Theatre yesterday and today



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Yes, it's July. And even if Rodgers and Hammerstein's rousing song from Carousel is titled "June is Busting Out All Over," I will forever associate it with the Fourth of July. This is because of the wonderful (and indefatigable) Leslie Uggams.

Her rendition of the song, which aired live on PBS in the late 1980s, was performed at a Fourth of July concert outdoors in Washington, D.C.—the Washington monument prominent as a backdrop. Those who saw it in its one-and-only broadcast would have long forgotten it, except for those who recorded and preserved it on what are now antiquated VHS tapes. Then, when in the late 1990s, a little thing came along called the internet, what Ms. Uggams surely hoped long dead was resuscitated. Cut and paste the link below for your viewing pleasure. Stick past the initial go-round of the first verse and you'll find a repeat with added subtitles, which I have to admit, makes it even more hilarious.

Now let me say that if this performance proves anything it's that 1) Leslie Uggams has an amazing voice and 2) that she is a consummate professional. In spite of the fact the lyrics have gone completely out of her head, she keeps going full-throttle as if without a care in the world. I can relate, as I've had lyrics go out of my head in front of a theatre filled with hundreds of people, but she was performing outdoors, in front of thousands, as well as live on national television with millions watching at home. A little bit more stressful.

Did she ever live this incident down? Not really. But it would take a lot to get Leslie Uggams down. She has been acting since the age of eight, when she first appeared on television in Beulah, one of the very first shows to star an African-American actress (two actually: Ethel Waters and Louise Beavers). She won a Tony Award for her Broadway debut in Hallelujah, Baby! and received Emmy nominations for her roles in two groundbreaking mini-series for African-American actors, Roots and Backstairs at the White House.

The story of just what went wrong that July 4th, was told by Uggams to radio host and all-round man of the theatre, Seth Rudetsky:

"What happened was they asked me to sing that song, but it was not in my repertoire ... You always have cue cards for stuff you're going to do. Well, it poured like crazy the night before. Then it poured that morning and so the grass was as wet as can be. They started the music and all of a sudden the cue card man just slipped and fell into the grass and he was gone! ... He and the cue cards—splat! Then and there I knew my you-know-what was in deep you-know-what."

"After all that, I walked offstage and nobody said a word. I didn't say anything and the producers didn't say anything. My husband didn't say anything ... and that was it. Now I thought no big deal, but then a couple of years later, a friend of mine says, 'Honey, did you know that you are in every gay bar in America?'"

Laughing, Rudetsky chimes in saying, "It's true."

I think what makes this seemingly excruciating display of an actor in distress so funny is that it's relatable. Even someone who's never sung in front of a crowd is familiar with a feeling of forgetting what it is they have to say due to nerves or distraction. Being tongue-tied is not exclusive to members of the acting profession. The adrenaline that kicks in does its part to propel the afflicted on to some sort of victory .. especially if it includes such a memorable line as "all the little wheels that wheel beside a bill."

What's an Uggams? It's a trouper. Rock on, Ms. Uggams.

If you would like to comment on any of these posts, please do so below. I look forward to hearing from you.