Lucie Arnaz(© Joseph Marzullo/Retna)
Lucie Arnaz
(© Joseph Marzullo/Retna)
Having first gained fame for her appearances on her world-famous mother Lucille Ball's TV sitcoms in the 1960s and early '70s, Lucie Arnaz made a smashing Broadway debut in They're Playing Our Song in 1979. Now she is preparing to revisit that triumph in They're Playing Our Song -- Again!, a Kennedy Center concert that will include a condensed version of the show.

Conducted by composer Marvin Hamlisch and co-starring Lucie's original leading man, Robert Klein, the concert will be presented for three performances, May 31-June 2. I recently spoke with Ms. Arnaz, a.k.a. Mrs. Larry Luckinbill, about her career, the death of her mother, and her future plans.

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THEATERMANIA: They're Playing Our Song -- Again! sounds like it's going to be a delight.

LUCIE ARNAZ: It's so cute that they're calling it that, but I was thinking they could also call it They're Playing Our Song: The Senior Tour. The first time we did this program was about two years ago. The Pittsburgh Pops was honoring Marvin on his birthday, and they asked Robert and me to be part of it; we'd each do a 30-minute set and then do some pieces from the show. It became this little, 30-minute musical that worked very well. People heard about it, and we got booked at several other places after that.

TM: Has the program changed since then?

LUCIE: No, it's pretty much the same. Marvin sings for about 30 minutes, then Robert comes out, tells jokes, and sings some funny songs he's written, and then I do sing some Latin stuff and other songs I do in my own show. Then we tell the story of They're Playing Our Song and do about five numbers from it.

TM: I remember waiting to see you at the stage door one night early in the show's run in New York. My friend said "It's great to have you on Broadway," and your response was "It's great to be on Broadway," but you said it in a way that made it sound like it hadn't been easy for you to get there.

LUCIE: I don't think that's what I meant. In reality, sometimes I feel like that line from Funny Girl: "I haven't suffered enough." Life was pretty damn great, and I had some wonderful opportunities in theater that led up to They're Playing Our Song. Right before that, I was out on Long Island, doing Annie Get Your Gun at Jones Beach. I was called to come in and sing for Marvin and read for Neil [Simon]. It was the longest two months in my life, waiting while they saw everyone else in the world. But I got it.

TM: What are you fondest memories of the experience?

LUCIE: It was so remarkable to work with Marvin and Neil and a director as good as Robert Moore, and [choreographer] Patty Birch. We had a really good time, and I learned a lot. Being on 45th Street was like being on campus at college. That's what it feels like when you're on Broadway; all the other students are in all the other classrooms, and the directors and choreographers are the professors. You're learning your craft, and you meet each other at the cafeteria in between shows.

TM: You didn't come back to Broadway until you took over the role of Bella in Lost in Yonkers in 1992. Why did it take so long?

LUCIE: There wasn't anything for me. In those days, it wasn't like it was when Ethel Merman and Mary Martin were performing, when you'd do a hit show and some great team would write another one for you. I stayed in New York for about eight years waiting for the next great part, but it didn't come along. I made a joke that, during that time, you had to have whiskers or skates to be on Broadway. Larry and I got married right after They're Playing Our Song, and we eventually had three kids...

TM: I thought that might have partly accounted for your absence from Broadway.

LUCIE: Not really. When the kids were little, Larry and I worked all the time on tour; we made a ton of money and took the kids all over the country. But then they got to a certain age where we couldn't keep schlepping them around and we had to locate somewhere. They needed to go to a real school, in a real class with a real teacher. So we lived in L.A. for awhile. Larry did a whole bunch of feature films; I did some TV movies and created a club act. Actually, as soon as we had bought a house in L.A., got the kids settled in school, and were really ensconced, I got a call asking if I would come back to New York and do City of Angels.

TM: The original cast?

LUCIE: Yes! I loved Cy Coleman and I loved the show, but I just couldn't do it. It was really sad, but I stayed in L.A. for awhile and made it work. My mother passed away while I was there, so as it turned out, we stayed out there for about four years. Then Larry and I looked at each other one day and said, "It's great here, with the bougainvillea and the palm trees, but we really miss New York." So we moved to Westchester, raised the kids there, and took whatever work was available. From about 1990 until I went to London in 2000 [to do The Witches of Eastwick], I was pretty much committed to kids first, career second.

TM: You mentioned the death of your mother. What was it like to know that the entire world was mourning her?

LUCIE: It was surreal -- and I don't use that word loosely. When there's a public reaction like that, it sort of delays your own mourning period. I've never seen so many people so distraught. People would come up to me crying, and they'd say, "I can't believe she's gone. I watched that show every day of my life." I would say, "Sweetheart, it's still on." Those people didn't actually lose anything, and yet they felt that they had. I used to joke with my mother, "Don't you leave, because I won't be able to handle it."

TM: In a way, it was even worse than the death of a president or a queen because your mother brought so much joy to everyone, and she came into people's homes so often that they felt they knew her personally.

LUCIE: Yes. There was an enormous outpouring of love and sadness. We held memorials in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, all at the same time: Monday night at 8, when her show was on. She didn't want a funeral, so we didn't have a private ceremony. We did it for the fans. I eventually moved her ashes back to Jamestown, New York, where the Lucy/Desi center is. She's buried there with the rest of her family. When I think about it now, it doesn't seem possible that she died in 1989. That's a long time ago.

TM: It seems that she raised you very well. At the Theatre World Awards last year, you joked that it was nice to be at Studio 54 and actually know where you were. But you never really had a reputation as a party girl, did you?

LUCIE: No, no, no. That was just a joke. I missed all the fun!

TM: It's always great to see you on stage. I heard you sing "Fifty Percent" from Ballroom at the American Songbook tribute to Marilyn and Alan Bergman earlier this year. I understand that you agreed to do it at the last minute.

LUCIE: Yes, and I almost said no. I was driving in my car in L.A. when I got the call; Tyne Daly was supposed to do it but something came up, so they asked me to fill in. I was headed somewhere else, but I literally made a U-turn and went back to Hollywood Music. I bought the sheet music, took it to my rehearsal with my conductor, sang it through a couple of times, and performed it three days later in New York.

Lucie Arnaz performing at Birdland(© Michael Portantiere)
Lucie Arnaz performing at Birdland
(© Michael Portantiere)
TM: Your show at Birdland last year was terrific. Did you put it together specifically for that venue?

LUCIE: Yes. I haven't performed it anywhere else. Jim Caruso asked me, "Would you like to do a Birdland night while you're in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels?" One of the Monday dates he offered happened to be my birthday. I thought, "Well, if I do it as Lucie's Birthday Bash at Birdland, it will take the onus off of it for me. It came together, and I had a blast.

TM: I heard that you were great in Dirty Rotten, but I remember that you were out of the show for awhile with a medical problem.

LUCIE: I don't know what happened but, all of a sudden, my left knee started to swell up like crazy. Apparently, I had somehow torn a meniscus. I needed to have surgery. The doctors said I'd be back in the show in three weeks, so I went in for the surgery right away -- and, two days after I got out of the hospital, I got the call that they were going to close the show in September. I was devastated, but at least I got to go back and do the last few performances.

TM: What's your schedule after the D.C. concerts?

LUCIE: I think I'm going to stay close to home for the summer. I'm not praying to get a job right away -- but I have new agents, and I'm certainly not going to tell them not to call me!