Born in a Trunk, Raised on the Stage: An Interview with Leslie Uggams

Celebrating a lifetime on stage and screen, Leslie Uggams reflects on Broadway, her roles in Roots and Deadpool, and why Pharrell makes her happy.

Leslie Uggams loves adventure. One moment she's starring as Mama Rose in Gypsy and the next moment she's filming scenes as Blind Al in 20th Century Fox's forthcoming adaptation of Deadpool (2016). There are few legends of film, theater, music, and television that possess that kind of versatility. Leslie Uggams is, and always has been, exceptional.

Uptown Downtown, Uggams' one-woman show, underscores the fact that adventure has long been the guiding force of her journey through entertainment. It traces how a young girl born in Washington Heights made her stage debut at the Apollo Theater (uptown) before dazzling Broadway audiences (downtown). The songs tell the story, with well-known numbers like "Born in a Trunk", "It Don't Mean a Thing", and "Stormy Weather" unveiling new meanings when placed in the context of Uggams' remarkable life and career. Since premiering Uptown Downtown in 2010 at New York's Lincoln Center, Uggams has recorded a studio companion of the show and brought the production to prestigious venues across the U.S., earning rave reviews from Variety ("mesmerizing") and the New York Times, who called Uggams "a show-biz trouper with sawdust in her blood". In honoring Ella, Lena, Dinah, and other luminaries who figured prominently in her career, Leslie Uggams has also revealed layers of another legend: herself.

When Uggams graced the cover of Ebony in March 1962, she was only 18 years old, but had already lodged twelves years in the business, beginning with her appearance alongside Ethel Waters on Beulah in 1950. Ebony's feature story celebrated Uggams' recurring role on Mitch Miller's NBC program, Sing Along with Mitch and foretold the longevity Uggams would have in the industry. "Young though she is, Leslie has the experience and ability of a show business pro, and has enriched her natural talents by constant study," the magazine wrote. What readers didn't realize then was just how many fields Uggams would conquer, from winning a Tony Award for her first Broadway show Hallelujah Baby! (1967) to receiving an Emmy Award nomination for her portrayal of Kizzy in Roots (1977). In between, she hosted The Leslie Uggams Show (1969) on CBS, and released albums on Columbia, Atlantic, and Motown. Her recording career spans the 1950s to the present day.

"To have the pleasure of hearing a new recording of her is always a treat," wrote Dionne Warwick in the liner notes that accompany Uggams' tribute to Alan and Marilyn Bergman, On My Way to You (2003). "I have never heard her sound better." Indeed, Uggams keeps building upon her legacy with a variety of projects, while new audiences constantly discover how her talent has shaped one groundbreaking moment after another. In her interview with PopMatters, Uggams reflects on a career that knows no boundaries.

You began performing at the Apollo at nine years-old and continued performing there well into your teens. How did it feel to perform in such a legendary venue at such a young age?

It was an extraordinary experience for a young kid. The Apollo already had history when I was there. I sang at the Apollo until I was 16. It was like a school because I got to work with amazing people and watch them do what they do. I always tell people that if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere! The audiences were tough. You had to bring your A game.

You’re currently on the Apollo's Board of Directors. Tell me what it means to be involved behind the scenes.

It's great because the theater's been landmarked. It's always going to be there. As a Board member, you want to keep it going. We're lucky that we get a lot of major stars who all want to be able to say that they played the Apollo. We have all kinds of activities that are done there. That's what's so wonderful about it. We're constantly making improvements to the theater.

In your show Uptown Downtown, you tailor the song "Born in a Trunk" to your own life, specifically the Apollo. What was the inspiration for doing Uptown Downtown?

I was asked to do a show at Lincoln Center. I hadn't performed in New York for awhile. I wanted to do something special. My director Michael Bush and I sat down and collaborated. I didn't want to do just anything. We realized that I was an uptown girl who worked her way downtown. It started as an hour show. It was so well-received that I was asked if I would do a two-hour version. Then we got to add some other things that we wanted to do. Of course the Apollo, for me, started it all because that's where I got great experience. We were doing 29 shows a week, so when I was able to go downtown and do theater, where you do eight shows a week, I had the experience of the Apollo to get me through the experience of the theater.

