KT Sullivan was named artistic director of The Mabel Mercer Foundation in 2012, the presenters of the annual Cabaret Convention. She starred in the Broadway revival of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and headlined for almost two decades in The Oak Room at The Algonquin Hotel. One of the shows she created there, Rhyme, Women and Song was presented this season in a one hour presentation on PBS' WNET 12. Besides regular appearances in such New York venues as The Laurie Beechman Theatre and 54 Below, she stars annually at The Crazy Cogs in London, and has been showcased at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center, The Spoleto Festival, The Chichester Festival, La Nouvelle Eve in Paris, and the Adelaide Festival in Australia. She was the star vocalist of two tours of China with The Manhattan Symphonie, and was twice named one of The Top 100 Irish Americans by Irish America Magazine. She is happily married to Steve Downey, president of the New York Browning Society.
“Like the bubbles in a glass of champagne”- A Profile of KT Sullivan
— You Go to My Head (Haven Gillespie/J. Fred Coots)
If Con Ed could wire KT Sullivan, Manhattan would light up like Christmas. Vibrating even when perched, she might be a humming bird with wing speed too fast to observe. Her thoughts bubble up in short phrases, then move on quickly without looking back. KT says she knew she belonged here when, for the first time, she “finally met people who talk as fast as I do…My father talked fast, I guess. With so many siblings (7,) you have to talk fast to get anything heard, and briefly because you can’t hold the floor very long.”
Eight children were born to Elizabeth “Betty” and Jim Sullivan, who married at 16 and had been married 62 years when he died in 2009. The family began on a farm in Boggy Depot, Oklahoma, (later, moving to Norman.) “When you have a chicken in the picture, it really shows you’re in the country,” KT comments about an early photo. The Sullivans grew up interdependent. Not only did siblings take care of each other and share chores, they shared a talent for music. KT attributes these genetics to her mother’s side of the family, all of whom, it seems, played and sang.
Eight children and their mother comprised The Sullivan Family Gospel Singers. They learned classical piano and voice from Betty, though the boys stopped early on in favor of baseball. Her father “loved to sing, but had a challenge with pitch” and so became their biggest fan. KT says the way she relaxes her jaw and breathes is recognizable watching Betty Sullivan sing. And sing Betty Sullivan does-professionally, as do three siblings. Twice a year the entire clan plus extended family gathers to perform together in public-once at an annual Christmas Concert to benefit The Women’s Resource Center in Norman, Oklahoma and once in New York City.
Interests in language, history, and literature lead Kathleen to matriculate in fine arts rather than music at The University of Oklahoma, though she explored German Lieder and French Art Songs. When a friend moved to Los Angeles to study at The Strasberg Institute, she decided the time was right to spread her wings. The Institute was too expensive and New York her ultimate dream, but “I had $300 and a car—so LA, it was!”
“Opera” singing waitress jobs at Sarno’s Café de l’Opera, La Strada, and Villa Lasagna “Yes, the owner’s name was Lasagna!” paid the rent between theater jobs. (Remember Asti’s in New York?) At Villa Lasagna, she met actor Howard Witt, who would be both boyfriend and mentor for 5 years. She understudied, did readings, and for 9 months, worked at The Old Globe Theater under Jack O’Brian. Then, Kathleen Sullivan landed on the television show, Match Game featuring contestants attempting to match celebrities' answers to fill-in-the-blank questions. She was paired with the stage-whispering Charles Nelson Reilly who saw to it she won $10,000! New to LA, barely into her twenties, and filled with ambition, Kathleen began to study acting with Nina Foch and opera with Giovanni Zavatti. Waitressing seemed a pleasantly distant memory.
In 1980, Kathleen was cast in the first of many commercials. A bride at the altar, she couldn’t say “I do,” until she’d had her Hershey’s Kiss. Applying for SAG and AFTRA memberships, she discovered there was another Kathleen Sullivan. “My mother’s maiden name was Fowler, so I was going to be Kathleen Fowler. Then Howard sat behind KT Stevens at a SAG meeting. He came home and said, ‘I’ve got it. You’re going to be KT= Ka-tleen.’ K.T. Stevens was best friends with Nina Foch, so she liked the idea.” Small rolls on television series followed.
