Speaker 1 00:00:02 Welcome to Chicago musician Cadenza #2, I'm your soloist, Shawn Stengel. I've been thinking a lot about how I came to be me. What are the influences that make any of us become the artists that we are? Allow me to elaborate. . .
Speaker 1 00:00:33 So I've been pondering for a while now 'How did I get to be me?' Right. Really interesting to the rest of you, but here's my thought process here: What are the influences we have early in our lives that somehow, in spite of themselves or unknowing to us, become the influences that add up to be the factors that create us as artists? Not very well said, but I'll continue. (It's only Cadenza #2!) What I mean is, for example, I didn't really get into professional theater until pretty late in my life. It's not like I was a child phenom working since I was 12. I always performed and I did music and theater and all that sort of stuff, but I really didn't consider it as a professional mode for myself until it sort of happened upon me.
Speaker 1 00:01:45 And then I've been thinking back, well, how did I even get my point of view or what were the things I saw or did that added up to be enough that, when I did get the chance, I had some experience, some point of view and some basis for being an artist? So let me be more specific and maybe that'll be more interesting. I always performed as a kid. I was the ringleader of my family. We did a lot of shows in the basement that I made my cousins and my siblings do. And of course there's still buzz around the central Minnesota lakes area about my performance as 'Sneezy', auf Deutsch, at the Concordia College language camp, German camp, where my first line ever on stage were 'Seh hier. Hier ist ein Mädchen. Sie ist nett. Achu!' Yeah, I was 'Sneezy' in Schnee Weiß. . . Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. <laugh> in German.
Speaker 1 00:03:03 When I was a third grade, something like that. Yeah, it was a great start. It foretold of the greatness to come. So I've always performed. I've always been a little bit of the class clown. But unlike some people who grew up watching old movies or memorizing cast albums and all this sort of stuff, that wasn't really me. As a kid in my era, uh, yeah, I watched television, you know, Gilligan's Island, Brady Bunch, uh, Hogans Heroes, the original Batman. But I was never envisioning myself as them or even considered what it meant to be a "professional actor". Of course I did have some influence from TV. Of course, Laugh-In was a big influence in my life. It eventually became one of my 'shows' I made my siblings and my cousins do for a few years. The Stengel-Lueth Cry-Out
Speaker 1 00:04:20 It wasn't Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. It was the Stengel-Lueth (my cousins, the Lueths), the Stengel-Lueth Cry-Out. Yeah. Widely acclaimed and feared by two families, at least. My poor parents and aunt and uncle that had to sit through those things who knows how many times. But, you know, that was my fantasy. Or I thought that my sister, Wendy and I were 'Shawny & Wendié' sort of like Donny & Marie. Uh, yeah. So that's as close to show business as I got. My main musical experience when I was young was church music. And if you grow up in as a Lutheran in Minnesota, you'll eventually hear the 'gods of the choirs' from Concordia and St. Olaf, or Luther and all the great college choirs there from the Lutheran choral tradition. And you do experience musical excellence in that guise.
Speaker 1 00:05:31 I'm sure I heard those choirs more than a few times when I was pretty young and, you know, impressive. But what I remember more about Concordia than the choir was once, I went. . . Concordia, Minnesota uh, Concordia,Moorhead is a small Lutheran college right on the border across from Fargo, North Dakota. So up in a cornfield in northwest Minnesota. That's where my parents went to college, at least partially, and that's where they met. And I went once when I was very young to homecoming with my dad, maybe my brother, not sure, but we went, there was a homecoming parade. And I still remember from when I was what six, seven, the marching band marching by and the bass drum. . . like my chest, my heart beating out of my chest when the bass drum went by. I remember that viscerally <affirmative> And weirdly, uh, flash forward. . . part of why I always loved a parade and, and marching bands.
Speaker 1 00:06:52 And more than a small amount of how I ended up at the University of Minnesota for college was because of the university marching band. In the olden days, the U. . . we call it 'the U' in Minnesota. . . they sponsored, um, one of the football games every year was called Band Day, and high school bands from around the state would bus in and sit in the end zone at one end of the stadium. It was a horse shoe. And then there was a bank of seats at the other end. At old Memorial stadium on campus. We'd play, uh, 2, 3, 4 songs at halftime along with the University of Minnesota marching band. It was a big deal. We'd all wear our uniforms. We'd practiced, I think they'd sent out charts for some of the songs, and we sat there and then at halftime <affirmative> they would announce "the Pride of Gold Country" and out would come the 300 piece Minnesota marching band.
Speaker 1 00:08:09 They would do their thing and at a certain point, Dr. Ben, Dr. Bencriscutto was the director of bands back then, and even of the marching band. . . he would come to our end and get up on a ladder and conduct the high school bands playing along with the University of Minnesota marching band. And it was, uh, I don't know, that's how I ended up in college at the 'U'. Pretty good reasons, right? Yes. I'm an "academic". Anyhow. So early on, I remember that moment of the marching band and the college choirs. Then I was thinking, but when was the first theatrical thing I saw? As far as I can remember in Brainerd, there was a community theater production of ByeBye Birdie. I think that was the order I saw. . . Bye Bye Birdie and then the next year, The Music Man. It might have been in reverse, but I think Bye Bye Birdie was first. I'd never really seen a, what I thought was, you know, a big production of a show from the community theater.
