Meet Judy Kaye - The Phantom's Diva

by Maryann Lopinto


Scene I

The year is 1933. The scene is towards the end of the motion picture 42nd Street. The leading lady has broken her ankle just forty-eight hours before opening night. Peggy Sawyer, a girl in the chorus, is brought in to replace her, she goes in an unknown and comes out a star.

Scene II

The year is 1978. The show is On the Twentieth Century, a musical based on the play and film Twentieth Century by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht. The leading lady is ill and leaves the show. Judy Kaye, the understudy, is brought in to replace her, she goes in an unkown and comes out a star.

The plot of Scene I and Scene II are similar, but Scene I is fiction and Scene II really happened.

Judy Kaye was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona. As a child she had the usual curiosity about the theater and loved putting on plays in her backyard. Many of them were based on movies she had just seen and liked, but her favorites were religious dramas. It must have seemed a little strange to the neighbors watching this little Jewish girl on her knees, crossing herself, acting out passion plays.

Judy made her first actual public appearance at the age of six in a dance recital; at seven, at her Temple, she played Queen Esther in a Purim play.

"It never occurred to me that I could actually make a living out of acting until I got into college,: Judy says. "I knew I loved doing it, but it seemed too unbelievable to think that I could actually have a life in the theatre, even though I had been studying acting. I had been studying music and dance since I was little, doing all the required stuff. It finally got to me in college; I happened to be in Los Angeles, so I started going out on auditions, and it worked."

When Judy made her decision to go into the theater her parents were very supportive, even though they had initially been afraid their daughter would be hurt by all the rejections. They liked what she did, but they were not too sure if other people would. It was when they actually saw the reaction of an audience to their daughter's performance, in a high school production of Bells are Ringing in which Judy played the lead role as Ella Peterson and received a screaming, standing ovation for her efforts, that they decided to trust their instincts.

Her mother remembers Judy as being a very independent person from the time she was very small. She had a little toilet seat, a "toidy," like most children had, but she would carry it on her arm and wouldn't let anyone help her with it. She had to do it herself. From that moment, they knew she was going to do whatever she wanted, so they might as well get on board and enjoy the ride with her, and they always have. They've been through everything: the flops and the successes.

One of Judy's role models was Barbra Streisand. Like all the other girls coming up in her day, she wanted to be like the unique Streisand until one day she suddenly realized it was a trap. She knew Streisand was wonderful, and still is, but a lot of people were affected by her style of singing. Judy had been singing around the Phoenix area at B'Nai B'Rith luncheons, and people started asking her to sing like Barbra. From that time on she started developing her own style, and if she emulated anyone, it was male singers, baritones like Robert Goulet with warm vocal sounds, and anyone who sang in a bartione clef, like Marilyn Horne, because she loved that warm kind of singing.

Judy Kaye was also influenced by Mary Martin and other great stars of the theatre. She loved listening to them and watching them as she thought how wonderful it would be to have a career like that.

Judy migrated to New York by way of Los Angeles, where she attended U.C.L.A. She avoided going to New York because she was afraid of the rejection she might receive when she began auditioning, but since what she loved most was musical theater, and New York was where it happened, she made her first working trip there in 1971. She slept on friend's couches and went on auditions. She went back to Phoenix, then returned to New York to audition for Grease and was cast in the first national company. Everytime she would audition in New York, she would wind up going out of town with a show.

She made a commitment to come back to New York in 1977, and soon appeared at New Jersey's Papermill Playhouse for the first time, as Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar, a role she had already performed many times.

Following Superstar, she went back into Grease, this time on Broadway. It was during her run in this musical that she was called to audition for Harold Prince.

She had already auditioned for him a couple of times in Los Angeles, and he had offered her a part as the replacement for the Old Lady in Candide but could never come up with a reasonable salary that would enable her to pay her rent and eat--two very good reasons for turning down any part.

Her audition for Prince in New York was for a new musical called On the Twentieth Century, even though he told her going in there was really no part for her in the show as Madeline Kahn had already been cast as the female lead, but he did want to hear how Judy was singing "these days."

She found out the very day of her audition that she had the job as Ms. Kahn's understudy. She didn't really want to be anyone's understudy, a heartbreaking job at best, but eventually she gave in and took the chance. The rest is musical comedy history.

