BY DAVID NOH | We truly are living in a marvelously varied Golden Age of Broadway Divas and, even if starring musical roles are scarce, these gals are still going forward, knocking us dead by strutting their awesome stuff in thrilling cabaret acts. The latest to do so is the dynamic Beth Leavel, who killed the people in her just-wrapped solo debut appearances at 54 Below. Her overall flair and coiled-spring intensity, born raconteur’s easy, natural wit, and forceful belting make her our closest modern-day equivalent to the great Kay Thompson, and she lavished these gifts on an uproariously fun act.
She sang everything from a cover of Whitney Houston’s “I Get So Emotional” (again proving she’s the most soulful white girl in the biz) to a derby-sporting “City Lights” tribute to Liza, with whom she is oft-compared in physical resemblance, to a deeply personal “Bill,” which turned us all into those weepy Irish cleaning ladies who sniffle on the sidelines during Helen Morgan’s immortal rendition of that song in the 1936 “Show Boat.”
Leavel also performed what she refers to as her “greatest hit,” “As We Stumble Along,” from her Tony-winning “Drowsy Chaperone,” self-deprecatingly recalling how her unquenchable efforts to shamelessly milk certain moments in it would result in the inevitable after-show announcement, “Beth Leavel to the stage manager’s office, please.”
Offstage, she puts the lie to the often so-true stereotype of funny showbiz people being miserable in real life, as she is every bit as delightful in person. “I’m a happy-funny miserable person,” she confessed. “But, you know, it takes a lot of courage to get up there and give yourself permission to take an hour out of someone’s life and make it worthy. I don’t have a wealth of catalogue, but I’ve got great stories and songs no one’s ever heard, and I’m thrilled to be in a place where people with appreciative ears can hear them!”
Leavel looks inspirationally fantastic at 58 and said, “People always say, ‘Don’t tell the year you were born!’ But that’s what’s interesting. I’ve earned these 58 years and started late coming into this whole showbiz mishegas. I have a degree in social work counseling from a small school in Raleigh, North Carolina but I did this musical 30 years ago and had no idea where to put that energy. I had a mentor who told me to do every play, musical, black box environmental piece just to see if I felt the same way after four years. She then told me, ‘I think you have to go find your passion.’ I got my master’s and, although terrified, moved to New York a year and a half later in 1981, and have been working ever since.”
I told Leavel that she also deserved the Tony for her sparkling portrayal of the recording industry pioneer Florence Greenberg in the way under-appreciated “Baby, It’s You,” which, Shirelles classics aside, also daringly featured her interracial love relationships.
“I’m gonna lick you so much right now!,” Leavel said. “I worked so hard and just wish I’d had more to sing in it. But I’m vey proud of that show and, even though it wasn’t a commercial hit, a lot of people believed in it and wrote checks, so we ran from March through September. By the end of it, we had started to find our momentum with people coming back, as we were speaking to a demographic which wasn’t represented by ‘Mamma Mia,’ and it was a great story.”
It was “Drowsy,” with one of the cleverest books in the entire musical canon, that really made her: “I got that part literally three weeks before the show opened. They had gone all over the universe to find that voice, which was not really on the page. [Director] Casey Nikolaw, I think, just gave up and said, ‘Just give it to Beth — we gotta go!’ When I landed in LA for the first rehearsal, a lot of people already knew its history and language and I was like, ‘What am I doing here?’
“Eventually we started layering the role and then I tried on Gregg Barnes’ costumes and a light bulb went off: ‘I know exactly who I am now!’ She just flew off that page, but it’s amazing how transformative the costumes were. Gregg [who admiringly described to this writer how Leavel ‘stalks the mirror’ while trying on a costume] had that vision of who she was and it completely taught me, and he has such a dear place in my heart.
