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A Conversation with Andrea Bell Wolff

| September 19, 2017

A Conversation with Andrea Bell Wolff

September 18, 2017

Cabaret Scenes chats with Andrea Bell Wolff, whose cabaret show, Prisoner of Love, is playing at Metropolitan Room on September 23rd, before moving to Don’t Tell Mama for two performances in October and November.

Wolff Is a multi-talented singer-actress-comedian whose impressive show business resume begins with her joining the cast of the National Tour of Hello, Dolly!  with none other than Carol Channing. She was sixteen, and plucked from the Professional Children’s School to play the role of Ermengarde. When she joined the Broadway cast (in total she played in five productions, first as Ermengarde and then as Minnie Fay), she lived alone as a teen in Manhattan’s theater district. Her career in show business took off. A sampling of credits include: The Imaginary Invalid with E.G. Marshall and Ruby Dee; Grease, opposite Andrea McArdle; George M!; Li’l Abner; Little Shop of Horrors; and Funny Girl. Her work in the revue Bottoms Up! took her from Caesars Palace in Las Vegas to Australia. Her work with the show band Your Father’s Mustache landed her on The Ed Sullivan Show, and she was a regular on the Donny and Marie Show working with Sid and Marty Krofft. 

After keeping a low profile while she raised  two children, Wolff returned to the New York stage in 2011 with a show called Loose Screws, a risqué, fictional biographical journey of an also-ran entertainer, Ms. Chelsea Sutton Place. In 2015, she mounted a multimedia revue featuring music emblematic of the 1960s “girl group” sound, titled Bad Girls Do Cry, at Iridium and Don’t Tell Mama and played to capacity crowds.

Cabaret Scenes: Your show Prisoner of Love has a definite theme. Did the idea come fully formed?

Andrea Wolff: My original title was Love Is a Criminal Offense. When I started researching music, I found that many of the songs I was drawn to did not exactly fit the title. Love can be dangerous in many forms, and I wanted to have that expressed within the show. Peter Napolitano [director] and I thought long and hard on this and both agreed that Prisoner of Love was the right one.

CS: Tell us a bit about the show.

AW: The show is mainly autobiographical. The truth be told, I was addicted to being in love as far back in my life as I can remember. Even as far as kindergarten. No baby dolls for me. Barbie and Ken were my way to go and my playtime revolved around getting together with my young gal pals and acting out true romance comics. The show will take people on a journey through my romantic obsessions, good and bad. There are some songs about murder and, although I never actually killed anyone – I SWEAR – my mind sometimes took me to some very dark places.

CS: You recently debuted the show at the Metropolitan Room just hours after your mother passed away at the age of 100+. People who saw the show said you were extremely calm, composed and didn’t miss a lyric. Can you tell us about the experience?

AW: Ah, yes, my mom. What a great lady. Two months before she died she danced at my son’s wedding. She was feisty and totally with it up until the very end of her life. We were as close as any mother and daughter can be. She was never, ever a stage mother but was my biggest fan. She knew her days were numbered, as she was in hospice. We were having a conversation and she said, as she pointed her finger at me, “I want you to promise me that no matter what happens to me you will go on with your show.” On August 23rd at 4:35 she died peacefully in her sleep. That evening at 7:00 pm I did my show. I’m not a religious person but I am spiritual. There was an uncanny calmness that came over me and I sang the best I’ve ever sung. So people can believe what they want, but she was with me.

CS: How long did it take to develop the show?

AW: Barry Levitt and I started working on this show about a year ago. We must have gone thru 50- plus songs. Some we threw out at first and then we brought back them into the mix. Barry is a genius when it comes to taking a song, stripping it down, and coming up with a totally new approach and flavor.

CS: Is the show autobiographical, or semi?

AW: The show is mostly autobiographical. As I stated before, I had a bucketful of relationships. One night I couldn’t sleep so I started counting all the men I slept with…I was awake for a while. I was a child of the ’60s. No apologies or regrets!

CS: What is the process you and Barry have developed in working together? Do you both come up with songs, order, pacing?

