Riveting Riffs Logo One Reflections with Liz Callaway
Liz Callaway Photo One

Liz Callaway Photo FiveIt is not often that you get to interview some of the world’s favorite fantasy characters, Grizabella, the glamour cat from the Broadway musical Cats, the animated Anastasia, or Princess Jasmine from The Return of Jafar and Aladdin and the King of Thieves, but recently the very gifted Broadway actress and singer Liz Callaway took time out from her performances in France and in the United States, to talk to Riveting Riffs Magazine. Callaway spent the better part of five years as part of the cast for the Broadway production of Cats and she provided the singing voice for Meg Ryan’s Anastasia, as well as providing the vocals for Princess Jasmine.  Callaway also appeared in the original casts for the Broadway productions of Miss Saigon, The Three Musketeers and The Look of Love and she was nominated for a prestigious Tony Award for her role in Baby.  Liz Callaway received a Drama Desk nomination for her performance in the Off-Broadway production of The Spitfire Grill and she has appeared in numerous other Off-Broadway productions, including; No Way to Treat a Lady, Marry Me a Little and Godspell. Although, she is approaching iconic stature as a stage actress and singer, Liz Callaway remains grateful for the opportunities which have come her way, including her part in the Follies in Concert at the Lincoln Center. 

Liz Callaway, who grew up in Chicago, reflects upon how she started down this path to what many would refer to as stardom, even though, she might be too modest to frame it in those words, “When I was in high school, I would go to New York by myself, when I was fifteen and sixteen years old. I would stay in a cheap little hotel so I could see shows and I would go to the half price booth. The fact that my parents let me do that….(she bursts out laughing) They would not have let Ann (her sister Ann Callaway) do that, because Ann would have got into trouble. She would have been like, ‘Oh what’s this, a jazz club? I’m going to go here.’ I was very careful and very street smart, at a very young age and I don’t know why. That is just sort of who I was.  In some ways I was sort of mature for my years, but in some ways not at all. I was realistic about things.”

“I was eighteen when Ann and I moved to New York City and when moved, I knew that I had potential, but I was very raw and I needed a lot of work. I made a goal to get into a chorus of an Off-Broadway musical in three years. (she laughs again) First of all, I didn’t realize that Off-Broadway shows don’t have choruses, then I ended up doing much better, much sooner, than I expected. After a year I was cast in Merrily We Roll Along (Stephen Sondheim).  I didn’t have crazy high expectations at first. I felt like I had talent and I knew that it would take time and it would take work. I have been very fortunate to have a very interesting career (which includes an Emmy Award for a children’s program, as well as a MAC Award for Sibling Revelry with her sister Ann). For me, doing Merrily We Roll Along, was the ideal first show experiences, because it wasn’t successful. I got to work with great people and I was a huge Stephen Sondheim fan, so that was incredible, but we previewed for two months and we went through all of these changes. It was a show that was very troubled, although, by the time that we opened, I thought that it was wonderful. I still think that it is a great score, but it didn’t get great reviews and it closed after two weeks. It was devastating, but that is what this business is. If my first Broadway show was successful like Wicked or something, then I would have nowhere to go but down, and I would have gone, ‘This is the way that it always is.’ I was pretty much a realist anyway and I was just thrilled to be cast. I wasn’t all that starry eyed. I knew that there were problems with the show and that maybe it wouldn’t be successful,” says Callaway.

Callaway notes that there were many benefits to working in Merrily We Roll Along, despite the show’s lack of success. Those benefits included the opportunity to work with great writers and directors and being able to absorb the whole process as they made changes to the production. She says that the experience matured her and helped her to understand that (in her words) it is a crapshoot when you do a show, as the critics may love it or they may not love it.

In contrast, Callaway recalls another production in which she appeared, “In ’85 (September 6th,7th) there was a two night concert version of Follies In Concert and it (starred) Carol Burnett, Lee Remick, Many Patinkin, George Hearn and Barbara Cook (also Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Liliane Montevecchi, Elaine Stritch, Phyllis Newman, Licia Albanese) at Avery Fisher Hall (Lincoln Center) and (we had) a full orchestra. We recorded it and it got great reviews. The audience response was unlike anything that I have done since. Frank Rich of the New York Times gave it this incredible review after the fact, and then it was over. I went ‘Ah, that’s what it is like to be in a hit, to have that feeling of ah that’s it, and it was over in two nights.’ I thought this is my career. This is the life, with so many ups and downs. You get used to it and it helps, because you have to be thick skinned.”

