An Interview with Judy Kaye
by Michael Buckley

Judy Kaye couldn't join in the 10th anniversary celebration of The Phantom of the Opera, for which she won a Tony as Carlotta Guidicelli, because she was at an RCA recording session for the forthcoming double CD (released on April 28th) of Ragtime, in which she plays Emma Goldman.

A decade prior to Phantom, the Phoenix-born singer-actress was thrust into prominence when--three months into the run of On the Twentieth Century, the Comden & Green/Cy Coleman musical--she took over for Madeline Kahn in the female lead. Her numerous regional theater roles have a wide range--from Betty Rizzo to Maria von Trapp, from Annie Oakley to Mrs. Lovett.

Kaye also appears on concert and cabaret stages, and records frequently. Among her releases are the double-CD sets of Annie Get Your Gun and The Pajama Game; and she's the voice of Kinsey Milhone, PI, for the Random House books-on-tape series of "Sue Grafton Alphabet Mysteries." In fact, following our interview, she was off to record "N is for Noose."

Unlike most of the Ragtime cast, which transferred to Broadway fron Toronto, Kaye came from the Los Angeles company. On a recent Thursday morning, Kaye speaks from her home in Guttenberg, New Jersey, which she says is directly across from Manhattan's 79th Street Boat Basin. In her words, "It's like 13th Avenue."

Tony Awards Online: How did the recording session for Ragtime go?

Judy Kaye: The first day was hard, because I was trying to use the earphones. There was so much sound in that room, you couldn't hear yourself. It's not easy to take what you do on stage and make it work on disc. The listener has to be able to visualize the show.

TAO: How long have you been playing Emma Goldman?

JK: I was in the workshop. Then, I was asked to do Los Angeles. I was out there eight months, and we started rehearsals for Broadway on December 4, 1997.

TAO: Did you do much research?

JK: I read Goldman's autobiography and copious portions of her writings. I don't know; I think I'm capturing some of her. I'm still working on it. She's extremely powerful. She's in constant motion--even when she's standing still.

TAO: Is it difficult to keep fresh?

JK: With a role like this--where there's not a lot of stage time--you think there's not a lot of opportunities for growth. But, night to night, when you least expect it, a light bulb will go on.

What is difficult is finding how to go away from the stage and keep up my focus and energy. Every time Emma appears in the show, it's after a big moment. She has to be sort of a laser beam. I try to do a little preparation before each entrance. That's a challenge.

TAO: When did you know you wanted to go into show business, Judy?

JK: I didn't know it was something I could do for a living until I got to college--UCLA. About six months into my freshman year, I started buying Daily Variety. The very first audition, I didn't get the job; the second one, I did.

I worked at Melodyland--across the street from Disneyland. I did three shows, and I wound up with featured roles in two of them. After that, I got into You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and played Lucy for two years.

TAO: Your Broadway debut occurred in 1977, when you took over the role of Rizzo in Grease, but you had already played the part on tour.

JK: In 1972, in the first National tour. Jerry Zaks was my leading man; he played Kenickie. Johnny Travolta was 17, he was Doody; Marilu Henner was Marty. We were touring the United States and growing up together. It was a great, great group!

When I was playing Rizzo on Broadway, I got the call to do On the Twentieth Century.

TAO: In which you played Agnes and understudied Madeline Kahn as Lily Garland. How soon did you take over the lead?

JK: We opened February 19th. The first time I went on as Lily was March 6th, and I took over April 15th. I know the dates very well.

It was incredible to be in the eye of a storm like that, but it was a life-changing experience. It made all the rest of this possible.

TAO: And after Broadway, you went on tour with the show.

JK: Opposite Rock Hudson. We became very close. He was a great, great friend; and a generous colleague.

Later, when I was doing a bus-and-truck tour of On the Twentieth Century, I met my husband, David Green. We've worked together alot, and we have an evening that we do together from time-to-time. It's called Love Among the Grown Ups. The first act is playlets without dialogue--all songs; and the second act is all Sondheim. It's about the nuances of relationships.

TAO: You've done a lot of regional theater.

JK: It's very enriching. When people haven't seen me on Broadway for awhile, they ask. "What have you been doing?" I say, "Believe it or not, there's this country out there."

If the role isn't there, or it isn't offered to you, you don't sit around and wait. I sing with symphonies, I record, I do commercials, some TV work. It's well known that I do pretty much anything for money.

TAO: When you won your Tony, you quoted a line from Phantom; "These are things that do happen!"

JK: I also quoted my rabbi: "As he said, last year when I was getting married: 'How long we have waited for this day.'"

TAO: What are some of your favorite roles?

JK: Well, if you were to pin me down, I guess I'd pick Lily Garland, Annie Oakley, and Mrs. Lovett. I would drop everything in a heartbeat to go do Sweeney Todd.

TAO: And what are some career highlights, thus far?

JK: I've been very, very blessed. Very few actors have had even one of the experiences I've had, and I've had them again and again. And most of them have been provided by the New York theatrical community. There have been magical, magical moments.

Highlights would be taking over in On the Twentieth Century. Opening night of Ragtime on Broadway. As wonderful as it is out-and-about, there's no place like home! And most especially, the night I won the Tony!

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