Diva 5+1: Judy Kuhn

Serious PlaygroundI wish I could claim that I became enamoured of Judy Kuhn when seeing the original out-of-town tryout of Les Miz at the Kennedy Center; sadly I missed that occasion.  But the two performances that really made me a fan were a bootleg of a concert she did with Stephen Schwartz and her amazing work in the show Rags.  Other credits for Kuhn include the US premier of Chess, the Kennedy Center production of Passion, and being the singing voice of Pocahantas.  She has two great solo CDs of songs by Jule Styne and Laura Nyro and seems to be a staple of every major concert event featuring Broadway singers.

Washington audiences still have another week to see her in Sycamore Trees at Signature.

1. Please describe a “perfect” performance experience that you’ve had.

What do you mean by “perfect” ? I mean, there ain’t no such thing as “perfect”

… Well, I suppose I’ve been lucky because there’ve been things I’ve been a part of that have been extraordinary.

I suppose the first thing that comes to mind, actually, is the production I did in Washington of Passion, which Eric Schaeffer directed. And, you know, it was just the perfect combination of a brilliant, brilliantly written piece, as we can all agree by the greatest music theater artist of our time, of the last half century, plus a perfect cast, brilliant direction, brilliant design. There isn’t anything I would have changed about that experience, except perhaps the fact that we only did fifteen performances and I would have liked to have run it for a while….

On the cabaret or the concert side (I guess I don’t really think of myself as a “cabaret” person), I did recently a tribute to the late, great Laura Nyro, which I premiered at the American Songbook Series at Lincoln Center, in the Allen Room. And it was one of those things that I worked very hard on with my music director and arranger Jeffrey Klitz. And we worked very hard. Really, it was just a labor of love. And I was so nervous that night – I had no idea what anybody would think of it, or who would be interested in Laura Nyro. And that room ! I don’t know if you know that room but it is so perfect and beautiful and perfect for Laura Nyro who was a New Yorker. (She) loved New York, wrote about New York, and to have that as a backdrop ! That night was so special for me; it went so well. I felt so… It was kind of like an out-of-body experience. And at the end of the show the audience leapt to their feet, and I thought, “Wow!” I mean, what else could you ask for !

2. What is a recent song you’ve been struggling with? Have you won yet?

I don’t know if I have an answer to that question…. The only thing I can think of that I’ve been struggling with is what songs I want to sing next, ‘cause I want to put a new evening together and I’ve been … struggling with the fact that there are so many I want to sing ! Trying to figure out how to put them together in an evening.

3. The relationship between a singer and the musical director really is a “cabaret marriage.” What are the keys to making the marriage work? And for the times you need to work with a surrogate, what are the steps you take to get quickly on the same page?

That’s such a “cabaret artist” question that I don’t consider myself. I’ve really only put together two evenings, with the same person (Jeffrey Klitz) who I adore… I suppose what I’ve loved about working with him is that he’s a great collaborator, he really kind of gets me, he’s very helpful to me. He understands my insecurities and my strengths. He’s a really good arranger but also great collaborator when I have my own ideas about a song. I tend to be very word-focused and he’s very… style-driven. So we have a really good marriage in that way, that I can talk about what the song means to me, and he can translate that into musical ideas.…

In the theater… the great (music directors) ones are the ones that listen and really breathe with you. When the person in the pit isn’t breathing with you, you can never really be together.

4. What is a particular image that you can rely on to be an effective sense memory when you’re performing?

One image ? … No, because I work from song to song and each song to me is like its own little play. And I approach each song like “who’s speaking in the song?” or “is it me speaking in the song?” and “what situation,” and “who am I speaking to?”, and all of that ! So whatever comes up for me in exploring a song, whether it’s a sense memory thing or a person I’m talking to … It varies from song to song.

5. How do you deal with being a brand?

(Laughing) Am I ? I didn’t know I was !!! What is my brand? I don’t know what my brand is ! I don’t like to think of myself as a brand. I think of myself as an actor, so I can be seen in lots of different ways. I guess I used to be thought of as “the ingénue” but I’m certainly not that anymore (that was many years ago). I don’t know ! I don’t know what the brand is so I can’t really speak to it !

+1 How do your concert and your theater work influence each other ?

That’s a good question. Hmmm… You know, it took me a lot of years to have confidence to do concert work. I didn’t like the idea of just being me in front of a microphone and feel the pressure of “entertaining” as opposed to just taking on another character and working in an ensemble and being directed and being an interpreter in that way instead of just being me. But I think the kind of vulnerability that goes along with doing concert work – to me that is the most vulnerable I can be onstage – has kind of helped me bring that more into the work I do in a theater piece, and in a way feel more comfortable even still in someone else’s skin when I’m taking on another character.

And certainly the work I’ve done as an actor has influenced enormously what concert work I do… Because I don’t really think of acting and singing as being anything different. I mean you’re speaking somebody’s words; you’re interpreting somebody’s words whether it’s set to music or not. It to me requires the same kind of craft or concentration. So that I’ve brought into the concert work I’ve done. I don’t care about sounding pretty – it’s a nice bonus if I do – but I care about communicating words and thoughts !

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