Leslie Uggams: In Concert for American Songbook
By Ellis Nassour
Last Saturday, in the American Songbook series, Tony and Emmy winner, Golden Globe nom, and hometown gal Leslie Uggams gave her first New York concert in 18 years. It was flawless and, as far as the timbre of her voice, as if time had stopped. Where had that voice been? Well, here and there.
She’s been doing concerts – just not in NY, and plays. Most recently, she was Off Bway in Signature Theatre Company’s revival of Leslie Lee’s The First Breeze of Summer; and, prior to that, on Bway, as Ethel Thayer in the revival of On Golden Pond co-starred with James Earl Jones.
The good news is that it appears she’s headed back to Bway in Stormy Weather, the musical about Lena Horne. And will soon be making her Cafe Carlyle debut.
For Uptown/Downtown, Miss Uggams looked back on over a half century in the business. She began with new spin on "There’s a Boat That’s Leavin’ Soon for New York" [from Porgy and Bess], interpolating a section of "New York, New York" to personalize it. She used an autobiographical adaptation of "Born in a Trunk," the Garland showstopper from A Star Is Born, to introduce the audience to her years as a child star and singer in Harlem clubs.
She sang songs made famous by Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Dinah Washington – artists she appeared with at the Apollo [get this, from age 9-16; but, in fact, she’d been recording since age 8, and appearing on radio and in a network sit-com]. She did some high-steppin’ jive and had the audience ROTF with stories of what transpired backstage.
As she segued into a mellow mood, Miss Uggams stunned the audience who seemingly had forgotten what she’s capable of. Her renditions of "Summertime" and "I Got Plenty o’ Nothin’ [P&B] brought the house down. As she perched on the piano in a solo spot and rendered "If He Walked into My Life" [Mame], the response was more thunderous. She later reprised songs from her award-winning role in Hallelujah, Baby, "My Own Morning" and "Being Good." Skipping over her Sing Along with Mitch TV days, which made her a household word, Miss Uggams closed with a torch classic, done to perfection, "Stormy Weather."
That tune is the center piece of the loosely biographical musical, Stormy Weather, based on the life of Lena Horne, legendary singer, beauty, and star of MGM movie musicals, starring Leslie Uggams as the "older" Miss Horne, in engagements in Phily at the Prince Music Theatre and on the West Coast at the Pasadena Playhouse broke b. o. records.
The musical takes Lena Horne from the chorus of the Cotton Club in the 30s through the swing era to the soundstages of MGM, her blacklisting for being tagged a Communist sympathizer to her ultimate "comeback" in her brilliant and often searing 1981 one-woman show on Broadway, The Lady and Her Music.
Conceived and written by Sharleen Cooper Cohen, S.W. is filled with musical gems from the Porter, Arlen and Mercer, Rodgers and Hart and Strayhorn songbooks. Michael Bush, former associate A.D. of Manhattan Theatre Club, is onboard as director, with Randy Skinner as choreographer.
"It takes audiences on the full journey," says Miss Uggams, "the stormy times and the extraordinary ones. Both the younger and older Lena are out there and very much a part of everything."
Among the featured roles are the younger Lena Horne; Miss Horne’s first husband, composer, MGM music director, arranger, and pianist Lenny Hayton; and author, actress, and MGM vocal coach Kay Thompson, who’s enjoying a huge revival of interest thanks to her goddaughter Liza Minnelli.
Uggams was the ultimate Horne fan. "Anytime she was in a musical, I went to the theater. When she was in a movie, I was there. I think my parents got tired of me always talking about Lena!, Lena!, Lena!"
She has Miss Horne partially to thank for her Tony Award. "Hallelujah, Baby" was written for Lena," she explains, "and when she passed on it, I got the role."
Hallelujah, Baby! was a cavalcade of African-American history from the turn of the 20th Century to the late 60s with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Adolph Green and Betty Comden and book by Arthur Laurents. "I was 23 and on Broadway in a show written by legends. I couldn’t believe it."
Miss Uggams’ manager/husband Grahame Pratt and producer Stewart Lane are looking to open for the 2010-2011 season, says Mr. Pratt, "in a theatre West of Broadway."
Asked how she keeps those "pipes" so pristine, Miss Uggams replied, "I just respect them and take care of them."
Miss Uggams will make her Cafe Carlyle debut on March 30. The engagement runs through April 17. For reservations, call (212) 744-1600.