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The New York Theatrical season is supposed to wind down after the Tony Awards, but I've been overbooked since June third ceremonies. Last Monday (June 18), I ran from a series of reading on 57th Street to Joe's Pub (the cabaret housed in what used to be the executive offices of The Public Theatre on Lafayette Street) for an industry launch of Lea DeLaria's latest CD on the Warner Brothers Jazz Label. Ms. DeLaria is currently on Broadway in "The Rocky Horror Show" in dual roles of Eddie and Dr. Scott, originally played by rocker Meat Loaf).
Ms. DeLaria, who was known mainly as a downtown artist until her performance as Hildy in both the Delacorte and Broadway Public Theatre productions of "On The Town," is a difficult performer to pigeonhole. Monday night was witness to her latest re-invention, the Jazz singer. She's done stand-up, is the voice for an animated creature in an upcoming Warner Bros. network series, has stage credits both on and off-Broadway and her film credits run the gamut from the blockbuster "First Wives Club" to the poignant coming-of-age indie "Edge of Seventeen."
Warner Bros. gave me permission to bring two guests, Alma Rivera and Virginia Singletary, who have some renown in lesbian circles, though not quite as much as Ms. DeLaria. Alma and Ginny were married on the Cristina show, which is the Hispanic equivalent of "Oprah" or "Sally Jessy". The initial telecast generated more mail and calls than any other broadcast in the show's history and clips of the ceremony are rebroadcast on the yearly anniversary show.
Seating at Joe's Pub is either around tables or on plush cushions atop and/or against black risers. We got the best cushions in the house.
Then Michelle Lee walked in. The room was quite crowded, so she put her hand on my shoulder to steady herself as she sat not next to me, damn it, but was separated from me by her escort, probably her husband.
Before Ms. Lee became a household name on TV's "Knott's Landing," she replaced ailing Bonnie Scott in the original production of "How To Succeed in Business..." as Rosemary and went on to do the MGM/UA film version which preserves many of the original cast performances as well as Fosse dances. She was co-starred in "Bravo, Giovanni," a show remembered mostly for her rendition of the song "I'm All I've Got," which keeps showing up on CD compilations of the best of Broadway. Then she starred in "Seesaw," a Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields,-Michael (pre-"A Chorus Line") Bennett musical version of "Two for the Seesaw" and I have been in love with her ever since. Her Los Angeles gig's over and she's back doing "The Tale of Allergist's Wife" on Broadway. As I turned to Alma and Ginny, to show them where Ms. Lee had just touched me, I-don't-know-how-many-Oscars-he-has songwriter Stephen Schwartz sat on a cushion next to Alma.
A loud voice came from the far right corner. "Get these people good seats." I didn't see who it was and held up two fingers like a restaurant host, pointing to cushions behind us. Then I realized it was the star of the evening. She continued traveling down left saying "I've got to find Sandy." Or she said "I've got to find Sandry." (One of the these is the correct nickname for people who know Sandra Bernhardt well.)
I've seen Lea DeLaria on stage and in films any number of times, but I almost missed her when she passed in front of me. She's about a foot shorter than I am -- I'm always astounded when larger than life performers aren't giants. Once she burst on stage, larger than life is a woefully inadequate phrase to describe her persona. She was dressed in leather pants and a black tunic, her ears multi-pierced, Camryn Manheim style. (No, don't ask who did it first.) There's a diminutive tattoo of two linked female signs on her neck and her jet black hair is sort of spiky. Normally when a vocalist is on stage with a jazz band and the guys take solos, the applause is for the soloist. The other night, it was a toss-up. Were we applauding the soprano sax solo or Lea's reaction?
DeLaria held up the artwork for the invitation, a caricature of her wielding a knife dripping blood and words proclaiming "Lea Kills." "What's with the pearls?" she asked, referring to the neck adornment in the artwork. "Is Warner Brothers trying to make me femme?" (Earlier in the evening, Warner Brothers record producer Matt Pierson lovingly introduced her as "the bull dyke jazz singer.")
With the cast of "The Rocky Horror Show" egging her on, her patter was anything but scripted. Sassy is the polite way of saying it. Hilariously lewd is more accurate. She started in stand-up, was the first openly lesbian comic to hit cable, then broke through with a feature on "20-20" and got picked up by a batch of network sitcoms, always true to herself. Not your grandmother's lesbian.
Ms. DeLaria is a contralto who sings jazz. Her dad was a jazz musician but never had the career he wanted because "we were Catholic. [Lots of kids to support.] So in a way, I'm not only fulfilling my dreams, but his." There's nothing forced about the way she sings, nothing affected. The notes are solid and styling is natural. It's not unfair to compare her style to the great female black jazz singers, but her repertoire is different. She sings show tunes. It's not the Ella version of this or the Sarah Vaughan version of that, it's the DeLaria version of Sondheim or Bernstein or Cy Coleman. So she sings "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," "Cool," and "With Every Breath I Take."
"Get Michelle Lee more wine," DeLaria bellowed. "I've only had a glass and a half," Lee replied. "Then get her more."
DeLaria explained how she and Ms. Lee had recently had brunch at a Jazz club where the no-smoking section was also the no-conversation section; they were seated practically on top of the band. It's funnier when she tells it but I was too overcome with laughter to write it down. And Lee was rolling back and forth with laughter, dangling one high heel. Part of the magic of the night was watching Lee's reacting to Lea..
DeLaria did a complete set, unusual for a record launch, backed by a four piece combo. The four guys are on the CD, but in some cases the CD has different and or additional personnel. Last summer, when DeLaria played Fire Island, she'd introduce the band including the very young and cute drummer, Gregory Hutchinson. Mr. Hutchinson was sort of taken aback when summer audience members started shouting "show us your cock." "The Rocky Horror" cast was not to be outdone by mere Fire Islanders. It was that kind of night.
Alice Ripley, with whom she shares a "Rocky Horror" dressing room, joined her for an impromtu duet of "Sticky Finger," the details of which I'm going to leave to your imagination. Martha Stewart's in the lyric, but it's not about cake batter.
Alma and Ginny noticed a young woman ringside whom I think I've seen in cosmetic ads. She doesn't need them. DeLaria played to her. And bless her, she also played to Alma and Ginny, who were holding hands a lot.
The encore was a totally improv version of the Billy Strayhorn classic, "Take the A Train." No charts, no rehearsal, just jazz. DeLaria, who had been encouraging us all to drink more, finally got to sip champagne as she sang, scatted and sizzled.
Afterwards, Alma and Ginny had a chat with Lea and I had a chat with Lee. During part of our conversation (I think I can call her "Michelle" by now), I mentioned a mutual acquaintance during her "Seesaw" days. I started to say "You..." and she finished my sentence saying "haven't changed a bit since then" and we both doubled over laughing. I Love New York in June.
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