DIVA TALK: Chatting with The Wiz's Ashanti, "Best of Marcovicci" and Memorable Tony Speeches

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Chatting with The Wiz's Ashanti, "Best of Marcovicci" and Memorable Tony Speeches
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Grammy Award winner Ashanti — who made Billboard history by having her first three chart entries land in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 at the same time — will make her New York stage debut June 12 in the City Center Encores! Summer Stars production of The Wiz, which will play the famed Manhattan venue through July 5. Directed by Thomas Kail and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler, with music direction by Alex Lacamoire (the team responsible for the Tony-winning In the Heights), the popular 1974 rock and soul musical casts the young artist as Dorothy. The singing actress has much experience with the role of the beloved Dorothy: she played her in the 2005 TV special "The Muppets' Wizard of Oz." Earlier this week I had the pleasure of chatting with the exuberant performer during a lunch break from Wiz rehearsals. Ashanti spoke about her award-winning career and her foray into the world of musical theatre; that brief interview follows.

Question: How did this role in The Wiz come about for you?
Ashanti: I got a call from my agent. He said, "Listen, this is a great opportunity. The production [team] from In the Heights are gonna be reviving The Wiz. You need to do it!" [Laughs.] It was definitely a mutual decision.

Question: What were your thoughts when your agent first suggested it?
Ashanti: It was just like, "Wow! When?" [Laughs.] And this is the second time around being Dorothy, so I said, "I just can't escape Dorothy."

Question: Is theatre something that you'd wanted to do?
Ashanti: Well, I always said I wanted to try. In high school . . . I actually did Oklahoma!. I was Gertie in Oklahoma! Once my first album came out, I said that I definitely wanted to try theatre, and when the right opportunity came I would try. This opportunity couldn't be more perfect.

Question: How are rehearsals going so far?
Ashanti: Very long! [Big laugh.] Very long, but really, really good. I can't complain. The cast is amazing. Alex [Lacamoire] and Tommy [Kail] and Andy [Blankenbuehler] . . . it's just teamwork. Everyone wants to do their very best. Everyone's very receptive, because obviously I'm the newcomer. This is a different genre for me, but everyone has been overly nice. I'm really excited. Question: What's been the biggest surprise or the biggest challenge so far in rehearsals?
Ashanti: The biggest surprise? I don't know. I'm still kind of taking everything in. What I will say is I am surprised by how quickly and how well-received I have been. Like I said, when you come from the music world, sometimes it's a little different. I'm entering their world over in Broadway. The most challenging, I would say, is it gets a little long sometimes, from 10 to 6, and then you have to memorize lines when you go home. It's kind of like we're cramming everything for the finals. You know what I mean? When you have finals and you have to do that last week of cramming. Usually people get about a month or maybe two or even three months to do what we're doing in two weeks.

Ashanti and Nigel
photo by Robert J. Saferstein

Question: How would you describe Dorothy in this version of "The Wizard of Oz"?
Ashanti: Dorothy is very innocent. She wants to do her own thing, but once she realizes that she's out of Kansas, she just wants to get back home. She's strong, and as she travels along her journey, she becomes stronger and she becomes more aware, but she still has this innocence and a little bit of being naïve along the way. But everything teaches her, and that's what makes her stronger. She learns more about herself, and obviously towards the end she learns to believe in herself. Question: Do you have a favorite moment for her in the show?
Ashanti: My favorite song is the "Be a Lion" song. I really, really love that song. It's a great moment [for] myself and the Lion. It's kind of like a little duet that we do. I just love the message of that song. The song [may be] old — what is it '74? — but so many people can still relate to it right now in 2009, and people sometimes need to hear words of encouragement.

Question: How do you find the demands of the score versus pop music?
Ashanti: It's very different. You have piano, strings, horns and everything else happening. [Laughs.] We have a 23-piece orchestra, which is amazing. Again, some of the songs are duets, some of the songs are the whole ensemble. The musical score itself is so soulful and it's so musical. It's very powerful, like I said, because so many people can relate to each and every [song].

Question: Tell me about what it's like working with director Tommy Kail.
Ashanti: Oh, my God. Tommy is absolutely hilarious. I love working with him. He is so cool. He would have been somebody I hung out with in high school. [Laughs.] His personality is hilarious! He gives great, great direction. He lets you try things. It's really cool.

Question: You've got great co-stars. Has anyone in the cast been particularly helpful or offered you any advice?
Ashanti: Absolutely, everyone. LaChanze, Dawnn [Lewis]. Those are my good aunties. [Laughs.] They have definitely been very helpful and willing to try things and are just very open to any questions I have about anything. That's definitely been a blessing.

