Transcript of Robert Armin's
online chat with
Leslie Uggams (January 25 , 2004)

[Leslie Uggams is starring as “Muzzie” in the Broadway musical, THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE which, oddly enough, has Thursday as its only day off.  To accommodate her performance schedule, Leslie participated in her Fynsworth Alley chat on a Sunday evening right after the matinee.  Robert’s wife, Kristine, did the typing and most of her (and Robert’s) typos have been corrected.]

[RobertArmin] Good evening and welcome to a special Sunday edition of the Fynsworth Alley chat.

[RobertArmin] The change in day was necessitated by the performance schedule of my guest --

[RobertArmin] Ms Leslie Uggams, who is currently starring in the Broadway production of THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE.

[RobertArmin] Good evening, Leslie

[RobertArmin] Welcome

[LeslieUggams] Good evening

[RobertArmin] I have been a big admirer of your work since both of us were wee tots.

[LeslieUggams] Just a few years ago

[RobertArmin] It seems like just a few years ago.

[RobertArmin] We used to watch the Mitch Miller show regularly.

[LeslieUggams] Yes, on Sunday night

[RobertArmin] It's funny that we just watched “Catch Me If You Can” today and there is a moment when the characters gather in front of a TV to sing along

[LeslieUggams] with Mitch

[LeslieUggams] LOL

[RobertArmin] But by the time you did Mitch Miller, you were already quite a show biz veteran

[LeslieUggams] yes, I started at six years old with Ethel Waters on “Beulah,” played her niece for just one show

[LeslieUggams] But that was my professional debut

[LeslieUggams] Television was young then so there were lots of children's shows

[RobertArmin] Do you remember Ethel Waters well?

[LeslieUggams] Yes, I remember her very well

[LeslieUggams] In fact, for that character the producers wanted me to be in pickaninny braids

[LeslieUggams] And Ether Waters said "absolutely not, you see the way her hair is now, that's how it is going to be on the show."  Then I had just a couple of long curls.

[LeslieUggams] So I was impressed with her even at six years old.  She invited my mother and me to see her in MEMBER OF THE WEDDING

[LeslieUggams] and even then I knew it was an extraordinary performance.

[LeslieUggams] And later on, Brandon De Wilde, the little boy in the play and in SHANE, we become schoolmates and friends for many years, elementary school to high school.

[RobertArmin] And Julie Harris was the other "child" in the play, although she was already in her twenties.

[LeslieUggams] Right

[RobertArmin] Were you part of a show biz family or the first to enter the business?

[LeslieUggams] No, my mother was a Cotton Club dancer for a brief period

[LeslieUggams] And my father sang with the Hall Johnson Choir for a brief period.

[LeslieUggams] In all those plantation movies those are the people humming and singing

[RobertArmin] Yes, I remember them – in GREEN PASTURES, I think.

[LeslieUggams] But my Aunt Eloise was in "BLACKBIRDS OF '29" on Broadway and PORGY AND BESS.  She did every production but the original.

[RobertArmin] So it really is in your genes.

[LeslieUggams] Yes, in my genes

[LeslieUggams] Although my Aunt wanted me to be an Opera Singer or Marion Anderson

[RobertArmin] So, was Beulah your first acting experience?

[LeslieUggams] Yes, it was

[LeslieUggams] Also Dooley Wilson was her boyfriend on Beulah, the original Sam in Casablanca, so I got to work with two masters

[RobertArmin] Were you singing at that early age, too?

[LeslieUggams] I was singing since I was three according to my Mother and Father and I was a Frank Sinatra fan

[RobertArmin] Great

[LeslieUggams] My mother remembers me singing along with "Nancy With the Laughing Face"

[RobertArmin] With lyrics by comedian Phil Silvers.

[RobertArmin] So what was next after Beulah?

[LeslieUggams] I did a lot of "kiddy" shows, one called "STARTIME" with Connie Francis

[LeslieUggams] who was still playing her accordion and singing

[LeslieUggams] We were little people acting like adults.  It was like our own Ed Sullivan Show

[LeslieUggams] Comedians, dancers, it was great

[RobertArmin] I remember that Connie's first film was dubbing the singing voice of Tuesday Weld.

[LeslieUggams] I was a contestant on the Johnny Olson show, he was the announcer on Price is Right

[LeslieUggams] And I was a contestant and won on the Arthur Godfrey Show

[LeslieUggams] And, I did a guest appearance on Show of Shows which later became Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca

[RobertArmin] And I remember that you were a contestant on Name That Tune.

