Enduring Cowboy, Divas Below 54

Randy Jones in the late ‘70s, just before the Village People hit big. | KENN DUNCAN

BY DAVID NOH | For those who lived through the 1970s, we are now experiencing a moment in time of an unprecedented nostalgia — like the ‘70s had for the 1930s — for an economically depressed but far more fun era, which mixed innocence and decadence with such thrilling insouciance, all of it pre-AIDS and pre-Reagan/ Giuliani. And, from that glittering disco ball epoch, there is no more iconic figure than Randy Jones, the Cowboy from the Village People. He’s returning to the New York stage for the first time in years in “The Anthem,” an Off-Broadway musical inspired by Ayn Rand’s novel (through Jul. 6, Culture Project’s Lynn Redgrave Theater, 45 Bleecker St. at Lafayette St.; cultureproject.org).

“I play Tiberius, the evil overlord,” Jones told me over dinner and a few vodkas at BBar. “The script is by Gary Morgenstein and tells a story not unlike a Shakespearean or even classic Greek tragedy, with people at war, killing each other. My brilliant director, Rachel Klein, describes it as discotopia, a dystopic society in the future with a rigid code wherein everybody is for community and the greatest crime is individuality. The music is very synth-oriented, incredibly arranged, and is by the gifted Jonnie Rockwell, who’s also a respected physician on the Upper East Side!”

Jones, who’s more used to doing one-night stands all over the world, confessed to finding a legit play’s schedule grueling: “People don’t see me out and about as much and are wondering if I’m okay. I’m MIA during the rehearsals and run of this because it’s so demanding but I just have to do this because I want to prove to myself that I can do it. My agent said, ‘When was the last time you did something in New York?’ I want to show people I can do something besides sing ‘YMCA.’

NOH Randy Jones & Remy Zaken IS

Randy Jones, with Remy Zaken, in “The Anthem” at the Culture Project’s Lynn Redgrave Theater.

“I so often have to leave my cute wonderful husband I’ve been with for 30 years, Will Grega, that it’s nice to be based in New York for a while. He’s a VP at Bank of America, but with this rehearsal process, we’re like ships that pass in the night. We come and go, which sounds like something on Rentboy.com. But life is good, and I’ve been so blessed to have a 40-year career. I came to New York and two years after joined the Village People, and now they sing our songs at all the major baseball games, in video machines in just about every casino. And I’ve managed to survive somehow and maintain the exact same positive, pleasant, and upbeat perspective that I’ve always had.”

True, indeed, for Jones, a true gracious Southern gent from North Carolina, has always been one of the nicest people in this town. And the dish he can shovel, all of it accompanied by his endearingly unbridled cackle! He was always in the right place at the right time, like when he went to Hollywood to appear in Allan Carr’s mythic “Can’t Stop the Music,” and leased Joan Collins’ Coldwater Canyon house. He befriended legends like Rock Hudson, whom he found instantly likable and so perfect that, even when he passed out on a chair at a party, the drink he dropped fell to the floor with nary a spill.

Lucky Jones met my favorite director, George Cukor, toward the end of his life: “I would visit him at his fabulous house and we’d drink cocktails and I’d sit at his knee, and this man who directed ‘The Women’ and had a hand in ‘Gone with the Wind’ and ‘The Wizard of Oz’ would tell me stories, with his little legs crossed, in his slippers. And not in the bedroom — he never got that – but I’m not saying that I might not bring someone over as he always liked cute company, even a couple, so he’d have a choice. You know he was famous for his protruding jaw, and I remember once, maybe he said it to impress the company I brought, ‘You know how I got this jaw? From sucking big cock!’ I also remember I left but the couple stayed [laughs].”

On May 9, a press preview was held at 54 Below featuring headliners from their dazzling spring season. I grabbed the chance to sit down with three of my favorite ladies.

Katie Finneran will be at 54 on May 28-31 (54below.com) and described her show as “about loving New York and loving my work as an actress. Every show I do, that community of people becomes my family, and this is about my journey to find the love of my life, my husband, and what went on before and after we had children, and how to combine the two loves of my life, career and family.

Finneran, a two-time Tony winner whose comedic chops are already legendary, names as her influences Carole Lombard, Carol Burnett, Meryl Streep, “and nobody’s better than Maggie Smith.” Her one-scene appearance in “Promises, Promises” was the bright spot of that show: “I heard Sally Kellerman on the radio once and I sorta liked the way she talked and took a little bit of that, and then really thought about who this woman was. She wants to go out and meet the love of her life and starts doing her hair and starts drinking as she’s doing her hair. She doesn’t quite finish it and goes out, and maybe forgets a shoe or something, a very sweet woman who probably lives with her mother. The years go by so quickly because you can fill your life with so many other things. I was 37 before I met my husband.”

