"...there's not one single interview where I didn't have multiple surprises."
by Gregg Shapiro
Gregg Shapiro is both a literary figure and a music and literary critic. As an entertainment journalist, his work appears on ChicagoPride.com and is syndicated nationally.
According to gay journalist Eddie Shapiro (no relation), author of the book, Nothing Like A Dame: Conversations with the Great Women of Musical Theater (Oxford, 2014), these leading ladies aren't just aware of their following in the LGBT community, they are "grateful…Chita Rivera has talked to me about performing on gay cruises and how rewarding that is. She says that, ‘When you're on a ship full of gay men, they show up knowing exactly who you are, what you've done, and they're the audiences who are most excited about being the room with you, so you love giving back to them'."
That's just one of the many tidbits Shapiro was able to glean from his in-depth and informativew interviews with Rivera, Patti LuPone, Audra McDonald, Bebe Neuwirth, Idina Menzel, Angela Lansbury, Kristin Chenoweth, Carol Channing and others. The perfect read for Tony season, the summer or any time at all, I spoke with Shapiro about the book in 2014.
GS: (Gregg Shapiro) Eddie, I'd like to begin by asking you a few questions about yourself. At what age did you first become interested in theater?
ES: (Eddie Shapiro) I have to say that it is much like being gay. I was born with it. I really don't remember a time when I wasn't. I remember hearing cast albums when I was growing up. That was the music I was instantly drawn to and no other music really spoke to me. I remember being taken to the theater as a really small child and being completely enraptured. It's been part of my life for as long as I can remember.
GS: Were all of these interviews conducted with a book in mind or did that occur later?
ES: All of these interviews were conducted for this book. I had interviewed some of them before for other things. But these interviews were done exclusively for this book and that's why they are constructed the way they are. They are each career encompassing, beginning at the start of each of these women's careers and go all the way through. There wouldn't have been an opportunity in, say, a magazine, to go quite that long or in depth.
GS: What can you tell me about the process of selecting subjects to interview?
ES: It was a nightmare [laughs]. As you can imagine, knowing that in this day and age, having a book that has all of the women that you would want, that I would want, is impossible. It would be a huge volume. I knew that I wanted the chapters to be career encompassing, so I knew they would be long. The publisher gave me a strict word count so I knew that I had to limit it to 20 women. Given that, there were rules that I had to adhere to. One of them was that each of the women had to have a Tony Award and be nominated for at least one other Tony Award or major award during their career. One was that they had to have a career in musical theater. So someone such as Barbra Streisand, who did a couple of musicals and then left musical theater, didn't really qualify, as much as I would have loved to have sat down with Barbra Streisand. Then, of course, thay had to have said yes. There were a couple of women who I did want who didn't agree to participate. Having a set of rules made it so that women I desperately wanted to interview – I would have loved to have interviewed Carol Burnett, but she didn't fit the criteria. If I didn't have the criteria, then it becomes very much a "why her and not her?" situation. That's why it came to be that way.
GS: What was involved in your process for coming up with interview questions?
ES: A variety of things. For starters, there are always people, certain topics that I will always ask about. For instance, if someone has worked with one or more of the greats, I will always ask. "What do you remember about working with Stephen Sondheim? What do you remember about working with Jerome Robbins? What do you remember about working with Ethel Merman?" Those will always come to the fore for me. Of course, I wanted to cover every show. When there were specific incidents or moments that were well-known, such as Patti LuPone yelling at someone for taking a photograph during Gypsy, you want to address those. But then, on top of that, before I sat down with any of these women, I did a great deal of research. The research was not for me to learn what they did in their careers – I already knew that. The research was to see what they had already said to the press. For two reasons – first, I wanted to recognize a story if it was one that was often told; I wanted to show that if I was getting something that was said again and again, I wanted to be able to steer the conversation in a different direction. Secondarily, you pick up pieces of information that might be random tidbits that you want to expand upon. Doing that research was invaluable in knowing what I wanted to ask about when I showed up.
GS: Even with all of your research, did anything unexpected or surprising occur during any of the interviews?
