Originally published on Fynsworth Alley.
Debbie Gravitte’s association with Bruce Kimmel extends back twenty-five years to The First Nudie Musical, in which Debbie’s voice is heard (although she’s never seen) on several of the songs. Since then, Debbie has gone on to become a Tony-Award-winning Broadway star, appearing in They’re Playing Our Song, Zorba, Blues in the Night, Perfectly Frank, Ain’t Broadway Grand and, of course, Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, for which she won her Tony. Debbie is also a star of the concert stage, having appeared in the Encores productions of Tenderloin and The Boys From Syracuse, as well as concert versions of shows, including Louisiana Purchase and Billion Dollar Baby in other venues. She has toured extensively with her cabaret act, and is currently appearing with Stephen Schwartz in an evening of his songs. She has appeared on many Fynsworth Alley albums, including two of her own: The Alan Menken Album and The MGM Album. You can visit her on the web at DebbieGravitte.com.
DL: Let’s start with your start. How did you get started in show business?
DG: Oh, it’s going to be one of those kinds of interviews? Well, I always loved to sing, and I was always loud. I started doing shows in school. The musical theatre department at my high school had been not happening, and for some reason the year I started high school, they started it again. But my first big thing really was this: When I was a teenager, I auditioned for the LA Civic Light Opera. They were doing Annie Get Your Gun starring Debbie Reynolds, directed by Gower Champion. It was Debbie Reynolds, Harve Presnell and Gavin MacCleod. I did that, and Gower Champion loved me! He wrote me a part, and we went on tour for a month. They wanted to bring it to New York, so I would have made my Broadway debut in that, but Debbie Reynolds was all flipped out because she had just opened at the Minskoff or something, or she was doing her act, and she bombed in New York, so she didn’t want to go back to the city.
That was great, though – the first director I professionally worked with was Gower Champion! One of the greatest! I did that, and in the process of that, I met a man named Tony Stevens, who was the co-choreographer. And the music director was a man named Jack Lee. And they said to me, “Debbie, we’re doing a show in New York, why don’t you come and audition (hint, hint).” I didn’t know what they were talking about, of course, but they meant if I came to New York I would get the show. So of course I flew to New York, I auditioned for the show, and I got it – it was a show called Spotlight. I’m trying to think if there was anything really incredible about it. No. It starred Gene Barry and I understudied the lead. It would be one of two times I understudied in my career – the other time was They’re Playing Our Song. Anyway, the show bombed in Washington, DC. I came back to LA, actually, because I’m born and raised in Los Angeles – for those readers out there who don’t know that, who think I’m a New Yorker because LA has spurned me. Anyway, I came back to LA, and then through James Mitchell, who also worked on Annie Get Your Gun, I got set up with an agent in New York who ended up signing me. A man named Bruce Aven, who was really one of the great agents. When I walked in his office, he said, “I’m going to take you on, but it’s going to take a while for your talents.” He knew I was never an ingénue, which is why I got to be a big slutty girl in The First Nudie Musical. And to answer the question of why I wasn’t actually in the movie [Debbie is heard but not seen], I was probably too young and not pretty enough. At the time.
DL: You knew Bruce from college?
DG: We went to the same college, but not at the same time. I am much, much younger than Bruce Kimmel. Much younger. I went to this school, and he always came to check out the talent, and there I was. Loud Debbie. I believe I sang four songs, including of course, “Lesbian Butch Dyke” and “Honey, Whatcha Doin’ Tonight.”
DL: How did college fit in for you if you were flying back and forth to New York and Washington right after high school?
DG: I went to college for a year, and then I started working. I actually was a New Christy Minstrel. But if we start telling my ages, then everyone will be able to figure out how old I am. I’m now at the age where I don’t want anyone to know! Let’s just say that I finally moved to New York in 1978, and I actually got a job singing in a band in at this club in Danbury, CT, singing top forty. I maybe did it two or three weekends, and then I got They’re Playing Our Song.
I was one of the girls, and I was Lucie [Arnaz]’s understudy. Originally, they had another actress as Lucie’s standby. She got a series, but since they had an understudy – me – they never replaced her. But I never went on. Lucy said to me, “You will never go on for me,” and she meant it. Two weeks after I left, she was out for two weeks.
