Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Interview with Chairman of the Board Luca Ellis

Actor/singer Luca Ellis is having a breakthrough year portraying Frank Sinatra in the huge hit Hoboken to Hollywood at the Edgemar Center for the Arts, now extended to the end of January. Having portrayed Sinatra last year with the cast of Louis and Keely In Concert @ the El Portal, he is no stranger to the legend. It shows, for when you close your eyes, you feel you are listening to Sinatra himself. Handsome and confident, Ellis talks about the show, its eventual move to a larger space - one that has been confirmed by director Jeremy Aldridge, who also directed Louis and Keely Live at the Sahara to great acclaim - and shares other insights about singers and the art of singing.

How much of Luca is in the portrayal of the Chairman of the Board?
I would ask the question, how much of the Chairman is in Luca’s portrayal of a crooner or singer of popular song in the 1960s?  My very first influence was Dean Martin, during my adolescence. I was about 7 years old.  I can thank my mother for that, since she’s the one who initially exposed me to this music.  In my teens I found Harry Connick Jr.  I was so impressed by his talent. Not only could this guy sing, but he’s an exceptional musician!  It wasn’t until I turned 30 that I discovered Sinatra.  I didn’t even know I was a Baritone until I started listening to Frank.  I quickly realized our voices were incredibly similar.  So, I immersed myself in his recordings.  For years I would listen and learn new tunes, and since I was singing professionally 4 to 5 nights a week. I had the perfect playground to become the well versed singer of American song I am today.  In essence, Frank Sinatra was my mentor and I believe my predecessor to what has turned into a very rewarding and fruitful singing career.  Once you learn to phrase like Sinatra, it’s very difficult to sing a song in any other fashion. To sing with no inhibitions, fearlessly as if no one is listening.  Yet you do all this in a very conversational manner, taking out all the theatrics and giving the most honest and often poignant interpretation of a song. I have not been given the privilege to say I’m playing the role of Mr. S.  Hoboken to Hollywood is a tribute to the American Song Book.  If delivering these songs in the highest light possible means delivering them in a style forged and innovated by Sinatra? So be it.  Is Hoboken to Hollywood about Mr. S? That’s entirely up to the audience member.  Is Hoboken to Hollywood a love letter to Frank?  Probably. 
Tell me again how long you have been preparing to play this role and where you played him before.
When I started listening to Frank Sinatra, I had no intentions of playing him.  I was merely curious about his style of singing.  Being the legend that he is, I felt the need to check his work out.  I’d heard him in passing, but it wasn't until I really started listening to Frank that I found the similarities in our voices a little over 6 years ago.  The first time I ever played the Chairman was last year at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood. It was for the Holiday rendition of Louis and Keely Live At the Sahara.  This took place after their run ended at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood.  The second role came a couple of months later.  This time I was playing the role of “Ol Blue Eyes” in Sandy Hackett’s Rat Pack Show in Las Vegas.  To end up playing the same character in an entirely different show a couple of months later at the actual Sahara Hotel and Casino, seemed a little serendipitous to me.  All while the “Hoboken Four” (Producer Peach Reasoner, Musical Director Paul Litteral, Director Jeremy Aldridge and Singer/Actor Luca Ellis) were well on their way to developing a new hit show titled Hoboken to Hollywood.  Sometimes things in life just come together.

What do you feel is the chief message of this piece? What do you want the audience to take away besides the enjoyment of the great songs?
As an entertainer I would hope my audience leaves the show with an exhilarating feeling, a sensation as if the air around them was charged with an electricity.  A voltage if you will.  Leaving an imprint on them causing them to still think about the show a few days later.  Maybe they feel the urge to pull out and dust off their old LP collections and have a listen.  Or how about the younger viewer/listener who finds themselves acquiring a taste for fine music all of a sudden.  I feel this show is as educational as it is fun.  Last but not least, for all my audience members to walk out of the theatre believing in the beauty of love and the incredible potential of human innovation.  Experiencing a night or perhaps just a moment, where the human dilemma meets fine art.

