Sunday, November 6, 2011

Celebrating Sondra Lee and Amber Edwards!

Here I am as Carol Channing, Sondra Lee and Donna Hanover at Sondra's book signing and reading at Lincoln Center Barnes and Noble.

"The work of petite Sondra Lee, a Jerome Robbins discovery from High Button Shoes(1947) who later scored as Tiger Lily in his production of Peter Pan (1954), had so impressed Gower Champion that he contacted her in Rome to offer her the part of shopkeeper's assistant Minnie Fay."
-Before The Parade Passes By by John Anthony Gilvey

Happy Sunday!


We got an extra hour! I took Horace for a walk this am.
One of those crisp New York mornings. I love Autumn In New York  As John Kenrick said on his wall on Facebook, "A gorgeous November day, turning into a perfect autumn evening -- hard to believe that one week ago it was a wintery hell on earth around here! (Of course, there are those pesky mounds of snow still melting in parking lots as a reminder that it was NOT just a bad dream.)"

I also love Sondra Lee. I've written about her in many of my blogs. I'd anything for her! I feel that she would do the same for me! Gower wanted her so much in "Dolly", that she didn't even have to audition. That says a lot about Sondra. My research has shown that he wanted EVERYONE to audition for him. Nanette Fabray, Gower's first choice for Dolly, did not get the part of Dolly Levi because she refused to audition for the part. Nanette and Gower had already worked with each other on Make A Wish!

With Sondra's appealing quirkiness and individuality, Gower had yet another performer whose would complement that of the other cast members.
with Marge Champion

Sondra says, "If you have a director who is so firm about what his vision is, you can hook into that vision."


Stephen Downey and Sondra Photo credit: Russ Weatherford


Sondra brought a sense of wickedness to the character, as well as a swift, positive sense of humor that never veered off course according to Gordon Connell.
Sondra was well paired with Jerry Dodge's supernaturally agile and wildly comic Barnaby Tucker.  Jerry Herman says in his memoir, Show Tune, that he  used to love to sit backstage and gossip with Sondra and Eileen Brennon.
As Sondra says in the intro to her book, "I've Slept With Everybody", "I am truly grateful to my good friends who are still ever present in my life".

Dody Goodman's 90th Birthday Party

I feel the same way about Sondra!
two hot, green eyed blondes! Sondra with Heather Sullivan



As mentioned above,she was the original Tiger Lily in Peter Pan.















She was the lead producer of Charles Busch's Shanghai Moon.

Earlier this year I saw an incredible play that Sondra directed
on women of Appalachian which starred Donna Hanover and my friend, Annette Hunt.


She's had affairs with Baron Phillippe de Rothchilde, Italian film director Federico Fellini and Broadway impresario Billy Rose.
She's coy about her sexual involvement with Marlon Brando saying; "let's just say he was my first love."

She didn't care for Frank Sinatra and she has some interesting stores about - a lot of bold names, which Sondra Lee has disclosed in her book I've Slept with Everybody: A Memoir.


Lee spoke with my friend, Laura Deni from Broadway To Vegas about her 60-year career when her memoir first came out.
I blogged about it at the time and am now reprinting that interview here in celebration of Sondra in anticipation of my Jerry Herman event next Saturday.  and the assorted - or sordid - affairs that went with it.

Born and raised in New Jersey her father was one-fourth Albino and her mother was "dark like a Gypsy and a walking time bomb."
Sondra Lee and Charles Busch



A sickly child who had pneumonia on a regular basis, Sondra was given growth hormone injections because "my family was alarmed that I was so tiny."

She doesn't recall any side affects of the shots and feels she is "living proof that the shots don't work." 

