By CHARLES J. GANS
NEW YORK - Dee Dee Bridgewater might have been a Broadway star were she not so successful as a jazz singer. She won a Tony Award in her Broadway debut as Glinda the Good Witch in "The Wiz." But she later rededicated herself to her jazz career, touring the world, winning three Grammys Awards and hosting NPR's nationally syndicated "Jazz Set."
Now the 63-year-old Bridgewater has put her jazz career on hold to return to the New York stage for the first time since 1979 in the off-Broadway musical play, "Lady Day," about legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday. The role not only involves more than 25 musical production numbers but also 16 monologues, or "regressions," that look at the brilliant singer's troubled life.
"It's just a very difficult and demanding role," said Bridgewater. "You have to call on so many different emotions and different periods in her life: you have to play a 10-year-old girl, a young Billie and then you present Billie," said Bridgewater, interviewed at Sardi's restaurant in the theater district.
Writer and director Stephen Stahl sketched out the play on a solitary Christmas Eve in 1979 while listening to Holiday's music which evoked his own feeling of loneliness and being an outsider as a gay, Jewish man who had started drinking at age 8 and dropped out of school.
"I understand what addiction is and what it is to feel different," Stahl said. "Billie expressed to me all of that desertion, fear and the need to be loved through her music. I also believe Billie was a survivor and saw her as a very strong human being who was giving out her love continually."
The play premiered in 1980 at the Walnut Street Theatre Studio 5 in Philadelphia and was staged at regional U.S. theaters but not in New York. Stahl cast Bridgewater for the European production after hearing her perform at a New York club.
As a young singer, Bridgewater considered Ella Fitzgerald to be the epitome of a virtuosic jazz singer, but regarded Holiday more as a song interpreter. She came to appreciate Holiday when her then-husband, trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater, encouraged her to read the singer's ghostwritten autobiography "Lady Sings the Blues." Bridgewater found that she shared experiences from Billie's life: encountering strict discipline from nuns at a Roman Catholic school, being molested at age 11 and raped at 18, and falling into abusive relationships with men.
"My experience wasn't as bad as Billie's, but I can take different points in my life and find some kind of similarity to what Billie went through," she said.
In 1986-87, Bridgewater performed "Lady Day" (in French) in Paris, and then in London where she received an Olivier Award nomination for best actress in a musical. Bridgewater felt "possessed" by Billie's spirit and months after the show closed she still found herself singing in Holiday's voice at her own concerts.
Bridgewater had optioned the play, but her plans to bring "Lady Day" to New York in 2009 fell through amid the global recession. She also had to relocate to Nevada to care for her mother who has Alzheimer's. Instead, she produced a CD "Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie With Love From Dee Dee" (using the singer's original name) on which she sang modern arrangements of Holiday's songbook, including such classics as "Lover Man" and "Don't Explain," which won a Grammy in 2011.
Stahl lined up new financing and waited until Bridgewater was free to take the role. He added multi-media effects with video clips for the flashback scenes. He also revamped the book to enhance the role of the singer's road manager Robert, who in the first act gently but firmly coaxes a reluctant Holiday through a rehearsal for a comeback concert in Britain in 1954. In the second act, he helps a somewhat inebriated Holiday pull through the concert.
This time around Bridgewater is confident that she can avoid being possessed by Billie's spirit.
"I don't have the same fear that I did before of going to those dark places that I needed to go in order to put the right emotional impact into a particular scene," she said. "I'm very secure with who I am. I'm a totally different woman now... I'm ready to share my body and space with Billie, but I'm not going to allow her to take over."
In her singing parts, Bridgewater says she's "trying to stay a little closer to Billie's styling without imitating her," performing arrangements by music director and pianist Bill Jolly that reflect the mid-1950s era. In the rehearsal scenes, she displays a bit more of her own vocal style, engaging in some energetic scat singing in "Them There Eyes," which Holiday rarely did. But in the second act concert, Bridgewater says she goes more into Billie's voice on such numbers as "God Bless the Child" and the more obscure "Violets for Your Furs."
Bridgewater says the show's most emotional moments for her come when she performs the anti-lynching song "Strange Fruit" with a sparse chordal piano accompaniment - after a monologue about Billie's humiliating experiences touring the segregated South, and "Good Morning, Heartache," where Billie breaks down after recalling how her mother abandoned her as a child.
Bridgewater hopes audiences will come away from the show with "a whole new take on Billie" and not see her as some tragic figure.
"The show is a celebration of the woman," said Bridgewater. "I want people to go, `Wow, what an amazing woman, what strength she had to endure all the things that she did before she died.'"
Online: http:// www.ladydaythemusical.com
Follow Charles Gans on Twitter at www.twitter.com/chjgans
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