Saturday, November 29, 2008

Patti LuPone at Les Mouches

Patti LuPone’s latest release, "Patti LuPone at Les Mouches," is a lively mix of 20 selections from the American songbook, Broadway and pop music, set to terrific arrangements -- some with a Latin beat, some rock -- and given a high-voltage performance. Laced in between is LuPone’s wicked humor and bubbly patter. Add in the audience’s enthusiastic response, and I felt I was right there with all of them in the nightclub.

The performance is actually decades old, but the recording, released earlier this month, has been welcomed by LuPone’s many fans. The CD, digitally restored from original soundboard tapes of her 1980 club act, reached #25 on this week's Billboard Heatseekers Chart, marking the first time in LuPone's career that one of her solo recordings has charted on Billboard.

To listen, you would never know that it’s extracurricular singing. During her Tony-winning run in the original Broadway production of Evita, LuPone spent 27 consecutive Saturday nights at midnight -- following her 8 p.m. performance in the tour de force title role -- at the now-defunct gay disco/cabaret Les Mouches in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. The run was supposed to be only for four weeks, but it won raves and drew such crowds that it kept being extended. This recording, on the Ghostlight Records label, captures the thrill of those shimmering live performances, which were created and written by David Lewis, LuPone’s accompanist, and LuPone.

Most of the selections are standard cabaret fare, juiced up by LuPone’s sassy personality and extraordinary voice. But she does gentle too. I was delighted she included “It Goes Like It Goes.” I loved this song as soon as I heard it in the movie “Norma Rae,” but none of the vocalists whose recordings I have -- and I have shelves and shelves of albums, tapes and CDs -- had recorded it. I never forgot the lines of the chorus: “And maybe what’s good gets a little bit better/And maybe what’s bad gets gone.” It’s a gentle song on a CD that certainly wouldn’t be called gentle, yet it doesn’t seem out of place.

The complete list is:
Latin from Manhattan/I Got Rhythm
I've Got Them Feelin' Too Good Today Blues
Love for Sale
Not While I'm Around/Come Rain or Come Shine
Squeeze Me
Heaven Is a Disco
Street of Dreams
Because the Night
Everything I Am
Mr. Tambourine Man
Rainbow High
Don't Cry for Me, Argentina
Look to the Rainbow
Superman (I Wish I Could Fly)
It Goes Like It Goes
Thank yous/I've Got Them Feelin' Too Good Today Blues (Reprise)
Goodnight Sweetheart

I was wowed by her interpretation of these songs, and I loved her giggly interaction with the audience. At one point she acknowledges an esteemed guest, Stephen Sondheim, and declares that it is “my dream, my fantasy” is to appear in one of his shows. "If this happens I'll retire," she says. I certainly hope she drops that idea now that she’s appeared in two Sondheims. She was fabulous several seasons ago as Mrs. Lovett, the part originated by Angela Lansbury, in the revival of Sweeney Todd. In June she won her second Tony for what is being called the role she was born to play, Rose, in the revival of Gypsy, now at the St. James Theatre until March 1.

LuPone’s power to entertain that is so well known now was just starting to be recognized back in her Evita days. Luckily someone thought to record 10 of the Les Mouches performances. Joel Moss, one of the CD’s producers who worked on the digital restoration and editing, writes in the liner notes about his excitement in learning of the cassettes, “ceremoniously protected in a Thom McCann shoe box in the back of a closet.” “I’ve often thought about the countless historical performances that have been resigned to anecdotal urban legend because no one had the presence of mind to document them in any way.”

Thankfully someone did have the presence of mind all those years ago, so now we too can experience Patti LuPone at Les Mouches. Put this one on your holiday shopping list. It’s a treasure.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Struggles and Triumphs: Retelling the Stories of Historical Women

Pleasant Word has released a new novel, Struggles and Triumphs, by Cynthia L. Simmons. Simmons, a former nurse and homeschooling mother of five, shares her passion for history and for the women who helped shape history. While visiting the Smithsonian Museum one year, Simmons was particularly interested in an exhibit detailing the impact of women on politics. After researching a number of possibilities, Simmons settled on nine particular individuals.

Struggles and Triumphs offers a glimpse into the lives of nine prominent women from history — many have faith, several don’t; all experience fears, expectations, challenges, dangers, oppression, and grief. Those who know Christ find their way through heartache with God’s help and guidance. Follow the stories of these nine remarkable women from the past — some who overcame insurmountable odds by putting their faith and trust in God:

• Katie Luther, wife of Martin Luther
• Susannah Thompson, later Mrs. C.H. Spurgeon
• Princess Alice, daughter of Queen Victoria
• Queen Kateryn, wife of Henry VIII of England
• Louise, Duchess of Coburg
• Caroline Bauer, wife of Prince Leopold
• Ellen McCallie, wife of Thomas Hooke McCallie
• Princess Vicky, daughter of Queen Victoria
• Catherine, Duchess of Suffolk

“Each of the [women in my book] had something that made me feel a connection with them,” Simmons says. “For instance, I particularly liked Princess Alice, daughter of Queen Victoria, because she was a nurse. She had some serious questions about her faith and found answers.”

