Tony Award Winner Returns to Stage for ‘Demanding Role’
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.
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.’”
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.”