Now in her late forties, and with her son Nicholas in college, Liz Callaway finds herself in the position of being the standard by which young, up and coming stage actresses and singers measure themselves. “It is very humbling and very flattering, and you want to live up to that. It means a lot, especially when I meet young people and they say ‘I grew up listening to this,’ or ‘I want to sound like you.’ Anyone that I ever teach, I say to them, you want to be you. The one thing that I will say about myself is I don’t think that there is anyone like me, for better or for worse. There’s a lot that I can’t do. I’m not great at everything, but I think that I am unique and I don’t sound like anyone else. I don’t think that I sing like anybody else and I embrace that and that is what I always tell people that they should do.  It is wonderful to be inspired by someone, but don’t try to be like them. When you are young, you want to be like everyone else and then when you are older, you realize the opposite that you don’t want to be like anyone else and it is better to be unique. I do feel a great responsibility to do a great show.”Liz Callaway Photo Four

With her new album Passage of Time, Callaway demonstrates both her eclectic taste in music and her ability to interpret music drawn from many genres, much as she did with her 2001 release The Beat Goes On, which featured songs such as; the Sonny Bono title track, Laura Nyro’s “Wedding Bell Blues,” Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” and Jimmy Webb’s “MacArthur Park.” For the album Passage of Time, Liz Callaway covered the Lennon and McCartney tune “Eleanor Rigby,” Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head,” “Make Someone Happy,” (Jule Styne, Betty Comden / Adolph Green)“Memory,” which she performed in Cats and she recorded a duet with Ann Callaway, “That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be,” written by Carly Simon and Jacob Brackman.

“When I talked to Tommy Krasker my producer he was interested in having me sing songs that reflected where I was in my life, as opposed to a theme, (such as) all movie music or all this, and just choosing songs that I wanted to sing.  In the last few years, I made a list of songs that I felt I was too young to sing, because in my mind, even though I am in my late forties, my voice is very youthful sounding. I thought, I would never sing “Being Alive” (Stephen Sondheim).  I would never sing “Patterns,” the song from Baby that was done by the older character, the middle age woman. It never crossed my mind to sing something like that.  I made a list of songs for which I felt I was too young in my warped sense of myself or that I would be afraid to sing. Afraid isn’t quite the right word, but it was more like, ‘oh gee I don’t know if I would tackle that song, because I don’t know if I have what it takes emotionally, to sing that song.’ Some of the songs on the CD are kind of that. They are more personal and more of me embracing my age and embracing my experience,” says Callaway.

“The last six months with losing my father (John Callaway a broadcast journalist) and then with my son going off to college, it has been quite a time, and so you have a lot to sing about and you have a lot of deep feelings. Some of the songs on the CD sort of reflect that.  “Secret of Life,” is a wonderful philosophy and it is a song that I had heard someone do on a James Taylor special. My process for choosing songs for a recording is I sing a million songs and I record them, and then I listen back to get a sense of if I would want to hear it again. Sometimes a song that you love to perform and that you love to do live isn’t necessarily something that you would want to record or that you would want to hear. I didn’t decide to call the album Passage of Time based on “Secret of Life,” until pretty far along. In fact, I recorded half the CD first then several months later I did the second half and “Secret of Life,” was in the second half.  “Passage of Time,” is a lyric in “Secret of Life.” It just sort of worked,” she says.

“It has been seven years in between my CDs (Anywhere I Wander –Liz Callaway Sings Frank Loesser, 2003) and just trying to choose the material was killing me. I am very indecisive in general, when there are so many choices for something. I have a very hard time making up my mind and I felt a huge pressure for this album to be something special. I am very proud of the CDs that I have done and I love recording. I absolutely love it. I think for anyone, it is like, how do I do the next one? I felt a great deal of pressure for this to be a really good CD, but at the same time, to make it something that I wanted it to be and not try to appeal to the masses. I wanted it to have meaning for people,” says Liz Callaway. 

Twenty-seven different musicians performed on Passage of Time, several of them playing more than one instrument, under the musical direction of Alex Rybeck, contributing to a very full sound that presents the listener with the opportunity to partake in a live experience. 

“There are a number of songs on the CD that are smaller, four or five pieces, but there is nothing like singing with an orchestra. I just came back from Paris where I was singing with an eighty piece orchestra, but without using that many players, (on Passage of Time) there is a beautiful full sound. There are certain songs that we felt would be emotionally enhanced with a bigger orchestration.  I know how lucky I am, because it would be much easier and less expensive to do something with just a piano or just a few pieces. I was very fortunate to have some of the songs be fuller. The orchestrations were so magnificent,” says Callaway, while noting gratefully that numerous investors were involved, making it possible for this project to be completed, including several individuals.

“In the past, I have done some albums, when you record to a trio and then you add musicians afterwards, but with this (album) everything was sung live, with all of the musicians there (in the studio). Tommy Krasker my producer feels very strongly that it inspires a different performance when you are all in a room together.  I agree. It was more pressure, because we had to do it quickly. We did six songs on one day and seven songs on another day. For the most part they were first and second takes. I usually find that your first instincts in recording are your best. The thing that I have learned about recording is that you want the performance; you don’t want to be perfect. Hopefully you have a great performance and it is perfect, but it is the emotion and the performance that it is more important than everything being absolutely pinpoint perfect, which is why I wouldn’t want to spend a month on a song, because you take the whole life out of it, if you become too technical.  (This album) is more organic and it is more in the moment. I think that when you are talking about music that people will have more of an emotional reaction to, that is more important,” says Callaway.     Please visit the website for Liz Callaway.     Return to Our Front Page

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This interview by Joe Montague  published February 1st, 2010 is protected by copyright © and is the property of Riveting Riffs Magazine All Rights Reserved.  All photos are the the property of the producers of Liz Callaway unless otherwise noted and all  are protected by copyright © All Rights Reserved. This interview may not be reproduced in print or on the internet or through any other means without the written permission of Riveting Riffs Magazine.