One night at The Rose Café, the newly “christened” KT sang an elaborate version of “Happy Birthday” to a friend. Owner, Deborah Rose suggested she do an act. She was “…terrified.” Fortunately, Witt had a clear vision when she did not. “He played me a Barbara Cook recording. Before that, I thought nightclub singers all had sultry, low voices.” Cook was a soprano with similar range. It was a revelation. In 1981, KT performed her first evening of cabaret. A single qualifier in the LA Daily News review was that she sang too many Barbara Cook songs! The show ran every Friday night over a year. Witt coached and directed.
Eric Michael Gillett remembers that show. “She really was a small-town girl, come to the big city to make her way, so when she slowly sang the verse to "Oklahoma," Gonna give you barley, carrots and pertaters, pasture for the cattle, spinach and termayters, tears would come to her eyes and her lower lip would tremble, a palpable sign that the girl she had been was always going to be a part of her, wherever she traveled. And when she laughed, it was like a crystal bell being rung for dinner.”
Her next venue was The Gardenia, still a mainstay in the Los Angeles cabaret scene. The show got better, but content didn’t change much. KT wrote her own patter and grew more comfortable with the genre. “I always say cabaret chose me.” Still, there was everything from The Merry Widow with The St. Louis Municipal Light Opera and Roberta Peters, to L’il Abner opposite Joe Namath. Cabaret may have chosen her, but she would always have other flirtations.
In 1984, on a trip to New York with Witt who was starring in David Mamet’s Glengary Glenn Ross, Max Showalter “who had played Horace Vandergelder opposite hundreds of Dollys” (in Jerry Herman’s Hello, Dolly!) offered her an extra ticket (there were tickets) to Mabel Mercer’s Memorial. “Thank goodness I didn’t say who is Mabel Mercer? Buddy Barnes performed. And Cy Coleman, Bobby Short, Dorothy Loudon, Elaine Stritch, Bart Howard...Donald Smith was there. They were all on stage before I met them. All these people who would later be in my life…I listened to Mabel’s recordings but had to stop because the phrasing is so definitive, you can’t hear the song any other way. It’s dangerous.”
KT finally made the move to Manhattan—well, Spanish Harlem. Given a short list of people to look up, her first pianist in New York became Buddy Barnes, who had played for Mabel Mercer. She sang at The Duplex, Don’t Tell Mama, and Danny’s Skylight Room.
Barnes was also music director of “The Songs of Bart Howard,” at Jan Wallman’s. Rita Gardner (the original ingénue in The Fantasticks) had been “the girl,” but was going out of town. “Because Buddy was in my act, I put in some Bart Howard. Howard came to hear me. It was kind of an audition. At the end, he came up to me and said, "For the first time in my life I wish I were younger and straight.” Needless to say, KT got the part. She remembers waiting up for the papers. John Wilson’s New York Times review ended with: "The evening belonged to Miss Sullivan and memories of Mabel Mercer." Donald Smith, Director of The Mabel Mercer Foundation, asked KT to participate in the first and every succeeding Cabaret Convention.
Bart Howard left KT his grand piano. You can’t see the top for dozens and dozens of smiling photos of friends. Open sheet music includes "Where Do You Start "(Alan & Marilyn Bergman,) "The Girlfriend of the Whirling Dervish" (Harry Warren/Al Dubin/Johnny Mercer,) and some Giacomo Puccini. One imagines her benefactor would be pleased.
After appearing as Suky Tawdry in the Broadway revival of The Threepenny Opera, KT was once again available to do cabaret. (This is not a woman who rests.) Mark Nadler and his then partner were booking entertainment for a steakhouse on the Upper East Side called Adam’s Rib. KT went to see Nadler who reciprocated, booked her, and became her musical director for the show.
On opening night, what KT calls a “hub bub” rose from a banquette at the back of the room. The duo ignored it. At the end of the show, Nadler angrily questioned the serving staff. Apparently a woman was going down on her date at the table during the performance. “I was standing right there and, of course, heard the waiters’ description. Mark was scandalized for me at first. He thought of me as this really prim lady who sang classical music. Then, I asked,' during which song?' (so much for prim) I thought it must’ve been 'I’ve Got You Under My Skin.'" (She laughs. It’s full, rich, and open.) "Cole Porter brought us together.” KT Sullivan and Mark Nadler have created and performed eight thematic shows together since then as well as countless duets in concert. (They both have flourishing solo careers.) “First we have lunch. Then we shop for my gown. Then his tie, handkerchief, and socks, which match my gown…usually at Barney’s…”
I asked Nadler if he had a story particularly indicative of KT’s character. He described their doing the Gershwin show Florida. Nadler had gone down a day early to attend to tech. When KT’s original flight was canceled forcing her to fly into an airport an hour from the venue, they decided he’d do the first act by himself. Hopefully she’d appear by the second, but necessarily wearing on stage what she’d worn on the plane. “…at intermission, I went into the lobby with the audience to keep them amused, just in case we had to stall longer. A limo pulled up, the back door opened, and out came a black and jeweled high heel, a black stockinged leg, a gorgeous black beaded gown, completed by feather boa. Her hair was done, her make-up was perfect and as she got out of the car, she broke into Summertime and the livin’ is easy, singing it as she walked to the stage. We followed her in. It was a dazzling second act.” KT had dressed and made up in the car on the way from Miami to the theater!
