DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Lauren Kennedy Plus Callaway at the Cabaret

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Lauren Kennedy Plus Callaway at the Cabaret
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Lauren Kennedy
Lauren Kennedy

On her debut solo recording singing actress Lauren Kennedy — who boasts one of the more rangy, powerful Broadway belts — spotlighted the work of Tony Award-winning Parade composer Jason Robert Brown. Kennedy has followed her acclaimed "Songs of Jason Robert Brown" disc with an equally compelling recording, "Here and Now" (also on PS Classics), which offers the work of a host of current theatre writers, including Brown, David Yazbek, Andrew Lippa, Jeff Blumenkrantz, Libby Saines, Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich, among others. Tommy Krasker, the co-creator of the PS Classics label, told me earlier this week that the "fun of doing albums with Lauren is that she's not only an amazing performer, but her recording instincts are impeccable. She'll come to us with an idea for an album, and then she'll know — by some combination of intuition and ingenuity — exactly how to see that idea through to a final product. Every step — the song choices, the orchestrations, the overall sound and mix — is guided by Lauren's sure hand." A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of chatting with the down-to-earth Kennedy, who sprinkles her conversation with much laughter. Kennedy, who is married to actor Alan Campbell, spoke about her new CD, her recent work as an actress and her other role: mom to three-and-a-half-year-old Riley. That brief interview with Kennedy, whose Broadway resume includes Les Misérables, Sunset Boulevard, Side Show and Monty Python's Spamalot, follows.

Question: The last time we spoke, you were playing the Lady of the Lake in Spamalot. Did you enjoy your run?
Lauren Kennedy: I did. I had the best time. It was a good learning experience for me. It was just an amazing cast, such a great challenge, and so much fun.

Question: Was it difficult juggling Broadway and being a new mom?
Kennedy: Yeah, just because [I was] sleep deprived. [Laughs.] That also made it incredibly joyous at the same time. I loved the time at home. It made me appreciate being with [Riley] so much, and then I also really appreciated going off to work at night and doing my thing. It was a nice balance.

Question: How did this new CD come about? Whose idea was it to feature up-n-coming songwriters?
Kennedy: I guess it was mine. Honestly, after [I finished in] Spamalot, I [was] sitting around thinking, "Hmm, what am I gonna do now?" [Laughs.] It really was one of those things where I knew I wanted to do another album, but what was I gonna do? A couple things went through my head. I wanted to do the songs that I love to do. I also am really passionate about new writers and composers and lyricists. It just felt like the right thing. It literally dawned on me, "I wish I could just call some of my friends and sing some of their stuff." And then I thought, "Well, there it is. There's the album!" . . . I'm interested in promoting new writers and being a part of that creative process and having them in the studio with me. The whole thing was a labor of love, and having the writers with me and having the other orchestrators come and be a part of it, it just was a really fun atmosphere. We had a really good time putting it together.

Question: How did you go about choosing the material once you decided what your focus was going to be?
Kennedy: I wrote emails to different people that I knew, saying, "Hey, do you have anything that you think I could sing on this next album?" [To] a couple of people, I specifically said, "I want to sing this. I've heard this, I love this song, and that's what I want to sing." [Laughs.] Everybody was so incredibly supportive. I also got in touch with other friends and people who knew some composers and up-and-comers that I didn't know. I said, "Do you have any suggestions? Anybody you think I should listen to?" So I just started compiling songs and seeing how thing would fit together. As we started recording, things got added to and things were taken away, but it came together pretty seamlessly. Actually, the whole time, I kept thinking, "How is this gonna be of a piece?" Everybody's styles are so different. I hate to say that I was surprised by it, but I was. I was just crossing my fingers that it would all turn out okay, and I couldn't be happier with the way the whole album moves as sort of a journey. Every song complements each other, and it was really exciting to see it come together.

