Interview: Scott Wittman on “Jukebox Jackie”, 54 Below and “Smash”

Scott Wittman is a busy man. In addition to writing lyrics every week for Smash‘s show-within-a-show Bombshell (and serving as an executive producer for the NBC hit), and working as Creative Consultant for the much-anticipated new cabaret space 54 Below, he has conceived and directed Jukebox Jackie, currently playing at LaMaMa ETC. Jukebox Jackie: Snatches of Jackie Curtis is a collage of scenes, poetry, music and dance culled from the works of Jackie Curtis, who performed as both a man and a woman throughout his career in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, stating, “I’m not a boy, not a girl. I’m just me, Jackie.”

The man who said, “I’m just me, Jackie” was, in fact, a fixture during those radical years in New York’s clubs and theatres, including La MaMa, where Curtis was much-loved by La MaMa’s late founder and artistic director Ellen Stewart. Curtis pioneered the glam rock style of the 1970s, performing in drag in lipstick, glitter, bright red hair, trashed dresses and torn stockings. David Bowie was an early fan. Curtis went on to become one of the stars of Andy Warhol’s inner circle. Curtis began writing his own plays with casts starring fellow Warhol “superstars” Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn, also at La MaMa. He wrote and often starred in such plays as Glamour, Glory and Gold (Robert DeNiro’s first stage appearance in 1967), Amerika Cleopatra with a cast featuring Harvey Fierstein and Femme Fatale with Patti Smith, Jayne County and Penny Arcade.

I sat down with Scott in a sunlit La MaMa rehearsal space to catch up on all of his fabulous pursuits.

Did you have a personal connection to Jackie Curtis?

I think that when I first came to New York and I saw Jackie – I didn’t know Jackie – but I saw some plays that Jackie was in, which made me want to be part of that. Jackie really influenced my aesthetic when I first came to New York, and was always in my head. What I’ve hoped to do with this is show Jackie as a writer. Jackie was part and parcel as a cast member in the plays he wrote – but when you take a step away and take a look at the vast amount of paper, of writing that he did, it’s really fascinating.

What’s really fascinating about Jackie is the variety of styles: from absurdist comedies where he would pull character names out of racing forms, to very structured pieces like one called Glamour, Glory and Gold – we do some scenes from that one – with a beginning middle and end and a clearly defined story, to the large number of poems he wrote, which I wasn’t aware of. We do one of those poems intact, called “B-Girls”, a really beautiful, evocative poem all about the denizens of Slugger Ann’s, which was at 12th Street and Second Avenue [Later gay bar Dick’s and currently the 13th Street Ale House]. Jackie’s grandmother was the bartender, and Jackie lived upstairs.

So what’s the format of Jukebox Jackie?

We’re trying to do for Jackie what Mamma Mia did for Abba. [Laughs.] All the people in the show are “fractions” of Jackie, because Jackie was many people, male, female and in between. There are four characters who speak from Jackie’s mind. All of the written material is by Jackie, every word, every journal entry. There’s a book called Superstar in a Housedress by Craig Highberger and that’s really been a touchstone. I gathered from other sources. I started to stumble on these songs that Jackie did in a cabaret act, which Jackie wrote lyrics for and someone else wrote the music, in one case Peter Allen. In our show there’s a song that Jackie only wrote the lyrics to, that I had Lance Horne write the music to. I also wanted to have songs that were in the soundtrack of my life at the time.

Jackie described New York as being like Brigadoon with steam coming out of a manhole cover, and that to me describes the creative period when I first moved here. It was kind of a magical time in New York. The scene we dive into in Jukebox Jackie has a lot of foul language and blow jobs and drugs, but there’s also a certain innocence to it which is so different from now. [To give you a taste of that era, here’s a YouTube video of 1970 SoHo loft party that Curtis attended]

Our cast, Justin Vivian Bond, Bridget Everett, Cole Escola, and Steel Burkhardt – to me, if Jackie were alive now these are the people he would be using in his shows. Justin is a singular interpreter of material, just like Jackie. It’s not a literal imitation, instead we’re really trying to evoke a time musically and creatively. This whole cast is fabulous storytellers. Bridget reminds me of Bridget Polk, Cole Escola is very much like Taylor Mead, Steel is very much like Joe Dellasandro, they all somehow preserve an element of those times.