Question: You were also part of the Wicked celebration, "The Yellow Brick Road Not Taken."
Ashanti: Yeah, I can't get away from that Yellow Brick Road!

Question: What was that experience like?
Ashanti: That was really great. Wicked is such a huge, huge, amazing Broadway smash. . . . That was my first eye-opener to doing something [in the theatre]. It was a great, great experience and, again, I got a glimpse of what [Broadway] was all like.

Question: Could you see yourself doing a show like Wicked?
Ashanti: I don't know. We're gonna see how this one goes first! [Laughs.]

Question: Since we've never spoken before, I wanted to go back a bit. Where were you born and raised?
Ashanti: Glen Cove, Long Island, New York.

Question: Do you remember when you started performing?
Ashanti: I used to sing in church. I was one of the Sunbeams when I was about five or six. I started dance school over at Bernice Johnson Cultural Arts when I was about four-five-ish. The very first time I took the stage as a teenager to start singing and the first time I won a talent show, I was about 11 at the Boys & Girls Club.

Question: Were there any singers or artists that you particularly admired at that time?
Ashanti: I definitely took to Mary J. Blige. For me, back in '91, put the marriage together between hip hop and R&B, and that's where my passion lies.

Question: When did you know this was going to be your career?
Ashanti: I was young. Being young, you have an advantage. I would say, by my third record deal. [Laughs.] I had my first when I was 14, and I had my second when I was 17, and by the time I turned 20, I had my third one. I held on and I kept all my advances, and this one stuck.

Question: How did that first record deal come about? How did you get that break?
Ashanti: I was signed to Jive Records. Back then we didn't have money to create a demo or anything like that. I went up to Jive. We took our own headshots. I sang and I danced in this conference room with a long wooden table full of people, and we got the deal!

Ashanti and mother Tina Douglas
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Question: Your mom is also your manager. How is working with your mom?
Ashanti: Amazing. I wouldn't be here without Mom. We have such an amazing relationship, more like friends as opposed to an authoritative mother-daughter relationship. Question: Do you have any other projects in the works after The Wiz?
Ashanti: So many things are going on. It's bittersweet because sometimes it gets just a tiny bit overwhelming, but I'm so ecstatic and I'm so very excited about so many different things. A lot of amazing deals are being made; a lot of ideas are coming off. Even musically I'm really excited about what's going on. I just can't wait.

Question: You've also done film and TV work. How does that compare for you with singing?
Ashanti: The Broadway thing is really different because it's like you're on, and no one is gonna scream, "Cut!" There's not a teleprompter there. It's live, and you're onstage and it's a magnifying glass, and it's not necessarily your crowd of people. When I get onstage and people are coming to my concerts, I can control that. I can do what I want, and it's my material. I'm onstage, and I know it back and forth. With Broadway it's different. It's more of a challenge, it's more about the piece and bringing what you have to the piece.

Question: You also have a book of poetry that you've written. Do you write a lot?
Ashanti: I do. I wrote all my [songs] on every album. I love writing. I actually started writing really, really young. I used to win awards for essays in English in middle school on up to high school. I love writing. I like writing poetry, I love writing songs.

Question: Could you see yourself doing more theatre at some point?
Ashanti: We'll see! [Laughs.] We're gonna cross that Yellow Brick Road when we get there!

For tickets to The Wiz, which runs June 12-July 5, phone (212) 581-1212 or visit CityCenter. City Center is located at West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues.] FOR THE RECORD: "As Time Goes By: The Best of Andrea Marcovicci"

Andrea Marcovicci
photo by Richard Termine

It's hard to believe that the perennially youthful cabaret favorite Andrea Marcovicci, a long-time fixture at the Oak Room of New York's Algonquin Hotel, recently celebrated her 60th birthday. True to form, the singing actress marked that milestone in high style: with a star-studded concert at Manhattan's Town Hall and the release of a career retrospective CD, "As Time Goes By: The Best of Andrea Marcovicci." The 17-track disc, now available on the AndreaSong label, features tunes from nine previous Marcovicci recordings — "Marcovicci Sings Movies"; "What Is Love?"; "Just Kern"; "Always, Irving Berlin"; "New Words"; "Live From London"; "Some Other Time, Marcovicci Sings Mabel Mercer"; "Here, There and Everywhere"; and "If I Were a Bell: The Songs of Frank Loesser" — as well as two newly recorded songs: "Lies of Handsome Men" and "Young at Heart."