Her first show at The Oak Room of The Algonquin Hotel was called Songs for a Summer Night. KT told me candidly that Stephen Holden’s review in The New York Times was awful. Rex Reed disagreed. Comic performer Sidney Meyer, now of Don’t Tell Mama, reassured her, “The word from the boys is they like you.” More importantly, Arthur Pomposello who ran The Oak Room, had enough faith to book KT consecutive summers. “I owe my career to Arthur.” It took five reviews, including one for The Rainbow Room, “for Holden to give me a passing grade…He just didn’t get me,” she muses.
That same year, she traveled to the lake district of Cuomo, Italy with opera coach Carlo Faria. “We took the train from Zurich third class. I sang arias all the way through the Alps. People gathered in the hallway near the car. When we got off in Cuomo, the Italians leaned out of train windows and applauded calling out, Brava, Diva! It was sort of like a Deana Durbin movie.” She lights up with the memory. “I don’t tell this story often because it sounds like such a big head, but it was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had.” KT still checks in with Faria once or twice a year for a tune up.
Frank Military, who heard KT sing at the 92nd Street Y’s Lyrics and Lyricists series, recommended her to Hugh Fordin of DRG Records. Fordin offered the first recording opportunity, an album called Crazy World. She had been rehearsing with Mike Renzi for three days at Warner/Chappell when Sammy Cahn, apparently writing in the next room, “stormed in” demanding to know what they were doing of his. Military whisked out The Sammy Cahn Songbook (which he’d published), "Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry" was chosen and Cahn gave her pointers on phrasing. “I was singing a song for the first time, in front of the lyricist, in the original key!”
It was on the national tour of Annie Get Your Gun when KT started wearing the hats. Having removed the production wigs, “the women in the show would take half an hour or more to get out of the dressing rooms because they were doing their hair. One day, I just put on a hat. I figure I save about 200 hours a year by putting on hats.” Now, she collects them. “First it was practical, then it became the look. People started giving me their mother’s vintage hats. It gets attention and I love it.” KT showed me her millinery collection. There must be 100, mostly black hats, many of them cocktail headwear. “Winter,” she explained, opening another closet piled with hatboxes labeled “Spring.”Her performance wardrobe is influenced by her own innate femininity and, she says, years of watching The Loretta Young Show with her mom.
Labor Day 1997, KT performed at a benefit for The National Musical Theater Network which took place at a private home. Stephen Downey, a business communications consultant, found her captivating. Something of a man-about-town, Downey was surprised when nothing came out of his mouth as she passed. “I was agog at the presence of beauty and talent in this nightingale,” he recalls. At dusk, they were both outside on the patio, when Downey saw a beautifully dressed man walk past “sartorial, or I wouldn’t have noticed” straight into the swimming pool! Reflexively turning to KT, he commented “Did you see that?!” Once he found his voice, Downey used it.
“I never aspired to marriage. As Noel Coward wrote, 'I travel alone.' But love found me… Steve still refers to the pause after the proposal.” They were married in 1999. KT wore an opulent red velvet gown. “As the bride appeared, the guests, which included show biz friends, broke into spontaneous applause.” (Kathy Larkin –Newsday) Hundreds of framed career mementoes and photographs of the joined Sullivan/Downey dynasties from the last century to the present fill the walls of their sunny apartment. The genealogies are astonishingly comprehensive. As to more recent, often candid documentation, I harbor the suspicion that all KT’s intimates carry disposable cameras.
In addition to performing in cabaret, KT has given concerts all over the world, worked on Broadway and in regional theater and made her West End (London) debut in the bilingual Vienna to Weimar. Other musical highlights include: Gentleman Prefer Blondes, A…My Name Is Alice, and Splendora. One Spring day in 1983, she sang "The Secret Service Makes Me Nervous" (Irving Berlin) to an audience including President and Mrs. Reagan at The White House.
