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Broadway Performer Shares Insight, Stories with Chicago Cast and Crew

Just two days before the opening of Loomis Chaffee’s production of Chicago, Broadway performer Carolyn Kirsch met with the student cast and crew at the Norris Ely Orchard Theater on Monday, February 12, sharing stories and insights from her long career.

Ms. Kirsch appeared in 15 Broadway productions working with director/choreographers Michael Bennett and Bob Fosse. She was in the Broadway productions of A Chorus Line and other musicals for Mr. Bennett, and she appeared in the First National and Broadway companies for How to Succeed and Sweet Charity and the First National company of Chicago under the legendary Mr. Fosse. Ms. Kirsch also was one of the first teachers of the Fosse Technique to be sanctioned by the Verdon Fosse Estate. The Fosse Technique is described as a jazz dance style created by Mr. Fosse.

Loomis Chaffee Theater Director David McCamish arranged for Ms. Kirsch’s visit to the NEO. The musical is being performed February 14–17, but tickets are sold out.

Ms. Kirsch was insightful, entertaining, funny, even a bit sassy, somewhat like the musical itself. She even brought some props with her — bowler hats and canes — and at the end posed for photos with the Loomis students. She was clearly in her element.

“For a short period, I wanted to be a fireman, but that evaporated when I got my first tutu,” she told the students. “Firemen didn’t wear tutus.” There was no dousing the passion inside her for what she really wanted to do. “I didn’t have a choice,” Ms. Kirsch said. “I was really driven and that has remained. I still am. I was happy as a clam to come up here and talk to you. I love to be in a theatrical environment.”

There was a chair set up on the stage as the cast and crew sat in the front rows of the NEO. “Can I sit at the edge of the stage?” she asked. She wanted to get closer to the students. It was as if the conversation was just a chat in someone’s living room, and the students took in everything she had to say.

“You know we just lost Chita, and I was a good friend of Chita. I have some old pictures I can show you later,” Ms. Kirsch said of Chita Rivera, the multiple Tony Ward-winning singer-actress-dancer who originated the role of Anita in West Side Story. Ms. Rivera died January 30 at the age of 91. “She had a joyous life. … She was such a brilliant performer.”

Ms. Kirsch said she came to New York City one summer when she was 15 or 16 with her ballet teacher.

“One of the shows we saw was West Side Story, and it changed my life. And this woman named Chita Rivera changed my life,” Ms. Kirsch said. “And Carol Lawrence [who played Maria] was a ballerina singing in a soprano voice, and I thought, ‘How do I do that? How do I learn that?’ So I made it my business to go out and take every class in the world in all the disciplines. If indeed any of you are interested in pursuing musical theater along the way or just improving yourself, eat up those classes.” 

She also told the students to listen to themselves in whatever career path they follow, theater or not. “What is going to make you happy in your life? I have a CPA on my mind because I am doing my taxes, but if that is [what you want to do], listen to it. That is all I can really tell you.”

But there was more.

“Theater and the performing arts is not easy. It’s not an easy life. … It’s a great life, though,” Ms. Kirsch said. “For me there was nothing more exciting than being in a theater working on a show, cursing, carrying on, falling in and out of love. It’s all there. And using what you have to offer. … I wouldn’t have traded it for the world.”

She talked about getting back up if you’re knocked down.

“The sooner the better after you have had a disappointment,” she said. “You’re training your skin to be resilient, so you don’t want to give up if you didn’t get something.”

It’s a career that requires thick skin, and possibly a multi-pronged approach when you don’t get a part.

“Find out if there is something else you can do with that show. … Find out if you could help with crew, videotape,” Ms. Kirsch said. “Keep yourself involved, and the more things you know how to do, the more you will work. One of the greatest lines in the history of theater, when directors are running around trying to get everything done, ‘Hey, I know how to do that.’ Bang, you’re in.”

Carolyn Kirsch gets a hug.

Broadway performer Carolyn Kirsch gets a thank-you hug after talking with the cast and crew of the Loomis Chaffee production of Chicago, a show she once starred in.

Ms. Kirsch said she learned the most during shows that were difficult for her. “When A Chorus Line opened, I was in that original company as an understudy. It was the hardest thing for me when the show opened, and we were the greatest thing since corn flakes. I was in the basement waiting to go on.”

She said she had to remain prepared, and she did eventually go on stage. But the waiting was hard, so difficult that she “thought I never want to do a show again. … But two months later I was touring Chicago in a starring role. You just have to hold on, hold on — and I held on in that basement.”

That led to working with many talented people, making many memories. It could be a whirlwind existence. One had to be ready at any moment “to pick up and leave and go on the road for a year.”

Touring was exciting with plenty of perks. “I got to see America for free,” she said. “You get an education.”

But, she said, “loneliness is not a perk. You’re missing family, friends, animals. You take things with you that you want. You keep things close to you that remind you that this is touring and that other place is where I live, which for me was New York.”

When she was asked about her greatest memories, she said she couldn’t zero in on one but was grateful for all. And then as she continued talking, she reflected more and more on the remarkable people with whom she had worked, including Zero Mostel, perhaps best known for his role as Tyve in Fiddler on the Roof, and Katharine Hepburn, one of the greatest actresses in movie history who also had a long stage career. “I remember we couldn’t say, ‘Hi, Miss Hepburn, how do I look today?’ because she would tell you, and you never wore that outfit again,” Ms. Kirsch said with a laugh. She spoke of Angela Lansbury — known to many for her hit TV series Murder She Wrote, but whose stage, film and TV career spanned 80 years — brilliantly working with emotions.

And then she talked of an usher at a theater. “She came to the stage level as they were getting the house ready, and she gave me a lace hankie. She said, ‘I’ve have been watching you all week, and I want you to have this.’” Ms. Kirsch’s voice started to break as if it had happened just the other day. “I still have that little hankie. … It was so touching.”

Ms. Kirsch is now, as she says, “officially, officially” retired, so she is writing her memoir. There is so much to tell even beyond her days of Broadway productions. She has written plays that have been produced. She has directed. She has taught. She even got her Licensed Practical Nurse license at one point. That memoir is sure to be a good read. Anyone looking to turn it into a musical?


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