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Peanuts wisdom

"Be yourself. Everyone else is taken."
-- Charles Schulz

Saturday, November 22, 2008

To Have, Give All to All

“When your body and your ego and your dreams are gone, you will know that you will last forever. Perhaps you think this is accomplished through death, but nothing is accomplished through death, because death is nothing. Everything is accomplished through life, and life is of the mind and in the mind. The body neither lives nor dies, because it cannot contain you who are life. . .

“The body is the symbol of what you think you are. . . If the mind can heal the body, but the body cannot heal the mind, then the mind must be stronger than the body. Every miracle demonstrates this. . . .

“To the Holy Spirit, there is no order of difficulty in miracles. . .

“Egos do join together in temporary allegiance, but always for what each one can get separately. The Holy Spirit communicates only what each one can give to all. . . Once they have chosen what they cannot complete alone, they are no longer alone.”

A Course in Miracles, Foundation for Inner Peace

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Billy Elliot: The Musical

At intermission, I wasn’t really sold, but by the final curtain I felt ready to soar through the air like Billy. Billy Elliot: The Musical tells the same story as the movie, but the tone is quite different. Once I gave in to the funky nature of this version, which has been a hit in London for more than three years, I was hooked, as most of the audience at Broadway's Imperial Theatre seemed to be.

Like the 2000 movie “Billy Elliot,” the musical is about an 11-year-old boy in northeast England who lives with his father and older brother, Tony, both coal miners, and his addled grandmother, his mother having died years earlier. One day after his boxing class, lingering at the gym, Billy gets caught up in the girls’ ballet class that follows and is awakened to his first experience of beauty. He begins taking lessons and discovers he has a gift that can take him far from his bleak world with its lack of opportunity. Stephen Daldry, who directed the charming, simple film, directs this supercharged stage variation as well.

What kept me at first from being moved as I had been by the film was the uneven score, with music by Elton John and lyrics by Lee Hall (who also wrote the book). Some songs I really liked, such as the opening number “The Stars Look Down,” sung by the full company on the eve of what will be a central element of the story, the 1984 miners’ strike that deeply wounds Billy’s community. I also loved the full company’s rousing singing of “Solidarity,” but other songs were limp and disappointing.

Peter Darling’s choreography, however, was a marvel from start to finish, whether traditional for Billy’s ballet performances or stylized, and at times surreal, for larger numbers that intertwine the stories of the dancers, the miners and the police. Because of the demands of the title role, three actors alternate as Billy -- David Alvarez, Kiril Kulish and Trent Kowalik. It was an extremely winning Trent the night I was there.

I also liked Gregory Jbara as Billy’s father. After being the gruff, uneducated miner in the first act, he is able to bring the tenderness of the movie into the second. Afraid Billy will become a “puff” if he pursues ballet, he forbids him from taking lessons. Billy continues in secret until one day his father finds him at it and is awed by his son’s talent. He then makes the painful decision to break ranks with his other son and fellow striking miners to cross the picket line and become a scab to get money for Billy to go to London for an audition to the Royal Ballet School. He breaks into tears, singing, “He could go and he could shine, not just stay here counting time.” In the moving scene that follows, other miners and members of the town come up one by one to offer him a coin or two for Billy’s chance. It is lovely, and one of the reasons I liked the second act better. I was captured on an emotional level beyond just the razzle-dazzle of the earlier scenes.

I did appreciate the humor in the first act. I loved Billy’s friend Michael, played with personality galore by Frank Dolce, who, as in the movie, likes dressing up in his sister’s clothes. “Expressing Yourself,” the scene in which he and Billy tap dance around in girlie clothes, is a riot. (David Bologna alternates as Michael.)

Other key roles are: Haydn Gwynne, who reprises the role she created of dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson in the show's original London cast, Tony-winner Carole Shelley as Grandma and Santino Fontana as Tony. The creative team includes Ian MacNeil (scenic design), Nicky Gillibrand (costume design), Rick Fisher (lighting design) and Paul Arditti (sound design).

The London production, which opened in 2005 and is still playing, won the 2006 Olivier Award for Best New Musical. Darling picked up the Best Theatre Choreographer Award, while the Best Actor in a Musical Award was shared by James Lomas, George Maguire and Liam Mower, who originated the title role.

For tickets to New York’s Billy Elliot, visit or call (212) 239-6200 or (800) 432-7250. For more information, visit

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

My Vaudeville Man!

I love shows that bring to life performers of another time. My Vaudeville Man!, a York Theatre Company musical, puts legendary tap star Jack Donahue back on the boards, with Shonn Wiley giving a smashing performance in the title role.        

The story unfolds largely through letters between Jack and his long-suffering mother, Mud (Karen Murphy), and are drawn from Donahue’s book, Letters of a Hoofer to His Ma. His was the classic show business story in so many ways, a young man with dreams of stardom who refuses to follow in his father’s footstep by working in the shipyard.  At 19, in 1910, he slips away to join the Vaudeville circuit, playing small theatres up and down New England.

Wiley, fresh faced and wholesome looking, brings abundant energy and enthusiasm to the role. Like Jack, he seems born to tap. He fills the tiny stage of The Theatre at St. Peter’s Church with spirit. He also ably handles the singing side, giving his all to the songs by Bob Johnston and Jeff Hochhauser (who also wrote the book).

Similarly, Murphy gives depth to a character that is all too common --the struggling Irish immigrant mother, with the stereotypical brogue, whose husband drinks too much and who puts her hopes on her oldest son, whom she does not want to go into “the show business.”

But Jack cannot be contained. He saw his first Vaudeville show when he was 5 and “that’s when I came alive,” he sings. “Vaudeville was the only dream I ever dreamed from that day on.”

His mother sees things differently, believing that “when St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland they went into Vaudeville.”   Still, she keeps her son’s performance schedule in the kitchen so she can write to him at each stop. He writes back, sharing his triumphs and frustrations, always promising to send money, money he actually uses for fancy new shoes and nice hotels.

The two do have their loving moments together. I especially like “Picnic in the Kitchen,” a song and dance number in which Jack remembers a time when their furniture had been taken by a collection agency and he and his mother had a picnic in the floor. “Why not pitch in, no sense bitchin’,” they sing.   

Mud’s concern for her son deepens, though, as she suspects he’s “drinking like your father and your granddad do,” sung poignantly in “My Son, I Know.” She’s all too familiar with this heartache. In ”So the Old Dog Has Come Home,” she sings of loving her husband in spite of his drinking. Murphy is powerful in this number.

And Mud does come around to accepting her son’s career, prompted by an unlikely source. In the final number, she sings of being his biggest fan and he pledges to be her “Vaudeville Man.”

Just before that rousing ending, Wiley and Murphy inform the audience about the rest of Jack’s life, earning a gasp of sadness when they recount that his life ended in 1930 when Jack died from his drinking at the age of 38. But he had achieved much of his dream, working his way up the Vaudeville ranks to play in Broadway musicals, and Ray Bolger would later play him on film

My Vaudeville Man! is directed and choreographed by Lynne Taylor-Corbett, with Wiley serving as co-choreographer. James Morgan designed the simple sets, David Toser the period costumes, and Mary Jo Dondlinger the lighting. The three-piece band is directed by Douglas Oberhamer.  

This engagement marks the musical’s Off-Broadway premiere. It had its world premiere at last year’s NY Musical Theatre Festival under the title Mud Donahue and Son.

The York Theatre Company is located at Saint Peter's in Citigroup Center on Lexington Avenue just east of 54th Street. Tickets are available by calling 212-935-5820. For more information, check out . For Group Sales, contact MATCH-TIX at 212/354-2220.

Monday, November 17, 2008


I had a really good time at Wintuk, Cirque du Soleil’s latest production, now at the WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden. It manages to be both spectacular and down-to-earth at the same time, making for a delightful evening of entertainment.

The “story’ is about Jamie, a little boy who longs for snow to come to his city; Wintuk is the name of the imaginary place in the north where he must journey to bring it back. I put the word story in quotes because Wintuk isn’t really about Jamie, even as appealingly portrayed as he is by Darrin Good. Under the direction of Fernand Rainvillet, it’s about presenting one marvel after another, from acrobats, jugglers, trapeze artistes and more. Choreographer Catherine Archambault has one happening flow easily into the next, so much so that the nearly two-hour show flies by.

I enjoyed every bit of it, but I was especially delighted with the disco dogs -- Terrance Harrison, Cindy Whiteman, Alexandre Tessier, Rémy Bakkar, and Lurian Duarte Avelino in costumes designed by François Barbeau. They start out just being fun to look at but then really dazzled when the trampoline comes out and they get to whirl and twirl with the best of them. I also loved the roller skaters who swoop up and down the hills of Patricial Ruel’s sets.

This was my first experience with the show. Press notes indicate it has undergone significant changes, including a trampoline act called “Power Track” and brand new puppet designs by Tony and Emmy Award-winner Michael Curry. I loved his giant cranes -- two performers in costume on stilts.

The entertainment is topped off by the best fake snowfall I’ve ever encountered. A multitude of giant white and light blue tissue paper snowflakes, shaped like fat daisies, are released from overhead and continued to fall for several minutes. It’s glorious.

Wintuk is the first Cirque du Soleil show created specifically for families, although the audience the night I was there seemed to be made up mostly of adults without children. It marks the 21st Cirque du Soleil production and joins the 15 others currently performing throughout the world.

Tickets for Wintuk, which plays through Jan. 4, range from $40 to $220 and can be purchased at, or by calling Ticketmaster at 212-307-1000.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Saturn Returns

Warning: Don’t go to this play is you are depressed, or even just feeling down. Saturn Returns, by Noah Haidle at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, is a sad play about lonely people, and the ending is not cathartic the way similarly themed work can be.

If you are in good spirits, which I am, and a lover of interesting theatre, you might want to check out this new play, which tells the story of one man at three different stages of his life.

