Carol Burnett on Loving Kristin Chenoweth, Playing to the Audience, and Reuniting With Brian Dennehy on Broadway
The iconic entertainer joins the rotating cast of A.R. Gurney's Love Letters for four weeks beginning October 11.
Carol Burnett walks into Eugenia Room on the fourth floor of Sardi's and is immediately greeted with a raucous round of applause from an awestruck assembly of seen-it-all journalists and tough-talking camera people. She personally introduces herself to every single person in the room and is clearly moved and humbly flattered when each tells their story of how she, widely considered the first lady of comedy, has affected their lives. After all, she spent 11 years in America's living rooms on her now-legendary variety show. We think we know her in real life, and she's gracious enough to let us continue that illusion.
It's been fifteen years since Burnett last trod the New York boards, singing the hits of Stephen Sondheim in the 1999 musical revue Putting It Together. Thankfully for us, she's preparing for a Broadway return, albeit for only 34 performances, in the new revival of A.R. Gurney's Love Letters at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, October 11-November 8. She sat down with TheaterMania to discuss why this homecoming is meaningful, who she would cast in Once Upon a Mattress, and what the future has in store for the art forms she holds so dear.
Why is Love Letters the show that's bringing you back to Broadway after so long?
It's a beautiful piece. To be in New York in the fall doing that A.R. Gurney piece with one of my favorite actors in the world, Brian Dennehy? Why not?
You've done this play with Dennehy before, right?
Yes, twice. The first time was in Telluride, Colorado. The second time was in Sundance, Utah. That was an outdoor theater. We were outdoors. It started to rain in sheets. I mean, it was pissing down. The audience were in slickers. We wound up doing the entire show, the entire Love Letters piece, with two stage managers holding umbrellas over us. And nobody left. I couldn't get over it. That's how good the writing is.
What are you, as a performer, hoping to get out of this particular Broadway experience?
Total enjoyment. And I'm happy to be back with Brian.
What's harder, a one-off benefit performance, or a long Broadway run?
A longer run is harder. A lot of people who aren't in the theater or don't know think you're up on stage for two hours, two and a half hours, piece of cake. But you have to gear. It's like being an athlete. You can't get a sore throat, you can't be tired, you can't not get a good night's sleep, you have to eat right. All of that. Eight shows a week can be taxing. You have to really take care of yourself.
Do you miss the stage?
I miss it because I miss audiences. I love audiences. That's why we did our show [The Carol Burnett Show] in front of an audience. For eleven years, we did what I would call a little mini-Broadway-musical-comedy revue a week. My first love was the stage.
Why don't you think the variety show format exists anymore?
It's because of money. You couldn't do what we did. We had a twenty-eight piece orchestra. No synthesizers; an orchestra. We had twelve dancers. We had a rep company. Bob Mackie did sixty to seventy costumes a week. He designed everything: the fat suits, the wigs, anything anybody wore. It would be prohibitive today. When reality shows cost a dollar twenty-eight, what are you gonna do? It's the dumbing down of America, I'm afraid. When we did our show, the Saturday-night lineup was All in the Family, Mash, Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, and us. It was appointment television, and that doesn't happen anymore. Too bad.
In your estimation, who are the comic performers to look out for today?
Well, my thing is not stand-up, although I love good stand-up. But I was never that. I couldn't tell a joke to save my soul. My preference is for people who can do sketch comedy or situational comedy, where it's not a joke, but it's telling a story. So naturally, the suspects are Tina [Fey] and Amy [Poehler] and Jane Lynch — I love her. Musically, it's Kristin Chenoweth. She's divine. She reminds me of when I first saw Bernadette Peters. Bernadette was nineteen, the first guest we ever booked.
When did you first see Bernadette?
We saw her in a little show called Dames at Sea. We were just about to start our show the following fall and we saw this girl and it was oh my gosh, this girl. We went backstage, met her, and said 'will you be on my show when it goes on the air?' She became a semi-regular guest we had over the eleven years. Had Kristin been around then, I would have wanted her, because she's the whole ball of wax, too.
Would you ever come back to Broadway in a musical?
No, I don't have the voice anymore. My voice is still pretty good, but I'd have to go back into training. [laughs]
Your performance as Princess Winnifred in Once Upon a Mattress is still considered legendary. Is Kristin the person you'd cast in that role should a revival ever happen again?
Yes. Yes. Yes. She's got it all. She's funny and god knows, she can sing. She can belt and she's got the soprano voice, which I never had. She can do everything. If she did it [on Broadway], I'd like to come in for a month and play the evil queen. I'd do that. I love that show.