Speaker 1 00:09:28 And, you know, there were stars like Nordica Thabes, I think Albert's mom from,Bye Bye Birdie. She was a celebrity in my mind cuz she was on KVBR radio. I don't even remember her program anymore, but she was a personality of sorts and Brainerd. So I remember that and the energy of that. And then the next year was The Music Man. And I remember that starred Terry Peters, a local guy, either from Brainerd or from Crosby-Ironton, little town nearby. But those made impressions on me and I remember liking them. And then I moved on in my life. Eventually, when I was almost in high school, maybe junior high, I saw Oklahoma and the local high school choir director, James Glenn was Curly and he had had a magnificent voice and that seemed like, wow, a star!
Speaker 1 00:10:45 So Brainerd, um, had a community college at the time called Brainerd Community College. Now it's Brainerd Lakes College, I believe, but it had a pretty good theater program and a summer theater program, especially in the summertime, but in the wintertime they would do one musical. And James Glenn was usually the lead. Or Loretta Lepisto. You know, names that mean nothing to the bigger world, but to me and to my sister, uh, these were stars! And we would, you know, act out like we were them and uh, no really other, not aspiring, you know, to be professionals or anything, just that we liked it. Then I was thinking about things I witnessed in high school. So I took piano lessons early on and I started playing trumpet in. . . when did we start? Third grade? Fifth grade? I can't remember when you start in Brainerd. It was fifth and sixth grade band probably.
Speaker 1 00:12:00 And I was a pretty terrible trumpet player cuz I hated to practice. Good combination, right? But by the time I got to junior high, I sort of, I don't know, got better?? Even though I usually skipped my lessons, especially summer lessons. I'd go to the neighborhood swing set and hang out there for an hour and then come home and say, 'oh yeah, it was good, mom'. I don't know what I was thinking. But in junior high I eventually then moved up to become first chair in band. And then in high school I made it into the Symphonic Band, which was the top band at Brainerd high school. And I also made it into the Acappella Choir. Now Brainerd is not a big town, but it's a pretty big high school because it serves a wide area. It's, you know, the lakes part of Minnesota.
Speaker 1 00:12:52 Brainerd has a population and of about 11,000 or 12 or 13 now, but the high school class I graduated with was almost 500 students because so many kids come in from the lakes and the farms and the area. So it was a pretty big school and thus we had pretty good programs for choir, band and theater. And so I had fun and good opportunities with those groups in high school. But you know, we were in Brainerd, Minnesota. So we weren't like kids from the Twin Cities who were, you know, studying with people from the Minnesota Orchestra and going to the Guthrie and seeing professional stuff all the time. We were in Brainerd. So, I do remember though, we used to have bands occasionally, high school bands from other part of of the state come. And it's hard to imagine this now, but the entire high school we'd have a forum.
Speaker 1 00:14:05 I dunno what we call it. Something in the morning where we went to the gym, all 1500 of us and listened to the Edina South concert band play a concert for us. I can't imagine kids sitting still for that these days. But we had to. It was fun for us that we're in band. Um, I dunno if it Edina East? Edina West? I think it was Edina East and West at the time. But I remember them coming and I do specifically remember a trumpet soloist from that high school named Tom Rolfs who stood up in front of all of Brainerd high school and played a very cool trumpet solo accompanied by the band. . . Made an impression. Years later, I went to the U with this guy. His name is Tom Rolfs. I was in brass choir with him for a while.
Speaker 1 00:15:07 He was mostly in the orchestra and I was mostly in the wind ensemble. So mostly our crossover was in brass choir. But a wonderful trumpet player who is now, and has been for a number of years, the Principal trumpet of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He seems to be doing pretty well. So I guess I had pretty good taste early on. I remember how well he played and the nerve he had to stand up in front of our whole high school and play a solo with his band. Another moment I remember from high school again, adding up, I'm not sure how, but moments that I remember and had an impact in my life. A couple of teachers, realizing that I had a, a musical talent and an interest in music beyond what a lot of the students had, offered to take me to St. Cloud, about an hour south of Brainerd, some school night, I think. The Minnesota Orchestra would do run out concerts into the state and they were performing in, uh, it must have been St John's University. It's a Catholic school. Anyhow, these two teachers took me and this is the first time I heard a real orchestra. And I remember very well. The first thing I ever heard played by a real orchestra was Schubert's Unfinished Symphony. And I couldn't believe how beautiful it was.
Speaker 1 00:16:52 Just the beauty of the strings and the, uh, whole orchestra and how well they played. We didn't have orchestra in my high school at that point. I think there is in Brainerd now, but there was no string program. It was just bands, not unusual for Minnesota in the seventies. So I had no exposure to an orchestra. So that made quite an impression on me. Again, it didn't say, 'oh Shawn, you will someday conduct orchestras and/or play in an orchestra.' I just remember it being very cool and beautiful. Beautiful music and an experience I hadn't had before. Circling back a little bit, then at some point in my high school career, I think it was when I was a junior, Dr. Ben came, Dr. Bencriscutto from the University of Minnesota bands, came and guest conducted our high school band and choir.