The play begins with Gustin Novak, a delightful John McMartin (in photo) at 88. A retired radiologist, he lives alone in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His beloved wife, Loretta, died giving birth to their only child, Zephyr, who also is dead, having drowned in Mexico 30 years ago. Rosie Benton ably plays both women, as well as the elder Gustin’s home health assistant, Suzanne. James Rebhorn is moving as Gustin at 58 in 1978; Robert Eli portrays him at 28 in 1948.

I like the way director Nicholas Martin, with the help of Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting and Mark Bennett’s original music and sound design, has staged the back and forth shifts of time, and how the theme of loneliness plays out in each. Gustin at one age will climb the stairs or head out the door as Gustin at another age walks in. The only inconsistency in character was in the youngest Gustin, a medical student and newly married. He lacks the considerable humor and personality of the older selves.

The dialogue for the elderly and middle-aged Gustin is funny and well timed, but it’s clear that the joking around is Gustin’s way of avoiding his loneliness. As the 88-year-old, he attempts to find companionship in anyway he can -- calling a list of service providers, such as a computer repair man even though he doesn’t own a computer and luring a plumber to the house by stopping up the toilet with a tennis ball. The 58-year-old has a flair for comedy as he comes up with a variety of reasons for rejecting the women his daughter is trying to fix him up with -- Virginia, no, because he had a bad experience once in Roanoke and Bonny because she’s fat. “She probably has her own Zip Code,” he says, quipping that when she gets on the scale “it says, ‘To be continued.’” He’d rather stay home with Zephyr, whom he clings to emotionally.

The play, at 70 minutes, is well paced, but it left me wanting more. If I hadn’t known there wasn’t one, I would have thought when the lights came up that we had reached intermission, rather than the end of the play. We’re left with the image of young Gustin and Loretta happy and in love, with the older selves on stage, haunting the joy. An intriguing and moving ending, if not totally satisfying.

As we were leaving, my friend Lauren mentioned that she never found the meaning of the play’s title in the work and I realized I had been so involved in the story that I had forgotten the press notes had indicated a cosmic element that didn’t click with either of us. The press release stated: “The planet Saturn's orbital return to its position at the moment of a person's birth happens every 30 years.” Thirty years separate each plot line -- Gustin in old age, 30 years before when his daughter died and 30 years before that when she was conceived, but having little knowledge of astrology, and finding none offered in the play, I don’t see why the story segments couldn’t have just as well been separated by 25 years or 28 and the play given a different title.

For ticket information, visit

Thursday, November 13, 2008


“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.”
-- Carl Jung

“Enthusiasm (from the Greek, ‘filled with God’) is an ongoing energy supply tapped into the flow of life itself. Enthusiasm is grounded in play, not work. Far from being a brain-numbed soldier, our artist is actually our child within, our inner playmate. As with all playmates, it is joy, not duty, that makes for a lasting bond.”
-- Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

All good gifts . . .

By virtue of the Creation, and still more of the Incarnation, nothing here below is profane for those who know how to see.
-- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Monday, November 10, 2008

Into the Woods

Excellent! Blue Hill Troupe’s production of Into the Woods is top notch from start to finish. I loved it every bit as much as the 2002 Broadway revival, which I saw twice. In fact, with this cast’s clear articulation of the songs and earthy approach to the characters, I experienced the show in a far deeper way than I had before.

Under the skilled direction of Andy Sandberg, the 20-member cast is equally strong in presenting the humor of the work and the dark side that surfaces in the second act. I found myself continually being surprised by the songs and wondered briefly if they were using an alternate text. Then I realized it’s just that I had never understood all of the words, despite having listened to the original cast recording I’m sure close to 100 times. These performers bring to life all of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics and James Lapine’s book. The orchestra, under the direction of Matthew Rupcich, does full justice to Sondheim’s engaging music.

Into the Woods, which opened on Broadway in 1987, won several Tony Awards including those for Best Score, Best Book and Best Actress in a Musical (Joanna Gleason as the Baker’s Wife). It interlaces the classic tales of Cinderella, Little Red Ridinghood, Rapunzel, the Wolf and the Witch, with a Baker and his Wife added. When the characters face loss and danger, they find they must band together as they discover their personal strengths in battling the darkness that lurks in the woods. “Anything can happen in the woods,” as one song says, and much does, including adultery and murder. They learn that if “no one acts alone,” they can survive: “Into the woods, you have to grope,/But that’s the way you learn to cope./ Into the woods to find there’s hope/Of getting through the journey.”

Among my favorite comic moments of Blue Hill’s production were Geoff Gaebe and John C. Taylor as the Princes. They really bring out the humor in the song “Agony” as they sing of their unobtainable love -- for Cinderella and Rapunzel, respectively. When Gaebe complains about pursuing a woman who always runs from him, Taylor tops him with the challenge of desiring a woman imprisoned in a tower. “Agony, far more painful than yours,/when you know she would go with you,/if there only were doors.”

I also loved Jennifer Dorre, the Baker’s Wife, as she sings in “Moments in the Woods” of her befuddlement after her fling with Cinderella’s Prince in the woods. “Was that me? Was that him? Did a prince really kiss me? And kiss me? And kiss me? And did I kiss him back?” Gaebe, Taylor and Dorre have the timing and delivery of the best of Broadway’s musical comedy stars.

