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  • There's one huge problem with Thoroughly Modern Millie, the 2002 Tony and Drama Desk Award-winner for Best Musical: You have to wait an hour for Leslie Uggams' spectacular entrance. But what an entrance! The set parts and there she is in a jaw-dropping white fox coat. When Uggams, in the unlikely role of 20s flapper socialite/chanteuse Muzzy Van Hossmere, opens that coat, it's almost as if time stopped. In that sequin-studded, tight-fitting black, white and silver dress, she looks like she did 25 years ago. And that's from Row F.

    Of African American/Native American background, in the musical Uggams has a familial association with two of the show's white characters. In the film, Muzzy was played by Uggams' friend, Carol Channing. "In the back of [co-writer] Dick [Scanlan]'s mind," she says, "he wanted Muzzy to be a full-of-life woman of color, like Josephine Baker or Bricktop. That's the way I portray her. I channel all the greats I admire."

    Uggams has seemingly done it all: best-selling recording artist, ground-breaking TV star, Vegas headliner, concert tours, a star on daytime TV's One Life To Life, stage drama and musical theater. She's even been a cover girl - TV Guide and Newsweek. She can still deliver the goods with her phenomenal belt, capable of reaching a high D. And, boy, can this lady foxtrot and kick those still-gorgeous legs.

    In Millie, Uggams has two showstoppers" - "Only in New York" and "Long As I'm Here with You." Unfortunately, these are her only songs. "I'm used to being in every scene, so this is quite different for me. I feel like I'm doing my club act right in the middle of a show!" Uggams explained she's always curious what's in the composers' minds when they write a song. "When I asked Dick Scanlan and Jeanine Tesori about ëOnly In New York,' they told me they were moved to write it following 9/11. It's certainly a love song to New York City. That's what I think about every time I do it. I can tell it really affects our audiences."

    Having seen Millie on opening night, Uggams said she knew the musical was an audience-pleaser. She is surprised to discover how much of one it is. "I was signing autographs and two gentlemen told me, ëThis is our 21st time!' I know people who've seen it four, eight and ten times, but 21! And they said they were coming back again!' We really try to give audiences their money's worth. Millie is the perfect show for right now. There's so much reality in our lives -- terrorism, war, the economy -- that it's great to have a family show where people leave happier than when they arrived, where they have such a good time."

    Uggams had been sought to play the take-charge Muzzy - originally played by Sheryl Lee Ralph [Dreamgirls] - but she had already committed to August Wilson's King Hedley II, starring Brian Stokes Mitchell. "That was raw and a different look for me," she claims. "Down and out, plain, no glamour at all! But my fans took the journey. However, no matter what drama I do, I'm proud to say they come along. But more than a few complained, ëI wish you could have sung at least one song.' I did have that one little moment of song and people got excited and thought I was going to belt one out." She received critical acclaim and Tony and Drama Desk nominations for Best Actress.

    When was asked another time to join Millie, she was Off Broadway in the blues musical Thunder Knocking On the Door. "It didn't have a long life and here I am. It seems the third time's the charm!"

    Uggams boasts she's New Yorker, born and raised in a four-room apartment in Washington Heights. Her father was an elevator operator and maintenance man; her mother, a waitress and later a chorus girl at the Cotton Club. She says they had "a modest but stable life where somehow my parents always made ends meet." Early on, Uggams was exposed to music. Her father was a member of the Hall Johnson Choir - "but," she points out, "in their pre-movie days."

    As a tot, Uggams sang along to records, impressing family and their friends with a remarkably mature voice. At age six, Uggams made her "professional" debut, singing at St. James Presbyterian Church on West 141st Street. Appearances on local TV followed.

    Her first Broadway show was Porgy and Bess. "I was enthralled by Leontyne Price, William Warfield, Cab Calloway and my aunt Eloise Uggams in the ensemble and that incredible Gershwin music. That's when the bug bit!" After third grade, Uggams attended Professional Children's School, where she became friends with Mary Martin's daughter Helen "and got to see tons of Broadway shows: Peter Pan, The Sound of Music, The King and I."

    [In 1956, she couldn't get enough of Sammy Davis Jr. in Mr. Wonderful. "I saw it six times," she gushes. "He was sensational! That was the first time I saw Chita Rivera and I said, ëWow! That gal's something!"]

    Tap lessons resulted in appearances on NBC's Milton Berle shows. At 10, Uggams had a best-selling record, "Missus Santa Claus" and was soon opening for such greats as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington. In 1951, she made her acting debut on TV's landmark Beulah. "I played Ethel Waters' neice and the producers wanted my hair in ëpickaninny' braids," Uggams remembered. "Miss Waters said absolutely not!"