With Alexander Mandell at Sondra's book signing at Barnes and Noble, Lincoln Square











"I never gave my height any thought, because my size has never been a factor in the theater.
They always use my size but basically  I've never been cast because of my size," she declared. "I never gave my height any thought, because my size has never been a factor in the theater. They always use my size but basically I've never been cast because of my size," she declared.
As a teen-ager she crossed the river from New Jersey to New York and, in a fairy tale encounter, was almost immediately discovered by Jerome Robbins and catapulted into success.
"I auditioned for Allegro choreographer Agnes DeMille. I did a couple of real stupid things, because I was real young and silly," she admitted. It seems that a well meaning advisor had told Lee to always answer in the affirmative if anybody inquired about her dancing abilities.
Lee was barely 17 when High Button Shoes opened on Broadway at the New Century Theatre on October 9, 1947. The production closed on July 2, 1949 after 727 performances.
Robbins has been reported to have had a dark side.

"He did have a dark side," confirmed Lee. "I was never really subject to his dark side because I never needed his approval. I was too young and I was too naive to know that I needed him to say - 'You're wonderful.'"
3/27/04 - Rockland Center For The Arts
Sondra Lee (Original Minnie Fay opposite Carol Channing in HELLO, DOLLY!) and Willa Kim (Tony Award Designer WILL ROGERS FOLLIES and VICTOR/VICTORIA

According to Lee when Robbins headed into a dark mood; "He actually turned dark - his eyes got blacker and it seemed that his skin even got darker. He would kick things. For me, his dark side was fascinating because I was never the center of it.
Tammy Grimes, Richard Skipper, Nancy Anderson, Sondra Lee at Sondra's book signing at The Dutch Treat Club October 2009
I know people who were wounded by him, but not me. You got hurt by him if you really needed his approval - and a lot of actresses did."

Raising her voice into a high pitched, effervescent tone, she mimicked - 'Oh, Jerry, did you like this?'
 Then you got skewered. Whatever that need was in those showgirls, it was something that he truly couldn't deal with."

Marlon Brando and Wally Cox were childhood friends. Cox died of a heart attack in 1973. Brando kept Cox's ashes in his closet, and when Brando passed away in 2004, both of their ashes were combined and scattered in Death Valley, California.
Marlon Brando and Wally Cox were childhood friends. Cox died of a heart attack in 1973. Brando kept Cox's ashes in his closet, and when Brando passed away in 2004, both of their ashes were combined and scattered in Death Valley, California.
Marlon Brando was Lee's best friend and his intimate confident, confessing things only to her - a confidence that has long been confirmed by Brando biographers and friends.


"We remained friends until the day he died.
In a way he took my virginity, I guess you could say that. Just say he was my first lover. There was something much deeper than just a physical relationship between Marlon, myself and Wally Cox," related Lee who shared a rooming house with Brando and Cox, who became famous starring as Mr. Peepers on the hit 1952-55 television series.
"Jimmy Dean was there at that time," Lee continued. "Jimmy really thought he was Marlon. He got a motorcycle.
He even tried to go to the same analyst."
"I think Marlon Brando confided in me because I was young. I wasn't a threat. He was a very private person. 
There was a group of us - Maureen Stapleton, Billy Redfield, Wally Cox, Marilyn Gennaro, who eventually married Wally. 
We'd go out on motorcycles. Wally was making some money and he bought some land in Rockland County."
"We would go there and dig this big hole, fill it with twigs, put pieces of steak on long pointed sticks. We told each other stories about our families."

"At some point I think Marlon just elected me to be his younger sister. I knew his sisters, but I was like his kid sister."

Eventually that entire group became famous - each in their own way.
Sondra Lee rehearsing Tiger Lilly. 1954 photo by Bob Willowbe
Lee created the role of Tiger Lily, leader of the Never-Never-Land tribe.
Along with the late Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard, who played Captain Hook, Sondra Lee, was one of the few cast members who appeared in the full Broadway run and all three television versions of Peter Pan.

Peter Mintun, Sondra Lee, Richard Skipper, Donna Hanover at The Sheet Music Society November 7th celebrating Sondra Lee's new book, "I've Slept With Everybody" photographer: Rose Billings

Frank Sinatra. Sondra Lee saw him with his legs dangling out a window and heard him insult Ella Logan, who originated the role of Sharon McLonergan in the original production of Finian's Rainbow, singing the show's most famous song, How Are Things in Glocca Morra?

