Red Hills' Patrick J Ssenjovu
September 1, 2017
Lucie Arnaz has done everything. She’s taught master classes, starred on TV, had her own radio program, given concerts, starred in films, and starred on Broadway. And Arnaz, clearly an entertainment veteran, isn’t done yet. She has a one-night only concert in Pittsburgh coming up on Monday night, November 13 at the Trust Cabaret.
Arnaz’s career began as a teenager when she co-starred for six years with her mother, Lucille Ball, and brother, Desi Arnaz Jr., on her mother’s TV show Here’s Lucy. After that, Arnaz has gone on to have an impressive career in fields that, she says with a laugh, “won’t get you famous.” Arnaz, however, is happy with that.
“I do what I do which is small in the big picture,” she says, “It’s Broadway, cabaret. If it’s not a movie or music that is sold on the internet, or TV, there’s no way you can reach a large audience. I always said that what I did for a living was missionary work; it’s small groups of people. You don’t reach millions of millions of people. You’re working in a much smaller community, but I love it. I love that community. This is my absolute joy in life. TV was fun. And the few movies I made were good because they’re there. But live theatre, live performing, traveling around like a gypsy with a band -- it’s ok because the bottom line is, I don’t need to be famous. I really have no desire to have that kind of fame that most celebrities are looking for, or that my mother and father ended up with. That’s debilitating to almost everyone, and because I grew up with it, I never sought it out.”
Arnaz is the daughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, best known for their 1950s TV show, I Love Lucy where red-headed Lucy Ricardo often got her bandleader husband Ricky Ricardo into trouble with her antics.
Arnaz, though, has made her way all on her own. She didn’t ride the coattails of her parents and while she’s grateful for the opportunities that she had because of them, she never used her parents to advance herself.
“My mother didn’t give me any money at all,” she says. “I never wanted any, and I never got any. I got a job on Here’s Lucy, and I earned my keep every week for six years, but I always earned my own money since I was fifteen years old.”
In fact, she says that sometimes it was difficult being the daughter of famous parents. “If you decide that you want to go into the same business as your folks, even if it’s a little step to the left like mine was, when you want to be an anonymous learner, you walk on that stage and you are not anonymous. You cannot fail and just fail and go back home and get better and try another place. You walk on that stage and the people auditioning you see two other people walking behind you. That’s kind of difficult because there’s an expectation that you’re going to be like this or you’re going to be like that. Maybe it’s a good expectation or a bad expectation, and you’re going to either walk up to it or overcome it, and it’s not always a good thing.”
Arnaz has distanced herself from the legacy of her parents, though she’s ended up holding concerts and accepting awards in their honor. About her work with her parents’ legacy, she says that she never wanted to do it. “It wasn’t a conscious decision, and wasn’t something I’d ever choose to do, believe it or not. I’ve got my own life, and they don’t need any help keeping their legacy going. There’s an expression in our family: you can’t kill ‘em. They’re in a bigger wave of fame now, I think, even than when they were alive and making those shows. I do a lot of policing. All I can do is hope that the quality of what we do is high and to standards that my parents would have approved of. And just keep their name alive in the way it should be. But it’s not something that I set out to do. I enjoy having my family, my own career, my own life.”
In her career, Arnaz has been drawn to any genre of performing that’s live. She appreciates the instantaneous feedback and has gravitated mainly to musical theatre. She loves the “daredevil aspect” of it. “The curtain goes up and you’re on!” She says. “No one can save your butt, that’s it. Singing live in concert is the same thing. It’s a live orchestra, a live audience, and it’s up to you. You’re on, and I love that.”
Arnaz’s last show on Broadway was the 2014 revival of the musical Pippin, and she loved it. Pippin is a musical about a circus troupe who tells the story of young prince searching for his place in life. Arnaz played the role of Berthe, Pippin’s exiled and fun-loving grandmother. As Berthe, Arnaz sang, danced, even hung by a trapeze – while singing! “I say no to a lot of stuff because I like being home with my family – I raised three kids – so unless I’m really passionate about something that’s not something I want to be spending eight performances a week away from them to do. But when the offer to do Pippin came up, we had just moved to Palm Springs, the kids were grown living in other places, and it was just such an enormous challenge with all the acrobatic stuff. I had seen it twice on Broadway and thought, ‘Oh, she has the best part,’ and when they called to ask me if I wanted to do it I was terrified, but it was such a challenge. And those are the things that we wait our entire lives to get a chance to chew on -- a piece of meat like that.”
