Reading reviews from Judy Kuhn’s shows, I notice a common theme: she is rarely mentioned in much depth. Critics briefly praise her talent and move on. There’s an expectation in the theatre community that Kuhn will deliver a flawless performance. When she does, it’s really not much of a surprise. And so, with her enduring star quality, it’s no wonder she’s managed to leave critics and fans utterly unsurprised for over thirty years.
Watching Kuhn perform is a masterclass in range. She belongs to a small minority of singers who excel at both the crystal-clear soprano and the soul-stirring belt. Aside from her rigorous technique, there’s her dependable professionalism, her formidable stage presence and her ability to construct three-dimensional characters with the capacity to move even the most emotionally repressed theatre-goer to tears. Any theatre fan will agree: there’s Broadway, and then there’s Judy Kuhn.
The first thing I notice about Kuhn during our call is her sense of humour. She bursts into laughter when I refer to her as ‘Broadway’s Secret Weapon.’ “I have no idea what that means!” she tells me. After spending hours listening to her sing of longing, betrayal and wasted youth, it’s a refreshing change.
Arriving in New York as a fresh-faced ingenue in the early 80s, Kuhn quickly garnered recognition for her roles in The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1985), Rags (1986) and Les Misérables (1987), for which she received a Tony nomination for her performance as Cosette. Cosette is a notoriously difficult role to get right, her admittedly spectacular soprano often paling in comparison to the gutsy belts of Fantine or Éponine. In a musical where almost every character is (loudly) suffering, her unsinkable optimism can rub some people the wrong way. Yet critics and fans agree that Kuhn brought something else to the role, demonstrating a real awareness of the trauma and abuse Cosette suffered in childhood. She offers a realistic and profoundly moving performance of a role which often gets overlooked.
“People usually hate Cosette?!” Kuhn says in disbelief, “I really like Cosette. I see her as this incredibly strong, feisty, ambitious risk-taker. She’s willing to break the rules…she wants what she wants. I see her as a young woman who has been caged, who suddenly wakes up one day and goes, ‘why am I in this cage? I don’t want to be in a cage’, which is a very human thing. Young people, when they start to see the world through more adult eyes, when they start having desires and ambitions, if they’re subjected to an overprotective parent, they’re going to rebel.”
She speaks fondly of the show, recalling a matinee performance after the opening night of the out-of-town tryout in Washington DC. “Everyone had had a little too much fun the night before,” she tells me, sparing any detail too salacious. She describes technical malfunctions as the show’s iconic revolving stage broke down and the performance was cancelled midway through, and the relief she felt when a bleary-eyed cast were allowed to go home and recover .“I’m passed the stage of doing much partying,” she tells me.
“Opening nights are fun,” she says wistfully, “they’re less fun now because it used to be that you didn’t know what the reviews were until the next day. Now, of course, reviews are up online before the curtain comes down on opening night…You can tell from the mood at the party whether they’re good or not.”
One bad review was the New York Times’ for the short-lived Rags, which closed after four performances. Critic Frank Rich, dubbed ‘The Butcher of Broadway’ by the British press, is ruthless, finding fault with the show’s lead, opera singer Teresa Stratas, (“as small as life from curtain-rise to finale”), Stephen Schwartz’s lyrics, (“they can be heard coming a clunky beat or two away”), the supporting cast, (“competent and predictable”) and Gene Saks’ direction, which failed to give the show “drive or cohesion”. With the notable exception of Kuhn, who “transcends the general level,” no one is left unscathed by Rich’s needlessly vitriolic take-down.
“You have to take reviewers with a grain of salt,” Kuhn tells me, “it’s one person’s opinion about something and some make the reviews more about themselves than they do about the work. Some appreciate the work that went into making something, whether it’s a success or not, and some don’t.”
But what about the truly awful productions? Should they be spared?
“I think unless something is sloppy or offensive, one should appreciate how hard it is to create something. What do you get out of being unkind?”
After steady work both on and off-Broadway, Kuhn’s career took a new turn when she was cast as the singing voice of Pocahontas for the 1995 animated film, cementing her status as a pop culture icon.
The film is not without its fair share of controversies, accused of depicting a sanitised portrayal of a turbulent time in American history and promoting problematic tropes of Native Americans. Though Kuhn comes to the film’s defence, claiming that “it wasn’t a historical document. It wasn’t pretending to be history.”
“Russell Means, the actor who played Pocahontas’ father, who is Native American himself, thought Disney did an amazing job about understanding the culture. I’m sure today people would have objections about the fact that I sang those songs, but they actually tried to cast a Native American to sing them,” she tells me, “And they didn’t find someone that they liked. So I got to do it.”
I ask her about the legacy of the film, in particular its environmental anthem Colors of the Wind. The lyrics, written by Stephen Schwartz, take inspiration from a letter sent by Chief Seattle to the United States Congress. “It was basically about understanding our relationship to our environment and to the people who were here before the Europeans came,” Kuhn tells me. For her, the song “is a message for kids about how people from different cultures have to appreciate each other and an environmental statement about our relationship to the land.”
Pocahontas remains her most renowned role. “It’s certainly more enduring than anything I’ve done on the stage,” she tells me, “that’s here and gone.”