[LeslieUggams] Yes, when I was 15 and half

[RobertArmin] By which time you already had a successful recording career

[LeslieUggams] I was with MGM records as a kid

[LeslieUggams] And I had some great hits like

[LeslieUggams] "Every Little Piggy Has a Curly Tail"

[LeslieUggams] I had another record called "Easter Bunny Days"

[LeslieUggams] Then, "Candy Apple" for which I was on the cover of the sheet music

[RobertArmin] And “Percy, the Pale Faced Polar Bear,” of course.

[LeslieUggams] Yes, but when I was on Name That Tune I had "Ice Cream Man" with Roulette Records

[LeslieUggams] But my big break came when Mitch Miller saw me on Name That Tune and he signed me to Columbia Records

[LeslieUggams] And, my first record was "THE EYES OF GOD"

[RobertArmin] Once you were established as a recording artist, was it difficult at all to be taken seriously as an actress again?

[LeslieUggams] Well then, since no one was rushing to give me any roles as an actress, it was frustrating because I wanted to act

[LeslieUggams] But no one realized I had been studying acting since I was 8.

[LeslieUggams] My first acting class was with Sal Mineo

[LeslieUggams] But all through my teens, I was studying and doing productions. While I was studying we did THIS PROPERTY IS CONDEMNED

[LeslieUggams] It was a musical version that we did and Tennessee Williams was very interested and the score was written by the woman who wrote THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS

[RobertArmin] Carol Hall

[LeslieUggams] There was a musical writers program so we all worked together at the  ACTOR'S CENTER and Merv Nelson ran the musical comedy program.

[LeslieUggams] In that class were also Marty Richards, Dom DeLuise, it was a great class

[RobertArmin] Marty Richards is, of course, the producer responsible for finally getting CHICAGO filmed

[RobertArmin] They must have been so jealous of you -- you got to sing along with Mitch and you didn't even need a TV set.

[LeslieUggams] LOL

[LeslieUggams] Then later on I studied with Stella Adler

[RobertArmin] Ahh!

[LeslieUggams] She’s the one who really changed my life as an actress

[RobertArmin] Were you living in California or New York?

[LeslieUggams] Living in New York

[LeslieUggams] At that time I was doing HALLEUJAH, BABY!

[LeslieUggams] My husband was studying with Stella

[LeslieUggams] And she thought he could be the next Marlon Brando

[RobertArmin] And I will mention that that young man's name was and is Grahame Pratt -- and he's sitting here in our living room along with us.

[RobertArmin] The Marlon Brando look did not age with time -- he certainly doesn't carry the "weight" of Mr. Brando.

[LeslieUggams] Thank the Lord

[LeslieUggams] The funniest thing, he is a wonderful actor but he was a stock broker and thought it too late in the game

[LeslieUggams] But when we first got married, he was always mistaken for Paul Newman and now people think he is Bill Clinton.

[RobertArmin] Bill Clinton, huh?

[LeslieUggams] When Ted Kennedy was many pounds lighter, Maria Schreiver took him for Ted and did a double take

[RobertArmin] And Grahame did participate in the creation of two wonderful talents -- your children, Danielle and Justice.

[RobertArmin] Grahame is complaining that we've already finished talking about him.  Altogether now -- ahhhhhhh.

[LeslieUggams] lol

[RobertArmin] So we jumped quickly over Hallelujah, Baby! which, of course, should be a prime focus of our musical theatre chat.  How did you get involved in that Tony Award winning show?

[LeslieUggams] I was doing THE BOYFRIEND in Berkeley, California because of my television show, SING ALONG WITH MITCH

[LeslieUggams] They would do musicals with Richard Chamberlain, Pearl Bailey and I did THE BOY FRIEND and the reviews were extremely wonderful.

[LeslieUggams] So, the word filtered back to New York when they were looking for someone to play the lead role of Georgina

[LeslieUggams] When I came back to New York, I had a nightclub act in Atlantic City at the Harlem Club

[LeslieUggams] And Jule Styne, Betty Comden, Adolf Green and Arthur Laurents all drove down to Atlantic City to see little ole me

[LeslieUggams] So I passed the singing/ dancing part and then I had to audition the acting part.