Speaker 1 00:18:06 And we performed, I think it was. . .he had a piece called Psalm 100 that he wrote for band and choir. Dr. Ben is a very dynamic musician and person and personality. And again, if it wasn't enough for Band Day and university marching band, Dr. Ben himself coming there and working with our band is pretty much how I ended up going to the U. That's as much as I can remember about choosing a college. I sort of stumbled my way to the U and I think. . . this is ridiculous, but I think I applied for college in April for starting in that year. And my dad was the high school guidance counselor! Good work, dad. "Hey, I think you better sign up for college." "Oh, okay. Yeah. Uh, I guess I'll go to the U." That's how much planning I had in my life. So that was sort of influences up through my high school years of performances and experiences I had that weren't me performing, but me experiencing others. And having opportunities to experience these other sort of art forms.
Speaker 0 00:19:33
Speaker 1 00:19:55 So off to the University of Minnesota, I went. I was in the marching band for four years. That'll do your chops some wonders, especially the high-stepping Big 10 style of marching we did back then. So yeah, I played primarily trumpet back then. I had learned piano as a kid and that became more useful as people needed people to play their juries and accompany them in recitals and stuff like that. But I didn't really have time to study piano at the U cuz I was playing trumpet 14 hours a day. So are you still with me on my premise? It might seem a little just listing things I've done, but I'm. . . maybe it's just nostalgia or I wanna say them before I forget that I did them. I'm not even sure again, my premise is, I'm not sure how all of these things add up to define my musical personality to this day.
Speaker 1 00:20:57 But I think obviously they did something. I still remember them and I'm 112 years old. So I know I have fantastic memory, but they made some impact and impression on me as a young person that I still hold. So when I was at the U there were many things. I mean, I played a lot of music in a lot of ensembles and studied privately, but I'm trying to stick with performances that I 'saw', that weren't me performing, but, um, uh, still influenced me. So one of the best things was, on campus at the university there was a big hall called Northrop Auditorium. A lot of touring things came through there. And back in the day, the Metropolitan Opera had a residency there every spring. And ABT, the American Ballet Theater would come through and a lot of dance companies. I had no money as a student, but I could volunteer to usher.
Speaker 1 00:22:13 So I ushered a lot! And saw world-class performances that I could have never afforded. And so I saw the Met. . . I actually 'appeared' with the Met once as a supernumerary. I was literally a spear carrier in Il Travatore. So that's like, if you wanna make a false, but true resume, you say, like, 'I appeared with the Metropolitan Opera'. . . which I did, uh, not as a singer, but as a spear carrier. I also played backup for Bob Hope I did! He was the guest of honor for homecoming one year and did a concert later. And I was one of the, uh, I guess one of the university students that made up the backup band for Bob Hope. I forgot about that. Yeah, it was quite interesting. Something that was a very professional experience that I didn't have anything to relate it to at the time. We didn't rehearse with Bob Hope.
Speaker 1 00:23:28 Of course, we rehearsed with Bob Hope's conductor. And we ran through the songs and he told us this stuff and he prepared us for things like 'okay, if Bob gets on a roll here, I'll go into a vamp, and then I'll give you a cue out to continue. Or if they aren't rolling, we'll just go right through this.' And so, I think about that now. It's very much like musical theater where you're in a vamp and people are acting and they come out whenever they come out and you have to catch it, conducting. And that was the comedy world version of the that Yeah, we did play behind Bob Hope, but, he didn't know who the hell we were. He just did his schtick and his conductor made sure it, clicked along like he was used to.
Speaker 1 00:24:17 But the Met. . . I saw I wasn't big into opera, but looking back, I saw some amazing names. . . Renata Scott, one of the bigger names of the seventies from the Met. Remember seeing her. Saw a performance of Madame Butterfly. And this was back when you could still be a fat opera singer and Cio-Cio San, Cho Cho San. . . is that how you say it? Whatever, the lead is supposed to be like what a 14 year old concubine and here is Gilda Cruz Romo. Why I still remember that. . . she must have been 30 and 300 pounds. But boy, could she sing? Another specific performance I remember was I got to see Beverly Sills. This was sort of late Beverly Sills. "The Voice" wasn't quite what it had been. And even I knew enough to know that at the time. But I saw her, I think it was in Don Pasquale, maybe I'm wrong.
Speaker 1 00:25:28 Uh, it was a comic opera, I think it's Don Pasquale. And she was stunning! I mean, she was "Beverly Sills"!! so she came onto stage and she commanded the place and she was funny as hell. She still sang pretty well, but it didn't matter. I saw the force of a huge star personality for maybe one of the first times in my life up close and personal. And I still remember her just bringing down the house and having us all in the palm of her hand. So Beverly Sills. . . Yeah, that was cool. In the dance world, the college wind ensemble. . . we used to rehearse on the stage of Northrop. So I was in that building all the time. We'd get taken over occasionally when the Met was in town. Or ABT, American Ballet Theatre.