DL: Go figure. What was that experience like for you, as a first Broadway show?
DG: Oh my God, I had dreamed about being on Broadway, and there I was!
DL: Did you go out of town with that show?
DG: Yes! We went to Los Angeles. That’s why it was one of the greatest things – I made my Broadway debut in front of my friends and family.
DL: I certainly know the show, but I’ve never heard any “making of” stories behind They’re Playing Our Song. Was the tryout pretty smooth?
DG: Yeah, you know, that was back in the day. We went out to LA where it was all subscription, so it was all sold out there. We made some changes – after all, it was Neil Simon who’s the master of the rewrite – and then we opened on Broadway as a big success. I was so young and green at the time, my awareness of what was going on wasn’t quite as heightened as they would be now. The more you know, right? There were different things that were important for me. I remember that Lucie and Robert [Klein] kind of didn’t like each other. I remember how desperately I wanted to go on. I got a pilot offer during the run, and they wouldn’t let me do it because I was the only one covering that role. That was heartbreaking to me. But then I decided to leave, and I got another show. It was called “Swing,” and it also closed in Washington, DC. There were also some interesting people in that. John Goodman came in for a week to replace someone – he played my boyfriend, and he was the most nervous person I’ve ever experienced in my life. He was terrified!
DL: So you pretty much knew from the minute you got to New York that you were going to stay.
DG: Absolutely! There was no need for me to be in LA. At the time I started, I felt (and I still feel to this day as naïve and stupid (or smart) as it is) my road to success is always going to be through the theatre. And I still believe that. I just feel that I am meant to do theatre, and what comes from that is the natural extension of that, be it recording or TV or film…
DL: At what point do you feel like you really established yourself?
DG: It was my next show, Perfectly Frank, because I got these amazing reviews, and people “heard of me.” Unfortunately, the show didn’t last long, but it opened everybody’s eyes to me.
DL: After the show closed, did you feel that the show changed things when you went in for auditions?
DG: Yes, I did start feeling… not as much as I do now, obviously, or after I won the Tony Award. But people started to know me. And I never stopped working. After doing Perfectly Frank is when I started doing my nightclub act, which wasn’t quite as much as people do now.
DL: That’s interesting, since it was before cabaret really came back. What inspired that?
DG: I wanted to sing with a band! I had a fourteen piece band I did all these shows with, and because the guys loved me, they let me pay them $25. If you can imagine musicians playing for $25.
DL: What kind of a show did you do? Was it mostly show music? Did you have a theme?
DG: It wasn’t so much thematic as it was me splatting stuff all over the place and doing way more than I probably needed to do. It was a huge learning process for me. I think the high and low point was one night when I was doing my show which was produced and staged and choreographed by my friend Tony Stevens, who helped bring me to New York. Mary Tyler Moore was a huge friend of his. Mary Tyler Moore was very big at the time, so when she came to the show, People magazine came and took all these pictures. I opened the People magazine the following week, and there was a picture of Mary Tyler Moore reaching out to reach somebody’s hand. Was I in the picture? No. But it was my hand. So that’s how it works.
DL: But you certainly became more recognizable after Zorba.
DG: I had a big featured part in that, plus there was this incredible TV commercial, where I held this note for thirty seconds. It was another great little bleep on the radar.
DL: Now that revival was retooled a bit from the original version, and it worked out in your favor, I think.
DG: I don’t know about that. The guy who directed Zorba on Broadway was Michael Cacoyannis, who had done the film. Now, when they had done the original stage show, Hal Prince had directed it, so my character was a device that he created. So Michael Cacoyannis had no idea what to do with me, because it wasn’t something that was in the film. So he would say, “All right now, you go and stand over there and sing!” So it was a little weird, but it was great, and fascinating too. It was the only real tour I did, and we were out for nine months. It was fascinating to be out with Anthony Quinn, because he is a huge movie star. His star maybe has waned a little bit now, but then… we would go into these Greek restaurants – and of course, Anthony Quinn is not Greek at all, he’s Mexican and Irish, but he’s been adopted by the Greek people – so we’d walk in, and they’d give us every piece of lamb we ever wanted. They’d get up and say, “Anthony Quinn is a god!” And of course, if you hear it enough, you start believing it.
DL: Did that make it difficult for the rest of you?
