Leslie Uggams puts her own stamp on Lena Horne in ‘Stormy Weather’

ON A ‘STORMY’ PATH: “This is really all about Lena,” Leslie Uggams says. “I’m not doing a copy of Lena. There is only one Lena Horne. But I’m bringing the essence of Lena.”
ON A ‘STORMY’ PATH: “This is really all about Lena,” Leslie Uggams says. “I’m not doing a copy of Lena. There is only one Lena Horne. But I’m bringing the essence of Lena.”
(Glenn Koenig, Los Angeles Times)

Leslie Uggams and Lena Horne have crossed paths only a few times. But Uggams feels that the force and power of the iconic singer have always been a part of her.

“Lena was a goddess in my house -- my mother played her records all the time, and I was always moved by how beautiful and classy she was,” says Uggams. “When I was doing my nightclub act at the Coconut Grove in 1965, she pinned me as a Delta -- we both belong to Delta Sigma Theta. I’ve always felt like she’s been so close to me.”

The two are more than sorority sisters-in-arms. With separate successful careers spanning at least five decades, Horne and Uggams have been celebrated for their striking beauty and silky smooth voices. Their popularity grew as they broke through barriers for African American performers. Horne was one of Hollywood’s first black female beauty icons while Uggams became the first black woman to host a network musical variety show ( CBS’ “The Leslie Uggams Show” in 1969).

Both also ran headlong into racist forces that threatened to derail their careers, and both sparked furors when they married white men.

In recent years, Horne, 91, has withdrawn from public view while Uggams, 65, has kept busy -- she starred opposite James Earl Jones in 2005 on Broadway in “On Golden Pond” and just completed a revival of “The First Breeze of Summer” at New York’s Signature Theatre Company. Now, more than four decades after she was pinned by Horne, Uggams is putting her own distinctive stamp on her idol.

Uggams portrays Horne in “Stormy Weather,” a new musical biography at the Pasadena Playhouse that producers hope will find its way to Broadway. The play chronicles Horne commenting on her life while observing a younger version of herself, played by Nikki Crawford.

The show has the same title as the classic Harold Arlen torch song that became Horne’s signature (she sang it in the 1943 film of the same name). Suggested by Leslie Palmer’s biography “Lena Horne, Entertainer,” the title also reflects Horne’s celebrated but tumultuous life and career.

Though Horne appeared in such ‘40s musicals as “Ziegfeld Follies,” " Till the Clouds Roll By” and “Thousands Cheer,” she encountered race-related obstacles in Hollywood. In fact, she often had to film stand-alone scenes that could be easily deleted for screenings in the then-Jim Crow South. Her most prominent roles were in all-black musicals such as “Stormy Weather” and “Cabin in the Sky.”

That darker side of history is the backdrop for several nostalgic musical numbers in the new “Stormy Weather,” which includes songs by Arlen and Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, and Jerome Kern.

“We’re dealing with a woman facing a crossroads when doing the one thing she lives for -- to entertain -- becomes too painful,” said Michael Bush, the former director of artistic production for New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club, who is helming “Stormy Weather.” “She proceeds to shut down. How much can she sing if she shuts down?”

The forces behind the production feel that the inauguration of President Obama offers a prime opportunity to present Horne’s legacy to a younger, more politically aware generation.

“This is a true story for our times,” said producer Stewart Lane. “We’re honoring a light-skinned woman making it during the racially charged ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. People like her laid the groundwork for Barack Obama.”

Added Sheldon Epps, artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse: “Lena’s story is specifically from the viewpoint of a black woman trying to balance career, family and relationships as well as dealing with the pressures that came from both white and black America.”

Elevating the relevance of the project, say producers, is the star power of Uggams, who won a Tony Award in 1968 for best actress in a musical for “Hallelujah, Baby!”

She started her career at age 6 in the TV series “Beulah” and is perhaps best known for her searing portrayal of the slave Kizzy in the landmark 1977 miniseries “Roots,” which earned her numerous accolades, including an Emmy Award nomination.

The Horne-Uggams connection makes for a more powerful theatrical experience, said Epps: “There is a deeper reward for the audience with the synchronicity between the actress and the character.

“The opening number is Lena in concert. There’s this richness of being reminded of the magic of Lena, but there’s also this incredible richness in seeing Leslie. In the same way that Lena in her later years had a greater amount of star quality and experience, Leslie does the same thing.”

Uggams’ big break came as a teenager when record producer Mitch Miller in 1961 cast her in “Sing Along With Mitch,” a variety series dominated by peppy tunes, a ball bouncing over on-screen lyrics.

Uggams said she didn’t learn until many years later that Miller had been under pressure by stations in the South to get rid of her or have her sing separately from the rest of the cast so she could be cut out of episodes.

“Yes there are some parallels, but this is really all about Lena,” says Uggams, adding, “I’m not doing a copy of Lena. There is only one Lena Horne. But I’m bringing the essence of Lena.”

“Stormy Weather” is the second time in two years that the Pasadena Playhouse has featured a musical production built around a showbiz icon. " Ray Charles Live! A New Musical,” which producers still hope will make it to Broadway, drew flak from several children of the late singer who complained it highlighted Charles’ infidelity and other negative aspects of his life.

Controversy has no place in “Stormy Weather,” said Uggams. “This is really a love letter to her, a valentine. We are here to celebrate her. I wouldn’t have done it if it were anything else. I’m very comfortable in the story we’re telling.”

But Horne is not taking an official position on the project. Though she is aware of “Stormy Weather” and has given it her blessing,” the entertainer, who lives in New York, is keeping a respectful distance from the project, conceived and written by Sharleen Cooper Cohen (“Sheba” and the upcoming musical “Officer,” based on the film “An Officer and a Gentleman”).

Said Uggams, “Sharleen got in touch with Lena early on and asked if she wanted to be a part of this. Lena’s response was ‘I lived it!’ So that was the end of that.”

During a recent rehearsal at a Burbank studio, Uggams, dressed in a pink hooded sweat shirt, seemed focused as she went through her lines. She appeared to internalize some of the tenseness expressed by director Bush, as he wrestled with blocking some of the performers.

But the director relaxed as he sat back to watch Uggams sing the opening number as Lena. “I absolutely adore Leslie,” he said. “She’s a fantastic actress. No one works harder in this room than she does.”

Uggams, who has been married to Australian businessman Grahame Pratt since 1965, said taking on the role has consumed her.

“I have no life off the stage,” she said with a loud laugh. “I have to save all my strength for the show. There’s no hanging out. I have to eat at certain times so my voice will stay strong. But for Lena, it’s worth it. I am so primed for this.”