Fynsworth Alley: Liz Callaway: Feelin’ Groovy

Originally published on Fynsworth Alley.

Liz CallawayLiz Callaway is about to release her first new album in over five years, a collection of songs from the 1960’s called The Beat Goes On. This album will join Liz’s two other solo efforts in the Fynsworth Alley catalog, Anywhere I Wander, a Frank Loesser tribute, and The Story Goes On, an eclectic collection of theatre songs, ranging from Sondheim to Berlin and more. Liz came to the recording world from Broadway, where she appeared in the original casts of Merrily We Roll Along, Baby, and Miss Saigon, before joining the cast of Cats for five years as Grizabella. You may also recognize her voice from her many animated roles, including Anastasia and The Swan Princess. Lately, Liz has been touring the globe, both with her sister Ann Hampton Callaway (in their show “Sibling Revelry”) and on her own.

Her new album, The Beat Goes On, will be available exclusively on the Fynsworth Alley website beginning Februrary 5th, with pre-orders starting on January 22nd.

DL: You were the first vocalist to record an album with Bruce. How did that happen?

LC: He actually just wrote me a letter and introduced himself. He was with Bay Cities at the time, and he just said he wanted to know if I wanted to record an album of Frank Loesser music for him. And it’s funny because I at the very end of my time with Miss Saigon, I had thought, “Boy, I would sure love to do an album,” but I had no idea how to go about getting one made. And I had even said to my husband that this should be a goal of mine, when this letter came. So I was spared the grunt work! I met Bruce, and we hit it off.

And then it was a matter of Bruce sending me tapes of songs he liked, and finding a musical director, and that was it.

DL: So Bruce came with the Frank Loesser idea already in place. Any idea why?

LC: I’m not really certain why. He thought my voice would be a good match for the material, but to be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t have said “Oh, I really want to do an album of Frank Loesser material.” I had no idea what I wanted to do. But I loved his stuff, especially The Most Happy Fella– that entire score. I would do a whole album of me singing every song from that show! I don’t think anyone would buy it, but I would enjoy it!

DL: How did your musical director, Alex Rybeck, come into the picture? How did you find a musical director?

LC: Well, there was someone else I started working with who was terrific, but after a couple of sessions it wasn’t really working out. He wasn’t really available to work on it. I had met Alex during Merrily We Roll Along – he was going to NYU at the time and was interning for the music department of the show. So we’ve known each other through the years, and he had said to me if I ever needed anyone to think of him. So he gave me a tape of arrangements he had done for other people, and we got together to see how we worked together, and I instantly knew he was the perfect person. Even though the arrangements he played for me on his tape were great, they weren’t how I would have done them. But Alex has this uncanny ability to take my ideas (that I have a hard time verbalizing), and decipher them and try things. Some stuff he comes up with on his own, but I tend to be very hands-on with the arrangements. We spend so many hours trying so many different things. People have no idea how much work goes into each song. Even Bruce has no clue how many times Alex and I have gotten together to work on any given song. And I love the ideas that Alex comes up with, and he doesn’t get offended if I don’t like his ideas, which is great. We have a great working relationship. He’s a great guy.

DL: Had you done any of these concert and cabaret type appearances before your album, or was that an outgrowth of being a recording artist?

LC: Actually, when I moved to New York, when I was 18, I did a club act. I was taking a class at HB Studio with Rita Gardner on musical theatre auditioning. I went out drinking with the pianist one night to a club a friend of his ran. I had a few too many, so I got up and sang a song, and she said, “Why don’t you do an act here?” I didn’t plan on doing a club act, but I put together a cabaret act. I did “Meadowlark” in it too, which is so funny. I did that my first year in New York, and from that, Brian Lasser (the wonderful composer/pianist who worked with Karen Mason) told his agency about me. They were looking for young people for the new Sondheim/Prince show, Merrily We Roll Along. So through this club act I got that audition and then my first Broadway show.

So many things that have happened to me in my career have been out of tremendous luck and good fortune. There have been years of struggle, like anyone, but I got a lot of breaks.

DL: These days, you seem to be doing a lot more of the concerts – even more than your stage work. Is that a conscious decision, or just sort of the luck of the draw?