A little more than six weeks after the show opened, Madeline Kahn was having both physical and emotional problems doing eight performances a week. Under a mutual agreement, she left the show. On that particular day, Judy went about her business as usual, but neglected to call her answering service. She arrived at the theater a little late, and was welcomed by everyone waiting at the door to tell her she was going on in Kahn's role.

Judy was offered the part permanently after filling in for Madeline after nine performances, a situation which rarely occurs in the theater. It was an incredible experience for her: she was the lead in a big Broadway show, with her name in lights, and the press had a ball with the story. It's almost unbelievable now to realize that Judy almost turned down the job which brought her "instant" stardom.

After On the Twentieth Century had completed its Broadway run, Judy took the show on the road in a major tour; Rock Hudson played the male lead in ths version.

Unfortunately, Judy could not be nomiated for a Tony Award for her role in the musical because of the American Theatre Wing's policy decreeing that only the person who originated a role would be eligible for a nomination (the only exception was in 1971, when Larry Kert received a nomination after having replaced Dean Jones in Company); Judy probably would have won the award had she had the chance to be in the running (Kahn got the nomination, but lost to Liza Minnelli for her performance in The Act). She did, however, receive a Theatre World Award, A Drama Desk nomination, and the Los Angeles Drama Critics' Circle Award.

But this year, 1988, Judy Kaye was nominated, and won the Tony Award as "Best Featured Actress in a Musical" for her performance as Carlotta, the Italian diva in The Phantom of the Opera.

When we asked what winning the Tony Award meant to her, Judy's reply was, "it is the affirmation of your peers that you really belong. That there is a niche for you and that you do belong to this community of players. All I ever wanted to be was a working actress, and I thought that was the most romantic concept, and that's what I am, a working actress. The rest is gravy after that. It's the acknowledgement and approval of all those people that you spend day after day, year after year, working with and emulating. And all those marvelous people who come to the theatre, the public and your fellow performers. It's a lot of things rolled into one. But the main thing is that it is a pat on the back in a major kind of way. It feels like the beginning, and I hope indeed that it is a beginning, that means 'Well, where do we go from here?' instead of 'This is it!'"

To prepare for her Tony-winning performance in Phantom each day, Judy arrives at the theatre at 7:00 p.m. for the 8 o'clock performance. But during the day, her preparation is going to the gym to keep in shape, a little singing here and there between dusting her apartment, watering the plants and walking Lulu, her dog. When she does get to the theatre, she says hello to everyone, puts on her make-up, stretches a little, gets into costume, picks up the severed head (her prop for her first scene), and goes on stage.

Judy never really gets to finish a song in the show because something always happens, plotwise, to prevent it, but she does have some of the most lavish and colorful costumes. The one she wears in her opening number weighs about seventy pounds. As Judy's dressing room is on the second floor, it is too heavy and too wide to get down the stairs, so she has to put it on off stage. She calls it her "Volkswagon dress," and if anyone happens to bump into her, she is thrown off balance.

Judy Kaye has played many roles in her career, among them, Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun, Lalume in Kismet, Maria in The Sound of Music, Lucy van Pelt in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown (which she played in Los Angeles for its two-year run), Godspell, Pistache in Can Can, and Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd. Her only theatrical hang-up is that she will not appear in the nude, as she just couldn't be anyone else in the buff! She turned down an audition for Steaming (the role played by Judith Ivey) because it would have meant performing in the nude. She takes her hat off to Ms. Ivey for being able to do that, but nothing else!

On one occasion, when she was appearing in Hair in Sacramento, California and it came time for everyone to take off their clothes, she respectfully declined. As Judy says, "It would have been very difficult to take off my clothes that summer and then the next summer to go back there and play Maria in The Sound of Music!"

Of all the roles she's played, Judy can't say which is her favorite. "They are all your favorites when you're doing them, they are like your children." She loved doing Twentieth Century because of what it meant to her personally, and her role in Annie Get Your Gun because "it is like the triathalon of American Musical Theatre."

Of the parts she would like to do, one is the role of Eliza in My Fair Lady. Judy was "devastated" when they revived it without her, but she was in Los Angeles at the time and didn't even get a chance to audition for it. She would like to have the opportunity to do Anna in The King and I, Mame, and Rose in Gypsy. She did five companies of Fiddler on the Roof, playing four Hodels and one Tzeitel, and she thinks the next time this show comes up she would probably like to do Golde, even though that character doesn't have many chances to sing.

