Linda Lavin :: She’s got possibilities

by Kevin Scott Hall

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday February 14, 2011

By all accounts, actress Linda Lavin is having a banner year. In January, she picked up a Theater Hall of Fame Award and simultaneously received tremendous reviews, along with her castmates Stockard Channing, Stacey Keach, and Elizabeth Marvel, for her work in Jon Robin Baitz's Other Desert Cities, playing off-Broadway at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. She is also scheduled to appear in a production of Follies at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC in the spring.

On one of her rare days off this month, Lavin will headline at Birdland on February 21 with an all-star lineup of musicians to promote her upcoming solo recording, Possibilities.

While most Americans still know Lavin best for her portrayal of the title character in the long-running CBS sitcom Alice (1976-85), she has long been a steady presence on the New York stage, before and after her television success.

Lavin first gained notice in 1966 in the hit off-Broadway revue, The MAD Show (which was based on the popular humor magazine). Later that same year had her Broadway debut in the Strouse/Adams musical satire It's a Bird . . . It's a Plane . . . It's Superman where she stopped the show nightly with "You've Got Possibilities," the only song from the score to achieve any life outside the show.

In 1970, Lavin earned her first Tony nomination in Neil Simon's Last of the Red Hot Lovers. In 1987, she made a triumphant return to Broadway in Simon's Broadway Bound, which brought her the Tony award. She has since been nominated three more times.

Although reluctant to talk about her current stage triumph, perhaps for fear of jinxing something, Lavin happily spoke with EDGE about her upcoming Birdland show and CD, and other aspects of her multifaceted career.

Life after Alice

EDGE: I've heard that the downside of having a long-running television show is that the actor becomes forever identified with that character, but you seem to have navigated a pretty diverse career since Alice. Are you pretty astonished at how your career has turned out or has it pretty much gone as you had hoped and planned?

Linda Lavin: I'm completely astonished with how my career and life have gone! Fantasies and dreams I had plenty of, but all I did was follow the work and learn to make choices. Some of them were better than others and as my life has evolved, so has my career. My work has been a major focus of my life, but my life has gotten better along with the work.

As for being identified with a character, I've been very lucky. After Alice, I returned immediately to the stage. I joined the company of ART in Cambridge, at Harvard, run by Robert Brustein, whom I had known at Yale Drama School when I was a guest artist there. I performed a summer with them, then got cast in Broadway Bound. The audiences accepted me as an actor who was playing Kate and who had once played Alice. The fact that I began my acting life in the theater and not in television has served me very well.

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Watch Linda Lavin perform excerpts from Songs & Confessions of a One-Time Waitress:

Possibilities - a mix of standards

EDGE: I think our readers might be interested to know that you debuted a song called "The Boy From . . ." in a revue called The MAD Show in 1966. It was a takeoff on 'The Girl from Ipanema' and had music by Mary Rodgers and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. (Sondheim wrote the song's lyrics under the pseudonym of Esteban Ria Nido, which is a literal Spanish translation (from German) of his name.) The parody was about a naive girl singing about a guy whom she doesn't realize is gay, and I understand it was kind of a cult hit that gave you a lot of attention at the time. What is your most vivid memory of that experience?

Linda Lavin: Brazilian jazz was all the rage in the '60s and 'The Girl from Ipanema' was a huge hit, made so by the singer Astrid Gilberto, a sincere, calm, pretty woman with very little affect when she performed-almost as if her shyness made it painful to perform in public, whether that was true or not. It was easy to parody her because her style was so unique, a requisite for imitation and, especially, satire. So it was great fun to play this innocent hipster and sing this song, so close but so different from the Jobim melody, about a girl's secret longing for someone who has absolutely no interest in her. Audiences at the time were, and still are, very responsive to it. It's just fun!

EDGE: You just released a new CD. Studio recording is quite different from live performing. What was that like for you?

Linda Lavin: Thrilling! Intimate. Connecting in a small space with great musicians, headed by the great Billy Stritch at the piano; John Brown, the bass player and producer of the CD; my husband, Steve Bakunas, on drums; Ray Codrington on trumpet and cornet and Baron Tymas on guitar.

EDGE: What can we expect at the Birdland show?

Linda Lavin: At Birdland, the great Bucky Pizzarelli will be playing guitar. The songs are a mix of standards - 'There's s Small Hotel,' 'It Might as Well Be Spring,' 'Corvocado (Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars)' . . . Aaron Weinstein, genius young jazz violinist, will be joining me for the Birdland concert. There'll be some surprises. The show is pop and jazz in feel. I will also be playing piano for a couple of ballads, and my favorite song since childhood, 'Long Ago and Far Away.'

EDGE: I was wondering if the CD's title -- Possibilities was a play on 'You've Got Possibilities,' a song you introduced in It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman?

Linda Lavin: Yes, it is directly linked. In fact, Hal Prince has written the liner notes for my CD because he put me on the Broadway map! The title also suggests a philosophy I have about the evolution of life - always being open to possibilities!

Life in North Carolina

EDGE: I think your career has had such integrity. What advice would you give young actresses coming up today?

Linda Lavin: I don't give advice, but rather try to share my experience with young people just starting out. What I did was make a decision to work at anything and everything as a young performer: off-Broadway, cabaret, industrial shows. I auditioned for every possible job, worked at office temp jobs to make ends meet and went to chorus auditions. I looked for agents but needed a job to get an agent, so looked for jobs in theater and television in my early days in New York. I believe that work brings work and so it's necessary to get out there and get experience doing the work and expanding your skills.

EDGE: You seem like the quintessential New Yorker. Tell us a little about your decision to move to North Carolina and what your life is like there.

Linda Lavin: I moved to North Carolina after many years in L.A. and New York because the state is very beautiful, the people are very welcoming, and the particular community I chose (Wilmington) has a lot of theater, a lively arts colony, and an active film studio where features and television shows are filmed. It was an opportunity for me to teach and direct, and I just did that. I ultimately started a theater with my husband, Steve Bakunas, a man I met in that town five years after moving there. The theatre is called Red Barn Studio (click here to visit its website).

We have a 50-seat community theater and are in our fourth year of production. We rescued a neighborhood and founded a theater in the center of it! A building that had been an automotive garage. We've done eleven productions and next we'll be doing God of Carnage.

EDGE: Wow. Your theater and music careers are both popping right now!

Linda Lavin: It's a very busy time, but I appreciate the crunch. Birdland is going to be a great show-wonderful tunes and lyrics, jazz and show tunes. It swings!

EDGE: I can't wait to see you there!

Linda Lavin appears at Birdland on Monday, February 21, 2011 at 7:00 pm. Go to for details.

Watch Linda Lavin perform "Some People" from the 1989 revival of Gypsy:

Kevin Scott Hall is the author of Off the Charts! (2010, iUniverse) and the memoir, A Quarter Inch from My Heart (2014, Wisdom Moon).