An interview with Judy Kaye, first Broadway Carlotta

Palm Beach Life - July 1988
by Carolyn Jack


An anonymous steel door off New York's West 45th Street opens into a gloomy, concrete tunnel. Its bare gray walls and floors ring ominously as someone walks down its twisted, empty corridor. Crooked, painted signs point in different directions, bearing the cryptic messages, "Broadhurst, "Majestic," "Royale..."

Behind one of the heavy doors indicated, a short flight of stairs lead up to a tiny landing lit by a harsh bulb. A last door swings wide, revealing a stern man guarding the darkened area beyond him.

He...smiles warmly.

If you walk through the stagedoor alley, you can almost convince yourself that the bowels of Broadway's Majestic Theatre are really the spooky underground of the Paris Opera, lair of the hideous Phantom. But after all the hype and glitz associated with the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical The Phantom of the Opera, it is startling to discover the no-nonsense sterility of its backstage environment. Within that functional setting, a large number of cheerful, normal people meet six days a week to turn themselves and their colleagues into monsters, egomaniacs, and romantic heroes.

At two hours before curtain on a Thursday night, the Majestic's backstage area already percolates with activity. Performers and technicians come and go through the downstairs hall, their greetings and laughter echoing through the cramped, institutional barrenness.

The Majestic's extremely narrow, multistory backstage fits against the theater like a secret compartment in a jewelry box. Hidden behind Phantom's opulent scenery and curtained upstage wall, sweep stairs fly up through a buff-painted and brightly lit stairwell. On the first, most prestigious landing, are the dressing rooms reserved for the show's stars.

A closed door on the right bears a sign proclaiming "Sarah Brightman" - the show's leading lady until June, and wife of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber - while its twin on the opposite side announces "Michael Crawford," the Phantom himself.

Crawford's door is open and in the room, an assistant brushes off the barber's chair that occupies its center. Here Crawford spends almost two hours before each performance, donning his character's horrific makeup, wig and elegant costumes.

At the top of the next flight, four more doors cluster around a central bathroom. Pots of exotic flowers from well-wishers dot the floor and cram the dressing rooms with color. Patti Cohenour warms up in the dressing room marked up her name. After sharing the lead with Brightman by taking over the Thursday night and Saturday matinee performances, she inherited the role permanently after Brightman's departure in June.

Having an American actor share the role of Christine Daae was part of the agreement Lloyd Webber and the show's producers reached with the Actor's Equity Association. The union had objected to having Brightman, an English performer little known in the United States, repeat on Broadway the part her husband wrote for her and that she created in the London production.

Cohenour, a small, delicate woman with light hair and a ready smile, can be heard practicing her arpeggios, her clear soprano trilling up and down the scales with ease. Soon, she emerges in pink toe shoes and black plastic rehearsal pants to warm up for the bits of ballet she dances as Christine. It is in the Paris Opera's "corps de ballet," 1881, that the Phantom discovers Christine. The tortured musical genius, who has haunted the opera house's labyrinthine underground for years, falls in love with the dancer, drawing her irresistibly into his shadowy world.

Menacing and yet sexually compelling, the Phantom lures the girl with the gift of song; he mysteriously terrorizes the opera's management until Christine is given the leading roles. But his evil deeds awake Christine to her danger and, with the help of her true beloved, the Vicomte de Chagny, she struggles to escape the Phantom's power.

The opera's temperamental diva, Carlotta, feels the Phantom's malice most of all, for she occupies the starring position he wants for Christine. As Carlotta, Judy Kaye will soon emerge onstage elaborately coifed and costumed in a role for which she won this year's Tony Award. At 6:15, however, she is just arriving at the theater, her glasses on and her pretty, matte-finish skin untouched by makeup.

She climbs the two sets of stairs to her dressing room, which is next door to Cohenour's, and flips on the light switch. Amid the rafts of cosmetics and blooming plants sit photographs of friends and family, including her husband, actor David Green, and her mother-in-law, Ruth Green of West Palm Beach.

Against the opposite wall and taking up more than half the available space stands a rack of amazing gowns Kaye wears as Carlotta. Gorgeous with beading, rose sequins, velvet and gilded black lace, they have enormous hoop skirts supported by stays. And they weigh enough to give Kaye a good aerobic workout every performance. The most incredible of her outfits, a stiff red and green bell-shaped skirt encrusted with tassels and glass jewels, is so large it must be kept hanging from the ceiling in a downstairs wardrobe room.

Though Kaye may never before have had one so overwhelmed by clothes, this Broadway dressing room in not her first. An award-winner for On the Twentieth Century, in which she played spoofy stage star Lily Garland, Kaye also headlined in The Mooney Shapiro Songbook and Oh, Brother! after playing Rizzo in Broadway's long-running production of Grease. She comes to this role in Phantom by way of many performances in theaters and opera companies across the country, including Miami's Coconut Grove Playhouse, where she most recently played in Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill.

She sheds her coat, uncovering slacks and a sweater, and pulls up a chair to talk for a few minutes before transforming herself into Carlotta. Being part of this production has meant having to cope with the staggering amount of publicity it has generated - publicity that has focused on the production's $8 million cost, on its artistic significance as successor to such previous shows as the popular but critically dubious, Jesus Christ Superstar, Cats and Starlight Express, and, most glaringly, on the Lloyd Webber's glittering personal lives.

"For every crewman and dancer and singer, Phantom has been a tremendous amount of work - polishing it, staying out of the way of the scenery, learning where the trap doors are," Kaye says. "And we are working , in a way, against the hype, which is scary. It puts the onus on you to come with a show that not only equals the hype, but exceeds it, if possible."