“I didn’t base Beatrice Stockwell on anyone. The script, which had originally been written for [star and co-writer] Bob Martin’s bachelor party, was so brilliant, and every morning we would figure out the characters, watching movies, playing theater games, and talking about stylistic things so we were on the same page. One game Casey did was called ‘Hot Seat’ in which you sit on a stool and the other cast members ask you about your character. When I did it, there was an announcement, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Beatrice Stockwell!,’ and, as I walked in, the entire cast started applauding and screaming in character. I took a bow all the way down the floor and thought, ‘There she is!’
“I so want another ‘Drowsy’ to give birth to and pee all over and make it mine, with a delicious creative team. Tony Night was out of body for me, terrifying. We had just opened the show, and I was so full, anyway, but you do all the press stuff. Tony Day we had to perform the show to be taped, at 7 a.m. Sixty-four jade beads which Gregg had concocted for my costume broke apart and spilled all over the stage of Radio City just before Patti LuPone went on and I thought, ‘I’ve killed her,’ while scrambling to collect those beads!’
“Then we got on the bus to go back to the Marriott Marquis for our Sunday matinee. I tried to take a nap, which didn’t happen. I don’t remember that matinee at all, and thought if I write a speech that would be so egotistical, but what happens if I win? You have just 90 seconds from the time your name is called, and I don’t know why, but I so had it in my head. So if you look at the tape, I set a speed record in pumps and my Escada gown, not like I had that much to say. After that, the night was a joyous blur and I thought, ‘Please remember this, because it’s magical and once in a lifetime.’
Leavel, who is divorced and with a nice boyfriend now, said she’s up for some TV pilots, “but theater is where my heart is. Still, just to have a series under my belt and the paycheck to send my sons [24 and 18] to college would be nice. I will be doing ‘Hello, Dolly’ in St. Louis at the Muni Theater this summer, just a small production for 12,000 people! I did that role in college and to revisit it with the wisdom I carry now is great. The music is wonderful and the book’s so well written — no air in it. I’d like to think I put my own stamp on it.
“I’m like a sponge and learn from everyone. One of my first inspirations was when I saw ‘The Music Man’ in fifth grade. We never went to the movies — my dad worked all the time — but one Friday night I saw Robert Preston and that did something to my heart. When River City transformed into that marching band, I was crying and my parents were wondering what was wrong. That magic spoke to me. The name of my autobiography will be either ‘A Life of Belting,’ ‘Belting Til I Die,’ or ‘Have I Belted Enough?’
One song Leavel belted was “Home,” by Charles Strouse and Susan Birkenhead, from the highly anticipated, still-aborning musical “Minsky’s,” in which “I play Maisie, an older stripper and a variation on the theme of all the roles I’ve ever played, the sidekick with the heart of gold who gets to sing the anthem.”
A tribute to performing, with all of its all-too-evident grit and occasional glamour, “Home” bears a strong resemblance to another stirring theater anthem, “Now” (Brad Ross/ Joe Keenan), which focuses specifically on the life of the character actor. Ann Harada sang this electrifyingly, at her solo debut with Lincoln Center’s American Songbook (February 22). Harada, who like me is from Hawaii, has made the 50th state proud with the impressively enduring career she has carved out, since her attention-getting performance as Christmas Eve in “Avenue Q.”
In concert, she had a quite adorable, dishy-fun persona, as well as attractively strong vocals, encompassing both an insouciant lilt (on “If I Were a Bell”) and the requisite, impressive belt on a winning Judy Garland medley and also on a song I find tiresomely bombastic but many singers just adore, Cole Porter’s “I Happen to Like New York” (which did make the most of the Allen Room’s spectacular 59th Street backdrop). She amusingly recalled her mystifyingly recurrent yet negligible appearances on “Smash,” singing her basic one line “Ten minutes! And that doesn’t mean lunch, people. Ten minutes!,” which composer Marc Shaiman set to music for her. Her warbling it one day on the set made co-star Anjelica Huston suddenly realize that she was not really a stage manager and her name wasn’t “Linda.”