What kind of shadow does Warhol cast on Jukbox Jackie?

There’s an element of that – The Factory was like MGM and Warhol was like Louis B. Mayer to Jackie and his other “superstars”, and we do pay some tribute to that, Cole embodies that a little bit. I also try to make it clear that it wasn’t a scary place like it has sometimes been portrayed. I’m sure I’ve gone the other direction and romanticized it a bit, you know the way Joan Crawford would say “I love Louis B. Mayer now.” Some of the music is the Velvet Underground, which also came out of the Factory, which adds another current to it.

Tell me about 54 Below, the new cabaret below Studio 54, how did that come about?

The guys who are doing that were producers on Hairspray, which was such a blessed experience. A few years ago Richard Frankel came to me and said we want to open this club, and we want you to be a sort of curator or “fairy godfather.” So I said I’d love to do that; when I came to New York it was the renaissance of cabaret – you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting one. For me, I would spend most of my nights in Reno Sweeney’s on 13th Street, where you see Edie Beale, Peter Allen, Barbara Cook – a really broad, eclectic booking policy. So with 54 Below’s director of programming Phil Bond, we’re trying to make that same thing happen with 54 Below. Justin Bond will be performing there, Jackie Hoffman – where else in three nights could you see Jackie, Justin and Patti LuPone. That to me feels right, it seems fun. It’s not like Feinstein’s it’s not like the Carlyle or Joe’s Pub. I think there’s a place for it. I remember being able to go to many cabarets, there was Freddy’s and the Grand Finale and Brothers and Sisters.

And this little television side project, Smash. What’s that whole experience been like for you?

Marc Shaiman and I love songwriting so that’s been great, being able to write and have a wide audience appreciate it. Writing new material every week, and then there’s six million people listening to your songs, which would never happen on Broadway. My proudest achievement, though Marc and I didn’t have much to do with the cover songs, was getting Anjelica Houston to sing “The September Song” in episode 14, that was my absolute favorite moment.

You even had a brief cameo in that scene, didn’t you, and Marc was the piano player…

I wanted to be there for her, it was a big moment, for her to sing, she had never sung in her life – and she did so beautifully, there’s nothing she can’t do.

So, with doing that for a year, and Catch Me if You Can in all of its incarnations around the world, there’s a lot of people telling me to “do this, do that, cut this, move that, stop here, no that part doesn’t work” and working on Jukebox Jackie has been a real tonic for me. I’ve wanted to come home and Ellen Stewart had asked me a few years ago, and it’s nice to be in an atmosphere with just a few people – some I’ve known a short time, some I’ve known a long time – that’s more relaxed. I also think Jackie needs to be recognized as the wonderful writer he was – I really hope by the end of the evening you’ll have a really good sense of the person and the work, the music and the time. It’s been fun – Jackie collaged life and I’ve re-collaged Jackie.

For tickets, click here.

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Archive Interview: Lily Tomlin In Her Own Words

In 2007 I did an interview with Lily Tomlin that I cut down to fit into print, although true to form with one of my favorite people, most of what she said was gold. Here are uncut quotes from that interview.

“Erenstine has a reality webcam chat show now. So she calls President Bush or whoever’s in the news It’s much more informal, much more freewheeling that if I was doing a more theatrical piece like Search for Signs or something. More interaction with the audience. I’ll try to talk about topical things about Washington DC, do what I’ve always done.”