The hoopla surrounding Phantom is understandable. After so many earlier successes, Lloyd Webber is regarded as box office platinum by a Broadway that desperately yearns for hits. Hard pressed to come up with profitable American musicals, Broadway has come to rely more and more on British imports.

Simply by opening Phantom in New York, Lloyd Webber has achieved something newsworthy: With Cats and his Starlight Express still running there, he has - for the second time in his career - become the only composer ever to have three shows running on Broadway simultaneously. Moreover, the same three shows are also running in London.

Lloyd Webber's career has been as splashy as his shows, which are known for their extravagant sets, costumes and eye-popping special effects. But with Phantom, the American press began delving into Lloyd Webber's personal life, digging up the details of his divorce from his first wife, also named Sarah, his second marriage to the 27-year old Brightman, the pair's squabbles with Equity, their jet-set lifestyle and their enormous wealth.

For good and ill, Lloyd Webber has become his own superstar and the publicity affected every member of Phantom Kaye notes. "I'm very protective of the show," she admits. "I'm somehow proprietary - I didn't write it and I wasn't in on the creating of it, but when I read something unfair, I get upset."

The unfairness, Kaye explains, includes the press' portrayal of Brightman as Lloyd Webber's spoiled darling, especially during the couple's conflict with Equity.

"Initially, part of me was seriously understanding the reluctance of my union, wanting to protect jobs," Kaye says thoughtfully. "But the other side of it is, through the work of Andrew Lloyd Webber, the coffers of Equity and others have filled nicely. And he's never asked for anything," until this time.

"Finally," Kaye adds drolly, "if he had wanted his dog Trixie to have the role, I would've said he deserved a hearing. And Sarah is not his dog Trixie - she's a lovely and talented person. Sarah is an extremely hard-working artist and I can honestly say she's a team player. I [had] scenes with her and she's actually very giving on stage."

Their mutual scenes begin with Carlotta's entrance for a rehearsal of the opera Hannibal, a chest-thumping epic satirically staged by director Hal Prince with outrageously overdone costumes, tubby tenors and a huge fake elephant. In it, Christine makes her first appearance, playing a dancing concubine.

All of Phantom has been lushly designed by Maria Bjornson with the tricks typical of a Lloyd Webber production: dozens of lighted baroque candelabra rise out of the subterranean lake; part of the huge gilt carving that decorates the proscenium arch drops to reveal a Phantom hiding place; the Phantom himself comes and goes in flashes of fire and smoke; and a gigantic crystal chandelier drops - albeit very slowly - from the theater's ceiling, aimed at the Phantom's enemies onstage. Yet, even in a lavish show, Phantom's opera scenes have been noticeably exaggerated, a parody of operatic excess and ego.

Kaye's Carlotta is part of the fun, a coddled and overbearing prima donna whose only admirable quality is her rich, powerful soprano.

"Carlotta is definitely holding down the comedy fort here," Kaye grins, brushing some auburn curls from her face. "She has her own problems" - such as resisting the Phantom's deadly efforts to supplant her with Christine - "but on the whole, she is the comedienne."

Carlotta's role in the story "was explained to me one evening by Andrew," Kaye recalls. "The pecking order of this opera house starts with the diva. In those days, from what I have heard, the diva was queen. So that when, out of the blue, this little ballerina is suddenly taking her place, it sets everything on its ear, from Carlotta's perspective. Her whole status in the opera world is being challenged and it becomes a life-or-death struggle."

Threatened, Carlotta throws her weight around - which, considering how heavy her dresses are, understandably makes everyone nervous.

"I think [her behavior] comes out funny to our 1980's sensibilities," Kaye muses. "But I didn't do it funny on purpose. Andrew didn't want the comedy to get in the way of tragedy." She mugs. "My mission? Seek and destroy all possible comedy."

Vocally, the role of Carlotta has been a challenge to Kaye, who characterizes her own voice, with a chuckle, as "a lyric spinto soprano, which is like saying I will sing [in whatever range] you tell me. I started out as a tenor."

Carlotta's part if considerably older than other roles Kaye has sung, but her full, flexible sound in performance bears out her claim that "I haven't been vocally tired out, even singing extremely high eight times a week. High C now feels low, comparatively."

Kaye, who has appeared as Mary Magdalene in five companies of Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar, feels the composer's work has matured with Phantom.

"He was concerned about the critical response to the show," Kaye recalled. "He really wanted to be taken seriously. And he's really grown enormously. From a dramatic point of view, he's learned to write in a linear fashion. His themes are all more of a piece."

Kaye has a one-year contract to play Carlotta. When it's up next January, she isn't sure how she'll feel about continuing longer in the part. Burnout tends to occur after too much time in any role, especially a taxing one like this opera diva.

And, of course, there are other shows Kaye would like to do someday. "It's time to revive Annie Get Your Gun in a big way," she declares stoutly. "It's the triathlon of American musical theater - I've said that before - and I would like to be the one to get to do that on Broadway."

Straight plays, more opera and "new stuff" also would intrigue her. But for now, Phantom and tending to her young marriage are plenty. Right after their 62-city tour of On the Twentieth Century, in April of last year, she and husband David "went home to the ancestral condominium and got married." Kaye says with a laugh.

The Arizona native and her husband now live on Manhattan's Upper West Side. The living arrangements had something to do with her eagerness to join the Phantom family. When she got the part of Carlotta, she claims with deadpan humor, "I was thrilled - in no small measure because I could live in my own home and sleep in my own bed."

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