Lea DeLaria Swings as the Last Butch Standing

Publication date: 
March 15, 2011
Author: 
Robert Nesti

"To fuc*ing hell with you," snarls Lea DeLaria at the bound Gavin Creel in Prometheus Bound, the rock musical after Aeschylus being presented by the American Repertory Theatre at Oberon in Cambridge, MA. In the show DeLaria plays Force, one of the Gods sent by Zeus to oversee the punishment being given Prometheus, and she does so with such savage relish that you realize you really don’t want to get on her bad side.

Dressed in black with her hair short and greased up high (like Bart Simpson), DeLaria is a Greek God by way of some downtown Manhattan leather bar. You could easily imagine her being a bartender in such a dive, or the bouncer. DeLaria can look intimidating and she certainly speaks her mind, which, she admits, has gotten her in trouble in the past.

DeLaria has long had a habit of being the most galvanizing presence on a stage, be it playing Matron ’Mamma’ Morton in Chicago, Hildy in On the Town (by far the most notorious snub in Tony Award history) and the dual roles of Eddie and Dr. Scott in the recent revival of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (fooling many in the audience with her drag-king persona). In short, few can stop a show like DeLaria.

She is best-known, though, as a LGBT icon - a stand-up comic who was out long before it was fashionable. She was the first out comic to appear on late night television (on the Arsenio Hall Show in 1992). Since then she has played venues from Ptown to San Francisco, appeared on numerous television shows (Will and Grace, Friends) and films (The First Wives Club, Edge of Seventeen).

If this was another decade - say the 1960s - it would easy to imagine DeLaria concentrating on another aspect of her prodigious talent - her jazz singing. Imagine turning on the Ed Sullivan show and seeing DeLaria sing scat with Ella Fitzgerald or harmonize with Sarah Vaughan. She is that good.

When she appeared in a club in New York City in 2008, Charles Isherwood of the New York Times wrote: "There is sophisticated jazz method in Ms. DeLaria’s raucous bluster. She swings hard, and scats and bends notes in a style that suggests a no-frills Betty Carter on steroids. Two other forerunners are Frances Faye and Carmen McRae, who both also resisted appealing to the tender emotions. Because Ms. DeLaria takes such obvious delight in disturbing the peace, you might describe her sound as a joyful noise."

In the past decade she has released five CDs that showcase her enormous vocal prowess and eclectic choice of materials. Her first - Play It Cool - focused on songs from Broadway (including such unusual choices as "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd"); her next - Double Standards - offered jazz interpretations of rock and pop songs by artists she admired, including Green Day, Blondie, The Doors and Patti Smith. Most recently she released a Christmas album, the first such original album of holiday songs released by a major record label in decades.

You can also catch DeLaria this Sunday, March 13, when she takes over the Oberon stage for her solo show The Last Butch Standing, her comedic look at what it is like to be a bad ass dyke daddy in the post Ellen 21st century.

EDGE caught up with DeLaria recently where she talked about jazz, theater and what she would do if she were alone with Anne Coulter.

Learned jazz as a child

EDGE: What will you be singing Sunday night?

Lea DeLaria: Music from my 3 Warner Jazz albums as well as some standards and an original

EDGE: To paraphrase a song you did in On The Town: You can sing too. But some people are still surprised that you can. What do you say to them?

Lea DeLaria: I always try to be polite. The people who have no idea that I sing are usually people I offended early in my comedy career... and let’s face it that is a lot of people. My true fans and those who are involved in the cultural environment around them all know that I sing.

EDGE: How did you get into jazz?

Lea DeLaria: My father was a jazz pianist and sideman. He taught me the music as a child. In fact, I used to sing with him as a young girl, you know as sort of a novelty, ’Here’s my 8 year old daughter singing ’Summertime’’. Once I hit puberty my mom stood spread eagle blocking the front door. ’You are not taking my daughter into that nightclub with all those men’... of course now she probably wishes she had let me go.

EDGE: When I go to see jazz and cabaret artists, the audience looks like they’ve been bused in from an assisted living home. Why aren’t younger audiences into jazz?

Lea DeLaria: I know! Right?!? When I was the featured vocalist for the 50th Anniversary Newport Jazz Festival, I would refer to our audiences as Cocoon 3... but to answer the question, I believe that Jazz predicament, that it is dying with its audience, is in some ways self inflicted. Most major Jazz artist refuse to venture outside of the excepted curriculum. How many times can you listen to a reinvention of ’Softly As In A Morning Sunrise’?