What other singers besides Sinatra and Dean Martin do you love? 
Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Bobby Darin, Keely Smith, Sammy Davis Jr., Doris Day, Peggy Lee, June Christy, Sarah Vaughan, Julie London and Jo Ann Greer just to mention a few.  Not a lot of people know who Jo Ann Greer is.  She dubbed some of Rita Hayworth’s vocals on musicals adapted for the silver screen such as Pal Joey, one of my all time favorites.
Among the newer crop of singers, who stands out?
Harry Connick Jr. and Diana Krall.  Unfortunately most of todays singers haven’t adopted the proper disciplines to singing a song, so I find it very hard to listen to most of them.  Unfortunately the pickings are pretty slim these days.
What are the plans for this show beyond Edgemar?
Hoboken to Hollywood is Broadway bound. What happens between Edgemar and New York, is already written in the stars I’m sure.
Do you see yourself playing Sinatra's life perhaps on film? Or is the musical enough?
I intend to keep singing this wonderful music no matter what happens with my acting career.  If anything, this show will always serve as a creative outlet for my love of singing and acting in front of living breathing audience.  I would love to keep creating other installments of the basic principal or “mechanism” that is Hoboken to Hollywood.  I say mechanism because it’s an original concept for live musical theatre.  Theatre where the actor/singer has more than one take.  Where spontaneity and circumstance can create an entirely different experience for the audience on a nightly basis.  H2H part II would consist of all new songs and introductions to those songs.  New “on set” dilemmas.  Such a future installment would only come after Hoboken to Hollywood has been enjoyed by tens of thousands of theatre enthusiasts in LA and New York.  In the meantime, if I was approached to play Frank Sinatra in a biopic? I would be honored but more importantly, as an actor I would be completely prepared.  I’ve already studied the man for 6 years, what does that get me?  A Masters Degree?  Would I go for the PHD?  You can bet your life on it.

What is your favorite Sinatra song? Why? What is it about "My Way" that keeps audiences wanting to hear it? "New York, New York"?
I’ll quote Mr. Sinatra on that one, “That’s like asking me if I like steak better than I like ice cream.  There are so many songs to choose from, it’s hard to pick a favorite”.  “My Way” I feel is the quintessential torch song for most listeners.  It paints such a picture that speaks to so many people.  People from all walks of life can personally relate to that song.  I think it’s kind of a phenomenon, I’ve heard of people getting shot or even linched in the Philippines for botching up that song in a karaoke bar.  Can you imagine?  Getting whacked for not singing a song right?! Some people take it a little too seriously.  Although “My Way” and “New York, New York” are the most requested songs, I personally feel there are far superior songs in the “American Song Book” but then again, I’m just the singer.  Since it’s never about me, and always about what the good people want.  If that’s what they wanna hear, then that’s what I’m gonna sing for them.
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                  Luca Ellis and the 12-piece Paul Litteral Orchestra, the stars of the phenomenal hit show “Hoboken to Hollywood,” will be the stars of a special New Year’s Eve celebration at Edgemar Center For the Arts on New Year’s Eve.  Commencing at 9:30 p.m., Luca and the Orchestra will perform an hour-long concert of big-band standards from The Great American Songbook and your favorite holiday chestnuts.
                  Then, a break for Champagne and strawberries.
                  Then, another set of musical standards but, this time, the audience is invited to get on the floor and dance to the great song classics made famous by That Certain Blue-Eyed Crooner From Hoboken and the great big bands.
                  Then, we ring in the New Year, with festivities officially set to conclude at 12:15 p.m. “New Year’s Eve With My Baby.” A musical celebration starring Luca Ellis and the Paul Litteral Orchestra. At Edgemar Center for the Arts, 2437 Main St., Santa Monica, CA 90405.  Friday, Dec. 31, 2010. Starts at 9:30 p.m. Tickets: $135. Reservations: (310) 392-7327. Online ticketing: www.edgemar.org
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I watched Luca Ellis and the cast of H to H shoot a video promo of "The Christmas Song" between shows on December 18. I was immediately struck by Ellis' keen musical ear. He knew exactly how to improve an orchestral entrance and how to ease his transition into the song. After only 3 takes, it worked beautifully. Watch below!
Christmas promo with Ellis singing Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song":

