The theatre world lost several staggering talents during the past year: Zoe Caldwell, Patti Karr, Rebecca Luker, Armelia McQueen, Doreen Montalvo, Ann Reinking, and Cicely Tyson. As Women's History Month approached, Playbill reached out to colleagues and friends of these remarkable artists to share a personal tribute.
Patti LuPone remembers the grace of Caldwell, both on and off the stage; Melissa Errico recalls her Broadway debut sharing the stage with Karr; Judy Kuhn remembers singing with Luker for the first time; Roz Ryan discusses her sisterhood with McQueen; Andréa Burns describes her special relationship with Montalvo; Bebe Neuwirth offers a poignant tribute to her best friend Reinking; and Leslie Uggams remembers the groundbreaking Tyson.
ZOE CALDWELL, Remembered by Patti LuPone
You know what it feels like when you’re witnessing a Master at work.
Zoe Caldwell was Maria Callas in Terrence McNally’s play Master Class at the Golden Theatre in 1995.
She isn’t at all Mediterranean, a singer, or a tempestuous Diva. But she did embody Maria Callas with all of her experience and enormous God-given talent. I watched her in awe. I felt I didn’t belong on stage unless I understood clarity, discipline, command, courage, and fearlessness. I left the Golden and returned to my theatre feeling insufficient and worse, fraudulent. She taught me in two hours the meaning of complete commitment to our craft.
Zoe was also a guardian of the standard by which we experience greatness. She was straight forward in her observation. My highest compliment in this business came from Zoe after seeing John Doyle’s innovative production of Sweeney Todd. She wrote me a note that congratulated me for "not absorbing all the oxygen on the stage." She applauded my ensemble instincts. I felt I had just earned the right to call myself an actor.
Her memoir, I Will Be Cleopatra, is another tool to be examined if one is indeed serious about the craft of acting. Her honesty and trust in herself are for me the biggest lessons.
Her career and the indelible mark she left is enviable. There will only be one Zoe Caldwell. There will never be another like her.
A Titan. A Master.
PATTI KARR, Remembered by Melissa Errico
In the end, I feel I will most remember the actresses I worked with who taught me to never lose sight of the pleasure, above all things, yes the pleasure, of “play.” No one epitomized the life of a Player more than Patti Karr, with whom I had the joy of working during the Broadway tour and 1993 production of My Fair Lady.
The cast was stunned to meet her, as she was something of a legend already, having been a performer since 1950—one of her first Broadway outings was in 1956 as a dancer in Bells Are Ringing, followed soon after by playing Lady Rowena in Once Upon a Mattress. She was in the 1972 production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and I often asked her about it, as I shared a mentor-friendship with its original designer Tony Walton, who she also adored, and a fascination with Stephen Sondheim, who I wanted to learn more about. The original Pippin, Seesaw, and The Rink are just a few other iconic musicals she had stories about. Never mind the incredible history she had understudying Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera, and Carol Burnett, women who—like Patti—had a mastery over physical comedy, a total mastery over how to use one’s body on a stage. For My Fair Lady, Patti played The Queen of Transylvania, and was the (wonderful) understudy for Mrs. Higgins.
I was 22 years old when I met her, and she seemed to carry herself daily with a twinkle in her eye. She had that ineffable balance between elegance and wit, physical grace, and a little twist of mischief. I must admit that when I curtsied deeply as Eliza Doolittle at the Embassy Ball, it was Patti’s job to touch me lightly on the chin and make eye contact. Sussing Eliza out—nearly scientifically—the Queen decides at that moment whether Eliza is a fraud or a success. Each night, Patti filled that moment with a wonderful sense of near-absurd tension and jubilation. The Queen explored Eliza; the Queen then adored Eliza! It was the art of making a full, rich, and textured scene out of a long silence. I will never forget Patti and her natural depth of character which she brought to every onstage and offstage moment. She anchored the pivotal scene at the ballroom with her dancer’s presence and her actress’ intelligence. I couldn’t wait to get down the stairs in my evening gown and tiara and face her. I stayed in my curtsy, knowing soon Patti Karr would touch my chin, and the play would feel alive.
I always found it amusing that she named her beloved dog Lilian Gish. The words of that legendary silent film actress could easily apply to Patti’s full and genuinely generous life on the stage: “What you get is a living, what you give is a life.”
REBECCA LUKER, Remembered by Judy Kuhn
The first time I sang with Rebecca Luker was in the mid-90s in an early reading of Barry Manilow’s show Harmony. I was a sleep-deprived new mother at the time, so I admit my memory of the experience is a bit hazy, but what I will never forget is what it felt like to sing with Rebecca. I was already a fan, having seen her exquisite performance in The Secret Garden and was knocked out by her voice. It seemed to come from a deep, profound place, pouring out of her very soul. Anyone listening could not help but be lifted up and transported by her singing. But to sing with her was something else entirely. It was to feel as if her huge, generous heart was joined with my own.
