Anita Gillette Finds New Possibilities in Cabaret
Anita Gillette, as a young woman arriving in New York, decided to audition for a show to "get it out of her system" before getting married and settling down in Terre Haute, Indiana. When she was hired (and her husband got a job in New York instead), it led to a career that has had its ups and downs, but has never stopped.
Gillette has appeared in a dozen Broadway shows, many Off-Broadway shows, and countless regional productions and television shows, as well as feature films.
Still a very busy working actress, Gillette only recently turned her sights to the cabaret stage, where she won immediate acclaim, including a Bistro and MAC Award.
Gillette joined me at the Laurie Beechman Theatre to catch KT Sullivan and Jeff Harnar's hit show, "Another Hundred People," a Sondheim retrospective. Gillette stayed for an interview after the show.
EDGE: YouTube can be quite a treasure trove. When I was researching you online, I found a great clip of you singing 'Cabaret' from the Broadway production! Wow, you were fantastic!
Anita Gillette: I'm so glad someone put that up there. Now my grandchildren can enjoy it. One of the reasons I cut back on doing theater was because I wanted to create something lasting, something that would be recorded.
EDGE: You know, you and I do have a little in common. I went to Gordon College-
Anita Gillette: In Beverly, Massachusetts!
EDGE: That's right! And we would always go to the North Shore Music Theatre.
Anita Gillette: That's where I got my start! Where I got my Equity card!
EDGE: I know! Not long after that, you were hired for the Broadway production of 'Gypsy.' That's quite a way to start a New York career.
Anita Gillette: I was very lucky.
EDGE: What do you remember most about that experience?
Anita Gillette: Ethel Merman. I cut my teeth on that performance. Her professionalism, her attitude. She was so focused you didn't think she was focused, but she was!
She really was Rose, and I think that performance was different from anything else she ever did. I would watch her do 'Rose's Turn' every night from the wings. She was a mother to me in a lot of ways-she had two kids of her own who adored her also.
But she really took a shine to me. I became pregnant and Ethel stood up for me: 'The kid stays!' she told them. 'She can still do the cartwheels!'
It's all about connections. I met Jack Klugman in that show, and later I played his wife on 'Quincy.' And I met Jule Styne, of course. He told me he could see me playing either part, June or Louise. I understudied for Dainty June, but never went on.
Next, I was the understudy again, for Anna Maria Alberghetti in 'Carnival!.' She got sick, and David Merrick was furious with her. I played the part for a week while she was in the hospital, and Merrick invited a lot of press to my first performance. This was huge for me! His opening night telegram to me said, 'Don't you dare make a fool of me tonight.' He later told me I was better than she was. Jule Styne sent me a telegram that said, 'Don't get knocked up again!'
EDGE: How has the business changed over the decades?
Anita Gillette: It wasn't as crowded back then. There were a handful of girls who fit the ingénue parts.
It's also not as romantic now. Back then, the creativity came from the chorus, and Gower Champion told us we were characters. These days, it's very mechanical. You have tracks and have to hit your mark at a particular spot and time. It's always been about the business, but even more so now. And where are the melodies? [Laughs.] God, I sound like an old-timer. But it's true!
EDGE: I wanted to ask you about working with Neil Simon. You've done a few of his shows, including 'Chapter Two,' for which you were nominated for a Tony. Was there a connection with Neil Simon before you were hired?
Anita Gillette: No connection to Neil, but I knew Manny Azenberg, who produced all of Neil Simon's plays on Broadway. At the time, I was in L.A., earning a living in television. I had two kids to support. Manny was going through a divorce and asked if he could stay at my little apartment in New York. I went back to New York to do a game show and give him the keys, and he said I should read for Jennie, the lead of 'Chapter Two.' This was a big deal, because I was known as a musical theater ingénue, and I would not normally have been seen for that role. I still have a letter from Neil Simon telling me how much he loved working with me, and applauding my courage for going into that audition in front of all those people. That was the biggest thing for me.
EDGE: I was reading some online comments from fans that think you were robbed, and should have won the Tony over Jessica Tandy in 'The Gin Game.'
Anita Gillette: [Laughs.] I think so too! But you can't compete with that. I checked out the competition, and I was not crazy about that play!
EDGE: Actually, for those of us growing up in small towns in the '70s, we knew you as a celebrity on the game shows.
Anita Gillette: I never turned down a job. Even back then, I knew that work supported me and my kids, and that it would build a good pension. And today, that pension allows me the freedom to do cabaret shows, which are very expensive!
