Kaye's Career Spans 'Grease' to 'Boheme'

Boston Sunday Globe - August 19, 1990
by Richard Dyer


If there were still such a thing as great Broadway musical comedies, Judy Kaye would be the brightest star on the Great White Way. She's funny, sunny and sexy; she can act; and she knows how to sing. And she can do all these things simultaneously, just like Mary Martin.

Some of Kaye's biggest successes, in fact, have come in revivals of Mary Martin musicals - South Pacific, I Do, I Do, and The Sound of Music. Not that she hasn't had successes of her own. Five weeks after the opening of On the Twentieth Century on Broadway, she took over the female lead from Madeline Kahn and later headed the national company opposite Rock Hudson. Two years ago, she won a Tony award for her performance as Carlotta in Phantom of the Opera.

But basically, in a world without exciting new Broadway shows every season, Judy Kaye has had to make up her own career, which has been varied, to say the least. Her roles have been as diverse as the teen-age slut Rizzo in Grease and the elegant Eurydice in Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld. She has become an indispensable figure in new recordings of old musicals on CD - she appears in a new Kismet, in Rodgers' and Hart's Babes in Arms and in the first recording of Villa-Lobos' Magdalena. Earlier this summer, she walked away with conductor/archivist John McGlinn's Broadway telecast of the Boston Pops. Coming up are one album of obscure Gershwin songs and another of show music she has recorded with her husband, David Green. Currently, she is appearing as Musetta in Puccini's La Boheme with the Santa Fe Opera, where she tapes the Mets games so she can watch then when she gets home from work. Between Boheme performances, she flies to Tanglewood to sing Leonard Bernstein's Arias and Barcarolles this afternoon under the composer's direction - a work she has already recorded for Koch International and that she will record again, under Bernstein, for Deutsche Grammophon.

Early last week, speaking by telephone from New Mexico, Judy Kaye sounded fresh, natural and good-natured even at 9 a.m., which is before dawn, diva time. "My secret is that I leave the yelling to other people," she says. "I approach Broadway music in a light way and fudge on the belting, which is the quickest way to shorten your vocal life. Most of the great songs don't have to be done that way - what gets people excited is if you get the words across."

Kaye hails from Phoenix, where her first ambition was to be a nurse or a firefighter, she explains, though she always sang, particularly choral music. "I started off in the tenor section; the higher notes came as the years went on. I had a wonderful high school music teacher who taught me about how correct breathing is important to a singer. I was always a ham, and acted in a lot of little plays. So when I went off to UCLA for college I began both in opera workshop and in the theater department, where I specialized in musical comedy. In the opera workshop they didn't quite know what to make of me - I sang in both the mezzo part of Mignon in Mignon and the high coloratura part of Philine in the same opera - it's funny how the top of my voice just kicked in. But the theater department appealed to me more, so that's what I concentrated on - it was later that the more serious side of music came after me because people heard I had the equipment to sing the material."

Kaye began her career singing in the chorus of a small company in Anaheim, Calif., that put on shows like Half a Sixpence, Camelot and South Pacific. She responded to an audition ad in Daily Variety, and spent two years appearing as Lucy Van Pelt in a production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

"After that I just began hopping around. I did Hodel in Fiddler on the Roof - most people don't remember that part was created by Julia Migenes, who went on to opera. I did Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar, and Kiss Me, Kate and all the other Mary Martin parts. I did Rizzo in the national company of Grease and did the part on Broadway one summer." Kaye also occasionally acted in straight plays ("I sometimes hanker after that now - it was nice not to have to vocalize.") On the other hand, I figure as long as I can sing, I should." She made a movie, Sidney Lumet's "Just Tell Me What You Want." And she paid a few bills appearing in singing commercials. "I sold dog food and I sang about Cheer on roller skates. That was before I was me - or maybe when I was more me. In any case, I probably won't be doing that again."

The Broadway summer in Grease was the summer she auditioned for On the Twentieth Century, singing "Glitter and Be Gay" from Bernstein's Candide. "They offered me the part of the maid, while I understudied Madeline Kahn. I didn't want to do it - covering for somebody else is heartbreaking, difficult, tough on the soul. But I went on for her nine times during the first five weeks, and then she decided to leave and the producers decided to give the unknown the job, and that's what kicked off my career. My face was on the front of the New York Post - and on the floor of subways all over the city. And for a while people were very interested in me."

Later, in Phantom of the Opera, she soared up to a high E-natural eight times a week. "If you stay healthy, you can do that; doing it actually made me stronger. The tough thing was to wear the clothes, which are very heavy and all the weight is on your spine."

But despite these successes, nobody has yet written a show specifically for Judy Kaye. "Nobody writes for particular people any more," she says. "They work from a concept, and then because they're so afraid of what the reception's going to be, they try to write like Stephen Sondheim, which he's wonderful at, but no one else is. And they all want to write for singing actors where singing isn't such a big deal - though Andrew Lloyd Webber is an exception. So many of the shows today just eat up voices - I have friends who had to get out of Les Miserables because of what it was doing to their voices. Fortunately, about this time my career in more serious music began gurgling up."

This came about after the stage director Bliss Hebert heard her in a performance of Victor Herbert's Sweethearts and heard potential in her voice. That led her to debut with the Santa Fe Opera and to a whole series of engagements in operettas such as The Merry Widow and in the classic American musical comedies with regional opera companies. She created a role in a new opera based on Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms, and now she's interested in exploring just which roles in the standard operatic repertory would be suitable for her. In Santa Fe, retired met soprano Evelyn Lear has been pushing Strauss' Salome for Kaye.

In the meantime, there's Arias and Barcarolles, which is a kind of miniopera for two singers. "I had met Leonard Bernstein socially when I was in On the Twentieth Century because his old friends Betty Comden and Adolph Green had written the book and the lyrics. Some friends invited me to sing in the original version for singers and two pianists and we did it at Merkin Hall in New York and later made the recording. Bernstein listened to the tape and got excited by it and invited me to sing it with him at Spoleto, but that performance was canceled, so Tanglewood will be the first time I do it with him, although I've in the meantime sung the orchestral version at the Barbican Center in London. But this week is it - later we'll do it with the New York Philharmonic and record it again. I'm thrilled at how this piece goes over - it is full of theatrical interplay, a little opera."

Kaye says she feels no difference in the kind of performing she does in opera and in musical comedy. "So many singers are taught that they can't do something, it's no wonder they can't do it. The point is that both kinds of singing require the same placement, bright and forward - it's no good trying to sing opera back in the throat, the way many opera singers try to do. Many singers come to me and wonder how I am able to do spoken dialogue as well as sing - they've never learned that correct speaking and singing use the same production; you just put your voice on the breath. I approach Musetta the same way I approach Rizzo - I just take it apart and out it back together again!"

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