There was something otherworldly about Becca. Stunningly beautiful, with a luminous stage presence, the warmth, empathy, and emotional transparency she brought to her work was singular. So, I discovered, was the woman I got to know when, in 2002, we did a production of Passion together at the Kennedy Center. She was generous and humble as well as being hardworking, an extraordinary musician, and thoroughly down to earth—a dream colleague and friend. Rebecca was an angel, yes, but also wickedly funny and irreverent, something you might not have known about her had you only seen her in a show and not spent hilarious times with her in the bar afterwards.
The last time I sang with Becca was in a production of Footloose in October 2019, also at the Kennedy Center. We were the moms, ceding the spotlight to the very talented youngsters in the cast, which she easily and happily did. It turned out to be her last show. At the time she was walking with a cane (her ALS would not be diagnosed for another month), and it was clear she was struggling physically and emotionally. But still she gave us what she always had: a gorgeous performance imbued with her beautiful, generous soul. She faced the next terrible year with that same extraordinary bravery as the ravages of ALS took its toll, robbing her of her independence and eventually, perhaps most painfully, her voice.
When news broke on December 23rd that Rebecca had passed away, the outpouring of love and grief was immediate and overwhelming, like nothing I had seen for the loss of a beloved member of our theatre community. It was as if no one could believe that this otherworldly creature was actually human.
I still can’t believe she is gone. But she left behind an extraordinary legacy that will be long remembered and a model of how to live in this world that I will always aspire to.
ARMELIA McQUEEN, Remembered by Roz Ryan
The Amazing Armelia McQueen.
I first met Armelia when I joined Broadway’s Ain’t Misbehavin'. It was 1979. I was joining the Broadway company, and the original cast was off to Paris. I was in absolute awe of Armelia (who I later affectionately nicknamed Meli) and the entire cast. I’d just come from Detroit as a nightclub singer, so Broadway to me was larger than life.
Moving forward after Ain’t, I landed Dreamgirls and not long after that The Cotton Club movie.
1981. On the day of the first rehearsal of The Cotton Club movie, I find I am one of The Peter Sisters, a trio of pretty high yella red bone singers who “moved” back in the day. That, in itself, was enough for me, but to my delight the other two sisters were Patti Austin and, I giggle as I say this, Armelia McQueen. We became fast good friends from that moment on... Armelia was a delightful spirit. Always smiling, always positive, and fuuuuunnnneeeee.
She could light up a room just by walking in the door. She taught me a lot about the audition process in New York. She had serious moments, but most times she was the calming spirit in the room. As the years went by, we made contact often enough to maintain our special sistership. We went on to play sisters on the series Jag and shared the stage in 2009 in Los Angeles for the 30-year anniversary of Ain't Misbehavin'. Years after that we would run into each other all around L.A., and she would always say, “You supposed to call me,” and she was so right. I wish to God I could call her now.
My memory of her will always be Talented, Sweet, Feisty, Fun, Charming, Strong, Witty, and Loving.
Meli, you are and will always be missed. I love you.
DOREEN MONTALVO, Remembered by Andréa Burns
Doreen Montalvo’s voice is unmistakable: sultry, powerful, worthy of a diva. Her spirit was unmistakable, too, and it was the complete opposite: bubbly, affectionate, and adorable.
Doreen’s warmth and kindness reached deep and wide in the Broadway community. Everyone knew Doreen. Throughout her prolific career, she had worked with multitudes of artists, and all of them, from octogenarians to toddlers alike, were just crazy about her.
We were lucky to share a special relationship. Doreen was often cast as my understudy, including when we worked together in In the Heights and On Your Feet!. She later took over for me with great aplomb in the latter. Doreen was incredibly supportive of me, and I of her. We admired each other’s gifts deeply. D. and I were fortunate to have each other, and we knew it. We worked together in this sacred bond for years.
And, offstage? She took my breath away! Doreen was one of the most audacious people I had ever met in my life. She never missed an opportunity to grab the brass ring for herself. If Doreen wanted in on something, whether it was a selfie with the President, or a scene in a major motion picture, somehow Doreen always made it happen. Her infectious joy and enormous gratitude always balanced out that ferocity. Her signature boldness became something I aspired to, often wondering….WWDD? (“What would Doreen do?’)
Doreencita will remain one of my greatest teachers. She squeezed the juice out of each and every moment she was alive.
That heady cocktail of wild zest and profound gratitude is Doreen’s legacy.
If we’re lucky, it will live on in those of us who were lucky enough to be touched by it.
ANN REINKING, Remembered by Bebe Neuwirth
On an ordinary morning in mid-December, I received an excruciating phone call. I managed to finally hang up and walk back into the kitchen. In a daze, and with my tears still streaming, I heard myself explain to my husband, “My best friend died.”