“Here’s a story: I was playing at the Gaslight in the Village [The Gaslight was originally a “basket house”, where performers were paid the proceeds of a passed around basket. Opened in 1958 by John Mitchell the  Gaslight had showcased beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso but became a folk club when Sam Hood took it over. Dylan premiered Masters of War and many other songs here], people would say, ‘Well people don’t understand if you do all these characters, they don’t know who you are’. And I’d say ‘That’s ridiculous, I’m standing right there and talking as myself between the characters’. So I was always trying to develop a persona, like Joanie Rivers, she had a persona which she worked out of the last screw on the freeway, like her mother had a sign up that said ‘Last Single Girl before Exit to Freeway’. And other people, like Totie Fields, you know, would work out of a persona that was close to them but exaggerated. I was at the Gaslight one night; I tried to work out a persona of someone who does all these characters and tries to relate to the audience. So I’d sit down at the table and look deep into their eyes – I’m on the phone, honey – I’d be frank with them, I’d say, ‘I’m trying to be myself on stage, and I’m going to try to relate to the audience as a human being’ (laughs.) And I’d say ‘This is the part that’s kept me in the small money all these years, and when I do the character part you’ll see that’s the good part’. People were cheering by the end and I’d say ‘Now that I’ve used you to this extent, I’ll be moving on to bigger and better things’. There weren’t that many places to do comedy in those days because music, folk and then rock music was so prominent.”

“Something came out about Karl Rove’s playbook being disinformed misinformed you come right around to being uninformed again. The more you peel back the layers, the more the misinformation and manipulation is so strong, why do we give these people credit for being masterful, being masters of misinformation, Why do people give Karl Rove credit for being a strategist, a genius just because he’s put out these destructive, heinous, manipulative, rotten. What is my point of view on the state of things? What could it be? Not much. You try to make it funny, laughable – it’s kind of payback. What so frightening is that so many people, the average person is so busy with their lives that they only catch a fragment of something on the news, that’s why there’s so much confused opinion. No wonder so many people still believe Saddam was behind 9/11, with most of the media co-opted, it amazing how thorough this misinformation is.”

“I first came to New York in ’62 because I’d gotten into a show in college. For the first time I consciously did a character it was pegged to the fact that Grosse Pointe was covertly segregated, which had just been exposed, the little bit I did was very relevant, I thought oh God I maybe I can make a living doing this. I was not a really great student I  first lived on Second Avenue over the old B & H Dairy. These are deep imprints on me, I don’t know exactly how they manifest themselves. I lived in an old railroad flat for a few weeks, I lived with a friend, Jenny, I knew very slightly in college and she was living a guy, Jerry, who thought he was carrying the legacy of abstract expressionist painter Franz Kline who died in ’62. They didn’t speak, they hated each other. At eye level they would curse each other — ‘I hate you, you’re mother’s dirt’. So I come in like Holly Golightly — that was the year Breakfast at Tiffany’s came out, and I was profoundly influenced by that. I could show you photographs where I had major Audrey Hepburn damage. I get to New York I borrow nine dollars from five people, I go to the thrift shop where by some lightining of god there was some cream-colored trench coat like she had in the movie, and I got my hair up like hers. And I immediately am going to clean up the apartment and get rid of the roaches, and I painted the whole apartment – ack you don’t want to get me started on this story, this is a movie in itself  – Jerry slept in the living room and painted all night, with a ¾ bed on the airshaft, she wouldn’t let me sleep with her and I couldn’t fraternize by sleeping on his rollaway during the night so I had to sleep on a  there was no mirror in the house so I had to use a mirror up the street, the roaches, just profound, unbelievable.”

“I got a job right away at a talent agency Marvin Josephson Associates – Marvin later became a founder of ICM. I came to be a waitress at the Figaro, and I was going to study mime, that was my first ambition in New York. This was a job in midtown so I had to start wearing pumps and heels, I moved to NY with a burlap skirt and a striped jersey and a great big old pair of sandals (laughs), and I get a job a this talent agency because I knew how to be a bookkeeper, I was very good with numbers. And here I am going to work with two girls from Queens and the Bronx, who had big teased hairdos and long fingernails, and I thought of myself as a bohemian, a beatnik, sort of. Even in the East Village in those days women weren’t artists. Nobody believed even in musicians – you had to be composer, you were nothing if you only an interpretive artist like an actor or musician, you had to be a playwright or composer to be taken seriously. To be an actress was just so narcissistic (laughs).”