    She was 14 when, as a contestant on Name That Tune, she won $25,000. She laughs, "The excitement in the neighborhood was like in the movies when everyone opens their windows and shout the news!"

    In 1960, Uggams was showcased off screen in the film adaptation of Inherit the Wind singing "That Old Time Religion." The next year, while studying at Julliard, she got the break that made her a household name. Bandleader Mitch Miller cast her as the only female and black on his weekly Sing Along with Mitch. When stations in the South complained and refused to air the show, Miller held his ground. "Mitch was told either I go or the show goes," reports Uggams. "He said, 'She stays or there's no show.' He loved that show, and had been trying to sell it for years, so to do that was heroic."

    Uggams' infectious smile and vocal talent made her America's sweetheart. Sammy Davis, Jr. said in an interview: "Everybody identifies with Leslie. She's bridged a very important space. The first great step has happened with her."

    TV stardom came at a price. "Being an African American performer on TV," she says, "was a great honor but also a heavy load. I wanted people to have respect for black people, but I became the role model. A lot was expected of me." Evidently, she carried herself well because in 1963, "when I was finally able to vote!, I was invited by President Kennedy to sing at the White House!" [She later did a command performance for President George Bush]. In the late 60s, Uggams starred in her own variety series. Unfortunately, it was slotted opposite Bonanza and lasted only a season.

    Thanks to her friendship with Liza Minnelli, Uggams, at 20, made her film debut under the direction of Vincent Minnelli in 1962's Two Weeks In Another Town. It was a cameo as a nightclub singer but she got to meet Kirk Douglas, Cyd Charisse and George Hamilton.

    Leslie Uggams has had her share of milestones. Nothing can top her Tony-winning Broadway debut in the short-lived 1967 musical Hallelujah, Baby! , a cavalcade of African-Americana from the turn of the 20th Century to the late 60s with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Adolph Green and Betty Comden and book by Arthur Laurents. "I was 23 and on Broadway in a show written by legends [which was originally to star Lena Horne]. I couldn't believe it." Then there was playing Kizzy in one of TV's biggest hits, 1976's TV mini-series Roots. "That was extraordinary. Getting to know Alex Haley was thrilling." The role won her an Emmy nomination for Best Leading Actress. Three years later, she co-starred in Backstairs at the White House, which scored huge ratings.

    Other career highlights: Ervin Drake's short-lived, much under appreciated Her First Roman (1968) as Cleopatra opposite Richard Kiley's Caesar; Jerry's Girls (1985) with Dorothy Loudon and Chita Rivera; Reno Sweeney, opposite Rex Smith, in the national tour and later at Lincoln Center in Anything Goes (1987-1989). In addition to regional stage work Stringbean (1991), a play with music based on the life of Ethel Waters; The Old Settler and Blue, she appears along with 99 other Broadway names in the 2003 documentary, Broadway: The Golden Age by the Legends Who Were There.

    It's been a good, exciting life, says Uggams. "I wasn't denied anything by being in show business. I feel just the opposite. I look at what it's given me. One thing it did was save me from being a thug. I lived in a tough neighborhood!" Looking at the gigantic ring set with diamonds galore (a combination of her wedding band and engagement ring designed by her husband), the writer quips, "I bet you didn't wear that ring!" She replies, "Absolutely not, but back then, I had no idea I'd ever be in such a wonderful place to have a ring such as this."

    In 1965, in a lavish, almost royal wedding, Uggams married Australian-born actor Grahame Pratt, whom she met while in Australia while performing in a club with headliner Sammy Davis Jr. It was love at first sight; however, she was only there a week. Pratt shortly followed and a whirlwind courtship began. Now he's her manager. They have two adopted children, both following in Mom's footsteps. Outside show business, Uggams stays busy as a founding member of the BRAVO Chapter/City of Hope, dedicated to the study, treatment and eradication of blood-related diseases and as a board member of the Alvin Alley Dance Theatre and TADA, a children's musical theatre.

    On her list of career achievements, there's definitely a shortage of film roles. "I would love to have done more movies." She breaks up laughing, "The ones I did weren't memorable. Not at all!" She may be referring specifically to 1978's Heartbreak Motel, starring Shelley Winters, in which she portrayed a blues singer kidnapped by a bizarre crew of backwoods characters.

    "Film is good," Uggams states, "but it's an editor's and director's medium. You think you're in the film; but when you see it, you go ëWhat happened? I was in that scene!' I'm thrilled to be back doing what I love: live theater. I love going out to a different audience every show that you have to win over. It's deliver or else. You're up there with no place to go. You're challenged every time that curtain goes up. When the light hits me, the adrenaline is pumping like the biggest Texas oil well. But, when you have to do it eight times a week for months, it's not a job for sissies!"


    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at [email protected]

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