Leslie Uggams recalls growing up in a home where Lena Horne was “like a goddess.” “It was Lena, Lena, Lena, Lena,” the Tony and Emmy Award–winning singer and actress said not long ago. “Anytime she was in a musical, I went to the theater to see Lena Horne. When she was in a movie, I was there. To this day, I watch Lena’s movies whenever American Movie Classics runs them.”
Naturally, Uggams’ childhood idol was deeply imprinted on her artistic memory when she signed on to portray Horne in “Stormy Weather,” the new musical chronicling the life of the iconic entertainer, which runs through March 1 at the Pasadena Playhouse. And yet that was only the beginning of her transformation for the role. “I read every book [about Horne] that was out there,” she says. “I studied what made her who she is. And, then, through what I learned, I strive to capture the essence of Lena.
“Of course, no one can be Lena,” she adds with a smile. “I’m not Tina Fey.”
Horne crafted a career from popularizing great American standards by Cole Porter, Harold Arlen & Johnny Mercer and Rodgers & Hart; in the show, Uggams feasts on such classics as “The Lady is a Tramp,” “They’ll Be Some Changes Made,” “From This Moment On,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man O’ Mine,” “That Old Feeling,” “Come Rain or Come Shine” and, of course, “Stormy Weather.” Uggams’ performance in the world premiere production in Philadelphia a year ago had critics singing her praises. “Uggams gives us the flashing smile, the widening eyes and the sensational phrasing of Horne’s legendary delivery,” Toby Zinman wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
It was Horne’s charismatic stage presence that inspired playwright Sharleen Cooper Cohen to write “Stormy Weather” after catching a PBS documentary on the chanteuse in 1995. The show, which has its West Coast premiere in Pasadena, traces the singer from her history-making career at MGM, her disenchantment with Hollywood and subsequent comeback and her experiences with interracial marriage and the blacklist.
“We see Lena reliving moments of her life, coming to terms with its mistakes and successes and realizing what she has to do to move on,” says Cohen, who has not met Horne, now a recluse in New York City, although she did receive a nod from Horne’s daughter, journalist Gail Lumet Buckley. “It’s the story of a survivor who found the strength, during a very difficult time in her life, to go on and have her hugest success ever.”
That success was her 1981 one-woman show on Broadway, “The Lady and Her Music,” which ran for 333 performances. Not only did Horne receive a special Tony award for the production, but at 91, she still holds the record for the longest-running solo performance in Broadway history. “Lena not only pulled herself up but, at 64 years old, sang better than she ever had before,” Uggams says. “You’re going, ‘Oh my God, Lena’s singing her behind off.’ This is amazing.”
Uggams, 65, won the role in 2004, after Wendy Franklin, Barbara McNair and Phylicia Rashad tackled it in readings while the musical was being developed. She participated in a workshop and two readings at the Manhattan Theatre Club and went on to the world premiere at Philadelphia’s Prince Music Theater last February. “It was then we knew we had found the one woman who could fulfill this role,” Cohen says.
When the show snagged Uggams (who last appeared in Pasadena in “Blue” in 2002), that sealed the deal for the Pasadena Playhouse. (The production, directed by Michael Bush, also features Nikki Crawford and Dee Hoty.) “One of my early concerns about the project was that it would be difficult to find someone who could embody the musical power, beauty, emotional complexities and theatricality of Miss Horne,” says Sheldon Epps, the playhouse’s artistic director. “That concern was erased by the knowledge that Leslie would play the role.”
And has Horne herself seen “Stormy Weather”? Uggams is asked the question after a recent rehearsal at Screenland Studios in North Hollywood. The singer takes a sip of tea, then laughs deeply. “According to Sharleen, when she first put the musical together many years ago, she sent a message inviting Lena to come see it. The message she got back was: I lived it.”
When Horne signed with MGM in 1942, she became the first African American performer to sign a long-term contract with a major Hollywood studio, but it never cast her in a leading role. She was relegated to scenes that could be edited out, to accommodate the studio’s fears that Southern audiences would not accept blacks playing non-menial roles.
On loan to 20th Century Fox the next year, Horne starred in the all-black musical “Stormy Weather.” Both the film and title song, sung by Horne toward the end of the movie, became huge hits. Nevertheless, Horne grew disenchanted with Hollywood and left to perform primarily in nightclubs and on television, including her own special in 1969. “Finally, I wouldn’t work for places that kept us out,” she told Brian Lanker in “I Dream A World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America” (Stewart Tabori & Chang; 1989). “It was a damn fight everywhere I was, every place I worked, in New York, in Hollywood, all over the world.”
