Donna Gotlib Interviews Carol Dunitz, Playwright, Lyricist, Composer and Lead of “Bernhardt on Broadway”
Question: Carol, how did you become interested in musical theatre?
Answer: When I was a youngster growing up in Detroit, the Shubert Theatre was scheduled for demolition. My mother wanted me to see it before it faced the wrecking ball. She bought tickets for us to see the last show to play there, “Gypsy.” I was captivated by the performance and knew the entire score by heart within a week. And that’s how it all started.
Question: When did you start writing music?
Answer: I started writing music around the same time I saw “Gypsy” -- maybe a little earlier. My first melodies sounded something like the pop music of the era. My brother and sisters tease me to this day by singing some of those early songs. I never had much interest in pop music, however, and those early melodies quickly evolved into music of a theatrical genre. My songs are reminiscent of many styles and eras -- but somehow they all sound like they were written for the stage.
Question: Did you take music lessons or study composition when you were growing up?
Answer: I started taking piano lessons when I was seven years old. At piano recitals my teacher would always have me go first. I loved to perform -- but I hated to practice. I took piano off and on for many years as well as guitar from some very accomplished performers and teachers, but I was not a star pupil. My best instrument has always been my voice. Everyone has always begged me to sing except for seven people who have never wanted any part of it -- my three siblings and my four children! As an adult I took some arranging lessons with several people which was useful but for the most part I prefer to leave orchestration to others. I believe in doing what I do best and delegating to those who can do other things better. I do some arranging but orchestratio definitely falls in to that category.
Question: Carol, what is the process you follow to write a song?
Answer: You have probably heard about Mozart and how music would simply appear in his head. That’s how it is with me. When I have a thought or idea or am exposed to a new environment, music appears in my head, often with the first line of a lyric. I usually carry a tape recorder with me so I can preserve the melody. Sometimes when I do not have a recorder on hand it escapes but may reappear at a later date. When I have the time I will sit down at the piano or an electronic keyboard and write the melody out on paper with chords. They say that some people think in words and some people think in pictures. When I was in therapy years ago my psychoanalyst suggested I thought in music. I believe this to be the case.
Question: Is Bernhardt on Broadway your first musical?
Answer: Actually, Donna, I wrote a full length musical (music, book, and lyrics) when I was in graduate school. It even won an award. “Victoria!” was about Victoria Woodhull, an eccentric American suffragette. It called for a large cast and had a lot of catchy melodies. But I was very young at the time -- not much more than twenty -- and not mature enough to follow my dream at that point. I am tempted to go back, dust off the manuscript, and make modifications. I may just do that.
Question: Carol, why did you choose to write a show about Sarah Bernhardt?
Answer: For some time I had been considering writing a show with the working title, “Leading Lady.” It was going to be about a versatile actress who had starred in many musicals like Ethel Merman. My thought was that it would give me the opportunity to write different styles of songs from each of the fictitious shows she had starred in. Then I stumbled upon the idea of writing a show about Sarah Bernhardt. Sarah was not new to me. When I was growing up my mother had always told me I was a little Sarah Bernhardt whenever I became histrionic, which I must admit was quite often. I think I must have flown out of the birth canal with my arms spread wide and singing. In any case, I no longer needed to have a ‘make believe’ star. I had a real one.
Question: Can you provide a short overview of Bernhardt on Broadway?
Answer: Bernhardt on Broadway, is a one one-woman musical about the most famous actress who ever lived. Set in the 1890s when the Divine Sarah Bernhardt was at the height of her career, the show is reminiscent of the Golden Age of Musicals when you could count on leaving the theatre with a tune dancing in your head and a lyric tugging at your heart. This is a ‘no holds barred’ exposé about the world's first superstar who formed her own theatre company and traveled the globe performing to sold out crowds from Australia to Brazil, Russia to Canada. In the show, Bernhardt addresses the audience in a relaxed and forthright way, talking about her present and reminiscing about her past – personally and professionally. Twelve showstopping songs enhance the action and seamlessly contribute to the story that unfolds. This is the disclosure of a woman who captivated several generations of theatergoers, performing over 150 parts during the course of her career. Bernhardt initiated celebrity product endorsements, hobnobbed with royalty on a regular basis, and starred in the first full length silent film, “Queen Elizabeth.”
Question: Why did you write this as a one-woman show?
Answer: Donna, that was a pragmatic decision. I figured it would be easier to produce a show with one character -- less costly -- which seemed particularly important at a time when our economy is so depressed. I could even perform it myself since I have talent in that area. You’ve seen the showI I do pull it off, oui? Ah, but now I am lapsing into character! I have performed all my life as well as spoken and sung professionally in costume on numerous communication topics. I have a doctorate in Speech Communication and Theatre.
Question: Did you really need to read close to 100 books to complete your research?
Answer: I did. There certainly was a great deal of redundancy in the research. However, I continued to read recognizing that if I could discover a nugget of information that I
had not run across elsewhere, it might provide that extra zest I was looking for. Even the last book I read provided new jewels which I was able to use for the script. Beyond providing all sorts of colorful information, the script is quite profound. It delves into the psychological elements that shaped the woman Sarah Bernhardt was to become. This depth is in contrast to many shows that are more superficial.
