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Getting to Know Carolee Carmello

A chat with Carolee Carmello, the radiant co-star of the Paper Mill Playhouse production of The King and I.

Carolee Carmello performing at a press preview
of The King and I
(Photo: Michael Portantiere)
Once the Paper Mill Playhouse announced that Carolee Carmello would play Mrs. Anna Leonowens in The King and I, tons of people got on Internet chat rooms to cheer the decision and vow that they'd get out there--meanwhile moaning that finding the theater in Millburn, New Jersey is murderously difficult. Well, as someone who drives through New Jersey's erratically marked roads more than 10,000 miles each year, I do share your pain. But no pain, no gain, as they say. And, verily: Will your life proceed merrily without Carolee? You only have between tonight and May 19 to catch her Mrs. Anna.

There is no doubt that she is one of Broadway's rising stars as well as one of the musical theater's loveliest people, a truly down-to-earth woman who seems to have no pretenses. "I'll be 40 this year," she blithely offers, saving me from spending time looking in various Theatre Worlds to find out when she was born. Getting to know her (as she was preparing to sing "Getting to Know You") makes me sure that her taking on Kate in that Taming of the Shrew musical was quite a stretch for her, because this lady shares none of the worst qualities associated with Katharine and is hardly a diva. Yes, there is a word that rhymes with "itch" that should be applied to her, but it's "rich," as in rich with talent and--she'll be the first to tell you this--rich with blessings. She even reads reviews in hopes of learning something. "If you continually get reviews that say you're doing something wrong," she cautions, "there must be something to it."

Carmello never planned to be a performer. Granted, as a child, she would attentively watch musical movies on TV--"and then I thumped around the living room playing all the parts," she tells me over lunch. (Fittingly enough, she is eating a Thai dish with chopsticks.) "But I never said to myself, 'Someday, I'll be on stage doing that!'" Soon enough, however, she was indeed on stage doing just that, in between studying business administration at SUNY-Albany. "My dorm put on shows every year and I did Nancy in Oliver!" she recalls. That she snagged the lead still didn't impress her into thinking she was something. "It was my dorm," she says, imbuing that last word with contempt. "The Dutch Quad! A hundred people auditioned...and half of them got parts."

Still, she earned the attention of someone connected with Schenectady Light Opera who urged her to try out for their upcoming production of The Music Man: "I was a junior in college and I walked in saying, 'Hello! I'm here! I'm going to try out for the play-y!'" In fact, she tried out for Marian the Librarian. They initially turned her down: Too young. But here's where her inherent theatrical instincts took hold. Just as Mildred Dunnock did when Elia Kazan told her that she was too young for Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman, Carmello showed up the next day in a dull suit ("I was working as a teller at a bank at the time"). She auditioned again and landed Miss Paroo.

She must have been pretty good in that part, too, for a producer in Lake George, New York happened to see her at a rehearsal and urged her to audition for They're Playing Our Song. "But he told me that, if I got a part, I'd have to join Actors' Equity," she relates. "I had no idea what he meant. He said, 'That's the union you join when you're a professional actor.' And I thought, 'Professional Actor!' If they were writing a musical, there'd be a song there." (Those with a jealous streak will be relieved to learn that she didn't get the lead in ...Song but had to settle for being one of Sonia's three alter-egos.) Her parents were supportive of Carolee's performing and even asked a friend of theirs from high school if she'd house their daughter for a while. "The funny thing," Carmello tells me, "is that her name was Carolee, too. She's the only other Carolee I know in the world. And yes, of course, Carolee Carmello is my real name. That's just not something you change a name to."

She has never professionally used her business degree--"But," she says in a no-nonsense voice, "there is a lot of business in show business. Contracts. Résumés. And if there's a letter to be written in my house, I'm the one who usually does it. Like if we're complaining to the contractor." "We" means Carmello and husband Gregg Edelman; they first met when she was an understudy in City of Angels and he was the leading man. Nothing happened then because he was the Tony-nominated star, she was an understudy, and she was only there for two months before she was offered Florence in a Chess tour. Not until she was on the same playing field with Edelman--when they each had a lead in Arthur at the Goodspeed Opera House, five years later--did they connect, leading to a marriage in 1995.

