A Conversation with Great White Way veteran Judy Kaye, who is up for a 2012 Tony Award.
By Danielle Cantor
In 1968, not long after Judy Kaye discovered theater, theater discovered Judy Kaye. The Phoenix, Ariz., native was just 19, studying theater at UCLA, when she was cast as Lucy in the Los Angeles company of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Kaye has worked steadily ever since, and more than 40 years later she is a Tony Award-winning Broadway veteran. Her enviable resumé includes such leading ladies as Rosie in Mamma Mia, Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, Emma Goldman in Ragtime, and Mama Rose in Gypsy. She also created the role of Carlotta in the original cast of Phantom of the Opera on Broadway (for which she won the Tony). And musical theater isn't Kaye's only playing field: She's also a star of opera, cabaret, concert performance, television, film and the spoken word – as the voice of private eye Kinsey Millhone in the audiobook versions of Sue Grafton's best-selling series of mystery novels.
When we last spoke with Kaye in 2005, she was preparing to bring her starring role in Souvenir, about the legendarily frightful singer Florence Foster Jenkins, to Broadway. She received a 2005 Drama Desk Award nomination for that performance. In the summer of 2006, Kaye appeared as Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd on Broadway, then took the role on the road in the show’s 2007-2008 Canada and U.S. National Tour. Since then she has been featured in the musical Paradise Found, and as Anna Madrigal in the musical adaption of Tales of the City. Her latest project – Nice Work If You Can Get It, which opened on Broadway in April, 2012 – has earned her a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical; an Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical; and – we expect – will result in the Tony Award on Sunday, June 10, 2012, for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical.
Below, Kaye’s 2005 interview with JW:
You've covered every medium: stage, film, TV, recording... Do you feel more at home performing in one medium than the others?
I'm most at home on stage, in a live performance, communicating directly to or for an audience. Having said that, I love being in the studio, recording. But there really isn't anything quite like live performance. TV and film is a director's medium. For a performer, live performance is sort of the be-all and end-all.
You've appeared in many of the great female roles of the American musical theater. Which roles have been your favorites and why?
On the Twentieth Century was not a role that was written with me in mind, but once I did it, it changed my life completely. After that show, I was catapulted into another classification-I became a leading lady. I loved doing Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd. Loved doing Mama Rose. I think the best role I've ever had is Florence Foster Jenkins in a wonderful new play called Souvenir, a beautiful and funny play. She was completely tone-deaf, and gave these concerts that were hugely attended, and it's about her relationship with her accompanist, Cosme McMoon. It's about self-delusion, love and passion for something. It's a great role.
You've truly made a living in the theater industry, a unique distinction among actors. Why do you think you've been able to keep working consistently for nearly three decades?
I do a lot of things. I don't just do musical theater. I have gone out and done commercials, and I read books on tape for Random House. I've done cabaret. I investigate everything. But I've been on the unemployment line before, and I'll be there again. I think I've been extremely fortunate, and I just keep kicking over stones to see what I can do.
You have been a stalwart of national touring companies and regional musical theater. Have you been able to develop a sense of home or family in spite of being on the road?
Oh, yeah. I'm a nester anyway. When I lived in L.A., I had a house out there, and when I moved east I found an apartment with a deck so I could plant things. I need to be near green things. When my husband and I got together-we met on the road-we found a commonality, two Jews stuck out in the middle of nowhere on what we call a "bus and truck tour," 63 cities in 18 weeks, and as soon as we got together we knew the most important thing was to be together as much as possible. And we love to cook together and for each other. We watch the animals outside our house upstate in the country. We both play golf.
Can a professionally successful woman truly have it all?
I guess I'm not the right one to ask, because I never tried to have it all. It just didn't work out that way. But I certainly know some very successful women who seem to have it all. But that may be an illusion. I believe the creative life that I have has been pretty much all I've needed. It would have been nice to have children, but that just wasn't in the cards. It feels to me like I have it all.
As a culture of performers, how is opera different than Broadway?
I think in the operatic world, things are more proscribed, more defined. It's not as relaxed an atmosphere. They're both collaborative, but I think Broadway is a little more collaborative. Opera singers are taught to do things in a very specific way, and when they are staged into a performance, it's very, very specific. Not to say that doing plays and musicals isn't much the same way, but you are invited more often in Broadway to be yourself, to be a collaborator in that process. Or if it's the first time a musical's been done, to help the invention of it. Roles are shaped around performers on Broadway. In opera, they don't change the keys very often.
Describe working with...
He was 17 years old when we worked together [in Grease] and he was just delightful, such a cutie. He was the baby of that company. He played Doody.
Nathan's a wacky guy. You just don't know what's going to happen with him, you just stand back and let him do what's he's going to do. He's rather blindingly creative. So talented.
Divine. He was pretty incredible to me. He had a wonderful theater education, and he got himself cast in a role in 20th Century that didn't exist. He created that character out of whole cloth. And when I took over for Madeline Kahn, he couldn't have been more generous and helpful. He is just so gifted, but you don't just stand back and watch him, he brings you into the process.
Which dream roles have you yet to play?