It was Marcovicci's premiere recording, the aforementioned "Marcovicci Sings Movies" album (1988), that made a life-long fan out of this theatre writer. At the time I was hosting a college radio program at Brandeis University, and I still remember purchasing the record in Harvard Square and promptly heading back to the small radio station, where I was thrilled by the singer's clear, reedy tones, a wonderful mix of Broadway belting and the more ethereal sounds of a folk singer. Marcovicci's skills as a lyrical interpreter were also evident; I was particularly taken by her renditions of the "Tootsie" charmer "It Might Be You," her full-voiced "Here Lies Love" and the moving "Someone to Love." Four other impressive tracks from that debut recording are included on "The Best of Andrea Marcovicci": "As Time Goes By," "On Such a Night as This," "Two for the Road" and "The Folks Who Live on the Hill."

Other highlights of the compilation recording include three gems from "What Is Love?" (the heartbreaking "After You, Who?," the joyous "Beyond Compare" and perhaps the greatest recording of the pop standard "These Foolish Things" out there); a haunting pairing of the little-heard "The Touch of Your Hand" with "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"; a wonderful song cycle that incorporates four Irving Berlin tunes: "Say It Isn't So," "What'll I Do," "Remember" and "Suppertime"; and Maury Yeston's touching "New Words."

Executive produced by Marcovicci and produced by Lesley Alexander, the CD includes a full-color booklet with extensive notes by the singer about her song choices for her newest recording.

Chita Rivera

For the Playbill that will be distributed this weekend at the 2009 Tony Awards, I was asked to compile excerpts from some of the more memorable Tony Awards acceptance speeches over the past quarter century. Some of those quotes follow. Jerry Herman, Best Original Score, La Cage aux Folles, 1984
". . . .This award forever shatters a myth about the musical theatre. There's a been a rumor around for a couple of years that the simple, hummable show tune was no longer welcome on Broadway. Well, it's alive and well at the Palace."

Chita Rivera, Best Actress in a Musical, The Rink, 1984
(This was Rivera's fifth nomination and first win.)
". . . .I am very happy that I bought the bottom of the dress this year . . . .This is actually dedicated to my [late] mother, who never saw it. Ma, you can relax now."

George Hearn, Best Actor in a Musical, La Cage aux Folles, 1984
(Hearn donned drag and famously belted out "I Am What I Am" in La Cage.)
"What some people won't do [for a Tony] . . . you call it a Tony, but her real name is Antoinette . . . [Thanks to] Theoni Aldredge, who proved once again that the clothes make the man."

Rupert Holmes, Best Book of a Musical, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, 1986
(Minutes earlier Holmes had won the Tony for Best Score.)
"God, I hope my home video tape recorder is working right now! . . ."

Patricia Zipprodt, Best Costume Design, Sweet Charity revival, 1986
(Following wins in 1965 and 1967, it took seven more Tony nominations for Zipprodt's third Tony win.)
"I'm so glad I won. If I had lost one more time I think I would have been eligible for 'The Guinness Book of World Records.'. . ."

George Rose, Best Actor in a Musical, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, 1986
"Sometimes a show comes along that makes you really glad you became an actor."

Ron Silver, Best Actor in a Play for Speed-the-Plow, 1988
"This is thrilling. For about 35 years I've been watching these shows on television. And when you're watching from home, you have the luxury of being kind of bitchy and catty and talking about what people wear and how they old they look or how young they look, and we have a lot of giggles when people are excessively sentimental, thanking their first grade teacher. And here I am and here I go looking like this, going to be excessively sentimental…."

Joan Allen, Best Actress in a Play for Burn This, 1988
". . . I would especially like to thank my family and friends for putting up with me while I was working on this play for over a year — it was about the only thing I was able to talk about and they never told me to shut up or change the subject, so I think that shows a lot of love. . ."

Stephen Sondheim, Best Score, Into the Woods, 1988
". . . And, most important of all, as many of you are aware, what makes a score sound in the theatre every night is the result, at least, of two extraordinary people — in my case, Paul Gemignani, our conductor, and Jonathan Tunick, our orchestrator and also Paul Ford, the world's most tireless rehearsal pianist and a walking memory bank of every song that has ever been written for any musical on any continent. Thank you all very much."

James Lapine, Best Book of a Musical, Into the Woods, 1988
"I'm so glad that Stephen [Sondheim] won, so I don't have to share this with him . . . And, most of all, thanks Steve for all you've given me and all you've given us."

