Olivia Newton-John may have played Sandy Dumbrowski in the film version of "Grease," but it was singing actress (and children's TV star) Carole Demas who originated the role of the summer lovin' fifties gal for Broadway audiences in 1972.
With the imminent Broadway revival of Grease — directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall — as well as the reality TV show that is casting the leads of that production, it seemed a great time to check in with Demas, who also has the distinction of being the first actress to ever sing Stephen Schwartz's vocally demanding "Meadowlark" (in the Los Angeles premiere of The Baker's Wife), a song she often includes in her concert act.
I had the pleasure of chatting with the lovely Demas a few weeks ago, when "Grease: You're the One That I Want" was still touting Newton-John as the creator of the role of Sandy. Although the show has since rectified that misnomer, Demas said at the time that it did "ruffle my feathers a little . . . [but] you can't survive this business if you take everything personally. I mean, I have been the subject of some of the most infamous firings in the history of Broadway," she laughs.
"[Olivia] does a lovely job in the film," Demas adds. "I have a lot of respect for her and for her fans, and I don't blame NBC or the show for wanting to attract as large an audience as they can . . . [but] I feel like this little glitch is sort of indicative of the fact that Hollywood doesn't always give Broadway its due. The people who create Broadway shows are the original characters and bring themselves and their work to those performances that then become a part of Broadway history [and] are just as much a part of that as an actor in a film is . . . People bring themselves to roles and infuse them with things that maybe are not on the printed page but become part of that character forever."
Demas spoke about the genesis of Grease, whose characters are based on co-creator Jim Jacobs' childhood friends. "They were his youth," Demas explains. "This was his valentine to them. He said he didn't necessarily know where all of them were. He feared that some of them were dead or in jail, but he was very drawn to them. . . . They were rebellious, and they were intriguing. He adored them. And he wrote [Grease] about them, how he felt about them, and about how funny they were in their way, and how powerful they were, and how much it meant to be a part of that." A very different version of Grease than the one that eventually wound up on Broadway debuted in Chicago with a mostly different cast. "That Grease was very dark," says Demas. "I sat with Jim in my living room once, and he played me [an audio] tape of the Chicago production, [but] you'd have had to bleep every other word [for Broadway audiences in the 1970's]! . . . Jim and [Grease co-creator] Warren [Casey] had their work cut out for them in trying to be true to their inspiration but still make it palatable to a matinee audience. I can't really say enough about how they worked over that, how they slaved over that."
Demas remembers the early days of getting Grease ready for the Broadway stage. "I remember I took one look at Sandy on the page," Demas says, "and thought, 'You could disappear into the wallpaper!' But [I had] to be true to the innate sweetness of this girl [but] not walk around disappearing and being the biggest bore anyone's ever seen! I mean, to be an ingénue and to be a really good one isn't easy because you're dying for people to take you seriously, [but] that's not really what it's about.
"When I was working on Sandy, I thought, 'Okay, you gotta have something really special. Danny is king of the hill — that's what really matters to him — and he wants this girl. He can have any girl. Why would he risk his reputation for someone who isn’t terrific?' I felt she had to have a special glow — a light inside that would draw him and the audience to her — so he couldn't forget her, in spite of himself, and that's what I tried to give her."
Demas also says that that creators were "writing and rewriting Grease all the time. Ilene Kristen [who created the role of Patty Simcox] had a song called 'Yuck' that was really funny. It was a song she sang about Danny — when he passes her, she says, 'Yuck!' She did it wonderfully well, but for the sake of the show, they decided to cut it. . . . They also kept moving things around. There were times when things kept changing that it got to the point where we'd be offstage with things pasted on the walls. We had things written on our hands just trying to keep track of the changes!"
During this same period Demas — with lifelong friend Paula Janis — began starring in the TV kids show "The Magic Garden," which endeared her to a multitude of children and their parents during its 12-year run on WPIX-TV in the metropolitan New York City area. "By the time we were in previews [for Grease], 'The Magic Garden' was on, only once a week at that time," Demas relates. "And at the very end of [Grease], Sandy used a four-letter word to Danny. Somebody from WPIX was in the audience and [heard me] using this four-letter-word and was very distressed [and] went back to WPIX to [complain].