“So I went to the American Mime Theater, and lasted about three weeks because it was so movement-driven, and of course I loved words, so I wasn’t going to be happy being a mime. Everybody there was so physically gifted anyway; they’d fall from one end of this huge dance studio to the other wall, and do it differently each time. I didn’t think I wanted to put in that kind of work to just fall from one end of the room to the other, because I could do a fairly decent job of that anyway, and when I got there I’d rather say something, or better yet, say something on the way. In August it would be so hot in New York. This was in the days when construction workers would yell and grab there crotches for anything in high heels that walked by, and really say anything to you. I had to take the bank deposits to the bank, between 6th and 7th. There’s a reason people rail against high heels I can tell you.”

“I was so focused on auditions then, I’m trying to remember when I became aware of that whole downtown scene, like Candy Darling and everybody but that was later, for me that was the early 70s. I came to know some of the Cockettes, but I was pretty focused on my own work by that point, which in the case of ‘Laugh-In’ took me to California. I eventually bought an apartment up on the fifth floor. A couple of gay guys had lived there and it was fantastically finished. I was so lucky to get this apartment, the windowsills in those old tenements are covered with years of different paints, but these were all sanded down beautifully, it was like living at the Pierre or something.”

“I worked the Improv which back then was on the West Side, and I would hit the thrift shop, I used to buy so many gowns and things at the thrift shop. The first time I appeared at the Improv, must have been 66. I had a white fox fur and a bias cut halter dress that I’d gotten at the Salvation Army or something for about 50¢. I told them I have to go on between 9 and 9:30. I don’t know how I got Budd Freidman to do because in those days a woman doing comedy was so rare you had to have someone to vouch for you. In those days the Improv had a plate glass window that faced right on the street, so you could see the people coming in the club. I took the subway uptown to the theater district where I know there would be limos waiting for people. I gave the guy 5 bucks, and he drove me over to the Improv, I got out went right into the club did five or ten minutes, swept out went back in the limo, and he dropped me off. That made a big splash for me at the Improv. Plus my set went really well.”

“So after that I could go to the Improv. If I was working out a monologue and I would go to the Laundromat at Second Avenue, and then I’d go to the bar for a couple of drinks (laughs). So if I’d see somebody at the Laundromat that I knew, or even a person on the street. I would drag them back up to my fifth floor apartment, and I do it for them. It was probably a monologue they’d seen six or seven times, but if I’d change one syllable of course it was just revelatory. I can’t imagine how many times I did that with my pals on the Lower East Side.”

“New York of the Sixties is when Ernestine came about. Having some political inclinations, I hated the phone company because they were involved with governmental eavesdropping. So it was appropriate to satire the phone company on that level, too. And on the everyday level. I later learned when I became famous from ‘Laugh-In’, then I was adopted by all the union workers at the phone company — they told me that during that era, they completely ignore the private subscriber, because the subscriber had no alternative. They were putting all of their money into databasing and research and development. You didn’t have to go very far because the phone company did have all kinds of information on you, Ernestine would suggest they taped conversations and that they had access to all of your financial personal business and she would harass everybody.”

Interview: Christine Ebersole

A gay icon. So supreme, the very finest. Faaaabulous! All of those would be apt descriptions of Christine Ebersole. Or how about “one of those talents that comes along just a handful of times every generation”, which I wrote after seeing her in cabaret for the first time nearly 10 years ago, something she proved in spades in her Tony-winning turn in the Broadway musical Grey Gardens.

