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Just a Phase?

If you quickly scan over the career of singer-actress Cleo Laine, you might tend to break it down into phases.

There was the jazz band singing phase with the Johnny Dankworth Seven. (Laine and Dankworth are still musical and marriage partners.) There was the theater phase when Laine became a sudden sensation on London’s West End in the ‘60s. Then there was the recording phase when Laine and Dankworth cut such landmark discs as “Shakespeare and All That Jazz” and “I Am a Song.” Most recently there’s been the annual U.S. concert tour phase: The Laine-Dankworth combo have unfailingly played Los Angeles every year since 1973.

So is her role as The Witch in Stephen Sondheim’s musical fairy tale, “Into the Woods,” at the Ahmanson Theatre--following on her Princess Puffer in “The Mystery of Edwin Drood"--a return to her theater phase?

“There are no phases,” she says, “only phone calls. You don’t really plan the changes in your life. Offers over the phone have constantly thrown me into things.

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“Now, I developed my acting and singing equipment. When called upon, I could deliver. And doing these many things helps for longevity in a business that does everything to make one’s life short.”

In fact, Laine’s 38 years of performing before audiences resists any pattern. Jazz gigs will alternate with operetta assignments, which will be squeezed in between recordings such as her 1988 tribute, “Cleo Sings Sondheim.” Her first contact with the composer-lyricist was more than 10 years ago, when the Michigan Opera Company staged “A Little Night Music.”

“I didn’t covet any of the roles in his work,” she says, “but what I admired in him was the thing I’ve striven for in my own work, which is an equal respect for music and words. And some of my best work, and his, was the least popular. But what advances the art is when artists show a love for material that audiences don’t immediately love.”

True to form, Laine next plans to go out of “The Woods” and into the world of women songwriters for a record titled “Woman to Woman.”

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“If I get my way,” she says with a sly wink, “the rhythm section"--which includes her husband--"will pose for the album cover in drag.”


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