Your first Broadway musical was Hallelujah, Baby! (1967) so it's wonderful to see that represented in Uptown Downtown. "My Own Morning" was one of the showstoppers in that musical. How has the meaning of that song changed for you over the years?

I think the way that I interpret "My Own Morning" now is different because it's more reflective. The meaning of that song within Hallelujah, Baby! is about a girl who's a maid. She's working for other people and she's saying, "That is not my goal. I want my own house that I can clean." As I've matured, it's taken on a whole new meaning for me because I remember doing the show and now it has so much more to say for me. It's such a great score from that show. Whatever you sing from that show, people just go, "Oh my God. The music to that show is so fabulous!" That music is not dated. The score is really timeless. I have a lot of young kids who will come up to me and say we love "Being Good" and they'll put it in their show. It's great.

Take me back to the night of 21 April 1968 at the Shubert Theatre. What do you remember about the feeling of receiving your first Tony nomination and then winning the award for "Best Actress in a Musical"?

The interesting thing is I really didn't know the meaning of being nominated. That's how green I was back then. I was having a ball doing the show. I didn't have the angst, when you hear about the nominations and all that. It didn't hit me until I was sitting in the audience and realized, Oh my God I've been nominated for a Tony! Of course, you hear your name and you're not sure if you hear your name … but I did hear my name! The funniest thing though is I never got to make any thank-you's. That year they had Groucho Marx during the segment and he was so busy doing his comedy that he chewed up all the time! That's my biggest regret: I never got to thank people for winning this Tony.

What was the ripple effect of winning the Tony, especially for your first Broadway show?

It introduced me to theater and I got to do more shows, eventually. I love the theater. Once you become part of the Broadway community, it's really such a family. It's a great environment. It's like a college of great people who are warm and welcoming.

Recently, the theater community has staged some great productions about Billie Holiday. Audra McDonald and Dee Dee Bridgewater have portrayed her in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill and Lady Day, respectively. In Uptown Downtown, you sing "Good Morning Heartache", which is closely identified with Billie Holiday. What role did Billie Holiday play in your musical evolution?

My mother played all kinds of music when I was growing up. She was a big Billie Holiday fan. Quite honestly, when I was a kid I didn't really understand Billie Holiday. I was a big fan of Dinah Washington and Ella and people like that. When I got older, then I started appreciating how extraordinary Billie was. As far as "Good Morning Heartache" is concerned, I had a connection with Ervin Drake. I knew him well. He wrote the music to my second Broadway show (Her First Roman) and I'd also done "I Believe" and songs like that. I related more to him and his wonderful wife, and how he'd written "Good Morning Heartache" than trying to relate to Billie Holiday.

Just going back to "Born in a Trunk" for a minute, I always think of Judy Garland performing that in A Star Is Born (1954). From what I understand, you attended July Garland’s comeback concert at Carnegie Hall in 1961. Describe the atmosphere that night.

I saw the opening night. We got to go backstage and everything. My mother and I had been invited by some people who were involved in her career. It was electric. I'd never seen anything like it (laughs), just from the audience point of view. Every song was like, Oh my God! I knew Liza and I had always been a Judy Garland fan through old movies they'd show on television. To be in the audience when she came out on that stage … it took forever for her to get to sing because the audience just went crazy. It was like going to see Lena when she did her one-woman show.

I'm sure the ovation could have lasted a whole hour! Speaking of Lena, you perform "Stormy Weather" in Uptown Downtown and you also staged a musical based on her life called Stormy Weather. What does Lena Horne inspire in you?

When I was growing up, there weren't a lot of people that you could identify with on the screen. Lena was extraordinarily beautiful and talented. Whenever she was in a movie, we would all run to see it. My mother and father just thought she was the greatest in everything. She was one of our own.