Harada played daughter to the great Harriet Harris in “Cinderella,” and rather owes Harris for the song “Now,” which she introduced her to, as well as for some hilarious shtick, based on Harris’ observation that any Rodgers & Hammerstein song can be turned into a country twanger. This last notion was particularly funny on “Edelweiss” and “In My Own Little Corner.” Harris loves Harada, too, and recently confided her desire to play Mame opposite Harada’s Gooch, something I’d definitely pay to see.
Jonathan Groff, whose HBO show “Looking” (the gay “Girls”) has our community furiously buzzing, pro and con, was also an American Songbook debut contender (February 15). Extremely garrulous, he had the bounding energy of a puppy and was blessedly out and proud in a charming way that was definitely precocious, without being obnoxious. Songs like “I Got Lost in His Arms” and “The Man That Got Away” made the point bluntly, and hilarity ensued when, at one point, his expressed fantasy of marrying his long-time idol Sutton Foster was met by an audience hoot. “Calling me out, huh?” he laughed. He was not at his best on “Something’s Coming,” was strangely his strongest vocally on a Stevie Wonder medley, and displayed true bravura showmanship doing a wacky Britney Spears/ Sondheim mash-up medley that made the audience roar with delight.
At her Café Carlyle bow, Maude Maggart (February 25) delivered a romantically pensive set, which exhibited her admirable archaeological digging into the rarer recesses of the classic songbook repertoire. Her plangent voice gets stronger with every outing and had a shimmering loveliness on “Give Me a Heart to Sing To,” “In a World of My Own,” “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking,” and in a rare, “modern” moment, “Where Do I Go?” from “Hair.” Her ethereally wafting gestures are also as bewitching as ever, but I wish she’d change things up with a few more upbeat numbers, for she has a whimsical comedic gift as well as deep ballad-savvy. Mack Gordon/ Harry Revel’s “It’s the Animal in Me,” originally introduced by Ethel Merman, would be a good, fun fit for her.
Nellie McKay continued in her own indefatigably eccentric way for her Carlyle debut, bizarrely yet endearingly channeling some unnamed ancient Broadway diva during her show entitled “Nellie with a Z” (February 18). She went so far as to carry a cane onstage, frugally tipped the waiter who brought her a drink onstage, and, at one point, even dedicated a song “to my arch-nemesis, Barbara Cook.” Wearing a sparkling gown her mother found for her on eBay — they’re both vintage experts — her first number got me totally in the mood, for it was one of my all-time favorites, “Did I Remember?,” by Harold Adamson and Walter Donaldson. This snazzy love song was introduced by Cary Grant and Jean Harlow in the 1936 film “Suzy,” and McKay echoed some of Billie Holiday’s wondrously suave phrasing in her rendition.
Her “I Cover the Waterfront” was, in its more Blossom Dearie-like, crooning way, the equal of Patti LuPone’s version heard at 54 Below, and it was great to hear another, marvelously contrasting interpretation of this terrific song, a favorite of Tennessee Williams. As she passed my table for her encore, I whispered the name of her own subversive signature, “Mother of Pearl,” and was overjoyed that she took my request, so different from the rest of her vintage set.
One striking entry in Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Rendezvous with French Cinema” is Robin Campillo’s “Eastern Boys” (Mar. 11, 8:45 p.m.; Mar. 12, 1 p.m.; filmlinc.com/films/on-sale/eastern-boys). It focuses on impoverished immigrant guys hanging around Paris’ Gare du Nord depot, specifically a young Ukrainian (Kirill Emelyanov) who seduces a middle-aged Frenchman, Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin). What starts off as an utter humiliation for Daniel develops into something more than your typical john-hustler deal, and the city’s immigrant population is depicted with a strong lack of sentimentality and quite a bit of terrifying darkness. The lead characters’ actions may strike you as either infuriating or believably, erringly human, and it’s a good, compelling date movie that will give you plenty to discuss afterwards.