ES: Oh, lots! In fact, there's not one single interview where I didn't have multiple surprises. The surprises were two- fold. Sometimes just the women themselves would surprise me. Sometimes I would walk in with the expectation that one or more of the subjects was going to be a certain kind of person and they surprised me with who they were. Bebe Neuwirth is a great example of that. She has a reputation for being somewhat tough, and I imagine in certain circumstances she is, but we spent a long time together. She was very considerate and kind and very careful in choosing words. Not because I thought she was holding back or being political. She was really keenly interested in being accurately understood; very cerebral. It's not what I expected. Other people, such as Carol Channing – she was exactly who I expected her to be. There were some surprises in the people, but there were also surprises in content. I heard many stories that I hadn't heard before that made my jaw drop. But the biggest thematic one was the level of insecurity that exists for all of these women. That came as a surprise because I think that most people are insecure and assume it's them and the other people in the world are far more secure than we ourselves are. I think when you're talking about these very accomplished women who are at the top of their game, there's a preconceived notion that, say, Audra McDonald isn't worried about whether she's going to get another show. She has five Tony Awards. But here's Audra McDonald saying yes, she's worried about whether she's going to get another show.
GS: Several of these leading ladies have published memoirs, including Stritch, Channing, Rivera, McKechnie and LuPone. Is there anyone with whom you would like to assist with a memoir?
ES: Actually, funnily enough this book started as an idea from my having seen Barbara Cook in concert many times. Barbara Cook used to talk at great length about the golden age of musical theater. I would think to myself, "I want to capture these stories while they're still around." Barbara Cook isn't getting any younger and there aren't that many conduits to the golden age who are still with us. Wouldn't it be an amazing thing to do to help Barbara Cook craft her autobiography? I wrote to her to ask her and she said she wasn't really looking to do a book. Then I wrote to her again when I was doing the Leading Ladies book and she said she would participate. She and I did a chapter, and years later, as my book is getting close to be published, she decided she was going to do her book! She asked me to pull the chapter, and that's why there's no Barbara Cook chapter.
GS: If you were to do a book of interviews with "the great men of musical theater," who would you include?
ES: Believe it or not, even though there's not the same level of divo worship that there is for diva worship, I've already made that list. It goes far bigger than 20. There are many great men of the musical theater when you stop and consider people such as Nathan Lane and John Cullum and George Hearn and Joel Grey and Brian Stokes Mitchell and Mark Kudish and Norm Lewis and Norbert Leo Butz. There's a list out there. There are some great men.
GS: Shortly before we spoke, a few of your interview subjects made the news, beginning with Elaine Stritch, dropping an F-bomb during her interview with Kathie Lee and Hoda. What do you think about that?
ES: I thought that was Elaine Stritch being Elaine Stritch [laughs]. One of the joys and difficulties of being with Elaine Stritch is that she has no filter and says whatever is on her mind. That's a fantastic thing and it's also a little bit scary, because most of us don't live like that.
GS: Idina Menzel is having an especially good year with If/Then, Disney's Frozen and she was breathtaking on the Oscars, in spite of John Travolta bungling her name. What did you think of her performance?
ES: In terms of the performance, I just pulled this quote from her interview to put on the Nothing Like a Dame Facebook page, that I think applies. She said to me, "In this YouTube generation, people examine everything, note by note. ‘Did you hear? She missed that F. She must have been sick. Or she has no technique.' That stuff drives me a little crazy! Should I stay home that day because I wasn't feeling well and you would have seen the understudy? I came in and gave the best I could and it was a little growly or whatever, but I was still there." She cracked, so what! It's human. I don't think it was a poor performance. She had a moment that people have. If you were on the Oscars and John Travolta had just mangled your name and you were in front of a billion people you'd have some nerves going on, too. I can't fault her for that. In terms of the John Travolta thing, it's the best thing that could have happened. Everybody's talking about her and she will have an anecdote to dine out on for the rest of her life [laughs].
GS: Also, on the Oscars, Angela Lansbury was given a special Oscar, and then the American Theatre Wing has plans to honor her at its annual Gala.
ES: The level of humility that Angela Lansbury carries is also another surprise. I don't think it's false modesty. I think she's a woman who understands that she's very good at what she does and that she's had a great career. In the book she describes herself as a simple woman, not especially glamorous and not especially into the lush life. She talks about how if she wasn't acting, she'd be keeping house somewhere and gardening. I think she is stopped in her tracks by these levels of honors – accepting an Oscar, the American Theater Wing gala or the Kennedy Center Honor, which she got last year. At the same time, one of the things she said in the context of the book is that she felt like she never quite made it in Hollywood in the way that she wanted to, but winning the honorary Oscar was quite gratifying.