All I could feel and see was an empty space next to me on a stage. I felt Annie’s and my partnership, all the beauty and hilarity and profound intimacy of sharing a stage and a dance with this extraordinary person, and could not comprehend how she wasn’t there. As the day wore on, phone calls and texts sharing stunned grief continued. Everyone had lost their best friend. Our hearts ached for her husband and son. The circle of grieving friends widened over the next few days; among others, I spoke with were her best friend from high school (still her best friend), and a young best friend whom she'd mentored. What I came to realize was the enormity of Annie’s gift of generosity of spirit. We all felt like she was our best friend. She’d given us all what we felt, and indeed truly had—a deep and loving connection with her.
Once Annie’s passing was made public, the glorious tributes came in droves. They weren’t just from people whom she knew personally who were profoundly touched, moved, and changed by her. Anyone who’d ever marveled to see her on stage live or watched videos from her performances fell under her thrilling spell. She truly was a mystical artist, an alchemist; every phrase she danced or sang, every moment she appeared, she transcended time and technique. She was everything—tragedy and comedy, exquisite lyricism, athletic strength, sensuality, irony, mystery, elegance, danger, high humor, and slapstick; she contained the profundity of the universe. She reinvented everything you thought you’d seen into a gorgeously sublime and astonishing poetry. And then she’d giggle, and your heart would crack open.
Beyond Annie’s historic and magnificent artistry, she was one of the kindest, most generous, humble, sensitive, intelligent, goofy, curious, affectionate, empathic people I’ve been blessed to know. She was one for the Ages, and we, all of us, miss her dearly.
CICELY TYSON, Remembered by Leslie Uggams
It’s hard to believe that Cicely has really left us. She’s one of those people you thought would live forever. Her energy was just that big.
Cicely may have been tiny, but she was mighty. Whether on stage or screen, she automatically drew focus. But it wasn’t forced. Her acting was natural, and the power came from inside. And whenever she’d walk into a room, all else would stop. Eyes immediately went to her.
The first time I saw her on stage I was a teenager. She was starring in Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright with Alvin Ailey directed by Joshua Logan. The cast was phenomenal (Roscoe Lee Browne, Al Freeman, Jr., Claudia McNeil, Robert Hooks), but Cicely was absolutely electric. She’d step on stage, and she was all you’d see. She instantly became one of my greatest role models, along with Ruby Dee. They were royalty in my eyes, and they set the bar high. If I were going to be a serious actress, I knew that I had work to do!
When she went on to do East Side/West Side with George C. Scott, it was huge! To see a Black actress in a leading role in such a prominent television series wasn’t lost on me. Representation matters, and she raised us all up.
There was always something unique about Cicely. She was gorgeous and interesting to talk to, and honey, she knew how to dress! She wore clothes beautifully. But she was different from everybody else. When she walked into a room, it was snap, snap, snap—magic!
I really got to know Cicely after she married Miles Davis. We ended up in the same social circle, with one of the most memorable functions being a party Carole Bayer Sager and Burt Bacharach threw for Elizabeth Taylor. Herbie Hancock was there holding court, and suddenly in walks Cicely with Miles. She had us all laughing when she complained that Miles didn’t want a fuss for Thanksgiving, then invited 10 people at the last minute and Cicely had to scramble to throw a spread together. If looks could kill…
I always made a point of seeing everything she did. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman was legendary. In fact, in a way, that’s the film that helped me land Kizzy in Roots. Initially I didn’t pass the screen test for the elderly Kizzy because the make-up artist made me look like a mummy. So my husband tracked down Stan Winston, who did Cicely’s age make-up for Miss Jane. He applied the same techniques he used with Cicely, and I got the job. How fitting we were both cast in Roots, even though we were never on the set together.
One of Cicely’s greatest qualities was that she always managed to find the dignity in every character she played. She selected roles very carefully, and as a result found and expressed the humanity in every project. I made a point of seeing everything she ever did.
The only show I missed was The Gin Game because I was on location. I so wanted to see her in that role. But I did get to see The Trip to Bountiful. Her performance was transcendent. Backstage afterwards my husband, Grahame, and I were gushing over her energy! She was 89 at the time, but there was something about Cicely that was ageless.
Cicely was an extraordinary person—fabulous and spunky and proper, but also humble. When she would dress for the occasion, there was something majestic about her. But at other times, just day to day, you wouldn’t even know it was her.
The last time I saw Cicely in person was at the doctor’s office. I told her that I felt reassured now that I knew my doctor was also hers. He must be doing something right!
I never really thought about her age. It was a shock to hear of her death. But she’ll always be with us. Her legacy on film, and the memories of her on stage, will keep her alive forever. I guess once she got that memoir published and out for all of us to cherish, she decided her work was done.
I do wish there were at least one more encore. She may have been ready to go home, but we weren’t ready to let her go.