The attention the Tiger Lily role cast upon Lee's career caused her to reassess her job opportunities.
"I wanted to continue my career as a serious actor and dancer, but people only wanted to see Tiger Lily. To this very day, I get fan mail for Tiger Lily."

Lee's dancing talents took her to Europe which is where she met Frank Sinatra.

 
"I was very young and I'm not a drinker at all. I was in France and I went to the bar and I saw ladies ordering Gibsons. 
I ordered a Gibson and immediately got dead drunk. Then I saw this little figure at the end of the bar," said Lee.
Lauren Fox and Sondra Lee at the Dutch Treat Club Tribute to Celeste Holm
Photo: Rose Billings
Kathy Brew and Sondra Lee
It was Ella Logan who was nursing her wounds from almost being booed off a London stage.

"Ella had opened in London for Louie Armstrong and the audience didn't want to hear her.
She was a big star but they didn't want to hear her," reiterated Lee about the star who created the role of Sharon McLonergan in the original Broadway production of Finian's Rainbow, singing the show's most famous song, How Are Things in Glocca Morra?   "They wanted to hear Louie," recalled Lee about Ella's public humiliation.
"She had gone to Paris to emotionally recover."
Anthony Accardi, Sondra Lee, Graciano Nunez and Cate Winters


Logan decided that a better balm might be found in Spain and took Lee along for the ride.
Frank Sinatra. Sondra Lee saw him with his legs dangling out a window and heard him insult Ella Logan, who originated the role of Sharon McLonergan in the original production of Finian's Rainbow, singing the show's most famous song, How Are Things in Glocca Morra?
"When we were in Spain, Sinatra was there. He found out Ella was there and invited her to his hotel room.
She took me along. That is how I met Sinatra. By that time he was a huge star. He was seated on the window sill of his hotel room with his legs dangling out the window. He made some really unkind and snide comments to Ella. I have no idea if he was drunk. He was showing off. He said things to Ella which wounded her deeply, which she didn't need. Things like - 'Tell us about your big success in London. Did you sing Glocca Mora?'
It was snide and I thought he was a smart-aleck."
Jennifer Joyce, Sondra Lee and Charles Busch
Sinatra excepted, Sondra Lee has fond memories of Europe. She co-starred in Les Ballets De Paris.

"The South of France is where I have spent some of my best times," said the pint size bundle of dynamite who had an affair with Baron Philippe de Rothschild. 
His vast holdings include the Chateau Mouton Rothschild vineyard. 
"He was an extraordinary man," she fondly recalled.

Lee had met him after he and his wife attended a show in which she was dancing.
"When I knew him he was a poet, a grandfather and one of the most successful vintners of the 20th Century. I met them and we had dinner first and then we went to the theater."

"Then we all went to Rumplemeyer's," she said referring to the once elegant cafe and ice cream parlor, which was on Central Park South near Fifth. "We were met by a bunch of people and it was - Oh, Philippe can you do this for me? 
Billy Rose was once married to Fanny Brice

Oh, Philippe can you do that for me? Then he turned to me and said, 'What can I do for you?'"
Lee asked him to write her a Haiku. He did.
"When I got home that evening the telephone was ringing and he was on the other end. He wanted to know if I was free on Saturday night. 
I said no, I'm not. He told me to 'break it'.
That's how it all began. I'm not a quick, hot affair type. The love affair lasted a long, long time."
"Billy Rose was one of my lovers. He was Billy Rose production, let me tell you! He was a fascinating man. He said he could buy anything. 
I never found him difficult. I found him amusing. And, someone to learn from."
Sondra Lee, Ariel Veith, Annette Fletcher, Mia Schachter, Harry May Kline, and Alexander Mandell


"I met Billy at Virgil Thompson's," she said of the man who was an American composer and critic from Kansas City, Missouri.
He was instrumental in the development of the American Sound in classical music. "Thompson was like a magnet. There were painters, dancers and writers at his parties. 


I didn't know what Billy Rose was doing there. Billy wanted to know who everyone was and where they were from. One was from Spain. Another from New Jersey. 