There's another great moment in Uptown Downtown where you salute Harlem in a medley of Duke Ellington's music, "It Don't Mean a Thing" and "Take the A Train". What's the significance of Duke Ellington to you?

He was somebody that my father would talk about. He would talk about the brilliance of Duke Ellington. His music was always played in the house. I got to meet Duke Ellington when I was a kid and go to a couple of concerts. He used to do a lot of his religious music that he had written at the church my husband and I were married in, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. Reverend Jones would call us and we'd go and watch his concerts at the church.

Going back some years before Uptown Downtown, I'd like to talk about an album you recorded that is absolutely gorgeous, On My Way to You (2003), a tribute to Alan and Marilyn Bergman. I imagine that every songwriter would want an incredible vocalist like you to record their compositions with the same kind of care and creativity you applied to the Bergmans' catalog.

A lot of people only think of the melody, but when I'm doing a class I always tell young people that the lyrics are important because you have to know what you're singing about. What does it mean? I always respect the lyrics of any song that I'm doing.

How was On My Way to You conceived?

The producer Dan Levine had spoken to me about a different concept of a project that he was doing and wanted me to be a part of. In talking about it, he said, "Forget the other project. I'd rather do something with you." He mentioned Marilyn and Alan Bergman and of course I love their music. We just started picking the songs. He has a studio up at his home in Vermont. We spent two weeks up there in this beautiful setting with a view of the hills. It was very inspiring.

It sounds like it. The production and the arrangements are so sumptuous. What distinguishes Alan and Marilyn Bergman from other songwriters?

The combination of the two of them with the melody and the lyrics is a marriage, and they are married. Their melodies are just incredible. "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life" and songs like that are classics. You have these lyrics that come with these melodies that say something. You can sing their songs forever.

You duet with one of my favorite male vocalists, the late Jon Lucien, on the song "Moonlight". When did you first become familiar with Jon? How did he become part of the project?

My husband and I were friends with Jon. Herbie Hancock introduced us. That's how we met him. We lived in California so we spent a lot of time with Jon and his wife at the time. When Dan wanted someone to do this duet, we were thinking of all kinds of people and seeing if we could get them. Jon said absolutely I'll do it. I always thought of his voice as if you're floating on a cloud. Will Downing is another singer that has that quality. I have every CD of Jon's on my iPod. We lost a great voice.

You cross so many different eras and genres of music. It's like your career is a wheel of fortune: you can spin it and whatever you land on is gold. One thing I'm fascinated by is when you did The Leslie Uggams Show in 1969. It was so groundbreaking. On the first episode, you had Dick Van Dyke and Sly & the Family Stone — two completely different guests.

I fought to get all the contemporary rock people. When Sly & the Family Stone came to the rehearsal, the powers at CBS didn't know what hit them. I thought it was necessary because these were the people that were my contemporaries. Of course with Dick, I'd done stuff with him on his special. I just adore him. He's not only talented but quite a character. The first time my husband and I saw Sly & the Family Stone, they were playing this small little club in Vegas and I was playing the Flamingo. We went to this club and thought, Oh my God, who's this? Shortly after that, they just hit it. I definitely wanted them to be on my show.

I must ask you about one of your guests, Johnny Mathis. What's it like to sing with him?

Oh please, Johnny's extraordinary! When I was a kid and he came out with his first album, I would play it every morning before I went to school. Every single day! I don't know how my mother put up with it. I was convinced that I was going to marry him when I was a teenager. "I'm gonna marry Johnny Mathis, I know it!" We got to know him as a friend. He's such a sweet man.

If you were to do The Leslie Uggams Show today, who would you have as guests?

Gosh, I'd have everybody. There are so many young talents out there. I think Beyoncé's amazing. I like Taylor Swift. She's a smart cookie, besides being very talented. She writes her own music. She seems to get it. She's fearless. She and Beyoncé are very smart and know the business side of the world, which you need to know because it's called show business.

At what point in your career did that dawn on you?

