DIVA TALK: Catching Up With Tony Nominee and Scandalous Star Carolee Carmello
By Andrew Gans
October 26, 2012
News, views and reviews about the women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Tony Award nominee Carolee Carmello, the vocal powerhouse who was Tony-nominated for her performances in Parade and Lestat, is back on Broadway in Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson, a new musical by bookwriter and librettist Kathie Lee Gifford and composers David Friedman and David Pomeranz. This tale of sex, drugs, religion, celebrity, music and romance at the Neil Simon Theatre casts the stellar singing actress — who boasts one of the great belts in the American musical theatre, a rich, soaring tone with a seemingly endless range — as evangelist McPherson, who was internationally known in the 1920s, '30s and '40s for her good deeds, a church that regularly welcomed thousands of visitors and a purported kidnapping that led to a sensational trial. Carmello, whose Broadway resume also includes performances in Falsettos, Urinetown, 1776, City of Angels, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Mamma Mia! and Sister Act, among others, plays Aimee from her youth to her premature death from drugs in 1944 at age 53. David Armstrong, artistic director of Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre, directs the production, which will officially open Nov. 15. During the week leading up to her first Broadway preview, I had the pleasure of chatting with Carmello, who spoke about the challenges and joys of her latest theatrical role, working with chat show host and writer Gifford, combining motherhood and eight shows a week on stage and more; that interview follows.
Question: How did you originally get involved with Scandalous? I know you've been through various versions of the show over the years. Carolee Carmello: I guess about seven years ago or so, I was doing Urinetown at the time, and a friend of mine was doing a reading of this show, which was then called Hurricane Aimee, I think, and he came into work one day and was telling me about the show and about the story. I had never heard of Aimee Semple McPherson at that point, and I said to him, "Wow. That sounds like an amazing story. Who's playing my part?" [Laughs.] And, he said, "Christine Ebersole," and I said, "Oh, sh*t!" [Laughs.] Because she's very talented, and I assumed that [the casting] wouldn't change. As it turned out, I was introduced to Kathie Lee to do another one of her projects called Under the Bridge…
Carmello in Scandalous.
photo by Jeremy Daniel
It was an Off-Broadway show based on a children's book, and I was playing a part in that, and she asked me to look at the script of Hurricane Aimee, and when I read through it, I found this woman fascinating… Kathie had written it for two different actresses to play. One to play sort of the younger half of her life, and one to play the older half of her life, so she was asking me to play the older half, obviously, and I read through it and I thought, "You know, I think this device is not necessary. If you could get it written for one actress, I think it would be more successful." And, so I was brazen enough to suggest that to her, and to say to her and the director at the time, "Would you consider doing a reading of it with me playing the whole thing and not just the older part?" And, they thought I was crazy—both of them—and they looked at me sort of like I had two heads, but they agreed to try it. And so we did it, and it was really hard, but it was really exciting, and it hasn't ever gone back. Whenever I get to a point like this week where I'm complaining about how much work I have to do in this show, I have to remember that it's all my fault! [Laughs.] I dug my own grave in this one.
Question: Since you said earlier that you didn't know much about her, what type of research did you do? Carmello: Kathie suggested a few of the books that she had read. She's done, of course, years and years of research on this woman. She's been fascinated by her for, she says, 40 years—since she was in college. And, I read a few of those books and watched some newsreels and listened to some tapes of her sermons and tried to absorb as much as I could about her life and her strengths and weaknesses, and then at some point, had to sort of let go of that and just play the character that's written in this show, which is partially Aimee and partially a character that's written for the stage. I think that I've got a pretty good handle on her at this point, but you never know. I mean, when you're playing someone who's based on a real-life person, it's always a little dangerous because you can't just make it up. It really is someone's life, especially someone who's legendary like her. I'm doing the best I can, but I'm sure there will be people who say, "That wasn't what she was like!" [Laughs.] There's certainly a lot to sink my teeth into.
Question: Is there much video footage of McPherson? Carmello: There's a little bit. You know, it was early. Her heyday was the '20s and '30s, really. There was some, but not a huge amount. And, I've watched what I could find, but there's probably other pieces that are undiscovered yet.
Carmello at a Sept. 24 press event
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN
Question: What most surprised you about her when you were doing that initial research or even later? Carmello: What most surprised me? I guess the sort of dichotomy of her life… The dichotomy between her on stage, if you will—you know, it wasn't a stage performance, but her public persona—versus her personal life and how she could be on the pulpit and preach one thing and have such a personal life filled with trouble at the same time. I guess it's probably not that unusual. There are probably a lot of people that we think of as sort of saintly, who actually have a lot of other stuff going on that we don't know about. But I find that fascinating, and I find that interesting to play, in terms of theatre, because it makes the character so complex. You want your leading lady to be likeable, of course, but at the same time, it's real that people have faults and have weaknesses, and how they overcome those or don't overcome them is kind of the interesting part of life, I think.
Question: What have been the challenges of the role and also what have been the joys of playing her? Carmello: Well, the challenge is that it's, as I said, my fault, but it's an enormous amount of singing—more than I've ever done in a role.
Question: Even more than Mamma Mia!? Carmello: More than Mamma Mia! More than Kiss Me, Kate. I even played Evita once in a dinner theatre when I was younger, and it feels harder than that. I don't know… Maybe it's because I'm older, and I don't have the stamina that I once had, but it's tough, so that's the biggest challenge for me. Normally I don't worry so much about my voice. I've been lucky that way to have, for whatever reason, I haven't had to struggle very much in my career with vocal problems or anything like that, so I'm a little concerned about getting through the eight shows a week because it's a lot. But the joy of it is that she's such a larger-than-life character. Some of the things that I read about her over the years, you just think, "Wow! No one can make this up!" I mean, she really lived a life that sort of cries out to be put on stage, and even put in a musical, because it's so kind of over-the-top. So that's a lot of fun to play. I know there are some people who love the sort of naturalistic style of theatre writing, but boy, if you're going to have people bursting into song on a stage, she's a great person to do that because she just lived a huge life.