Joanna Gleason

Joanna Gleason, Best Actress in a Musical, Into the Woods, 1988
(Gleason played the Baker's Wife in the fairy-tale themed musical.)
". . . And to James [Lapine] and Stephen [Sondheim], who for the past two years have treated me really like a collaborator on this project, and though you think I've felt like a Baker's Wife, I've really felt for two years like Cinderella at the ball. Thank you for the slipper." Anthony LaPaglia, Leading Actor in a Play, A View From the Bridge, 1998
"This is absolutely mind blowing. I can actually see you. That's the big problem. I have a lot of people to thank, and I blankedly thank everybody in the world right away. I want to thank my fellow nominees, Alfred Molina, John Leguizamo, Richard [Briers] — they all deserve this as much as I do, I share it with you, but it's coming back to my house. . ."

Brian Stokes Mitchell, Best Actor in a Musical, Kiss Me, Kate, 2000
". . . Please, people, support the arts in your schools because it is through the arts that we realize we are all one. Thank you so much for this great honor."

Karen Ziemba, Best Featured Actress in a Musical, Contact, 2000
"Mom and Dad, thanks for sending me to those ballet lessons. They really paid off this year . . . And I am so proud to be working in the live theatre. There is nothing like it!"

Harriet Harris, Best Featured Actress in a Musical, Thoroughly Modern Millie, 2002
"I'm flabbergasted. I have a speech prepared, but I am flabbergasted. My mother once said that my first words were 'Tony Award.' Being Texan, she was prone to exaggeration. I think it was something more like 'Give me Tony.' I want to thank the nominators and the voters. You are the most attractive group of people I've ever seen. And our producers for not insisting on a name — the late Richard Morse for suggesting mine. . . . And the late Meghan Robinson, who I revered as an artist and treasured as a friend. I wanted her to be up here some day. Thank you very much. I appreciate it."

Audra McDonald
photo by Michael Wilson

Audra McDonald, Best Featured Actress in a Play, A Raisin in the Sun, 2004
(This was McDonald's fourth Tony win in a decade's time.)
"The only thing I've ever wanted to do in my entire life is be on Broadway. You can ask anyone who knew me when I grew up in Fresno — yay, Fresno — and the fact that Broadway has been so kind to me is something I'll never be able to repay. I'll just keep trying to work and keep trying to do good work. . ." Anika Noni Rose, Best Featured Actress in a Musical, Caroline, or Change, 2004
"[Co-star] Chandra Wilson told me to write a speech. I didn't do it! My middle name, Noni, means 'gift of God,' and I just want to thank God so much for the gifts I have been given — my voice, the cast of this amazing, amazing show, this opportunity to be here today, the fact that my grandmother is here for me and with me and my brother is sitting there, next to me, and I'm so thankful for all of that. . . I would like to breathe, I would like to do that. . . Thank you so much, for my cast, for everyone. God bless, and thank you."

Victoria Clark, Best Actress in a Musical, The Light in the Piazza, 2005
". . .Thank you so much for not offering this role to Glenn Close or Cher. . ."

Lin-Manuel Miranda, Best Original Score, In the Heights, 2008
". . . .Mr. Sondheim: Look, I made a hat/where there never was a hat/and it's a Latin hat at that . . . Thanks for being here today Vanessa, who still leaves me breathless/Thanks for loving me when I was broke and making breakfast."

Deanna Dunagan, Best Actress in a Play, August: Osage County, 2008
". . . .Since I was a little girl, all I've ever wanted to do was get people together and put on plays. And now I get to do it on Broadway!"

Patti LuPone, Best Actress in a Musical, Gypsy, 2008
(It took nearly three decades for LuPone to win her second Tony, following her 1980 win for Evita.)
"Thank you so much! It's such a wonderful gift to be an actor who makes her living working on the Broadway stage and then every 30 years or so, picks up one of these! [Laughs.] I was afraid to write a speech because I've written a couple before, and they never made it out of my purse. So I'm going to use one of the old ones and add a few names! [Laughs.]"

And, one of my favorite quotes was not from an acceptance speech but was delivered by Bernadette Peters in 1988 prior to her presenting awards for Best Actress/Best Actor in a Musical: "And I took that statue home and I stared at it and I waited to feel different — and I waited and I was still looking at it when I fell asleep. And the next day I woke up and I headed back to the theatre and back to the audience, which is why we do this in the first place."

Enjoy the 63rd Annual Tony Awards June 9 at 8 PM on CBS. I will be blogging live backstage in the Tony press room beginning at 7 PM ET.

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

Today’s Most Popular News: