Marilyn Maye does more than play a show biz survivor in "Follies," the musical kicking off Starlight Musical Theatre's 1990 season today.
Marilyn Maye is a survivor.
In the 50 years that Maye has been performing, she said, she has lived the lines that she sings in her "Follies" number, "I'm Still Here":
"Good times and bum times/I've seen them all and, my dear/I'm still here."
She began her singing career at age 9 on a radio show in her native Kansas. After being discovered by Steve Allen almost 30 years ago, she appeared on the "Tonight Show" a record 78 times, produced 12 albums and 34 singles for RCA, picked up a Grammy nomination and won the Jazz Heritage Award twice as well as accolades from critics and peers including Ella Fitzgerald, who called her "the greatest white female singer around."
But it's been far from a cushy life of honors and awards for the 62-year-old singer.
Like the veteran performers in "Follies" who come back to relive memories at the site of the fictitious, to-be-demolished Weissman Theatre, Maye has seen most of the clubs she sang in close or switch to rock 'n' roll because of changing economics and changing tastes.
"I had a whole tour of wonderful clubs all over the country," said Maye, sitting in a seat of the empty Civic Theatre watching the set of the Weissman being built. "Now, so many nightclubs have closed. The Copacabana is no more. The Fairmont Hotel in Dallas is no more; they put a rock 'n' roll band in the Venetian Room. There are only two major rooms in New York: the Rainbow and Stars and Michael's Pub."
Maye, who has headlined at both these clubs, recently returned from a successful engagement at Michael's Pub, better known as the place where Woody Allen would rather play jazz clarinet than attend the Academy Awards.
Maye doesn't think nightclubs will come back; she blames their demise on the popularity of television, the decline of the businessman's expense account and the increasing expense of performers which is due, in turn, to the increased expense of airlines and musicians.
Now, she sings in performing arts centers and has begun to carve out a second career for herself in musical theater.
In the last 10 years she has played Dolly Levi at Kansas City's Starlight Theatre and recorded the score from "Hello, Dolly" in a recent album. She has starred as Mame at Houston's Theatre Under the Stars and co-starred as Sally in Houston's $3.5-million production of "Follies."
But she's hardly the prima donna.
She came to an open audition at Starlight Musical Theatre to try out for the part of Sally, only to find out that seasoned Broadway and television actress Teri Ralston had already been cast in the role.
Bonnie Ward, co-artistic director of Starlight along with her husband, Don, recalled that Maye didn't miss a beat when she heard the part she had come for was gone.
"She said, 'I'll sing anyway,' " Bonnie Ward said. "She's a pro."
And, though Carlotta is a featured, rather than a starring role, Maye was glad to take it--in part because she likes and identifies with the character so much.
Like the character she plays, Maye takes pride in having survived despite the difficulties.
"I survived doing what I do--Cole Porter, Gershwin, Sondheim--I survived in a rock 'n' roll world because I am a strong performer and a very positive thinker," she said.
It's an attitude that has helped her get through trials in her personal life as well.
Married and divorced twice, her second husband, Sam Tucker, who has since died, was her accompanist for 12 years. She divorced him because of his drinking but continued to love him.
"I had him in sanatoriums all the time. He was an incredible pianist. You depend upon his fingers and his love and his professional expertise. I loved him and hated to leave, but it was a matter of surviving for me and my child."
That child, Kristi Tucker (a product of her first marriage who took her stepfather's name), is now a performer too, appearing in a roadshow of "Nunsense."
Other than her daughter, there isn't anyone special in Maye's life now, but she doesn't seem to mind.
"I have wonderful friends in wonderful cities, but my love affair now is my audience," she said.
Maye doesn't waste time on regrets. She looks ahead, to this show and to her San Diego debut.
"I'll tell you, it feels great that I have great health and great energy, and I am doing what I do best," Maye said.
"All through my life, I have done this singing career and never have done anything else. I realize I am not a household word, but in the business, my peers know me.
"The wonderful thing about maturity is that, if you sustain your voice, each experience in life gives you great insight into the lines. For a 17-year-old to sing 'Stormy Weather' is ludicrous. I think you have to believe in what you're singing to get the audience to believe."