Art Talk with Lainie Kazan
"I was so moved when I saw [Judy Garland] for the first time… I felt as though she was singing just for me and I was intent about learning how to do that." --- Lainie Kazan
Whether you know her from Broadway's My Favorite Year, TV's Will and Grace, or her scene-stealing turn as Nia Vardalos' mother in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, you know one sure thing about Lainie Kazan---she's quite a talent. Not surprising for someone who's been on stage since she was still in single digits. Born in Brooklyn, in her decades-long career Kazan in addition to performing has done everything in the entertainment business from recording several albums of popular and show music to hosting a variety show to running her own nightclub. And in case you think she's made any concession to her age and slowed down, just take a look at her IMDB profile. We spoke with Kazan by e-mail and phone as she was preparing for a one-night-only Washington, DC, production of the ensemble comedy Celebrity Autobiography at the Shakespeare Theatre Company.
NEA: What's your ten-word bio?
LAINIE KAZAN: Award-winning, multifaceted singer/actress---film, television, recordings, stage
NEA: What do you remember as your first experience of the arts?
KAZAN: Performing at four-and-a-half years old at the Brooklyn Academy of Music singing and dancing. [My dance teacher] had a little show that she did at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and so it was part of the dance company.
NEA: When did you know that you wanted to be a professional performer?
KAZAN: Oh, well you know my mother was a very gentle Mama Rose and...it was never my decision to be in the theater until I grew into an older woman…. I got a drama scholarship to Hofstra University and I think that's when I really realized that this is what I wanted to do. And that I wanted to be educated in my field. That was the first time I really realized what I was meant to do on this planet here. But before that I had never made a decision. My mother said, you know, “jump” and I jumped. It wasn't until I was about 19 or 20 when I really made the decision to do this as a profession.
NEA: Is there any particular performance by another artist that inspired you, or somehow transformed your own approach to your work?
KAZAN: Judy Garland at the Palace Theatre when I was a young girl and became her fan. In her own way she was my mentor. As [were] Lena Horne, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday. [Judy Garland] taught me about entertaining people. About giving yourself over to the story and to the audience, to release yourself and to release your emotions and to understand what you're singing about. I was so moved when I saw her for the first time… I felt as though she was singing just for me and I was intent about learning how to do that.
And I think I have accomplished that in my studies and the fact that I studied acting with Lee Strasberg and Sanford Meisner and learned about being true to myself and to my feelings and to my emotions and to my experiences in life. And I studied voice so I could express myself with my vocal instrument and it was quite a journey to try to accomplish that without living in the pain that she lived in; it's what I strived for. I'm not saying I didn't live in pain, I did, but it's better to reflect on the pain than live in it. So I learned the last step to that equation.
NEA: Do you have a favorite performance of yours that you've given ?
KAZAN: When I went on for Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl. I went on for Barbra after waiting a-year-and-a-half for her to get sick. I was in the show as well; I was a Ziegfeld show girl…. Everywhere I went that year, people would say to me “If you ever go on, call me.” So I would write down their name and their number. Then I got that call a year-and-a-half later that I was to go on, and I raced to the theater and I rehearsed with the act on the stage and I got dressed in the dressing room and I got make-up and I was waiting in the wings. And I called everybody on my list, and they all showed up---and so did Barbra. She went on that night. And oh my god, I was just horrified and depressed and miserable, and I climbed the five flights of stairs to the chorus dressing room and I cried my eyes out.
The next morning when I got up there were headlines in the newspapers in New York that said "Show Goes on but Lainie Doesn't, It Ain't Funny Girl." Yeah, it was horrible. I came to the theater very sheepishly and the producer and the stage manager and everybody was outside the theater and they said, “You are going on today, but you cannot tell a soul.” I said "OK, but can I call my mother?" And she had a duplicate list and she called everybody back and they came.
Probably today, it's the most brilliant theatrical experience of my life. It was amazing, I walked out on the Winter Garden stage and looked out into the audience and, you know, I was filled with fear and apprehension but I knew I was prepared and I knew I would be okay. And there were people that were walking out of the theater, you know, walking out. They didn't want to see me, my performance. They had come to see Barbra. But once I started singing my first song, they all stayed. They came back… It was really great.
NEA: That's a great story! I know that one of the things you do is that you teach theater. Can you please talk a little bit about the importance of arts education?
KAZAN: I teach at UCLA. I'm an adjunct professor and I get such pleasure out of teaching young people. You have to have a lot of patience but when the light bulb goes off in those kids' heads, when they get it, there's nothing more satisfying than that. And I just think education is so important---to know your craft. Because you know it's all well and good to have talent, but if you can't make it last your lifetime, and you don't know how to sustain your talent and hone it and make it grow and have the desire to have all the learning you could possibly get into your little mind, then what's the point because it will be gone. You will lose your voice. You won't have the training you need to do it every night or whenever you're called upon. So I think that education is uppermost in my mind, uppermost. I think it's one of the most important things you can do with your life is educate yourself in every way.
NEA: If you could throw a fantasy dinner party, and invite any artist you wanted, living or dead, who would be on your guest list and why?
KAZAN: Hmm. That's a hard one. I would love to have an evening with Meryl Streep… You know, I studied with Lee Strasberg but I was so shy at the time and I think I would like Lee Strasberg and Stanislavski to be at my table. And maybe a great opera singer like Pavarotti. I would have that table and I would love to talk to them about how they developed their theory, their art. I think they are all sublimely talented.
NEA: That sounds like a really great party.
KAZAN: Doesn't it?
NEA: The entertainment industry is not an easy one to survive, and you've thrived. What's your advice to young artists?
KAZAN: Just keep reinventing yourself.