Later than it should have! When we were coming up, we just loved doing the music and we left the business to other people. The young people today don't just leave it to the other people. They are involved in creating these empires, which I think is just amazing. I take my hat off to them. I like Alicia Keys and Jay Z. I love Bruno Mars. I would have him on every other week! And of course, I'd love to reunite with Sir Paul McCartney. I love Pharrell's music. He's another one I'd love to have on. I watch him on The Voice and he's so smart about the critique he gives in mentoring these kids who are trying to win. I just love "Happy". I have a little grand baby who loves that song. We'll play it and dance around. Pharrell's conveyed a feeling that when you sing this song, it's joyful.

Shifting gears for a moment, I saw this interview that you and some members from the cast of Roots did with Oprah. It was a compelling interview, to see all of you together. During the interview, you said the minute you stepped on the set of Roots you felt something that you'd never felt before. What exactly did you feel?

Such commitment to telling the story. Every little detail, you were living it as a moment.

All these years later, in what ways do you see Roots still impacting our culture?

It tells such a history of America that's not in the history books. It's been shown in a lot in schools. I still have people that come up to me and say, "I sat with my kids and we watched it". The people that saw it originally are now watching it with their children. It was such an event then because you didn't have all of these cable networks. You had three major networks. You couldn't DVR it or watch it on-demand. Back east, there was a blizzard so people couldn't go out. Everybody turned on the show and they were glued to the television for over a week, watching it every single night. Life revolved around watching Roots.

The story that was told is a story that people need to see because it gives that history of where we come from. You see stuff that's happening today in South Carolina and Ferguson and Baltimore and all these places. Are we still going to have to go through things like this? When are we going to get it? We have to somehow work together. A lot of it has to do with economics and education. The group of people that decide on the books that kids use in school, when are they going to show more history of the black Americans in this country? It's still limited. When you're sitting in a classroom and you're studying these other things, you need to have some of this history in there because that's how kids learn about culture. We just don't have that. That was what was so extraordinary about Roots. I had classes of young kids that wrote to me. People would say, "We didn't know, we didn't know." Of course you didn't know because we don't get the history.

You really were part of this amazing ensemble of actors that did such a service in enlightening and educating so many of us.

I'm thrilled to be part of that.

Deadpool (2016) is steeped in the world of comics. It's a completely different kind of movie. How were you cast in the film?

That is … unbelievable! I was doing a musical in Florida when my agent called and said we want you to audition for a movie. I said, "How am I going to do that? I'm here in Florida." Nowadays it's the modern world. You can tape anything. The script had to come a certain way. I wound up auditioning but I didn't know what I was doing because it was a hush-hush project. I was curious about the whole thing. It was like working in the dark but eventually I auditioned again. I met with the producer and the director. I got to learn more about the project. I was like, Wow. I love this. I'm so excited about it. Nobody expects me to be doing something like this. I love adventure. I love doing something unexpected. Blind Al is an extraordinary character to play. It was just a joy.

Last year, audiences at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre saw you doing Mama Rose in Gypsy. Next year, filmgoers will see you as Blind Al! I don't know of a better example to show your range. That's pretty amazing. What did you learn from those two characters?

Arthur Laurents, who wrote Gypsy years ago, wanted me to play the role. I knew I had his blessing, looking down from heaven, to do this role. It's one of the great musicals. The book is brilliant. I grew up as a child star so I was aware of those mothers, like Mama Rose, who push their kids because they're kind of living through the kids. I had been around that world. My mother was not a show business mother but I saw plenty of those mothers. If the kid didn't get the audition, they'd be reprimanded. It could be horrible. At the same time, if it wasn't for the mother, these kids wouldn't have the career that they have. Most of them went on to be big stars. I also went to school with Gypsy Rose Lee's son Erik. I knew him so I felt that there was a connection there. I had the thrill of my life playing that role.

I can't say too much about Blind Al … (laughs)

That's right — it's hush-hush! We'll just have to continue the conversation after the film's released in February!

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