When a pint-size Leslie Uggams saw her first Broadway show at the age of six, she never could have imagined that 60 years later she would be singing some of those very same songs as part of a solo concert in New York. But that's just what she does in Classic Uggams, a concert she will be performing at 54 Below on June 6 and 7. The show features the Tony winner sharing musical favorites and anecdotes from her long and impressive career.
TheaterMania recently spoke with Uggams about her thoughts on classic songs, her childhood love for Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne, and Stormy Weather — a musical about Horne in which Uggams would love to star on Broadway.
What made you want to do this concert at 54 Below?
I was very excited about it because [54 Below] is theater people reinventing the nightclub scene. The atmosphere here is wonderful, and they really care about the artists. So when I was asked to appear here, I was very excited, and I put together a show especially for my first appearance. This is my encore performance of that show.
Can you tell me about the show?
It's called Classic Uggams, and it's songs that I feel are classics — not necessarily just the old standards, but also some of the contemporary things that I think stand the test of time. I talk about a lot of stuff that I've experienced in my career and how I relate to the songs that I'm singing. They all have personal meanings.
Do you have an example?
"Hello Young Lovers." The first time that I got to go to a Broadway show was with my cousins, who had money. They were from Florida, and they would come up to New York in the summertime, and they would take my mother to a Broadway show. This time they also took me, and the show was The King and I. So this song means a lot to me because I got to see Yul Brynner and Gertrude Lawrence on that stage performing this incredible show. I was six years old.
How have you seen the industry change since that time?
Well, there used to be a lot of clubs for artists to play, and not so much anymore. There's just a precious few. And because of all the media stuff that we have now, it's hard to get people to come out to see the artists. When I was growing up, it was like Oh my god, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne — they're gonna be at a club…I want to go see them in person. Now [because of technology] you can see them everywhere…so it's pulling teeth to get people to come and see you. But it's totally different, because artists, when we're doing a live show — we feed off the audience. Anything can happen, which is wonderful. That's the great thing about the live experience in a club. I love it because you can see faces.
What show could bring you back to Broadway?
A show that I did successfully in California and in Philadelphia, Stormy Weather. It's about Lena Horne. It's a wonderful production. We won all kinds of awards. And it's about her life from the time she was in the Cotton Club till she did her one-woman show. It's a cast of nine people, and it's just wonderful.