INTERVIEW: Law & Order: SVU’s Tamara Tunie Sings Cy Coleman

The multi-talented actress discusses her role in Cy Coleman: Bringing Jazz to Broadway, her new film with Denzel Washington, and her career wish list.

Tamara Tunie
(© Tristan Fuge)
Tamara Tunie
(© Tristan Fuge)

Tamara Tunie has proven her versatility as an actress for three decades, tackling everything from Shakespeare to soap operas. On May 15 and 16, she’s showing off her singing pipes as part of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Cy Coleman: Bringing Jazz to Broadway at the Allen Room. TheaterMania recently spoke to Tunie about the show, her career, and her new film, Flight, with Denzel Washington.

THEATERMANIA: These shows are put together in a matter of days. Is that intimidating?
TAMARA TUNIE: I got the songs I’m going to be doing a couple of weeks beforehand, but we don’t get together on stage until the day before. Fortunately, I know so much of Cy’s music, that it’s not as terrifying as it could be. And I’m singing some of my favorites: “Big Spender,” “The Best Is Yet to Come,” and “Where Am I Going.”

TM: Did you have a long personal history with Cy Coleman?
TT: We never got to work together. But my favorite remembrance of Cy was when he was playing at Feinstein’s just before he died. Our seats were at the foot of the stage, and Cy sits down at the piano, looks at me, smiles, and essentially flirts with me through the entire show. I felt like I was the only one in the room. It was just fantastic.

TM: Do you remember your first exposure to Cy’s music?
TT: I think it was when I saw the movie of Sweet Charity on television. I wanted to be the first black Charity on Broadway, but Debbie Allen beat me to it. And actually I knew his music — although I didn’t realize it until years later — from Playboy After Dark, which was this variety show on late-night TV. Cy wrote the theme music. It was very cool and sexy music. My husband [singer Gregory Generet] recently found them on DVD, and there was such amazing talent on that show.

TM: Are you excited to be working with this cast?
TT: Yes. First of all, I have been a huge fan of Michele Lee — and not only because of Knots Landing. When I was working at the Pittsburgh CLO, we did a production of Seesaw, so I went and researched the show and learned all about Michele. Chuck Cooper is a friend and I adore him. He can do so many things. And it’s so exciting to finally share the stage with our host, Michael Feinstein. I know I’m going to be transported by all of them, as is the audience.

TM: Because of your work on TV, notably As the World Turns and Law & Order: SVU, a lot people probably don’t even know you sing. Does that bother you?
TT: Actually, I think that’s delightful, I went to Carnegie Mellon for musical theater — although I had serious training in the classics — and after I came to New York in 1981, all I did for five years was musical after musical. I wasn’t being seen to do Shakespeare or film and TV, so I changed agents and I decided to shift the focus. I only did a few musicals after that — Lost in the Stars at Long Wharf, then Oh, Kayon Broadway — but I didn’t sing — and in 1995, I did this show Sheba, which was this love story of Sheba and Solomon that was sung through beginning to end. And then I didn’t do any singing until the Actors’ Fund Dreamgirls concert in 2001, where a lot of people were really surprised to hear me sing. But I am always happy to use my song and dance training.

TM: Is there any chance we might ever hear you sing on Law & Order: SVU?
TT: I would love a singing Dr. Warner episode. But we’re not Grey’s Anatomy — no one else in that cast really sings.

TM: I know you attended the opening night of the Broadway revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, which stars Blair Underwood and Nicole Ari Parker, who are African-American. Do you think this idea of non-traditional casting is a good one?
TT: I think it’s fantastic, but I’m a little biased. I was the first African-American woman to play Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It was at the Virginia State Theatre and we turned Richmond upside down.

TM: So what non-traditional roles are on your wish list?
TT: I want to play Eva Peron. I’ve already done a lot of Shakespeare, but I’d like to do Lady Macbeth. I think am suited to that role; you can ask Gregory about that.

TM: You have a movie coming out later this year called Flight with Denzel Washington. What can you tell me about it?
TT: It was a fantastic experience and a a great role. I play Margaret, who is the head flight attendant on this plane that crashes. Working with Denzel was delightful. We did Julius Caesar together on Broadway, and that made it easy. If we had never met, it would have been intimidating. And our director, Bob Zemeckis, is my new favorite person. He’s this utterly assuming nice guy from Chicago, who also happens to be a genius. And he really trusts his actors and lets you do your thing. I actually cried when the shoot was over.