DIVA TALK: Chatting with Chicago's Brenda Braxton PLUS News of Andrews and McKenzie

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Chicago's Brenda Braxton PLUS News of Andrews and McKenzie
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Brenda Braxton in Chicago
Brenda Braxton in Chicago


Brenda Braxton — the sensuous singer, actress and dancer with the mega-watt smile whose energy supply seems unbounded — is happily back on Broadway at the Ambassador Theatre, playing her latest stint as merry murderess Roxie Hart in the long-running revival of Kander and Ebb's Chicago. It is a part that seems perfectly suited for Braxton's many talents; in fact, Chicago director Walter Bobbie told me earlier this week, "First and last, Brenda is gorgeous. She also brings such delight and vigor to Velma's ambition that it makes Velma even more vulnerable to disappointment. It's a cunning blend of qualities for the role." Braxton, who is expected to stay with the Tony-winning production through January 2007, will also be part of the one-night-only celebration of Chicago's tenth anniversary on Nov. 14, an evening that will also boast performances by Chita Rivera, Ann Reinking, Bebe Neuwirth, Caroline O'Connor and a slew of other Chicago alumni.

Braxton, a Bronx native, is a true Broadway baby whose credits include several hit shows — her resume boasts both the original Broadway mounting and subsequent revival of Dreamgirls — as well as one notorious flop, Peter Allen's Legs Diamond. Yet, she may be best known for her nearly five-year run in the Tony-nominated revue Smokey Joe's Café, where she brought down the house nightly with "Don Juan," belting out the Leiber-Stoller lyric, "Don Juan, your money's gone, and when your money's gone, your baby's gone!" That comedic performance, in fact, brought Braxton her first Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.

A few weeks ago I had the chance to chat with the gifted performer, who spoke about her work in Chicago, Dreamgirls, Jelly's Last Jam and Smokey Joe's Café as well as her writing project and her new business with husband Anthony Van Putten; that interview follows.

Question: When did you first play the role of Velma Kelly?
Brenda Braxton: March of 2003, I believe. Q: How did that casting come about?
Braxton: Actually, I was at a Thanksgiving Day party, and Roz Ryan is a very good friend of mine, and she was getting ready to go in as Mama Morton, and I asked her if they were looking for any Velmas. She said she thought so, so I called my agent and told him to call, and sure enough, they said, "Yes, we'll definitely see her."

Q: Why did you think Velma over Roxie?
Braxton: I had auditioned for Roxie way, way back when they first opened. I was doing Smokey Joe's Café, and I auditioned for Roxie, and it made me realize that I'm not really a Roxie. Then I wasn't a Roxie; now I know the show, I understand the character, and I think I could play Roxie. As an actress, I would be able to do that, but back then I hadn't even seen the show. . . . But I knew Bebe [Neuwirth] was playing Velma, and I think she and I are kind of alike in a lot of ways. And Velma was a perfect fit.

Q: What have you learned about the character over the years?
Braxton: I've learned that Velma is a lot like Brenda. She can be kind of hard around the edges, but for the most part she's a good person [with] a good heart. She's funny, she's crazy at times, sad at times, and she just gets caught up in things and then has to talk her way out of it. I think the character has a lot of Brenda in her; of course, I have never murdered anyone. [Laughs.] I've wanted to several times!

Q: I think Velma and Roxie are two of the more demanding roles in musical theatre.
Braxton: Oh, definitely. It's interesting because they keep saying, "No one wants to play Velma. It's too hard." They can change Roxie a little bit, but Velma has a lot of acrobatic and energetic stuff that a lot of people, especially stars — now that they're trying to get stars to plug into the show — [don't want to do]. They look at Velma and they go, "Oh I am not gonna do that eight times a week!" [Laughs.]

Q: That's interesting. It does seem that all the stars who have come in have played Roxie.
Braxton: Exactly, which is a good thing for me. [Laughs.]

Q: Do you have any sort of regimen that you do to prepare for the show eight times a week?
Braxton: Not really. I don't have a regimen per se, but when you're doing a Broadway show, your whole day is about preparing for half hour. No matter what you're doing, [you're thinking], "Okay, I can't do that so much because I still have to go work at 7:30." I pretty much can eat what I want to because the show is so energetic and exhausting. It burns everything off of me, so that's a very good thing. . . . Recently, my husband and I decided to start a new business called B Braxton. It's a grooming parlor for gentlemen only, up here in Harlem, upscale, so that's taken up a lot of my daytime — running around, trying to make sure things are delivered. We're opening in November, so it's kind of hectic, but it's exciting at the same time.

Q: Will you continue to perform once the business is open?
Braxton: Oh, yeah. I could never give this up.

Q: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for Velma?
Braxton: I always love the opening. Women would die for an entrance like that, coming up in that elevator with all eyes on you. It's so cool. [Laughs.]