"Here and Now"

Question: Were there any songs that surprised you, people's work you didn't know?
Kennedy: Tommy Krasker and Philip Chaffin, who run PS Classics, are sort of big advocates for Josh Salzman and Ryan Cunningham, who wrote a show called I Love You Because. I didn't really know anything about them, and [Tommy and Philip] kept saying, "You have to listen to these guys. These guys are fantastic, and you have to listen to their music." At that time, not that I was reluctant, but I thought I had the whole album together. So I finally listened and just completely fell in love with a number of their songs, but one in particular that we ended up sort of rethinking and reshaping for this particular album. To me it's the one song ["Just Not Now"] that sort of brings it all together. It was the glue that was missing to hold it all together. I was completely surprised and taken aback by how much I loved that [song] and how much it was really necessary. That's why I surround myself with really smart people! [Laughs.] Question: You've been associated with Jason Robert Brown's work for awhile. What is it about his songwriting that appeals to you?
Kennedy: He's just so freakin' talented, and he's just so smart. He challenges the singer, and his melodies are so interesting to listen to. What he has to say really speaks to the contemporary theatregoer. It really cuts right to the heart of the matter. [His work is] just so funny and witty and heartfelt all at the same time. It's everything I think you could ask for in a writer. So when I did The Last Five Years, I knew I had to attach myself to his coattails. [Laughs.] It was just very much the kind of music that I wanted to be associated with and a part of.

He's such a great friend and collaborator. So that worked out really, really well that he was interested in doing [my first solo recording] with me. And when I decided to do this next album, I immediately went to him and said, "I don't know if I can do this by myself."[Laughs.] I just trusted him so much on the last venture. It was a very scary proposition for me to be going out on my own and doing this process again without him. The very first session we did was with him. I recorded his songs ["In this Room" and "Mr. Hopalong Heartbreak"], and he did some arrangements for Adam Guettel's song ["Through the Mountain"] and for Andrew Lippa's ["Spread a Little Joy"] song. So that first session, it was like he was taking baby steps with me, and then said, "Fly free." [Laughs.] It was a great way to start it. It was so much fun, and I was surprised at how easily it was happening. I had great people around me, starting with Jason. And then Fred Lassen is my musical director, and [he] is just so great, so smart, so collaborative.

Question: Were all of the composers able to come to the recording sessions?
Kennedy: Yeah, most of them did. We absolutely invited everybody to come and be a part of it. I really wanted them to sign off on it and feel good about what was being recorded, so they'd be proud of their songs and also just because we would have fun hanging out together in the studio.

Question: How long did it take to record?
Kennedy: We started recording on the first of April and probably did three separate sessions and recorded four songs on each day. Of course, then I would go back and spruce up the vocals and fix things that didn't quite land on the recording day.

Question: Do you like the recording process?
Kennedy: I do. It's so much fun. I'm a bit of a perfectionist, so [it's great to be able to] go, "Hmm, let's try that note again." But, then again, I think there's something so great about listening to a raw voice — something that's pretty imperfect, and hearing it so intimately on a CD [with that] big ol' microphone. It's just a whole different [medium] than theatre. You can appreciate the sound of music so differently when it's recorded than you can when it's live. Even the whole performance of it is different, so I like that aspect of it, too.

Question: Have you gotten a chance to perform these songs in concert?
Kennedy: I actually did a CD release concert at Birdland.

Question: How did that go?
Kennedy: It was so much fun. I had great players with me, and a lot of the composers came and were in the audience. I brought some people up onstage with me. Matthew Sklar, Jeff Blumenkrantz and Dan Lipton played their songs with me. It was such a great audience. Everybody was very supportive. It was fun. Talk about singing them live! It was the first time I had sung all of those songs together live and in front of people. That was exciting and scary, but I think it went really well.

Question: Do you find you learn more about the songs when you're performing live? Do you find that your interpretations grow?
Kennedy: It does grow. You sort of have to learn how to do it again. Presenting these songs [at Birdland], I'm thinking, "Well, in the studio you have the lyrics in front of you. You don't have to learn the whole song as a piece." You're reading it, and I just learned it two weeks ago. But doing it live is much more about the performance of it and learning how to sing it in my voice. I had to listen to it a thousand times and try to emulate myself. [Laughs.] That was kind of interesting. People expect you to know the songs if you've recorded them! There were a lot of things I had to relearn, some things I hadn't sung since April.