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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

New Interview with Leslie Jordan

Comedic actor Leslie Jordan is best remembered internationally for his recurring role as Beverley Leslie in TV's Will & Grace (2001-2006) for which he won the coveted Emmy Award. On stage in LA, he has starred in Del Shores' Southern Baptist Sissies as Peanut and in Sordid Lives as Brother Boy - also in the film and cable TV series in the same role - to popular and critical acclaim and in his own productions of Like a Dog on Linoleum and My Walk Down the Pink Carpet. In our talk, he tells us about his newest touring Christmas show Deck Them Halls, Y'All, which will open at the Renberg Theater of the Gay and Lesbian Center in LA on December 16, as well as other future projects. Jordan is so funny, I had to really be on my guard to control my laughter; otherwise, we'd still be talking.
How are you?

Well, I'm in Atlanta, Georgia...I'm opening this weekend and it is 21 degrees. (he laughs)

Unusual for the south, isn't it?

I grew up in Chattanooga. I thought it was unusual, and I called my mom this morning who said, "This is very unusual." I was in Fort Lauderdale before that, which makes it even colder.

Tell me about the new show and all the characters you're playing. 

I'm so excited. I've had two people, both my producer, who produced the original tour of My Trip Down the Pink Carpet, Dave Morgan, and my director, Mr. David Galligan, say, "This is the best thing you've ever written", probably because ...  it's not about me. (he laughs) For once, I wrote something that's not about me.
And the wonderful thing is when it's not about you, you don't really have to tell the truth. You can let your imagination run. 

How did it get started?

What happened was ... we are opening My Trip Down the Pink Carpet on the West End. I leave on January 16, and because Will & Grace is so popular over there, I'm opening at the Apollo Theatre which has 800 seats, between the two hottest shows in London. Priscilla Queen of the Desert is next door and on the other side there's a show based on the music of Michael Jackson called Thriller. We had planned on November and December to tour ...Pink Carpet to get it ready for London, and I finally just said, "Guys, I've done this show for years; there's nothing else to do." Plus, they were having trouble finding the right sized venue. I'm not Kathy Griffin. I can't do 1200 seat venues. I need 300, 400 something like that. Anyway, out of the blue, they just pulled the rug out from under me and said, "Well, we'll just go to London in February."
I thought, "Well, fine, but, we've got to keep the ship afloat. What am I going to do for November and December?" My booker Dave Morgan, who has a company called Reaction Marketing out in Palm Springs called me out of the blue and said, "Leslie, if you do a Christmas show, I could book you all over the place."
And I said, "Please, what would I do? Talk about baby Jesus and sing Christmas Carols? I don't have a Christmas show in me." He said, "I bet you do."  Well, I had this old Christmas ornament I bought at the Cracker Barrell, these really kind of trashy restaurants all over the south. I had bought this ornament that said,  Deck Them Halls, Y'All! I thought, "That's a title!"

That's cute!

I called Dave and said, "Well I've got a title". He said, "I'll book you into Orlando, Ft. Lauderdale and a couple of nights in Atlanta, and then we'll open at the Renberg". I said, "What are you talking about? I haven't written it". That was the best thing that could happen. I sat down and I had had this idea for a long time. I met this waitress in Dallas, Texas years ago, who was a stripper in her prime. Back in the 50s and early 60s she stripped for Jack Ruby. She had her own little Kennedy assassination theory that makes more sense than anything I've ever heard. She said to me (affects a high-pitched female voice). "Honey, you know Jack Ruby was homosexual. We all knew it. The girls knew it. You didn't talk about it. You didn't mention things like that. But, we knew what was up. He was always coming around the bars with these rough young boys, they called them his muscle." She said that when she saw Oswald, she could have sworn that was one of the boys Jack walked around with. "Honey, he went in there and shot him." I thought, "That sure beats Cuba or anything Oliver Stone's come up with." So, that was the germ of this idea and I thought, "How can I make this about Christmas?" So I come out as this old stripper. Honey, she sings, she does a bump and grind. I've got great big enormous bird seed titties, bigger than Dolly (Parton). I do these corny old burlesque songs. I hired an orchestra. I've just put a fortune into it, because I think it's something I'm going to roll out every year.

