Diahann Carroll's career is filled with an impressive list of firsts: She was the first African-American actress to have her own television series ("Julia"), the first black actress to star in Aaron Spelling's nighttime serial "Dynasty" (as Dominique Deveraux) and the first woman of color to portray silent-screen star Norma Desmond (in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard). And, Carroll may be the first singing actress to bring eight musicians to the intimate stage of Feinstein's at the Regency.
Beginning April 18, the multitalented performer — backed by conductor Lee Norris and that eight-piece band — will offer The Life and Times of Diahann Carroll at the famed New York nightspot. "I don't know how we're going to do this," Carroll says with a laugh. "I think we're going to sit in each other's lap!" The Feinstein's engagement marks fairly new territory for the versatile actress, who has triumphed on the Broadway stage (a 1962 Tony Award for her performance in No Strings), on television (an Emmy nomination and a Golden Globe Award for the ground-breaking series "Julia") and on screen (a 1974 Oscar nomination for her work in "Claudine"). Yet, despite acclaimed performances on concert stages around the country, Carroll has done little work in the smaller clubs and cabarets. "I think when I was very young, [I may have played] the Blue Angel, but I'm not even certain if I played it. If I did, it was once."
About her upcoming Feinstein's stint, Carroll admits, "It's very much so a new challenge for me. I don't think I have any familiarity in my history with the physicality of Feinstein's. So, we'll experience something new, and that's always a double-edged sword — it's fearful, yet you're excited." Audiences can expect to hear several classic songs, perhaps something from Sunset Boulevard and, possibly, a Joni Mitchell tune or two. "I've just been introduced to the brilliance of Joni Mitchell," Carroll explains. "She's really an amazing poet."
Carroll spoke a bit about her theatrical background and her musical theatre influences. "I think the first person that I saw in the theatre," she says, "was Ethel Merman in Annie Get Your Gun, and I was very young, and I thought I'd never seen anything so magnificent in my life as this strong woman singing and acting. But then there were others that I saw on Broadway that were very important for me to see. I liked musicals, of course, very much so at that time, so naturally I saw Julie Andrews when she did My Fair Lady, and she was wonderful, and Rex Harrison was unbelievable. "The dramas [also] had an effect on me," Carroll continues, "so the theatre was very much my beginning. I'm a New York lady, born and raised, and [was] exposed to everything this wonderful city had to offer, and my mother enjoyed exposing me to all of it."
As for her own musical theatre experiences, Carroll recalls working with Richard Rodgers on No Strings, which featured Richard Kiley as her co-star. Carroll says Rodgers, who wrote both the music and lyrics for No Strings, was "a task master and a brilliant, brilliant man who seemed not always to be happy — not that one can be happy always. He seemed to be dealing with very deep, profound unhappiness. It was strange to me that he wrote all this beautiful music and seemed to be so unhappy, but I later learned that was not only my observation. There were many who shared that observation. But," Carroll adds, "it was very important for me to work with Richard Rodgers, particularly so young, because of his work ethic. It helped to hone my own work ethic."
Carroll's most recent musical theatre outing was the Canadian production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard, where she received wonderful notices and had the chance to wrap her rich, dark alto around such Lloyd Webber gems as "With One Look" and "As If We Never Said Goodbye." "I really loved it," says Carroll. "It's very physical, but it was that wonderful woman that I fell in love with many years before I had the opportunity to actually play her. I thought the examination of the silent-film actress trying to make her adjustment to the fact that talkies had come along — Billy Wilder's perception of that — was just brilliant, so I was very honored to be given that opportunity to do Norma Desmond. There are so many stories like the Norma Desmond story, maybe not ending in murder, but the sadness. I'm sure there were many people who were in recovery from all sorts of problems trying to make that adjustment [to talkies]."
Would Carroll like to return to Broadway? "Absolutely not," she laughs. "I think it's a wonderful thing to do and to have as a memory, but no." The veteran actress, however, would relish the chance to work more in film. "I enjoy film very much," she says, "and it's not the backbreaker that eight performances a week is. I'm not saying that the hours aren't long, but you can make a 'mistake' and have the opportunity to correct it. The exactness of theatre is one of the things that makes it such a challenge. Everyone wants to do it to find out what is your mettle, what are you really made of. But I, at this point, would really like to do some film."
Among Carroll's film credits are "Eve's Bayou," "The Five Heartbeats," "Paris Blues," "Carmen Jones," "Porgy & Bess," "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" and "Claudine," which brought her an Oscar nomination. Although she lost the Academy Award to Ellen Burstyn, Carroll's barrier-breaking performances were remembered in Halle Berry's own Oscar acceptance speech in 2002. Carroll says she screamed when Berry referenced her work: "I burst into tears. I was thrilled that she decided to make that [remark]. . . . I think so many people in the audience were unaware of how important that award was or is. I saw the camera as it panned around in the audience, and I was [thinking], 'Isn't that amazing so many actors there who do not understand really what she's doing and why she's trying to pay tribute to those who tried to do it before her?' I thought it was so gracious of her to do that. I think it was lost on an awful lot of people who don't know anything about [African-American] history in terms of our creative juices, in terms of television and film. It's been a long, very hard road, and we haven't really done it, but we're certainly doing it to a greater extent [than] in the past, thank God."
