DIVA TALK: Catching Up With Tony Nominee and Scandalous Star Carolee Carmello

By Andrew Gans
26 Oct 2012

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.