I said - 'I just came from the Unemployment Office.' That's how it started. He said; 'What can I do for you?'

"I told him I'd love to go to the Ziegfeld Theater," recalled Lee about her reply to Rose in which she let him know that she had heard about his offices where he could see the stage from his window.

"That's where he took me," she fondly remembered.
Then there were her romps in the hay with Federico Feline whom she calls "extraordinary." Sondra had been living in Spain and was cast in the Feline flick LaDolce Vita."He was a special man. They were all special men," she hastened to add. "He was a totally different personality and read on life than Billy Rose. He was a cartoonist before he became a film director. He doodled big time. I found him a very special person." 
Lee insists she has no favorite production, "but I have favorite people."

"Angela Lansbury. She is an antidote for a hundred evils. She is a consummate artist. 
I worked with her in Parasido. She was a gift in herself. She is one in a million," she said of the legendary performer who most recently co-starred with Catherine Zeta-Jones in the revival of A Little Night Music at the Walter Kerr Theatre.
Broadway To Vegas threw out some names of people Sondra Lee has worked with and she replied:

Paul Newman - "I knew him from the Actors Studio. He was just a terrific person and a wonderful actor, as well.
Just a good guy. There are very few people in the theater that you can say that about.
You remember their performance, but you don't really know them. He was a great guy."
Dustin Hoffman - "A very talented person. He is very amusing and very needy. He just needs attention. He is very childlike."
Donald Sutherland - "I liked him a lot and he is a good actor."
"Stella Adler was my teacher. 
She was Marlon's teacher and he brought me to her. I taught for her for almost 15 years. She was one of the great influenced of my life. One day she called me very seductively and said; 'Darling, I want you to teach," said Sondra imitating Stella's affected vocal persona. 
"'I'd like you to teach style - because no one has it.'"
"One time Stella was in Tiffany's, or one of those stores, and the sales clerk asked her if she was English. Stella puckered up her lips and said; 'No darling, just affected.'


 
Sondra Lee was Minnie Fay in Hello, Dolly! alongside two famous Dollys - Carol Channing and Ginger Rogers.

She remembered a Christmas when Carol Channing was buying Christmas presents for the Hello Dolly! cast.

"It was before Christmas and Carol Channing asked everyone in the cast their initials - so we got all excited - thinking sterling. Then these boxes got delivered to our dressing rooms. One by one we all tore them open. The women got huge bloomers with our initials. The guys got these skinny ties which were stamped with their initials.
No, it wasn't a gag gift. It was the gift. Hello!"
"I went down to Carol's dressing room and I told her that I would keep them forever. She said; "Wonderful, wonderful," reported Lee imitating Channing's distinctive voice.


"I framed them and kept them in my bathroom!"
"So, they put up a curtain. But the curtain didn't work. It wasn't good enough. I was going to call my agent and she was going to call her agent. The producers told the theater to build a wall.
They did. They built a wall in this tiny, stupid dressing room.
 

The only thing is, she had the air-conditioner and I had the radiator. So, she froze in the winter and I was hot in the summer."
Matthew Broderick. For him the wall came tumbling down. Broderick is one of several celebrities who penned an endorsement for the back cover of Lee's book
"That wall lasted until Matthew Broderick was to have that as his dressing room. He tried to walk in and they had to take the wall down," she said of the dressing room Broderick used while starring in The Producers.
"Eileen and I have remained friends. She is a marvelous, wonderful person," emphasized Lee.
Broderick as well as Angela Lansbury, Jules Feiffer and Charles Busch have written book endorsements.

It was Sondra Lee that helped push Charles Busch into the well deserved spotlight. Lee produced Busch's famous show Shanghai Moon.
"Charles is a friend and I felt this particular show of his, which I was very familiar with, was great. I took it to a producer friend of mine who cocked around. Finally, I went to the Drama Department, which was an independent company. They said they would do it with me and that is how it got done."
"I'm going to produce something else very soon," she disclosed about Hillbilly Women, a drama with music by Elizabeth Stearns, based on the book by Kathy Kahn.