When asked whether she has had the career she would have liked, Carroll openly says, "No, most certainly not. I would have loved more opportunity to do film. It's a work process like everything, and it takes time to hone your craft in front of that camera, and I'm so jealous that more often than not that kind of career is offered to white actresses. . . The older I got the more I realized most of it has to do with money. The world is not as aware as they have become now and probably will continue to become of the black American. So when one begins to put a project together, the first thought is, 'What will it earn?' and 'What will it earn worldwide?' And that's why it's important for us to keep pushing that door [open, so] the world knows more about African-Americans. It's very important that we have people like Denzel Washington, who is really one of the finest actors we have in America, and it's very important for the world to see what he does."
For now, however, Carroll is concentrating on her upcoming Feinstein's engagement and the possibility of playing other clubs around the country. "I want to find out how do I feel [performing in a cabaret setting]. I think I'll go to the islands [after]," Carroll says with a big laugh, "and sit down and say, 'What have I done?'"
[Diahann Carroll will play Feinstein's at the Regency, 540 Park Avenue at 61st Street, April 18-29. Show times are Tuesday-Saturday evenings at 8:30 PM with late shows Fridays and Saturdays at 11 PM. There is a $60 cover charge and a $40 minimum for all shows; call (212) 339-4095 for reservations.]
FOR THE RECORD: Patti LuPone's "The Lady with the Torch"
It’s been some year for Tony and Olivier Award winner Patti LuPone, who triumphantly returned to Broadway earlier this season in the acclaimed revival of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, which continues to astound audiences nightly at the Eugene O’Neill. Now, LuPone has released her latest recording, "The Lady with the Torch," a fantastic addition to her previous solo efforts, which include the critically hailed "Patti LuPone Live!," "Heatwave" and "Matters of the Heart."
Available April 25 on the Ghostlight Records label, "Lady with the Torch" features LuPone in fine form. Her throbbing alto — with its lush tones that span a remarkably impressive range — remains an exciting, unique instrument, and the actress may be singing with more emotion than ever, as she imbues each of these torch songs with an intensity that makes for thrilling listening.
Most of the songs on the 14-track CD were written decades ago, yet LuPone brings a contemporary flavor to each, making even the oldest chestnut as new, relevant and full of life as when originally written.
LuPone begins her investigation of "Torch" with a powerful version of the Gershwin classic “The Man I Love” that builds to a full-voiced climax. Other highlights include Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn’s “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry,” in which LuPone reveals her array of vocal colors; a fiery reading of the great Johnny Mercer revenge song “I Wanna Be Around”; a definitive version of the rarely heard Gus Kahn-Matt Malnck-Tom Adair tune “I’m Through with Love,” which is a master class in how to mine a song for all its dramatic worth; and a thoroughly moving rendition of Cole Porter’s “So in Love.” The singing actress also scores with a touching, simple reading of the war-time hit “My Buddy,” and she has great fun slinking her way through the Gershwin-DeSylva charmer “Do It Again.”
Two-time Tony award winner Bernadette Peters will guest star on the penultimate episode of the "Will & Grace" series. Peters will portray Karen's (Megan Mullally) sister on the May 11 broadcast, which is titled "Whatever Happened to Baby Gin?" In the episode, "Grace (Debra Messing) and Will (Eric McCormack) are excited about becoming parents to her baby. While Vince (guest star Bobby Cannavale) finds a beautiful brownstone that he and Will can live in, he doesn't see Grace as part of the plan. In the meantime, Grace learns some surprising personal news and the audience meets Ginny (Peters) — Karen's sister who was injured in a Twister accident when the two were kids." "Will & Grace" airs Thursdays on NBC at 8 PM ET; the comedy concludes its eight-year run May 18 from 9-10 PM ET. Cabaret favorite Andrea Marcovicci will debut her newest act, I'm Feeling Like a Million, April 19-22 at the Gardenia in Hollywood, CA. Million, which is subtitled A Salute to the Incomparable Hildegarde, pays homage to the late singer who died, age 99, in July 2005. Show time is 9 PM each night. The Gardenia is located on Santa Monica Blvd. For reservations call (323) 467-7444.
Mary Bond Davis, who created the role of Motormouth Maybelle in the Tony-winning musical Hairspray, has extended her cabaret engagement at Danny's Skylight Room. The Broadway belter will now play Saturday evenings through May 20. Backed by musical director Ross Patterson on piano, Davis' show features an eclectic mix of American standards. Show time is 11 PM. There is a $20 cover charge and a two-drink minimum for Davis' show. Call (212) 265-8133 for reservations. Danny's Skylight Room is located at 346 West 46th Street.
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to email@example.com.
"Diva Talk" will be on vacation next week. The next column will appear Friday, April 21.