Vanessa Williams Announced for Title Role in Carmen Jones at Kennedy Center
In one of the most fascinating but also most questionable pieces of casting that I've heard in years, Vanessa Williams has been announced for the title role in concert performances of Carmen Jones--Oscar Hammerstein II's musical theater adaptation of the Georges Bizet opera Carmen--at the Kennedy Center in November. The cast will also include Thomas Randle as Joe (Don José in the opera), Harolyn Blackwell as Cindy Lou (Micaela), and Gregg Baker as Husky Miller (Escamillo). Plaçido Domingo will conduct the National Symphony Orchestra in these performances, which are scheduled for November 15-17, 2002 and will be staged by Debbie Allen.
The exquisitely beautiful Williams covered herself in glory as the star of the Encores! production of St. Louis Woman several years back. She also triumphed as a replacement for Chita Rivera in the Broadway production of Kiss of the Spider Woman and scored a personal success as Rosie in the disappointing TV movie version of Bye Bye Birdie. She is currently playing the Witch in the Broadway bound revival of Into the Woods. And, of course, she has gained deserved fame as a pop recording and concert artist. But as exciting, attractive, and versatile as her singing voice unquestionably is, it's hard to imagine how she can possibly hope to handle the role of Carmen Jones.
The most amazing thing about Hammerstein's adaptation is that it's basically Carmen re-set in the American south during World War II, performed with English lyrics and a somewhat reduced orchestra; the show as written does not lower the original keys or otherwise musically rework the opera's arias, duets, and ensembles in any major way. In the 1943 Broadway production, Carmen was played by opera singer Muriel Smith (who also provided the singing voice of Bloody Mary for the Joshua Logan film of South Pacific). When Carmen Jones was filmed in 1954 by Otto Preminger, it was wisely considered necessary to have the young Marilyn Horne dub for Dorothy Dandridge, even though the latter had previously made a splash as a pop singer in films and nightclubs.
It can seem unfair to question a performer's suitability for a role before the fact, especially if one's skepticism is based only on preconceptions of type, acting ability, personality, etc. But when someone seems clearly to lack the vocal technique for a particular assignment, doubts naturally arise. I suppose it's conceivable that, in addition to her wonderful Broadway/pop sound, Vanessa Williams also possesses a legit, operatic vocal range--though it's hard to believe that such a talent would have been kept secret for so long. More likely, if Williams goes ahead with Carmen Jones, her sections of the score will have to be rearranged and re-adapted into something that Hammerstein probably never had in mind. Or perhaps, once rehearsals begin, Williams and her colleagues will realize that she just can't sing the part the way it's supposed to be sung, and Denyce Graves will wind up playing Carmen. Stay tuned.
John Raitt joined the ranks of Broadway musical legends when he created the role of Billy Bigelow in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel in 1945. Now, 57 years later, Raitt tells me that he will return to the show in the featured role of the Starkeeper. The occasion is the one-night-only concert performance of the beloved musical starring Hugh Jackman and Audra McDonald, scheduled for June 6 at Carnegie Hall.
"Ted Chapin [of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization] called me and said, 'We want you to be a part of this somehow,'" reports Raitt in a phone conversation from his home in Pacific Palisades, California. "I said, 'Well, why don't I play the Starkeeper? I don't know how much of the dialogue you're going to be doing, but at least I'll get to sing a few bars of 'You'll Never Walk Alone' at the end of the show.' I've been trying to keep this as quiet as possible so that it would be a surprise--but I guess it would have leaked out anyway."
The amazing Raitt describes himself as "the last of the Mohicans: I don't think there's any other leading man who originated a major role on Broadway in the '40s who's still alive. Some of the women are around, but I think all of the men are gone--except me!" He says he still keeps busy as a performer: "I did the condominium circuit with Connie Towers in January and I must admit that I was glad to get off the tour. It was something like 17 concerts in 14 days. I was okay vocally, but the legs are going--that's the biggest problem."
Raitt says he hopes to participate in this year's Tony Awards ceremony: "I thought it would be wonderful if they could get Theo Bikel and me to come out as presenters. That might be pretty exciting, because we're two of the leading men who are left from the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, and I think they're going to honor Dick. I haven't been to the Tonys in a long time, but I'd like to be there for that."
FOR THE LOVE OF STEVE
There are interesting points to be made about some of the casting that was recently announced for the various shows of the Stephen Sondheim celebration at the Kennedy Center this spring and summer. Though Blair Brown, who will be playing Desirée Armfeldt in A Little Night Music, is primarily known as a non-singing perfomer (she won a 2000 Tony Award for her featured role in Copenhagen), she has also acquitted herself very nicely in James Joyce's The Dead and the Roundabout revival of Cabaret on Broadway. Playing opposite her as Fredrik Egerman will be John Dossett, who had the same role in concert performances of Night Music last summer at the Mann Center in Philadelphia. Dossett is currently employed as an alternate for Kevin Bacon in the one-person show An Almost Holy Picture at the Roundabout's American Airlines Theatre. The rest of the DC Night Music company announced thus far consists of Barbara Bryne (Mme. Armfeldt), Danny Gurwin (Henrik), Randy Graff (Charlotte), and Natascia Diaz (Petra). Mark Brokaw will direct the show, which is scheduled to run August 2 through 25.
It has also been announced that Michael Hayden will be playing Franklin Shepard ("Inc.") in the Sondheim festival production of Merrily We Roll Along. Hayden came to fame as a physically luscious but vocally underpowered Billy Bigelow in Nicholas Hytner's revisionist revivals of Carousel in London and New York. It should be interesting to see how audiences in our nation's capital take to him in Merrily: A few years back, The Shakespeare Theatre in D.C. had built an entire season around Hayden only to have him decide after everything was set that he'd rather be a replacement Cliff Bradshaw in the Roundabout's Cabaret on Broadway. (Also recently announced as participants in the D.C. Sondheim shows: Florence Lacey will be Yvonne in Sunday in the Park with George, while Hugh Panaro and Mary Beth Peil will, respectively, play Anthony Hope and the Beggar Woman in Sweeney Todd.)