That's great! What other characters do you play besides the stripper?

It's three generations. The old stripper...she's trying to win this contest on the radio, and you tell them the worst Christmas you've ever had. She just talks and talks and then, the second character...what I do, I've got this strip music and instead of doing a strip, I change into the next character...seductively remove a wig and put on another wig and, bla.bla.bla, I'm the next character, the stripper's daughter, who's a trans-gender lesbian, who's lamenting the loss of her pussy. She misses it. It turns out that the lesbian had, through the product of a rape, a kid. She couldn't raise it, so she left, and the grandmother's raising it, the old stripper. The shining light of the family, he's a little ten-year old boy...and he's in a beautiful Christmas robe. He's had it on for four days. The choir teacher told him, he has potential (his voice goes up). He's going to sing a solo in the Christmas pageant. Anyway, it's basically three generations of this white trash family celebrating Christmas. The Orlando Sentinel gave me a glowing review, which I didn't expect because I was only there two, three days. It was a love letter, saying it's the perfect anecdote for anyone who's just sick of all that cheerfulness at Christmas. 

I can't wait to see it! Since you mentioned Will & Grace... when I interviewed Megan Mullally last year, she talked about working with you on Karen the Musical, once it gets written. What's up with that?

She thought it was a bangup idea for just Beverley Leslie and Karen Walker to be loose on the Great White Way. But, when you ask someone to do a musical with you, wouldn't you ask them, "Can you sing?" It never came up. (we both laugh)
Anyway, she had the rights, but the business people stepped in and were doing another round of negotiations of the syndicated rights and they told her "You just can't do it right now". It might happen on down the road.
So, she said to me, "Honey, we know the chemistry's there. Let's you and I come up with some ideas."  Her mom's been sick so we haven't gotten together, but I have an idea, which I read in the paper, this is the most hilarious thing I ever read. It was a true story in St. Louis, Missouri. A hotel accidentally booked two vastly different conventions under one roof. The Christians, like a Baptist convention, and leather queens, whose convention was called Beat Me in St. Louis. I called her and said "This is it! I'm head of the leather contingent and you're Sarah Palin. You're this white wing Christian, Anita Bryant." We just shrieked. We haven't moved beyond that, because the two of us are so busy all the time.

Who are your favorite comic actors? Anyone you idolize?

Three. Lily Tomlin, who produced my show in New York. She and Jane Wagner produced ...Pink Carpet in New York, and they're involved in the London production. When I was a kid, I had an album of Lily's and I could act out all of those characters, and my favorite was not Edith Ann or the telephone lady. She had a very obscure character called Sister Boogy Woman. She would preach at the rest homes and get the old people up and going. When I met Lily, I acted it out for her. Sister Boogy Woman.She couldn't believe that I remembered that. She was my idol. And Phyllis Diller, who came to see one of my shows. She's tiny. I didn't know that. She's my height; she's tiny, tiny, tiny. When I was a kid, I'd act out her routines with Fang and...my third one, whom I have never met, but would love to, is Carol Burnett. I would sit in front of the television as a kid... I don't know why all three, my comedic idols are ... women. You toss Bette Midler in there somewhere, and you've got it.

Do you have a Christmas wish for everybody?

I have a lot of shame, and until I got sober at 42 years of age, I had never voted. I was just a hippie. We smoked pot, we didn't vote. I didn't know a Republican from a Democrat. I didn't know anything. Never read a newspaper. In the thirteen years I've been sober, I've gotten so politically active, but you can march in the streets and carry signs all you want...but the change has got to come from within. My Christmas wish is that every young gay man and gay woman register to vote. Get out of those bars! I'm all for everybody having fun, but at least get out of the bars and vote! There's so much happening right now and it's so important. That's my Christmas wish.

A wonderful one, and be sure to visit Leslie Jordan's website:
to buy his book My Trip Down the Pink Carpet
and for info on tix to:
Deck Them Halls, Y'All! at the Renberg Theater from December 16 - 19 only!
Call: 323-860-7300 or google the Renberg Theater online!