In the second act, when the shadow side of human nature emerges, the actors made me feel the darkness in a way I hadn’t before. This could be because they aren’t well-known performers like Vanessa Williams, who played the Witch in the revival I saw. They seemed more believable to me and I felt I was with them in the woods.

Just as the timing was right in the funny scenes, it also was in the second act when fallen human nature temporarily takes over. In “Your Fault,” Jack (Ken Kiernan), the Baker (Kevin Murray), Little Red Ridinghood (Alison Plotkin), the Witch (Tracy Bidleman) and Cinderella (Amanda Smith) point fingers of blame at each other over who is responsible for the angry Giant running wild in their community. This is a difficult number in which much of the plot is recounted in a fast-paced manner as the characters all try to shift the focus to someone else. They handle it perfectly.

The production team is every bit as professional as the actors. Special applause goes to Denise Paglina and Suzanne R. Taylor for their evocative costumes, Douglas Larson and Richard Chung for designing and constructing simple sets that easily move in and out and to Sam Militello for the fabulous sound and special effects. It really sounds as if beanstalks are falling and a Giant is stomping around up there!

The Blue Hill Troupe, Ltd. brings high-quality theatre performances to New York City audiences while raising money for local charities. The Troupe has raised nearly $3 million since its founding in 1924. It has twice performed at Carnegie Hall with the New York Pops, and is featured annually in the Metropolitan Museum of Art concert series. On television, the Troupe has been profiled on “CBS Sunday Morning” and the "MetroArts/Thirteen" performance series.

Proceeds from Blue Hill Troupe's productions in 2008-2009 will benefit Inwood House's new Financial Literacy & Empowerment Initiative, equipping young mothers to become economically self-sufficient and create cycles of success for themselves and their families. Inwood House is an internationally recognized leader and innovator in youth development, teen pregnancy prevention and family support, serving nearly 5,000 young people in New York City and New Jersey.

As of Friday’s opening night when I was there, the show’s run was 80 percent sold out, so I advise you to call immediately to get tickets so you don’t miss this dynamic production of Sondheim’s classic. Only five more performances remain -- Nov. 12, 13, 14, 15 at 7:30 p.m. and Nov. 15 at 2 p.m. -- at Dicapo Opera Theatre, 184 E. 76th St., between Third and Lexington Avenues. Preferred seating tickets are $45 and standard seating tickets are $35. Call (866) 811-4111.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Scott Hamilton -- Fighting Spirit

This essay by Scott Hamilton appeared in Guideposts magazine.

I skated out to center stage, or rather center ice, 10,000 people cheering me on at The Forum in L.A. I know it sounds hammy, but I’m a performer, and all my life center stage is where I’ve wanted to be. This was my comeback performance —my comeback from testicular cancer. Everyone, including me, wanted to see if I was as good as I’d been before the cancer. It had been 14 years since I won the gold medal at the Sarajevo Olympics. My own expectations were probably higher than they should’ve been.

I waited for my friend, country music singer Gary Morris, to begin singing “With One More Look at You.” I chose it as a tribute to my mother, Dorothy. She died of breast cancer when I was in high school. Everything I knew about courage and determination, I owed to her.

Gary started singing. I launched into my routine. Within the first minute, I realized how tough this was going to be. My body felt different. Logy, weak. It had been just five and a half months since my chemo, four months since major surgery. It was like I had no leg muscles at all.

I was determined, though. The show must go on. All my skating friends were there, in tribute. Kristi Yamaguchi, Brian Boitano, so many others. CBS-TV was doing a special broadcast.

I gathered myself and, as the music reached a crescendo, I flew into my signature jump, a triple toe loop. Somewhere in midair I lost control. Next thing I knew, I was flat on the ice. The crowd hushed. Gary paused. In my head I could hear my mother say, You’ve got to keep going. That would have been just like Mom, always urging me to do my best. Especially when it came to my skating.

From the very first day I laced up skates when I was nine, I loved it. I glided to the center of the rink and waited for the music. “Look at him go,” the kids from school said. I ate up the attention. I loved showing what I could do. I was too small to be good at any other sport. On the ball field, I was always the last one chosen. Skating, though, was different. I didn’t have to be bigger or stronger or faster. Just myself.

By middle school, I was winning events and gearing up for the Junior Nationals. Mom was very involved, always looking out for my best interests. “You can be as good as you want,” she said. “If you make the commitment, we’ll make the commitment with you.”

“Okay, Mom,” I said, not even sure what she meant.

Next morning Mom woke me at 5:30. “Ready?” she asked. She drove me to the skating rink, then sat on the sidelines and watched, peeking at her lesson book. Mom was a second-grade teacher. But she had other plans.

“I’m going back to school,” she told my dad. “Scott has a real chance to do something special, and the only way we can afford to pay for his coach and ice time and equipment and all of his travel to competitions is for me to get a better-paying job.”

Evenings, after teaching all day, after fixing dinner, she studied for her master’s degree in education. She parlayed it into an associate professorship in family relations at Bowling Green, where Dad was a biology professor.