[LeslieUggams] At the time David Merrick was going to produce it.

[LeslieUggams] After I read for the role, I looked over and he was sound asleep.

[LeslieUggams] I thought, I'm never gonna get this part

[LeslieUggams] But I did,

[LeslieUggams] And we got new producers

[RobertArmin] HALLELUJAH, BABY! was produced at the height of civil rights activities in America.  Do you think the show reflected what was going on or ignored it in some respects.

[LeslieUggams] No

[LeslieUggams] It reflected it in the way we were touching on -- then we were "Negros" -- and Arthur Laurents felt it could have done more, as a writer

[LeslieUggams] So it was trying to make a statement, it just wasn't as strong as we would have liked it to be.

[LeslieUggams] It was still ahead of it's time.

[RobertArmin] Have you seen Laurents' new script for the show?

[LeslieUggams] Yes

[RobertArmin] Have you been asked to participate in the new version?

[LeslieUggams] Kinda sorta

[RobertArmin] Good.  I hope things work out well.

[RobertArmin] You have been in a number of other Broadway musicals -- both on and off

[LeslieUggams] Yes

[LeslieUggams] HER FIRST ROMAN with Richard Kiley was my second Broadway show

[LeslieUggams] with music by Ervin Drake

[RobertArmin] Maybe you don't know, but Ervin and I are collaborators.  I have written a new book for WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN? and he has added several new songs.

[LeslieUggams] Ohhh, fabulous

[RobertArmin] We did a reading at Hofstra University last year and we are hoping to get a production mounted one of these years.

[LeslieUggams] I was supposed to come, but I was working

[LeslieUggams] That is wonderful, I saw it on Broadway

[RobertArmin] Our version utilizes just 10 actors and no dancing chorus line.

[RobertArmin] It works very well.

[RobertArmin] Maybe next, I'll tackle HER FIRST ROMAN.

[LeslieUggams] Oh, god, yes, that's a big tackle

[RobertArmin] It was such a kick to see that you and Richard Kiley returned to the recording studio 25 years later to record an "original cast album."

[LeslieUggams] It was very exciting cause I adored Richard Kiley.  There had been this underground recording that people had and it was great to have the real deal

[LeslieUggams] especially because we lost Richard not long after that.

[RobertArmin] I'm so mad that no one did a TV version of Man of La Mancha with Kiley.  It should have been preserved.

[RobertArmin] Your next musical after HER FIRST ROMAN was BLUES IN THE NIGHT.

[LeslieUggams] That was interesting.

[RobertArmin] That didn't run very long.

[LeslieUggams] Run is being kind.

[RobertArmin] Okay, it didn't walk very long.

[RobertArmin] Nor did you do a cast album.

[LeslieUggams] That is another one for which there is an underground recording.

[RobertArmin] But you did get to record JERRY’S GIRLS.

[LeslieUggams] I did two versions of JERRY’S GIRLS

[RobertArmin] On a two record set, yet.

[LeslieUggams] Version number one is the recording with Carol Channing and Andrea McArdle and myself

[LeslieUggams] That was the National Company which preceded the Broadway company.

[LeslieUggams] And the Broadway Company was Chita Rivera, Dorothy Loudon and myself.

[RobertArmin] We all miss Dorothy very much.

[LeslieUggams] Yes

[RobertArmin] And one other recording I have in my collection is from a TV special tribute to George and Ira Gershwin -- 'S Wonderful 'S Marvelous S'Gershwin.

[LeslieUggams] That was fabulous, Marty Charnin directed it.

[RobertArmin] And Fred Astaire, Jack Lemmon were in it.

[LeslieUggams] Robert Guillaume

[LeslieUggams] That was a fabulous production.  It was such a joy doing that.  And Jack Lemmon was such a sweetheart.

[RobertArmin] It's not likely for a reissue, but it is a great collection of performances.

[LeslieUggams] And we drove him nuts, how he put up with me, I'll never know

[LeslieUggams] I couldn't help myself, it's Jack Lemmon.

[RobertArmin] And it's important to note that even with Jack Lemmon, Fred Astaire and similar stars, you were right up there as an equal.

[LeslieUggams] Ahh, thank you.

[RobertArmin] Let's chat a bit about some of your dramatic roles -- you are one heck of a good dramatic actress...

[LeslieUggams] Alright -- Thank you

[RobertArmin] I think most people will remember your performance in Roots...

