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  • Roz Ryan has a spectacular vocal magic. When combined with her quick wit, boisterous laugh and saucy sassiness, you get quite a package. The evidence is onstage at the Ambassador Theatre, where she's playing Matron "Mama" Morton in Kander/Ebb and Fosse's long-running Chicago revival. In addition to stopping the show with her renditions of "When You're Good To Mama" and "Class," Ryan says she's "right at home and having one helluva good time."

    During her quarter century in show business, Ryan's done it all - clubs, film, records, TV sitcoms and theater [regional, tours, Off Broadway and Broadway]. Rarely do you find an artist that is 100% show business. You would expect nothing else because, as she aptly sums it up, "It's what I know. It's my life and always has been."

    After nearly 20 years of being bi-coastal "and having the best of both worlds," Ryan is happy to be back in New York and on Broadway.

    But it's not enough. She's working with Alan Menken in development workshops of his musical adaptation of the film Leap of Faith, which starred Steve Martin as fake faith healer Jonas Nightingale who gets stranded in a small town where he finds he can't fool all of the people all of the time.

    Ryan's thrilled with the experience so far. "It was a fun movie and it's going to be a great Broadway show. What a score, and, of course, it's going to have lots of gospel music. It's exciting being in on the creation of a new show and you can't ask for a better experience than working with Alan [whom she's known since doing the voice of Thalia, Muse of Comedy in Disney's animated feature Hercules]."

    In other breathing moments, Ryan is getting her club act, All About the Music, polished for Mondays in June and July at Danny's Skylight Room [346-348 West 46th Street] and Opias Supper Club [130 East 57th Street at Lexington Avenue]. Then, come August, she'll be in Chelsea at Helen's on Eighth Avenue at 19th Street.

    The bill of fare, she notes, will be "lush songs, mood songs, torch songs, truth songs and songs from the heart."

    Ryan became a household name in 1986 when she was cast as Sister Amelia in the hit sitcom, Amen. For five seasons, she had what she termed a supreme good time working with Sherman Hemsley, Clifton Davis, the delightful Anna Marie Horsford and Barbara Montgomery [now teaching acting in New York].

    "There was great chemistry among our gang," Ryan reports. "We really became a family. When you have a show everyone loves and you work with people you grow to love and respect, it's a pleasure to go to work. From the bottom to the top, they were all good people." And, creator Ed Weinberger being a gospel addict, she got to sing a lot of spirited music.

    "It's something I came to late in life," she notes. "It wasn't something I grew up doing. I wanted to be in the church and school choirs, but I was working club dates and never had time to go to rehearsals."

    This past season, Ryan was co-starring in the autobiographical WB network tough-love sitcom All About the Andersons, the story of an aspiring actor [Anthony Anderson of Barbershop] and single father who returns with his young son to live with his parents [Ryan and John Amos].

    "I got all settled and they cancel the show. One season is not enough. You get into the acting part, but not the living part. I was looking forward to getting locked in for a while and bringing the family out and all. We thought we were popular, but I've learned success on TV doesn't have anything to do with what's good or if you're talented. It's what's popular right now. And we weren't a reality show!"

    So she's back where she wants to be. Ryan had made plans to return to Chicago - now starring Charlotte d'Amboise, Brenda Braxton and Tom Wopat --during the sitcom's hiatus but now, with no reason to hurry back West, she's signed well into September.

    "Chicago is my safe house," she informs. "It's a show I love. The movie, which I loved, came and went and Chicago's still on Broadway. The only thing that disappointed me about the film was that they didn't ask me to do it! I love Queen Latifah. She's talented, she's beautiful and she was wonderful but," chuckled Ryan, "they still shoulda let me do it!"

    Ryan reports that the popularity of the award-winning film gave the Broadway revival five more lives: "It's going to be here forever. Cats had nine lives. Chicago's got twelve. It seems unstoppable. You know why? As much as you may have liked the movie, this is live theatre. You get hands-on, in-your-face sass. The pizzazz jumps out at you!"

    It's why audiences keep coming and coming back: "The show's hot!" she exclaims. "You can't get away from that. It's sleek, it's sexy, it's sensuous, it's simple. It's got a little bit of everything. It's one well-crafted musical. And then there's the score. Can you beat Kander and Ebb?"

    According to Ryan, another reason audiences are fascinated with the show is because of what's happening "right now" in the news: "All those legal tussels going on in court."

    As much as she loves theater, she loves TV. "You get up early and there's a lot of hurry up and wait, but I love the grind. One reason may be because the money's very good."

    Ryan has a son in his early 30s with two daughters. They live in Chicago, the city. "I felt it was time to see more of my babies. One of the girls is a mini-me - spitting image, attitude, everything. The other, who just started walking, is a holy terror who tears up everything. I'm still making plans to relocate everyone to L.A." [She has three other "universal children who I picked up along the way but feel absolutely belong to me."]

    She was born in Detroit but, later, whenever anyone would ask "Where's Roz," her mother would reply: "At the airport."

    Music was always a part of her life, relates Ryan, "and I was constantly on the way to or from some place. At home, I'd play Mom's Billie Holiday and Lena Horne records and go down to the basement and emulate them. My sister lives there now and when I was back Thanksgiving, I stood on that landing under the light I thought of as my spotlight and had quite a rush of memories."