DG: He was great to me, and I adore him. I still adore him.
DL: Your next show, Blues in the Night, wasn’t so successful, which surprises me because it’s a pretty solid property. What went wrong?
DG: The production – the producers. We were in a really shitty theatre, The Rialto, at 42nd Street. That was when Times Square was awful, so no one wanted to go to the theatre there. The producers made some cardinal sins, too. Instead of spending money on television, they decided to spend the money to keep the show running, figuring word of mouth would kick in. That never works. I think they learned their lesson from that. Initially, also, Ruth Brown was in the show – she went on a few years later to win the Tony Award [for Black and Blue] the same year I won. They fired her, which was a giant mistake they made.
DL: Was it an unhappy experience?
DG: It was a frustrating experience. Every experience you think, “This is the one, this is it.” You go into it thinking that, and it’s disappointing when it turns out not to be the one. And you found out – oh my God, I sound like such a broad now, don’t I? – it’s cumulative. It really is. Everybody talks about becoming an overnight sensation after thirteen years, twenty years, whatever… it’s really true. I don’t think a real overnight sensation ever really happens except in rare instances. And when it does happen, I think people just don’t know how to cope with it. But I’m ready now!
DL: Well, you sort of had that experience with Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. Was that next in your career?
DG: Well, first I got married, and then we moved back to LA.
DL: Back up for a second. How did you meet your husband, [actor Beau Gravitte]?
DG: We did a show together called King’s Tapesty, and we sang “Too Late Baby” to each other. We sang all these great Carole King songs. We were just mad for each other, and that was in 1982 (oh my God!). Did he get a series? Isn’t that awful? I don’t remember. But we got married in 1986, and decided to move to LA. Right before we got married, I was doing Gentlemen Prefer Blondes starring Morgan Fairchild, and her agent was the head guy of my agency in Los Angeles. I yelled at him when he came to see the show, saying “Why don’t I do any TV?!” He said, “Lose some weight and come to LA.” So I lost weight and came to LA and I got a series. It was called Trial and Error. We shot eight episodes – it was a big turkey. But in the meantime, I had gotten this call from London to come do Mack and Mabel at the Drury Lane Theatre, in an all-star concert with Tommy Tune, George Hearn, Georgia Brown, Paige O’Hara… It was a huge triumph for me, and I got offered on the spot Kiss Me Kate in London, but I had to turn it down because I had this series. I really think that was a blessing in disguise because it’s a soprano role, and I’m not a real soprano.
So I came back to LA and got the call to audition for Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.
DL: Are you a dancer?
DG: Am I a dancer. That’s a really good question. I can’t call myself a dancer, but I can say I move as well as anybody. How’s that?
DL: So when you got the call for the show, and you heard Jerome Robbins, was that a surprise?
DG: No, because I knew, more than most people, what he had done. I didn’t know everything, but I thought of him in terms of the Ethel Merman / Mary Martin stuff, rather than the Chita Rivera. So that’s what I was thinking in terms of. As I’m sure you’ve heard about Jerome Robbins Broadway, everybody had to keep auditioning for everything. So I was dancing. Was I dancing-dancing, doing ballet? No. But it was unbelievably thrilling.
So I auditioned initially for it in LA, and then they flew me to New York to meet Jerry. I met with Jerry two times, I had a million auditions, I had to learn eight songs and four scenes. It was unreal, but then I got it, so we came back to New York. We rehearsed for six months, and then we opened, and four or five months later, I won the Tony Award, and that was it! I mean, that was it. And then, Beau had gotten Doctor, Doctor, so we decided to move back to LA. That was one of my most brilliant career moves, to win the Tony and then immediately move back to LA, but it seemed like the right thing to do at the time. At the time, I felt so keyed into what was going on, I just flew in for what there was to audition for. But in the meantime, I did my act, I did Rainbow and Stars, and then I was in LA and that’s when I did a production of Love Life in Philadelphia… and that’s when they called me to do the tour of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, which took us to Japan. My husband came over and knocked me up, and suddenly I was pregnant with my first child. So I came back to LA and had my first son in March, and then I got Ain’t Broadway Grand.
DL: Before we get into that, let’s talk about Jerome Robbins’ Broadway a little bit more. When it was being put together, you said people had to keep auditioning. Does that mean even after the cast was assembled, you had to keep auditioning for each number?
