Manhattan welcomes musical comebacks by Pat Suzuki and Michele Lee
The hardest working man in show biz may not be James Brown, but Scott Siegel, who writes about it regularly for Theatermania, and also just produced the First Annual Broadway Cabaret Festival at Town Hall, October 21-23. His double concert bill of Euan Morton (“Taboo”) and Eden Espinosa (“Brooklyn”) was smashing, and his “Broadway Originals!” featured a host of endearing stars recreating their original numbers from fondly recalled shows.
Pat Suzuki opened the show with “I Enjoy Being a Girl” from “Flower Drum Song,” and I grabbed the rare opportunity to get to know this Asian-American icon of show business. Born in Cressy, California on a fruit farm, her Japanese-American family was forced to enter an internment camp during World War II. After college, her big singing voice gained notice in a Seattle club, particularly by Bing Crosby, who referred her to RCA Records. She became the first Japanese artist to be signed to a major recording label and released “The Many Sides of Pat Suzuki” in 1958.
Richard Rodgers caught her performing on Jack Paar’s “Tonight Show,” and asked to see her for “Flower Drum Song.”
“The William Morris agent told me not to sing anything he had written and suggested ‘Down in the Depths,’” Suzuki recalled. “I had just gotten out of school and this stuff was pretty slick, but I only felt ‘How silly! How could anyone be depressed on the 90th floor of anything?’ But Rodgers was a lot of fun and always teased me unmercifully because I couldn’t act or dance when I came to Broadway—still can’t.”
Suzuki wasn’t all that impressed when she first heard her signature “I Enjoy Being a Girl.” “I thought it was kinda silly, actually. I mean, who enjoys being anything? I guess it remains popular because they still use it in auditions—they think it’s belting—and God knows, it’s been on every gay bar jukebox. It’s quite simple, which was absolutely the genius of Rodgers.”
Nancy Kwan landed Suzuki’s role when they filmed “Flower Drum Song.”
“France Nguyen had done ‘The World of Suzie Wong’ on Broadway and this gal, Nancy Kwan, replaced her, and this producer had Nancy under contract,” Suzuki said. “Plus they wanted a real slick, great-looking chick, and she’s a hoot! We’re friends; I only recently met her in the last five years.”
These days, Suzuki enjoys painting, tai chi, and charity work, the last of which she mostly attributes to “Star Trek” actor George Takei, who recently came out in the press.
“George is probably the brightest of us all, he’s so interested in civic things. He represented the Los Angeles mayor and went all over the world to study public transportation because what is worse than the smog problem they had in Los Angeles. He was the moving force there behind the Japanese Historical Museum and had all of these people, who came back from the camps and made a lot of money and became Republicans and live in Orange County bidding big bucks at a benefit auction. He’s the only one who can talk me into anything by saying ‘You should be a good citizen,’ and that always gets me.”
Another fabulous Broadway dame, Michele Lee, is opening at Feinstein’s at the Regency with “Catch the Light” on November 15. The ever-delectable Lee admitted to me that she hasn’t really sung in years.
“To do this before a live audience after I’d been protected for so long on TV is a Herculean task, but I started singing lessons again and the first time I started to vocalize I burst into tears because I could not believe that I’d left music for so long. Before I acted on Broadway, I always only saw myself as a musical performer and did it from the time I could barely walk. My career just kept taking these different paths.”
Some of those paths included producing TV biopics of Dottie West and Jacqueline Susann, as well as writing and directing the TV movie “Color Me Perfect” and directing theater such as a 1979 production of “Oliver” at San Jose Civic Light Opera starring Tyne Daly, Nehemiah Persoff, and Ron Palillo.
“Women have looked at me for a long time in the business and said, ‘How do you do it?’ A lot of it is pure raw nerve and jumping in and taking a lot of gambles, which I’ve always done in the course of my life. I produced movies that supposedly could not be made, with characters that were a little off center and not the traditional women in jeopardy.”
As for famous turn on “Knots Landing,” Lee just wrapped the big reunion show.
“For those who care, as much as I hate reunions with a passion, I can tell you that it’s going to be so wonderful for the people who loved the show because the producers really tried to make it not like the traditional reunion, and our actors are wonderful people who look at each other with such unabashed love that you cannot fake on TV with a camera up your nose. I saw pieces of it and thought, ‘Oh my goodness, they’re going to eat this up with a spoon, because it’s real!”
Lee described her Feinstein’s show.
“Obviously, I touch base with certain parts of my career, but it’s not an autobiography, so much as a matching up of stories with music, everything in it is true and hopefully very funny and poignant. It will show the music in a very different light, so when you hear ‘Time After Time,’ one of the great standards, it will have a new twist on it because of the story that precedes it. I just feel that it’s time for us to go back to an era when we could just kick back a little bit and enjoy things in life that are not fraught with all these horrific things on the news every day. When I was a kid, my father Jack Dusick, was a Hollywood makeup artist, so creative, and he and my Mom would throw a light from a mirror reflecting on the walls of my bedroom. They called it the Good Fairy and I would try to catch this light, hence the name of the show. It’s about losing yourself in imagination, because everything starts with a dream you can turn into a reality.”
Lee’s rediscovered love of music has her often leaving her New York apartment for the nearby Metropolitan Opera, where she’ll pick up a single ticket for whatever’s on that night and just go and enjoy it by herself.
“People will think I’m crazy because it’s me, buying one ticket to get lost in the music and live in the fantasy of the composer’s dream world. But this also has to do with age, which happens to everybody. You hear these old broads saying, ‘I don’t care what they think of me now!’ and they swear and do whatever they like and live their life and I’m at that point. I was always taught that women don’t go out by themselves, but now I just buy a ticket and watch a movie and don’t worry about who’s looking at me. They probably sit there thinking, ‘Nah, it probably just looks like her!’ anyway.”
Contact David Noh at [email protected].