This is the final installment of our conversation with the star of 42nd Street Moon's Call Me Madam, Klea Blackhurst. We delve into the beginning, and I do mean the beginning, of her career as well as discuss her concert and singing career.
On your website, you have a great story about Ethel Merman's first (and last) audition. Can you tell me about your first audition?
I want on the stage and they told me to find the light. Which I thought was very good [pause] advice, in general. I went up on the stage and I did the entire Queen Mab speech, because I had memorized [Laughs] it of course, "Oh that I see Queen Mab..."
Now I think back to being a 7th grader and the director of the piece - who also ran the theatre company - came out in the lobby and said "we work with... you know we are affiliated with the university, so we cast students in these things. But I hope when you're ready to go to college you'll consider coming here and working with us."
He really took the time to let me know that it was not me - he'd be perfectly happy to let me be Peter, the page - but to come back. And I did go to school there and I did work for him many times in many musicals.
We Moonies know you as one of our favorite stage stars, but you do concert work too, don't you?
I do a lot of concerts; it's my favorite thing. I've actually invested a lot in that recently, in terms of taking a piece that has been arranged for my trio in the past-you take that and have someone orchestra that into something that's played by 70 pieces. I have a "Sam and Delilah," which is from Girl Crazy, that I do.
It's one thing to hear that on a piano, but to hear that coming out of trumpets, a trombone, and an entire brass section. It's unbelievably exciting. It's what I hope to do more of.
It's in the spirit of what I think performing that Broadway stuff is. You don't get 36-piece orchestras on Broadway anymore, you get 9, 10, 11 - 6 in some cases. That sound, you can still get that with an orchestra.
I love it. I love it.
Is there a difference between the intimacy of cabaret and large concert halls?
I think that it's important to fill the space you're in. If you're in a relatively small room with 70 people and we're being sort of intimate, that's one thing. I don't have to pretend there's a person there, when there's not a person there. If there's a person there, I play to them.
On the other hand, if you're in a 2000 seat concert hall and you really try to include everybody, just including them takes care of the difference.
I had had this great success with my Merman show, and then I was like "What do you do after that? Merman at the movies, Merman.... Maybe you just ought to leave her alone for a second."
In 2003 it was the Vernon Duke centenary: the 100th anniversary of his birth. So, I was doing a show at the Algonquin about all kinds of anniversaries that were happening that year. I thought, "Well I'll get three or four Vernon Duke songs so I'll have them and I'll perform them in this show."
I fell in love with him. Mostly this idea that every famous Vernon Duke song - cause people don't know who he is, but they know "April in Paris," "Autumn in New York," "Taking a Chance on Love," "I Can't Get Started" - these great songs that are standards, well I found out that every single was from a Broadway flop. Not just a flop, but big enormous tragic story flops. Then I started looking into it. It's a dangerous angle [for a performer] to come at a show [from the point of view of] "I want to explore failure. I want to celebrate failure." But it comes off a lot more fun that than that.
I used Bob Grimes here in San Francisco: Mr. Sheet Music. I sat with him for days. I took home three feet of Vernon Duke songs. If Bob and I liked the lyric, we put it in that stack. I took it home to see if I liked the melody.
[Billy Stritch and I] built a show like that. So we did a studio album with strings; it's beautiful
Then with Hoagy Carmichael, [pause] I have a good friend Barry Day. He likes me and he loves Billy Stritch. And he said, "You guys would be great together and you'd be great doing Hoagy Carmichael material." He took us to lunch and gave us Hoagy Carmichael songbooks. Miraculously, we opened our calendars and penciled in some dates about nine months in the future. We put a show together. And we loved it; that's been a couple of years.
I don't think of myself as a great interpreter, or "Oh I'm so important as an interpreter of American song." But I do think I have a unique take of putting things in context, and I find that people enjoy having these songs put in context that makes it mean more to them; because a lot of this is getting left behind.
I get amazed when I go around and do my Merman show. People don't know who Ethel Merman is anymore.
That used to freak me out.
Then I would find out they didn't know George Gershwin. I say, "You know what? This isn't their fault."
I'm not going to get antagonistic towards them. I'm going to get really cheerful about bringing all of this into a very fun, funny, smart retelling of some of this [music] and setting it in a context so people can find it. That's certainly what happened with the Vernon Duke.
The famous [songs] are all there [on the CD]; but then there are lots that sound as if they should be famous, that you kind of know; then ones you really don't know and [you think] "why don't we know that one." I enjoy that. It's a detective story, putting it all together.
Call Me Madam begins previews Wednesday September 23 and opens September 26 at the Eureka Theatre. For tickets click here, or call us at (415) 255 - 8207.