Speaker 1 00:26:25 So I saw ABT and this was in the Baryshnikov era, when he was the artistic director. And one night I got to see him do a Twyla Tharp piece called 'When push comes to shove', a modern piece that featured, I think it was probably done for Baryshnikov, and he was everything you could imagine. I very much remember him dancing and, when he leapt, it seemed to me like he leapt and he hung there, and looked around for a place to land. . . and then he came down WHEN he decided to. At least it seemed like that. And when you think he's up there dancing with some of the greatest dancers in the world, and he's that much better than them. . . . I mean, real star power. So the next day I'm cutting through the backstage area to get down to my rehearsal in a different part of the building.
Speaker 1 00:27:21 And I turn the corner, run smack dab into Mikhail Baryshnikov and I was like, oh! And he was startled. I guess their callboard was right there. And so I looked down on him cuz he was what? Five two? He's pretty short. And I said, 'oh, uh, I saw you dance last night. It was wonderful.' And he goes, 'thank you very much' or something like that. Maybe not that Elvisy. . . "Thank you very much." But that was my brush with greatness, Mikhail Baryshnikov. And my other good dance story that showed me a lot about professionalism, was when I got to see Giselle. The night I was seeing it was Gelsey Kirkland. I think she and Baryshnikov had a thing back in the day or were having a thing back in the day. But I'd seen her in some other stuff.
Speaker 1 00:28:15 And to this day, she's one of my favorite dancers. She has the most beautiful arms and huge brown eyes. But as Giselle, her first entrance, it's a very traditional, you know, costume ballet with a story, three acts or two acts. And Baryshnikov was in it as well. But that was one of those where the man stands around in tights and spins the girl around and gets one solo at some point. But Gelsey Kirkland comes out for her first entrance as Giselle, and does this sort of ballet run around the stage. And about three quarters of the way around, she completely wipes out and falls on her ass. Like it wasn't a character choice. She slipped on something and went comic book right onto her butt. And the audience sort of gasped, but she stood up and continued and stayed completely in character.
Speaker 1 00:29:14 And you could see like the vulnerability of her. And the audience loved her even more for it. I certainly loved her even more for how she worked through it and made us see that it's okay, I'm still going, yes, it was a mistake, but you know, I'm a human and, and yet it's perfect. And, uh, it was, it was so many things and it made a big impression on me as far as 'just keep going!' JUST KEEP GOING! Audiences understand that mistakes can happen. And actually seeing I still to this day, I don't mind honest mistakes because they remind me of how hard of what people are doing on that stage is and how possible that is to slip and fall and make a mistake. And, um, and occasionally it happens even to the greatest in the world. So that was a couple of my favorite dance moments there at Northrop.
Speaker 1 00:30:19 Also when I was in college, it must have been a lot of the reason aside from the marching bar. And can I beat a dead horse? Yes. I wanted to go to the city. I wanted to go to a big school. I didn't wanna go to Concordia Moorhead where my family went and be stuck in a cornfield next to North Dakota for four years. Uh, I'm sure it's a wonderful school and a wonderful experience, but I wanted to go to a big school in a big city and have big city opportunities. And part of that was Minneapolis is the land of the Guthrie theater. And I don't exactly remember the chronologicalness of a lot of these things, but I did get several chances in my life to go there and see, again, 'world-class' performances that at that point had no relationship to my life really, or my dreams of, um, <affirmative>.
Speaker 1 00:31:25 There was no thought of me being in professional theater. There wasn't a thought of me not being in it. It just was, uh, that was not the path I was on. But I got to go. I remember seeing Julie Harris in The Belle of Amherst. I'm sure she toured all over the country doing that. It was a one-woman show about Emily Dickinson and Julie Harris was flawless. Just again, I probably had never seen a solo performance like that with that skill of a person. And, um, it sort of blew my mind. I just loved that show. I remember also I saw James Earl Jones in Master Harold and the Boys.I knew he was some, you know, some sort of famous by then. I didn't know much about it, but it was a cool play. And of course, a dynamic performance. Somehow I saw young Patti Lupone and Val Kilmer in Shakespeare.
Speaker 1 00:32:31 It was, I think it was As You Like it. . . maybe not. . . but those two were the young lovers. So imagine when that was. . . early eighties? or maybe still at the end of the seventies? I also remember the very first musical the Guthrie ever attempted. Now the "old" Guthrie was over in Loring Park. That's now, um, maybe the building doesn't even exist anymore, but it's where the Walker Art Center is. But it was a big thrust stage, three quarters thrust, and the Guthrie decided to do a musical. And I think they did Guys and Dolls. It was the first one they ever did. And I remember it being pretty lousy. They hadn't figured out how to do a musical in the 'almost round'. The band was at the front of the stage, I think. There wasn't a pit, obviously. But again, in the things that made an impression world, I remember that Miss Adelaide stole the show and it was an actress named Barbara Sharma, who I couldn't explain to you now who she was, but I know at the time she was somewhat of a known stage and/or television star, but she was perfect.