"I said, 'You've got many major television stars doing acts in Las Vegas that are ten times bluer than Grease will ever be. Some of them are in family-oriented shows. I don't understand why you're so upset about this.' But they were adamant, so I went [to the show's creators] . . . and they said, 'Okay, we'll change it.' I was stunned that they were willing because sometimes one word is terribly important for a writer, and I was very, very uncomfortable bringing it up."
Demas is thankful she was given the chance to star in a Broadway production, and especially "grateful to all of the people who cast and worked with us, but especially pleased that Louis St. Louis took a chance on me and decided that I had the vocal ability to sing Sandy since I was better known for doing [more soprano roles]. The Broadway musical was changing, and I knew I had to adapt. My voice teacher, a dear friend and mentor, Felix Knight, decided that he would help me find a high chest voice without destroying the line of my lyric-coloratura training. He taught me to sing high chest like a tenor, and it worked and has continued to work for me for a whole lot of years. He was a true gift in my life."
In addition to Grease, Demas was also seen on the New York stage in Morning Sun, Love's Labour's Lost, Coriolanus, How to Steal an Election, Rondelay and the original run of The Fantasticks, playing the role of Luisa for several years at the Sullivan Street Playhouse. "That was a very important part of my life," says Demas, "and it was also another opportunity to do eight shows a week. I've been in the original cast of a number of Off-Broadway shows that didn't run very long, but to get into something that goes on and on [is wonderful]."
Demas — who is married to designer, audio engineer and producer Stuart Allyn — has fond memories of her New York stage work and the ups-and-downs of a theatre career. "I've always been told [that I have] an aura of vulnerability, [which] is part of what I bring to my work. It is difficult to project that and not really mean it, so you can never call me jaded. You can call me a lot of things, but you can never call me jaded," she laughs. Demas also laughs at the recollection of one particular theatre audition in front of playwright Neil Simon. "I once auditioned for something," she says, "and I had grabbed my vitamins off the kitchen counter on my way out the door. I didn't have time to take them, and I just figured, 'Somewhere along the line today, I will.' There was a water fountain backstage, and as one of the really big pills was going down, I realized it was my cat's! And, of course, wouldn't you know, they call me [to audition] immediately [after that]. When I first got out on the stage, I was kind of gagging and swallowing, and I had tears in my eyes because it had made me choke. And Neil Simon said to me, 'Are you alright?' I said, 'Yes, I'm fine. It's really stupid, but I just swallowed one of my cat's vitamins.' He thought it was hysterical and said, 'Don't be surprised if I use that line!'"
As for the new trend of casting stage musicals via reality television shows — including "You're the One That I Want" and BBC's "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" — Demas concludes, "On the one hand, I think it gives people a very good look at the realities of the business . . . [which] can be very difficult, but it also can be very wonderful, [especially] when you have those moments when it's like everything you've worked for, and maybe even an awful lot of what you actually are, come together. . . . [Also], when you've reached an audience out there [and] they are having a moment with you, and they'll take that away with them. . . . [but] the fact that [these shows include] comic relief for ratings purposes — I hate that part because I know what it's like to do an audition that you feel isn't your best. It's one thing to do it in front of the handful of people who are in a big rehearsal room or out there in the dark when you're up onstage, and you go out of there feeling really down and humiliated. But to have that happen to you in front of millions of television viewers" is another story.
Today, Demas' life is filled with concert appearances, live performances with former "Magic Garden" co-star Paula Janis [DVDs of "The Magic Garden" are due this summer] and work saving the woodlands. She is currently working to save a parcel of undeveloped woodland in southern Westchester County. "It's 100 acres of woodland that will be forever there. . . People can walk there and remember what it's like to walk in woodlands without having to drive 500 miles to get there!"
[On March 4 theatregoers can catch Demas and Paula Janis at the Carl Pfeifer Performing Arts Stage in Wyckoff, NJ. Visit www.caroleandpaula.com for more information.]
BETTY BUCKLEY at Jazz at Lincoln Center
Valentine's Day came a few days early for those lucky enough to catch Betty Buckley's Feb. 10 concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Allen Room. Buckley offered an array of songs that were, to borrow a Stephen Schwartz lyric, "gifts of love."
