What would Linda Lavin do — with a night off?



Cabaret performance & new CD are labors of love

You know how it is. You work six days a week, pouring your heart and soul and blood and sweat — and occasionally, on command, your tears — into everything you do. When you finally get a day off, all you want to do is…work.

Linda Lavin’s life would make for a very sad story indeed — if the work in question were some Dickensian task performed amidst deplorable conditions and bereft of thanks for a job well done.

Fortunately, the veteran stage entertainer is busy beyond comprehension (by choice). Her sweet reward — applause — is one that all of us should experience when we’ve shown up for work and done well what we’ve been hired to do. But until the day when everybody gets a standing ovation upon punching the clock at 5pm, we’ll just have to be happy for Lavin.

That’s not a very challenging sentiment to muster — especially if you grew up or grew old watching her for nine seasons on the 1976-1985 CBS sitcom “Alice.” Lavin’s portrayal of the title character still resonates, in reruns and on DVD — because over 30 years later, there remains something admirable and reassuring about the notion of a widow with a young son who takes a job as a waitress at a greasy spoon and in short order manages to charm the crusty boss with her brassy, ballsy, sweetly cynical take on life. Admirable trace amounts of those qualities were still much in evidence during a recent phone interview.

Currently starring in “Other Desert Cities” at Lincoln Center (through February 27), Lavin spoke with The Villager from the glamorous splendor of a laundry room at an undisclosed Manhattan location. Whether she was waiting for the rinse cycle or fresh from feeding quarters into the dryer, Lavin did not say — but she did offer some insights regarding her upcoming one-night-only cabaret gig at Birdland.

That gig is meant as the launch event for “Possibilities’ — her album of jazz standards. Selections include “Hey, Look Me Over,” “There’s A Small Hotel,” “Corcovado (Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars)” and “Walk Between Raindrops” (at press time, we were pretty sure that’s the beautiful Donald Fagen-penned tune; and if it is, in Lavin’s hands that’ll be worth the price of admission).

Lavin will also perform the CD’s title track — “You’ve Got Possibilities” — a song she sang in the 1966 Hal Prince-helmed Broadway show “It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman.” Still a friend, Prince wrote the liner notes for the CD. At Birdland, Lavin will be accompanied by pianist/arranger/singer Billy Stritch, Bucky Pizzarelli on guitar, Aaron Weinstein on violin, Steve Bakunas on drums and Steve Doyle on bass (subbing for the CD’s bassist John Brown). Bakunas, by the way, has the enviable gig of being married to the featured singer.

“What a band I have,” exclaimed Lavin — glowing, among the fluorescents of the laundry room — in anticipation of a rehearsal booked for later in the day. “I’ve been preparing with my fabulous musical director, Billy Stritch, for a couple of weeks now; going over song selections, most of which are on the CD, and deciding on a few new tunes to add to the show. I’ll do an homage to Bobby Short and to Margaret Whiting, who was a big influence of my life.”

Asked what she hopes to accomplish in the intimate setting of Birdland, Lavin says her primary goal is to share a moment with the audience — and the strategy for achieving that doesn’t alter much just because she happens to be singing a song or telling a personal story or delivering the words of a playwright: “The material I choose tells my story; what I want to say about myself — the frustrations, the drama. That’s what songs do. They tell the story of us. People identify with songs the way they do with any art. It’s about connecting with the audience. I try to let them know me through the material and through the moment.”

Of course, cabaret is a different bird than work that’s being delivered through the TV or from the stage. You know immediately if you’ve bonded or alienated your audience when you can see the whites of their eyes. So the key, she notes, is, “You approach it with hope. You say the gift is mine to give. This is what I’m here to do, and I hope you like it.”