Speaker 1 00:33:57 And just stole the show even though this show wasn't that hard to steal. I mean, Miss Adelaide is THE role in that show. But um, I remember that performance pretty well. I did see, I think their next musical they did a few years later was Anything Goes and they were better. But the coolest thing I remember of that big, long thrust stage. . . their scenic shop was right behind the stage. So for the finale of Anything Goes, they had this circular rotating platform for the ships bridge or whatever it was. But it could rotate and it also could move up and down stage. So for the finale, there were people tap dancing on top of it and around it, and it just slowly pulled back. The back wall went up and they tap danced off into the infinity of the scenic shop. It seemed like miles back there as they disappeared into the mists of time or the sawdust of the scenic shop.
Speaker 1 00:35:06 I don't know that made an impression on me for whatever reason. So I had those opportunities when I was in college. A couple of years, I don't know if this was college or right after <affirmative>, but I saw Lena Horne at the Orpheum in downtown Minneapolis. This was her show called The Lady and Her Music or something. It had played on Broadway. I think maybe she won Tony Award for it? Or a special Tony award for it? And you know, Lena Horne had been around for quite a while at that point. And I'm sure I'd heard of her, but I really had just heard of her. And that was about what I know. So I went to this performance, don't know why. Maybe I bought the album or something and liked it. And I remember it was August in Minneapolis, which believe it or not, Minnesota gets hot. And in August, it gets hot and sticky! Lena Horne didn't like air conditioning <affirmative> and had the power to NOT have the air conditioning on.
Speaker 1 00:36:21 So we sat in a theater in Minnesota in sticky August with no air conditioning. And I remember Lena Horne at some point, you know, toweling herself off and saying, 'listen, honeys. I know it's hot, but I'm 75 and I'm working my ass off. And if I can do it, you can sit there and do whatever! Whatever her saucey self was.! But I had never seen a singer/performer eat up a show like that show. That was maybe the biggest star power I'd seen at that point in my life. That Lena Horne show. I mean, she. . . I guess I'd never seen anyone before who was, you know, 'when Rogers and Hammerstein wrote this for me' or Irving Berlin or Cole Porter. . . it wasn't secondhand information. It was her life!! Related to that is, I did see Ethel Merman at Orchestra Hall with the Minnesota Orchestra somewhere in here too.
Speaker 1 00:37:34 My friend Tammy had season tickets and said, 'you want to go with me?' And again, at this point, I had done a few shows at the summer theater and been in some musicals and I liked theater, but that was my relationship to it. And I, you know, I'd heard of Ethel Merman and nothing more. So we went. And I have three very specific memories of this: Ethel wore this great blue, like royal blue sequin cocktail dress that was just perfect. And she was, you know, had her buffont hair at that time. And I remember it was the Minnesota Orchestra. Orchestra Hall. And it was a shitty mic. It kept crackling and feedback. And in retrospect, I'm horrified, they had Ethel Merman there with sound equipment that didn't even work! You know, she was a pro and kept going, but the sound was horrible.
Speaker 1 00:38:41 And that was the second person I ever saw who said "when George Gershwin wrote this song for me", "when Cole Porter said, would you like to do. . .?", you know, "when Irving Berlin. . . " They were there! Those people wrote these songs for them. I had never experienced that before in my life. And the third thing about Ethel, we were leaving and Orchestra Hall has a lot of windows, and I think we were actually outside and we could see the green room and there was Ethel signing autographs. And Tammy's like, "oh, let's go get her autograph." So somehow, you know, this was very pre-9/11 by about 300 years. We could just walk back into the building and get into line. And we stood there and waited. Somewhere I have a program signed by Ethel Merman, THE Ethel Merman. It thrills me now in retrospect. At the time she was 'a famous person' who I was supposed to get an autograph from.
Speaker 1 00:39:43 Hmm, wow! Ethel Merman. I did later see also in person, Mary Martin and Carol Channing. I got to see Carol Channing once in one of the many revivals of Hello Dolly. Really cool. Wonderful. But I also saw Mary Martin and Carol Channing together in a really shitty play called Legends that was not worthy of either of those legends. This is when I lived in LA, which I'll get to eventually. At the time, you know, I'd heard of Mary Martin, I knew of Carol Channing and it was fun to see them, but I really wasn't hooked into that world in any specific way. So I was thrilled to see them then, but now in my later life, I'm even more thrilled that I got to see them IN PERSON! <affirmative> if that makes any sense at all, which it doesn't. So this was my college years.
Speaker 1 00:40:50 I'm still quite a ways away from becoming a professional theater artist. But sometime during college. Oh yeah, right early in college, maybe 80 or 79 or 80? A couple of friends of mine from Brainerd got into Juilliard Theater School. So at a certain point, my sister and I and a friend got in our rustmobile Toyota station wagon and drove up to New York. This is the first time I went to New York as an adult or nearly an adult. I'd been on a family vacation in 1967. We didn't see anything. We didn't go to Broadway. We, you know, waved at the statue of Liberty and saw Chinatown and kept going. So around 1980, I should look at the year, but I won't. . . I saw seven shows that week. The first show I ever on Broadway was Sweeney Todd, and I'd I had the album, I had it memorized.