Now, for the third year in a row, she is doing a cabaret act at the chic Cafe Carlyle, and you absolutely, positively must see it; I’m simply not giving you any other option. First off, Christine is working again with the magnificent musical director John Oddo, like she did last year at the Carlyle. Oddo was also musical director for the late, great Rosemary Clooney and he worked with jazz legends like Woody Herman. This also finds her reuniting with director Scott Wittman, who has his own Tony for co-writing the score of Hairspray. I caught up with Christine for a few words as she prepares for the new show.

This will be your third year – is this your new permanent slot at the Carlyle?

I don’t know, but I’m hoping. Three years in a row! Always at the beginning of the year, I think this is the earliest it’s been. It’s a completely new show, about finding eternal youth. Through the Great American Songbook. [Laughs.] Evergreens, yes, and selections from Grey Gardens. I can’t say much more: How do we say what is there without giving it away? I’d rather have people be surprised!

You’re working with Oddo and Wittman again, are you three settling into a groove with your process?

I go way back with Scott, I’ve worked with him since 1996. We did our first club act then, which was recorded as Live at the Cinegrill and even before that, as far back as 1980, I’d worked with Scott and his partner Marc Shaiman. So with Scott there’s an unwritten communication. The way we understand each other is almost like clairvoyance, it’s weird. And John is the same kind of thing, musically we’re just so “in the pocket”. Our sensibility is very similar. It’s a great team. You keep thinking, “Oh Jesus, I can’t top anything.” You know what I mean? And you can’t. I have to remind myself not to make the mistake of trying to compare it. Each one is its own animal. After this year, I don’t know what’s left! [Laughs.] But then again I felt that going into this. The creative process is a strange bird; once you’re in it, it’s amazing how these things will come to you.

So when we first met you let me know that you wanted to become a gay icon. I think since then you’ve earned that status in spades, but do you feel like a gay icon?

[Laughs heartily.] Yeah, but it’s never enough you know, I’m always working on improving my gay icon status.

Have you got anything else coming up?

Yes, something very exciting. A TV show that I’ve been working on with George Segal, Jessica Walters and Jonathan McClain called Retired at 35 for TVLand as a companion to Hot in Cleveland premieres January 19. I have a recurring role, they’ve shot ten episodes so far, I’m in five of them. A very funny show, so well written!

For tickets, click here.

Interview: Bruce Vilanch

Bruce Vilanch will be playing two nights, January 11 & 12, at Feinstein’s at the Regency in his new one-man show “Writer on the Verge”. We thought we’d call him up to see what the show’s all about. Even as he picked up the phone, he was already chuckling and cracking wise: “Is this the Gay Socialite? Any questions? Fire away!”

So, is “Writer on the Verge” all-new?

It is! It’s been a a long time since I’ve done anything in New York. When I’m in the city I tend to do benefits galore and emcee things. So I’m pretty sure all my material will be new to the city. I haven’t done a real show in New York for 10 years unless I’m forgetting something. I was at Westbeth for three months but that was almost 11 years ago. There have been many more Oscar broadcasts since then and many more things to tell stories about.

You’re going to be play Feinstein’s; will there be any singing?

I don’t think so; if I get the piano player of my dreams, I will sing, I’ve got some material. But to be there and to sing, to stand there in the shadow of so many incredible singers, just because it’s a cabaret…I don’t think when Jackie Mason played there he broke into song.

No, nor Joan Collins, and her show was terrific.

[Laughs.] She didn’t? I thought that was the whole idea. So she just told stories, right? That’s interesting too, and of course my life is so much more glamorous than hers. [Laughs.]

Yeah, Mitzi Gaynor sang a couple songs, but her show was also mostly stories.

In the ballroom, right? That’s the big time. I’m in the cabaret, where I’ve been a regular, which I actually love. I worked with Mitzi recently, when she was coming out of her shell — if you can ever believe she was in one. We did an on-stage Q&A in San Francisco, and of course what I learned is you ask Mitzi one question and she goes into material from her act, of which there is no shortage. It’s hysterical and wonderful. I think getting back out there and doing that stuff encouraged her to do a regular evening.