Jazz radio plays more Dixieland tracks then it does a Brad Meldau covers of Radiohead. However there are a few of us out there who are trying. My second record Double Standards rose to #6 on the Billboard Jazz Chart. My versions of Blondie’s ’Call Me’ and Neil Young’s ’Philadelphia’ get consistent spin on most jazz radio as well as my swing version of ’The Ballad Of Sweeney Todd’. You also have to love that Esperanza Spaulding won the best new artist Grammy. My next record, which I am recording in May with a stellar group of musicians, is House Of David Jazz covers of David Bowie tunes. I feel this will appeal to many generations of music lovers.

EDGE: You are the first jazz/pop/cabaret singer I’ve ever seen do ’The Ballad of Sweeney Todd’. It’s genius on your CD. But what made you think of it as a jazz song?

Lea DeLaria: I actually tell this story in The Last Butch Standing. So if you really want to know come to the show on Sunday

EDGE: The same is true of Green Day’s ’Long View’ - what made you think of that as a jazz song?

Lea DeLaria: I love the tune. First we came up with the concept of the album. Jazz versions of college rock standards. Then we picked the standards. I already had been performing ’Dancing Barefoot’ and ’Tatood Love Boyz ’as a part of my regular set so we knew we were using them. The Producer, Matt Peirson and I then set about picking other songs. Both Matt and I love that music so we had a BUNCH of songs selected. We kept weeding out ones and then adding more.

Finally we narrowed it down to the 11 tunes on the record. I LOVE Green Day. What I really like is the fight on YouTube, re: my version of the song. Every now and then I go on to see if it is still raging. My favorite is the 13-year old kid who wrote "That old lady ruined this song." Hilarious

EDGE: Your first CD was all show tunes, your second was pop and rock - is it safe to say that like to mix things up?

Lea DeLaria: Not just show tunes MODERN show tunes. Tunes you rarely hear done differently then the way they are presented in the musicals where they originate. That was what we wanted. Anybody can sing ’All That Jazz’, but how many think of doing it as a boogaloo. Who would ever give a Latin rhythm to Gwen Stefani’s ’I’m Just A Girl’? That is what I find interesting and why I like Jazz. In Jazz you personalize the music to suit yourself.

Making songs swing

EDGE: Can you make any song swing?

Lea DeLaria: Yes. You should see my Jazz kids show, Boom Boom’s Bow, we do variations on a theme, the theme being ’Old MacDonald Had a Farm’. Not only do we make it swing we make it swing in Funk, Be Bop, Rhythm And Blues even Reggae.

EDGE: What singers do you admire?

Lea DeLaria: Wow... live or dead? Let’s go live first... Jon Hendricks. Annie Ross. Kurt Elling. Diane Reeves. Cassandra Wilson. Ian Shaw. Claire Martin. Mose Allison. Norma Winstone. Bernadette Peters. Betty Buckley. Donna Murphy. Alice Ripley. Mary Testa. Liza Minnelli. Brian Stokes Mitchell. Now dead... Betty Carter. Ella Fitzgerald. Mel Torme. Abbey Lincoln. Joe Williams. Sarah Vaughan. Nina Simone. Shirley Horn. Dinah Washington. Lou Rawls... this could go on forever so I’m gonna stop here.

EDGE: You’ve done quite a bit of television, yet never a series - how come?

Lea DeLaria: I am on One Life To Live. Does that count?

EDGE: You don’t shy away from anything, including politics. Has President Obama done enough in terms of his commitment to LGBT causes?

Lea DeLaria: In a word, No

EDGE: What would you do if you were locked in a room with Anne Coulter?

Lea DeLaria: That depends... is there any Crisco in the room?

With Glenn Beck?

EDGE: I’d have a long conversation with Mr. Beck about how much I enjoyed screwing his wife.

EDGE: With Donald Trump?

Lea DeLaria: Mr. Trump, could you spare $250,000.00 I have a terrific movie I’d like to make.

EDGE: You’re a singer, actress and political activist - does Prometheus allow you to combine these different aspects of your talent and personality?

Lea DeLaria: In a word, Yes

EDGE: You’ve done Bernstein and Beckett, Paul Rudnick, Rocky Horror and now Aeschylus -is there a theater artist whose work you admire that you would like to work with?

Lea DeLaria: You forgot Shakespeare, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Rodgers and Hart, Kander and Ebb, Michael John La Chuisa and now Steven Sater... I mention them because I adore them all. There are many. I would love to work with but fear I will never be given the chance. This Business of Show is difficult and it only becomes more so as corporation completely take over the theater world. That is what is so special about working with these genius types, Sater, Paulus, Serj Tankian. They are here to create art first, if the money comes as well then great. Having said that... I would fist Anne Coulter to do a Bill Finn, Tony Kushner or Edward Albee play.

EDGE: Or a role you would love to play?

Lea DeLaria: I have always wanted to play the gravedigger in Hamlet, the lead in Rhinoceros, First Player in Pippin and of course the obvious " Sing out Louise!" But I am always hoping for that musical which was written just for me.

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