DG: Yeah. I mean, he had people in mind, but he was very willing to interchange this person with that person. I was pretty solidly doing what I was doing, that was more with the dancer-dancers.
DL: There are so many stories about what a monster he was to work with. Did you experience any of that?
DG: He was many different things. One of the things he was, is he was wonderful to the principals. He could be really awful to the dancers, and I certainly witnessed that, but to me, to Faith Prince, to Jason Alexander, to Scott Wise, to Jane Lanier, to Robert LaFosse, to all those people, he was fabulous. All the principals he had fun with, it was a different thing. But he was used to being a taskmaster as a choreographer, and that’s where the horrible side came out. I didn’t ever really see that. I witnessed it, but between he and I? No. We had one moment, when we were lighting “Mr. Monotony”. I was a little upset about the lighting, which he was absolutely correct about, he was so smart about it. He had this whole thing were I walked into the light. I was used to walking on a stage and the light hit me, so I thought that would have been so much better – but I was so wrong! We had this five-second fight over it, and I said, “I’m sorry, I just want it to be perfect,” and he said, “Now you know how I feel.” He was a notorious perfectionist.
I loved him, and we stayed in touch. He sent me this wonderful present for my son when he was born. It was a really, very incredible gift-certificate with a note that said, “Make sure you spend it on the kid.” We sent letters back and forth, and I adored him. I’m too young for all the creepy awful shit with the House Un-American Committee – none of us knew about that.
That was a show you needed to see two months after we opened, because Jerry’s handprints were still on it. As soon as Jerry couldn’t be there to keep it alive and full… you know, we all worked our asses off, because we rehearsed each show [represented in JRB]; we studied the shows, we read the shows, we knew why we were doing this material. It wasn’t like we were doing just the number, we knew everything about the show the number came from, who these people were. Jerry was amazing in that way. And when he left, it just sort of started to fall apart at the seams, for lack of a better expression.
DL: When you were nominated for the Tony Award, you were nominated against other women from your show.
DG: Yes, right. Faith Prince, Jane Lanier, and myself. And the other person was Julie Wilson for Legs Diamond. So I completely thought Julie was going to win because she was an older broad, and there were three of us from the same show who would eliminate each other. I never thought I was going to win.
DL: Did that make things tense backstage?
DG: I’m going to say it got pretty tense. Faith and I shared a dressing room. It was pretty tense.
DL: Tense-uncomfortable, not tense-I’m-gonna-rip-your-throat-out, right?
DG: Oh my God, I love Faith, she loves me. It wasn’t a personal thing. But all of a sudden, we were “against” each other. And then, the weird thing for me, my father had passed away April 4, the nominations came out May 4, and the Tony Awards were June 4. I was reeling from all that anyway. It was a surreal time for me, on top of which one of my best friends had suddenly become ill with AIDS. It was a weird time. There were a couple moments of tension in the dressing room, but of course all was forgiven. It was one of those things where it was more the anticipation of it than the tension of it. We knew someone was going to win, and we just wanted to know who it would be. As soon as we knew, Faith was the greatest. They all were the greatest.
DL: They were the greatest. And in fact, Jerome Robbins’ Broadway just might be the show from the 1980s that we look back on and just marvel at how so many talented people were collected together in one cast. That ensemble was full of people who went on to do great things. Now, clearly with such an insane audition process, there must have been some sense of being annointed to be a part of this.
DG: For me, I don’t know. I don’t think I knew at the time what the significance would be. There were 64 people in the cast! You can’t look at a show like that and think, “Oh, this will be really good for me.” That, to me, is the great part of growing up and getting older. You start to understand… You start to relish, and appreciate… to absorb all the wonderfulness of what you’re doing at the time instead of it being another step on the way to another step to another step. Your perspective gets better. My perspective is so much better now.
DL: You moved back to New York for Ain’t Broadway Grand. Why was this the show that convinced you to move again?
DG: I don’t know that I moved back as much as I came back for it, because we’ve always been lucky enough to have an apartment in New York. Although this time I brought my son with me. Again, it was one of those “Oh, I hope maybe this will be it” moments. And unfortunately, it was’t. The audience was somewhat receptive, but it was a messy show. And you have to be able to make structural changes once a show is in front of an audience, and again, they were not. Minor changes weren’t going to be enough.
