Broadway's Favorite Diva

by Sheryl Flatow

Judy Kaye, who divides her time between operas and musicals, stars in New York City Opera's The Pajama Game

From the moment Judy Kaye stepped into the role of Lily Garland in On the Twentieth Century in 1978, it was clear that she was born to play leading roles in musical comedy. Unfortunately, she was born too late. Musical comedy, which thrived during the 1940's, 50's and 60's, was on the wane in the 70's, and has become something of a lost art in the 80's.

Although Kaye's considerable talents have not gone unnoticed--she won a 1988 Tony Award for her performance as Carlotta in The Phantom of the Opera--there's no doubt her star would be shining brighter today if there were more opportunities for her on Broadway.

"Every now and then it hits me," she admits, "and it depresses me when I realize that there was a time when they used to write shows for people like me. I wish I had been around during the so-called golden age. Sometimes I try to imagine what it would have been like to be in some of those great shows."

She is now finding out, courtesy of the New York City Opera and its fourth annual musical comedy season. From March 3 to April 16 the comany is presenting The Pajama Game, which features Kaye as the feisty Babe Williams, who leads her co-workers at a pajama factory to strike for a raise of 7 1/2 cents, putting her on a collision course with her boyfriend, Sid Sorokin. Co-starring with Kaye are Richard Muenz (Sid), Lenora Nemetz (Gladys) and Avery Saltzman (Hines).

The 1954 hit musical is based on the novel 7 1/2 Cents by Richard Bissell, who co-authored the play with George Abbott. Richard Adler and Jerry Ross wrote the music and lyrics, and the score includes such songs as "Hey, There," "Steam Heat" and "Hernando's Hideaway."

The Pajama Game offers Kaye the chance to play "a modern woman," which she says most people in New York have never seen her do. "It's nice to be doing something different," states the Pheonix native, who received critical acclaim for her performance as Abbie Putnam Cabot in an opera version of Desire Under the Elms at City Center in January. "After Carlotta, who is larger than life, I now get to play a real person. It's the kind of hing I thought I'd be doing on Broadway. I never dreamed I'd be doing this in an opera house."

Kaye is, in fact, a classically trained singer who had no interest in opera until recently. While studying drama and voice at UCLA, she was placed in an opera workshop, where she "posed and sang pretty songs" which made very little sense to her.

"The thing that I find fun about performing is telling stories and creating characters," she explains. "As far as I could see, that was not what opera was about. I was lucky because a wonderful coach in the opera workshop advised me to switch to the musical comedy workshop. So I sort of ran screaming from the opera. But as can happen with fate, opera has sought me out. And it seems to me that opera houses now want singers who can really act, so my particular gifts are suddenly viable there."

Her credits reflect her versatility. Since making her Broadway debut in 1977 in Grease, Kaye has also appeared as Euridice in Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld at Santa Fe Opera, Dinah in Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti at Anchorage Opera and Carnegie Hall, Mrs. Lovett in Sondheim's Sweeney Todd at Michigan Opera Theater, Annie Oakley in Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun at Paper Mill Playhouse, and in such long-forgotten musicals as Oh, Brother! and The Mooney Shapiro Songbook. Following The Pajama Game she is scheduled to sing the title role in The Merry Widow at Portland Opera Company, and to appear in a Gershwin concert at Alice Tully Hall.

For someone dividing her time between opera houses and musical theater, the role of Carlotta in Phantom was most appropriate: a diva in a Broadway show. The part requires not only vocal skill, but a knack for comedy: played without humor, Carlotta--rival of the Phantom's love, Christine--comes off as shrill and tiresome.

"After Hal [Prince] hired me, I went to see the show in London," recalls Kaye. "And I thought, 'Why did I take this job? There's really nothing for me to do.' I went back to Hal and said, 'I have some ideas, but they might not be appropriate. They may be too much.' And he said, 'No, we want this person to emerge more.' So he set me free. That's the way Hal works. He hires people he thinks can do the job, and then he wants to see what you have to offer."

The result was a Tony Award for featured actress. "It was an awesome experience," Kaye says. "It's a major pat on the back from your colleagues, and perhaps it's put me closer to the kind of practical acceptance that buys a little more freedom. I hope it's making me more salable, and that maybe somebody will feel they can hang a show on me. More scripts have been coming my way, and I have to believe that's partially the result of the Tony."

Although Kaye has worked steadily throughout her career--she had never had to earn a living outside the industry--it has not always been easy. In 1986 she returned to On the Twentieth Century, a production she characterizes as "a bus-and-truck tour to hell." The company traveled to 63 cities in 18 weeks, and Kaye claims the only reason she survived is because one of the actors in the cast was David Green, who is now her husband. Green is also appearing in The Pajama Game.

"Both of us love doing a Broadway show," states Kaye. "And I hold out hope that soon all the theaters will be lit, and there will be work for everyone, including me."

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