Carmello and Burke Moses in Kiss Me, Kate.
photo by Joan Marcus
Question: Tell me a little bit about working with Kathie Lee. I often think she gets a bad rap. Carmello: She does get a bad rap, and I'm not really sure why. I know that it's been that way for many years, so it pre-dates this project, but she's great to work with. She's very passionate. She loves this story. Like I said, she's been sort of crazy about this woman for 40 years, since she heard about her, and she knows so much. She's so knowledgeable about her life, and she cares so much about telling this story to people. And, you know, she's not the most seasoned writer in the Broadway community, but she's so enthusiastic and so eager to learn from people. She really doesn't have an ego about—she never feels like, "I'm the celebrity, so I should be doted on or listened to." She really collaborates with everyone, and she wants to learn as much as she can about the process that she really hasn't been through before. She's just great, and she's around all the time. I mean, I've been involved in new pieces where the writers are not as involved. They don't take the time to come to all the rehearsals. They don't keep up on all the changes. They just kind of keep their distance. And, it's great to have her there. She's a great cheerleader. She loves actors. She loves musicians. She loves the process. So I have nothing but great things to say about her.
Question: Also, tell me a little bit about working with the director, since he's also new to Broadway. Carmello: Well, David Armstrong is fairly new to the project. In the last year—year-and-a-half, maybe—he's joined. He's the artistic director of the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle [and] once they made the decision to go out there and have David direct it, that was sort of the package. And, I worked with David many, many years ago on a regional production of Beehive. Do you remember that show? [Laughs.] And, so I knew him a little bit, and he's a very nice man. Very smart. And, he's done an amazing job out in Seattle with that theatre company—really turning it into a viable pre-Broadway space that people are clamoring to use for their new works. Very smart and very even-tempered, which is always lovely in this part of the process. You get some directors who just get so frustrated and start yelling at people or start snipping at people, and he never does that. Very kind. Very respectful. Again, a really good collaborator, which is, you know, very hard to do when you have so many fractions. I don't envy anybody in that position when you're the director and you have to mediate between what the actors want and what the composers want and what the sound people want. It's like being a U.N. ambassador. I don't know if I would really want to do that job, so I think he's doing great with it.
Carmello in Scandalous.
Photo by Jeremy Daniel
Question: Some people, I think, might be scared off a bit that the musical is about a religious person. What is the appeal of the show for those people? How would you tell them to come to the theatre? Carmello: Well, if it helps anybody to know, I consider myself an atheist, and I find her story fascinating. I'm not religious at all, but I find her life fascinating, and I think that anyone who's that passionate about what they do is interesting. Whether it's a painter or sculptor, a doctor, pharmacist… Anyone who really throws themselves into their work 110%, I think, is interesting, and I find her story inspiring, and the creative team is filled with people of all different persuasions. From Christian to Jew to atheist to Scientologist… [Laughs.] We don't have a slant on this show. It's not like a Pentecostal musical, and I love what Kathie Lee says, which is, "The Sound of Music is not about Catholicism, even though a lot of the characters in the show are Catholic and part of the show takes place in an abbey… It's not about being Catholic. It's a story that has Catholicism as a background," and I think that's really true with this show, too. I mean, she was a Pentecostal preacher. That shouldn't scare anybody off. It's a fascinating story, and I think it's a really great piece of theatre.
Question: On another topic—how old are your kids now? Carmello: Oh! My daughter just turned 17. She got her driver's license on Tuesday—a week ago. [Laughs.] She's going through the whole college application thing right now. And, my son is 11. He just started middle school last month, so they're getting big.
Question: Is it a little easier now juggling motherhood with being on Broadway? Carmello: Well, it is easier because they are a little more self-sufficient. But anytime I go through this process with a new show where it's so all-absorbing, it's really hard on everybody else in my life. Everyone has to sort of understand that for the next month-and-a-half, the show is going to take over my life, and then it will settle down once we open, and I get into more of a routine. But right now, we all kind of live and eat and breathe this show. Until we get it up and running, that's going to be the case. So it's still really hard to juggle, and I miss my kids a lot during this time. I see them for maybe a half-an-hour in the morning, and then when I get home they're asleep, so it's tough.
Carmello in Scandalous.
photo by Jeremy Daniel
Question: You've been doing musicals a long time, and some work and some don't. How do you keep your excitement level up, but also be a little guarded if something will be a success or not? Carmello: Yeah, I'm very guarded. I'm probably more pessimistic than people should be at this point. I always think everything is going to fail, and I'm pleasantly surprised if there are things that don't fail… Everyone has sort of a different outlook. There are people who start new shows and think that every one that they get involved in is going to be a hit... I guess because it's what I do for a living, I sort of try to take it in stride and just remember that some are going to work and some aren't. And, I hope that what I do within the piece will be noticed and appreciated, but you can't always control that either. You just do the best job you can and let it sort of play itself out and see what happens. You have to be hopeful....
I'm so thrilled that it made it to this point. After working on something for seven years and doing all these out-of-town productions and workshops and readings, you get to a point where you stop really hoping that it's going to make it to Broadway, and the fact that I'm standing now outside the theatre and looking up at the marquee, I'm kind of shocked and amazed and grateful for that. So whatever happens after this is gravy.