Not always. I admit to her that I watched an illegal bootleg of Fun Home, a musical she did back in 2015. Having seen the West End cast in the show, I was curious to see how their Broadway counterparts had fared. Outing myself as a perpetrator of one of the most heinous crimes a theatre-lover can commit, I ask Kuhn how she feels about bootlegs.
“It’s complicated,” she concedes, “there was an effort right before we closed [to film the production], but unfortunately the effort to raise the money and get it filmed started too late so we never got to do it. So in some ways, with a bootleg, at least there’s some record out there of that production, but on the other hand it’s probably not very well filmed if it was done illegally and nobody gets paid for the copyrighted material… I don’t know.”
We discuss her involvement in Fun Home, Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s award-winning musical, based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel of the same name. The musical traces Alison’s attempt to come to terms with her sexuality and her tumultuous relationship with her father, Bruce.
“Caption. My dad and I both grew up in the same, small Pennsylvania town. And he was gay, and I was gay. And he killed himself. And I… became a lesbian cartoonist,” Alison announces at the start of the show.
Kuhn plays Helen Bechdel, Alison’s mother, a quiet presence in the piece until her 11 o’clock ballad, Days and Days, in which she laments the wasted years she spent married to a man who couldn’t love her the way he was supposed to. Kuhn is phenomenal in the role, delivering an exceptionally moving performance of a woman desperately trying, and failing, to hold her marriage together.
Kuhn was involved with the project from its inception. In initial drafts, however, there were only glimmers of Helen, Days and Days having not yet been written. It wasn’t until the show’s first presentation at the Public Theatre (Fun Home’s off-Broadway venue), that Kuhn actually received the song. She recalls the moment Tesori sat down to play the opening chords:
“It was perfect. There’s no other way to say it. Musically and lyrically, it was exactly what Helen needed to say at that moment. Jeanine [Tesori] understands the emotional content of a chord. She plays a chord and you burst into tears. It just touches that place that wants to be touched. And Lisa [Kron] wrote the way those characters think, the rhythm of their thoughts. Combine that with Jeanine’s music…it was just right.”
Her transformation into the reserved Bechdel matriarch is impressive, her physicality as though copied straight from the pages of Alison’s memoir. It was an eery likeness, one remarked upon by the Beech Creek residents, the Bechdel family’s neighbours, who praised the verisimilitude of Kuhn’s performance.
Kuhn speaks at length about Helen’s relationship with Bruce: “They shared so much. She didn’t understand where it was going to go. There was so much grief. Helen gave up everything for Bruce. That’s part of her anger.” In an earlier scene that portrays Bruce attempting to seduce a former pupil, we see Helen playing the piano, aware of her husband’s indiscretion in the next room. She pauses her étude, weighing up whether or not to confront Bruce. In a defeated voice, she resolves “maybe not right now.” “She gave up all her dreams and ambitions for that marriage,” Kuhn says.
But she does believe they “deeply loved each other”, citing Helen’s choice to be buried with Bruce, forty years after his suicide, despite having found a new partner. “He was her soulmate, her forever husband,” she tells me.
In a recent concert with friend and colleague, Seth Rudetsky, Kuhn sang another song from the musical, though not one originally performed by her character. Ring of Keys is sung by Small Alison, depicting her reaction to seeing a butch lesbian for the first time. She’s fascinated by this woman. It stirs something within her; not a sexual awakening- something more potent – a self-recognition. She doesn’t have the language to verbalise what she feels so, instead, she focuses on what she can see – the woman’s lace-up boots, her dungarees, her ring of keys.
“I try to find the innocence of an eight-year-old,” she explains, “when you’re that age and something new happens to you that opens up something in you, but you don’t even know what it is yet. I look for how, as an adult, we can experience that same thing.”
There’s something about Kuhn’s voice. It impresses itself onto you. Even in in the triumphant Just Around the Riverbend or the romantic A Heart Full of Love, there’s an ache, the happiest moments marred by traces of sorrow. It’s why I find myself more convinced by her later roles, those of Helen, Golde and Fantine. She deftly expresses the longing and frustration that lurks beneath their quiet dignity. I find her recent performance of Nobody’s Side, a song she originally performed in the Broadway production of Chess. Listening to her 1988 rendition is impressive, but her return to the song is something else. The technique is still there, of course, but there’s an added weight to the sound, as though given texture by her thirty years of life experience. Her voice has only improved with age.
Though Kuhn acknowledges the challenge of getting older in “a business that is not kind to women.”
“The business changes, but you change too, and therefore how you’re cast changes,” she tells me, “you’re constantly having to show casting directors ‘this is who I am now.’”
“But here’s the thing about being an older women,” she begins, “the roles are more interesting. People get more complex as they get older. And you have more life experience to bring to the role.” She mentions her involvement in the upcoming revival of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins, in which she is set to play Sara Jane Moore, a suburban housewife who attempted to kill Gerald Ford. A “crazy, comic, frumpy role,” it’s worlds away from the ingenues she played at the start of her career. “It’s fun,” she says, “and a little scary.”
“I’m a much happier and more confident person than I was when I was your age,” she tells me, “but as they say…youth is wasted on the young.”
She flips the conversation to me, probing me about my future, my ambitions, my plans. I offer up some half-baked suggestion, nothing particularly concrete or realistic.
“God, to be 20…” she says.
“God, to be Judy Kuhn,” I reply.