Karen Akers

DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Karen Akers

By Andrew Gans
May 30, 2008

News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Cabaret favorite Karen Akers, who starred in the original Broadway productions of Nine (Tony nomination) and Grand Hotel, returned to the fabled Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel May 13 for her ninth consecutive spring engagement at the famed venue. Akers, who has spent the past two seasons exploring the songbooks of Kander and Ebb and Jule Styne, has titled her latest collection of songs, Move On, which is billed as "a wry and sophisticated, rueful yet hopeful look at the universal challenge of starting over." Through the poetry of Dorothy Parker and the music and lyrics of an eclectic array of composers — including Stephen Sondheim, Cole Porter, Maury Yeston, the Bergmans, Rodgers & Hart and Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, among others — Akers, according to press notes, explores "what happens when life's unexpected twists and turns force us to make peace with the past, pick ourselves up, and face the future." Directed by Eric Michael Gillett, the program features musical direction and piano accompaniment by Don Rebic.

I've been a long-time admirer of Akers. In fact, I don't think I've missed one of her New York engagements in over 20 years. In addition to her one-in-a-million vocal instrument — a dark, rich, buzzing contralto that has been likened to "silver bells wrapped in velvet" — Akers invests herself completely in each song. And, as wonderful as she has been over these many years offering songs in English, French and German, it was during last season's Jule Styne show when the singing actress reached a new, breathtaking level of emotional depth. Last week I had the pleasure of catching up with Akers, who spoke candidly about her wonderful, critically acclaimed new show and the changes in her personal life.

Question: How is the new show going so far?
Karen Akers: I've felt as if I'm in Broadway previews up until today, really. Every single day, we've made changes. We let a song go, we rearranged the order, all sorts of things. I think it finally found its footing last night. I think it finally became really cohesive last night.

Question: What song did you have to let go?
Akers: It kills me. It's a new song by Amanda McBroom and Michele Brourman. It's called "Hope Floats." It's a really sweet song, and it would be marvelous in a different show, but it doesn't really belong in this collection of songs somehow. I thought it did. My director was upset because I sort of overruled him there for a couple of nights because I didn't want to let go of it. [Laughs.] I finally saw the wisdom of his ways. By taking this gorgeous, gorgeous song of John Kander and Fred Ebb's ["At the Rialto"] and making that the last message, it's just wonderful. People commented on it last night. By putting it in last place after the real closing songs, it kind of gives [the show] a little additional weight. It has a musical figure that's just so beautiful. I'm in love with every single song in the show, but that song is very special to me for some reason.

Karen Akers at her Oak Room opening
photo by Aubrey Reuben
Question: You've titled the show Move On. What does that title mean for you?
Akers: Well, it's not just for me. It would be wrong to think of this as entirely a personal journey. It is a personal journey, very much so, but it is way more than that. It's universal in that we all have to cope with change. We all begin again every bloody morning. How do we keep going? What drives us, and what supports us? How do we cope with change? How do we recognize it? How do we deal with it? . . . There are lots of women in the show, besides me, characters, really, who have found a particular way to deal with it. There's one woman who is absolutely content with her life. Her friends are all running off taking cruises and so forth and can't believe she stays at home, but she says, "No, look, I have everything here. I do travel. I have my garden." She's very settled and sort of at peace with who and where she is. There's another woman… [in the] song "A Terrific Band and a Real Nice Crowd." She is determined to take some risks and put herself out there. She is trying to talk herself into going upstairs into this ballroom, and she doesn't quite know what she's going to find. She can hear the music. I just love her. She's a character from the Broadway musical Ballroom.

There are actually two songs in the show of hers. The other is called "Job Application," which was cut from that show. It's basically sung by this woman who is looking at a job application, and she could be remembering the questions that she answered or she could be doing it in the process. I like to think of her as in the process and sort of going over it with the interviewer... It's a woman who is faced with a different sort of change. She's got to find work. ...Anyway, it's lots of people. Yes, I'm doing [the songs] from a woman's perspective because . . . I'm not a guy. [Laughs.] Simple as that. My sensibility is more in tune with women facing change. What's really fun about being at the Algonquin with this show and having it be first there, is that I've interspersed the songs with some poems of Dorothy Parker. They're funny, and they're fabulous. She has her own slightly skewed take on getting up each day.

