Friday, September 25, 2015

When Madeline Met Big Bird

On the set: stage manager, Madeline, Gardner, Big Bird, & Kermit Love.
Photo courtesy of Rob Gardner.

Madeline Kahn appeared on Sesame Street several times, beginning in 1977. “Sing After Me,” her duet with Grover the Muppet, stands as one of her most charming performances, and it reunited her with Tony Geiss, lyricist for “Das Chicago Song,” her signature number from Green Mansions, Upstairs at the Downstairs, and New Faces of 1968. (She would perform Geiss’ material again in Don Bluth’s animated film, An American Tail.) But singing with Grover revealed a persistent problem in Madeline’s work with the Muppets: she tends to look over the puppet’s head, rather than fixing it straight in the ping pong-ball eyes.

That wasn’t a problem for her in 1981, when she appeared as an extremely avid birdwatcher in a few scenes with Big Bird, who (unsurprisingly) towers over her. A few clips from that episode (Number 1576, according to the Muppet Wikia) have appeared online, and they resonate today in ways nobody can have expected, 24 years ago: it turns out that Big Bird really doesn’t like being under constant surveillance.

I sat down recently with Rob Gardner, who was Big Bird’s “valet” during Madeline’s 1981 appearance — by which he means that he took care of the costume, helped Muppeteer Carol Spinney in and out of it, kept fans from plucking its feathers, and sometimes wore it himself, as a stand-in and model in still photos. Though writers didn’t spend much time on the set, Gardner even got to meet Tony Geiss, “a lovely guy” who went out of his way to help the Muppeteers in their work.

In those days Jim Henson was often in England, shooting The Muppet Show, “but I remember when Jim would come in, it was like the pope had arrived.” Tasked one day with spraying the rods that operate Kermit the Frog’s arms, “I was very nervous that I was going to slip and just blacken out Kermit’s face.” Later, Henson complimented one of Gardner’s puppets: “It was just like being blessed!”

Madeline’s fellow birdwatcher, Cedric, is played by the late Richard Hunt, a puppeteer and aspiring actor.

Gardner’s entrée to Sesame Street was an invitation from a puppeteer named — believe it or not — Kermit Love, whom he’d met at a puppet festival in San Luis Obispo in 1977. “There was no promise of a job,” Gardner remembers. “I was just going to come to New York for three months and check things out.” His first day hanging out at the Sesame Street set, the guest star was James Earl Jones. “It was like, Okay, this is great,” Gardner says, and for the next three months, he continued just to hang out. An experienced puppeteer already, he gradually got to know the Sesame Street Muppeteers. Then one day, when Big Bird was scheduled for location shooting all over Manhattan, Kermit Love decided he “didn’t want to get up early in the morning, so they hired me to take care of Big Bird and Snuffleupagus,” Gardner says. It was the start of a four-year gig. “It was magic.”

When Madeline came to shoot Sesame Street, “I didn’t really speak to her,” Gardner says, “because when you’re on set, you don’t want to be a gushing fan. You have to be very quiet. I just remember there was very little rehearsal, but she was just so very charismatic. She has a line where she sees Big Bird for the first time, and she goes, ‘He’s a very, very big bird!’” He laughs. “It had this sexual overtone to it, and it was just wonderful.”

Madeline meets the Canary Brothers.

During the episode, Madeline sings another Tony Geiss number, “Brown Bird in the Cherry Tree,” live on the set to a prerecorded track. She’s joined by the Canary Brothers — Gummo, Zeppo, Curly, and Moe — “little birds on strings, floating around, fluttering around,” Gardner says. “I heard later that she was so enamored of the birds that from the shoot they brought her two little birds to have in her apartment. I’m hoping they were hanging in the window.”

Veteran Madeline watchers will recall that she once told Johnny Carson she had “a phobia of balls coming at my face,” and you can see in the number that she’s not fully prepared for birds coming at her face, either. Yet she does seem to enjoy herself.

“She was absolutely charming,” Gardner says. But I had one important question for this witness to Madeline’s encounter with one of her all-time tallest co-stars: was Madeline really 5 foot 3, as she often claimed?

“Noooooooo,” says Gardner. “She was tiny!”

Gardner and Madeline, with Big Bird and Love.
Photo courtesy of Rob Gardner.