Part of the acclaimed American Songbook series, the evening marked Buckley's first appearance in Manhattan in the New Year. The Tony winner, who currently resides in Texas, was in great voice for her 70-minute set, which featured an eclectic mix of material spanning the worlds of Broadway, standards, pop and blues. She was backed by her quintet Quintessence, which comprises musical director Kenny Werner on piano, Tony Marino on bass, Billy Drewes on reeds, Anthony Pinciotti on drums and Todd Reynolds on violin.
Buckley, who looked terrific, began her evening with three Alan and Marilyn Bergman songs — "So Many Stars," "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?" and "Like a Lover" — that wove a spell over the sold-out crowd. I'm always so impressed by Buckley's interpretative skills and her ability to make one truly understand a lyric. When she sang "Those tomorrows deep in your eyes/ In the world of love you keep in your eyes/ I'll awaken what's asleep in your eyes," her reading of the lyric gave the song a deeper meaning than I had ever gleaned before. Buckley also possesses a well of emotion that is as deep, if not deeper, than anyone currently on the cabaret or concert circuit; it is from that seemingly endless well that she is able to imbue her songs with such riveting passion. Many of these songs Buckley had performed during her Blue Note debut last year. As wonderful as that show was, her renditions of the songs have only grown richer in the interval. Buckley's pairing of two Antonio Carlos Jobim songs — "Dindi" and "How Insensitive" — and her take on the Hoagy Carmichael-Mitchell Parish standard "Stardust" were more moving than ever. She also scored with a belty "No One Is Alone," a deeply-felt "Anyone Can Whistle" and a raise-the-roof rendition of Susan Werner's "Man I Used to Love." The high point of the evening, however, may have been her finale, Brenda Russell's "Get Here." Buckley built the oft-recorded tune to a thrilling climax; it's a song she must record.
I haven't written too much about the Allen Room, but it is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful concert settings New York has to offer, featuring a wall of windows that overlooks Columbus Circle and Central Park. Coupling that view with Buckley's exquisite performance made for a truly magical evening.
And, for those who missed Buckley last weekend, fear not. The celebrated actress has just been booked for a two-week gig at Feinstein's at the Regency (March 27-April 7). Buckley has titled her show Singin' for My Supper and promises a new program; call (212) 339-4095 for reservations.
The 2007-2008 season at the New York Philharmonic will boast appearances by Tony Award winners Audra McDonald and Barbara Cook. Cook, who recently led a Master Class at Carnegie Hall, will celebrate her 80th birthday with the Philharmonic. The evening of song is scheduled for Nov. 19. McDonald, who is due back on Broadway later this season in the Roundabout's revival of 110 in the Shade, will appear in Luciano Berio's Folksongs March 5-8, 2008. For more information visit www.nyphil.org.
Several additional artists have joined the roster of participants for Broadway Backwards 2, the upcoming benefit concert for the New York Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center. Hosted by Seth Rudetsky, the Feb. 26 concert will be held at 37 Arts and will feature direction by Robert Bartley with musical direction by Mark Janas. The evening — where men will sing tunes originally performed by women, and vice versa — will feature the previously announced Betty Buckley, Len Cariou, Rosie O'Donnell, Constantine Maroulis, Kate Reinders, Charles Busch, Richard Kind, Gary Beach, Liz Callaway, Tony Roberts, Jose Llana, Ken Alan, Brad Anderson, Paul Castree, Anika Larsen, Michael McElroy and Tony Yazbeck. Newcomers to the 8 PM event include Ana Gasteyer, Tituss Burgess, Nina Hennessey, Megan Jacoby, Kate Pazakis and Jason Michael Snow. One highlight of the evening promises to be a duet of "Class" from Chicago performed by Tony Roberts and Len Cariou. 37 Arts is located in Manhattan at 450 West 37th Street. Tickets, priced $35-$5,000, are available by visiting Ticketmaster.com or by calling (212) 307-4100.
The 21st Annual Easter Bonnet Competition — benefiting Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS — is scheduled for April 23 and 24. The annual competition will be held at the Shubert Theatre, home of the Tony-winning musical Spamalot. The two-day spectacular will feature the companies of various Broadway, Off-Broadway and touring productions, and the shows will offer skits, songs and/or dances as well as a bonnet created specially for the competition. For ticket information visit www.broadwaycares.org or call (212) 840-0770.
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to [email protected].