by the award-winning actress. For her latest recording, Lemper, press notes state, "attempted to translate the complex, troubled and beautiful world that she lives in, into a poetic and musical experience, which combines elements of various genres and cultures of music. . . It is a poetic and philosophical journey through the world and her life. The songs were inspired by events that stayed in Lemper's mind and intrigued, fascinated, shocked or hurt her." In a statement Lemper said, "The songs on the album form an epic journey. 'Ghosts of Berlin' is a song that walks through cinematic and political territories, focuses on my memories of Berlin, contrasted with the Berlin of today. It depicts the city during the cold war as the little scarred island in the middle of the East Block: Berlin with a wall separating East from West." Other song titles include "Nevada," "Nomad," "September Mourn," "The Greatest Ride," "Stranger Friend," "Wings of Desire," "Here Is Love," "Luna" and "Blood and Feathers." Lemper's upcoming New York appearances include Aug. 26 at Spiegeltent at the South Street Seaport; Oct. 4 in Seven Deadly Sins with the Toronto Symphony at Carnegie Hall; and Nov. 14, 15, 22, 28 and 29 at Joe's Pub. "Ute Lemper: Between Yesterday and Tomorrow" will be available on iTunes and at amazon.com. For more information visit www.utelemper.com. Leslie Kritzer, most recently seen on Broadway in the Harvey Fierstein-John Bucchino musical A Catered Affair, will go it solo at Splash Bar Aug. 11. As part of Scott Nevins' Curtain Call series at the popular dance club, Kritzer will perform a full set of theatre tunes following the weekly "Musical Mondays" video presentations of Broadway performances. Kritzer's concert is scheduled for 11:30 PM. Splash Bar is located in Manhattan at 50 W. 17th Street. Admission is free until 10 PM; there is a $5 charge after that time. Attendees must be 21 or older with identification.

Next week: A chat with original Spring Awakening star Lea Michele, who is currently in rehearsals for Les Misérables in Concert, which will be presented at the Hollywood Bowl Aug. 8-10. Michele is scheduled to make her West Coast cabaret debut, also under the direction of Richard Jay-Alexander, Aug. 15 and 16 at the Upright Cabaret in Mark's Restaurant.

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

Lea Michele and Tony winner John Lloyd Young in rehearsals for <i>Les Mis</i>
Lea Michele and Tony winner John Lloyd Young in rehearsals for Les Mis
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