Judy's voice spans three octaves. She started out as a tenor and now sings all the way up to an E natural (for money, that is), but basically she feels she is now a soprano.

Prior to opening in The Phantom of the Opera, and almost eight years after getting her big break on Broadway in Twentieth Century Judy did a bus-and-truck tour of that show. She had come full circle, she felt, and it was quite an experience. Frank Gorshin played the male lead, and Imogene Coca re-created the part she played on Broadway. The tour covered 62 cities in eighteen weeks (talk about an endurance test!). Sometimes they had to travel 1,000 miles from one booking to the next, and it became difficult to figure out what day of the week it was ("Well, if we're in Detroit, it must be Tuesday, where's the dressing room?").

In the second leg of the tour, in twelve weeks they traveled a little more than 18,600 miles. That tour was dubbed "The Bus-and-Truck to Hell."

On the first day of rehearsals Judy met David Green, another actor in the show, and they became friends. As the tour proceeded, they became better friends, and it was her romance with David that kept Judy's sanity on the tour. One day, on a 9-seat plane between Denver and Pueblo, Colorado, he proposed to her. She accepted. On April 26, 1987, a few weeks after the tour ended and just before Judy started rehearsals for the Papermill Playhouse production of Annie Get Your Gun, she and David were married in Phoenix.

Ironically, it was during the tour that Judy had to fly to New York to audition for Phantom, so On the Twentieth Century has been quite a memorable show for her, not the least because she became a star on Broadway in the musical and she met her husband in the bus-and-truck company.

At one point during this past January, Judy and David were working just down the block from each other, she in rehearsals for Phantom and he was J. P. Morgan in Teddy and Alice. They have worked together on occasion, once doing a duet in Wall-to-Wall Cole Porter, a twelve-hour concert that took place in New York City and they hope other opportunites will follow.

Judy made her movie debut as Alan King's daughter in Just Tell Me What You Want, and she has appeared on numerous TV shows including The Doctors, Kojak, and a pilot with Sally Struthers called Me On the Radio. She's performed her critically-acclaimed nightclub act in both New York and Los Angeles.

She can also be found on some records, too.

Judy is featured on the original cast recording of Oh, Brother!, a Broadway show that had a very short run; she sings on the Book-of-the-Month Club album Songs of New York; and she can also be heard on RCA Red Seal's A Stephen Sondheim Evening, a "live" recording of a concert given at the Whitney Museum which was lifted almost in its entirety and put on a five-record set called A Collector's Sondheim. There is also Lola, an original musical just for record, on Painted Smiles, and a musical version of The Secret Garden, with Barbara Cook and George Rose, on CBS Collector's Series. Still to come is the first recording ever of Villa-Lobos score for Magdalena, which was done in a concertized version in November, 1987 at Alice Tully Hall in New York, to be released by CBS Masterworks.

Judy also recorded a solo album entitled Where Oh Where, Rare Songs of the American Theatre. This recording has, itself, become quite rare. She was hoping people would buy her record, and they did. They bought and bought it, and now it can't be found anywhere. She also recorded an album entitled Rare Songs of Harold Arlen, and doesn't believe it will ever be released. Both albums were for Premiere Records, and her relationship with that label has ended.

"I always wanted to have my own record because I grew up listening to the great performers of Broadway, such as Mary Martin and Ethel Merman," Judy said. "Nowadays you cannot find any recordings of today's theatre performers. In ten years, no one will ever know how any of us, such as Judy Kuhn, Patti Cohenour, or myself, sounded apart from our original cast recordings, if they are still in print. You can go into any record shop in London and there are racks and racks of English theatre people like Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson. This is an area that is sadly lacking in this country."

What's in store for Judy Kaye? Well, as of this moment she is committed to The Phantom of the Opera until January 1, 1989, but who knows what will happen after that. There are some projects coming up, and she would like to have time to do them. There's a possibility that she will appear in the Los Angeles company of Phantom. She'd like to do another cabaret act, some opera, films, TV, and she would especially like to get back into a recording studio to record some albums of wonderful theatre music.

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