How did an aspiring performer who never took a voice lesson become one of the musical theater's most respected talents? “Good genes,” says Liz Callaway, a Tony-nominated performer who will open the University of Central Oklahoma's 2013-14 Broadway Tonight season this week.
“My mom is a voice teacher, and I heard her give so many lessons at our house when I was growing up,” Callaway said recently. “I kind of learned by listening in. I think some of (what I have) is a natural gift, but I learned about singing by doing.”
After moving to New York at age 18, the Chicago native quickly demonstrated that she possessed a rare combination of a crystalline voice and a natural storytelling ability. One of Callaway's first jobs was as a singing waitress.
“We had to sing two songs every hour, so I really looked for great songs to perform, mostly because I was such a bad waitress,” Callaway said with a laugh. “I thought it was important to do something nice for my customers.”
Soon, she landed a role in the 1981 Stephen Sondheim musical “Merrily We Roll Along.” The production only ran two weeks but that didn't deter Callaway. In the decade that followed, she was cast in “Cats,” as the demoralized Grizabella; “Baby,” as a pregnant college student; and “Miss Saigon,” as the wife of an American GI who fathered a child in Vietnam before returning to the U.S.
In a twist of fate when life imitates art, she auditioned for “Miss Saigon” when she was four months pregnant. She left the audition thinking she might have landed the role of Ellen had she not been pregnant. In the end, Callaway got the part and stayed with the show 15 months.
“I gave birth to my son during rehearsals,” she said. “He was born a month before my first preview. I was off two weeks and then came back into the show. Because I was so sleep deprived, I don't remember as much about the show as I should. My son recently graduated from college but I still feel like I need a maternity leave. A maternity leave on a beach somewhere would be nice.”
Baring the soul
When she wasn't performing on Broadway, Callaway honed her skills as a soloist and cabaret singer. It's different from performing in a musical because one is not able to assume the persona of a real or fictional character. That's why singing alone on stage is often described as baring one's soul.
“It's scary being yourself and not a character,” she said. “But after doing a few concerts, I figured it was something I could do when I wasn't in a show. People began asking me to do more of these, and suddenly I had opportunities to perform all over the place.
“I came to realize that this is its own art form. I get to choose the songs and I tell anecdotes about the shows I've been in and the music I perform. I want audiences to enjoy an evening of music but at the end of the night, I want them to feel like they just had a nice dinner with me.”
Callaway's distinctive, youthful-sounding voice also caught the attention of Hollywood film studios who often sought Broadway singers to voice characters in animated films. Callaway has provided the singing voices of Anya/Anastasia in “Anastasia” and Princess Jasmine in “The Return of Jafar” and “Aladdin and the King of Thieves.”
With Young Voices
For her Broadway Tonight concerts, Callaway will be joined by the Young Voices of Edmond, a 125-voice youth choir directed by Angie McKenna. Accompanied by Alex Rybeck, Callaway will perform pieces from Broadway, Hollywood and 1960s and '70s popular music.
“I haven't completely decided what I'll be doing on this concert,” she said. “I usually decide the week before and then change my mind a lot. I'll perform selections for which I'm known, including ‘Memory' from ‘Cats,' ‘Meadowlark' from ‘The Baker's Wife' and something from ‘Anastasia.'
“I find when I do concerts outside of New York, people want to hear something familiar, so I do familiar songs in fresh arrangements. I also sprinkle in a few things people may not have heard but then follow them with something that everyone knows. I take great care in choosing music with my audience in mind.”
Callaway also will present a public master class at 1 p.m. Saturday in Radke Recital Hall, in UCO's Center for Transformational Learning. She'll coach young singers on the appropriate way to convey a song's meaning.
“When I work with young people on singing, I encourage them to write out their lyrics,” she said. “With shows like ‘American Idol,' people don't always know what they're singing about. It's often about showing off and executing vocal tricks. I always try to stress the idea that singing is storytelling.”
An avid sports fan, Callaway says she occasionally plans singing engagements around certain sporting events.
“It's too bad the Thunder season hasn't started yet, because my son and I are really big Kevin Durant fans,” she said. “I've already set aside some tickets to my concert in hopes that he might want to attend.”
Without knowing the basketball star's entertainment preferences, it would be difficult to guess his interest in such a concert. But one thing is clear. The ball seems to be in your court, Mr. Durant.