Lauren Kennedy

Question: I know it's probably hard to pick a favorite track, but are there one or two that mean a lot to you in terms of where you are in your life at this point?
Kennedy: Gosh, it's so hard to pick. I really love the song "Spread a Little Joy," which is by Andrew Lippa. It's so fun, and I think I just really get the whole sentiment. I love the way it came together. Jason Robert Brown did a great arrangement of it. Then we added backup vocals to it in August with some girls that I was doing Lone Star Love with. I think it's infused with so much joy and life, and I just really like it. . . . I'm just very proud of that song. I'm also really proud of Dan Lipton's song, which is "You'll Want Me to Shine," which is the final track on the album. I really wanted to express the sentiment of being a mother. Fred Lassen, my music director, said, "You'll want to listen to some of Dan Lipton's stuff." It's just so neat because it's a mother looking at her child [and] sort of imposing thoughts on what the child would be thinking. I just thought that was a neat twist. I loved singing it in performance, and I feel really proud of it because it's the first time Dan's music has been represented on an album. Question: How will you go about promoting the CD? Do you have other concerts planned?
Kennedy: I'm going to do some concerts down in North Carolina, in my hometown, do another CD release there in December. . . . I'm planning a concert over in London. So [there are] a lot of things in the works.

Question: What's it like performing in your hometown when you go back there to sing?
Kennedy: It's great. It's the best. First of all, people aren't as into the Broadway scene. They're not as aware of it as we are, so a lot of these composers, people have never heard of. . . . When I went down the first time and did concerts with Jason Robert Brown, they didn't know his stuff, so they were just like, "Oh, my God!" They're invigorated by the fact that these kind of people are writing in New York, and it's so creative and so fresh and the talent is just sort of unbelievable. So I look forward to doing that again, introducing these other writers to a whole new group of people who haven't had the opportunity to listen to them and know their stuff. Hopefully, when they come to New York and see a Broadway show, they'll come see Vanities next year and go, "Oh, I know him from…" That's David Kirshenbaum. I think it all is full-circle. The more I can introduce people to Broadway music, the more they'll know when they come up, and the more they'll be interested in seeing theatre when it comes to their hometown. I really like that aspect of this particular creative process. It's all about giving back. They're giving me something so amazing by getting to record their song, and then I can hopefully help get the awareness out of [their work], too.

Question: You mentioned Lone Star Love. What was that experience like?
Kennedy: [Laughs.] That was crazy. Sadly, I don't know what's going to happen with it. It really had so much potential. We were just unable to do the work on it that we'd planned to because of creative differences.

Question: What was the role you were playing?
Kennedy: I was playing Mrs. Ford, which was played Off-Broadway by Beth Leavel. It seemed serendipitous because she's another Raleigh, North Carolina, girl. I loved working with the Red Clay Ramblers. I've always been a fan of their music, being from North Carolina. Despite some of the things that went down, it really was a good time, and the cast was amazing. It was an amazing group of people, and it's a shame that it didn't roll right onto Broadway. But I guess everybody's sort of holding out hope that it will have a future.

Question: Is there talk that it might still make it to Broadway?
Kennedy: There's talk that it might. You can never know what's going to happen.

Question: What other projects are you involved in?
Kennedy: I've done readings and whatnot, but nothing is set in stone.

Question: I guess you were expecting Lone Star Love to come in. That's got to be disappointing, I would think, when you've put so much work into something and then it doesn't pan out.
Kennedy: It is very disappointing. You go through your little process of dealing with it, but at the same time, I just have to think, "Well, I have no control over it." So you just have to know that something else is going to come along, and it usually does. In some ways it's been nice to have extra time to really focus on promoting the album.

Question: How is your husband [Alan Campbell] doing?
Kennedy: He's doing great. He's sitting right here reading a catalog. He just put our daughter to bed for her nap. Question: How old is she now?
Kennedy: She's three-and-a-half. She's so funny, just hilarious — a real actor herself. She's obsessed with ballet and putting on shows for us every night.

