Diva Friday: Judy Kuhn

Time for the second weekly column! See? I promise, and I deliver.

(That said, next week’s column will be delayed. I’ll be in some remote area on vacation with questionable Internet connectivity. Pray for me.)


So. Judy friggin’ Kuhn. She’s one of my first Diva crushes and was one of the most popular Broadway musical leading ladies of the 80s (rhyming!). I remember the day I discovered that the same woman who sang Cosette in the Original Broadway Cast recording of Les Misérables (pretty high soprano role) also belted her face off in the Original Broadway Cast recording of Chess. My 15 year-old mind was blown.

Kuhn as Cosette:

Kuhn (with tragic 80s hair) singing songs in some concert version of Chess:

I love her effortless belt, as exemplified in this note.

I then went back to review her earlier work. Her first starring role on Broadway was in Rags, a show that Ragtime did better. (I’ve never actually seen a production of Rags, I’m just making snap judgments.) Kuhn played Bella Cohen, a young Jewish immigrant who longs for assimilation. Instead, she fears for a life enveloped in rags and shame.

Kuhn is one of the only (?) performers I know of who had to do double-duty that Tony year (1987), as Les Misérables was also nominated alongside Rags for best musical (and her best featured actress), and she had to perform a number from each production. As Rags had closed after only four performances, and several months prior to the Tonys, it required Kuhn to dust off her rags and perform a number she hadn’t sung in, well, months.

The result? Well, if you read last week’s post, you’ll know that (time away from a role) + (live tv performance) = major messed up lyrics (Click here for the mess up moment (@1:23 if the link doesn’t jump you there already), with the beloved Dick Latessa sweeping in to save the day). Kuhn pulls it together, and finishes with her signature belt.

Kuhn also was a the singing voice of a Disney princess — Pocahontas! As much as I love her, the few times I’ve caught the movie I’m just mystified how anyone thought Kuhn’s colorful, floating soprano matches the stoic work of Irene Bedard. It’s a jarring transition.

Probably in her most well-reviewed role, Kuhn was a beautifully tragic — and flawlessly sung — Fosca in Stephen Sondheim’s Passion. Probably one of my favorite actresses to take on this role (which I’ve discussed at length here).

Kuhn then came back the revival of Les Miz in 2007, this time playing Fantine (You know, the one who sings that Susan Boyle song). Fantine is also Cosette’s mother. In response to this clever inter-family casting, Kuhn is quoted as saying:

“I am thrilled to be returning to Les Misérables after all these years. The original production was such an exciting and momentous part of the beginning of my career and now to go back to play the mother of the character I played originally, especially now that I am a mother myself will be great fun.”

Here is Kuhn singing “I Dreamed a Dream”…but back when she was starring as Cosette in ’87 (I know — confusing).

(Don’t the Regan’s look so charming? Ugh.)

Most recently, Kuhn’s been honoring Laura Nyro in concerts and in her latest cd. Her melancholy voice lends nicely to this vintage singer-songwriter’s work. However…again with the Broadway actresses singing non-Broadway songs? I like my artists contained and predictable, gosh dern it!

Anyway – let’s bring Judy Kuhn back to Broadway! If not something new, perhaps replacing Alice Ripley in Next To Normal?

8 thoughts on “Diva Friday: Judy Kuhn

  1. “I see my present partner in the imperfect tense.” God it’s so awesome and I don’t even know what it means! But I LOVE LOVE LOVE it.

  2. Threadjack: I also just realized I’ve been listening to the London album for the past 20 years. No wonder I didn’t recognize Judy Kuhn’s voice…

  3. London album of Chess or Les Miz?

    And you’re totall not threadjacking – I love comments – and always love comments from you!

  4. London Chess — it’s in my list of top 5 favorite cast albums ever; maybe #2. The story makes zero sense but the music is so lovely, and it’s the only thing I actually like Elaine Paige in (blasphemy?!). Plus: Murray Head! Can’t beat that shit. And now I’ll be listening to it all day, thanks to you :)

  5. Ha. I, too, love the London Chess recording – Elaine Paige on “Mountain Duet” is just about perfection.

    Count me in as another who now has Chess in her head.

  6. Kuhn is at the top of my list of favorite singers (along with Karen Carpenter, Jane Olivor, Jennifer Warnes, Mary Chapin Carpenter). I saw the Nyro show (red face here, at Lincoln Center, about four times at Joe’s Pub, and then at the Iridium which I thought was the best venue) about five times, at three different venues, and Kuhn was astonishingly in control — Stoney End, a delicate quiet arrangement that builds, sustained huge applause for a relatively quiet, downtempo arrangement, and when she hit that bit bote on “Been On A Train” (I had never heard that Nyro song before), I about fell off my chair with its immense power. She is vastly underrecorded — does anyone else have the belt chest voice and the high soprano as she does? (not in my book)

    I just read she’s preparing a new show that runs something along the lines of “Music from the Broadway Songbook and others”. She’s at that awkward age (aren’t we all) where she’s not the debutante nor is she the aging mother type. I thnk her work will turn more and more to the concert/cabaret scene. Prediction — vastly successful as that’s what so many have been waiting to see in concert from Kuhn — further predictions, we’ll hear Kuhn’s highly acclaimed full-out chest voice in Meadowlark, a number of highlights from CHESS (when I saw Kuhn sing “Someone Else’s Story back in ’88), I was in love for good with that voice. And don’t get me started on the reprise of “You and I” — I have a friend who can’t bring himself to even listen to it because he’ll break down for hours.

    Could go on endlessly. That ending of “Rags”. The huge range of CHESS (once Florence comes on, she runs until the curtain [which in NYC was a reprise of ANTHEM, all done by Kuhn while sobbing). THe glorious QUARTET from CHESS (the first time I’d heard real “bravos” in a Broadway house for a number which had no dance nor star-stopping eleven o’clock moments. Her great “American Songbook” series from 2001 (esp. Let The Wind Carry Me/Departure” and “Goodnight (My Angel)” though at Lincoln Center the sound went out, and at Kennedy Center, she went up on the words.

    My gut is that she really doesn’t “get” how good she is, whch of course is part of her charm, as not of that comes off disingenuously.

    Love Kuhn, obvioiusly.

  7. Wow – thanks for your in-depth thoughts on Kuhn, Greg! I love that there’s someone out there more obsessed with this hugely underrated (and under-recorded, as you so accurately noted!) woman.

    Do you know why she’s not on the recording of “She Loves Me” with Boyd Gaines? Always wondered that. I’d love to hear her “Ice Cream.”

  8. She left “She Loves Me” right after they transfered theaters (and then recorded the cast recording) to do Sunset Blvd. She got the Tony Nomination and Diane Frantatoni (sp?) got the recording. I saw her three times at the Steppenwolf Theater in “The Ballad of Little Jo” and she was heaven. She’s also wonderful in the flop London musical “Metropolis” belting the pop rock gospel number “You are the Light.” I have recordings of her in The Bakers Wife, her original Rainbow and Stars show and many others and she always been exceptional.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s