LC: It’s kind of both. If a new show came along that I really liked, I’d love to do another show. But I don’t want it to be just anything. This has been really fun – the last year and a half working a freelance life. It’s like my sister and I changed careers for a year. But I like it a lot. I’m much more comfortable now that I’ve been doing it for a while. I prefer performing in a show with other people. I love the camaraderie of theatre, or even doing the show with my sister, having her on stage to play opposite with is lots of fun.

After the Frank Loesser album, Bruce wanted me to do another album, so I of course wanted to do a 60s album. He hemmed and hawed, said “we can’t market that.” I’ve wanted to do this one for a long time. Last year I got a call from Lincoln Center. They do this American Popular Standards series, and they wanted to know if I would be one of three people to do a cabaret show for their season. One night, two performances, anything I want. They suggested things like “female lyricists,” but I asked if I could do a decade. They said, “What do you have in mind?” I said, “How about sixties music,” and they thought it was a great idea. So I put together this show, and a lot of the material on the new CD is from this show. A lot of it is material I’ve always wanted to do, and when I performed it. . . I didn’t really tell anyone to come see me do this, because I didn’t know if it would be any good. But afterwards, it was one of the most fun evenings I’ve ever had performing, doing this kind of music. Partly from this audience reaction, probably because usually the music I do is sort of obscure – theatre people will know it, but I always have to explain it to the “normal people” in my audience. Whereas when I’m doing sixties music, it was just about having fun with the music, and everyone just relates to that era. Afterwards, I thought, “Boy, would I like to record this!” And then Bruce came a’callin’. He’s been after me to do a third album for some time, and we’ve tried all these different themes. I mean for five years I’ve been getting together with Alex and trying to think of movie songs, or maybe no theme, or original songs. . . and nothing ever seemed right. So Bruce said he wanted me to do an album for his new label, so I said sixties music, and he said okay. So, at long last, here it is.

DL: So the interesting thing about the album is not just that it’s all music from the sixties, but that the majority of the songs are pop songs.

LC: The funny thing is that of the two previous solo albums I’ve done, my favorite cuts were always the pop-tinged ones. Like on the Frank Loesser, I loved doing “Joey, Joey, Joey” which we did ala Bacharach. And I loved “Anywhere I Wander,” the title track, which we also did as a pop song. I’m certainly not a rock singer, but a lot of the female vocalists of the sixties weren’t rock singers either – they were pop singers. That’s my strength, or at least that’s the music I gravitate to, the more contemporary music.

DL: With such a wealth of great material from the sixties, when you sat down to plan the show or the album, how on earth did you narrow down your song selection?

LC: This was hard. The other two albums felt like “we’ve got twelve songs, if we can only find two more. . .” This was definitely too many songs. And there are certain songs I sort of wish I had done. If anything, it seems like there are a lot of songs on this CD. It really screams for a volume two, just because there are so many songs I would want to do. It’s funny – for example, I love Motown music. I spent several days listening to everything from Motown, but I never really found anything from Motown that I felt anyone needed to hear me sing. My process in choosing songs is that Alex and I would get together and sing through twelve million songs. Occasionally, we’ll try a different version of it there on the spot if I’m intrigued by a song, but basically it’s just to get them down. And I tape everything. And then I listen to all these tapes, and if I can bear to hear a song more than once, or if I even want to hear it again, I know it’s a strong possibility. There are so many songs that I’ll sing, and even though I love the songs, when I listen to them I think “ugh!” You just don’t need to hear me sing these songs. And I’m so picky, so that if there is something I like to hear me sing… that’s when I’ll narrow it down.

I’ve always wanted to record “Downtown”. Always. That was really the song I wanted to record, and through the years, when Alex and I would get together and try things, another song that I always thought would be a neat song to record was “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” So that was one of the early choices, from even before we decided on a sixties album.

And there are certain songs that almost didn’t make the cut. I send these tapes to Bruce with notes saying “I had a cold” or “I had allergies today” or “This is really bad, but keep an open mind.” For example, I totally had to sell him on “Monday, Monday,” but I just had an instinct when we were putting together our show for Lincoln Center. The song just didn’t work for a live show, but I just had this feeling about it. And it was though I didn’t really know it was going to work until I heard it with the band, but it’s a very satisfying track for me, just because it was a vision for a new interpretation.

