Thursday, July 1, 2010

Madeline Kahn: Progress Report 8

As Musetta, with Alan Titus as Marcello.
Washington, DC, March 1970
Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Kahn. Used with permission.

For reasons of space, the editors of OPERA NEWS cut the anecdote with which I led off “Sweet Mystery,” my feature article on Madeline Kahn’s singing career in the July 2010 issue of that magazine. But it’s too good to pass by, so I’m sharing it now, while it’s timely.

In describing Madeline’s impact on popular culture — and, in particular, the impact of her brief rendition of Victor Herbert’s “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life” in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein — I got corroboration from a distinguished but somewhat surprising source, Bill Cosby.

“I remember performing during the time when [Young Frankenstein] came out,” Dr. Cosby said during our telephone conversation last year. “She hit that note. In those days, I was selling out 14 thousand-seaters. I’d be talking and doing my monologue, and people would be laughing. And I remember at least 15 different cities where some woman in the balcony during the laughter would hit that note. Women were copying that note.”

The girl can’t help it:
Singing Musetta’s waltz.
Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Kahn. Used with permission.

I expressed my surprise. In late 1974 and early 1975, there was no reason to make a mental link between Madeline Kahn and Bill Cosby: they wouldn’t work together for another two decades, and the black sheriff in Blazing Saddles was Cleavon Little, after all.

“I’m telling you the truth!” Dr. Cosby insisted, and as he explained, the link turns out to have been pleasure.

“That note became a classic. All around the United States, women knew, as far as I’m concerned, what that note was. Madeline Kahn hit the very positive — just the opposite of a Woody Allen orgasm.” Here, Dr. Cosby gave a wicked chuckle.

“People would be laughing at something I was saying, and my act was not sexually driven, but the woman would always be up in the balcony — it was always somebody up, it wasn’t anybody on the floor, I guess because the lights were on ’em. A woman! I guess — you have to take for granted it was a woman. You’d have to be to hit that note. When I remember that scene, in at least nine or whatever number I gave you, cities, they would hit that note.”

Co-stars at last: Kahn, Cosby, & Phylicia Rashad,
In the good doctor’s most recent sitcom.

Though some credit must go to the scriptwriters, Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks, Dr. Cosby believes that Madeline’s singing signaled a change in the way that women’s sexuality was depicted onscreen.*

“I want to go over this,” Dr. Cosby continued, “because psychologically, she did something with that note. When you think about directors, and cutting to fireplaces, cutting to — even in comedy, there have been some moments where they’ve taken landslides, snowslides, and things trees collapsing and you know, birds fly — flocks. But never that note that woman sang! It was just that note. And if you listen to it, it’s the build-up, and then she hit that note.

“Forget about it. Women all around these United States, women would do it in the audience, and the place would collapse.”

She wasn’t an opera star, but she played one
in Gene Wilder’s Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother.

For the rest of what Dr. Cosby told me, you’ll have to wait a bit longer. For now, suffice to say that, from the start, Madeline’s musicality has seemed to me the foundation of her artistry, and learning more about it has been especially rewarding.

Thus far, I’ve been able to interview the baritone Alan Titus and the tenor William Lewis, two of her operatic co-stars; one of her voice teachers, Marlena Malas; her frequent coach and adviser, Michael Cohen; and her mother, Paula Kahn, herself an aspiring singer, who gave Madeline her first music lessons.**

Madeline’s family, friends, and colleagues also have helped me to understand the importance of music in her life, both professionally and privately. And I’ve discovered that musically-minded people — such as Bill Cosby himself — are among Madeline’s biggest admirers.

Though I have yet to find a publisher — and in truth we’re waiting for the industry to settle down a bit before shopping the biography around — I’m still at work. If you run out to your local newsstand and buy lots of copies of the July issue of OPERA NEWS (or, better yet, subscribe!), you’ll be helping to prove that, yes, there’s a market for this book.

In Vecchi’s Amfiparnaso at Hofstra University, 1964.
Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Kahn. Used with permission.

*NOTE: For those who don’t know the film, Madeline’s character, Elizabeth, bursts into “Ah! Sweet Mystery” when the Monster (Peter Boyle) ravishes her; Inga (Teri Garr) sings a reprise in the honeymoon scene at the end of the movie.

**Regrettably, Paula Kahn demurred when I asked if she’d give me a voice lesson. Now who do you suppose told her how badly I sing?