Question: Who is your audience, Carol?
Answer: This is a show that anyone can enjoy and benefit from. It has great melodies that stay with you, an historic story that is gripping, and a theme of persistence and perseverance we can all learn from. While I have had children in my audiences and they have enjoyed the performance, it really is an adult show. It is sophisticated with many nuances that go over the heads of children. People in their teens and twenties have been appreciative but it is generally a more mature crowd that flocks to the theatre. It should definitely be a destination for anyone who loves musicals.
Question: Why do you compare the songs you write to those of the ‘Golden Age?’
Answer: I have always admired musical composers like Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, and Richard Rogers as well as operetta composers like Emmerich Kalman, Johann Strauss, Victor Herbert, Sigmund Romberg and others for their ability to write music so contagious that it stays with you for a lifetime. The lyrics of Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Lorenz Hart are so pithy, you can hear them over and over and still be amazed by how clever they are. My greatest admiration is for Cole Porter and Irving Berlin who had the ability to write both incredible music and lyrics. They are my heroes and it is in their footsteps that I choose to follow. Of course, I write the scripts, too. My melodies tend to be very memorable and I work hard to shape lyrics that compliment the music and leave listeners wanting to return and listen to them again and again.
Question: Could “Bernhardt on Broadway” be adapted for the big screen?
Answer: Without question. While it has been written as a one-woman show, it could easily be modified for a larger cast for either the theatre or the movies. It is full of anecdotes that could be flushed out with the addition of other characters.
Question: Do you plan to continue to perform it yourself or find another actor to play Sarah Bernhardt?
Answer: In the short term, Donna, I will perform in “Bernhardt on Broadway.” I hope to interest other actors as word gets out. I enjoy performing but look forward to having more time to write other shows.
Question: Where do you hope to see “Bernhardt on Broadway” produced?
Answer: Is there a playwright who would not like to see their work performed on Broadway or the West End? Ultimately, that’s the goal. In the meantime, there are lots of other possibilities. Right now I continue to work on creating buzz. I have performed at large theatres, for private clubs and groups, lifelong learning centers and cabaret venues all over the country. I have a performance at my first museum later in the year. And I am very excited to have my premiere in New York CIty in June at the Metropolitan Room. The show is a natural for groups to bring in to do fundraising. The minimal set makes it an ideal show to run between regular season productions at theatres, and of course I hope to be Off-Broadway soon. Depending on the venue, it can be presented in full form or as a shorter work featuring the twelve songs with intro dialog that fills in the story line.
Question: I was at the opening at Maxim’s in Chicago in October, 2011. I remember they found you because “Bernhardt on Broadway” is set in the 1890s -- and the decor there is 1890s. It was a great fit. Do you find it typical for venues to find you or do you need to find them?
Answer: In the beginning marketing is a struggle. The current economy is devastating for the arts. When your dispoable income decreases, the first area to suffer is entertainment. I have put together an aggressive marketing campaign and am implementing it in stages. I ran a boutique advertising agency for fifteen years and it is exciting be able to put your marketing acumen to work for yourself. The campaign is working and I see progress. But one does have to have patience!
Question: I know the pace of bookings is increasing. Do you plan to handle the marketing indefinitely?
Answer: Absolutely not. There’s a ‘catch 22’ here. They say you have to have an agent to be successful. But an agent does not want to take you on unless you already have some success. My current goal is to put together that track record of success so that a good agent will want to represent me. The number and variety of venues at which I have appeared continues to increase. And my testimonials, well I read my testimonials when I am feeling blue. They are amazing.
Question: So others in the audience are enjoying “Bernhardt on Broadway” as much as I did.
Answer: More. Because I have had the time to work out little kinks in the script and develop an understanding of how to draw the maximum response from my audience at key points in the musical play. People routinely tell me they do not feel like they have seen a musical about Sarah Bernhardt. They feel like they have spent two hours in her drawing room. One critic reported that I channel the great tragedienne! After a recent performance a woman in the lobby bent down and kissed the hem of my dress. Two weeks ago at a four hundred seat theatre that was almost full to capacity a man approached me after the show, got down on one knee and proposed to me!
Question: Is there an Original Cast album available for Bernhardt on Broadway?
Answer: Yes there is. The Bernhardt on Broadway original cast album is available on CD at
www.BernhardOnBroadway.com for $15.00.
Question: Where can readers go if they want to learn more about “Bernhardt on Broadway”?
Answer: The first stop would be the website, www.BernhardtOnBroadway.com. There are links to lots of information as well as the Madame Sarah 1000 Youtube channel.
Question: How can a theatre or organization book “Bernhardt on Broadway”?
Answer: They can contact me at CDunitz@BernhardtOnBroadway.
com or 312.523.4774.
Answer: They can contact me at CDunitz@BernhardtOnBroadway.
Question: Carol, this has been great fun. I want to ask just one more question. What plans do you have beyond “Bernhardt on Broadway”?
Answer: Funny you should ask. I have completed the research for two more shows, one about Mary Todd Lincoln and the other about the Bronte Family. I may redo “Victoria!” which I mentioned earlier -- and I have two contemporary pieces that I am considering developing. Donna, I am working very hard and having the time of my life!