Q: Has that elevator ever gotten stuck?
Braxton: Oh yes, on the road it got stuck, and [I] kind of did a spider crawl out of the elevator. [Laughs.]

Q: The show also recently welcomed one of its more high-profile Billy Flynns. What's it been like working with Usher?
Braxton: It truly is amazing. Not only was he so prepared for it, [but] even in the week-and-a-half that we've been doing [Chicago] together, he has grown by leaps and bounds. He has studied the character so well, and though he's only 27, he has an old kind of spirit, so that helps him with it. And, of course, his voice is amazing, and the dancing is just spectacular, and they actually put in a little dance break for him in "Razzle Dazzle," and it's kind of Usher, kind of Fosse, but it's so perfect for that moment.

Q: Are there a lot of screaming fans at the door?
Braxton: Oh yes. The first night [co-star] Bianca [Marroquin] and I came out, we were like, "Oh my God." I can't even imagine having to go through that every night. I do have to go through it, but it's not necessarily for me. It's for him; it's kind of spilling over to me. [Laughs.] It was just amazing. Traffic was backed up, and people were screaming and [there were] cameras and camera phones. It was quite exciting, and it's still pretty much like that.

Q: Would you like that kind of celebrity or do you like the kind of fame that theatre brings?
Braxton: I don't know. I'm not sure because I do have moments of people recognizing me — more from Smokey Joe's Café actually than from Chicago. It is kind of scary sometimes because people just walk up to you and go, "Oh my God, that's you!!" Along with that kind of celebrity, though, you have a lot more security. You definitely have security [people] with you, so that kind of cushions all the other stuff, and you have the car waiting. So that's kind of cool. I wouldn't mind having it a little bit. Even when Rita [Wilson] was around, people recognized her. We would go out to dinner, and people would recognize her and want autographs. I guess I would want to experience that a little bit.

Q: Now that Chicago is headed toward its tenth anniversary, why do you think the show has remained so popular?
Braxton: Because it's a brilliant show. It was written so wonderfully; the music, the choreography — it all just fits together. The beauty of it is that you don't have a lot of costume and set — you truly have the story. And the story transcends into 2006 — look at the Michael Jackson trial and other trials — it's sensationalized. It's about the press, it's about the star, so it's still true today. People can relate to it in a lot of ways, and then when you see the show, it's gorgeous people, it's very sexy, it's funny, it's tongue-in-cheek — it's brilliant.

Q: Is the cast getting excited about the tenth anniversary performance?
Braxton: I think we're still kind of in the afterglow of Usher right now. We don't know what that tenth anniversary is going to be — we know a lot of stars are coming back, [but] we don't know what to expect.

Q: You also have a long history with Dreamgirls. You were in the original production, the revival and then you directed and choreographed the Actors' Fund concert. What was it like working with Michael Bennett on the original?
Braxton: It was quite interesting. [Laughs.] It was quite a time because I was very young back then, so it was like, "Oh my God, this is Michael Bennett and Michael Peters and Bob Avian." And then the piece was something Broadway had not seen, especially for a black piece. It was crazy, but it was amazing. To watch Michael and Michael work together, I don't know even how to describe it. And for it to have survived this long — almost like Chicago — and the movie's getting ready to come out, and I'm sure they're going to want to do another Broadway production of it. It's something.

Q: What was your involvement in the original production?
Braxton: I was a swing and the dance captain.

Q: It must have been so exciting to hear that score for the first time.
Braxton: It was amazing. I can still picture it, and I get chills. We were at 890 [Broadway] . . . and almost the whole building was for theatre [then], and it was brand new. We were in the rehearsal studio, and we had never heard Jennifer [Holliday] sing the song because you rehearse separately, and we finally had a run through. It was a run through where the music department and the costume department and everybody's in the same room. And she sang ["And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going"], and when she finished, people were throwing shoes and dancewear and all kinds of stuff because it was just unbelievable. And she was so young back then, too. She was 19 years old. She just opened her mouth, and it was like heaven. And we knew we had a hit show from day one. It's funny because we were in Boston — we were there for, I think, six weeks, and then they announced that we needed to stay longer because Michael wanted to work out a few other kinks, so we ended up being there almost nine weeks. Everybody was rail thin because we were working so hard, but we all knew that when this came to Broadway, that was going to be it.

Q: Going back a bit, where were you born and raised?
Braxton: In the Bronx. I'm a native New Yorker.

Q: When did you start performing?
Braxton: Well, I started dancing when I was three years old, and every year we had the dance concert, Ruth Williams Dance Studio in Harlem, of course. And then I went to performing arts high school, and about a year out of high school, I got my Equity Card. I did the black version of Guys and Dolls with Robert Guillaume.

