Lesbian performer Lea Delaria celebrates centenary of Harold Arlen’s songbook
“Happy Days” is one thing. “Get Happy” is another. Lea DeLaria bridges both.
“Oh God, yes,” said Samuel Beckett’s newest Winnie, the lady protruding from a mound of earth, when asked if she’s ever seen other Winnies. “I saw Estelle Parsons do it a couple of years ago. I’ve seen university productions. I read the play in high school. I laughed. It’s hilarious.”
Really? Maybe not. Funny, yes, but funny-sad.
“You’ll see,” said the Winnie of Beckett’s “Happy Days,” now in previews at the CSC on East 13th Street with an official opening on February 15. The night before –Valentine’s Day – its Winnie will be singing Harold Arlen at Carnegie Hall in a Festival Productions all-star celebration of the 100th anniversary of one of America’s greatest men of music.
Having stepped into that one-nighter in place of a schedule-conflicted Maureen McGovern, DeLaria was still mulling which of Arlen’s songs she wanted to do. One, she said via telephone, would be “A Woman’s Prerogative (to Change Her Mind).” Some other prime candidates were “That Old Black Magic,” “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” and, yes, “Get Happy.”
“They’re all great. I’m sure I’ll blow some chord changes,” she blithely remarked. “If you’re a singer, who doesn’t sing Harold Arlen? I fell in love with him with ‘Over the Rainbow.’ Good Lord, honey, no, not 1939. I’m not that old. But I began with him with ‘Over the Rainbow’ and ‘Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead.’ ”
In her charts, she said — her repertoire – “stuff that I can do” – there’s “a great arrangement of ‘Get Happy’ and another of ‘Old Black Magic.’ I like to blow with the sax on that one. ‘The Man That Got Away’? [Judy Garland’s private property.] That’s one of the things I want to do but have not done. I’m persnickety. I want to do it right. But I love the song.”
How about “Stormy Weather”?
“Oh well. You know. What can you say? And what’s better than Ella Fitzgerald’s recording of the Harold Arlen songbook? I was weaned on it.”
That was in Belleville, Illinois, where the stats say she was born in 1958. Her father, Robert DeLaria, still alive, was a jazz pianist in the St. Louis area. Her mother, Jerry Cox, now deceased, was a dancer.
“They met at a U.S.O. in St. Louis. Which is a little too sweet for my beginnings,” said this most unblushing of lesbians. “People are a little surprised by that, because I’m such a hard, show-business broad. But it’s true.”
At what age did that broad enter show business?
“Started singing with my father when I was 12. I was about 14 when my mother sat herself spread-eagled in the front door and told my father: ‘You’re not taking my daughter into those nightclubs any more.’ But there was nothing she could do about it. My first professional job was on the Goldenrod Showboat on the Mississippi. I was, oh God, 18. It was, oh God, ’76, and I never looked back.”
DeLaria, at what age did you find your sexual determination?
A burst of laughter. Beckett’s Winnie would be proud. “I think it finds you, baby. When I was born. It was already there when I was going to nightclubs with my dad.”
At Birdland, on West 44th Street, on the nights of March 17, 18, 19, she’ll be introducing her new album, “Double Standards” (Telarc), on which “we take alternative rock or college rock tunes and swing them, like Patti Smith’s ‘Dancing Barefoot’ as a tribute to Mingus.”
Over the phone, DeLaria hummed a bit of the tribute a la Haitian. It was bouncy, juicy, nice.
The girl from Belleville, Illinois, has just moved from Manhattan to Fort Greene, Brooklyn. May one ask whom she lives with?
“None of your business,” she said without rancor. “Honey, I give 150 percent when I’m on stage, but when I’m off, it’s my time.”
And Winnie’s. Yes, ma’am.