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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 30, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 52
Shelly Burch
The true nine!
Arts & Entertainment
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Shelly Burch
The true nine!

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN A&E Writer

Real to Reel: From Stage to Screen (and Back Again)
January 28-29
Moore Theatre


Shelly Burch is the kind of triple threat we admire: she's talented, beautiful, and graciously friendly. She's appeared in the movies (Cat's Eye), on daytime drama television for over eight years (One Life to Live), and won a Drama Desk Award nomination for her stage portrayal in the original Tony Award-winning musical Nine. Seattle audiences will recognize her local work from performing at the Moore Theatre with Showtunes Theatre Company, and will be able to again with the upcoming presentation Real to Reel.

Shelly Burch went directly from her schooling at Carnegie-Mellon to her first role on Broadway. It was as the character Star-to-Be in the original run of the hit musical Annie that she first met the man who would eventually be her husband: lyricist and director Martin Charnin.

Eric Andrews-Katz: Who was your inspiration for getting into theater?

Shelly Burch: My dad always played Barbra Streisand's Funny Girl and Carol Channing's Hello, Dolly! We listened to a lot of Rodgers & Hammerstein. I also grew up listening to jazz and Doris Day. But the major influence was Barbra. I started doing theater at age 14 - The Pajama Game at a boy's military school in D.C. After that, there was no turning back.

Andrews-Katz: You were in the Broadway revival of Stop the World, I Want to Get Off, the now-legendary production with Sammy Davis, Jr. What was your first impression of him?

Burch: I listened to him, Sinatra, and Dean Martin when growing up, so it was an unbelievable honor not only to be cast in the show he was starring in, but also to work with him! Sammy was probably the most talented person I saw up close. For over six months I would watch him, from the wings, at the end of the first act. Anthony [Newley] and Leslie [Bricusse] wrote a new song for him, 'Life is a Woman,' and I would watch him perform that and 'What Kind of Fool am I?' religiously. It was from him that I learned how to give every ounce of yourself when onstage.

Andrews-Katz: What was your audition like when you auditioned for Tommy Tune's musical Nine?

Burch: I remember like it was yesterday! I had been in Annie for over two years, and had been doing a nightclub act, a commercial, and little guest spots here and there. My agent called me and said Tommy was doing another show and that to audition I needed not only something standard, but also something in Italian. I was 23 years old and had on this great silk pantsuit. I sang 'Pace Pace Mio Dio' from Verdi's La Forza del Destino. Since CATS had just opened in England but hadn't gotten to America yet, I sang the song 'Memory,' since it was still new. I was in awe of the company in the room: Tommy Tune (director), Maury Yeston (music and lyrics), and Michel Stuart (producer). I left thinking 'I didn't get it,' and went on at Annie that night feeling depressed. The next day my agent called and I couldn't believe it. I gave Martin Charnin [director/lyricist of Annie] my two-week notice.

Andrews-Katz: You created the role of Claudia in Nine and introduced Maury Yeston's song 'Unusual Way.' What is it like to have a signature song?

Burch: It's the dream that every performer aspires to - anyone who ever wants to be on Broadway. & I didn't realize it because we were just doing it & from the first workshop in December '81 to previews of the show on Broadway in April '82. I just knew I was happy it was my song. I still think of it as my song.

Andrews-Katz: When you hear other people singing 'Unusual Way,' do you listen with a more critical ear?

Burch: You know, I do, because it was written in a certain key, and everybody usually sings it lower. I'm a soprano, but I'm also a mezzo and I can certainly belt, but it's usually done in lower keys. When I learned it and first sang it for Maury, it stayed with me. Then Raul Julia listened to the song, which is about my character being in love with his, and I felt so vulnerable. It was so amazing. When I hear other people sing it, it's usually out of context of the show, and that throws me. When I first heard it, I knew inside of me that this was a special moment with a special song.

Andrews-Katz: What was your opinion of the Antonio Banderas Broadway revival of Nine in 2003 or the film version in 2009?

Burch: I didn't see the Antonio revival, as I wasn't living in New York at the time. The show was still personal to me since Raul Julia, Anita Morris, and Michel Stuart had all died, so I really didn't want to see it. There were so many ghosts. For the movie, it was kind of the same way. I knew it was going to be different from the stage production, with added songs, and songs cut and added characters. When we originally did it Arthur Kopit was still writing the libretto as the characters were being cast. That way he could write for the specific actress. I'm just glad that the story is still being told and presented.

Andrews-Katz: You've worked with Martin Charnin many times throughout your career. Do you find it more difficult or easier to take direction from someone who is also your husband?

Burch: When we met originally in Annie, we weren't married. I went out with him for a short while, and then we didn't see each other for 25 years. When I first met him, I was certainly intimidated by his being so strong and passionate. What I found when working with him was that he always knew what made a singer sound the best, look the best, and be the best. Not just with me, but anyone he directs. Being married is just a joy. We try to work together as much as possible. At this point he knows how to direct me so well. We've been back together seven years and it's not fun to not work with him.

Andrews-Katz: What examples can audiences expect in the upcoming production of Real to Reel?

Burch: It's a pretty great title and it is what it sounds like. There are going to be six of us singing, and we each have about five or six solos. Martin likes to incorporate real stories into the shows he narrates, telling about these shows and the songs that came from them, and the inevitable movie adaptations.

Andrews-Katz: What composers for the stage and screen personally inspire you and why?

Burch: Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, and of course Leonard Bernstein in West Side Story and Candide. It's the melody that moves me more than anything else. Richard Rodgers' melodies really move me. Because I'm married to a lyricist, the words are important, too, but I'm more moved by a beautiful melodic line.

Andrews-Katz: In Nine, your character describes an average day for her. What's an average day like in the life of Shelly Burch?

Burch: I get up and go to dance and acting classes too, but not in Paris. I wish. My day starts at 6:30 so I can get my kids off to high school. Sometimes I go back to sleep, but I'm also Martin's office assistant, and I have work to do there. I go to my dance class three days a week, and once a week I work out with a personal trainer. I work with my pianist at least once a week for several hours. In the afternoon I teach kids voice. I've been coaching kids on and off for about 20 years. On Sundays we go to church and then my son and I volunteer with Perfect Pals, a no-kill cat sanctuary. Then it's making dinner and trying to squeeze in any rehearsals that can be done. I have two teenagers in high school, and my oldest son is in college.

Andrews-Katz: What roles would you like to play in the future?

Burch: I've always wanted to play Mame. I would love to be Norma Desmond and would like to do Gypsy, when I get a little older. I don't know if I want to be that intense but would love to try it. The Unsinkable Molly Brown is a show that Martin would like to see me perform. I'd like to sing classical songs from all the classical roles of Broadway in front of a full orchestra. That's something I would love to do!

Real to Reel, presented in concert form by Showtunes Theatre, consists of 36 songs that have made their way from the stage to the screen, or vice versa. Charnin, who has written lyrics for both venues, will narrate the evening's show.

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