Speaker 1 00:41:59 I knew everything. By the time I saw it, it was no longer Angela Lansbury. It was Dorothy Louden who was still really amazing. And George Hearn. George Hearn took over pretty early on for Len Cariou. So I didn't see the original cast, but I saw the original production. Huge, amazing production. Imagine, Sweeney Todd as your first Broadway show!! My second Broadway show was A Chorus Line and I couldn't believe what shitty singing it was. And I was surprised that the tempos were different. Remember back in the day, they had to speed up a lot of cast album tempos to fit 'em on a record. And they cut a lot of material. They didn't just record all the dance music and everything in between, and put it on a CD or a data file, or whatever. So A Chorus Line, the record, which again, I had note for note memorized, um, was quite a shocking letdown when I actually heard it on Broadway.
Speaker 1 00:43:08 I remember Morales, whoever it was, this was quite a ways in, so it wasn't the original cast at all, but the Morales had almost no voice. And she's the one who sings What I Did For Love and a lot of other stuff. Um, so yeah, note taken. I saw Patti Lupone in what I believe was her final week as Evita. Saw Annie. Saw Richard Gere in Bent. He was the star, but the best person in it was David Dukes, pretty well known actor, but not a star like Richard Gere. But David Duke's was amazing, I remember that. But the show that made maybe the biggest impression on me that week in my blitz of Broadway was the original production of Ain't Misbehavin'. That I remember clearly. I saw probably a Wednesday matinee and I was blown away by the show, the energy of those five actors, and that onstage band. But I remember clearly thinking, 'my God, they're gonna do this AGAIN tonight!' I had no concept of a two show day, let alone an eight show week at that point in my life. But I love that show. So that was one week on Broadway.
Speaker 1 00:44:55 So I don't know if my concept is still hanging together, but I'm having fun remembering all these performances. And I'm still several years away in my chronology of my life of getting into theater. So these are all just things I go to as an audience member. I wasn't a big rock concert goer. . . been to very few of those in my life. So theater and classical performances were more my thing. In the mid eighties, I moved to L.A., pretty much just to warm up. That was my career path. I wasn't really going there with any intention of getting into 'the biz of show'. I just was tired of 30 below in Minnesota in December. And I moved to L.A. with my friend from Brainerd, Minnesota. When I was in L.A., I got to see a few more, uh, well, especially theatric theatrical productions.
Speaker 1 00:46:08 It really stuck with me. One of the most fun was I think it was the first national tour of Noises Off, a farce that a lot of people have seen and done over the years. But I remember that as being one of the funniest things I'd ever seen. And comedy is hard! I think it was Dorothy Louden who won a Tony for that, or should have won a Tony for that. And probably still Victor Garber. I think he was in the original cast and I think in the LA production. The funny thing about Dorothy Loudon is years later, when I was living in the Belmont Hotel in Chicago doing Pump Boys & Dinettes, my producers were also producing Driving Miss Daisy. And I think the third Miss Daisy, after Sada Thompson and Ellen Burstyn, the third one was Dorothy Loudon. So for a while I lived down the hall from Dorothy Loudon at the Belmont. And the weird thing about the Belmont back then, it was sort of a retirement community except for a bunch of us actors from Pump Boys from out of town.
Speaker 1 00:47:23 So I thought Dorothy Loudon was just one of the old people who lived there. And then one day I realized 'Oh shit, that's Dorothy Loudon, not the maid!!' Anyhow. So I saw that at the Ahmanson Theatre. Oh, another show that really made an impression of me on me was. . . what's the theatre at Vine and. . . ? The Huntington? What's the theater, not the Pantages. It's sort of around the corner from the Pantages on Vine. Maybe the Huntington Theater? Anyhow, a legit stage. I saw Torch Song Trilogy, the original Torch Song Trilogy. First, with Harvey, Fierstein basically playing himself, the autobiography he wrote. You know, one of the first truly great LGBTQ (we had a few less letters back then) but gay shows ever. I believe Estelle Parsons from The Golden Girls, prior to The Golden Girls.
Speaker 1 00:48:36 She was a stage actress and she played his mother. And maybe Matthew Broderick was his son? He was at some point, but I'm not sure I saw him. But part of aside from seeing Harvey play himself and being blown away by the play, I saw it again later. And at that point, Harvey had left and an actor called Jonathan Haddary had taken over for him. And again, I don't know if I perceived it as a professional lesson at the time, but I remember being blown away by Jonathan Haddary as being better, he was a better actor than Harvey! Harvey was amazing to see as himself acting out his life in person as he wrote it. But Jonathan Haddary was a better actor. And so the performance and the show was actually better in some ways without Harvey in it. Very interesting.
Speaker 1 00:49:42 Another play I saw there and a show I saw three times cuz it was that good, was Lily Tomlin doing The Search For Signs of Intelligent Life In The Universe, a play that her partner at the time (maybe they're still partners?) Jane Wagner wrote. But it's hard to imagine that Lily didn't write some of it too. Anyhow, one-person show and just virtuosic! One-person, I guess I'm enjoying the one-person shows. Those made big impressions on me. (I'll get to a one soon that wasn't one-person.) But Lily Tomlin. . . hilarious! Pretty much no costumes. I mean, or costume changes or any set. It was her on stage. And there were sound effects, like when she was the punk character, she would zip up all these zippers and you would hear the 'zip, zip, zip' but it was just sound effects and lighting cues and her various characters.