"It's a seven character musical play about the women of Appalachia. I think it has a great deal to do with America, especially in the 70's. These women are amazing.
Nothing much has changed," said Lee about the play which Samuel French, Inc describes as; "Based on interviews in Appalachia, this docu drama features seven women who reveal in song and narrative their personal stories of survival against incredible odds."
 "They are poor and a lot of them are products of incest," continued Lee. "They made the Levi jeans. They have black lung disease. I think it is an important piece of American history.
I have music from The Judd's and Peter, Paul and Mary, old Union 
songs. 
Things that are meaningful."


"I'm a member of the Actors Studio and about 30 years ago I saw this play done - very differently - with very young actresses from The Actors Studio. This version is with much older actresses and it is just brilliant."

Most dancers don't get into The Actors Studio.

"I am a serous actress and also a serious painter," she explained. "You audition to get into Actors Studio.
In its heyday, was an elitist gymnasium for actors to work on their craft. I learned to direct and experiment and work from feed back."
Stuart Enzo

Enzo Stuarti was in the flop Reuben, Reuben but went on to become a Las Vegas headliner.
Sondra reports no bad career experiences, "although there was one that was a huge flop - Reuben, Reuben by Mark Blitzstein.
It's like if you have a child that isn't quite right and somehow it's you favorite of all your children."
"On opening night in Boston it was like being in Europe. People were booing and people in the audience turned on each other.
I remember the Second Act opened in an insane asylum. Eddie Albert, who was the star, had the line - 'My God, I must have been crazy.'
Somebody in the audience said - 'You are! You are!'"

"The people in the play were amazing, talented people," she said referring to Kaye Ballard, George Gaynes (pictured below), Evelyn Lear, Karen Anders, Tony Dardell and Enzo Stuarti who would become a major Las Vegas headliner.
George Gaynes

"The score was remarkable. I'll remember it for as long as I live. The subject matter was about lack of communication that never clearly communicated that to the audience," she laughed.
Reuben, Reuben opened in Boston on October 10, 1955, but closed without going to Broadway.


"I did a dance in it, sort of a modern version of Romeo and Juliet - long before West Side Story.
There was a wonderful young dancer named Timmy Everett who was in Dark At The Top of the Stairs. We stopped the show cold. They came and got us in our underwear to come and take an extra bow."
Reuben, Reuben was reviewed by Stephen Arnold for the Tuesday, October 18, 1955 issue of The Harvard Crimson.

"Two facets of the production are excellent.
The settings by William and Jean Eckart are ingenious and colorful.


They have overcome the common musical comedy problem of the transition from scene to scene by integrating the stage changes into the opening moments of each succeeding scene. The chorography, under the direction of Hanya Holm, is responsible for the best number in the show, a ballad sung by Reuben and pantomimed by an extraordinary pair of dancers, Sondra Lee and Timmy Everett. 
Miss Holm has also staged a wonderfully humorous street fight, as well as a terrifying yet lovely ballet in an insane asylum. But these redeeming features cannot rescue Reuben, Reuben from a disastrous fatc-sheer incomprehensibility." 
How did Sondra Lee get into that disaster in the first place? Lee was already in another show when she auditioned for Reuben, Reuben which caused director Robert Lewis to question her reasoning.
"I told him I have to work with Mark Blitzstein," she said of the man most remembered for his libretto and English lyrics for the Off-Broadway production of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera, including Mack the Knife which became a standard. "Mark Blitzstein was there and heard me say that," she continued. "He said - 'She's in!'"

Generally Lee has gotten what she wants.

"Things have fallen into place."
Childless and twice divorced, Lee says her pupils are her 'children'. "At least the gifted ones are my children," she joked.

"I care about them and I care deeply about theater people."
"This is my adventure. My greatest need is to be interesting to myself."
-Leonard Cohen
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Thank you for your interest. Tell Laura I sent you!
 