DL: What are the songs that didn’t make the cut that you would include on your volume two?

LC: This is going to sound really weird, but I kind of liked “It’s Not Unusual” – the Tom Jones song. “Gotta Get You Into My Life,” the Beatles song, would be nice. More Bacharach, of course. There’s an obscure Bacharach song called “Another Night” which is really kind of funky and interesting, and I also like “Reach Out For Me” a lot. “Valley of the Dolls” was one. “Feed The Birds,” from Mary Poppins. Some of these are really weird, but I love that song. We almost tried to put it on as a bonus track, but it really needs a full orchestration. But Bruce said he might do an album of the Sherman Brothers’ music, so maybe I’ll still get my chance for that song.

DL: How did you pick the bonus track?

LC: The bonus track was supposed to be “Wedding Bell Blues”. I thought it should be something that didn’t use the full orchestra. This is the third album I’ve done, and when you’re putting everything down in one day, it’s absurd. It’s so much singing, and I’m lucky I can get a lot of my vocals from the first day. And even though I had done it twice before, I was terrified about getting all these songs down in one day. And “Wedding Bell Blues” is a song that I loved growing up, I used to sing it about Bill Bradley when he played for the Knicks – that was my first big crush, when I was nine. But when I listened to the song on my rehearsal tapes, I just wasn’t loving it. But then I thought Laura Nyro is so great. And we were trying it in a key that was a half step too low. And really near the end, when I was about to get on the plane for LA, I realized I needed to decide this bonus track. So I asked Alex to try it a half-step up. He said “really?” and I said, “Humor me.” I say that a lot. And when I heard the tape of that, I said “Aha!” It just needed to be in the right key. And then when we did it with the band, which was near the end of the session, I just loved the track. I thought it would be such a shame if it was a bonus track and wouldn’t be in the stores, but ultimately it was Bruce’s call. Fortunately, he agreed with me. I think “Here There and Everywhere” is a nice bonus track. That one just seemed like the right one, in terms of the flow of the album. This album was so hard to sequence – it was a nightmare! We tried so many different orders! And I’m a little more involved in the decisions in this album, which is nice. In terms of sequencing and artwork.

DL: So now that the album is complete, is this material going to find its way into your live act?

LC: Yes! I’d love to do the show I did at Lincoln Center. I think nine songs from the CD come from that show. It was so fun, I’d love to do a show of just sixties stuff.

DL: Are you allowed to do a concert and not do “Memory” and “Meadowlark”?

LC: That’s what Alex said. If it was billed as a show of just sixties music, I think that would be fine. Since I was 18 or so, I’ve never done a solo act in New York City. I never really wanted to. I knew it wasn’t the right time. Maybe I needed a bigger body of work. Also I was terrified! Now I’m more comfortable. I don’t know now, when I do this show, if it will be a hybrid or just sixties. I think I would prefer just sixties, but I might have to do some other stuff.

DL: The last time you were on Broadway was Cats. What was it like to step into a show that had been going on for so long?

LC: It was a major out-of-body experience. It was actually the first and only time I had ever replaced anyone. I am very fortunate to pretty much have originated stuff, except for Miss Saigon, which was done first in London. I auditioned for Cats when I was twenty, and I never thought I’d be doing the show. And as a spectator, I never liked the show. I didn’t get it. I liked the ball, and I liked “Memory”, but the rest of it? I didn’t get it. At all! And when they called me to audition, I thought “Cats? Well, I don’t know…” But when I went into it, believe it or not, it was one of my favorite shows I’ve done. I really enjoyed doing the show. It’s very different when you’re in it. There’s a whole storyline they tell you about that the audience has no clue about. They want the audience to enjoy it on whatever level they can. But the actors and dancers are told this whole thing that’s going on, and it’s really interesting. I did it a long time, and it was great. But when I first started doing it, I couldn’t believe I was in this makeup and this wig. I was in as a three-month replacement, and it was a hoot! And it was weird, because I was a nervous wreck, while everyone else was so calm, because it was just another show for them. So whenever replacements would come in, I would try to appreciate their terror.