Finneran’s take on Miss Hannigan in “Annie” was a bold, unorthodox one, to say the least: “It was very dark. I terrified the children who came backstage, so I had to take them on a little tour to relax them. I saw that character as the oldest of 12 children, so she didn’t want to take care of one more. A burlesque dancer, but not a very good dancer or singer, and getting older. She needed a job and there were two options — either the red light district or this job she happens to get at an orphanage. I saw her with one foot out the door; any minute somebody’s gonna come and make her a movie star. Very complex psychologically, maybe too complex!”

Up next is a TV series with Netflix, “with Sissy Spacek, Sam Shepard, Kyle Chandler, and the great Norbert Leo Butz plays my husband. It’s a murder mystery family drama, and Norbert and I have so much fun offset. But it’s a drama, so we have to put a lid on it.”

If only to hear her awesome a capella “Hello, Young Lovers,” or her lushly definitive “If He Walked Into My Life,” you must see the living goddess of song that is the phenomenal Leslie Uggams (on June 6-7). She replaced the announced Diahann Carroll in “On Golden Pond” in 2005 and I wondered if they called her to do similar duty on “A Raisin in the Sun.”

“Listen,” she said, “some members of the cast said, ‘We thought they were gonna call you, and I said, ‘Well, they didn’t!’ [Chuckles.] I would like to do that role, but, you know what? I’m going to be doing ‘Gypsy’ at the University of Connecticut this summer. The ironic thing is that Arthur Laurents had wanted me to take it on the road after Bernadette Peters did it. Arthur was such a character. When I did ‘Hallelujah, Baby’ it was originally to have been Lena Horne, but she and Arthur had a falling out and she decided not to do it.

“I always felt that Arthur would look at me, with his eyes going ‘Hmmm.’ I’d see him on and off through the years and he would say, ‘You’re getting better.’

“’Really, Arthur? Come on!’

“But when I did my first reading of ‘Stormy Weather,’ my Lena show, unbeknownst to me, he came and I blew him away. He wrote me the most beautiful letter and you know he did not like everybody. I called him up and we had a long chat, and he said, ‘You have to do Lena,’ though he wasn’t crazy about the book.”

That show is financed and ready to come into New York, “but we just need a theater. It’s hard today to get in there, but it’s ready to go.”

On Frank Sinatra: “He was tough, which scared you at first, but if he thought you were talented he was spectacular. I did that TV special with him and on that day he wasn’t in a great mood. He believed in one take only and had a problem with Loretta Lynn, who didn’t know her stuff, and he had to do more than one take. He’d had it and I was taping right after her in this gorgeous Bob Mackie dress, nude on one side and black on the other.

“They came to me in the dressing room and said, ‘Frank is not happy.’ ‘Oh no, this is my great chance!’ We were both walking out of our dressing rooms, and I said to him, ‘I heard you had a fabulous day!’ He looked at me and started laughing and then we were great. We got on the set and he looks at me and said, ‘Are you trying to seduce with that dress?’ and I wound up singing ‘The Lady is a Tramp’!”

The luminous Kate Baldwin sang her lovely heart out at 54 on May 15 in her show, “Sing Pretty, Don’t Fall Down.” I told her that her beautiful voice sounds even more so these days, richer, and she laughed, “I’m old now! Having a child definitely changes your voice. The big operatic sound that I always wanted in my 20s is easier now in my 30s. It really is a luxury and a wonderful surprise, those deeper, richer high notes become easier because you have this seasoning. I trained in opera but just loved musicals so much I wanted to belt.”

Baldwin did get a chance to try out her more classical chops when Susan Stroman invited her and Marc Kudisch to workshop the new “Merry Widow” script by Jeremy Sams, which is coming to the Metropolitan Opera (with Kelli O’Hara as Valencienne). “They just wanted to get in a room and hear it, and I thought for a second, ‘This would be a really fun road to go down, but of course they have Renée Fleming!’”

Baldwin will be doing Charlotte in “A Little Night Music” this summer at the Berkshire Theater Festival with her husband Graham Rowat as Carl-Magnus: “Penny Fuller is Madame Armfeldt, Gregg Edelman is Frederic, and opera singer Maureen O’Flynn, the real deal, is Desiree. I’m really looking forward to it — I do ‘The Miller’s Son’ in my show. Charlotte’s the best one, so chic and unhappy.”

Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com, follow him on Twitter @in_the_noh, and check out his blog at nohway.wordpress.com.