What do you think of the state of gay’s in today’s comedy?

I think we rule! It’s ironic on TV certainly the big hit is Modern Family and because of Modern Family there are half a dozen shows in the hopper for next year about “blended” families of different kinds and they all have a gay element in them. So success breeds a lot — this is the logical extension of Will & Grace and Ellen DeGeneres. In television there’s quite a lot of it. In general I think we’re going through a transitional period. Now that we’re visible, we’re showing different textures, a character isn’t just a gay character. He’s not in the script because he’s gay, writers are now being given freedom to discover layers in gay characters.

And you are acting in a new gay themed film comedy Oy Vey My Son is Gay.

Which is opening Friday in Miami. Miami Beach at last! I’m in Tampa right now and I’m going to go down there for the “gala” opening, “gala” that’s hysterical. It’s been released “on a platform,” opening in different markets one after the other. It’s been opening around the country on different dates. That’s a fun thing because you get reviewed at least once a week by some new person in another newspaper. It’s like the death of a thousand cuts. [Laughs.] But it’s a very funny movie, an old school comedy, about the older generation getting hit by a trifecta: their sons are gay, getting married and adopting a baby. What makes it so funny is the older Jewish parents are played by Lainie Kazan and Saul Rubinek, with Carmen Electra as “the beard next door,” and the cast just goes on like that.

For tickets, click here.

Interview: Bryan Batt

Feinstein’s at Loews Regency will continue its Fall 2010 season with the debut of out Broadway favorite Bryan Batt – two-time Screen Actors Guild Award winner and star of television’s Mad Men – on October 3 and 4. Bryan takes to the New York nightclub stage with “Batt On A Hot Tin Roof”, an evening of song and storytelling, weaving a tale of his “life experience” in the Big Apple and the Big Easy. From Cole Porter to Burt Bacharach, embracing classic Broadway and new composers, Batt promises a fun filled evening celebrating heart, hope, and home. I caught up with Bryan by phone, while he was in his hometown of New Orleans.

JW: So what is “Batt on a Hot Tin Roof”?

Just a collection of songs and stories. It all started about five years ago when I got a call from a friend of mine Barbara Motley, from New Orleans. I live part time in New Orleans part time in New York. She was organizing a benefit and asked me to put together a one-man show, to help out actors and musicians displaced by Katrina. She has a wonderful cabaret space called Le Chat Noir. I said yes, but right when I hung up the phone I realized I’d never done a show like that before. I’d done lots of Broadway shows, but I’d never done just an evening of me alone with a piano. I called her back and said “You know I’ve never done this before.” And Barbara said “Just do anything you want, sing songs you like, songs you’ve sung on Broadway, songs you’ve wanted to sing on Broadway.”

So I went ahead and did it, and I had so much fun, so I just kept on doing it every now and then. I haven’t done it in over a year. I don’t know how the people a Feinstein’s got word of it. But they asked me to do this show and I just kept putting it off, and finally said yes, so I got to work on updating it.

JW: Does it deal with growing up gay in New Orleans, like your new book She Ain’t Heavy, She’s My Mother?

It definitely deals with that, some stories, some fun ones about my father and baseball, and all of that stuff about self-discovery and loving the theatre, and some of the songs are just fun. There are some songs in there that not everybody will know, and I’m so enjoying people walking away wanting to know more about this music.

It all came out of, of all things, Katrina. It’s sold out every time I’ve done it in New Orleans. It’s been called many different things. The first time I did it, it was very simply “Bryan Batt Live at Le Chat”, and a couple times later we called it “Bryan Batt Same Old Chat”. [Laughs.] And then about a year and a half ago, I did a different version, to help out a theatre company down here that was going through some difficulties. So much good has come of it that I just am proud of it and wanted to do it for New York.