You can watch clips of Madeline’s appearance here and here.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Video & Recap: Madeline at the Metropolitan Room

Most of the cast. From left: Betancourt, Larsen, Harada, Leritz, Feltman, Hall, WVM, Shapiro, Burke, Copeland, Willison. Not pictured: Rice, Cohen, Ross, Cubeta.
Photo by Maryann Lopinto.

I’m told that I looked like a little kid playing with shiny new toys during every number of our tribute show, “Gone Too Soon: The Music of Madeline Kahn,” at New York’s Metropolitan Room on Saturday afternoon. You can’t really see that in the video that I’m posting here — the light was pretty dim where I sat — but you can certainly see why I was so happy. One talented performer after another came out and dazzled us on the Met Room stage.

Some of these people I’ve know for years — others I’d just met. I knew that all of them were first-rate. Yet even my absolute confidence in them didn’t quite prepare me for just how wonderful they were.

In a note to me after the show, Ann Harada reflected on the “gallantry” and “vulnerability” of performers — and observed that “It was also glaringly apparent that Madeline attracted ridiculously difficult material.” But these people are pros. You can see for yourself, by watching the video, here.

Ann Harada. To see the complete video, click here.

The show was born on a cold spring night, when Peter Napolitano, Janice Hall, and Adam B. Shapiro and I sat in the theater at Urban Stages. Peter was brainstorming, coming up with ideas to help me promote Madeline Kahn: Being the Music • A Life. “Have you thought about doing a cabaret show?” Peter asked.

No, I had not. Bear in mind that, in that little quartet, I’m the only one who doesn’t have a MAC Award, that honor bestowed on the best of New York’s cabaret scene. (Peter has three.) But in that instant, our show took on a life of its own.

Much to my satisfaction, we wound up at the Met Room, where I’ve enjoyed several shows (including those of Peter, Janice, and Adam). All of us like the room — it has good karma, I think. Producer Joseph Macchia was looking to fill a slot in his “Gone Too Soon” series, so in we walked. Within a few days, we were lining up performers and coming up with material.

Adam, keeping a grippe on my book.

Fittingly, the show started off with Adam, who’s been with the show since its inception. (His enthusiasm actually helped persuade me that this thing could work!) He paid tribute to the performance that first gave Madeline the idea that she might go into show business. Adam is such an irrepressibly joyful performer, and I’m fully convinced that he can do anything.

Actor–choreographer–producer Lawrence Leritz was next, charming us all with a little number from Kiss Me, Kate, in which Madeline made her New York stage debut fifty years ago. For Saturday’s show, as for our presentation at the Drama Book Shop in June, Lawrence proved himself stalwart, holding my hand through every storm. Little wonder I call him Megastar.

Lawrence: Make that Mr. Megastar.

Janice had been preparing “Das Chicago Song” for a long time — she was ready to sing it at my book party in May, but somehow that didn’t happen. In a way, I was glad that she waited until now to sing it. With the song’s composer, Madeline’s dear friend Michael Cohen, on piano, the number was a revelation to us all. And the combination of Michael, Madeline, Kurt Weill, and Janice is tailor-made for me. If I didn’t have a copy of my narration in hand, I’d have been speechless.

Janice: Don’t ask why.
Photo by Maryann Lopinto.

Soprano Rosa Betancourt has impressed me every time I’ve heard her — notably as Musetta in La Bohème, with Fort Worth Opera in 2013. I knew she could bring wit and personality to her number, all the while maintaining a glorious lyric line. She more than lived up to my expectations, and our music director, Jeff Cubeta, accompanied her beautifully. As Joyce Di Donato says so often, it’s always fun to see a non-opera audience respond to opera when it’s done well.

Rosa: The girl can’t help it.
Photo by Russ Weatherford.

For the next set, Jeff ceded the piano bench to the legendary Steve Ross, “The Crown Prince of Cabaret,” who joined our cast less than 48 hours before. For his friends Joan Copeland and Walter Willison, he played three numbers from the show they did with Madeline, Two by Two.

I can now say I’ve done a show with Steve Ross. Amazing.
Photo by Maryann Lopinto.

Joan turned 93 a few days before our Drama Book Shop event, and on that evening she had taken a friend and me aside to sing her big solo from Two by Two, word- and note-perfect, just for us. It was pure magic — and a real gift to be able to share that magic with more people on Saturday. Probably few actors will ever rival her distinguished career (with “roles too numerous to mention,” as she said in her program bio) — and not many actors will rival the joy she finds onstage.

One of the most remarkable people I’ve met.
Photo by Maryann Lopinto.

