Somers in the City
TV favorite Brett Somers brings her "musical memoir" to Danny's Skylight Room.
But Somers has no musical theater experience. Indeed, she never really sung in her life until recently, when she decided -- with the urging of friends and colleagues -- to put together a one-woman show. The result will be seen at Danny's Skylight Room on four successive Monday nights, beginning July 7. I was handed a whole lotta B.S. when I recently phoned Somers at her home to ask about this exciting new venture. She was out of the house for a doctor's appointment when I called, but she rang me back and we had a hilarious chat.
THEATERMANIA: How did everything go at the doctor's, Ms. Somers?
BRETT SOMERS: Fine. I've just learned more about the human body than anyone would ever care to know.
TM: I hope you don't have any major health issues.
BRETT: No. I'm starting on a whole new career -- I can't have cancer or anything like that!
TM: So, this one-woman show is kind of a new thing for you?
BRETT: Kind of? This is it! I've never done anything like this in my whole life. I've never even been in musicals.
TM: Were you inspired by people like Elaine Stritch and Bea Arthur to put this kind of program together?
BRETT: No, they move a little faster than I do. Bea is a very dear friend of mine. We've known each other more than 40 years, ever since we both lived in the Village. I started working on this act two or three years ago: A friend of mine said, "Why don't you do an act?" and my first reaction was, "What could I do?" But I started singing and having a swell time. My musical director, Mark Cherry, is the most wonderful person who ever lived on God's good green Earth. He's my director, he does the arrangements. Really, he does everything -- including certain janitorial chores! He and his wonderful wife, Beverly, chose all of the music 'cause I didn't have a clue. Anyway, we started working on this and then I had sort of a disaster in my family, so we stopped for a while. When we thought we were almost ready, Mark went to a friend of mine, Tom Zingarelli, who's the director of the Quick Center at Fairfield University. Mark said, "Please book Brett so she'll have a deadline!" My youngest son -- who's out of the will now -- said, "My mother will never do this unless you put a deadline on her. She'll rehearse for the next 40 years of her life if she has that much time left." So Tom booked me and then we had to get it done.
TM: I'm assuming from the area code I dialed that you live in Connecticut?
BRETT: Yeah, in Westport. So I performed at the Quick Center and we had such fun. Then Mark -- who is also my agent, I guess! -- got me booked at Danny's in New York.
TM: That's terrific. In recent years, Danny's has begun to host some high-level performers; Blossom Dearie has been performing there regularly for some time, and they just had David Pomeranz. So I think you picked a good place. Can you talk a little bit about your show without giving too much away?
BRETT: I start my life when I run away from home and, more or less, take it up to the present day. I do it in about an hour, but I sing 15 songs. I can't believe I'm doing that. But, you know, the more you sing...I asked Mark, "Am I sounding better or am I just getting used to my voice?" He said, "You're sounding much better because your voice is getting stronger."
TM: I'm guessing that the songs are mostly standards and show tunes?
BRETT: Oh, yes. I open with "Some People" from Gypsy. Of course, I knew Ethel [Merman], my wonderful Ethel, because Jack [Klugman] was the original Herbie in Gypsy. I open with that number and then I introduce the thing about my running away from home. God, did that put a white streak in my mother's hair! I mean, I ran away from home before it was chic to do such a thing.
TM: Where was home?
BRETT: Portland, Maine, dear! I have a little sister who lives up there and talks like this: "Ah-yuh, God a'mighty!"
TM: I wanted to ask about your theater credits. You did a show called Happy Ending and another one called Maybe Tuesday...
BRETT: Jesus, how did you find those? Happy Ending I did with Paul Winfield. There was a play-within-the-play and I was his mother -- which is a peculiar bit of casting, to say the least. We did it in St. Louis. Maybe Tuesday I did on Broadway. Later on, I did a lot of Off-Broadway shows. I was what's-her-name in the original play Chicago -- not Roxie Hart, the other one.
TM: Velma Kelly?
BRETT: Yes. I did that in the '50s at ELT -- Equity Library Theatre.
TM: Which is no more.
BRETT: I know! I did several shows there.
TM: What with Match Game running on The Game Show Network, I'll bet just about everybody knows who you are.
BRETT: Honey, I get letters from 11-year-olds saying, "I think you're just wonderful." One way I know they're from kids is that I can tell they were typed on a computer; only the old people write me in longhand! I get several fan letters every day. It's great. One guy wrote me a letter that was so long, I haven't finished it yet.
TM: Is The Odd Couple being telecast by anyone these days?
BRETT: No, I don't think so. It was on for a long time, and a lot of people know me from that, but I don't think it's on anymore.
TM: I was talking about the show with a friend the other day. We both watched it and loved it during its first run, but it wasn't until the show went into syndication and you could see it every night that the world seemed to realize how great it was. I think it was far more popular in syndication.
BRETT: Oh, yes! You know, when it was done originally, they always had to fight to keep it going at the end of each season. Now, The Odd Couple has become part of our language and culture. It was such a fun show to do.
TM: If this isn't too personal a question, are you actually divorced from Jack Klugman?
BRETT: No! We haven't lived together for -- God, I don't know how many years. But neither of us will ever get married again. Jack is a man who never should have been married, but he's very dear and I love him. He's going to come see the show!
TM: How many children are there?
BRETT: I have two sons. I think they were always sort of embarrassed by the fact that I was on TV. When my older son, David, was a teenager, he went to Washington, D.C. on a school trip. At one point, all of the kids were watching Match Game in a lounge at their hotel. David walked through the room and heard them saying, "That woman is really funny!" He said, "Uh-huh, yeah," and kept right on going. He wouldn't admit that I was his mother for love or money! Another time, I went to pick up my younger son, Adam, at school. He was at the American Academy [of Dramatic Arts] and I went there to see what the hell he was up to, because he hadn't been answering my phone calls. He came down the stairs, saw me, turned around, and bolted. He wouldn't come down again until the lobby had been cleared. I said, "You know, I'm a television personality. It's not like I'm a famous hooker or something!"
TM: So, most of your theater work was early in your career?
BRETT: Yes, I did summer stock and things like that. I went to fabulous places like Yellow Springs, or whatever the fuck the name was -- Pennsylvania, New Jersey, all over. And then I started doing live television, which is the scariest thing. Jack [Klugman] says, "That was great fun." I tell him, "You forget the time you burst into tears." I'll never forget it: He came to my house one night for dinner and I said, "You look a little down." He said, "No, I'm fine, I'm fine," and then he literally burst into tears. I told him, "You're having a nervous breakdown from doing live television!" The pressure was so great. I never thought it was a good time, but I did manage to pay my rent. Of course, my rent was only $63 a month...
TM: Let's not get into that! Anything else you want to say about the show?
BRETT: Not really. I'm terrified, in a way, but it's the best time I've ever had outside of doing Match Game with my beloved Charles Nelson Reilly.
TM: That's another person who had a great one-man-show.
BRETT: Oh you saw it? Wasn't it marvelous? You know, Charles never called me Brett in my entire life. He calls me Susan.
BRETT: Who knows? He would probably call you André! Once, he gave me a copy of that Neil Simon play he did on Broadway...
TM: God's Favorite?
BRETT: Yes. He signed it, "To Susan. Love, Stephen." He's so funny.
TM: It's great that people like you and Charles and Bea Arthur are working on stage, so your fans can get to see you live after enjoying you on TV for years. I can't wait to see your show on opening night.