Question: Does she like her mother's singing?
Kennedy: She does. I won't lie to you, she prefers The Dixie Chicks, but she'll put up with me every now and then. No, she loves it. She walks around saying, "Mommy, I'm a great singer. I'm a greater singer than you." [Laughs.] And she's well on her way. She's got a very good voice and lots of star quality. . . . I think she will surpass us if she wants to. We'll also be happy for her to be a doctor! [Laughs.]

[For more information visit www.laurenkennedy.com or www.psclassics.com.]

Liz Callaway sings.

LIZ CALLAWAY at the Metropolitan Room
"From now on, I've decided I'll perform the concert for free, but they're going to pay me to fly," joked Liz Callaway as she spoke about her distaste for flying in a career that often sees her playing venues around the world. In fact, Callaway had just returned from a concert gig in Korea and said she would be playing "somewhere in Iowa" following her Metropolitan Room show, the appropriately titled Between Flights. Surprisingly, Callaway's recent Metropolitan Room engagement was the Broadway actress' first extended New York cabaret run since she played several Sundays at the Duplex in 1980! Twenty-seven years is much too long to wait, especially for someone who makes it all seem so effortless. Callaway is so at ease in her performance and so vocally in control, one can just sit back and listen to that glorious voice pour out of her. It is a lush voice that can charm, soothe and impress.

The wonderfully paced evening, directed by Dan Foster, began with a medley of The Wiz's "Soon as I Get Home" and "Journey to the Past" (from the film "Anastasia"), which was followed by a cheeky, rousing "You Don't Own Me." A pairing of "Make Someone Happy" and "Something Wonderful" was particularly beautiful, and then Callaway let her voice soar on Stephen Schwartz's "Meadowlark," a song Callaway said she has been singing since her early days as a singing waitress. "I could only sing it on Tuesdays," Callaway explained, since the Tuesday pianist was the only one who could play the complicated arrangement. Thankfully, she's now in the company of musical director/pianist Alex Rybeck, who, Callaway said, "can play anything." Rybeck's arrangements are also noteworthy; with just a trio (featuring Mary Ann McSweeny on bass and Ron Tierno on drums), Rybeck manages to often create the feeling of a small orchestra.

One of the evening's most touching offerings was Callaway's rendition of Wicked's "I'm Not That Girl," which melted into John Bucchino and Lindy Robbins' "Just Another Face." The rarely heard "What Do We Do? We Fly!" — from Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim's Do I Hear a Waltz? — displayed Callaway's comedic skills and fit nicely with her Between Flights theme. Other highlights included a terrific rendition of Chuck Mangione's "The Land of Make Believe"; a haunting version of "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?" that Callaway built expertly; and a vocally exciting "There Won't Be Trumpets."

Callaway finished her evening with the sixties classic "Leavin' On a Jet Plane" and offered her signature tune, "The Story Goes On" from Maltby and Shire's Baby, as an encore. As she belted out, "and thus it is our story goes on and on and on. . .," I couldn't help remember the excitement that filled the Ethel Barrymore Theatre during Baby's penultimate performance in July 1984. What's quite extraordinary is Callaway's voice seems remarkably unchanged since she debuted that song over two decades ago.

Let's hope Callaway hurries back to the New York nightspot when she's next Between Flights. Or, better yet, let's get the actress with the thrilling voice back on Broadway.

[For Liz Callaway's concert schedule, visit www.lizcallaway.com.]

After her success with the City Center Encores! production of Follies, Tony Award winner Victoria Clark will return to the famed Manhattan venue in the Encores! staging of Marc Blitzstein and Joseph Stein's Juno. Directed by Tony winner Garry Hynes with music direction by Eric Stern and musical staging by Warren Carlyle, Juno will play City Center March 27-30, 2008. The production will boast the original orchestrations penned by Blitzstein, Hershey Kay and Robert Russell Bennett. City Center is located in Manhattan at West 55th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. Tickets are available by calling (212) 581-1212 or by visiting www.nycitycenter.org.