DL: At what point was the sinking ship aspect of the show apparent?
DG: As soon as we started previews and no changes were being made. The minute that happened, I realized “That’s it.” That was a show that had a lot of potential, and there were people who actually liked it, but it needed major changes, and the group that put it together wasn’t smart enough to make those changes. They were all really smart people, but they weren’t smart enough to make those changes. It’s tragic when you’re talking about 7 million dollars lost on someone’s ego, someone who wouldn’t change anything
DL: Let’s fast forward a little bit for when Bruce Kimmel called you up for Unsung Sondheim. Had you remained friends with Bruce in all the intervening years since The First Nudie Musical?
DG: We sort of kind of remained in touch off and on. Was Unsung Sondheim before I did my own album?
DL: Yes, Unsung Sondheim was the first, although he may have approached you for both at the same time.
DG: No. I yelled at him to do my own album. I’m very clear about that.
DL: So when he emerged out of the woodwork to pitch Unsung Sondheim to you… no one was really doing albums like that at the time, except for maybe Ben Bagley. What was that conversation like?
DG: I don’t remember how that all happened, but I do remember the rehearsal process for it. That song [“Water Under The Bridge”] was wonderful and incredible.
DL: You got to sing the world premiere of this Sondheim song. For the album, it was arranged very differently from how it was written, since it was originally a duet. What was the rehearsal process like for this song – did you start with it already arranged in the final form?
DG: It was a little bit frustrating, to tell you the truth, because the guy who arranged it couldn’t really play it in the style it needed to be played. The song is kind of “funky,” for lack of a better word, and he had a difficult time playing it, so it was a little hard to learn. Someone else played it at the session. It was hard because it’s a hard song, it’s a difficult song, and of course now I’m dying to do it live. I just remember it was a good precursor to how Bruce and I would work together more extensively, in our weird, strange way.
DL: Well, how do you two work together?
DG: We basically yell at each other. We’re loud at each other. Basically, Bruce trusts me as much as I trust him, and that’s a lot. I don’t know how other people have done their albums, but I feel ours were a collaboration. It was never “Bruce is the producer and I am the singer.” Bruce has given me more leeway than he might give to other singers, but I don’t know. Are there some things that were left unsaid at the time that I might have liked to have gotten changed? Yes. There are things on my CDs that I would have liked to have changed, but I’ve told Bruce them. It’s not like anything has been left unsaid. What happened was, I had done Ain’t Broadway Grand and then I started doing my act again. When Bruce came, I said, “Why don’t we do a CD?” He said okay, and asked if I had any ideas. I said, “Yes! Alan Menken!”
DL: Where did the Alan Menken idea come from?
DG: I know Bruce had started doing these writers’ songbook CDs. I knew Alan because my husband had done the workshop of Kicks: The Showgirls Musical. I just thought Alan was one of our great theatre talents, and this was before even Beauty and the Beast was on Broadway. I ran up to Alan’s and we became great friends. He played me all this material – it was great!
DL: So was he very involved in the album?
DG: He certainly opened his library to me and his mind to me and helped me out.
DL: How did you go about picking the material? That album, more than most of the other songbook-type albums, contains a lot of music that people had never heard before.
DG: I basically took what I liked. I think there are 13 or 14 songs on the album, and that’s how many songs we picked. It’s not like there were a lot of songs left over, because there were a lot of songs I just didn’t want to do.
DL: Well, it’s interesting that, for example, with The Little Mermaid, you didn’t do either of the big showstopper, sing-a-long songs (“Under the Sea” and “Kiss The Girl”)… instead you chose the villain’s song, and you reimagined it almost as a jazz tune.
DG: Those just didn’t seem appropriate to me. I was pretty clear about that. To me, the gem of that album is “Take Care of My Heart.” I know a lot of people loved “I Want To Be A Rockette,” it’s become a great audition song for people. But “Take Care of My Heart” is a jewel.
DL: What was it like to see Karen Ziemba do your song on that Carnegie Hall Leading Ladies TV show?
