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A Broadway Legend and a Newbie

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Debbie Reynolds endures; John Lloyd Young ascends

“Gay audiences are the greatest audiences in the world!” announced Debbie Reynolds, who is bringing her one-woman show to Lehman Center for the Performing Arts on June 4. “Because they really appreciate the divas and they love drag and people who are funny. Every friend of mine who happens to be gay is very creative—designers, dancers, singers, or someone with great talent, especially in the arts.”

Reynolds described her show as an amalgam of Sondheim/Gershwin songs, film clips from her life, and her hilarious impressions—“Katharine Hepburn, Davis, Streisand, Dolly Parton. I used to do Mae West but now they tell me no one remembers her! I’m working on Dame Edna because I’m going to Australia—the boys all seem to like her. And I’ve added a little Paris Hilton. She’s a little like her great-aunt, Zsa Zsa Gabor. You have to give her credit for making a colorful—I don’t know what you’d call it—a characterization, enigma, somehow making herself a star, and she’s great at marketing Paris.”

Reynolds, of course, hails from an era when you needed talent, like her dearest friend, Agnes Moorehead—“She was lady like, but really rowdy underneath it all, a great impressionist who could do anybody’s voice and a great actress. If she’d lived in England, she would have been like Dame Edith Evans and won every stage award in world. She was in all my movies, anything I did, I called her—‘You wanna be in this?’ She wanted to do everything. She had married badly, and we were buddies and hung out. We had dinner three to four times a week and she was Aunt Agnes to my children, and was always at my house. But I know she was frustrated by her career. She was a very serious actress, and that’s why she could do ‘Bewitched,’ because she played it so seriously—that was her comment. They didn’t do the remake very well, did they? They didn’t let Shirley [Maclaine] do enough and it wasn’t written right.”

Surprisingly, Reynolds is now friendly with Elizabeth Taylor, who stole her husband, Eddie Fisher, from her in 1959, making international headlines—“She has huge health problems, with her back dating back to the movie, ‘National Velvet.’ It’s hard for her to walk but she has an amazing sense of humor and great love of life and would like to live a long time. I just talked to her a couple nights ago and she isn’t able to feel better. [As for our past] you have to forgive the moment and the passion and youthfulness, and as the years go by, it all falls into place. I said at the time when Eddie left, ‘She’ll keep you until she meets someone really sexy and you’ll be out the door, you won’t last a year and a half. And I think it was that long! He lives in San Francisco somewhere. We’re not friendly, but Elizabeth and I are friendly, but we have nothing to say to him. I wish I’d known that when I married him—he had no sense of humor.”

Reynolds’s lifelong pet project has been a Hollywood museum to house the 4,000 fabulous movie costumes she’s collected—“We’re working with a group from Dollywood in Belle Island, Tennessee, to put the museum down there. Our movie stars—Bette, Cary Grant, Garbo, etc. —are still the most popular stars in the world and it’s a shame we don’t have a museum for them. But it’s coming to fruition, hopefully in 2007, so let’s hope I can live that long to get it done. I just bought Audrey Hepburn’s ‘My Fair Lady’ Ascot gown for $100,000! My survival secret is a love of what you’re doing, not just giving up on life and fighting your way through problems. Those are given to you mostly by husbands and straight men. So I don’t date!”

If John Lloyd Young doesn’t win the Tony for “Jersey Boys,” it’ll be the biggest robbery since Judy Garland lost the Oscar for “A Star is Born.” This refreshingly modest major talent, who is already legendary as Frankie Valli, spoke to me at the New Dramatists’ lunch, which wisely honored the fabulous Chita Rivera at the Marriott Marquis on May 18. About maintaining Valli’s killer high tessitura, Young said, “I found that opening in the winter with a score this difficult was the best thing that could have happened. Fighting the elements, you have to become strong to get past the dry air inside and the cold air outside, and warming up for 40 minutes. But once the first week of spring weather came, it was like a Disney movie with little blue ribbons flying out of my mouth. It became so much easier to sing the show and it felt like spring inside me. But it’s really not a killer, because I had four months to prepare and did it with the best rock teacher, Katie Agresta, who coaches Cyndi Lauper, John Bon Jovi, Annie Lenox, all of these voices who do much more abusive things than early rock ever did. She’s why I’m still here eight months later without ever having to be out for vocal rest. The falsetto is actually an easier place to sing; it’s the high belty stuff near the passaggio which is really hard on the voice.”

There are singing moments in Des McAnuff’s staging that are positively Brechtian in their brilliance and Young agreed, “Especially in Act two, which is my favorite because of those pure Brechtian moments when you turn your shoulder and instantly you’re into a song that comments on the scene but has nothing to do with it. It’s so cinematic and the audience is such a character in the show. That’s why it’s stayed so engaging and has never even come close to being boring.”

Naturally, the music industry has been making recording overtures to Young, who said, “I’ve been an actor for ten years and it’s an industry I never expected to have a flirtation with, so it’s something I’m trying to learn about before I jump in because I’m very wet behind the years. I’m very flattered that they must think I’m playing a rock star pretty well to think I could be one. But I was ushering at a Broadway show a year before I got this, so to be in a position to be in the show as long as I want is very exciting. I think I’m gonna be with it for a nice long time, either on Broadway or the national tour, and a London production is in the works. It would be nice to open a hit show in a foreign country in the theatre capitol of the world.”

I told Young it’s a shame Al Hirschfeld isn’t alive to capture his mouth, which does some amazing contortions as he sings, and he said, “I know! On this luncheon invitation is Chita’s Hirschfeld caricature and, especially as someone who’s grimacing every three seconds, making those signature Valli growl-faces which are so fun to make because they’re so cool, it would be great if a caricaturist caught that. That’s all acting, because if I were really straining that much, I wouldn’t still be singing this show!”

Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com.

Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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