I’d heard Walter sing “I Do Not Know a Day I Did Not Love You” before, and then as on Saturday it’s a stunning interpretation, imbued with tremendous feeling and glorious vocalism. Yeah, he didn’t get a Tony nomination for this show only because he stood up to Danny Kaye: he got it because he’s good.

Walter: I do not know a day I did not love to hear him sing this song.
Photo by Russ Weatherford.

Madeline’s Act I solo from Two by Two was cut during tryouts and had never (to our knowledge) been performed publicly in New York at any point in the ensuing 45 years. As conceived originally, she would have sung it to Joan. So Walter called Joan back to the stage and sang “Getting Married to a Person” (which he’d learned only at five o’clock that morning!). I treasure the way they interact — and now, more than seven years after I started writing the book, I can say I’ve heard Madeline’s lost song.

Walter & Joan: Like family, after all this time.
Photo by Maryann Lopinto.

Hanna Burke is a favorite and frequent participant in the “Gone Too Soon” series, as well as a devoted Madeline fan. Now that I’ve seen what she can do with one of the lady’s most famous numbers — evocative of Madeline and yet somehow her own — I can’t wait to hear more. She’s talking about a one-woman show of Madeline’s material, but she and I agree that it would be wiser not to use the title Madeline came up with when thinking about her own one-woman show: Kahn-cepts.

Hanna: Just happy to see her.
Photo by Maryann Lopinto.

My darling Ann Harada took the stage next with a number from At Long Last Love, an irresistible interpretation that took such care with the words that she even chose a dress to match the lyrics. Sometimes I wonder how such a huge voice can come out of such a tiny person, but Ann has tremendous control over her instrument. She rattled the rafters and caressed our ears, and she even threw in a little Lili von Shtupp for good measure.

Ann: Who knows how she does what she does?
Photo by Russ Weatherford.

The winner of this year’s MetroStar competition, Minda Larsen, gave us a number from She Loves Me, gorgeously combining sweetness and intelligence — not an easy thing. Because of some computer malfunctions, I had to assemble the program for the show several times — and just before the show started, we realized that I’d left out Minda. I felt terrible, and even worse when I heard her wonderful performance. A former finalist in the Lotte Lenya Competition with a limpid lyric soprano, she’s obviously my kind of people.

Minda: Sheer loveliness.
Photo by Russ Weatherford.

In a variety of roles in the Unauthorized! parody musical series, Julie Feltman has persuaded me that her voice can do almost anything. That’s precisely what’s required of the number she sang from On the Twentieth Century, which involves what the critic Walter Kerr described as “gutter coloratura,” ranging from basso growls to piercing shrieks, with plenty of ornaments. Julie is also a fearless comedian, and she tore into this song with abandon.

News Flash: Beautiful woman loses mind …

… sings coloratura.
Julie Feltman.
Photos Weatherford (above), Lopinto (below).

There’s a special satisfaction to seeing Sarah Rice, the original Johanna from Sweeney Todd — the first show I saw in New York. Her sly wit and radiant soprano are so well-suited to popular music from the late-19th and early-20th centuries, so I knew she’d excel in the Irving Berlin number she chose. You’ll see she’s wearing a cast on her arm — you’ll never guess how it got there. But it precluded her sharing another talent, playing the theremin. She’s learning the theme from Young Frankenstein, so maybe we’ll get the chance, some day soon.

Sarah: Source of surprises.
Screencap from video.

When I told friends what the penultimate number on the program would be, and who would be singing it, they nearly exploded. I understood why. For hardcore fans (and who among us is not?), this was an occasion nearly as significant as Patti LuPone taking on Gypsy. Ann and Adam joined Sarah onstage for one more example of Madeline’s “ridiculously difficult” repertoire, and I was ecstatic. Perfect characterizations by all — I get the feeling that Sarah has sung at more than a few weddings in her time — and three glorious voices.

Today is for Sarah — and Ann — and Adam.
Photo by Russ Weatherford.

We concluded with a singalong. Confession time: I don’t sing at all. So I slipped to the back while the rest of the cast sang out, and the audience joined in. It was a fun way to end the show, and a useful reminder that Madeline’s legacy is alive and well — if only we pick it up and run with it.

For me, the highlight of the afternoon that you can’t see in the video was the rapturous expression on Joan Copeland’s face, whenever anyone sang. She was in her element on Saturday, connecting with an audience as only she can, reuniting with old friends and making new ones. And she loved the music. That means a great deal to me.