Question: How did that idea come about, to use the poems?
Akers: Well that was roundabout. It started with: I was looking for my Dorothy Parker book. I have a big, fat Dorothy Parker book. Much to my dismay, I realized that I had left it in France. So I could have picked up another copy, but right about the same time that I realized mine was missing, when I had this unexplained hankering to read Dorothy Parker, I was talking to a friend at the health club and she said, "You know, my father set some poems of hers to music. Why don't I try and get you a copy of that?" They had been recorded by Barbara Cook. She sent me the music, and her father had very sweetly even copied the album cover. What happened was not what they wanted to have happen: The songs didn't quite make it into the show, but we just loved the poems, and then my director went online and Googled "Dorothy Parker and poems," and he found a couple that he loved. I found some, and it sort of went from there.

Question: Your last couple of shows, you've been working with Eric as your director. What has he brought to the table for you?
Akers: So much! I don't even know where to begin. Well, he reins me in, for one thing! [Laughs.] He keeps me grounded. He's very sympathetic to the difficulties going on in my personal life, so he's quite aware of what [songs are going to] resonate with me, whereas I would never have the courage on my own to try and work things out and go deeper and understand the journey… Because he is there supporting me, and because [musical director] Don [Rebic] is there supporting me with such love, I feel I can go deeper. Rehearsals were really rocky, to put it mildly. We probably were under-rehearsed when I opened because, from time to time, I simply couldn't go on with the rehearsal. So that was interesting. It's been really amazing . . . these are the kind of songs, especially since so many of them are really written for actors, you can always be making discoveries. If you leave yourself open to the moment, it's just amazing. It's the sort of show I'll never get tired of doing.

Question: I know the past two seasons you've done one-composer shows.
Akers: Yes, although this is not a songbook show. It was as if the material was too complex to just find everything [we needed from one composer]...although I take that back because we sure found a hell of a lot going on with Jule Styne's music. It was unbelievable, as a matter of fact. That was such a process of discovery for me, to realize that I could express so many different facets within the music of one composer. That was kind of amazing.

Cover art for "Simply Styne"
Question: How do you go about choosing songs? Does Eric choose, or do you choose. . . ?
Akers: We both choose. Early on, even Don might say, "This just doesn't work." He has a say in the matter. It's very democratic. [Laughs.] But basically, I'm sure Eric brought me things that I didn't know. I'm sure I found some things that I loved. The CD that's just come out, ["Simply Styne" on DRG Records] is a little different from the live show. Most of the live show is there, but not all, and we added three things that I very much wanted to record. I wanted to record [Jule Styne's] Oscar-winning song "Three Coins in the Fountain." As melodramatic and as kitschy as it is, if you just take it very straight as a sort of an overall prelude to what's going to come — this sort of wishfulness — it's really quite lovely on the CD, I think, in my own humble way. It works very well as an opening for the CD, for that particular journey, which is the journey of someone who very much loves what she is doing and loves the show business and the entertainment and all of that and being a performer, but who desperately wants to have a real personal life as well. We all know that that's very difficult. It takes you to a certain point. It doesn't necessarily resolve things, but it takes you to a place where you've achieved a certain understanding.

Question: In your new show, you're doing one of my favorite songs, "I Was Here," by Ahrens and Flaherty.
Akers: Yes. Lynn rewrote the lyric for me.

Question: How did that song come to you?
Akers: I'm sure that one afternoon Eric Michael and I went to Lynn's apartment with Stephen, and they played things for us. Stephen had given me a CD of someone singing ["I Was Here"], this brilliant English guy. I love the song. I think Eric Michael already knew [the song], so he was interested in that, and he wondered if Lynn would be open to rewriting the lyric. Boy, if you want to work with just about one of the sweetest teams, one of the most wonderful teams — they are such dear people, Lynn and Steve, and they are open and flexible, and they are so supportive and so positive. They came to see the show. It may not have been the best reading ever of their work, but boy you never would have known it from everything they had to say. Steve was kind of amazed because he said, "I've heard that song dozens upon dozens of times, and you made it your own." So that was pretty special... They're wonderful. Ragtime is one of my top five musicals. I just loved it so much. I still get goose bumps when I play the opening.