DG: I never saw it. That was a really hard moment for me because I got called and asked to do the night. And then I got this horrifying phone call from my agent who said, “I’ve got some bad news. Not only are you not being asked to do the show, but Karen Ziemba is doing your song.” That was a little rough for me – that was definitely rough. So I never saw it. But you know, onward. It’s cool. I still feel like it’s “my song,” although it’s not really “mine,” you know?
DL: Yours is the only album Bruce has gone back to and added songs for a re-release. What motivated that?
DG: It had nothing to do with me. It was a business thing. Laurie Beechman had done The Andrew Lloyd Webber album. Now, Andrew Lloyd Webber has great name recognition. Alan Menken, unfortunately, does not, for whatever reason. But they decided to do the same thing with Alan Menken, so they decided to release it as The Alan Menken Album. We recorded one new track, a medley of two songs from Hunchback – that actually worked out nice for me, since I’m currently working with Stephen Schwartz.
DL: Is that where your connection with Stephen started?
DG: Nope. It was one of those weird arbitrary show-biz things. It turns out that Stephen and I live in the same town. And we both live twelve minutes from Alan Menken. Isn’t that weird? But that tour I’m doing with Stephen Schwartz has just started this year.
DL: So that’s the story of The Alan Menken Album. What about your second album – was that a case of you bugging Bruce or Bruce bugging you?
DG: I’m sure I was bugging Bruce – isn’t that the way it always is? I called him again, and when he asked for ideas, I said, “Let’s not do another writer. Everybody’s doing writers, let’s do something else.” I had a lot of different ideas, but we settled on MGM.
DL: Now, with a theme like MGM, you must have had a lot more material to choose from. How did you settle on the songs?
DG: It was extremely difficult because we literally could do just about any song in the world. That’s why, I think ultimately it hasn’t done as well as I hoped it would. I think it’s a really fabulous album, but it’s problematic because it’s non-specific.
DL: People don’t know what to make of an album that has Rodgers & Hart next to Connie Francis…
DG: Next to 2001. Although that is one of the great ideas that Bruce had. He called me one day and said, “You have to do something funny.” “I have to do something funny?” “Yeah, funny. You’re funny, you should do something funny.” “What funny?” “I have an idea. You need to do 2001.” And that was his idea, I give him all the credit for that.
DL: And you fought it at the beginning, right?
DG: Of course I did. What am I gonna do, “Bah bah bah?” But then, I give the rest of the credit to Steve Orich, who arranged it. He did a brilliant job of making that be something. Who knew what it could be?
DL: Did you know when you were recording it how it would end up?
DG: Oh no. We recorded it in little pieces. I’d go in, he’d play a note, and we’d record that note. Then he’d play another note, and I’d record that “baaah.” Of course, between the takes, Bruce brilliantly kept the tape rolling, capturing all these comments I made, which Steve Orich spliced all together for this piece.
DL: What is your favorite song on that album?
DG: “Love Me Or Leave Me”
DG: I love the arrangement, I love the orchestration, I love my performance on it. Although now that I’ve seen Mario Cantone do drag to my recording of “Nevertheless” from that album… he did a show off-Broadway where he lip-synced to it, and my album was mentioned in all the papers. It was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen in my life. It was brilliant! So I love that, too. I love a lot of the stuff on that album. It’s an eclectic album.
DL: Let’s conclude by talking about the future. You’ve got a lot of concert appearances coming up, both by yourself and with Stephen Schwartz. How do those concerts come about?
DG: The stuff across the country is spurred on my fans. They call my agent and book me. The Stephen Schwartz Concert was through a man who books me by myself for some stuff who also works with Stephen. He thought about putting us together, and we also have a fabulous guy named Scott Coulter who does it with us, and it’s quite a wonderful show.
DL: When you do your own concert, what do you do?
DG: I’m about to start doing it a little more, and I need to redo it. I’m not sure what it’s going to be yet, to tell you the truth. There will be a lot of stuff from my CDs, but it’s kind of a big mish-mosh right now. I really want to try to do a show with guys and with a band. I’ve got big hopes and dreams, darling. Big ambitions.
I’m actually working on a reading of Seesaw, I’m trying to get that to happen off-Broadway. Neil Simon wants to help rewrite it. And I’m supposed to do Doug Cohen’s new show that he’s writing with Douglas Carter Beane, The Big Time. That’s supposed to happen off-Broadway this summer.