DL: And those three months turned into five year. Why did you stick around so long?

LC: Some of it was the pay check, which was very nice. Some of it was the ability to stay in New York and raise my child. As much as I enjoyed doing the show, it did become like a “day job.” I would stay home all day and be a mom, and then it was like “okay, gotta go to work now.” It was exhausting. And during that time, if I had just done Cats for five years and nothing else, I probably would have lost my mind. But I also did the albums, a lot of animated movies, the show with my sister, and they were very generous about giving me time off to do other projects, so it’s not like that was the only thing I was doing. It was like the world’s greatest survival job, in a weird way. That’s not to say it was like “Oh, this is my job.” It was a Broadway show! And it was an amazing thing to do a show where you’re not on stage very much – someone timed it at 14 minutes – and then you come out and sing this song that everyone is there to hear. There’s a great responsibility with that. And it’s incredible; when I sing “Memory” in concert, or even for people who don’t speak English – everyone knows that song. I was recently in China in the fall to do a TV special. No one spoke English, but they knew Memory! And it was funny, because in China, they applaud throughout the song. I sang “Journey To The Past” from Anastasia, and each time I held a note they’d applaud. It was so bizarre!

DL: It’s funny that you mentioned your stage time, because when we talked to Christiane Noll, she mentioned that she once timed Ellen in Miss Saigon, also at under twenty minutes.

LC: I know! It’s so bizarre! And most of the important stuff you did is towards the end, except for a little bit in Act One. In Cats, too, I got to dance the opening number as another cat, which I liked because it was the only time I actually got to work with anyone else on stage during that show when they weren’t running away from me. Let me tell you though, I would much prefer to be in a show when I’m onstage a lot and have more to do. A lot of people think, “Oh, you’re so lucky, it’s so cushy,” but I’d rather have a challenge.

DL: So what do you do for the other two hours of the show when you’re not onstage?

LC: Well, for Miss Saigon I used to nurse my child. Change diapers and then run onstage. During Cats. . . actually, for both shows, I’ve always been able to have my child backstage with me. It was in my contract that I could have a private dressing room and bring him backstage with me, which was very important to me. So usually, I was playing trains or something with my son when he was there. Or I would make phone calls. I really love to cook, so one time during Cats I decided I would prep some vegetables during Act II. So I brought my cutting board and my knife and my onions and garlic and this and that. So I would chop until it was time to sing “Memory,” and then I’d wash my hands and run onstage. And you know, when you chop onions, you can’t get rid of the smell that easily, unless you rub your hands in parsley, which I didn’t have with me. So I walked out on stage just reeking of onion. They called me “Grizabella, the Salad Cat.” So from then on, I never chopped onions again. Mushrooms were very easy to chop, so that’s what I did for then on.

The funny thing about Cats is that I would feel guilty for that part. All the dancers would just bust their butts for the night, and they are the show. They kill themselves, and then you waltz out there and sing “Memory” and get all the applause! It’s ridiculous. I got a lot of teasing from that prepping episode. . .

DL: Did you go back for the last show?

LC: I did, and the party was phenomenal. They invited back everyone who has ever been in Cats, and since I had been there so long, I knew so many people. There are so many wonderful people who did that show, I’m very fond of them. It was very weird to see the show. It’s like when I was in the show, whenever I took a leave of absence or went on vacation or was out sick, in my mind I imagined the show didn’t happen. And then you go back and you realize, it just kept on going. It’s strange to think that it’s not there now.

DL: It’s kind of creepy to walk by the Winter Garden these days.

LC: I need to go back, actually, to visit my friend Eric who’s the doorman there. I need to go see him an place a Super Bowl bet with him. That’s what I miss about being in a Broadway show – my football betting. I could find a betting pool somewhere, but it’s not quite the same thing as being able to have a bet on a game, and when you win the bet decorate the orchestra (which is behind the stage) in Notre Dame colors because Notre Dame won a bowl game against your opponents. I was a naughty girl sometimes.

DL: Before Miss Saigon, you were in Boston for three years, hosting a kid’s television show called Ready To Go… How did you end up in TV?