JW: I’ve seen Le Chat and it gives me real estate envy. It’s so much bigger than a New York cabaret.

Isn’t it nice? I really had such a great time there. Cabaret in general is a medium that I am really surprised that I enjoy as much as I do. It’s so intimate, it’s like you’re doing a show in your living room. It takes a lot more concentration. There are no walls, forget the fourth wall, there’s no wall at all, you just have to be. Doing Mad Men has really helped, you know, the smallness of film and TV acting.

JW: Speaking of that, any word on Sal, the closeted art director you play on the show, returning?

[Laughs.] Well, that’s the million dollar question. At the Emmys, we were all in the press room and the CNN guy asked Matt Weiner that exact question, to which Matt replied “Sal is alive.” So, I guess we’ll just have to watch and find out.

JW: Are you still very involved in New Orleans?

 As a matter of fact Patricia Clarkson and I did a benefit down here, for Le Petite Theatre du Veiux Carre, where I’m on the board. Yeah, when I’m in New Orleans, I’m very active. Any way I can help out, you know the city is still rebuilding, its another good five years at least, I think, but we’re definitely on the road back.

For tickets, click here.

Interview: Euan Morton

EuanMortonFrom June 2009:

Most famous for playing Boy George in Broadway’s “Taboo,” transplanted Scotsman Euan Morton is homesick, and in true show biz fashion, he’s doing a cabaret act to deal with it! 2009 marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, Scotland’s most famous songwriter and poet. To celebrate, Scotland is calling ’09 the Year of the Homecoming.

To mark this great occasion and to bring a wee piece of home to New York City, Euan is performing his new Scottish-themed one man show, “Caledonia: Songs for the Homecoming” through the last few weeks in June. I caught up with Euan to ask a few questions about the show and what he’s been up to.

How did this act come about?

It’s a departure from the other cabaret concerts I’ve done. I used to sing all of these Scottish folk songs as a kid — my mum’s a singer and she taught us — but I’ve never done this stuff in public. I’m doing a lot of traditional Scottish music, as well as modern stuff like Annie Lennox’s “Why” and “500 Miles” by the Proclaimers. We did it for the first time last night and people really seem to enjoy it. It wasn’t even my idea: I was hanging out with Dessie Moynihan from the Shubert Organization. I told her it was the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns’s birth, and Dessie suggested the idea of a Scottish celebration concert — I owe it all to her.

You’re known for playing good-hearted but scandalously outrageous characters — is any of that on display in “Caledonia”?

I can’t go as crazy in cabaret as I can when I’m playing Caligula or Boy George or any of those other riotous men. But the part of me that goes into those characters is definitely something I enjoy playing with onstage. My director Lee Armitage and I are much more organized with this show than other concerts I’ve done before. We’ve actually written a script out, which I haven’t done often before. It’s a really good thing, because my mind sometimes wanders and I say stupid things and repeat myself just before, you know, a tender ballad. Plus, it gives us a chance to consciously draw out those parts of my personality you mentioned, which definitely contrast me with a more traditional cabaret performer.

You’re missing Scotland?

Not just Scotland! I haven’t left the USA since March 2005 — for me that’s strange because from London or Scotland it’s so easy to travel. You can get to Spain for $120 round trip, Amsterdam $80, France $40 and I used to leave the UK four to six times a year. So I miss all those places. I have a reason to go home next year. My little sister is getting married in June 2010; by that time it’ll be six and a half years.

Any dream projects in the works?