Since 2007 the multifaceted Jon Weber has been her Music Director and Accompanist. I asked Jon how they met. “I was playing obscure songs from the American Popular Songbook at a party, and some disembodied voice sang along - every word - every verse - in every key in which I chose to play. About 25 songs later, KT, the vocalist responsible for this vast knowledge and musicality, approached me and asked to see my calendar.”
I ask KT what she’d like for the future. “I think I could do a show on Broadway if I really loved it… You always want what you don’t have…Cabaret is a good life, especially if you get a show at The Algonquin every year.” She travels. Family is extremely important as are her friends. History and opera are particular interests. She’s President of The Dutch Treat Club at The National Arts Club on Gramercy Park South.
A pillow on a living room couch reads: Too Much of a Good Thing is Simply Wonderful.
That’s KT Sullivan all over.
All unattributed quotes are KT Sullivan
Written by Alix Cohen
EVERY NIGHT IS LADIES' NIGHT
KT Sullivan Adds a Chapter t the Great American Songbook
By Will Friedwald
Wall Street Journal
May 4. 2011
My favorite—or at least the most recent—of KT Sullivan's many classic moments occurred in January at the Metropolitan Room during a tribute to her friend, composer Mickey Leonard. At the end of "Why Did I Choose You?," as she reached the climactic lyric ("If I had to choose again…"), rather than proceed to the final line ("I would still choose you"), she paused and looked as if she were pondering the question. She sat at the edge of the stage, apparently mulling her options for an entire chorus before finally concluding.
It was not for a lack of certitude. Of the major singing-spieling divas who regularly play the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel—including Andrea Marcovicci and Maude Maggart—Ms. Sullivan is by far the funniest and most entertaining. She combines the chops of an opera singer with the perfect punch-line timing and self-deflation of a baggy-pants comic. Her full-throated soprano is remarkable not only for being beautiful, but for, quite possibly, being the only thing about her that isn't funny.
During the last 20 years or so, Ms. Sullivan has devised 18 shows built around the Great American Songbook, both alone and with partners (usually the pianist-singer Mark Nadler). Her latest, "Rhyme, Women & Song," which she'll bring to the Oak Room for a month beginning Tuesday, is a departure in several respects. It focuses on the work of "music-making ladies," and because the last 40 years produced many more of them than the preceding era, she said, "I am being dragged kicking and screaming into the second half of the 20th century."
When Ms. Sullivan began playing the piano and singing as a 12-year-old in Oklahoma circa 1970 (she doesn't divulge her age), she immediately fell in love with Cole Porter's "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To." From there she became obsessed with the great showtunes, particularly those dating from the 1920s through the '50s. She trained in opera, only to realize that "there are fewer successful opera singers in this country than there are senators," and discovered that she preferred the possibilities for self-expression and humor in the American Songbook.
"I define the songbook as songs that have endured," she said, almost begrudgingly, "which means it's now time for me to get around to Joni Mitchell and Carole King."
Ms. Sullivan moved to New York in 1983, and, except for a dalliance in Hollywood, where she played strippers and secretaries in cop shows like "Remington Steele" and "Police Squad," she has lived here ever since. She found better roles on Broadway, like the lead in the 1995 revival of "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," and opposite Sting in 1989's "The Threepenny Opera," but it has been on the New York cabaret scene that she has reigned nearly unchallenged.
Last Monday, she had a few friends over to her 43rd Street apartment for a "stumble through" of "Rhyme, Women & Song." The main issue was the "overture" by pianist Jon Weber and bassist John Webber (the two had a band in Chicago together called Webber Report). It had yet to be decided whether they would open with a collage of '80s-era pop hits by "girl bands" like the Bangles and Joan Jett, or a more traditional Oak Room medley of songs by Kay Swift.
Ms. Sullivan's closing medley, however, was fairly set: She jumps around among snippets of 29 numbers by female authors ("Because I happen to be 29," she joked), sequenced as incongruously and hilariously as possible, deliberately juxtaposing the dark and the comic, as when she segued from "All the Sad Young Men running from the … Big Bad Wolf!" Because it was a rehearsal, the singer's accounting was slightly off: She realized she'd omitted one song—"Both Sides Now"—and sang it on my answering machine an hour later.
It's to Ms. Sullivan's credit that, in her shows, nothing is sacred—even the Great American Songbook—and yet, at the same time, everything is. It's almost as if the more fun she has with this music, the more seriously we can take it.