Question: You mentioned before about the driving forces of the characters in the songs. I was wondering, what are the driving forces for you these days?
Akers: To be as present as possible in the moment, in the now.

Question: I know you travel a lot, but where is home for you these days?
Akers: Oh, honey, if I could answer that. [Laughs.] It's New York. My husband has always been very sure that, in my heart, New York was my home. I've been on and off commuting to Europe for about 12, 13 years, and that just became [too difficult]. ...To be faced with that choice all the time, "Do I work or do I stay with [husband] Kevin [Power in France]?" ...I tried working in France. I did do a concert there. It was very beautiful, very well-received, but it was just local. I tried getting stuff out to people in Paris and never heard back, except this gorgeous letter from the man who runs the Piaf Museum there, which is basically a tiny apartment with all of her dresses and shoes and letters and all her correspondence... I spent the afternoon with him and read all sorts of things and interpreted for a fellow, who was coming in to do an interview. It was just heaven. He wrote back, but nobody in radio, nobody else [did]. . . You really need a big entity behind you or you need some corporate giant behind you to break in there. On the other hand, I do have a friend there who is convinced she can make things happen for me if I can just get myself over there for a couple of weeks. She's got musicians for me to work with, she plays my CDs for people — they say they want to work with me, and it's all very lovely, but...I haven't had the time. I'm going to make it though. I am going to make it, to go over and explore that...

So, Kevin is in France. We're separated. That's all I will say about that. We care very deeply about each other, and no matter what I'm sure we'll remain in each other's lives. We can't have a marriage under these circumstances — that's pretty clear. With people on opposite sides of the ocean, how do you do that? How do you demonstrate your love? It just doesn't work.

Question: Would you have any interest in returning to the Broadway stage?
Akers: Yes, if the right thing were to come along, I would, but it would have to be something really special.

Question: Do you get to see much theatre?
Akers: Not nearly enough. This is a wonderful time for me in New York, though, because I'm going to go see In the Heights on Sunday. I've seen Les Liaisons twice because my sister is understudying both Laura Linney and Kristine Nielsen. I'm so thrilled for her, Nicole Orth-Pallavacini. It's about time.

Question: I know you also did your Kander and Ebb show at the Signature recently.
Akers: Oh, God! That was so much fun, except for opening night. Opening night, I had what can only be called a train wreck. [Laughs.] It wasn't that bad, I'm exaggerating. I had just flown back from London from doing a week at Jermyn Street, eight shows that week plus an added show for students at RADA. The next morning I got up after the RADA three-hour master class I did on Monday night. I flew back to the States, unpacked, repacked, and a couple of days after that flew to Washington to do Signature. It was a totally different show from what I had been doing in London. Opening night, my mind just, a couple of times, went absolutely white. Surgical white. I was miserable because I had dear friends in the audience, and I felt I was letting them down big time. It wasn't as bad as I'm making it out to be but, by my standards, I was really upset. And, from that point on, everything was just gorgeous. The rest of the week we sailed and had so much fun. The audiences loved the show, and we sold out, so what could be bad? [Laughs.]

And by the way, I love the artistic director there, Eric Schaeffer. Not only is he a doll, but he is one of the most creative, most imaginative artistic directors working today. I saw his Witches of Eastwick, which was just so splendid and fun.… I don't want to get into particulars, but I had seen two other productions of that [musical], and this one was, by far, the outstanding one. I mean, truly, everybody was gorgeous. It was so much fun and sexy in a way that I had just never seen before.

Question: You mentioned teaching a master class. Did you enjoy that experience?
Akers: Very much. I'm sometimes just astounded at the rapidity with which the students can [learn]…I can ask them a couple of questions and encourage them to take a look at some other angle, and then they'll do the song again, and it will be like night and day. They're young and quick and they're so smart. It's thrilling. I love doing it.