Diana’s Judy Kaye: Celebrating Six Decades in Show Business
By: Ellis Nassour
November 12, 2021: Judy Kaye has had a storied career over six decades in opera, operetta, symphony concerts, TV and Soaps, voice work in animated features, records, and theater. Her path led to two Tony Awards for Featured Actress in Musicals, The Phantom of the Opera (the diva Carlotta, opposite Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman): and Nice Work If You Can Get It (the madcap Duchess Estonia Dulworth, opposite Matthew Broderick and Kelli O’Hara).
Her journey has now takenher to the Longacre Theatre and the co-starring role of Queen Elizabeth II in Christopher Ashley’s production of Joe Dipietro and David Bryan’s Diana: The Musical, “which tells the story of one of the most beloved women of modern times” and, as Kaye puts it, “It’s the story of possibly the worst public marriage ever.”
The show might rack up a Guinness World Records citation for the most producers of any show to hit the main stem. It appears to have almost as many as there are seats in the Longacre. Tony-winning Christopher Ashley, director of the Tony-winning Come from Away, is directing. Book writer Dipietro did the book for Nice Work; he and composer Bryan, keyboardist and a founding member of Bon Jovi, created the Tony-winning Memphis. Making the show very true to life is six-time costume designer William Ivy Long, who delivers a virtual fashion show of stunning outfits. There’s also a lot of very beautiful china onstage for sipping all that tea.
The musical co-stars Jeanna de Waal (Kinky Boots, American Idiot) in the lead role, Roe Hartramf as Prince Charles, Kay as QEII, and Erin Davie (Sunday in the Park with George, Side Show, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood revivals). It’s a huge cast, with two standout featured performers: Anthony Murphy, in his Broadway debut, brings comic relief as Princess Diana’s flamboyant secretary and seems to be channeling the Genie he portrayed in the first national tour of Aladdin; and Gareth Keegan, in his Broadway debut, as James Hewitt, horse riding instructor to the couple’s sons and a Diana lover, makes an entrance that will surely garner him a lot of attention – and on a saddle.
Who doesn’t know the story of the English kindergarten teacher who meets Prince Charming when he’s dating her sister? Then, with Queen Elizabeth pushing her son to marry but only to an appropriate bride, 19-year old Diana Spencer is thrust onto the world stage and, overnight, becomes the most famous woman in the world. As she struggles to navigate a seemingly loveless marriage, she uses her spotlight to advocate for those in need. In the process, Diana created a deeply felt legacy that still endures.
“In my opinion, there are no bad guys in the story,” says Kaye. “All those involved were in many ways victims. The royal family lives within a rigid structure of tradition and service. Diana didn’t follow the codebook. She didn’t gain her popularity living as a shut-in, but became popular being herself. Joe’s a marvelous storyteller and observer of human behavior and goes for the truth of the characters. He found a way get all that in his book, along with some wry observations. ”
Kaye, one of theater’s most beloved and respected artists, has her quiet, reflective moments about life in the royal spotlight, but in Act Two she really lets loose in a showstopping number in the uncredited role of a one-time queen of hot romance novels.
A native of Phoenix, she studied voice and comedy theater at UCLA, where, gifted vocally as she is, was able to establish a career while still in her 20s. She found work in commercials, and in the late 60s into the 70s, she landed guest roles in short-lived series. She was finally cast in “a series that was born to fail.” It was the small-screen adaptation of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town opposite Monte Markham, in the role James Stewart made classic. “The show was well received by the critics, but ABC pulled the plug after 17 episodes, right in the middle of the season. No matter, it was a great place to learn things.”
Kaye appeared with the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera until a certain man of the comic world came to town. “When You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown came west, I went to an open call and won the role of Lucy van Pelt and did that for two years.”
She came to New York, “sleeping on various friends’ couches, to audition. I kept getting work, but it took me on the road.” Among those roles was Mary Magdalene in one of Robert Stigwood’s authorized 1971 cross-country pre-Broadway concerts of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar— her reputation was so well-known that she wasn’t even asked to audition. Kaye did dozens of musical and non-musical shows across a wide spectrum of regional theatres.
Then, came a role far afield of her classical roots. “I had a blast playing Rizzo in the road company of Grease, which also provided me my Broadway debut. I recall that the night that I hit the stage, the blackout hit.”
Now, comes the good part. “Along the way, I’d auditioned for Hal Prince. When he heard I was in town, he asked me to come in and audition for a show called On the Twentieth Century, which would be starring Madeline Kahn and John Cullum. “Hal really didn’t have a job for me, but I came in and sang a little of ‘Glitter and Be Gay’ (Candide). I didn’t think anything would come of it. I was just there to say hello to Hal.”
But something did come of it – something exciting, something right out of that Warner Bros. classic 42nd Street. Prince cast Kaye as Agnes, Lily Garland’s maid and, soon after, as Kahn’s understudy. “Madeline didn’t like standing around at rehearsals, so often I’d step in for her so she could rest. It was fine with me since I needed an opportunity to learn the role even though I knew Madeline would never miss a performance. That’s not to say I wasn’t always dreaming about going on and wondering how I’d do it if I ever had the chance to go on. I was having fun, but the nice thing was that I also got noticed by certain people. I wasn’t just standing in the shadows.”
On a day just like any other day, Kaye woke up, did a little vocalizing, settled down to watch a movie on TV, then headed to the gym. “After my work out, I was going to call the theatre and check in, but there was only one pay phone and a very long line. So, I just headed to the Saint James. On the way, I stopped for a bite. Well, when I arrived at the theatre, the whole cast was waiting at the stage door. I heard, ‘You’re going on! Madeline’s not feeling well.’ The production stage manager had been trying to reach me since I left the apartment. They left messaged with my answering service, but I couldn’t get to a phone.”