Q: What performers do you think influenced you as you were training?
Braxton: I don't know. It's weird because [performing] was just so in me. I just loved every aspect of it — seeing people sing and dance and act. It was just in me, so I didn't really pick any one person or any one group. When I was coming up, the Supremes [were the rage], so of course we pretended to be the Supremes, but [performing] is all I ever wanted to do since I can remember. I did work at Saks one Christmas for that six-week period. Oh my God, it was horrible, and I couldn't wait to get back into the throes of theatre. So it's all I've ever thought about doing. I started working with Vinnette Carroll, and I learned so much from Vinnette, about theatre and about being an actress and professionalism, what to do and what not to do. She always said, "Don't be seduced or reduced by the audience," and I think that has stayed with me and has helped me because as actors, you get out [onstage], and sometimes you feel like the audience is not having you. And, it's very easy to get into the [mindset] of, "Okay, well, fine, I'm just having a bad show." But even if they love you, don't get cocky and think, "Okay, I'm fierce. That's it!" [Laughs.] Even just that one statement helped me so much.

Q: Was your family supportive?
Braxton: Very much so. My mother wanted to be an artist, and she wanted to go to school to learn how to draw and paint, and my grandmother wouldn't let her because back in the forties it was about being a secretary or a nurse. So, she swore that if her children showed any artistic abilities that she would help them pursue it as long as their grades stayed up. So that's what she did, and she is truly a stage mom. When I was doing Smokey Joe's Café and it was time for the Tony Award nominations to come out, I was at a friend's house, and the phone was ringing, ringing, ringing, so I knew that I must have been nominated. So I called my mother and on her telephone answering machine — this was like ten o'clock in the morning — she already had, "You have reached the mother of the Tony-nominated Brenda Braxton." [Laughs.] So that just gives you an idea of what kind of mother she is.

Q: In addition to being in some of the big hits, you were also in one of the more noteworthy flops, Legs Diamond. What was it like working with Peter Allen?
Braxton: We had a good time. I said when we did Dreamgirls, we knew we had a hit, [with Legs Diamond] knew we had a flop. [Laughs.] We knew there were certain problems, but he was just so precious. I had such a good time with him, and I actually went on to do some concerts with him, but we kind of knew, "Oh, God, this is not a good [show.]" It had good elements, and Peter was so great.

Q: You also had the chance to work with Gregory Hines in Jelly's Last Jam. What was that experience like?
Braxton: Oh God, he was my heart — such a gentlemen and so talented and just loving and cool to everybody. He didn't make any bones about this one or that one. He was just wonderful. And working with George Wolfe, too. The whole team was just great.

Q: Did you stay the whole run of Smokey Joe's Café?
Braxton: Oh yeah.

Q: How did you or do you keep your performance fresh in a long run?
Braxton: Well, for one thing, you really tell yourself every night that there are people out there who have never seen this show before. That's one thing I tell myself, and the other thing I tell myself is that someone could be looking at me [thinking], "Oh, I need her in my next movie or sitcom." [Laughs.] And, then, I love it so much that I feel like I'm a whole different person when I get out there, almost like in a world of my own. I get to be someone else, and I love improv-ing and really, really working off of the other actors. . . .

Q: Since you did direct and choreograph the Dreamgirls concert, would you like to do more of that? Is that a goal of yours?
Braxton: I think the reason I did that is because I know the piece so well. I think I would like to do some movie directing. I don't know if I want to do theatre directing so much, although if it came up, and it was a piece that I really believed in and really felt for, I would do it. But it's not something that I'm really pursuing. I'm doing some writing now. I actually did an adaptation of My Fair Lady. I have several people looking at the screenplay. What I did was I changed genders, and I made it more contemporary. Eliza Doolittle is a young hip-hop artist, a guy, and Professor Higgins is an older woman, and it's how they deal with each other in the spoken word, the rap world or the publishing world. A lot of people like it, and it could also be a Broadway show. If that were a Broadway show, I think I would like to play the Professor Higgins role. Her name is Samantha, and it's called In Other Words.

Q: Tell me a little bit more about the project your involved in with your husband. When does that open?
Braxton: Our target opening date right now is November 15, and it's the day after the Chicago anniversary, so hopefully we'll be able to get a lot of the stars who will still be in town [to] get a haircut and see what it's about. Q: Is this something that's been in the works for a long time?
Braxton: We've been thinking about it for about six years now. It wasn't until I went on the road this last time because it's hard being on the road, and I said, "We need something else" that I can stay in town if I wanted to and still have money coming in.

