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Mamma Lea!

Lea DeLaria jazzes it up with her new Warner Bros. CD, Play it Cool. logo
Lea DeLaria
She's funny. She's out. She's butch. She's sincere. She's intending to turn herself into a respected jazz singer. And she's got the name to back up her ambition, since it has the word "aria" at the end of it. She's Lea DeLaria. That's right--Lea of the arias. Her first Warner Bros. Jazz CD, Play it Cool, is just coming out. But DeLaria herself "came out" long ago.

Why is DeLaria, who first made her name as a lesbian stand-up comic, going the jazz vocalist route? "If you ever saw my stand-up," she's explains over lunch at her favorite basic-fare eatery in her funkola Manhattan neighborhood, "you know jazz was always part of my act. The act was so loud and obnoxious that people couldn't take it for so long. I had to break it up."

As DeLaria sits down to chat unedited about whatever she's asked and whatever it crosses her mind to add, she's wearing work clothes: denims, a blue bandana. She's been doing interviews up the wazoo for her debut album as a singer, all the while nursing a cough. For the record (pun intended), she has already put her comedy down on the discs Bull Dyke in a China Shop and Lunch Box.

"I've got the whole Warner machine behind me," she says with a satisfaction not many first-time-out singers can boast of these days, since so many of them have to foot the bill for their own product. Not DeLaria: She was recruited when Matt Pierson, who heads Warner Worldwide, heard her at a UCLA concert in which Stephen Sondheim was being given the jazz treatment; DeLaria's contribution was her jazz version of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd." "When I heard about the concert," she relates, "I called my manager and said I had to get on it. They said they'd love to have me, but they had no money left. If I wanted to be included, I'd have to pay my own way." It so happens that DeLaria was going to be in Los Angeles right about then anyway. So she did the concert and, the next day, got the call from Pierson saying, "Let's make a record."

Unlikely as a DeLaria jazz disc may sound, she's been heading in this direction since she was a toddler. Her father is pianist Robert DeLaria, a Belleville, Illinois sideman who did lots of work in nearby East St. Louis. So dyke tyke DeLaria grew up listening to Chet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O'Day, and Billie Holiday. When she was four, she began belting herself; "When the Saints Go Marching In" was her first selection. Of her father's feelings about her WB signing, she says, "He's so proud he can hardly fit in the house."

Putting Play it Cool together has been a dream come true, according to DeLaria. Pierson asked her, "What should the first CD be? You've got a huge Broadway following, you've got a huge gay and lesbian following." What he was pointing her toward was an album of jazzed-up Broadway material. "I thought it was a great idea," DeLaria says--and she was thrilled when vets like Gil Goldstein and Larry Goldings came in to arrange and play, along with the likes of Gregory Hutchinson, Larry Grenadier, Jon Gordon, Seamus Blake, Scott Wendholt, Scott Robinson, and Keith O'Quinn.

"These people know more about music than I do," she says with a humility that registers as entirely genuine. "They invited me into the process. They would discuss things and then they'd ask 'Yeah, Lea, what do you think?' The first time, I had to go into a corner and take a big, deep breath before I could answer." Needless to say, DeLaria wasn't speechless for too long. She did have ideas about her songs, all the while contending that "jazz happens as it happens." "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" became the album's opener. Pierson also suggested the Sondheim-Leonard Bernstein "Cool," because, DeLaria reports, "He said, 'We need a tune everybody knows--ya know what I mean?' "

For the other nine tunes, DeLaria and Co. turned to Sondheim again for "Losing My Mind," to Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh for "I've Got Your Number," to Coleman with David Zippel for "With Every Breath I Take," to Fred Ebb and John Kander for "All That Jazz," to Michael John LaChiusa for "Welcome to My Party" and "The Lowdown Down" (from The Wild Party), and to and non-Broadway types Randy Newman ("Life Has Been Good to Me") and Tom Waits and Greg Cohen ("Straight to the Top").

In addition to her solo perfs, DeLaria has appeared in On the Town in New York and The Boys From Syracuse in Los Angeles. (She numbers her roles in those shows among her "raging hetero" assignments.) Although she knows she can sing and has been doing it for more and more audiences, she doesn't assume that the public at large is clued in to this facet of her many talents. "I remember the gasps out of people's mouths," she says of the first On the Town preview. "I can still hear the intake of breath. It was a lovely feeling."

Lovely in great part because, as DeLaria puts it, "I like to surprise people. I can't tell you how much." She's particularly grateful to the New York theater community for the welcome she's gotten. "In Los Angeles," she comments, "it was, 'We need a lesbian for this. Let's get Lea. We need a lesbian for that. Let's get Lea.' In New York, they don't care who I sleep with or don't sleep with. It's 'Can she sing? Is she funny?' Those are the important things."

The next surprise may be another book to put alongside her previous effort in that arena, "Lea's Book of Rules for the World." It may be another indie film, or it may be a second CD on which she'll make jazz out of recent rock. But first, she's got Play it Cool to promote. She'll continue performing in The Rocky Horror Show until the fall, then hit cities across the land with the jazz act, then return to Joe's Pub for a healthy run; she considers the jumpin' Public Theater bôite her home base. On previous stops there, she says she "rang the most on their registers that they ever rang. I draw people who eat a lot and drink a lot!"

For her tour, she says, "I'll still keep the butch demeanor. The Warner Bros. people are fully aware of who I am. Every label needs a good bull dyke."

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