In showstopping performances, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Adriane Lenox evoke the legends of jazz and blues
Welcome to Building Character, TDF’s ongoing series on actors and how they create their roles
There isn’t a cigarette girl or a cigar in sight, but you can almost imagine spectral blue smoke surrounding the two Tony Award-winning actresses currently evoking a bygone era of African-American nightclub culture on separate stages in New York City. In Broadway’s After Midnight and Off-Broadway’s Lady Day, Adriane Lenox and Dee Dee Bridgewater, respectively, exist in an atmosphere so thick with moody jazz and hazy blues that their stages seem set for the conjuring of spirits.
In Lady Day, writer-director Stephen Stahl’s backstage musical about tragic blues singer Billie Holiday, Bridgewater (who won her Tony for playing Glinda in The Wiz) makes her star entrance through the stage door of a London theatre where Billie is rehearsing in a bid for a 1954 comeback. Thunder, rain, and lightning accompany her into the space, eerily suggesting the emotional tumult to come. In between songs (the score includes “Lady Sings the Blues,” “Strange Fruit,” “All of Me,” and 23 others), Billie loses herself in scenes that recount her broken childhood.
Does Bridgewater (pictured above right) feel Billie’s presence at the Little Shubert Theatre, or does the actress not go there?
“Oh, I go there,” Bridgewater says. “When I’m getting ready to go on, I say, ‘OK, Billie, let’s go.’ My deal with Billie this time is that she can share my body, not take it over.”
In the 1980s, Bridgewater played an earlier version of the show in Paris (in French, no less!) and London. The actress explains, “In London, she kind of took over. Toward the end of my run at the Picadilly, I was getting fan mail addressed to Billie Holiday. People who had seen her or knew her would come backstage and say, ‘I did not see you, I saw Billie.’ That was pretty traumatic. Now I try to leave her at the theatre and join her at the theatre when I go into my dressing room.”
Bridgewater’s turn is part of her career-long commitment to exploring the heritage of jazz singers. She won a 2011 Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album for her Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie With Love From Dee Dee, and an earlier Ella Fitzgerald tribute disc was also Grammy-anointed.
Still, Bridgewater admits that when she first heard Holiday’s gravelly voice on LPs, many years ago, the sound turned her off. “I thought her voice was small, too nasal,” she recalls. “I was of the impression that if you’re gonna be a jazz singer you have to know how to scat, and she didn’t scat.”
But then Bridgewater stumbled across Holiday’s autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues. She admits, “I was really struck by her life and…I could identify with a lot of the pain that she had gone through. That’s what grabbed me. [When] I was asked to do Lady Day in Paris, I did a lot of investigative work. She’s been in me since then, been a part of me.” [Read more →]
October 29, 2013 No Comments
Sheldon Harnick and Margery Gray Harnick create a book about the city
Margery Gray Harnick’s photographs offer three visions of New York at the same time.
There’s the city as a landscape, packed with buildings and treelines and sky; there’s the city as a community, full of tourists and natives hustling on their way; and there’s the city as a private story, brimming with details that have shaped Harnick’s life.
Those overlapping identities define The Outdoor Museum, a collection of Harnick’s photographs paired with poems by her husband, Sheldon Harnick. Taken together, the words and images ask us to reexamine how we look at the city. A mannequin, say, can be more than just a figure in a window. It can change how we see the people walking past it. Even a grimy puddle on the street can reflect a nearby building, making it look like a wavering mirage.
April 25, 2013 No Comments
Why Warren Carlyle makes the dancing in “Drood” accessible
In the musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood, currently at Studio 54 in a revival from the Roundabout, it’s crucial for the audience to have a good time. After all, they’re the ones writing the ending.
The premise is this: A troupe of actors greets the audience, thrilled to share the most ambitious project of their careers—a retelling of Dickens’ unfinished murder-mystery, which centers on the disappearance of a man named Edwin Drood. After watching Dickens’ incomplete story, the audience chooses how the mystery ends. Librettist-composer Rupert Holmes has written dozens of final scenes, and the cast is prepared to perform any of them, depending on whom the audience votes for.
When it clicks, Drood crackles with mischief, and that’s what hooked Warren Carlyle, who choreographs the current revival. “I responded to the humor of this show,” he says. “And the involvement of the audience in the actual plot is so special. The audience is almost another character, and that felt original to me.”
January 30, 2013 1 Comment
This Saturday, the American Theatre Wing will recognize Theatre Development Fund’s groundbreaking Open Doors program with a Tony Honor for Excellence in the Theatre. (Tony Honors are given to individuals and organizations that aren’t eligible in competitive Tony categories.)
We are thrilled and humbled by this award for the program, which pairs small groups of local high school students with professional theatre mentors. Along with a teacher and a TDF rep, the students and their mentors see plays, musicals, and dance performances and then discuss them over pizza. Through those conversations, the students not only learn more about the performing arts, but also learn to express themselves in a deeper way.
To see how Open Doors works, just watch this short video, which follows a group mentored by the actress Kathleen Chalfant. In a small way, it captures the unique spirit of this special program.
June 5, 2012 1 Comment
Designer Natasha Katz explains her work for “Once” and “Follies”
Natasha Katz tells stories with light. When she makes a shadow strike an actor’s face, or when she beams color across a wall, she changes our understanding of what’s happening on stage.
Katz’s colleagues clearly like her storytelling. She’s won two Tony Awards, and this year, she received two additional nominations for Best Lighting Design of a Musical—one for Follies and the other for Once.
Both shows offer meaty challenges for a lighting designer, and they pushed Katz is different ways.
Follies, the Sondheim revival that’s currently at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre after a Broadway run last fall, demands an elaborate, haunted world. As retired showgirls gather for a reunion, their younger selves weave around them, stepping from the past to relive old routines, fights, and love affairs.
May 8, 2012 No Comments