    She began singing professionally at 15, after winning a talent show. For several years, because of her age, she could enter clubs but could only go from the dressing room to the stage.

    "My first gig was at one of Detroit's top clubs, the 20 Grand," recalls Ryan. "It was there I met the Jacksons. At sixteen, I opened for [the legendary] Arthur Prysock, later the Funkadelics."

    Her parents worked for the Board of Education, but Ryan never contemplated or was forced to contemplate going to college -- well, a formal one anyway. She tells everyone that she graduated "from the U of S of D --the university of the streets of Detroit."

    It had already been established in Ryan's life what she was going to do: "My love of music came from God. I always say I didn't choose the path, it choose me. I've had my share of exiting moments, and my share of not so exciting moments. It's been a little bit of everything. Baby, to put it simply, I've had a life. And now's the best time! I'm older, but young enough to deal with the wisdom I have earned."

    In 1979, when the tour of Ain't Misbeahvin' came to Detroit, a friend suggested she audition. As a result, Richard Maltby Jr. [who conceived the Fats Waller revue as well as directed it] came to see her club act and invited her to New York, where she joined the cast [replacing Nell Carter].

    No sooner than she got that job, she was performing in clubs. Her first club dates were at Ted Hook's Back Stage.

    "Through the years," she reveals, "I've made it a point to know everyone connected to the scene. I stay in the mix by keeping in touch over the phone. So, when I know I'm going to be in town, I pick up the phone and let everyone know."
    Recently she gave a friend a flier for her upcoming club dates and he asked, "Isn't Broadway enough? You're doing eight shows a week!" She responded, "No."

    Admittedly, making a living in cabaret is tough, "but because I started so young, I have always been prepared. Something that's really helped me is I don't look at it as presenting a show. I don't do an act. I live my life. Cabaret's where I began and what I've always done."

    Ryan says it has something to do with New York. "It's so different from L.A. When I arrive here, I get this incredible burst of energy. I love the walking aspect of New York. In L.A., I would park three blocks from the studio or wherever I had to go to force myself to walk. Here, ten blocks - even in pumps - is nothing. It's where you find the energy of the city, not from behind the wheel of a car."

    One of her supreme show business experiences was working with Michael Bennett when she played Effie White in the landmark Dreamgirls. "Whe I auditioned for Michael, I was in my late 20s. He told me Effie starts out at seventeen and didn't know if I could do that. I replied, ëBaby, I can do it."

    She did, beginning in late 1984 -- becoming the third and last Effie. "I still have incredibly vivid memories of our closing, with tears and laughter and that overwhelming combination of saddness and joy."

    The biggest change she sees in New York theater is that "the family element is gone. On the positive side, there's colorblind casting. It acknowledges an actor as an actor, not as an ethnicity. I've seen it with Aida, and, of course, right here with Chicago. Marcia Lewis was the original Mama. Velma has been multi-racial -- like right now with the incredible Brenda Braxton, who's a pistol. In fact, you could shoot her right out of the canon! [The two did Dreamgirls together]. Recently, she was Dutch. We've even had a Mexican Roxie. It's lovely to be cast for your talent and not your ethnicity."

    After Dreamgirls, Ryan relocated to Miami and "became a big fish in a little pond. You know, Broadway gal comes to Miami. Everybody bow. I worked all the clubs and theatres. I wanted it all, and went through the whole thing. And once I did, there was nothing else to do. Then I got married for the second time."

    Did he turn out to be everything she hoped he'd be? "Nope. I thought he was everything, or I wouldn't have gone down that aisle again. The problem was that I didn't know what the hell ëeverything' was! He turned out to be everything I wished he wouldn't have been. But, being fair, time, distance and this business played into it. I want to write a book about the plight of female singers. As far as employment is concerned, we do pretty good. But, if you are successful, your personal life suffers. It's not just my story. I've heard it many times. There are some success stories; some manage to make it work. The ones who do are younger. Back then, the husband wanted to be the breadwinner, the man of the house."

    She said she contributed to the personal problems because she never "negotiates" her professional life. "It's what I am. It's what I do. I like my life. But that didn't make marriage any easier. I've decided that marriage just doesn't like me. If you've never done it, you might go into with your eyes wide shut, but I've done it two point eight times!"

    Thankfully, TV and theater likes her. "And the credit card companies like me," adds Ryan, breaking up, "because I pay my bills on time." Although she says she's happy, she also admits, "I don't want to spend the rest of my life alone. HoweverÖ That's it. So be it."

    Bi-coastal doesn't work for everyone, but Ryan, who's been "bi" for 17 years, is one of the fortunate who never had a problem "except when I was married."

    One of the great things about coming back, she says, "to this show is that I walked back into a theatre where I've worked with almost everyone in some area of this planet - the tour, Vegas and those who've been here since the beginning."

    Ryan is a firm believer in saying "Never say never" - except when it applies to show tours. "I'm too old for them," she moans. "My body doesn't like it. It doesn't like the flying, the packing, unpacking, the hotels, different climates, broken finger nails! I can't do it anymore! And I get bored quickly. It used to be a show would sit down in one place for a couple of months, or even a couple of weeks. But now, it's split weeks! Before you get there, it's time to leave."

    Just give her New York and Broadway and she'll supply the old razzle dazzle!

    For more information, visit www.RozRyan.com.


    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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