Speaker 1 00:50:40 That was it. Brilliant! One of her characters that I remember ( I'm not really a person who remembers lines or memorizes movie scripts and you know, can recite lines), but I do remember one from Lily's show, she was a yoga instructor or someone in an aerobics class. This was, you know, the eighties in L.A. So everyone was in an aerobic class! And here is Lily Tomlin who was, I don't know how old was she then 50? 60? but she was full out doing the aerobics class as this character and doing the routine. Her name was Chrissy. And she was talking to a friend of hers in the class at the same time. And she was somehow talking about their careers and she goes, "You know, I always wanted to be somebody in my life. But now I realize I should have been a little more specific."
Speaker 1 00:51:49 It was way funnier when Lily did it. So a couple shows that weren't one-person. . . I got to see Nicholas Nickleby, the first of the eight-hour extravaganza spread over two nights or, you know, a full day. The Royal Shakespeare Company's Nicholas Nickleby. I think it came to L.A. before it went to Broadway. After its Royal Shakespeare run in England, came to L.A. Roger Rees as Nicholas Nickleby. I'm sure a lot of names that we know now, but one that I remember specifically was Lila Kay a sort of older, zaftig woman who. . . most of them, except for Roger Rees, played multiple characters in this epic, epic Dickens happening. She was hilarious. And another thing about that I remember was they, um, something in the story, uh, Nicholas Nickleby runs away or something. He's out of London somewhere and he meets this Shakespearean troop of actors. A very third-rate acting troupe out in the countryside of England.
Speaker 1 00:53:15 And so seeing Shakespeare sent up by THE Royal Shakespeare Company. . . even me, who didn't know much about Shakespeare at the time, knew that they were hilarious. I remember this guy, uh, I don't remember the circumstances exactly, but he was off to the side backstage and practicing out loud. His Shakespeare. And he was practicing the 'To be, or not to be' speech, but just with all the commas in the wrong place. So it started off instead of 'To be, or not to be-that is the question: whether tis nobler in the mind. . .' Okay. So he was off stage going 'To be, or not to be that. Is the question whether tis nobler in the mind? To suffer. . .' Just commas and pauses in all the wrong places. Hilarious.
Speaker 1 00:54:19 And that whole epic thing of four hours of a play and you stop for dinner. And then another four and a half hours of this epic play was a pretty thrilling experience. The original Nicholas Nickleby! That was also down at the Ahmanson Theatre. A few more L.A. and New York performances that fit of my premise: being pre- December of 1986, when I suddenly popped into professional theater. While I lived in L.A. in the mid eighties, I signed up for season tickets to La Jolla Playhouse, which was down in San Diego. Specifically because they were doing a remounting of Merrily We Roll Along, a pretty much failed Broadway production of a Sondheim show. And this was the first time they were gonna try to rethink it. Or save it or something. And so I drove down to La Jolla to see this, and it ended up being the first time I ever saw Stephen Sondheim in person. I think I signed up for Tuesday nights or something, because I knew there would be talk backs after the performance. I didn't know that Sondheim would be there, but he was. And so was James Lapine. And uh <laugh> and here's the glamor of show business: I saw Sondheim after the show in the lobby with James Lapine. And the first thing, and the only thing I ever heard, Stephen Sondheim say in person for several years was "Uh, uh, Jim, I'm going to the bathroom."
Speaker 1 00:56:27 Yeah. <laugh> that's the only thing I ever heard Sondheim say in person for a while. Marin Mazzie was in it. A really young Marin Mazzie. I think just in a, I can't remember what role, I didn't know her at the time. No one did really, but she was in that. And then I don't know, the next year or a couple years later, I saw also at La Jolla, the pre-Broadway version of Into The Woods. So pre-Broadway that the witch wasn't even Bernadette Peters yet. It was Ellen Foley from Night Court. She was the witch at that point. And I think it also meant that a couple of the witch songs were different or got enhanced for Bernadette by the time it got to New York. So I saw those two things at La Jolla. And somewhere in there, I also made a trip or two back to New York. Actually, I think this trip was before I moved to L.A.
Speaker 1 00:57:44 So, um, early eighties. . . just a couple more performances that really impacted me as far as star power and just the power of life performance. I got to see the original Dreamgirls with Jennifer Holiday as Effie and it was a particular thrill for me and my friends. I think when I bought a new stereo in the early eighties, the first album I bought was Dreamgirls. So that cowbell. . . "Ladies and gentlemen. . ." Again, I had this cast album memorized beyond reason. My friends and I got the last four tickets in the back row of the balcony of the Imperial Theater where the original Dreamgirls played. Somehow an older lady usher with her blouse unbuttoned, maybe one button too far down, took a shining to me and at intermission, she came up to us and said, Hey, follow me. And she took us down to center balcony and sat us, she said, "where Michael sits." Well, the Michael she was talking about was Michael Bennett. She sat us single file on the steps, but center balcony of the Imperial Theater. And so in the second act, when Jennifer Holiday sang "I am cha-a-a-a-a-nging. . ."