Kaye was shoved up to Lily Garland’s dressing room and wardrobe began fitting her as me as best as they could in Madeline’s costume. “Unlike today, where at Diana, our covers all have a set of costumes and are ready to go on yesterday, but back then that wasn’t the case. And we’d only been running about three weeks.”
Needless to say, Kaye’s heart was thumping. “I thought it was going to thump right out of myself. I was given a pair of eyelashes and told, ‘You’re ready to go.’ I didn’t know I was going on until just that minute. It was incredible how everyone was there for me. Everyone but Hal.”
That night, there was a gala screening of Prince’s A Little Night Music, which he directed on Broadway, at Lincoln Center. “However, every member of the creative team was at the back of the orchestra. I had this feeling of warmth when I went on, but what’s extraordinary is that I didn’t remember a thing until the end when I took a bow. And, of course, the applause. It was otherworldly! Life changing. Definitely. It was an out-of-body, extraordinary experience. Then, someone came up and presented this huge bouquet of yellow roses!”
”After everything calmed, Kaye was rushed to the screening’s after party and taken to Prince’s table. “I was still in my make-up. There was Hal and Judy [his wife] with Elizabeth Taylor [Desiree] and Len Cariou [Frederick]; and there I was in jeans, a plaid shirt, and a jacket I bought at an Army/Navy store. I had that blonde wig on all night and my hair was a mess. Hal was thrilled for me.”
“When you’re covering for someone,” related Kaye, “and you’ve done all the work, you’re stuck in a vacuum. Then, you get up, and you actually make it work. It’s quite fulfilling when you realize you’ve pulled it off. It’s the moment we all wait for.”
Kaye went on three times that week. She said she wasn’t certain if Kahn was ailing or just tired. “She wasn’t up to doing eight shows a week. In her mind, it was a very hard show. I saw her one day in her dressing room and she moaned, ‘I have to keep telling myself it’s only a job. It’s only a job.’ I thought ‘This is a job? You think this is a job! Maybe you’re doing the wrong thing for a living.’
Kahn was absent a total of nine times, before deciding to leave the show. Kaye got the job, of course. She says that working with John Cullum “was just incredible. What a wonderful, wonderful man, and actor and singer. But the entire cast – all incredible; and music by Cy Coleman and that great book by Betty (Comden and Adolph (Green).”
There was the Los Angeles opening and bus and truck tour with Kaye co-starring with Rock Hudson. “There were two great things about that tour. I got to work with Rock, a beautiful, beautiful person – so kind, so generous. I cherish the time I had with him. He was a huge movie star but worked as hard as I’d ever seen an actor work. It was difficult for him. He wasn’t a singer, but he made it work. We also had a lot of fun, and became friends. We stayed in touch for ages.”
And now for a moment under a huge chandelier, The Phantom of the Opera: “I had this long
relationship with Hal. He did have me come in, and I was offered Carlotta. He didn’t ask me to audition, but Andrew [Lloyd Webber] wanted to know whether I could hit those high notes. I could.”
Carlotta isn’t supposed to be likeable, but Kaye made her so. “I felt I needed to add a little comedy to offset all that drama. I had to argue that with Hal. He told me I had to be more afraid of the phantom. I said, ‘If I’m anymore afraid of the phantom, they’ll take away my Equity card.’”
So does Judy Kaye still practice? “Yes. Probably not as much as I should. I no longer have that soprano voice. It’s gone back to what it originally was, a mezzo soprano. My speaking voice is also a bit heavier.”
After Phantom, she made a return to the music she loved, with Santa Fe Opera and New York City Opera (where she starred in Hal Prince’s much-acclaimed production of Candide). In addition, she appeared with the New York Philharmonic, London Symphony, and Boston Pops.
However, she’s never deserted theater. Kaye had Tony nominations for her portrayal of Rosie in Mamma Mia (Featured Actress) – “that was two glorious years!”; and as Florence Foster Jenkins in the Off Broadway transfer to Broadway of Souvenir (Actress). In addition, he was honored with a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for her Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd. Back on Broadway, Kayeoriginated the role of Emma Goldman in Ragtime; joined the company of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 2013 Cinderella; and had a nice run as Madame Morrible in Wicked.
Judy Kaye is married 34 years to actor David Green, whom she met in the bus and truck company of Twentieth Century. He’s a character guy and was playing Oliver Webb, Oscar Jaffee’s temperamental business manager. “We called it the bus and truck company from hell. If we hadn’t met each other, I think we’d both be dead by now.” Green, who was on Broadway in Teddy & Alice, from the late 70s through the early 80s was featured in the second and third national tours of Annie.
And now a visit to Buckingham Palace, where the Queen is having tea and soup between a rehearsal – “Yes, there’s still tinkering going on, a few additions here, a few changes there,” and Monday night’s performance.
“What we’ve become is a very large family,” explains Kaye. “Not just Jeanna, Erin, and I – We’ve been together since the first reading, the La Jolla Playhouse premiere, and a few stops here and there. No sooner than we got to Broadway, we were shut down during previews. We’ve Zoomed through a lost year, never knowing what the outcome would be. Then, shooting the movie here in an empty theatre, but we’re back home and the theatre’s not empty anymore.
“Thank goodness we’re still together,” Kaye says. “I don’t mind bragging about our cast. I think actors are the best people on earth. I love being around my fellow performers. I love how generous they are. Always!”