LC: I was severely unemployed at the time. I had quite a bit of success early on, and you know, you have some good years and some bad years, and I was having a bad year. My unemployment ran out, and I didn’t want to wait tables again. This was after Baby, and I couldn’t do that, even though I had certainly done a lot of waitressing before. So I was working in this folk-art store, that sold work by these really talented artisans. I used my married name, and I was a shop girl. And it was during that time that my agent called saying someone was looking for people with acting experience for this TV show in Boston. And my husband and I, like everyone who lives in New York City feels at some point, felt like it was time to get out of New York City. And I love New York City, but I wanted to do something different. Of course, we had thought more along the lines of opening a bed and breakfast in the Caribbean, but since that wasn’t going to happen. . . This opportunity came up, and I loved it. I loved living in Boston, I loved doing the TV show, it was all really great.

DL: What was the show about?

LC: It was sort of like Good Morning America for kids. We had celebrity interviews, the weather, topics. . . I remember once when my co-host was on vacation, I had to tape a promo by myself. “Tie-dye and teenage pregnancy: tomorrow on RTG!” And that’s what the show was.

I didn’t really sing for three years! But once in a while, we’d do a show saluting the Oscars or something similar, and my cohost and I would sing a few bars from each of the nominated songs. But for the most part, the people at the station didn’t know my background. My boss did and my cohost did, but most of the people didn’t know at all. So when I left Boston to do Miss Saigon, they were like “Oh my God!” They had no idea. It was really fun to do something completely new for three years – things that I wasn’t qualified to do, but I learned on the job. To push myself to try some different things. And I didn’t really miss the singing. It was great when I went back to it, but I was so into what I was doing, I didn’t notice it.

Plus, my show was on live, and the first year it was 6-7 in the morning, the next year 7-8. So I was going to bed at 9 and getting up at 4. Totally the opposite of what my life had been, which didn’t leave a lot of time for singing.

DL: Why did you leave the show?

While I was doing it, I got a call from my agent that they were auditioning for Miss Saigon. And I had seen it in London, but I had never even thought about myself doing it. I was about four months pregnant at the time, but I said to him, “I want to go in, but don’t tell them I’m pregnant. Because if they know I’m pregnant, they won’t see me. If I go in, maybe they can think of me as a replacement someday. I auditioned, and actually as I was driving from Boston to go to my audition, a helicopter landed on the Mass Turnpike on the way in! I turned to my husband and said, “Is this an omen?” There’s no way I was going to get Miss Saigon – I was pregnant! But I auditioned, and Richard Maltby came up to me, and other people came up to me, and I left there saying to my husband, “You know, if I wasn’t pregnant, I think I would have gotten that job.” I guess Richard knew I was pregnant, and they called anyway and offered me the job. My immediate response was “I can do it! I can do it! I can have a really short maternity leave…” So I left Boston – my show was cancelled around the same time, about a week after I made the decision to leave. It was another one of those “kum ba ya” moments.

I started rehearsals eight months pregnant. Two weeks into rehearsals, I had my son – he was two weeks early. I had a C-section and complications that kept me in the hospital eight nights. I had a week home, and then my first day back was our first tech rehearsal in the theatre. It was insane, but I did it! My son was backstage with me the whole time. My husband devoted himself to sitting in my dressing room during those early months. I nursed my son back there, and mid-lactation moment – mid nursing, I would have to disconnect him from the source and say “Gotta go on stage!” Ellen is not a particularly sympathetic character. The audience is always thinking “oh, poor Kim.” But if you had any idea what I had been doing backstage, you would die!

DL: So I imagine your son has had a slightly different childhood than what you had. Going back in time a bit. . . What was the young Liz Callaway like?

