Are Four Tony Nominations and a New Album "Good Enough" for Fun Home Mom Judy Kuhn?
From her own career to society at large, Kuhn is always ready to break new ground.
On June 7, Judy Kuhn will be at Radio City celebrating a Tony nomination (and maybe a win) for her work as Helen in the acclaimed musical Fun Home. Then less than 24 hours later she'll be at Barnes and Noble signing copies of her freshly released solo album, Rodgers, Rodgers & Guettel. "I'm really wondering how I'm gonna pull that off," said Kuhn with an unconcerned laugh, "but listen, it's an embarrassment of riches as far as I'm concerned."
It is safe to say this four-time Tony nominee is at a career high point. But Kuhn isn't taking her success for granted. Not only is she in awe of Fun Home's brilliant creative team, she's also aware of the opportunities afforded her just by virtue of when she was born — a truth she'd be hard-pressed to forget considering that all of her current projects deal with intergenerational dialogue.
Kuhn has been creating the character of Helen since one of Fun Home's first Public Theater readings in 2011. As mom to Alison, a young gay woman searching to make sense of her life, Helen serves as a counterpoint: a woman resigned to her own invisibility. Conversely, in Rodgers, Rodgers & Guettel, which celebrates the music of Richard Rodgers, his daughter Mary Rodgers, and her son Adam Guettel, Kuhn focuses on the ways generations connect and build on one another. As Kuhn well knows, nothing is ever so good that it can't get better.
How does it feel to be a four-time Tony nominee?
There's something particularly special about this one…because it's for this show, which I love so much and I love doing.
Why is it especially gratifying to be nominated for Fun Home?
Oh god, there are so many reasons, starting with the fact that of all the shows I've done, this is the one I've been involved with from the earliest stage of its development and a lot of my part was sort of written on me. That is very special for any actor. And also, I've loved working with these people so much, Lisa [Kron] and Jeanine [Tesori] and Sam [Gold] and all the other actors. I really think our creative team are geniuses. [The show] had many incarnations…and every time we did it, it was completely rethought and reinvented. Every time it's gotten better and richer and more fully realized…I've never worked with people who are so interested in throwing out the really, really good for the even better. And…this piece is so important. I think this is the cultural moment to tell this story. To me, it's a reminder of why theater is important, and I feel like it's having a profound effect on the people who see it.
You're close to Alison Bechdel's age. Do you find yourself identifying with her character?
The thing that's so interesting about this piece is in some ways everyone can identify with everyone in it. I think everyone has had the experience, in some way, of the kind of isolation that Helen experiences. And I think everyone experiences what Alison does. Whether you're a lesbian or not a lesbian, everybody has those moments in life where you're trying to figure out who you are and how you will be accepted in the world…We've talked a lot about the moment when Alison and Joan kiss and…I've heard Jeanine talk about how Lisa didn't want that kiss to happen and Jeanine said they have to kiss before she sings [the next] song. Lisa was very worried about how an audience would react, if they'd laugh…and nobody does. They only laugh when there's that awkward explosion of pent-up desire that Alison feels. But that is so human and it's something, whether gay, straight, whatever — everybody's experienced that. It's a laughter of recognition and amusement at our own 19-year-old selves.
By the time you were building your own career, did you feel free of the limitations that Helen faces?
The thing is that women of Helen and my mother's generation were just at the cusp of the women's movement and that era in the seventies when women started to question whether they had more choices and what their responsibilities were at home and how to express themselves and their own ambitions…Whereas, when I was growing up, I just always assumed I'd go to college and I'd have some sort of career and that eventually I'd have some sort of a family. It never even occurred to me to think that there was going to be any kind of choice that I would have to make in that respect or was it right or wrong for me to want to have a career. I think women of my generation just assumed they would, for the most part. Which is kind of amazing in one generation. I mean [discrimination] still exists in a more hidden way, but it was so overt so recently. And maybe for women of my daughter's generation, some of it they're not even aware of, in a way.
What are you most proud of in your career?
I guess I never feel like what I do is good enough, which always keeps me working and, I hope, keeps me honest. I really believe that every performance you should try to work on making something better and really learn from your colleagues. Between Fun Home and Passion [at Classic Stage Company] and the various other little things I've done here and there, I feel like I'm doing some of my best work and the most gratifying work. And to be able to say that when you've been around for as long as I have it just feels really good. All you can do is your best work and hope that people will appreciate it.
Your next career move is the release of a new album called Rodgers, Rodgers & Guettel. What aspect of it are you most excited about with this new album?
When [Lincoln Center] American Songbook said yes [to the concert that inspired this album], I got really excited and then thought, "Oh my god, I have no idea how to do this so that it doesn't come off as pedantic, but just really make it about a musical conversation between the three generations." And we felt like we really kind of got it. And also, the last couple of concerts and CDs I've done have been…more kind of contemporary-pop driven. So just doing an album of all theater music, which is really where I live, was really exciting. And it's special that it's coming out right now when I'm doing a show that I love and that's in the same tradition as these three composers in kind of breaking new ground and reinventing the form.