Tony Award winner Tonya Pinkins, most recently on Broadway in the late August Wilson's Radio Golf, will star in the West Coast premiere of As Much As You Can. Directed by Krissy Vanderwarker, the Paul Oakley Stovall drama will play the Celebration Theatre Jan. 3-Jan. 27, 2008, with an official opening scheduled for Jan. 4. Wes Ramsey will co-star in a cast that also includes Yassmin Alers, J. Nicole Brooks, Andrew Kelsey, playwright Stovall and J. Karen Thomas. The Celebration Theatre is located at 7051-B Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood, CA. For tickets call (323) 212-4119 or visit celebrationtheatre.tix.com. (Pinkins will not appear in the Jan. 17 or 18 performances.)

The 19th Annual Gypsy of the Year Competition, which has been rescheduled for Dec. 17 (at 4:30 PM) and 18 (at 2 PM) at the New Amsterdam Theatre, will pay tribute to the 50th anniversary of the original Broadway production of West Side Story. Hosted by Drowsy Chaperone's Bob Saget and Xanadu's Jackie Hoffman and Mary Testa, the annual fundraiser for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS will open with a medley of West Side Story tunes and will boast appearances by original West Side Story cast members Chita Rivera (Anita), Mickey Callan (Riff), Carol Lawrence (Maria), Ken LeRoy (Bernardo), Jamie Sanchez (Chino) and Reri Grist (Consuelo). Other cast members from the show's 1957 production will also be part of the opening: Genii Charnin, Harvey Evans, Marilyn D'Honau, Alan Johnson, Gene Gavin, Ronnie Lee, George Marcy, Liane Plane, Martin Charnin, Grover Dale, Bill Guske, Ed Kressley, Sandy Leeds, Tony Mordente, Carole D'Andrea, Frances Davis, Lowell Harris, Julie Oser-McLeod, Noel Schwartz and Gina Tricones. These gypsies will be joined by gypsies from currently running shows. The opening number, which will re-create Jerome Robbins' original West Side Story choreography, will be staged and directed by Joshua Bergasse with musical direction by Ben Cohn. Tickets, priced $20-$350, can be purchased by calling (212) 840-0770, by visiting the Broadway Cares website, or in person at the New Amsterdam Theatre (214 West 42nd Street) the day of the event. Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS (BC/EFA) is the nation's leading industry based, not-for-profit AIDS fundraising and grant making organization. For further information visit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS on the web at http://www.bcefa.org.

Composer Scott Alan — who produces the monthly Monday Nights, New Voices concert series — will celebrate the release of his debut solo recording with a concert Jan. 7, 2008, at Birdland. Among those celebrating the release of "Dreaming Wide Awake: The Music of Scott Alan" will be Shoshana Bean, Stephanie J. Block, Liz Callaway, Danny Calvert, Eden Espinosa, Jonathan Groff, Cheyenne Jackson, Carly Jibson and Adriane Lenox. Jesse Vargas, who arranged and orchestrated Alan's CD, will be the evening's musical director. Show time is 7:30 PM. Following the performance, many of the artists will be on hand to autograph copies of "Dreaming Wide Awake." Birdland is located in Manhattan at 315 West 44th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. There is a $25 cover charge ($40 VIP) and a $10 food/drink minimum. Call (212) 581-3080 for reservations or visit www.birdlandjazz.com.

And, finally, congratulations to all those nominated for the 50th Annual Grammy Awards, which will be presented Feb. 10, 2008, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The show albums nominated for a Grammy include A Chorus Line, Company, Grey Gardens, Spring Awakening and West Side Story. Nominees in the Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album category comprise Michael Bublé ("Call Me Irresponsible"), Bette Midler ("Cool Yule"), Queen Latifah ("Trav'lin' Light"), Barbra Streisand ("Live in Concert 2006") and James Taylor ("James Taylor at Christmas"). The soundtracks for the movie musicals "Hairspray" (New Line Records) and "Dreamgirls" (Music World Music/Sony Urban Music/Columbia/Sony Music Soundtrax) were both nominated in the Best Compilation Soundtrack Album for Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media category; others in that field include "Across the Universe," "Love" and "Once." And, "Love You I Do" — penned by Henry Krieger and Siedah Garrett — for the "Dreamgirls" film was nominated in the Best Song Written for Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media category. Other titles nominated: "Falling Slowly," "Guaranteed," "The Song of the Heart" and "You Know My Name." For a complete list of nominations visit www.grammy.com.

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

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