EDGE: As I was looking over your credits, I was amazed at how much television you've done. Recently, 'Modern Family' and '30 Rock,' and many more shows going way back. Sadly, a lot of original series that didn't last.
Anita Gillette: [Laughs.] 'Me and the Chimp?'
EDGE: Yes! Do you ever get upset when something is cancelled or doesn't pan out, or do you just consider that part of the game?
Anita Gillette: I always get upset! I mean,'Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.' Great show. When Norman Lear's show, 'All That Glitters,' got cancelled, we all cried. What a cast! Gary Sandy and Eileen Brennan, and Linda Gray in her first television role. But America wasn't ready for that, a female God, and women coming onto the men.
EDGE: You alluded to that transition from musical theater to straight acting. Was that difficult?
Anita Gillette: Yes. Nobody would let me act, and there was a straight actor within me begging to break free. I saw the writing on the wall. Voices only last so long, but I could act forever, if given the chance. I wanted to do something in New York, but on a smaller scale, but with a great reputation like The Public. I begged Joe Papp to let me audition for something. He suggested I audition for John Guare's new play, 'Rich and Famous.'
I got the part. It was three of us playing eleven roles. I got a great review from the New York Times, and that turned the corner for me. 'Chapter Two' was about a year after that.
EDGE: You look incredible and you are so energetic. How do you stay in shape?
Anita Gillette: I love all the things that are bad for you -- bad foods, drinking. Basically, when I'm working on a show, I cut back on the French fries and the champagne. I walk everywhere, and I run up and down the subway steps! Now, I have to start thinking about my diet again, because I was just cast in a stage version of 'A Confederacy of Dunces,' which has its first rehearsal on October 13th. I'm playing Mrs. Riley!
EDGE: Fantastic! Of course, you have your cabaret show coming up at Birdland on the 28th. You only started doing cabaret a few years ago. Were you surprised how quickly audiences and critics embraced you?
Anita Gillette: I was. Penny Fuller told me I needed to meet Barry Kleinbort, who directed my first cabaret show. I thought the whole idea of getting up and talking about myself and singing songs would be boring.
EDGE: But you recognized right away that it's a storytelling medium.
Anita Gillette: That's true. But Barry got me thinking about what I wanted to say and what I wanted to sing about. I told him I would only do it if I could be funny. So it ended up being a combination of silly jokes and stories, with songs too. And Paul Greenwood became my musical director. He is an incredible musician and arranger, and like my second skin.
EDGE: How has cabaret work shifted your thinking about your career?
Anita Gillette: There is such an enormous freedom in doing it, as long as I know the audience is having a good time. You can take a song and make it your own. There is such immediacy to it, the audience is right there.
Let's face it, we performers all have an addiction, so this fills that void -- especially if you're not working on something else. I didn't want to do a lot of theater any more, so this is a nice fit.
[Gesturing] This was wonderful, but nothing like what I do. It has me thinking about what it would be like to do an entire show of just songs. But Barry says I'm a raconteur!
Of course, we'll have to see what happens with 'Confederacy of Dunces.' I've already had to cancel my show with Penny in October because of it.
EDGE: As I was thinking about all of your credits, I thought, 'Forget about Kevin Bacon. We should play 'The Six Degrees of Anita Gillette.' You've worked with everybody! Tina Fey, Jennifer Lopez, Jennifer Aniston, Richard Gere, Patty Duke, Cher, Bill Murray. All the way back to David Merrick and Ed Sullivan and Irving Berlin.
Audiences love your stories about working with certain people. Can we expect more of those stories in the new show?
Anita Gillette: Yes. Burt Lancaster. Bill Murray. And more on Irving Berlin. And some stories about myself and growing up in Baltimore.
EDGE: When you are out of the spotlight, what would people be surprised to know about Anita Gillette?
Anita Gillette: I scrub my own floors. I do my own secretarial work. I call up Time-Warner and scream at them at all hours of the day. And I have two sons, one in Massachusetts and one in Montana. And four grandchildren. They are all doing so well.
EDGE: That's wonderful.
Anita Gillette: My grandchildren's generation is so fascinating. I've done a lot of benefits for LGBT, but nowadays the young people don't even want to identify as gender! They're having problems with the Romance languages, because they don't want to use gender pronouns!
EDGE: It reminds me of what Darwin said, though. Those who survive, learn to adapt to change. I think you are definitely a survivor, Anita.
Anita Gillette: Yes, I would have to agree with that!
Anita Gillette appears at Birdland, 315 W. 44th Street, on Monday, September 28th, at 7:00 pm showtime; dinner available before the show. Go to www.birdlandjazz.com for more information, and to make reservations.