It won't surprise many readers to learn that one of the fondest theatrical memories Carmello has is of Parade--and not just because she landed a Tony nomination for playing Lucille Frank, the heartbroken wife of accused murderer Leo Frank. "I'm usually replacing someone or doing revivals," she admits, "so this was the first and only time for me that I was there from the very beginning to the very end on Broadway. I really felt I was part of the fabric of the show. And I believed in Parade from the first reading I did in Philadelphia in 1996. It was the first time I ever left the baby because it was the best score I'd heard in years. After working on it a couple of days, all of us were saying, 'Wow, is this really as good as we think it is?'"

Some said yes, some said no. Carmello says, "It was frustrating that it ended so soon but I did learn a lot from it--like how to stand still. I'm usually playing the bombshell or the loud, gum-chewing broad, and Parade was the first time I played someone very contained. It used to be so hard for me to be on stage without always 'doing' something, but that character taught me how much power you can show from just sort of standing still."

She and her husband were offered jobs playing Leo and Lucille in the tour of Parade. "It was agonizing for us not to do it," she tells me, "but we were trying to get pregnant and our daughter was just about to start school. So we put our family in front of our ambitions." Incidentally, "they" did get pregnant. Ethan is now one while his big sister, Zoe, is six. "They really liked going to California and seeing Gregg in Into the Woods," says Carolee. "They loved how funny he was. And that's great, because Gregg rarely gets to be funny; he's the leading man or the bad guy. But I do hope that people come away from seeing him as the Prince and say, 'I never knew Gregg Edelman could be that funny.'"

As good as Parade was, Carmello admits that her most riveting theatrical moment occurred last September, when Kiss Me, Kate seemed certain to close in the aftermath of 9/11. "How we all bonded together and kept the show open," she says, her voice still full of wonder. "It was the most moving day I've ever spent in the theater, far and away above any opening or closing night or Tony Awards."

While Carmello has yet to professionally use her minor in French, that ability had to have helped her accent when she did The Scarlet Pimpernel. "Well," she says, lifting her hands to make a "who knows?" gesture, "I may still have to use all those college skills someday. Plenty of people I know have roaring successes on Broadway and then don't work for three years." Perhaps, but few would be against this lady.

Carmello with Kevin Gray,
her King and I co-star
(Photo: Michael Portantiere)
So, would you like to know how to get to the Paper Mill Playhouse to see her? I go through the Lincoln Tunnel, get on the New Jersey Turnpike, and take the road that first says Exit 14-14A-14B-14C. The one you want is Exit 14; it can be found shortly after you see a sign that says "Turnpike South" and another that says Rtes 78-1-9-22. For a while, you'll see signs saying Newark Airport-Holland Tunnel. Stay with that road, though it will soon split and you'll take Newark Airport Exit 14. Once you pay the 85-cent toll (money well spent to see Carolee Carmello!), take 78W. You'll be faced with the choice of express or local. Take the local. But if you inadvertently get on the express road, don't worry. In a few miles, you'll find a spot where you can cross over to the local lane and it'll still be before the Paper Mill exit.

Keep going--under the Lyons Avenue overpass (undoubtedly named for the New York Post critic), past the entrances for the Garden State Parkway. Don't get on either of those, for you want the Millburn-Maplewood exit, numbered 50-B. (This will be easy for any musical enthusiast to remember, for Rodgers and Hammerstein in '50 "B"-gan writing The King and I.) Once you take the exit, you'll come to a light. Take a right. ("To the right; ever to the right. Never to the left. Forever to the right.") Go past Hilton Avenue (named for the Side Show twins, natch) and Springfield Avenue (think of all the musical sequences on The Simpsons). Then, right after the Millburn Mall, at the light, take a left. (So much for "ever to the right.") Keep going on this road (Rte. 630W) until you get to a store called Annie Sez (which has the same lettering as our Annie musical) on your right and one called Marsh (named for Julian, of course) on your left. Go between them and keep going past My Favorite Muffin (which should remind you of the underrated My Favorite Year) until you reach Charlie Brown's. (You're a good restaurant, Charlie Brown!) There, take a right on Main Street and then another right at the fork and you'll soon come upon the Paper Mill Playhouse, The King and I, and Carolee Carmello.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]