Award-winning theater and television veteran vet Linda Lavin isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. Not that we would ever want her to. At almost 83 years of age, Lavin has just released a marvelous new album, Love Notes (Club 44), on which she performs a number of classics from the American songbook, as well as the new Joel Lindsey and Wayne Haun composition “Stars Would Fall”. Additionally, Lavin has been appearing regularly on TV shows such as Mom, The Santa Clarita Diet and Madam Secretary, to mention just a few. She is also scheduled to appear in the new Off-Broadway musical The Bedwetter, co-written by Sarah Silverman, Adam Schlesinger, and Joshua Harmon.
Of course, for many people, Lavin will, first and foremost, always be the title character from the beloved CBS sitcom Alice. I had the pleasure of speaking with her shortly before the release of Love Notes.
Gregg Shapiro: Linda, I’d like to begin by thanking you for singing the brilliant song “The Boy from…” in the off-Broadway musical revue The Mad Show. It’s one of my favorites.
Linda Lavin: The Mad Show was in the winter of 1965, and at that time our country was imbued with Brazilian music because of (the song) “The Girl from Ipanema” (which was) a platinum million seller. I was in rehearsal for The Mad Show, which was just supposed to be a Christmas entertainment of a few weeks and it turned out to be a huge hit. It was playing in a tiny little theater in New York City above a very famous nightclub called Arthur. Dick Libertini, Jo Anne Worley, Paul Sand and I, were a small company of performers doing all this satirical material from Mad Magazine. The writers were from the magazine. One day, Mary Rodgers, who was the composer, with Marshall Barer, of most of the songs, came in with a song, a piece of sheet music, and she handed it to me. She said, “This is going to be your song. I wrote it with Steve.” Steve being Stephen Sondheim. I looked at it and it was a satire of “The Girl from Ipanema” called “The Boy from…” That’s the story! It gave me a chance to satirize Astrud Gilberto and the Bossa Nova music we were all falling in love with. It’s a piece of its time. It’s about a girl who was hopelessly in love with a boy and she doesn’t understand why he’s not requiting her adoration for him. It plays very well in most of the clubs I play. It’s a lot of fun to do!
GS: For many people, especially those who didn’t get to New York to see Broadway shows, the sitcom Alice became the vehicle by which you became a household name and familiar face. Alice was based on the Martin Scorcese movie Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Were you a fan of the movie before taking on the role in the series?
LL: I loved the movie! Absolutely! It was a unique movie whose time had come to tell the story about single mothers, working women. The right place for it (Alice) was to be on television, which as you know, is a place where the audience was huge. We had more than 40 million people a week watching us. So many women identified with the character, the person of Alice because they, in fact, were Alice. They were single mothers and working women. She represented 80% of the women who work in this country and she still does. Women who are still not getting equal pay for the equal quality of work they do. It was a huge success, not only because it was in a great time slot, but because it was something that everybody in America, families and working people, identified with the characters and the situation. It was a very powerful experience for me, for all of us. To have a nine-year hit in television is very rare and I was very grateful for it. It changed my life in many ways.
GS: What can you tell me about the experience of working with Billy Stritch on your new album Love Notes?
LL: Billy and I have worked together on my club act for about 15 years. He’s a consummate, extraordinary musician with amazing chops. He understands me and he has a great knowledge of the American songbook. He’s a great pianist and singer and a wonderful collaborator. We have a lot of fun together. He produced this album and we created this album together from the club act I’ve done with him. These songs are songs that I love, American songbook songs. We do a Jobim, “No More Blues”. We do a tribute to Bobby Short. We do Rodgers and Hart, we do Cole Porter. It’s a fun album and so much fun to listen to. It’s emotional, tender, loving and sophisticated. The lyrics, the storytelling in it; I’m very thrilled with the quality of this album. The president of Club 44 Records came to me and said he wanted to sign me to a deal and asked me to do an album. There’s nothing I love better than going into a studio and recording.
GS: You included a pair of tunes from the late 1970s, Steely Dan’s “Black Cow” and the Eagles’ “I Can’t Tell You Why”. Why did you want to include those songs alongside tunes by Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Duke Ellington and Cy Coleman?
LL: Well, thank you for that! I’ve been singing Donald Fagen’s songs for several years. I recorded “Walk Between the Raindrops” on my earlier album. The material I choose is the book that I refuse to write. These songs are about me, my history, the songs I love, the songs that moved me to tell my story. They make me feel like they’re a personal story of mine, written by somebody else. “Black Cow” has to do with a particular part of my life and it’s so much fun to sing. The Eagles’ songs I’ve loved ever since I moved to California in the mid-1970s to do Alice. I love “I Can’t Tell You Why”. I often think of songs that belong together even though they weren’t written by the same people; songs, sometimes, as conversation. They tell the story of a relationship, of a love story. The album is, after all, called Love Notes, about the varying degrees of love and relationships and the difficulty of communication. It’s the most creative I know how to be without writing. I use what other people have written to explain how I feel or what I’ve been through or what I hope for.
GS: You perform a cover of “You Must Believe in Spring”, a song co-written by Michel Legrand. I recently interviewed Melissa Errico who had a special working relationship with Legrand. Did you ever have a chance to meet him yourself?
LL: No, but I met Marilyn and Alan Bergman who wrote the lyrics to that song. They wrote the theme song to Alice (“New Girl in Town”), that’s how I met them. They’ve been a big part of my life.
GS: Portland, Maine, where you were born, is also the birthplace of fellow Tony Award-winning actress Andrea Martin. Do you think there might be something in the water in Portland to have produced such talented performers?
LL: [Laughs] that’s very sweet of you! I know she’s enormously talented. I’m very fond of Andrea. We often bump into each other. We actually lived in the same hotel in Los Angeles last year. The water’s very good in Maine, I’ll tell you that! We were always very proud of the fact that we could drink the water right out of the tap. I grew up in Portland, Maine, the daughter of a mother who had enormous talent as an opera singer. She had a brief but dazzling career in New York in the opera world. My mother, who was first generation, was born in Portland. She married my father who came from Maine by way of Massachusetts. Portland has for sure given birth to a few talented actors and musicians along the way.
GS: Finally, I write for several LGBTQ publications and I wanted to ask you to say something about what the gay people in your life mean to you; from working with Billy on the new album to the work you did with gay playwrights Charles Busch, Nicky Silver and Jon Robin Baitz to co-starring with Sean Hayes in his sitcom Sean Saves The World.
LL: I’m not sure I can isolate what gay people mean to me any more than what Jews or Blacks or Irish or women or men or tall or short people mean to me. We are a community of creative people. What people mean to me is if they are fun to work with and kind and talented and generous. I’ve lived through a lot of changes. The women’s movement, gay rights activism. I’ve lived in a time where the social and political scene has been challenged by the strictures and the possibilities of what this country can do for its people. My main focus, because of Alice, has been on equal rights and equal rights for women. The communities that have joined with me in that struggle have given me great hope for the future.
Gregg Shapiro is the author of Fifty Degrees (Seven Kitchens, 2016), selected by Ching-In Chen as co-winner of the Robin Becker Chapbook Prize. Other books by Shapiro include the short story collections How to Whistle (Lethe Press, 2016) and Lincoln Avenue (Squares and Rebels Press, 2014), the chapbook GREGG SHAPIRO: 77 (Souvenir Spoon Press, 2012), and the poetry collection Protection (Gival Press, 2008).
He has work forthcoming in the anthology Reading Queer: Poetry in a Time of Chaos (Anhinga Press, 2018). An entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBT and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.
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