A Conversation with Rita Gardner

A Conversation with Rita Gardner

September 4, 2018

By Melody Breyer-Grell for Cabaret Scenes

Rita Gardner

What teenage theater girl did not spin her LP of The Fantasticks while also spinning around in her room singing “Much More,” knowing that the lyrics of this soul searching romp were written just for her? Well, I know I did. That’s why interviewing Rita Gardner, who originated the role of The Girl (Luisa) in The Fantasticks, was a special event for this writer. I wanted to pin down who this girl was and how she got to star in one of the most iconic (and the most long-running) Off-Broadway musicals of all time. As we chatted on the phone I realized that behind the endearing cuteness of Luisa was a no-nonsense professional who was “much more” than a terrific voice or pretty face.

Melody Breyer-Grell: Your voice is so focused and technically perfect on the recording of The Fantasticks. Were you a natural, or did you have many lessons?
Rita Gardner: I studied all the time, but I also started performing when I was five years old. My school teacher heard me singing and called my mother, who was amazed at the call, but so pleased.

Melody: What was your background? Were your parents musical?
Rita: I was born and lived in Brooklyn, but my parents were not musical, so my ability to sing came as quite a surprise.

Rita on the radio program, Coast to Coast on a Bus.

I went on and told Rita that of course she HAD to be a natural if she started that young. It was like hearing the story of Beverly Sills when she was on Major Bowes’ Original Amateur Hour. I wondered if she sang any soubrette parts in opera, and as if she was reading my mind she mentioned that she had cut her teeth in opera…

Rita: At one time, I sang the role of Barbarina in The Marriage of Figaro at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Melody: Was The Fantasticks your first play?
Rita: I actually was in something before that, a revue written by Jerry Herman called Night Cap. In fact, I thought that I was auditioning for a revue when I went out for The Fantasticks. It was a rainy day and I was not dressed properly and the director, Word Baker, took one look at me and told me not to bother to sing. He did not think I was “The Girl.” But, I persisted and after many auditions, I got the part. Harvey Schmidt heard me sight-read the music and did well, which I think sealed the deal. But, the producer, Lore Noto, told me he knew I was Louisa all along. I also knew Kenneth Nelson, who played “The Boy,” before I was in The Fantasticks. He was a colleague of mine. (Nelson’s breakthrough performance was as Michael in The Boys in The Band—play and movie.)

Rita with Jerry Orbach in the original production of The Fantasticks

I just had to ask Rita about the late Jerry Orbach and did so apologetically, but she welcomed my question. “Did you all know that he would make it so big?” She said that there was no doubt about it, his talent and charm and inherent niceness made it inevitable.

Melody: What was your next milestone?
Rita: Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. I replaced Elly Stone and actually got to meet Jacques Brel. Doing this show produced some of the most moving moments in my theatrical life.

For those of us fixated on The Fantasticks, it is interesting to learn that Rita does have a long and rich theatrical résumé, including but not limited to Pal Joey, The Last of the Red-Hot Lovers, Young Gifted and Black, Steel Magnolias, and a featured role in 2006 in The Wedding Singer. She has also performed extensively throughout the country.

Melody: So what is the focus of your new cabaret show at The Laurie Beecham Theatre?
Rita: My show, Much More: A Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt Songbook, is a celebration of their collaboration, with my musical director and pianist, Alex Rybeck, and my director, Jeff Harnar. Shows represented include 110 in the Shade, I Do! I Do!, and Celebration. There will be the expected standards and some more surprises from The Bone Room, Grover’s Corners, and Colette Collage.

Rita will also be telling some unforgettable stories­—funny, poignant, and revealing—as only someone with a long personal history with Schmidt and Jones can do. This show is especially dedicated to the late Harvey Schmidt, who played a very important part in Rita’s life and career.

Melody Breyer-Grell

A life-long New Yorker, Melody Breyer-Grell was a voracious reader as a little girl, which led towards a life filled with theater, opera and jazz. Following her penning a parody nightclub show chronicling the ups and down of a life in music, she proceeded to get published in several genres, including fiction, essay and memoir. They include The Fairhaven Literary Review, short stories featured in Counting Down the Seconds and SunKissed (both published in the UK by Freya Publications). Melody is a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post, opining on a broad range of subjects—from peace in the Middle East to American Idol.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Susan Wertheimer Epstein

    Wonderful interview which gives the reader a deeper understanding of the diversity and talent of the fabulous Rita Gardner!

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