The singer also grappled with prejudice in her personal life, blacklisted because of her association with actor and outspoken leftist Paul Robeson. She also kept her marriage to her second husband, MGM conductor and arranger Lennie Hayton, a secret for three years because Hayton was white. “We look at people and we go, ‘Oh God, they’re so fabulous, what a life they must have,’” says Uggams, who has encountered Horne “lots of times,” including at the jazz singer’s 80th birthday celebration at Lincoln Center. “But we don’t really know what’s going on in their lives. One of the things I hope audiences gain from ‘Stormy Weather’ is to learn to love yourself and really know who you are.”
From an early age, Uggams knew the “the-a-ter,” as she will sometimes deliberately, over-elegantly pronounce it, was where she belonged. In 1967, fresh from rave reviews in a Berkeley, California, production of “The Boyfriend,” Uggams was cast in the lead of “Hallelujah, Baby!,” the Broadway musical that made her a star. Ironically, Jule Styne wrote it for Lena Horne.
“Hello? What’s that about six degrees of separation?” says Uggams. She was asked to audition after Horne left the project and its producers decided to cast an unknown. The part earned Uggams a Tony for best leading actress in a musical. She went on to other leading roles on Broadway in “Blues in the Night,” “Jerry’s Girls,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “King Hedley II,” for which she received a Tony nomination.
Her most recent Broadway appearance was in 2005’s “On Golden Pond” opposite James Earl Jones, for which she had less than two weeks to prepare. That didn’t stop her from dazzling the critics. As Variety wrote, “Uggams is startling, learning the role in only seven days [she] was truly convincing with only three previews under her belt.”
She had plenty of professional cred to draw on. By age six, she was already appearing on television as the niece of vocalist Ethel Waters on Waters’ ABC show, “Beulah,” the first sitcom ever to star an African American. (While Horne made the song “Stormy Weather” famous, Waters first recorded it in 1933.)
Uggams’ later television credits included early appearances on such mainstays as “The Milton Berle Show” and “Sing Along With Mitch,” as well as guest appearances on variety shows and specials hosted by a veritable Who’s Who of mid-century entertainment, including Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Carol Burnett. In 1969, Uggams hosted a show of her own, “The Leslie Uggams Show.” Her appearance as Kizzy in the 1977 miniseries “Roots” earned her the Critics Choice Award for best supporting actress, as well as Emmy and Golden Globe nominations.
But, as Uggams learned, after appearing as Rose Keefer — a deadbeat mother who’d abandoned her children but now suddenly reappeared in their lives married to a hit man — in a 12-week run on ABC’s “All My Children” in 1996, there’s no business like the soap opera business. “I had such a good time doing that,” Uggams recalls. And soap opera fans are the best fans you could ever want. I never was so popular.”
So, if she had to make a choice, which would she pick — television or the stage? “I enjoy it all,” replies Uggams. “But straight plays come to me very interestingly. When I moved back to New York after living here in L.A. for a while, opportunities opened up for me to do dramatic roles that I could never get when I was living in Los Angeles. You’d think that after doing “Roots,” I’d be offered opportunities, but I wasn’t.”
Still, she’s the first to admit that she has had a great run: a successful career, a happy marriage to her Australian-born manager, Grahame Pratt, since 1965; and two children, Danielle and Justice Pratt, who have inherited their mother’s love of performing. But for Uggams, retirement is not an option. After all, she’s scarcely a year older than Horne was when she starred in one of her greatest triumphs, “The Lady and Her Music.”
And with “Stormy Weather,” Uggams has done well to follow Horne’s lead. “Leslie came of age during the 1960s, at the same time as Lena’s involvement with the civil rights movement,” says director Bush. “Lena led the way; Leslie followed. Watching Leslie play Lena, you witness the torch being passed.”
“Stormy Weather” runs through March 1 at the Pasadena Playhouse, located at 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tickets range from $63 to $73. A “Conversation with…Leslie Uggams” takes place on the playhouse patio Wed., Feb 11, from 6:30 to 8:30pm. Admission is $10. Call (626) 356-7529 or visit www.pasadenaplayhouse.org.