Before Idina Menzel, Kristin Chenoweth and Kelli O'Hara, Judy Kuhn was the voice exciting audiences on Broadway and beyond. The 56-year-old star originated the roles of Cosette and Florence in Les Miserables and Chess, respectively, two musicals that resonated with fans well beyond the confines of the Great White Way. Then there were her celebrated turns in Sunset Boulevard, She Loves Me and Rags.
If these don't ring a bell, let me paint you a picture -- or, rather, an illustrated character that is now a cherished part of the Disney legacy. As the singing voice of Pocahontas, Kuhn crooned the iconic tunes "Colors of the Wind," and "Just Around the Riverbend," which were penned by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz.
As a solo artist, the TONY-nominated star now extends her talents to more intimate venues. On Feb. 4, she'll hit the stage of New York's Appel Room for the "Lincoln Center Presents the American Songbook Series."
"I'm really excited about it," Kuhn said of the forthcoming show. "It's something I've wanted to do for a really long time and I was so happy that Lincoln Center was ready to do it now, because the timing is perfect in so many ways."
I thought the same about our interview. Eager to speak with Kuhn, I was curious to ask her both about the Appel Room concert, as well as what I saw as a shift from large-scale musicals to smaller pieces that showcased even better her unique intensity and vocal talents, as recognized in Classic Stage Company's acclaimed revival of Passion and the Williamstown Theater Festival production of The Visit.
But first, let's tackle the first immediate engagement: Kuhn's appearance for the American Songbook series.
"It's a celebration of the musical contributions of the Rodgers/Guettel family... Richard Rodgers, Mary Rodgers and Adam Guettel," Kuhn explained. "When I first heard the Floyd Collins cast album, I was obsessed with it. I'm not a person who listens to cast albums, but somebody gave it to me... And I listened to it over and over and over again."
Once Kuhn realized that Floyd Collins composer Adam Guettel was Richard Rodgers' grandson, the discovery "sort of blew my mind. Then I realized that in between them was Mary Rodgers. I've just been fascinated by all this DNA that's been passed down... and I just love all the music."
"Because I'm so interested in the idea of this as a family enterprise, I wanted to let the music be a conversation between the three of them," Kuhn explained.
So we're putting songs next to each other, just as a way for the audience to listen to how they each treated maybe a similar topic, [but also] hear how individual they are. They all wrote a lot of very romantic songs, but they're all such individuals.
Transitioning to her next project, the Broadway transfer of Fun Home, Kuhn touched on my curiosities about her experiences playing in large-scale productions as opposed to more intimate spaces.
"A story is a story, no matter how you tell it," Kuhn said, pointing to her performance as Fosca in Passion at both the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, which is comparable in size to a Broadway house, and Classic Stage Company's 200-seat location in New York City. "I love having that feeling that I'm in the same room with the audience," she added.
Now Kuhn will be able to enjoy that experience again when Fun Home begins previews at the Circle in the Square, a 750-seat Broadway theater in the round. "When you're three-quarters or in the round, as we'll be with Fun Home," Kuhn notes, "it gives you the opportunity to play things in a different way, that can feel more real, in a certain kind of way and I think it brings the audience in, in a different way, too."
At the end of the day, it's the material that matters most to Kuhn, as opposed to the size of the production itself.
"I am so passionate about this piece," she said. "I've had as much fun working on it as anything I've ever done, and love everybody involved. I was blown away by the response that it got at The Public Theater."
She went on to note, "It was clear that more people want to see this piece and it should be seen by more people. So I'm thrilled that we have another chance to do it."
Judy Kuhn will perform at New York's Appel Room as part of the "Lincoln Center Presents the American Songbook" series on Feb. 4.
Steve Schonberg is the editor-in-chief of Centerontheaisle.com.