[LeslieUggams] KIZZY

[LeslieUggams] It's interesting when I sign autographs for MILLIE, and a lot of young people come to see the show and they are discovering ROOTS

[LeslieUggams] through school and DVD and they all love Kizzy

[LeslieUggams] And then I have the young audience that is surprised that I sing

[RobertArmin] The same way about Ben Vereen?

[RobertArmin] He sings, too!

[LeslieUggams] Yes,

[LeslieUggams] That was a very special experience being a part of ROOTS

[RobertArmin] It was unusual as a mini-series because unlike RICH MAN, POOR MAN, ROOTS was on every night.

[LeslieUggams] Well, it was on every night because the head of ABC thought it was terrible so he said, “Let’s get it out of the way and air it every night.”

[LeslieUggams] We became a smash hit and he became a hero.

[RobertArmin] Some of the best things have happened that way.

[LeslieUggams] He went from CBS to ABC and when he looked through the new shows, "Let's get rid of this garbage and we'll put it on all in one week.”

[RobertArmin] Fred Silverman rarely liked doing shows that didn't star white, silver-haired, middle-aged actors.

[LeslieUggams] And, it became the highest rated shows in the history of television and still is.

[RobertArmin] It still holds up as great television.

[RobertArmin] Thank goodness for DVD, because it is rarely shown anymore.

[RobertArmin] And, of course, BACKSTAIRS AT THE WHITE HOUSE.

[LeslieUggams] That was two years after ROOTS

[LeslieUggams] That was a wonderful experience playing a lady who was still living and getting to know her and her life at the White House which was so fascinating

[RobertArmin] What was her name?

[LeslieUggams] Lillian Parks

[RobertArmin] Did you get to see Leonard Bernstein's 1600 PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE?

[LeslieUggams] Yes, yes, yes.  Right

[RobertArmin] Which was about the White House and the various occupants over the years.

[RobertArmin] The reason I ask, is because HALLELUJAH, BABY! told its story through history, but the characters never aged.

[RobertArmin] And the Bernstein musical used the same actors as different Presidents and First Ladies.

[LeslieUggams] Yes, Georgina stayed 25.

[RobertArmin] What a thrill it must have been to win the Tony -- or share a Tony (with Patricia Rutledge) for a show that had already closed,

[LeslieUggams] I was in shock.  And we won so many.

[LeslieUggams] In fact, that is Jule Styne's only Tony.

[RobertArmin] It was an unsual year

[LeslieUggams] 1968

[RobertArmin] With the exception of HAIR, none of the shows have had much of an after-life

[LeslieUggams] True

[RobertArmin] But I am glad to see that HALLELUJAH, BABY! may have a second life.

[RobertArmin] KING HEDLEY II was a recent dramatic appearance.  You were terrific, as always.

[LeslieUggams] That was a great experience

[LeslieUggams] I was in such awe of August Wilson it took me a week to get up the nerve to say hello to him.

[RobertArmin] And such a kick to see two top musical performers -- you and Stokes Mitchell -- flexing your muscles in such a powerful work.

[LeslieUggams] Yes, the interesting thing is I did it before, at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. We opened the brand new Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

[LeslieUggams]  I found that August Wilson's words are like music

[LeslieUggams] And what happened was that my character wound up with a song and August wrote lyrics and a melody for the first time and he was so thrilled.

[LeslieUggams] The words came when we hit New York

[LeslieUggams]  The “Matty D Waltz”

[LeslieUggams] It was a great, great experience and to be nominated for a Tony for a dramatic work. I was walking on air.

[RobertArmin] And can we expect a full August Wilson musical next year?

[LeslieUggams] lol

[RobertArmin] One of our readers, Littledancer729 asks:  I just have a generic cliché question - advice for kids who want to make a career out of theatre and someday make it on Broadway

[LeslieUggams] Hard Work

[LeslieUggams] Dedication

[LeslieUggams] Studying

[LeslieUggams] I believe in studying if you want longevity.  Natural ability is good but it is the studying that gets you through.

[LeslieUggams] Takes a lot of stamina, besides talent

[LeslieUggams] And be in every production in school that you can possibly be in.

[RobertArmin] Now, Littledancer, go do your homework!  ;-)

[RobertArmin] You, yourself, attended Julliard.