Even that wasn’t enough. The more I advanced, the more coaching and training I needed. She convinced Dad to sell our house and move to a smaller one out in the country. One spring morning I found her and Dad digging up the backyard.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“I’m planting lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers—a vegetable garden,” Mom replied. She did it to save money—money she used to pay for more ice time and more lessons for me.

I was young and self-absorbed, and didn’t think too much about it. Skating came so easily. Maybe too easily. I kept winning competitions, but didn’t always train as hard as I should have.

Then Mom got sick. Doctors found a lump in her breast. When Dad brought her home and they told us the diagnosis, I could see in her eyes that she was scared. But her voice was firm. “I’m going to beat this. Don’t worry,” she said. I was 15 years old, a sophomore in high school.

Me, I would have been a quivering mess. But Mom was so positive. She acted like cancer, chemo and surgery were opportunities to finally do all the things she’d wanted to do. When chemo made her hair fall out, she happily got wigs. “It was such a pain to have my hair done all the time,” she said. The chemo also killed her appetite. She lost weight and showed off her new figure to her friends, telling everyone how great she looked. But she never let a soul see her pain.

The last time she saw me compete was at the 1977 U.S. Senior Figure Skating Championships, my first year at the senior level. I went out and laid an egg—I dropped to ninth after the free skate, my strongest event. My new coach, Carlo Fassi, couldn’t get me to focus and work hard. I was more into hanging out with my friends. But that day when I looked to my mother in the grandstand, I could see the disappointment in her eyes.

The day Mom died I went for a long walk. I was angry and feeling sorry for myself. My prayers were all complaints: “God, why did you do this to me? I’m too young to lose my mother.” What was I going to do now? How could I go on?

But then I thought about how Mom dealt with her cancer. She never complained. She never gave up. Instead, she made the most of every minute God gave her. Wasn’t that a challenge I had to take up now?

The first thing after Mom’s funeral my coach called to express his sympathy. “Carlo,” I said, “I want you to know that a different person is coming back to you to train. He is going to be totally dedicated to being the best he can be.”

Carlo was skeptical. But from then on, it was like Mom was still urging me on. I went to bed early. I ate properly. I didn’t waste a moment on the ice. There was no quit in me. I worked till I got things right. Four hours a day on compulsory figures. Two hours a day on my free skate. Weightlifting two or three times a week.

By the time the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics rolled around, I was in the best shape of my life. I was ready. And when the competition was over, I stood atop the podium listening to our national anthem. My first thought during the ceremony was, Mom, without you, this would never have happened.

The Olympics opened doors. It made life as a professional skater possible, and I went at my pro career with the same intensity as my run-up to the Olympics. If I wasn’t working every week, I felt like I was letting Mom down. With my skating friends I launched a series of ice shows that played 70 cities a year. It was hugely successful.

Then, on tour in 1997, I felt a pain in my abdomen. I pushed my belly button and it changed shape a little bit. It had this odd feeling. I couldn’t describe it.

All I knew was it didn’t feel normal. My stamina slipped. I told myself that it was an ulcer. Or maybe I was just burned out. At the end of the tour I’d get it checked out. But the pain got worse. One afternoon in Peoria, Illinois, I couldn’t straighten up. A few hours before the show that night, I went to the emergency room. The doctor asked me a ton of questions and ran a battery of tests. Then he sat me down. “We’ve found a mass,” he said. “You need to take care of this right away.”

I did the show that night and made sure it was great. I was afraid it would be my last show ever. The next morning I checked into the Cleveland Clinic Taussig Cancer Institute. This is going to be the biggest battle you’ve ever faced, I told myself. I would need to hold on to the faith and determination I found after Mom’s death. Fighting cancer, she had taught me how to live.

When the doctors returned with my diagnosis—testicular cancer—I was ready. “Let’s get started,” I said. “I have a skating tour in the fall.”

“You may want to reconsider,” one doctor said. “Chemotherapy and surgery take a lot out of you. It will be a while before you can get back to your life.”

“You don’t understand,” I told them. “I determine what I do, not this cancer.” It’s exactly what Mom would have said.

The chemo and surgery were rough, I’m not going to kid you. But I had this attitude: Cancer likes darkness; it doesn’t like light. And I was going to attack it with all the light I possibly could. I prayed. I surrounded myself with good friends, I watched videos and read books that made me laugh. When I woke up in the recovery room after surgery, totally free of cancer, I felt like my life had just begun.

That’s what had led me to that comeback night at The Forum in L.A., and here I was, splayed on the ice. But not for long.

The audience began to applaud. The sound grew louder and louder—the kind of cheering I heard at Sarajevo. There was only one thing to do. Get up. I popped to my feet and went back to my routine. A smile lit my face that just wouldn’t go away. I could fall again, I might get sick again. That didn’t matter. What mattered was making the most of what I’d been given.

Go for it, I thought. I flew across the ice, leaped as high as I could and landed a perfect double axel. Then another. I felt like the night needed to end with an exclamation mark, so I did several back flips. Mom would have been so proud. She was always my biggest fan.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Monday, November 3, 2008

Jennifer Hudson

My Grateful Heart

Of all the gifts my grandmother gave me, including my singing voice, there’s one I treasure above all the others.