 
Filmmaker Amber Edwards, Musical Director Donald Pippin and NJN Executive Producer Nila Aronow Photos by Charlie Siedenburg

In 2007, The Lambs Club hosted a private preview screening of the documentary – Words and Music by Jerry Herman, a film by Amber Edwards. 
I was there! I am proud to say we have Amber Edwards on our panel next Saturday    
This documentary chronicles the life and career of one of Musical Theater's iconic figures: Jerry Herman,the multi-Tony-award-winning composer and lyricist of the classic Broadway musicals:
Jerry Herman with Angela Lansbury and Carol Channing
Hello, Dolly!, Mame, La Cage Aux Folles, Dear World, Mack & Mabel, The Grand Tour, Milk and Honey and much more..
  



Attending that night's screening were performers and collaborators from Jerry Herman's Broadway musicals included Donald Pippin (Herman's long-time musical director/arranger), Terry Marone (Milk and Honey),
Marge Champion, (who appears in the film) Sondra Lee, Alice Playten, who sadly died earlier this year much too soon,Harvey Evans, Lee Roy Reams, Gordon Connell, Ron Young (Hello, Dolly!), Hilda Harris, Nancy Lynch, Randy Phillips, Sheila Smith, Casper Roos, Eileen Casey (Mame), Nicole Barth (Dear World), Bert and Pat Michaels (Mack  and Mabel), and Walter Charles, Lee Roy Reams (who will also be joining us next Saturday!), Harvey Evans and Sheila Smith (La Cage Aux Folles). 

The 90-minute film by award-winning filmmaker Amber Edwards, of NJN Public Television, chronicles Jerry Herman's rise from witty off-Broadway revues during the 1950s, to his first Broadway successes in the 1960s ( Milk and Honey, followed by Hello, Dolly! and Mame), through the 1970s (Dear World, Mack & Mabel, and The Grand Tour ) to his 1983 triumph La Cage Aux Folles, which also made social and political history.  
Fred Ebb
The star-studded "supporting cast" including Carol Channing,Angela Lansbury, Charles Nelson Reilly, Marge Champion, Arthur Laurents, Michael Feinstein, Charles Strouse, Fred Ebb, George Hearn, Phyllis Newman, Francine Pascal, Musical Director Donald Pippin, and theater historians Miles Kreuger and Ken Bloom. 

Nearly five years in the making, the film incorporates a remarkable collection of photographs and archival footage (much of it never seen in public before) including Carol Channing doing the original Hello Dolly title song; Donald Pippin's personal Super-8 films of Angela Lansbury in Mame and Dear World; numbers from Mack & Mabel (a cult favorite among aficionados;) scenes from La Cage ; and most astonishingly, film of the college musical Jerry wrote while at University of Miami.
Where do we go from here? THE SHEET MUSIC SOCIETY NEXT SATURDAY AFTERNOON!

Nov 12
1:45pm
LOCAL 802 MUSICIAN'S HALL, 322 West 48th Street, NYC
An Afternoon Celebrating The Legacy of Jerry Herman
Richard Skipper hosts along with Klea Blackhurst, Ken Bloom, Marge Champion, Amber Edwards (Words and Music, the award winning documentary on Jerry Herman), Sondra Lee (Hello Dolly!'s original Minnie Faye), Miles Phillips, Donald Pippin, Lee Roy Reams with John Fischer on piano. $10 non members of the Sheet Music Society.





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Please do what YOU can to be more aware that words and actions DO HURT...but they can also heal and help!

Thank you, to all the stars mentioned in this blog! 

I love you ALL!! 



 
Here's to an INCREDIBLE tomorrow for ALL...with NO challenges!

Now, GO OUT AND DO SOMETHING FOR SOMEONE ELSE TONIGHT!

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Tomorrow's blog will be about...Miles Phillips, Donald Pippin, Lee Roy Reams!!! I'm also seeking a video question for tomorrow!



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TILL TOMORROW...HERE'S TO AN ARTS FILLED WEEKEND!
Richard Skipper, Richard@RichardSkipper.com
“When they passed out talent,” Broadway star Carol Channing says of composer and lyricist Jerry Herman, “Jerry stood in line twice.”

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