Judy Kaye(Photo: Maxine Henryson)
Judy Kaye
(Photo: Maxine Henryson)
It's been more than 20 years since Judy Kaye "pulled a Shirley MacLaine," to borrow a phrase from the musical Applause. Cast as the understudy to Madeline Kahn as Lily Garland in Hal Prince's original Broadway production of On the Twentieth Century, Kaye found herself an overnight star when she was called upon suddenly to replace Kahn, who began missing performances very early in the run due to personal problems. The resultant attention helped Kaye to establish a career that has since included many plum assignments, such as her Tony Award-winning role of Carlotta in The Phantom of the Opera and, most recently, the part of Emma Goldman in the magnificent Broadway production of Ragtime.

Now, Kaye is preparing for her first solo cabaret act in a long time--aptly titled Solo--at Arci's Place. About a week before her debut there, she talked with TheaterMania about the show and shared her thoughts on the roll-of-the-dice nature of the theater.

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TM: How great that you've gotten this act together, Judy.

JK: It's been a while since I did something like this. My first cabaret act was when I was doing On The Twentieth Century in 1978. I'd do the show, the curtain would come down, I would sort of re-tool my costume and makeup, jump into a limousine, and go down to Reno Sweeney's. I played there for a week, then I went back and did another act there about six months later. I also took that act to The Back Lot, a big showroom in Los Angeles. The last time I did cabaret was kind of a quickie at the Russian Tea Room; I had Susan Birkenhead write me a very adorable song called "The Tea Room Gavotte." But that was quite a while ago.

TM: Tell me about your new show.

JK: It's really a mélange; like an old-fashioned kind of club act, in many ways. Great songs--some known very well, some known barely at all--from various time periods and lots of different composers. There's no theme here except that it's me, for the first time in a long time, by myself in front of a New York audience. I've been in some shows with very large casts, but now it's going to be just me out there with Michael Horsley at the piano. Arci's Place is a true throw-back; it's a real supper club with wonderful food, great lighting, and a great sound system.

TM: I'm guessing your repertoire will include musical theater songs.

JK: It's Broadway musicals, it's Tin Pan Alley. There's a goodly chunk of both comedy and pathos. I want people to bring their hankies and their funny bones.

TM: Now that so many years have gone by, I wonder, what are your thoughts in retrospect about the On the Twentieth Century situation.

JK: It was kind of a mixed bag. Part of my success hinged on Madeline leaving the show, and that was very tough. I had turned down the understudy job three times because I just didn't want to be an understudy; it's a very tough position, tough on the heart as well as your physical being. When you're an understudy, you're more or less relying on someone else's misfortune. Once in a while, you go on because the producer lets the star take off for a night or two to take a really great job, but most of the time it's because they're under the weather. That's not a happy thing, so you try to make the best of it. Once I took the job and accepted all that being an understudy was, I actually started to have a ball, because there was no pressure on me. I had a fun little part in the show: the maid. On a good night, I could get probably eight laughs out of it. George Lee Andrews and I were off together learning our parts in the wings, because they weren't having understudy rehearsals. But they didn't want to use Madeline to stage the numbers around, so they used me; I was a stand-in at least as much as an understudy. I got to learn the piece and make some decisions, in my fantasy life, about what it would be like to do the show. When I went on the first time, it was like an out-of-body experience.

TM: That's the last time I remember such a dramatic substitution of an understudy for a star.

JK: Understudies are saving the day all the time, and nobody hears about them. My situation was compounded by the fact that, the first time I went on, no one knew I was going on until 3:00 that afternoon. I had gone to the gym and I hadn't called my service; it was so late at that point, I figured I'd just have dinner and go directly to the show. I walked into the theater not knowing I was going on, but everyone else knew. Everybody but Hal [Prince] showed up that night, all of the producers. I still don't know who did this, but somebody bought me two-dozen long-stemmed roses, and they were presented to me at the curtain call. It also happened to be the night of the premiere of the movie of A Little Night Music. That's why Hal wasn't at the show, but he had left word that I was to be brought to the party for the movie. I wasn't dressed; I was wearing a pair of jeans, a plaid flannel shirt, and a big down jacket from the Army-Navy store. I looked like hell! They ushered me to The Ginger Man, where I was put at a table with Elizabeth Taylor, Len Cariou, Hal, and all these people. I just sat there like this big, fat fly on the wall. It was an amazing night! I loved doing On the Twentieth Century, and I loved going out on the road in it with Rock Hudson, who became such a dear, dear friend.

TM: In a sense, you replaced someone in Ragtime as well: You were the only major Broadway principal who wasn't in the original Toronto production.

JK: I didn't do the show in Toronto, but I had done the workshop. Camille Saviola did the first reading, I think. Then Tovah Feldshuh did the second reading, and I came in and did the fully staged workshop. I was hired for Toronto, then un-hired; Garth Drabinsky called me up in the middle of the night to say that he had been overruled. So I said, "Well, go with God. Have a wonderful show, and I'll get on with my life." It was okay. I took some other work, then they came back to me when they decided to create an entirely new company in Los Angeles. I did the show there, and then they asked me to do it on Broadway, rather than Camille. I felt badly, because it was handled quite clumsily. But, hopefully, it was the right thing for her as well; I don't know if she was very happy doing the part, and I was.

TM: You won your Tony Award for Phantom. Was that a big surprise?

JK: When I first took the job, it certainly wasn't in my mind. As things started rolling, I got the feeling that there was a will out there that I should have it. But there were other wonderful people who were nominated. One of them was a good friend of mine, Alyson Reed, who--quite frankly--was nominated in the wrong category. How do you make Sally Bowles in Cabaret a featured role? When it comes to awards, you just don't know. You can be pretty sure of something, but you shouldn't be, because people may have other things on their mind. I had never been nominated before--I almost had the opportunity to be nominated for On the Twentieth Century, but it was decided in smoky rooms that they wouldn't do that--so I was thrilled to finally get so far. It's a tremendous thrill to stand on the stage on Tony Night and garner the applause and respect of your peers. You can't always take that to the bank, but it's pretty great.

TM: Do you have anything on the horizon that you'd care to mention?

JK: I'm talking to several people who are writing things. Maybe, someday, one of these wonderful projects--or all of them--will be up on the boards and I'll be in them, playing marvelous characters. In the meantime...well, I wouldn't say that I'm accepting all offers, but I'm certainly entertaining them. And if the show at Arci's works out, I'd like to roll with it. I really love this cabaret thing!