This interview appears in Guideposts magazine. It was conducted before the murders of Hudson's mother, brother and nephew.

Even I can’t believe it sometimes, how incredibly blessed I’ve been in my young career. Not that I haven’t worked hard and kept believing in the face of setbacks, but so have plenty of other talented people and they’re still waiting for their big break. I went from my first professional job, singing in a local production of Big River when I was 19 to being on "American Idol" to winning an Academy Award for my portrayal of Effie White in "Dreamgirls." I turned 27 this fall, and I have a lot to celebrate and be thankful for. Incredibly thankful. My first album just came out—something I’ve been dreaming of for years! And now I’m playing the strong, outspoken character Rosaleen in the movie version of Sue Monk Kidd’s bestseller The Secret Life of Bees.

You might think all of this success would go to my head. It’s exciting, definitely, and I’m enjoying every minute of it. But no matter how many red carpets I get to walk down, no matter how many big names I’m fortunate enough to know, or how many albums and movies I make, I’ll always be the same girl whose greatest joy in life was singing, even if there was no one around to listen. I’ll always be my grandma’s girl.

That would be my mother’s mom, my late grandmother Julia Kate Hudson. Our family’s what we call “born into the church,” and I was no exception. So many of my earliest memories are of being at Pleasant Gift Missionary Baptist Church on the south side of Chicago. We were there Tuesday night for choir rehearsal, Wednesday night for Bible study and all day Sunday—morning service, evening service, communion, everything.

My grandmother was a deeply spiritual woman, the soloist in the church choir and the singer in the family. She was so good that people used to tell her she could be a professional, but she always insisted that her voice was a gift from the Lord and the best way to show her gratitude was by using it to serve him. Like when she was singing one of her all-time favorites, “How Great Thou Art.”

No doubt about it, I got my voice from my grandma. I didn’t realize that right away, but everyone else knew. My mom likes to tell a story about when I was a lap baby, not even one yet, sitting with her during choir rehearsal. The choir director was trying to get the group to hit a certain note, and they didn’t do it. But out of the blue, I opened my mouth and hit that note right on! I can almost imagine my grandma slapping her hand over her mouth so she wouldn’t giggle out loud.

The fact is, I was surrounded by music. Not just at church, but at home too. My grandma couldn’t live on her own because of her health—she had diabetes and seizures—so she lived with us. I was the youngest. When my mom was picking my sister up from school and my brother was out playing basketball or riding his bike, it was just Grandma and me in the house. She’d sing, I’d listen.

One day—I don’t even remember what prompted it—I joined in and something just clicked. I felt beyond happy. I felt connected to something larger and more beautiful than I’d ever imagined. I didn’t have the words for it then, but now I’d say it was a rightness in my soul, the kind of feeling you get when you sense something is meant to be. I was only seven years old, but from then on, I knew singing was what I wanted to do, what I was meant to do.

That’s why I started asking around at church, “Could I have a solo? Please?” I begged the choir director, who sent me to the head musician, who sent me to someone else. They kept giving me the runaround. I got so frustrated that I hid in the bathroom and cried. “If nobody will listen to me,” I decided, “I’ll listen to myself sing.

I did just that until I finally wore the choir director down. I got my first solo, “Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone.”

I practiced and practiced in my little pink bedroom on the third floor of our house. I couldn’t wait to show everyone what I could do.

That Sunday I got up in front of the congregation. I stood there and looked at everyone sitting in the pews—my family, my friends, people from the neighborhood. Then I opened my mouth. Nothing came out. Not a sound! Here it was, my big moment, and I forgot the words!

I closed my eyes, praying that I’d remember just one word, one note. Dear Lord Jesus, help me! I’m stuck! All of a sudden I heard a beautiful sound. Someone singing the first words of the hymn. I opened my eyes. It wasn’t just one person; it was the whole congregation helping me along, lifting me up with their voices until I found my own again.

It started to dawn on me then what my grandmother meant about singing being an expression of gratitude. To God, first and foremost, and to the people he put in my life to support me and inspire me.

I thought about that a lot when my grandma’s health was failing. By the time I was in seventh grade, she was bedridden. She couldn’t really carry on a conversation anymore, let alone sing. So I sat with her and sang to her: “How Great Thou Art” and “Jesus Promised Me a Home Over There,” all her old favorites from church. And a new song—the first one I ever wrote—“To Love Somebody.” It was my way of thanking her for all she had given me. It probably wasn’t enough, but it was everything I had.

Even though my grandmother died in 1998, I kept thinking of her, singing for her. Like when I was voted off American Idol. I was shocked at first. I thought that my biggest opportunity had just been lost. Was it time for me to give up trying to make it as a singer? Just go home to Chicago and do something else? Who did I think I was, anyway? But the next morning I woke up and remembered how my grandmother used to say her voice was a gift from the Lord. I still have my voice, my gift, I thought. No one can take that away because God put it in me. He made music a part of me. I couldn’t give it up. I knew I couldn’t walk away.