About Berthe Arnaz says, “There’s a lot to have in that part. It can be so real and so sympathetic and sweet. It can be the best number in the whole show. And when you get on that bar and you float up with that guy and you’re hanging up there with no chains and no mattresses underneath you, and you flip over backwards and he’s just holding onto your pelvis and you’re floating 30 feet above the floor and you’re singing upside down. It was a wonderful experience, that plus the rest of the show. It’s a story that people need to be reminded of -- what you search for in life. And the message at the end of Pippin – it’s not out there it’s here inside you.”
Arnaz loves stories. As an actress, she feels like it’s her responsibility to tell stories. “You start with the lyrics first, you have to. I teach this actually, how to get in the body of the lyrics. Because today, singing has morphed into a little more pyrotechnics than it is primarily story-oriented, and there are some voices that are absolutely incredible. I didn’t know the voice could do some of the things that it is now able to do, and it is astounding. However, a lot of those people, when you get them into an up close scenario and they’re not protected with the lights and everything going on, and sing a song, quite often they’re not connected to it at all because they’re so used to the hoop-de-do. I try to reconnect people to what are you singing about, what is the lyric – it’s always the lyric, it’s not a song – who are you telling this to, what does it mean? Because if you know who are you singing to, you’d be surprised how it changes a performance and magnetizes an audience. It’s an evaluation of an entirely different kind. I’ve always wanted to be transported by the material.”
This is something Arnaz teaches her own students when she teaches master classes. “Actors do it all the time. Where does this character come from, what’s going on in the scene, what do they want, why do they even open their mouth and speak? And it becomes a lot more fun, but the main reason you do it – the secret reason – is so that you don’t get scared. You won’t be nervous wondering if they like you if you’re focused on a reality that this is actually happening. And as long as you’re in that scene you can’t be in the reality present of “I’m dying up here; they hate me!” It’s impossible. And those people who are afraid to sing – it goes away. They start singing great. It’s what I teach and what I try to do.”
Arnaz calls herself a closet songwriter and lyricist. She loves writing lyrics, and at her concert Monday in Pittsburgh, the lucky audience will get to hear Arnaz sing a few of her own songs. The concert in the cabaret theater will be an intimate evening with Lucie Arnaz and will be an arc about relationships. “If you look at my concerts, they all end up coming out to be something like that because so much has been written about love: falling in love, falling out of love. It’s an arc of a journey through love and romance.”
The concert will be just Arnaz and her piano player, Ron Abel. She has nothing but praise for Abel, who also happens to be her music director. Arnaz loves the intimate feel of a single piano, and she says that with Abel playing she doesn’t miss the rest of the orchestra.
Arnaz will also be singing American standards like Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer, a few contemporary songs, some by Ron Abel, and some of her own. “It’s a fresh take on them and what those stories are. I call them stories more often than I call them songs because they are songs, but to me they’re always stories.”
When Arnaz was starting out in her early twenties, she took lessons from David Craig who taught song performance for auditioning. He taught her how to embody a lyric and to let go of her fears. “He helped people get over their fears. You know how people sing and their arms have a life of their own? It doesn’t mean anything but they think that it’s what singers do. Your body will not have a life of its own if your brain is in charge. Your body will do what your body would normally do if you were speaking those things. You learn how to take your mind through that first so that when you get up to sing it it’s like you’re speaking. It’s completely different physically, but you approach it as a speaker first and then apply music underneath.”
Craig taught great actors like Sally Field who told Arnaz that she learned more from him about acting than she did about singing. “He would also give you material he thinks you’d be uncomfortable with. That’s what he wants to work on.”
At 66, Arnaz has been in show business for fifty years now. She’s starting to think about her autobiography and has started reading through her old journals. She’s kept all of her journals and calendars since she was eleven and has been reading through them. “It’s crazy. In 1975 I was twenty or something and what a crazy kid! What was I? Nuts? I just can’t believe the way my life was. Everything was just so dramatic. There are things that I just don’t remember. Now, though, I’m at a point where I can force myself to stop and smell the roses, and it’s a good place to be.”
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