LC: Very shy. Because of everyone being so musical – my dad sings, but not in public. He’s a very well known television journalist and writer, but with my mom and my sister, if anything, it almost prevented me from singing in front of people. I think I wanted to do something different. I hated getting up at Christmas parties when everyone would sing. People always say “I can imagine there was so much music in your family,” and the truth is, yes, there was, but I didn’t want it there! I was a closet singer. I would sing in the shower, or if people were gone, I would sing to albums with a hairbrush for a microphone, but not in front of people. But I remember when I was eight – and I always tell people this, because it’s just so absurd – I thought that if everything else failed in my life, I could always fall back on a singing career. Seriously! I knew when I was eight that I could sing. I knew for some reason that was a gift that I had, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to be a sports journalist, or an artist… Anything but singing! It wasn’t until I was in high school that I auditioned for the chorus of the school show. My sophomore year, my parents got divorced while I was in the middle of doing this production. And a couple of the kids who were in the show heard about what was happening, and they befriended me. I didn’t have super-close friends up until that point, and they took me under their wing, and I discovered the family aspect of theatre. Everyone does at some point. And that was so thrilled to me at such a difficult time in my life that I just jumped in and became very gung-ho about doing shows. It wasn’t so much so I could sing in front of people or perform, but because I loved the social aspect of it. I still do. I love getting to know people, going out for drinks with them the first time, everyone working together towards one common goal. That’s why I went into it, and that’s why I still love it. Much more than any sense of “I’ve always had this need to express myself through my music.” That’s not it at all.

My first professional job was when I was fifteen at Marriott’s Great America. I was a Great American Singer. I did five shows a day in the summer of a one-hour musical revue. I worked with fabulous people, many of whom went on to have very good careers. So all while I was in high school, I did the shows, I would visit New York on the weekends by myself when I was a junior in high school to see shows. I’d take the money I made doing my theme park show to the booth and see shows. I was really into it by then. I also realized it was what I did best. I had all these ideas of “I want to do this, I want to do that,” but I wasn’t terribly good at anything.

DL: So when you turned eighteen, how did you make that decision to just pick up and go?

Well, I had been at University of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music as a freshman – I was actually seventeen, a year younger because I skipped seventh grade. And then I was offered this job by the same people who did these theme parks. I got my Equity card that winter doing this revue, all from these people from Great America. And they offered me the chance to do this musical theatre repertory company in San Jose, CA. College wasn’t really for me. It was a great school, but it wasn’t right for me.

The job in San Jose didn’t last forever. So there I was in Sunnydale, CA, thinking “what am I going to do?” So I worked at the Marriott’s Great America in San Jose for seven or eight months. And during that time Ann came out for a visit, and she had dropped out of college after two years and decided to move to New York. So I decided to move to New York too. So we talked about it and decided to move together. The fall of my eighteenth year, very much like My Sister Eileen, we moved and had all these adventures with very little money. It was so much fun.

And then I took classes, I waited tables, I did that club act, and then Merrily We Roll Along came along. I was nineteen when I was cast in that show.

DL: Merrily is one of those shows that people will probably never stop talking about. What was it like from the inside?

LC: The first Broadway show I ever saw was Company, so to have your first show be a Sondheim/Prince show was so cool. And even though I was very young, I was never a particularly naieve, starry-eyed person about what I thought being in a Broadway show was going to be. I was so excited about doing it. We actually were cast and then had to wait nine months before starting rehearsal because Hal Prince had another commitment. So we had Merrily We Roll Along waiting parties. I became very close to the cast. But it was clear early on that there were a lot of troubles. In a way, to have your first Broadway show be a rocky experience is great. If your first experience is a fabulous hit where everything is perfect, you have nowhere to go but down. We previewed for two and a half months, and during that time we changed choreographers, we changed costumes. . . It was a real backstage drama that was fascinating. By the time we opened, I really thought I had accomplished so much, and I thought it was really good. But the word of mouth was really bad, and that hurt us. But I thought the show that opened was really wonderful. I was originally cast as a swing, but during the rehearsal period I was offered a lead at the Public Theatre in a show that Richard Maltby was directing. So in Merrily, they told me if I stayed they would offer me a role in the chorus and the part of understudy to the lead. Against everyone’s advice, I stayed with Merrily. The other one never opened – it was Gallery, the Ed Kleban show. During rehearsals for Merrily, Annie Morrison, who played the lead, go sick. And since we had so many hours of rehearsal, she had to save her voice, so I would sit in the front row and sing all her songs. So, it was like a two-month private audition for Stephen Sondheim.

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