Volume 79, Number 42 | March 24 - 30, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


 

LESLIE UGGAMS: UPTOWN DOWNTOWN
March 30 through April 17
At Café Carlyle, in the Hotel Carlyle
35 East 76th Street (between Park & Madison)
For reservations, call 212-744-1600
Visit www.leslieuggams.com

Uptown girl Leslie Uggams

Gershwin, Mercer, Arlen: Uggams only sings good songs
Cabaret at The Carlyle is latest jewel in a long career

BY JERRY TALLMER

When her hands are not in motion — which is seldom — her long, slim fingers are clasped around the eyeglasses in her lap.

I see a lot of good songs on this list, says the interviewer. Gershwin and Gershwin, Kander and Ebb, Comden and Green, Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen, Ella Fitzgerald…

“I only sing good songs,” she says. “Bad songs are a waste of time.” She doesn’t mean salacious, she means inferior. “Bad lyrics and everything. I can’t do it.”

Her name is Leslie Uggams. She has been at this game since she was six years old, which is something of a while ago — and the list is the song list for her upcoming engagement at the auspicious Café Carlyle in the Hotel Carlyle.

It’s her first cabaret performance in this city in 18 years; her first gig ever at The Carlyle. It’s a room she and her husband first visited in the mid-60s at the invitation of the great Bobby Short — the Carlyle’s nonpareil piano man who had seen her on Broadway opposite Richard Kiley in “Her First Roman.”

Yes, she’s excited, though she tries not to show it.

“It’s the place,” she says. “The grande dame. When you say: ‘The Carlyle,’ people’s eyes light up.”

Back there when she was six, a kid growing up in Washington Heights, she’d had a shot on the “Beulah” TV show that starred the magnificent but formidable Ethel Waters.

Or not so formidable, “She was always sweet and lovely to my mother and me. She used to give soirees. I saw her [on Broadway] in ‘Member of the Wedding’ ” — the heartbreaking Carson McCullers play starring Ethel Waters, Julie Harris, and young Brandon de Wilde — “and two years later I was in the Professional Children’s School with Brandon de Wilde, right over there.”

Over there — indicated by a sweep of one hand — is just a couple of blocks from this apartment near Columbus Circle in which she has lived since age 18. “I watched this building being built.”

When she was nine, a budding flower of great beauty, she entered an Amateur Hour radio contest (the winners to go on stage with the stars at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater).

“I entered the contest and won, and kept on winning” — and thereby got to provide warm-ups for Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, and other immortals.”

What kind of warm-ups? What did you do?

“Oh God. I did impressions. Tap danced. Sang ‘Pennies From Heaven’ and ‘When You’re Smiling’…”

Did you resent it or love it; or both?

“Oh, I was a born ham. You didn’t even have to ask me…”

Are you still?

“Oh yeah.”

She was all of just turned 23 and a newlywed when, in 1968, she won the Tony Award for Best Performance in a Musical (“Hallelujah, Baby!” at the Martin Beck — as Georgina, a woman who stays age 25 through each of four decades).

Thirty-three years after “Hallellujah, Baby!” — thirty-three years of plays and musicals on stages across the country, of big screens, little screens, concert halls, nightclubs, cabarets, recording studios, and whatever else you’ve got — she was a Tony nominee once again, for her performance as Ruby in August Wilson’s hard-hitting “King Hedley II.”

And so, when she signed on for the Carlyle adventure and started to jot down some favorite songs, it was director Michael Bush who came up with a structure — “a raison d’être,” she calls it. “Uptown Downtown — the journey of my life.”

Weren’t there any tough things along that journey?

“Well,” she says with a shrug, “you know… life.” She decides to leave it at that. “But I’ve had a wonderful career. And most of the best things are right here in New York City. The best people. The best shows. The best composers. My family is here.”

Something else happened late in those 33 years: A man named Barack Obama got elected president of the United States of America.

“Yes!” she exclaims. “How about that? My mother and father would be dancing up and down. They’d never have believed that could happen. It speaks volumes about America, with all its ups and downs. That so many people could vote for someone…”

Pauses…pauses… lets it hang there, thinks some more, then: “Someone black.”

Chews on one stem of those eyeglasses. “Now even a young child can say: ‘I’m going to be president’ and mean it. That’s important.”

Her own two children are in their 30s. “I don’t know how they got so old,” she wryly says. They are Danielle, a singer and actress who is about to give birth to her own first child; and Justice, an actor “who also has jobs in the civilian world.”

Their mother laughs. “Anything not in showbiz is in the civilian world,” she informs the civilian who has resolved to push ahead on weren’t there some tough moments, racially or otherwise, along the route.

“Well,” she says, dredging up an old wound from all those years ago, when she was seven, “they tied the clock on me in a [talent] contest on the old Paul Whiteman TV show.

“If you lasted five weeks, you won a big prize — a Nash automobile. Before I went on, they had a young black kid, and he won. They didn’t want another black to win, so they tied the clock on me. You could see some guy, underneath the stage, tying back the clock. So I didn’t win the Nash. Some trumpet player won. The funny part is that neither of my parents could drive.”

In a book that’s about to come out about the Apollo Theater, there’s a photograph of young Leslie Uggams in a party dress with a great big bow in front. Now, in her living room, she’s dressed less flamboyantly in black slacks and a starched white shirt that might be her husband’s.

“My mother always wanted me to wear a bow,” the daughter of Juanita Uggams says. “She was a Cotton Club dancer long before I was ever thought of. She was from Florida. My sister and I were born here. Our father was Harolde — with an e — Uggams, a maintenance worker from South Carolina.”

Sitting through all this, quietly, is a gentleman named Grahame (with an e) Pratt, originally a book publisher and stockbroker from Sydney, Australia — which is where, in a club called Chequers, he was knocked breathless just at the sight of “Sing Along With Mitch” thrush Leslie Uggams.

“Then when my manager died,” says Mrs. Grahame Pratt, fiddling with those eyeglasses, “I asked him to help me…”

“And I said: ‘Just for a little while’…and that,” says husband and manager Grahame Pratt, “was 30 years ago.”

He wants the interviewer to know one more thing. It was when Mr. Pratt was courting Ms. Uggams, Down Under.

“I had to see her, and I drove one thousand miles in an afternoon to get to her.”

You do the math. Australian math, that is. Just ask Rupert Murdoch. Be that as it may, Mrs. Pratt. Bobby Short is lending you his room, with love — and so are George and Ira.

 

 

 

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