Peter Napolitano, Joan Copeland, Steve Ross.
Photo by Maryann Lopinto.

And I owe it all to Peter Napolitano. He had a dream, he made it mine, and then he made it a reality. At times it was a hard slog to get there — more work and infinitely more stress than I’d anticipated. (At one point, I observed that I don’t have the temperament for this line of work. In the gentlest, kindest way possible, Peter replied, “No, you probably don’t.”) But through it all, I knew that with this lineup of talent, we would have a terrific show, and ultimately it really was worth it.

Now that it’s over, several of us have remarked that we can sense Madeline smiling. The show is just one more demonstration that the book — and Madeline herself — have taken me in directions I never could have imagined.

The author. Who'd a-thunk it?

If for some reason you have made it all the way to the bottom of this page without clicking on the link and watching the video, here it is again. Right HERE.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

When Madeline Met Santa

A reader has reminded me that I didn’t follow through on my promise to share this picture. We originally planned to include it in Madeline Kahn: Being the Music • A Life, but when the time came to pick and choose, we found ourselves with more photos from Madeline’s childhood than we could use — and other photos from that period struck us as more revealing.

So here it is at last: “Madalin Wolfson,” as she called herself at the time, with Santa Claus. She liked the picture so much that she sent it out as a Christmas card in the 1990s, when she was co-starring on the show Cosby. And yes, this Santa is black. Like most white children in those days, Madeline would almost certainly have seen only white Santas — until this moment.

While Madeline wasn’t quite a “red-diaper baby,” her mother was politically active in left-wing causes for several years, and she was immensely proud of having met the singer Paul Robeson at a benefit concert. Presumably Madeline met Santa at a political event of some sort, on a holiday break from Manumit, the Pennsylvania boarding school to which her mother had sent her a few months before.

Though Paula Kahn and Madeline remained lifelong liberals, the rabble-rousing activities don’t seem to have lasted long: for one thing, it was the nature of left-wing causes in the 1940s to focus on socialism, not stardom, and stardom was very much Paula’s priority at the time, as it would be for most of the rest of her life. And because taking care of Paula would become Madeline’s priority, she seldom took part in politics.

We’ll never know what went through Madeline’s mind in 1965, when she applied for a teaching job with the New York City schools, and dutifully marked “No” in response to the question whether she or any members of her family had ever been members of the Communist or Socialist Party — and on her application she didn’t even mention Manumit, a progressive school (scandalously so, depending on whom you asked) associated with decidedly left-wing views on race, labor, and social justice.

Madeline was lonely at Manumit, and when we reached out to the alumni, not one had any memory of her there. Her father had walked out a few years earlier, and Paula’s subsequent move to New York City from Boston meant cutting Madeline off from everyone she knew. She’d hardly had time to make friends before she was uprooted once again and shipped off to Pennsylvania. But now, for the holidays, she was reunited with her mother — and she got to meet Santa Claus. And so the picture is not least a document of a single happy moment in an often-painful childhood.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

‘The Music of Madeline Kahn’ at the Metropolitan Room

It’s show time!

On Saturday, September 12, New York City’s Metropolitan Room will present “The Music of Madeline Kahn” as part of its “Gone Too Soon” series. Produced by Joseph Macchia and directed by Peter Napolitano, the tribute will feature music from just about every phase of Madeline’s career. I’ll be the host, and afterward I’ll be signing copies of Madeline Kahn: Being the Music • A Life.

So far, the cast includes several of Madeline’s colleagues:

Walter Willison and Joan Copeland, co-stars of Two by Two, the Richard Rodgers–Martin Charnin musical in which Madeline had a featured role (1970–71).

Michael Cohen, music director of the revues Madeline performed at the Upstairs at the Downstairs club (1965–67). He’s also the composer of the brilliant Weill parody, “Das Chicago Song.”

Lawrence Leritz, who started as a Madeline fan and later worked with her when he guest-starred on Cosby (1999).

We’ll also feature performers inspired by Madeline. From Broadway, Ann Harada, of Avenue Q, Cinderella, and TV’s Smash; and Sarah Rice, the original Joanna in Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.

From opera, sopranos Janice Hall and Rosa Betancourt.

And from cabaret, Adam Shapiro, Hanna Burke, Minda Larsen, and Julie Feltman. Our music director is Jeff Cubeta.

Doors open at 3:30, and the show starts at 4:00. The Met Room is a terrific venue, and you can make your reservation by clicking on this link or by calling (212) 206-0440.