AW: Barry and I have been working together for about three years. What an amazing person to have entered my life. He is always patient and supportive, even when you walk in for a session with no voice. I would work with him just about every week. We would sit and discuss our objectives with the show. This show evolved from what I imagined to be almost all comedy to a mature, thoughtful, and sometimes sad piece of work. I would bring songs in and it was yay or nay. I usually listened to his advice because I respect his expertise in these matters. We put together a preliminary order, and when Peter Napolitano joined us, he put the show in the final order.

Andrea (front) with Betsy Palmer in Hello, Dolly!

CS: When did director Peter Napolitano come into the process?

AW: Peter Napolitano joined us around three months ago. He has been a fabulous asset. He truly knows what he is doing. We realized we were a good fit and we totally got each other. He understood that I am basically a musical comedy performer. I’m not going to just stand there like a statue and sing a song. Being an actress, he brought out emotions in some songs that honestly I would have never thought to go there. And it doesn’t hurt that we both have a sick sense of humor. I am so happy to be working with him.

CS: Would you say your experience landing feet first in show business as you did at 16 years old made life easier for you as a performer?

AW: Going on tour with the national company of Hello, Dolly! was a blessing and a curse. Although it was a fabulous experience traveling and meeting some fascinating people, I was lonely at times. Most everyone was older and, even though I was quite mature for 16, they still saw me as a child. I also wish I had taken time to go to college for, even though I worked a lot, there were some hungry times. What did help me along the way is that when I was 21 I looked 12, so I was cast in younger roles. If I could go back in time I would appreciate my early experiences so much more. I sort of took it for granted that doors would always be open to me. But people in casting change and the folks who knew you are no longer around. Now when you tell a 20-something casting director that you worked with Ruby Dee, Channing, Lamour, Ethel Merman, they look at you blankly, like, “Who are they?”

CS: You lived in NYC alone from a very young age. How old were you and what was a day like for a young teen “on her own”?

AW: When I joined the Broadway production of Hello, Dolly! I had just turned 17. My mother and I went to find me an apartment. We found one at the Camelot. It was a block from the St. James. I lived alone for awhile and then took on a roommate. That was not so great. She slept with my boyfriend one afternoon as I was doing a matinee, so I kicked her out! When I wasn’t doing the show, I would sometimes take dance class. It was, as I said before, a bit lonely at times. So I would invite a fella to make the day go by and fulfill any little need! This may sound brutally honest, but that’s the truth.

Andrea in Li’l Abner

CS: Have you found it easy to re-enter the business since stepping out to raise your family?

AW: Well, I never totally left performing. When my children were young I sang with various bands and got involved with community theater. My daughter was born with a rare genetic disorder and so it wasn’t easy for me to leave for any extended period of time. My first re-entry into a professional show was Goodspeed’s Li’l Abner. I played Mammy Yokum. It was a hoot, however being older and doing a feisty, energetic role like that eight or nine performances a week was exhausting. All I did was work, eat, and sleep for 5 months. My husband would come visit me and I would fall asleep at the dinner table. I would love to do a workshop of a show in town. Perhaps I would travel again, but it doesn’t call to me any more. I have an amazing husband of 33 years, a family, and three dogs, so there’s a lot on my plate and going to Oshkosh, Wisconsin for months to earn Equity scale doesn’t excite me. Of course, I never say “never.” I find it almost impossible to get in to see an agent. They always want to make me into something I’m not. Cut your hair off, go gray, dress frumpy. Sorry, but I ain’t there yet. I’m unique and through the years I’ve learned to like myself the way I am.

CS: What is your ideal plan for your future in show business?

AW: I have no visions of grandeur for my professional future. I would, of course, love to do some theater in New York, and doing some film work is definitely on my bucket list. Even in this crazy world of cabaret with its abundance of wonderful people, I find it’s still “who you know” and politics as usual and it’s a tough game I’m attempting to play. If people like my performance and invite me to sing for benefits and such, I will be there in a heartbeat. I love to perform, as it is and always will be such a huge part of Andrea Bell Wolff.

Andrea Bell Wolff
Prisoner of Love
September 23 at 9:30 pm
Metropolitan Room
34 W. 22nd St., NYC
212.206.0440

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Category: Cabaret Features, New York City, New York City Cabaret Features, Regional

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