On Her Own: Judy Kuhn’s Solo Cabaret at Dumbarton Concerts

Maybe you can go home again. Broadway’s original Cosette from Les Miserables, Bethesda native Judy Kuhn, returns for a solo concert, A Broadway Cabaret With Judy Kuhn, 8 PM May 5 at Dumbarton United Methodist Church.

DCTMA contributing writer Geoffrey Melada reached the Tony Award nominee at home in New York this week for a wide-ranging phone conversation about her career and her plans for her upcoming show. What follows are highlights from their conversation.

Judy Kuhn. Photo by Leslie Van Stelten.

Judy Kuhn. Photo by Leslie Van Stelten.

Geoffrey Melada: Welcome home! You were born in NYC but raised in Bethesda, Maryland. What does it feel like to do a solo show here where you grew up? 

It is always a special thing to work in DC. I have had the opportunity to work in DC a lot. Of all the cities besides New York, I have worked the most in DC. It’s pure coincidence, but very lovely.

Were you bitten by the theater bug at an early age like fellow DC native Frank Rich?

I was bitten by theater bug very young, oh yes. I think I tried to avoid it for a while (laughing). I didn’t know if I could handle the whole thing. My parents took me to see theater when I was young. I really loved it. The very first thing that I ever saw was at Adventure Theater at Glen Echo  Park, which is still around! I can remember when I was very little, at Adventure Theater, the actors/characters would come out after a performance and you could shake hands with them. I remember being struck even at that age with the knowledge that they were actors, yet so real in their performances. It was the beginning of my understanding of the suspension of disbelief. There was something in the magic of that. It caught my imagination.

How did you choose the material for your upcoming solo show? 

It’s a mix of songs from shows I was in and CDs I recorded. Probably the most heavily represented thing will be what I did with Todd [Almond], the musical director I’m bringing. We put together Lincoln Center’s “American Songbook,” a tribute to the Rodgers and Guettel family legacy. There’s so much to choose from. I just hope people come and have a good time, and I hope I don’t miss any songs that people are expecting to hear.  

Do you mix songs with personal stories, or are you all business on stage like Mandy Patinkin in concert?

(Laughing) I’m definitely nothing like Mandy Patinkin. I mix in stories and anecdotes, but I haven’t chosen them all yet.

What I love about your version of “Nobody’s Side” from “Chess” is the slight edge in your singing. You’re not just singing the notes, you’re inhabiting a character. How did you get inside the head of Florence Vassy?

Judy Kuhn. Photo by Leslie Van Stelten.

Judy Kuhn. Photo by Leslie Van Stelten.

[My approach is always] where does the character begin, end, what is the journey? I remember when we were staging that song, we were in the rehearsal room that was supposed to be my hotel room. There was a bed, a rack of clothes, and Trevor Nunn the director gave me a suitcase. He said, “your job is to have packed your suitcase and walk out the door by the end of the song.” He gave me this difficult task but very clear guidance: This song is a story about a person deciding to leave and making this complicated decision. Packing the suitcase is the physical manifestation of that decision. Because packing the suitcase was such a specific task, it took away the performance element of the song which comes with a pop song and helped me with storytelling. While packing a suitcase to leave, you find all the reasons for doing it. Maybe because of his brilliance, I was able to do that.

Given how many amazing songs are in Chess, why did it only play for two months on Broadway? And what do you think about the second act it’s having as a semi-staged concert?

For every critic who reviewed the original Broadway production or saw it, there’s probably a different answer. I never know why certain shows succeed or don’t. Often ones I think deserve accolades or long runs don’t make, and I think “why?” We faced problems with the show, there are people who say it was the book. I totally disagree. Richard Nelson wrote a great book. The set was a grand experiment, too challenging. Too much time was spent focusing on that. Critics had it out for the show for reasons I don’t know. But it did succeed, in a way.

People still listen to it, talk about and ask your question! And people keep wanting to do it.

You sang “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Mis for President and Mrs. Reagan at the White House in 1988. You told them it was a beautiful song that you didn’t get to sing in the show. Will you have a chance this weekend to perform songs you haven’t sung on stage but wish you had?

Yes! I will sing a song from “Passion” that I didn’t do in the show, a medley of “Happiness” and “In Buddy’s Eyes” [from Sondheim’s “Follies”]. There are many things I’d like to do. There are shows I would love to do. To tell the truth, Margaret from “The Light in the Piazza.” I will sing one of her songs in the show.

Is doing Sondheim different from performing the work of other Broadway composers?

Doing Sondheim is so deeply satisfying. He’s one of the greatest writers of music theater ever. It’s always better to do writing that’s really good. Doing “Passion” was deeply satisfying. I believe it’s one of his greatest, most personal pieces. Fosca is one of the richest characters ever written for women to play. I have done it twice and would easily do it again. The ways of exploring her, interpreting her, are endless. “Passion” is a piece that people didn’t understand when it was first done. People have grown to understand it and be deeply moved by it.

You’ve originated so many great roles, including Cosette in Les Mis and Florence in Chess. Is there a special joy or responsibility in being the first to play a role?

It’s always great to be involved in the beginning of something. Fun Home was the show I was involved with from its earliest stage. You get to develop your ideas about it over time. That’s a very special thing.

I can’t open a Playbill without seeing an invitation to go cruising with you and your friend Broadway pianist Seth Rudetsky. What is the scene like on these cruises?

They are so much fun! Every night the cruisers have an intimate evening with whoever is on that night performing. They are really fun, for the cruisers and the performers. That’s why people go again and again.

Judy Kuhn: A Broadway Cabaret will play on Saturday, May 5th, 2018 at 8:00 pm as part of the Dumbarton Concert series at Dumbarton United Methodist Church – 3133 Dumbarton Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 965-2000 or go online.

About Dumbarton Concerts
Dumbarton Concerts has presented chamber and jazz music in the heart of Georgetown since 1978. Performances take place in the intimate and acoustically rich Dumbarton United Methodist Church.

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