Leslie Uggams (photo by Joseph Moran).
Yes, it’s June. And, as for most Broadway aficionados, it’s all about singer and actress Leslie Uggams’ battle with Oscar Hammerstein II’s lyrics to a song from Carousel on a certain Fourth of July. This video (which you can see below) has provided countless hours of entertainment over the years. For those unaware, this wonderful and indefatigable performer experienced an actor’s nightmare LIVE on national television while singing her heart out while not knowing the words to “June is Bustin’ Out All Over.” Once you’ve seen it, you can’t forget it. And it truly gives new meaning to the words “amazing grace.”
Her rendition of the song, which aired live on PBS, was performed at a Fourth of July concert outdoors in Washington, D.C on the Capitol lawn. Those who saw it in its one-and-only broadcast would most probably have forgotten it if not for the help of a rewind button. Recorded and preserved on the now antiquated VHS tape system, it got resuscitated about a decade later when a little thing called the internet came along. What Ms. Uggams might have once figured long dead was suddenly not. As you will see in this particular send up, if you stick past the initial go-round, someone had an awfully good time making it even more hilarious by way of clever subtitles and editing (the culprit’s name is Matt Macis).
As Joe Biden says, “here’s the deal.” 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 she has no grasp on the lyrics, she keeps going full-throttle as if without a care in the world. She was in front of hundreds, maybe thousands, of people outdoors, as well as live on national television with millions watching at home. A little stressful, to be sure.
But, as always, there’s a story on what went wrong that July 4th. It was told by Uggams herself to Sirius Satellite Radio host Seth Rudetsky on a 2012 episode of Seth’s Broadway Chatterbox. You can watch it, or read the highlights transcribed below:
“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.”
Has she ever lived this incident down? Not really. But it would take a lot to get Leslie Uggams down. She has been acting since she was a child and, at the age of eight, appeared on television in Beulah, one of the very first shows to star an African-American actress (two actually: Ethel Waters and Louise Beavers each played the title role). Uggams 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. In August Wilson’s King Hedley II, Uggams landed a Tony nomination for Leading Actress in a Play in 2001.
As a singer, she started as young as six, playing at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre and on television on many musical variety programs of the day when they were all the rage. As a regular on the popular Sing Along with Mitch, she became a household name while still a teenager. She is still working after more than six decades on stage and screen and was scheduled to appear (once again at the Apollo) in a new musical in May 2020 just before the pandemic shut everything down. If we’re lucky, the show titled Blue (and Uggams) will be back.
Leslie Uggams as seen in Harlem World Magazine.
As for her famous flub, Uggams has always been a good sport about it. When the most recent Broadway revival of Carousel came round in 2018, Uggams went backstage to visit with Rene Fleming who sang “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” and they duetted in her dressing room:
What makes the 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 onto some sort of victory, such as Leslie Uggams uttering a line as memorable as “all the little wheels that wheel beside a bill.”
And, if you need more Uggams (and are in a charitable mood), tune in tonight at 8:00 p.m. (EST) for Stars in the House to support The Actors Fund and its services where she will (once again) surely share this story of strength, perseverance and, above all else, laughter.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Follow me here and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.