Speaker 2 00:59:20 Yeah, yeah,
Speaker 1 00:59:21 The balcony is very close to the stage. So I saw Act II very up close and personal. It was really thrilling. And also the big number, 'and I am telling you, I'm not going' in Act I. . . I remember to this day. . .it starts with tones, like just 'E's. . . bing, bing, bing, . . . And she sings:
Speaker 3 00:59:47 And I am
Speaker 1 00:59:47 telling you, I'm not going! She sang about a syllable and a half before the house was just up for grabs. And I swear, I heard maybe three more notes she's sang, because the place was just crazy! Three or four standing ovations WITHIN the son!. One of the most thrilling performances I've ever seen in my life. Just wild. And she totally deserved it! So that was a big thrill. And the surprise on that trip was, the next theater over, in what used to be known as the 46th Street Theater. . . is that the Richard Rodgers now? I'm not a New York expert. Anyhow, the next theater over was the original production of Nine <affirmative> the musical of Fellini's 8 and 1/2. That was just a beautiful production! But the performer that blew me out of the water was an actress named Anita Morris.
Speaker 1 01:01:01 In that show, she famously was in the sort of pretty much only wears a mesh body suit and high heels and little else. And she sings Call From the Vatican. And I remember her upside down in the splits, singing a high 'C'. And bringing down the house. Um, yeah, she was fascinating. And then, for a young person. . . we waited by the stage door after the performance to see, you know, some of the stars and I don't know why this made such an impression on me, but Anita Morris came out and she was so sweet. And she talked to everybody. The stage doors is right there on 46th street. They just sort of come out.Then she signed a few autographs or chatted with us with her dyed red hair and, you know, stunning body and still had her show makeup on because it was a matinee. And then waltzed off down the street with a friend of hers to go grab dinner between shows.
Speaker 1 01:02:14 It was so weird. . . so human and so superstar all at the same time. I didn't know what I was dealing with then. It all seemed so glamorous. One other performance from somewhere in that era that I want to mentione cuz maybe it's my favorite Broadway performance of all time. And it's not even from a musical!! It's Six Degrees of Separation. It was up at Lincoln Center. Stockard Channing was the lead. And I saw it twice. I loved it so much the first time. John Guerre play. Super funny and intense and all over the map as far as emotions. But I loved it so much that I went back and saw it again. I have this history with matinees, I guess, but it was a matinee and I remember that they were doing subway construction or something directly underneath the Vivian Beaumont Theater during this matinee.
Speaker 1 01:03:28 And it was kind of annoying, but I remember Stockard Channing has this long monologue or maybe it's a two person scene with the black kid who was impersonating. . . I dunno. I can't remember. Did he say he was Sydney Poitier? Or related to Sydney Poitier? Anyhow, he worked his way into society as sort of this pretender. And it's her and him on the phone together, but they're just facing forward, each in a spotlight. And then there's this pounding from the subway below. And the power of Stockard Channing! I swear, without changing anything, just the focus of her was like, 'don't listen to that, listen to what I'm saying, only what I'm saying matters and what I'm saying is. . . ', and she got, I swear she got quieter and commanded the room even more with this annoying sound going on. Made a big impression on me, the power of concentration and focus.
Speaker 1 01:04:42 She made it even better because of the obstacles. So that's my reminiscences. I don't know even what it means. I enjoyed thinking back on these performances that I still remember. Maybe I just wanted to list them while I still remember them. I'm not sure. But somehow they affect me as a performer. And they impacted my perception, my view, my outlook on theater, I guess mostly theater, and music. And somehow I'm guessing, all of us in the performing arts have influences like this, that we didn't even know were influences as we were experiencing them, but they add up and become our story, and in a way, become part of us as an artist. I don't know in what way they do or how much they do, but they do. They do what they do! And I'm grateful. I was so fortunate to have these opportunities and have these experiences. And I can only dream that maybe somewhere in my life, I've been involved with a production or a concert that someone else experienced and remembers to this day as being powerful or singular or inspiring.
Speaker 1 01:06:40 Maybe that's what we all long for: to be memorable, to be important, to be worthy, to be worthwhile. And I don't mean important in that everyone dies and we discover the cure for cancer. I've done a lot of, 'popcorn shows' like Oil City Symphony and Crazy For You. Crazy For You I think of as a 'champagne musical'. It's just dance and Gershwin and a joy. But you know, comedy is hard. Joy is hard. If we've lifted people's spirits, it's as important as making people cry and make people think and maybe harder to do. So I know I've been part of some of that in my life. And I hope I get to experience as an audience member, more moments like this and hopefully create some myself with my colleagues. If I ever work again. So thanks for indulging me and coming along for this nostalgic listing of my life experience. I don't know what it is. . . It's who made me! Well friends, when the oompa band starts playing, it's a clear sign that it's time to hit the road or run off and join the circus. It sounds sort of fun.
Speaker 1 01:08:35 Thanks for joining me on Chicago Musician Cadenzas. I'm your host, Shawn Stengel. I look forward to seeing you next time. Or you hearing me next time. Ah, just come back! Come back little Sheba. Oh, wait. . . that reminds me of. . .