Nothing Like a Dame: Conversations with the Great Women of Musical Theater

Who is this Eddie Shapiro? How did he get to spend all this quality time with twenty (or twenty-one – more on this later) Tony Award winning leading ladies of Broadway fame including the likes of Chita Rivera, Angela Lansbury, Carol Channing and Elaine Stritch (to name four in their eighties or nineties) or Kristin Chenoweth, Idina Menzel, Sutton Foster and Laura Benanti (who are much younger)?

Here’s a guy who got to spend Thanksgiving with Elaine Stritch, was invited out to Patti Lupone’s beach house, and was served tea by Angela Lansbury.

Click to buy from Amazon

Click to buy from Amazon

Of course, it helped that he had a contract with Oxford University Press to prepare a book of interviews with these divas. I doubt if anyone could just call up these women and say “I’d love to come by and discuss your career with you.” Shapiro had to go through agents and managers and personal assistants to set up these sessions so he needed some credentials.

Credentials he had. He’d been published in a number of lesbian, gay, bisexual and  transgender magazines, wrote a book which was a gay guide to the Disney theme parks, and co-authored The Actors Encyclopedia of Casting Directors.

highlightpencilHe’d already done interviews of actors like Alan Cumming, Nathan Lane and Ben Vereen as well as actresses such as Stockard Channing and Gwen Verdon and the uncategorizable Dame Edna. There had been interviews of writers as well (Jon Robin Baitz, Terrence McNally).

He’d begun to build a reputation for interviews that had more substance and less fluff than many of his peers. Perhaps that is why Oxford University Press was willing to give him the “go” for a book of deeper interviews with a select group of the biggest stars under the oh-so-Broadway-ish title “Nothing Like a Dame.”

He established some criteria for which actresses he’d try to interview. He wanted women who had “devoted the majority of their careers to the theater” not those who emerged on Broadway but moved on (such as Barbra Streisand) or who came to the Great White Way as an additional stop in a mass media career. He limited the list of actresses he’d ask to interview to those whose names “are likely to be above the title in their next show” and who had at least one Tony Award.

He then spent nearly five years requesting (or pleading for?) appointments, conducting the interviews and sometimes following up with a second interview, preparing edited transcripts and running these drafts by the women themselves to make sure that they stood by what he thought he had heard.

And what he had heard was fascinating!

Laura Benanti, who went in for Rebecca Luker as Maria in The Sound of Music at the age of 18 tells of how she had sleep overs at her house with the kids playing the kids – “We would do Easter egg hunts. We’d call it ‘Easter every day.'”

Betty Buckley reveals that when she “blew” the audition to appear in Promises, Promises, an inner voice told her to go talk to the show’s stage manager and beg him to coach her on the song for the audition and to let her come to the call back – she got the part.

Judy Kaye tells that Ragtime‘s producer Garth Drabinsky called personally to ask her to read the role of Emma Goldman saying “he wouldn’t have a casting person call.” On the other hand, she related the time she asked Andrew Lloyd Webber about doing the role of the girl in his Aspects of Love only to be told “She’s got to go from fifteen to fifty-five.” When she pointed out that she had gone from seventeen to eighty in I Do! I Do!” he replied “Oh, yes, yes, of course … but she does have to be a great beauty.” Ouch.

The interview with Angela Lansbury is filled with Broadway stories of note but it is her story of telling Howard Ashman and Alan Menken that the song they wanted her to sing in Disney’s movie Beauty and the Beast was not “quite my style” that jumps off the page. “They said ‘we don’t mind, you do it the way you’d like to do it if you were playing this tea pot.” She made a demo for them the way she’d sing it and “that’s how that came about.”

Donna McKechnie’s comments on the duty performers have to the audience. “The art of our work is that you re-create an opening night every night of the week. It goes right to the hard-earned money of the audience. Even when tickets were only ten dollars apiece, it’s still their hard-earned money. For me, the great challenge was to re-create that experience every night because its an opening night for that audience.”

Chita Rivera’s legendary positive attitude toward life and the stage comes through. She also details her habit of standing in the wings to watch with every spare moment she had for all of her shows. “That’s how I learned” she says.

 

Nothing Like a Dame:
Conversations with the Great Women of Musical Theater
by Eddie Shapiro

384 pages with 65 black and white photos

ISBN 978-0-19-994120-9

List price $39.95

 

 

 

In all, there are twenty interviews in the printed book but the table of contents lists a twenty-first with a website address where you can call it up on your computer. That one is of Tonya Pinkins, whose Tony Award was for her performance in the title role in Caroline, or Change. Exactly why it is missing from the book or why it is available online is unexplained.

You can read that one here which will give you not just a chance to get to know Ms. Pinkins but a feel for what the entire collection is like. But beware. It is the most negative of all the interviews and Shapiro seems to have been off his stride a bit, neglecting to probe deeply enough to clear up such mysteries as just what happened to Ms. Pinkins’ Tony Award which she says she doesn’t have. Somehow “its a long story” isn’t a sufficient answer.

In his introduction, Shapiro says he hoped the reader would “feel like a fly on the wall, experiencing these chats as they unfolded.” In that he succeeded.

Perhaps it is because of the enthusiasm he brings to each interview and to the research he did prior to each one. He doesn’t ask dumb questions, nor does he ask questions these women have had to answer dozens, hundreds or thousands of times over the course of careers where press interviews and “meet and greets” are part of the game. For example, when Laura Benanti said that as a girl of four she was obsessed with Snow White and would fall to the floor anytime she bit into an apple, Shapiro asked what I doubt anyone had asked her before: “Would you lie there and wait to be kissed?”

Mostly, however, he plumbs the depths of their memories of highs and lows in careers that by the very nature of show business had to have many of both. They provide a view into the peaks and valleys of Broadway as well.

I’m glad I was a fly on his wall – and I think you will be too.

 

Brad Hathaway About Brad Hathaway

Brad Hathaway, Theatre Shelf columnist - Brad covered theater throughout the Washington area for over a decade. He is best known locally for his work as the editor and reviewer for Potomac Stages from 2001 to 2010. Among the publications that have featured his writing are The Hill Rag, the Connection Newspapers of Northern Virginia, Show Music Magazine and The Sondheim Review. As a member of the American Theater Critics Association, he hosted their 2008 annual conference in Washington and currently serves on that association’s executive committee. Brad received a League of Washington Theatres’ Offstage Honors Award for contributions to the Washington DC theater community. He and his wife Teddie live on a houseboat in Sausalito CA.

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