Tony Nominee Anita Gillette Reveals Tales of the Men in Her Career in Birdland Concert September 28
By: Ellis Nassour
Tony-nominated Anita Gillette returns to the Broadway at Birdland concert series September 28 at 7 P.M. with new songs and new tales-out-of-school about her career on stage, screen, and TV in So, As I Was Saying…
The MAC and Bistro Award winner (After All) premiered the autobiographical concert to rave reviews at Birdland in March, weaving hilarious stories with appropriate tunes. Barry Kleinbort is director with musical direction by Paul Grenwood.
In her show, she regales with hilarious tales of working with the likes of Irving Berlin, Burt Lancaster, Tina Fey, and Bill Murray and sings apt songs such as, respectively, "Song For A Belly Dancer," "It Never Was You," "Blue Skies," and "Baby Elephant Walk."
Her connection with Lancaster was the 1971 revival of Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s 1938 Knickerbocker Holiday for Los Angeles Civic Light Opera. "Like so many," says Gillette, "I was a huge fan of Burt’s. He was as big a film star as there was, and really risked a lot doing this full-scale revival. He was spectacular as Pieter Stuyvesant singing ‘September Song.’ Burt was the kindest gentleman I had ever met, and such a joy to work with."
Following LA., the musical played the Curran in San Francisco. Since it was the first full-scale revival, Gillette says, "there was hope of taking the show to Broadway, but it was felt there were problems with the book. Burt even brought his friend, veteran writer Roland Kibbee aboard. He’d written a number of his films as well as top films and TV shows. Sadly, it never happened." Equally sad is that there’s no cast recording of that revival.
Gillette vividly remembers the disastrous Broadway musical Kelly with a romantic ballad, "Never Go There Anymore." There’ll be tunes by Sondheim, recollections about Neil Simon, and "Everybody Needs Someone," "a very romantic tune by Barry."
She worked with Matthew McConaughey in the heartbreaking and inspiring Boys on the Side (1995) "which was his introduction to the big world if Hollywood. What a sweet guy." [They worked together again in Larger than Life]. She co-starred regionally with John Travolta just as his star was exploding thanks to Carrie and just before Saturday Night Fever.
Anita Gillette’s amazing career began right out of hometown Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory when she made her Broadway debut joining Gypsy as Hollywood Blonde Thelma, then June’s understudy, a role she segued into full time.
She made her TV debut in 1963 on The Toast of the Town (The Ed Sullivan Show). Since then there’ve been over a dozen stage roles in New York including Woody Allen’s Don’t Drink the Water opposite Lou Jacobi, Key Medford, and Tony Roberts; Sally Bowles in Cabaret; Jimmy; her Tony-nominated performance in Simon’s Chapter Two; and Blanche in his Brighton Beach Memoirs- as well as regional work and national tours.
The actress singer also made her mark on TV — from game shows in the late 60s to soaps and playing both Quincy wives on Quincy, to 30 Rock, Blue Bloods, and Modern Family. There’ve been dozens of movies, highlighted by her acclaimed performance as Mona (the mistress) in Moonstruck.
She jokes that on film and TV, "I seemed to have played more mothers that anyone. It could be a Guinness record!"
Her "children" have been Jennifer Aniston, Jack Black, Edward Burns, Tina Fey, John Goodman, Marg Helgenberger, Bill Murray, Mary-Louise Parker, and the mother of Bobby Cannavale’s love interest in The Guru.
As far as romances with her leading men, Gillette says, "There was one, terribly handsome [prolific stage, film, and TV star] David Dukes [a few years her junior]. It was in the late 70s [when both were between marriages] when we were doing Travesties and The Importance of Being Earnest at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. We were in love."
Gillette remembers those that influenced her. There was her mom and school music teacher Eleanor Turner. "I was the oldest of four and a girl. I hadn’t planned on college because we didn’t have the money. Mom was a singer. I’m Irish with some German and Italian. We had sing-a-longs alongside our upright, but it was Miss Turner who taught me about technique. Then, she gave me great parts, and encouraged me to follow my dreams."
Then there was "Ethel Merman," says Gillette without hesitation. "When I
wasn’t onstage, I was in the wings watching. I never missed seeing her do
‘Rose’s Turn.’ She began to notice me, and we became acquainted. I loved
her. She was wonderful. Something that’s rarely mentioned is that she was
a great mother.
"I don’t know if I’d be doing what I’m doing if it hadn’t been for Ethel," she continues. "I found I was pregnant not long after I joined the company and
Mr. Merrick was going to fire me. Ethel raised a ruckus and said, ‘No! She stays!’ So, I owe at lot to dear Ethel."
Gillette had the rare opportunity to get to know Irving Berlin as a family friend.
"Sadly, Mr. President [1962, the composer’s last musical] failed to appeal to
critics and audiences. Still, we played 265 performances [over eight months].
We bonded nicely. Later in his life, when he suffered bouts of depression, I’d get a call from his secretary Hilda to come sing to cheer him up."
There have been career triumphs; and disappointments – especially one in particular. "Kelly  had been hyped to the heavens by the time it opened," Gillette recalls. "I thought it was going to be great, a hit. Wonderful people were involved: composer Moose Charlap [Peter Pan] and actor Eddie Lawrence [Bells Are Ringing] on book and lyrics. Herbert Ross, a veteran of so many hits, was director/choreographer.
"It looked good on paper. Then, they put the show up and it didn’t hold up.
I’ll never forget that during bows opening night in Philly, this Asian man who’d
sat all night without any expression said, ‘Dis stooped!’ They tried to fix it. When you try to fix something that’s broken, it doesn’t get any better. Then, came the firings. It got messier and messier until none of us knew what was going on. They were making changes faster than you could blink. It became famous as the most expensive one-night-only flop of that time."
She had such a great time on 30 Rock "that I would have loved to have done
more. And not just because of Tina, but also Buck Henry [who played her
husband], a most wonderful man and writer. "
Gillette says, "Of course, no one promises us a rose garden. With the sunny
days, there’re always clouds. But I feel so blessed to have had such a
wonderful career and to still do what I love and that there are people who
love what I do."
Admission for Anita Gillette So, As I Was Saying… is a $30 cover, with $10 food/drink minimum. Purchase at www.birdlandjazz.com. Dinner is served from 5 P.M. Menu on website. Jim Caruso’s Cast Party follows at 9:30.
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