[LeslieUggams] While I was doing SING ALONG WITH MITCH I attended Juilliard, taking classes learning how to read music

[LeslieUggams] I figured before I could tell someone what to do, I better know what I was talking about.

[RobertArmin] Did you study singing there?

[LeslieUggams] I studied with a man when I was 12 years old, by the name of Donald Heywood.  Breath control, how to breathe correctly, which helped me to sustain a performance in the theatre.

[LeslieUggams] Donald wrote the famous song "I'm Coming Virginia" made famous by Ethel Waters and Tony Bennett.

[RobertArmin] So have you done any teaching yourself?

[LeslieUggams] No, I haven't.  I'm still a student.

[LeslieUggams] I'm lucky I get to work with the Masters, and I'm like a sponge.

[LeslieUggams] I love working with composers and picking their brain and asking questions why they wrote the song and what does it mean and then try to convey that when I sing the song.

[RobertArmin] You were invited to do the original workshop of THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE but were not available at the time.  It's so great that your schedule finally opened up and Broadway has you in such a terrific role.

[RobertArmin] Are you having fun?

[LeslieUggams] I love that show!

[LeslieUggams] It is so much fun.

[LeslieUggams] She's like Texas Guinan and Josephine Baker combined

[LeslieUggams] And I am dressed to the nines.

[LeslieUggams] And, I get to sing great songs!

[RobertArmin] You're absolutely glowing right now just talking about it.

[LeslieUggams] "Only In New York" is my love song to the City

[LeslieUggams] and it takes on more meaning, especially since 9/11

[RobertArmin] Well, Kristine and I are looking forward to coming to see you again, especially with Susan Egan joining the cast, as well.  What a dynamite pair of performers

[LeslieUggams] We don't sing a duet, but all my scenes are basically with Millie.  I take her under my wing,

[LeslieUggams] I “Muzzify” her

[RobertArmin] Let me check my Funk and Wagnalls.

[LeslieUggams] LOL

[LeslieUggams] It's the new hip-hop dictionary.

[RobertArmin] Time is fleeting and we must soon part.  Grahame has gone for the car...

[LeslieUggams] And turned the heater on

[RobertArmin] Such a nice husband.

[LeslieUggams] Yes, he is. 38 years and he still puts up with me.

[RobertArmin] Well, that shouldn't be all that hard.

[RobertArmin] Did you meet in New York?

[LeslieUggams] We met in Australia but that is another long story

[LeslieUggams] Sidney, Australia

[LeslieUggams] To be continued.

[RobertArmin] Well, maybe you can come back again -- on our regular night when thousands of people are visiting!

[RobertArmin] This was our first (and maybe last) Sunday night chat.  But it was a delight to finally get a chance to meet you.

[RobertArmin] Your record album (do they still call them that?)

[LeslieUggams] No we're CDs now

[RobertArmin] is out and available from Fynsworth Alley

[LeslieUggams] We are also being listed in the Broadway Cares catalogue -- ON MY WAY TO YOU

[LeslieUggams] Amazon.com just gave us five stars

[LeslieUggams] It's being received extremely well review-wise

[LeslieUggams] And it is all the music of Alan and Marilyn Bergman

[RobertArmin] Well, we will all be eagerly anticipating your next album, as well.

[LeslieUggams] GOOD!

[RobertArmin] Would you want to do an album of Broadway songs?

[LeslieUggams] I've been talking about that, I would like to do that.

[RobertArmin] The question I usually ask is -- what is your dream role or show?

[LeslieUggams] I'm interested in strong, fascinating women.  I don't have one.  I've been blessed since HALLELUJAH, BABY!

[LeslieUggams] THE OLD SETTLER, which I did at Primary Stages and August Wilson’s play and even Muzzy. They are all strong, fascinating women and, of course, Kizzy. Obviously, that is what I am drawn to.

[RobertArmin] Well, it is great that over the past __ years, we have had so many wonderful opportunities to see your versatility.  And I certainly hope that someone will write a show for you.

[LeslieUggams] I hope so.

[RobertArmin] Thank you so much for joining me tonight.  You are a delight.

[RobertArmin] Next week, I expect to be chatting with Christiane Noll, live from Urinetown in East Lansing, Michigan.  Join us.

[RobertArmin] Good night.

[LeslieUggams] I enjoyed myself immensely.  Now, I'm going home to cook my dinner.

[LeslieUggams] Thank you.

FYNSWORTH ALLEY        ROBERT ARMIN