Some of them have passed me by over the years... I always thought I would do My Fair Lady, which I never did. I would love to do Mama Rose in Gypsy again, I only did it for three weeks and that was not enough to get it under my belt. The ones I want to do probably have yet to be written. But the theater has changed; I don't know that they're out there for me; we'll see. Like this Souvenir thing was a total surprise—a great role about a woman who can't sing, and who sings badly whenever she does. That's the great thing about what I do, it's always surprising, so rarely what I expect it to be.
Did you ever long for a role that you didn't get?
I wanted very much to do 110 in the Shade when City Opera did it, and I didn't even get an audition. Every performer's got that nagging thing, something they wanted to do. But what performers do for a living, the work of being a performer, it's not really learning the role and going to classes and perfecting everything. What we really do is take rejection. Those whose careers go on are the ones who can weather that rejection best. We process it and move on.
In The Lost Tribes of Vaudeville—your concert with the New York Festival of Song about the intersection of black and Jewish vaudeville—do you feel at home singing in Yiddish?
Three of my four grandparents were actually born in this country, so my family was pretty assimilated. There was very little Yiddish, and what was spoken was probably not correct. When I started doing a little work in Yiddish, I really didn't know much of what I was doing. But I must tell you, having never spoken any of it as a child, there is some kind of cultural memory born into all Jews. It's like immediately it's connected to something in your soul and your tear ducts and everything. It's familiar and beautiful and funny...it's tied so deeply inside of us.
How has humor helped you, both in your roles and your life?
You have to have a sense of humor to process the rejection of the industry. If you don't laugh at the situation, it'll tear you apart. I've had people around me who have also helped me keep my perspective, helped me laugh when I don't feel like laughing, especially my husband. It's important to have a support group, my parents are wonderful, they keep me laughing, and I have a husband who gives me the same and keeps my perspective straight on what's important in this life.
Has your Jewish identity shaped or informed your interpretation of any of the roles you've performed? How?
Definitely. Certainly the review material I've done, I did a show with Theo Bikel and Bruce Adler, a review of Sholem Aleichem stories. And I did five different companies of Fiddler on the Roof when I was a kid. There's a passion about us Jewish people that's very specifically ours, and I think there's a take on a work, on a song, that's ours, and I cherish it. I played Emma Goldman in Ragtime, who, though she was an anarchist and set aside her Jewishness, her passion came out of her Jewishness.
What sorts of changes in the writing, production and performance of Broadway musicals have you observed over the years? How do you feel about those changes?
In the olden days, they really did write musicals shaped to a star. Now they're properties that pretty much anyone can be plugged into. People came up to me after Mamma Mia and said, "Oh, I saw you in London," and I'd have to say, "No you didn't see me, you saw the costume."
We used to do shows on Broadway without body mikes. The unamplified sound of the human voice is now a lost thing on Broadway, Especially in song. That's why I love doing the New York Festival of Song concerts; they're acoustic. It's very difficult to have any subtlety in these big shows now, everything's in very broad strokes, almost like we're doing things for people who don't speak English. Even when they do revivals, there is a tendency to homogenize those shows as well, for the modern ear. I think it's ever so much better when they just tell the story.
Do you wonder how your life would have been different if you'd had children?
Yeah, I do sometimes. It passes my mind once in a while. If I'd met someone I was meant to have children with. By the time I met my husband I was 38 years old. I think about it sometimes with the tiniest bit of regret, mostly because I would have loved to have children for my parents.
What are the unique challenges women face in the musical theater? Is there any gender inequality in the industry?
I think musical theater is probably the one place where women have generally been bigger stars than men. I think they probably earn as much as men, I mean, look at Bernadette Peters, Carol Channing, Mary Martin, Ethel Merman... I certainly think there are a lot more great women's musical theater roles than there are for men.
Looking back, after studying theater in college, do you think the academic study of theater helps build careers in the industry?
It depends where you go. Kids who go to NYU for their musical theater education sort of get the best of both of it. If they have the talent and intestinal fortitude, they can segue pretty well into musical theater. I think each young person has to look inside and see what he or she really wants. If the person is driven to get out there and start work, they will. Everything I learned about performance, about telling the truth on the stage, I learned in front of an audience. And frankly I learned while I was doing it for money, not in community theater and not in educational theater. When you go to university, what you're getting is hopefully a full liberal arts education. I got a basis, I became a person by going to college.
Over the years you've sung songs by Leonard Bernstein, Fats Waller, Dorothy Fields, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen and many others. Do you have a favorite? Which contemporary songwriters do you especially like?
I love Jason Robert Brown. He wrote Parade and The Last Five Years. I'm an aficionado of the old stuff from the '20s, '30s and '40s. It's the centenary of Harold Arlen this year and I'm crazy about that stuff.
How did the opportunity to read Sue Grafton's novels come about?
My agent at the time submitted me, and I went and auditioned the old-fashioned way.
What are the challenges of reading books for books on tape?
Just sitting as long as you have to sit. I love doing all the different characters. Back in high school I used to do speech (forensic) tournaments where I'd do these dramatic readings with at least three distinct characters, and that turned out to be a very useful thing for reading these books. The only time it's really difficult is when you've got three similar characters, like several older men in one scene, and I have to create a distinctive voice for each one of them. But I think it's fun, I have a blast doing them.
Do people ever recognize your voice from listening to the Grafton books?
They do. I get wonderful mail from people and I've met people who say, "I know that voice."