Of course, I haven’t. I love singing for people, moving them and inspiring them, like music has inspired me since I was that little lap baby sitting in choir practice. But I also sing every day without consciously thinking about it. It feels as natural to me as breathing or praying. I sing even if there’s no one around to listen. Actually, I take that back. There’s always Someone listening. And like my grandmother before me, I know he hears in my voice how grateful I am.

Jennifer’s Inspirational Playlist

“What songs inspire you most?” we asked Jennifer.

1. “Encourage Yourself” by Donald Lawrence. I tell everyone to listen to this. Sometimes you have to encourage yourself. What you think, how you feel, what you believe—all you’ve got to do is set your mind to it.

2. “I Believe in Music” by Donny Hathaway. I love what this legendary soul singer is saying: “Music is the universal language and love is the key.”

3. “Can’t Give Up Now” by Mary Mary. All of the songs from this sister duo are uplifting, this one especially.

4. “There Is No Failure in God.” God will do whatever you ask him to, but you need to have faith.

5. “Impossible Dream” sung by Luther Vandross. Such a motivator for me!

6. “How Great Thou Art.” Every time Grandma would get happy she’d shout, “How great thou art!” We’d be in the car and she’d see clouds or mountains or trees and say, “How great thou art.” I wondered, What does Grandma mean? But now I understand, and it’s why I feel so blessed—that God, out of all the things he does, took time to touch me, to give me a gift. When I did the song “And I Am Telling You” in "Dreamgirls," everyone asked me where all that emotion came from. It was from this song “How Great Thou Art”—because Grandma used to sing it. I had a recording of it and listened to it before I did that scene.

The Master Builder

I’ve heard there’s a first time for everything, but experience had led me to believe that as far as the Irish Rep is concerned this wouldn’t be true. Their shows have consistently been first rate, so I assumed they always would be. Sorry to say, with the current staging of The Master Builder, I experienced a first at that theatre -- a really disappointing production.

Director Ciaran O’Reilly has mounted what sounds more like an initial run-through than a finished product. The weakest link is, unfortunately, the main character. James Naughton’s portrayal of Halvard Solness is stiff and lifeless. Every line is delivered in such a wooden monotone that I had trouble staying awake during the 90-minute first act. If it hadn’t been that I care about this play, I would have left at intermission.

I don’t know whether Naughton, a two-time Tony Award winner for his performances in musicals, was miscast or merely misdirected, but in the second most important role, that of Hilde Wangel, Charlotte Parry seems to have been both. Miscast because she seems too old and misdirected because she seems downright dangerous. Ibsen meant for Solness to feel threatened by youth, but not in the way Parry comes off. Her portrayal has a dark undercurrent that makes Hilde seem subversive. When she reminds Solness of the time she met him 10 years before when she was about 12, she tells him he kissed her many times. Rather than being playful and teasing, she sounds as if she’s about the spring a child sexual abuse suit on him. This is not how it should be. Hilde should be youthful, fresh and idealistic. She wants “castles in the air,” but with Parry she seems like someone who would settle for the monetary equivalent.

Getting the characterization right is crucial because the plot revolves around this relationship. Solness is a successful but embittered architect and builder in a small Norwegian town. Afraid that the younger generation will replace him, he mercilessly dominates his employees. His marriage holds no love and his twin infant sons died years ago. Then Hilde arrives unannounced. A vivacious young woman, Hilde has idolized Solness for 10 years, since he built a large church in her hometown and, when it was completed, climbed to the top of the tower to place a wreath at its dedication. He had promised to return and build a “kingdom” for her and now that the 10 years are up she has come to collect.

Hilde’s illusions are understandable -- she’s young. Parry makes her too calculating. Solness is a man who has given up on illusions until Hilde’s spirit infects him, and his judgment. Naughton’s lifeless portrayal never captures that vulnerability.

This production of The Master Builder, which was commissioned by the Irish Rep, marks the world premiere of Irish playwright Frank McGuinness' adaptation of the 1892 classic, one of Ibsen’s last. McGuinness’s past adaptations of Ibsen's work by have received acclaim, including a Tony Award for Best Revival in 1997 for A Doll House.

Besides Naughton and Parry, the cast includes Letitia Lange, Kristin Griffith, Daniel Cameron Talbott, Herb Foster and Doug Stender. Performances continue to Nov. 30. The Irish Repertory Theatre is at 132 W. 22nd St. For more information, call (212) 727-2737 or visit

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Amazing Grace update

All of us who are eagerly awaiting a production of the new musical Amazing Grace: The True Story can now enjoy new recordings online of several of the show’s songs. Check out

Christopher Smith, who wrote the music, lyrics and book, tells me he’ll soon be shooting a new video about the production in NYC featuring all of the stars. Fundraising has begun for the New York company, headquartered at producer Carolyn Rossi Copeland’s offices on Broadway  -- .

More exciting news that Chris shared with me is that he and Carolyn have started talks with a major East Coast regional theatre about an out-of-town tryout. The theatre, which I can tell you is a really good one, contacted them, not the other way around, so that’s encouraging.  Please keep this show in your prayers.  With its message of the amazing power of God’s love to change lives, it needs to be out there in the world in a big way. It needs to be on Broadway!

Check out the site, listen to the songs -- and pray.