She’s recorded albums, appeared in concerts, starred on television, won an Emmy (‘Fantasy’), made movies and appeared on Broadway, where she earned a Tony Award for ‘Hallelujah, Baby!
And, after 60 years in entertainment, the legendary performer shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, currently she’s preparing to take the stage in a production that is both personal and revelatory.
On Nov. 16, the singer/actress is set to open at the Pasadena Playhouse in, ‘Uptown Downtown,’ an evening of stories and songs that tells how Uggams successfully began and maintained her celebrated career.
The show is called ‘Uptown Downtown’ because Uggams takes the audience on a journey from her beginnings in ‘Uptown’ New York, where she was born (Washington Heights) and eventually started singing at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre – to ‘Downtown’, where she starred on Broadway.
The idea for the show came from her friend and collaborator Michael Bush, who urged her to tell her story. Bush, who is the show’s director, was also her collaborator on “Stormy Weather,” a show that starred Uggams as Lena Horne and broke records for ticket sales at the Pasadena Playhouse in 2009.
The idea was hatched earlier this year after Uggams performed at Jazz at Lincoln Center as part of the American Songbook. Peppered in her performance were anecdotes about her career and the people she has met along the way.
“I agreed to do the American Songbook because New York is my home and I wanted to do something special,” said Uggams, who recently won an Audelco Award for her starring role in First Breeze of Summer at the acclaimed Off-Broadway Signature Theatre. “I hadn’t done anything in New York in a long time.”
Her show was so successful and well received that Bush and Uggams, realizing they had something special decided to branch out with the show.
“I’m not doing a confessional,” said Uggams. “Actually, I’ve lived a rather sane life. But, the show is filled with good music and interesting stories that I hope everyone will like.”
And, when it comes to good music, ‘Uptown Downtown’ features selections like “There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon for New York” (George Gershwin-Ira Gershwin-Dubose Heyward), “Them There Eyes” (Maceo Pinkard-Doris Taubre-William Tracey), “On the Town,” “Porgy and Bess,” “My Own Morning” (Betty Comden-Adolph Green-Jule Styne), ‘Being Good from “Hallelujah, Baby!,” “Hello, Young Lovers” (Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein II) and more.
All of this music is very familiar to Uggams, who literally grew up in showbiz.
When she was nine-years-old, Uggams was the opening act at The Apollo for entertainment icons like Ella Fitzgerald, Louie Armstrong and Dinah Washington, who she affectionately called “Aunt Ella, Pops and Aunt Dinah, respectively.” She also played Ethel Waters’ niece on the television series, Beulah and made appearances on Your Show of Shows, The Milton Berle Show, and The Arthur Godfrey Show. When she was a teenager Uggams landed a recording contract with Columbia Records and became a regular on Sing Along With Mitch, making her one of the first African American performers to regularly be seen on a prime-time program. Next came The Leslie Uggams Show, a television variety program and then her unforgettable role as Kizzy in Roots.
Her Broadway credits include: starring alongside James Earl Jones in On Golden Pond and co-starring in the Broadway hit Thoroughly Modern Millie. In 2001, her Broadway portrayal of Ruby in August Wilson’s King Hedley II was nominated for a Tony Award. Her Off-Broadway performances include: The Old Settler and Keb Mo’s blues musical Thunder Knocking on the Door. Uggams, who still lives in New York, is excited about her return to the Pasadena Playhouse.
“I’ve done two shows at Pasadena and the audiences there ‘get it’,” said Uggams, who became a first time grandmother in August with the birth of her granddaughter, Kassidy. “If you’re doing a good show, it works everywhere.”
It’s clear that Uggams, who has no plans to retire, loves her work.
The feisty thespian, who eats right and works out (but ‘hates it’) to maintain good health and energy, is always ready for the next show.
“I love what I do,” she said.
Uggams, who co-stars in the soon-to-be-released independent film, Toe to Toe, says she’s just as excited today about performing as she was at the beginning of her career.
“Oh, yeah, I’m still excited,” said Uggams. “Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it. You gotta have joy. I still get butterflies before going on stage because I want it to be right. When that is no longer happening it’s time to give it up.”
‘Uptown Downtown’ provides Uggams no safety net. It’s just her and an eight-piece orchestra.
“This is a two act production,” said Uggams. “I think everyone is going to have a good time. It’s like having everybody over to my place.”
UPTOWN DOWNTOWN plays November 16 – December 12, 2010, with the official press opening on Friday, November 19, at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Avenue in Pasadena. The performance schedule is Tuesday through Friday at 8:00 p.m.; Saturday at 4:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. There will be one Wednesday matinee at 2:00 p.m. on November 24. Ticket prices range from $39.00 – $69.00. Rush tickets are available for $15.00 one hour prior to the performance time and are subject to availability.
Rush tickets must be purchased at the Pasadena Playhouse Box Office. Tickets are available by calling the Pasadena Playhouse at 626-356-7529 or by visiting the Pasadena Playhouse Box Office.
The box office is open from 12:00 p.m. until 8:00 p.m. on performance dates and from 12:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m. on Monday and Sunday. Note: The box office is closed on holidays. Tickets are available 24 hours online at www.Pasadenaplayhouse.org; Group Sales (15 or more) are available by calling 626-921-1161.