Cady Huffman
Cady Huffman
To paraphrase that classic E.F. Hutton commercial of years ago, when Elaine Stritch talks, people listen. Or at least Cady Huffman did. "Do you remember that commercial all the Broadway people did right after 9/11?" says Huffman, who was then starring in her Tony Award-winning role as Ulla in The Producers. "Well, lots of people were talking to Elaine about her show Elaine Stritch: At Liberty and she turned to me and said 'Did you ever do something like that?' When I told her I'd never done a solo show, she said, 'You will.' And it's resonated with me all these years. Elaine and I have the same birthday, February 2. And let's face it, when Elaine Stritch talks, you listen."

It may have taken nearly five years, but Huffman is finally ready to fulfill Stritch's prophecy and fly solo. The result, Cady Huffman: Live at Ars Nova will be unveiled at the intimate West Side venue on August 20 and 21, and Huffman is determined to show off all her many colors. "I'll be singing some traditional theater stuff, and some operatic soprano songs, so I can be the next Shirley Jones or Barbara Cook," she says. "But when I grow up, I really want to be a rock star. I've always loved The Who, The Beatles, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, so you'll hear some of that, too." Huffman will be backed up by a band led by Mitch Kaplan, who has worked extensively with Huffman's pal Sandra Bernhard, and she even has two back-up singers, one male and one female. "Back-up singers are like a dream come true, even if they are better singers than me," she laughs. "But we're not doing that Supremes/Dreamgirls crap. We'll be doing 'boy' songs."

Indeed, if there's a theme to the show, says Huffman, "it's about how other people perceive me versus how I perceive myself. The irony is I'm completely a tomboy. As a kid, I thought if I really tried hard enough, I could turn myself into a boy, but it didn't work. And now, I play all these ultimate girl parts," she says. Ironically, Huffman eventually made her way to Broadway as a boy playing a girl; in 1985, she did a short stint as Angelique, one of the Cagelles, in the original production of La Cage Aux Folles. She then moved onto Bob Fosse's Big Deal and got her big break five years after that when she was cast by Tommy Tune as Ziegfeld's Favorite in The Will Rogers Follies, earning her first Tony Award nomination. "It was during that show that I first got used to interacting with the audience," she says. "The fourth wall was pretty much down, so I could look out to a particular person and feel like they were right next to me. Unfortunately, we never broke the fourth wall at The Producers. Well, maybe Nathan [Lane] did sometimes."

Still, Huffman was nervous about actually talking in front of an audience. "Lea DeLaria knew I wanted to do a show like this, so she forced me to join her on some of her club dates and not just sing, but do patter. She'd always say, 'just say something.' And eventually, I got a lot more comfortable with it," she says. "I was also influenced a lot by watching Ann Hampton and Liz Callaway. I think I'm also at a point in my life that I've had enough professional experience that I have something interesting to say." Huffman has been working hard writing the patter herself, although she's relies on the "excellent notes" given to her by her director, David Brind.

While she hasn't been seen on Broadway since she left The Producers in August, 2003, Huffman has been keeping busy in other arenas. She's performed in numerous benefits, including the recent The Atrainplays,Volume XXI, Scott Siegel's Broadway by the Year series, and is spending more time working in television and film. For a few months, she was Dr. Paige Miller on the ABC soap opera One Life to Live. "Daytime is so freakin' hard," she laughs. "In film, if you do seven pages a day, it's ambitious; but on my first day on the show, we shot 143 pages. I loved the cast and I'd happily go back to the show if I had a more fun role to play. Paige was just too boring."

On the film front, Huffman is particularly proud of $20 Drinks, a short film she made with Bernhard that premiered earlier this year at the TriBeCa Film Festival. "I play this actress who's doing commercials and voiceovers, and Sandra is this old friend of mine, who's also an actress and has just won the Golden Globe. It's also about perception -- how we perceive each other's lives. It's very dramatic, not the goofball comedy some people expect," she says. "I actually don't know how I got cast. I had never met Sandra before. Actually, when I got the script, it didn't really trigger anything, but I figured it had to be interesting to work with her. We work very differently, because of our training and our background, but we had a lot of fun together."

More recently, she's shot small parts in two upcoming films: The Itty Bitty Titty Committee, which she calls "a campy lesbian movie," and The Nanny Diaries, in which she plays one of a series of Upper East Side moms who interview Scarlett Johansson to be her child's nanny. "My character doesn't even have a name; it's just 'Divorcing Mom,'" she says with a laugh. "They put me in all these crazy Valentino clothes and it's so funny. Scarlett was very adorable, very sweet. In the scene, there's a maid who is following me on hands and knees, and Scarlett made sure that actress had kneepads."

Meanwhile, Huffman is still waiting for America to see some of her finest work, in John Turturro's long-delayed musical movie Romance & Cigarettes. "It's doing gangbusters in Canada and Europe, but I don't know what the hold-up is here," she says. "They called and asked if I wanted to do this choreographed death scene with Christopher Walken to the song 'Delilah' sung by Tom Jones. I said yes before I even read the script. I loved working with John, and it turns out we're actually related on my mother's side; we both come from families from the same small fishing village in Italy."

What about the Huffman part? "I don't know much about my dad's family -- they're from Nebraska -- but Felicity Huffman, to whom I'm not related, told me we're Dutch," she says. "It's funny now, my mom gets calls all the time where people say, 'we just saw your daughter,' and she's never sure if they're talking about me or Felicity. Meanwhile, I've recommended myself to Marc Cherry [the creator of Desperate Housewives, in which Felicity Huffman stars] many times to be on the show, but so far nothing's happened. But it would be really cool, wouldn't it?"