Monday, May 23, 2011

Judy Kaye takes role of Mrs. Madrigal in 'Tales'

Leba Hertz, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, May 22, 2011

Judy Kaye has starred on Broadway in such shows as "Ragtime" and "On the Twentieth Century," as well as performing on national tours in almost every iconic role, including Rose in "Gypsy" and Julie in "Carousel." She won the 1988 featured actress Tony award for her work in "Phantom of the Opera." And she has been nominated two other times for roles she took on in San Francisco: Rosie in "Mamma Mia," and in American Conservatory Theater's production of "Souvenir."

Kaye, who also played Mrs. Lovett in ACT's "Sweeney Todd," returns to the repertory theater to star as the nurturing and mysterious Anna Madrigal in the world premiere musical "Tales of the City." The always down-to-earth Kaye, 62, took time out from her busy rehearsal schedule to talk to The Chronicle.

Q: How did you get involved with this production?

A: I read the script last fall. I got a call about the possibility of doing it. Then I got a call saying no, it wasn't going to work. Then I went off to Arizona to do "Lost in Yonkers." I was on a golf course at the end of March in Tucson when I got the offer to do it. I had met with Jason (Moore), our director - we had a lovely hour together just chatting and reading the script just a little bit without any expectations. Although as soon as I read it I thought, "Oh my God, I would love to play this part." There are not many parts at my tender age that a woman reads that: (a) I'm right for this. I'm really, really right this, and (b) it's so well written. So complete.

Q: Why do you think you're right for this role?

A: I'm the right age. Vocally, it's perfect for me, speaking in technical terms. And I immediately felt a kinship with this character, and frankly who wouldn't? She's so open-hearted. She' s so loving and inclusive in her circle of friends, and encouraging to these kids she kind of mothers. And she's got a secret. Every human being on the planet has a secret of some sort. And that's what I was drawn to. This great open-hearted character who goes through a change. She learns something and becomes a better person and has a fuller life because of it.

Q: How has it been working with the younger cast?

A: These are all glorious professionals. To say they are talented is a real understatement. They are all powerhouses. And because of the many stories in this piece, we need fantastic people to play all these major, major parts - iconic parts. And every one of them is so fully realized. Pow! Wow! We really have a deep bench here. I'm in awe.

Q: How familiar were you with "Tales of the City" before this show?

A: Not hugely. I knew it existed. I knew generally what it was about. And I have not read the books. In some ways, that's good, because I come to this completely objective. I have no preconceived notions about any of this. I bought the book and I started to read, and I thought you know, I'm not going to do this right now. My bible is this script, because that's the story I have to tell. Once we're up and running, and trotting along, I'll pull them out and start reading them again. I was really enjoying what I was reading. I was almost enjoying it too much.

Q: How about the TV series?

A: I'm glad to say I never saw it. I will see it eventually, because now I really want to, but I don't want to be swayed. I started to watch - it wasn't a scene that my character was in - and I fell right into it. I mustn't do that. For in order for me to be effective, I just have to try and inhabit this.

Q: Did you know the secret of Anna Madrigal while you were reading the script?

A: I actually went to the end.

Q: What did you think?

A: The whole thing blew me away.

Q: How's the score?
A: Fabulous!

Q: And how's the score compared with other scores you have performed?

A: It's fabulous!

I'm serious. Everyone keeps pinching ourselves. Is this score as good as I think it is? I haven't heard a score like this for a show in I don't know how long. I don't remember hearing a new show in recent memory that was this good. It's fun, uplifting, beautiful in places. Absolutely breathtaking. I had never heard of the Scissor Sisters. I'm old, you know. (laughter) I went to see them the other night. It was glam-rock fun party music. It did not prepare me for what the score sounds like. It can be that, but it can also have great depth, wonderful harmonic structures. There's very surprising melody turns and very good lyric writing.

Q: How has the score been for your voice?

A: That was the crazy thing. This was not written for me. I didn't come along until very late in the game. And I was saying to Jason the other day, this thing is sitting in the meat of my voice. How did that happen? It feels really, really good for me. And I got some great stuff.

E-mail Leba Hertz at

This article appeared on page P - 17 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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