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Linda Ronstadt's 'Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir' tells of New York memories while at the top of rock
Ronstadt, one of the top female pop singers of the ‘70s and ‘80s, here recalls some of her musical adventures in New York City, which including performing both Puccini and Gilbert and Sullivan.
By Linda Ronstadt / special to the NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Sunday, September 8, 2013, 2:00 AM
Excerpts edited from Linda Ronstadt's memoir, "Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir." Copyright 2013 by Linda Ronstadt. To be published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Reprinted by permission.
In her new biography, “Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir,” Linda Ronstadt shares her New York memories. She was the top woman in rock in 1980, seeing the then-governor of California, Jerry Brown, when she came east to star as Mabel in Joe Papp’s production of “The Pirates of Penzance,” first in Central Park and then on Broadway. In 1984, she would return to star in the New York Public Theater production of “La Boheme” The singer, who recently revealed she has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, remembers it well.
The call came while I was upstairs taking a shower. Jerry Brown was sitting downstairs next to the phone, so he answered it. Jerry had seen “H.M.S. Pinafore” when he was in school, and that was what he remembered of Gilbert and Sullivan, so when I came downstairs, he told me that someone named Joe Papp had called and he wanted me to sing “Pinafore.”
I picked up the phone and called Joe Papp immediately. I told him I would love to sing “Pinafore” at the New York Public Theater. I was a little disappointed when he said that it was “Pirates of Penzance.” He assured me that “Pirates” had a wealth of lovely songs for my character, Mabel, to sing, and if I wanted the part, it was mine.
Just before I met Rex Smith, who had been cast to play opposite me in the part of Frederic, I was introduced to a life-size cutout photograph of Rex clothed in little more than his considerable male pulchritude. It had somehow appeared near the door of the rehearsal room. I suspect Rex was writhing, but he didn’t crack. He was so handsome that I was inwardly groaning and hoping he wasn’t loaded with glamour-boy attitude. He wasn’t. He was eager and exuberant, a little naïve, extremely candid, and had great instincts. I decided to like him.
From left: Rex Smith, Linda Ronstadt and Kevin Kline in of “The Pirates of Penzance.”
As we were walking into the rehearsal room at Joe Papp’s Public Theater, Rex took my hand, his eyes wide with anticipation and excitement. “This is like going into church,” he said.
Kevin Kline began to demonstrate some hilarious physical schtick he had worked out to make his character seem dashing, bold, and hopelessly confused all at once: Errol Flynn with a touch of dementia. Rex was rightfully in Kevin’s thrall, so his character followed the Pirate King around the stage like an eager puppy dog. This set up a most charming dynamic between the two male heartthrobs, and they never had to compete with each other.
Performing in Central Park had its drawbacks. We were terrorized by lightning, pummeled by wind, and soaked with rain that turned our costumes into Saran Wrap. There were the bugs. While singing, we swallowed them nightly, but once, just before the kissing scene I had with Rex at the end of the second act, a huge mosquito got trapped in the gluey layer of my lip gloss. I could feel it struggling to free itself, and when Rex leaned in to kiss me, his eyes were bulging out of his head. He was struggling to keep his composure, and so was I. After our kiss, Rex got to leave the stage, but I had to stay and sing “Sorry Her Lot” from beginning to end with a giant mosquito playing its death scene to the very last row on my lower lip.
Because of our surprising success in Central Park, Joe Papp decided to move “Pirates” to Broadway in the fall.
Richard Corkery/New York Daily News
Ronstadt sings onstage at Radio City Music Hall.
For a period of time during previews, we were rehearsing one version of the show in the afternoon and performing another at night. This was exhausting, as we performed eight shows a week, and with rehearsals added, it was like doing 16. In addition to the rehearsals, they added live performances on the “Today” show and “Saturday Night Live.” This meant getting up at 4 for the “Today” show and staying up till 4 in the morning to perform on “SNL.” We played a matinee performance on Christmas Day, and by New Year’s Eve, we were completely fried. We had already done a matinee that afternoon, and in between shows, the pit band went out and got very drunk. (Who could blame them?) Rex and I, painfully sober, were staggering from fatigue around the stage with shredded vocal cords. Exotic, unfamiliar sounds emanated from the orchestra pit. The trumpet player, playing the lead into Rex’s and my tender duet at the end of act one, was either a lot more hammered than the others or more nakedly exposed. He sounded truly awful. And loud.
Giggling is a plague on the nervous system that I believe is hard-wired into some people’s physiology and seems to be a reaction to tremendous nerves, fatigue, or self-consciousness. It is rarely a welcome occurrence to the giggler and can feel like going over Niagara Falls without a barrel. Rex and I started to giggle at the horrifying trumpet notes and couldn’t get ourselves under control. The worst sin an actor can commit is to break character onstage. This shatters the spell for the audience, and it becomes nearly impossible to win them back. Our audience, having forked over their hard-earned cash to see our now hopelessly unprofessional performance, was not amused. They began to boo. Rex and I, still struggling with our nervous system’s tantrum and meltdown, finished up our songs the best we could and fled the stage.
Backstage, Rex’s eyes were wide with terror and genuine anguish. I was wringing my hands in mortification. Our director, Wilford Leach, told me to change into my second act costume and, with Rex holding my hand, go out onto the stage before the show recommenced and apologize to the audience. It was absolutely the right thing to do, but it felt like going before a firing squad. I have no idea what I said to the audience, but it paved the way for the second act to begin, and we finished the show without incident.
Joseph Papp with singer Linda Ronstadt.
Shortly after I said yes to Joe Papp’s invitation to present Puccini’s opera, “La Boheme,” at the New York Public Theater in the fall of 1984, I was in New York with Randy Newman to film a television special of Randy and his music.
We were walking along Columbus Avenue on our way to Café des Artistes when a police officer ran past us at full speed, breathing hard and trying to catch up with someone we couldn’t see. He pulled several yards ahead of us, and his gun slipped out of its holster, falling to the sidewalk. We called out to him, but he was already out of hearing range. I reached down to pick up the gun.
“No!” shouted Randy. “Leave it there!”
“What if a child picks it up?” I asked him. “Someone could get hurt.”
“Throw it in there!” he said, indicating a large trash can.
“It might go off and kill the poor garbage collector,” I argued. I decided I would be in charge of the gun and find a way to return it to the police officer who had dropped it.
I picked up the gun and immediately spotted two police officers driving along in a squad car. I raised my arm to hail them like a taxi and started to wave the gun in their direction. Randy, who lacked experience with firearms but had a lot of awareness of what happens to people who point guns at NYPD officers, managed to hide the gun from sight while he explained to me as tactfully as he could that I was a reckless moron. He also saved us from being a headline in the next day’s papers.
After some rapid negotiating, we agreed to stash the gun in my purse, which was actually a metal lunchbox with a picture of Roy Rogers and his faithful horse Trigger on the lid. The gun fit perfectly. We walked over to the squad car and explained what had happened. I lifted the lid slowly and offered the gun in the lunch box as though it were a gift of the Magi. Miraculously, my head was not blown off. I looked down the street and saw the other police officer, minus the gun. He was looking anxiously along the sidewalk. This added credibility to our story.