I’ve talked about writing my own musical. I’ve always loved the Carpenters. And I’m even more fascinated by the darkness and addictions that come with success. I wanted to write a show about a boy who was obsessed with the Carpenters and ended up living like Karen did. Because no one ever talks about male anorexia. It’s actually much more common than we think. Then I realized he didn’t need to be a Carpenters fan, that in fact that cheapened both the boy’s problem and the memory of Karen. You could just do a show about male eating disorders. People have pooh-poohed the idea but now comes “Next to Normal,” bringing bipolarity to Broadway, so perhaps that’s something I’ll get back into. Writing-wise now I’m working on writing a movie — it’s about a woman who was a fighter in the French Resistance in World War II, who became a leader in it. There were a handful of women like her in the Resistance, but they are rarely recognized. She’s now 105 and she practices the art of the “healing hands.” I’m also involved in two new musicals, leading roles. “Behind the Limelight,” which is the life of Charlie Chaplin and the other is “Caligula,” which I did in the first season of NYMF. Both of those are definitely dream projects, even though, like “Caledonia,” they weren’t necessarily an original idea of mine.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Interview: Lesley Gore

lesley goreFrom April 2009:

Singer Lesley Gore, a through and through New Yorker – born in Brooklyn and raised in Tenafly, New Jersey – was discovered by music legend Quincy Jones and recorded “It’s My Party” when she was just 16 years old. In the years that followed, she helped create the soundtrack of the 1960s with over two dozen chart hits, including the proto-feminist anthem “You Don’t Own Me,” becoming the most commercially successful solo artist of the “Girl Group” era.  A few years back, Gore also quietly came out as a lesbian by serving as a host on the PBS series In the Life.

The 1960s legend will be doing a breif stint at Feinstein’s at the Regency, May 5 to 9. She’ll perform a selection of her 1960s chart-toppers as well as contemporary pop classics.  I chatted with her about her plans for the show at Feinstein’s, the growing acceptance of gays and one of her most resonant songs

Any particular plans for Feinstein’s?

There are few wonderful clubs in New York, you’ve got the Carlyle and Feinstein’s. I’ve visited Feinstein’s, I’ve seen a lot of wonderful talent there and always aspired to play there. In terms of figuring out a general direction for the show, I know it’s a room I need to cater to. At the same time, I do come in the door with a couple of hits, which probably people are buying a ticket or two to hear, so I’m obliged to do those. I’ve got a number of songs that I’ve loved and which I’ve been performing over the last 44 years. I’m putting all of those into a context that’s right for Feinstein’s and right for Lesley. I think it should be a great show! We nod to the songs of the Great American songbook that Michael Feinstein does so beautifully, we do a couple of what I call “modern classics,” and I get an opportunity to sing a couple of ballads, which I think every singer enjoys more than an up-tempo song.

What to do you think of the state of gay rights?

I frankly don’t care whether I get married or not, but I think our civil rights depend on it. I think it’s important, not so much to be married to your partner as to be given the civil rights that married couples get, so I’m on that bandwagon. I think it’s 2009, I really don’t think that straight people have a problem with gay people any longer. But of course I live in New York. I don’t know what’s going on in Kansas and Utah, but I imagine they’re a little bit behind us—and its time to catch up!  I know it takes some people a little longer. They come to this with histories, apprehensions, fears because they don’t understand. The more people understand that they probably already know a gay person, and in fact adore them, then the better off we’re gonna be—and that may take awhile, but it’s happening, for sure. By the time I shut my eyes for good I’ll have seen a real difference, I think, and I’m happy about that.

Could you talk a little bit about your protofeminist anthem “You Don’t Own Me”?

When I first heard that song at the age of 16 or 17, feminism wasn’t quite a going proposition yet. Some people talked about it, but it wasn’t in any kind of state at the time. My take on that song was: I’m 17, what a wonderful thing, to be able to stand up on a stage and shake your finger at people and sing you don’t own me. I thought of it as a humanist anthem—I could see a guy saying that to a girl as well. As time went on the feminist movement did grab a hold of it, and frankly I’m very proud of that. It’s the one song that I do every time I’m on a stage, more often than not it’s the song I close with, because frankly in all my years I’ve never found a song that’s stronger than that. It’s imbued with something different every time I sing it. It’s a great song, so when you really think about it, different things pop up all the time. It has a lot of layers which I think is the test of a good song.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.