My husband had read an article about this guy who was dating a woman, and they dated through the winter, and spring came around and he put on his sandals, and she looked at his feet and went, "Oh, no, no, no, no!" And [this guy] was saying he wouldn't mind being groomed that way — with manicure and pedicure — but he didn't want to go to a woman's salon. My husband said, "I wouldn't mind having it done either, but I feel the same way. Maybe we should have something like that up here in Harlem." Very upscale, gentlemen only, get a haircut, a shave, hot towel, manicure, pedicure, shoe shine, facial, but just for men. We started putting it into the works — we got an architect, and it's almost finished now.

Q: Is your husband in show business as well?
Braxton: No, he's a personal trainer, so we're also going to incorporate that into [the store] — nutrition — grooming from the inside out.

Q: Last question. Are you involved in any other projects at the moment?
Braxton: I'm supposed to choreograph Dreamgirls in the spring of 2007 that Jennifer [Holliday] is going to do at a festival.

[Chicago plays the Ambassador Theatre, located in Manhattan at 219 West 49th Street; call (212) 239-6200 for tickets.]

Congratulations to Julie Andrews, who will receive the Screen Actors Guild's 43rd Annual Life Achievement Award for career achievement and humanitarian accomplishment during the 13th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards, which will be broadcast live on TNT and TBS Jan. 28, 2007, at 8 PM ET. The Life Achievement Award is bestowed annually on an actor who fosters the "finest ideals of the acting profession." In a statement Screen Actors Guild President Alan Rosenberg said, "Julie Andrews is a woman of great generosity, creativity, courage, elegance and wit. She embodies and transcends the memorable roles she has created. Julie has been a positive presence in my life and continues to inspire multiple generations. I believe it is exceptionally significant to be recognized by people who do the same work you do. Julie seems genuinely touched and thrilled to be receiving an award from her fellow actors. I have assured her the honor is ours." For more information visit www.sag.org.

Doubt's Heather Goldenhersh and Spelling Bee's Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who can currently be seen on the new CBS sitcom "Class," will co-host an evening featuring the talents of Doubt Tony winner Adriane Lenox. Lenox, who is re-creating her Tony-winning performance in the national tour of Doubt, will perform in concert Oct. 16 at 8:30 PM at the Catalina Bar & Grill. Her evening is titled Beyond Broadway and will also feature the talents of Rufus Bonds Jr., who starred in the Los Angeles production of The Lion King. Lenox's back-up singers will include Gina Taylor, Fuschia and Lynette Dupree. Zane Mark will be the musical director for the evening, which will include songs from the worlds of blues, jazz and R&B. The Catalina Bar & Grill is located at 6725 W. Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. There is a $25 cover charge and a two-drink minimum; call (323) 466-2210 for reservations. (A portion of the evening's proceeds will benefit Educating Young Minds. Visit www.educatingyoungminds.org for more information.)

Helena Blackman, a finalist in the recent BBC-TV reality program "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria," has been cast in the Cardiff International Festival of Musical Theatre's upcoming production of Gypsy. Blackman will star in the title role as famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. She will be joined onstage by award-winning actress Julia McKenzie, whose London stage credits include Follies, Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods. McKenzie will play the stripper Mazeppa. Additional casting will be announced shortly. In a statement composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, one of the producers and judges of the "Maria" reality contest, said, "I'm delighted that the hugely talented Helena is performing the role of Gypsy Rose Lee. This girl has a great future and like everyone I am going to follow her career with great interest." This year's Festival, which is celebrating the centenary of the late Jule Styne, will present Styne, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents' Gypsy Oct. 29 at 7:30 PM at the Wales Millennium Center. The one-night-only event will feature a full orchestra under the baton of Stewart Mackintosh. Gypsy is a co-production of the Festival and the Millennium Center. Tickets, priced £10-£90, are available by calling 08701 283 560. Visit www.cardiffmusicals.com for more information.

Tony Award winners Glenn Close and Jim Dale, who starred in the original Broadway production of Barnum, will reunite for a one-night-only concert version of Busker Alley to benefit the York Theatre Company. Tony Walton, who worked with Close on the 1984 production of The Real Thing, will direct the Nov. 13 concert at Hunter College’s Kaye Playhouse. Show time is 8 PM. The evening will also feature the talents of Jessica Grové, Simon Jones, Noah Racey, Greg Mills, Krista Rodriguez, Ann Rogers, Michael Lane Trautman and Jeff Williams. The creative team will include Lisa Shriver (choreography), Richard Pilbrow (lighting design) and Aaron Gandy (musical direction). Based on the 1938 British film "St. Martin’s Lane," Busker Alley features music and lyrics by Richard and Robert Sherman and a book by A J Carothers. Tickets, priced $100-$250, are available by calling (212) 772-4448 or by visiting the Kaye Playhouse box office at East 68th Street between Park and Lexington Avenues. Donor seating, priced $500 and $1,000, is available by calling the York Theatre at (212) 935-5820. Donor seating includes a post-show reception with the cast and creative team as well as a limited edition poster and a listing in the program.

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

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