Dee Dee Bridgewater is a diva who won’t be dismissed. The one-time Tony Award and three-time Grammy Award winner’s long-awaited New York theater scene comeback was derailed last week with the recent announcement that her latest show, Lady Day, will shutter on January 5. But closing notices for glitzy musical theater productions isn’t new for the acclaimed showbiz vet, who starred as Glinda the Good Witch in the original production of The Wiz back in the early 1970s.
“Honey, we walked into the theater with a closing notice every week when we first opened. Every week!,” Bridgewater recalls about the all-Black musical that would end up running for years on Broadway after achieving a surprising box-office boon. “It was the word of mouth that got out, as well as the savvy of Ken Harper, the producer of that show, and him bringing in the Black people from outside of New York. We had buses and buses being lined up around the theater with folks from all over.”
This go round, there were no buses lining up around the corner of off-Broadway’s Little Shubert Theatre, where Lady Day has played since September. The free-flowing theater scene four decades ago is a far cry from today’s ultra-corporatized theatrical arts industry. Many factors can attribute the lifespan of a show—everything from business politics and marketing to accessible ticket prices and just sheer timing. But mostly it’s the gravitas of the media coverage of the city’s mainstream newspapers: The New York Times, The New York Post, New York’s Daily News.
“Basically, the three major papers is what killed us with the reviews, because when we were in tech rehearsals, we were selling out the theater,” Bridgewater reflects. “It wasn’t until those reviews happened. That was it. The fact we’ve managed to stay open as long as we’ve had is really due to the foresight and belief the producer had in this show, and his business savvy.”
Written and directed by Stephen Stahl, Lady Day was labeled a “play with music,” telling the relatively unknown story of singer Billie Holiday’s attempt at a final comeback during her final stop on a European tour. Bridgewater, who starred in the original production of the show in London in 1987, netted rave reviews and was even nominated for a prestigious Olivier Award for best actress in a musical. Playing the late jazz icon (who died at the age of 44 after a history of substance abuse and arrests) has taken a toll on the Memphis native, who’s become a legend in her own right.
“We ended because I couldn’t do it anymore,” she says about the show’s first run. “I had an ectopic pregnancy. It was all kinds of weird stuff. And then I just got depressed and I couldn’t do her anymore. I had done her for 13 months in France the year before. It was mental duress that Miss Billie will put you through. She has just worked me thoroughly.”
But through it all, Bridgewater feels it’s well worth it. “I always felt it was always so unjust that she became so stereotyped and stigmatized with her life long struggle with drugs and alcohol,” she says, “and that people didn’t see the whole woman. I’ve always said I just want people to go out with a fuller understanding of who Billie was, why she made the choices that she did, and how this music and this voice she was gifted with still inspire people to this day.
“I believe that we have been put on this earth for a reason,” Bridgewater continues. She’s long since racked up an impressive body of recorded music of her own, and is a renowned live showman. “I sincerely believe that I was put here to help to keep the tradition of the jazz vocalist alive and carry on that tradition. Because I have been blessed when I have done that, when I have honored my women. The two women I’ve honored so far has been Ella [Fitzgerald] and Billie, and they’ve walked me to the Grammy podium.”
A question about what diva she’ll honor next yields the deadpan reply: “I don’t know, child. [Pause.] I’m going to honor myself.” And then an exasperated remark: “Jesus Lord, can I get a break?”
Not quite. A script doctor is on order to help rejuvenate a new version of Lady Day with plans for a national tour in 2014.
“You know, this show ending early allows me to start preparing my next project, which is going to be a blues project,” Bridgewater reveals. “I’ve always loved the blues, and I did not sing the blues because my mother said to me, ‘Please do not ever sing that music.’ And I said, ‘Yes, mommy.’ But every time I sing the blues, I am happy.”
Karu F. Daniels’s work as an entertainment journalist has been featured in The Daily Beast, CNN.com, Playbill, Essence and Uptown. His website is www.karudaniels.com.