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How On Your Feet!'s Andréa Burns became the star of Smart Blonde
Initially, when playwright Willy Holtzman approached Andréa Burns about starring in his Judy Holliday bio-play Smart Blonde, she balked. A Jewish stage and screen performer best remembered for her Oscar-winning, not-so-dumb-blonde turn as Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday, Holliday wasn't like the roles Burns, a veteran of In the Heights and On Your Feet!, usually played. Heck, even Burns' own husband, director Peter Flynn, who developed Smart Blonde with Holtzman, hadn't considered her for the part.
But when Flynn brought Holtzman to see Burns perform cabaret at 54 Below, the dramatist was convinced he'd found his Judy Holliday. "I talk a lot about being Jewish in the act, and at the end Willy turned to Peter and asked, 'How come we haven't talked about your wife in the part?'" Burns says. "Peter felt sheepish -- it had never even occurred to him. When they asked me, I was like, 'Really? A dumb blonde comedian? I don't know guys.' And Willy said to me, 'She was Jewish and really smart and she put on these characters -- a lot like you do. You put on this Latina thing people know and love, but there are lots more sides to you and I think you'd have a great insight to this.'"
Born to a Venezuelan mother and a Jewish father, Burns has spent her 25-year career alternating between Latina and Jewish roles, though in New York she's known primarily for the former. In Smart Blonde, which is currently running at 59E59 Theaters, she plays a performer similarly divided. While Holliday became famous for portraying unsophisticated, nasal-voiced ditzes, in real life she was a smart cookie, a politically savvy math wiz who even managed to talk her way out of the Hollywood blacklist without naming names.
All of that plus her romances, famous friendships and battles against a sexist industry are dramatized in Smart Blonde, a play with songs told mostly in flashback as Holliday recalls her evolution from clever Jewish girl from Queens, to Greenwich Village nightclub darling (alongside her pals Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Leonard Bernstein!), to the toast of Broadway and Hollywood. An avid fan of Holliday's, Holtzman was commissioned to write the show by Pittsburgh's City Theatre, where it premiered in 2014 starring Burns and directed by Flynn. At first, Burns struggled to find her way into the character. But watching the famous gin rummy scene from Born Yesterday gave her the key. "When she starts singing in the middle of the game, there was something about it that reminded me of my Jewish grandma," Burns recalls. "That was familiar to me, and I thought, if I can get in through there, I can do this. I was still nervous about it all through rehearsals, and then they put that blonde wig on me and I said, 'I am ready to do this.' I told Willy, 'I can't believe you knew I could do it before I did!'"
Although there was interest in bringing the show to New York almost from the outset, it took a few years to make that happen. In the interim, Burns not only spent 16-months portraying Gloria Estefan's mother in On Your Feet! on Broadway, she also got a chance to play Holliday's signature role of Billie Dawn in a 2017 production of Born Yesterday at Florida's Maltz Jupiter Theatre, directed by Flynn.
"It was kismet," she says. "When Peter got hired, he said, 'Why don't we do it as research for Smart Blonde, whenever it happens again?' And the producer was game, so that was fantastic. It certainly served this play on deeper levels than I knew were possible."
While Holliday was huge in her day, her star has faded over time, in part because she died prematurely at age 43 of cancer. But theatregoers don't need to be familiar with her work to get invested in her story as she struggles between her public persona and her private life. Of course, those who love Holliday will be floored by Burns' performance, which she calls a "respectful interpretation."
"Originally I thought, I'm going to have to work on an impression, but that's really started to melt away," Burns explains. "I studied everything I could find. I worked pretty hard on her voice. She had a particular way of speaking, certain ways she handled vowels and consonants, and getting that was important to me. But at this point it's an impressionistic portrait. We've worked hard to develop an honest view of who this woman was in the world."
The show allows audiences to see another side of Holliday, and another side of Burns -- one she initially didn't see herself. "I'm just so humbled that Willy saw it was the right fit for me," she says. "I see that now, too."
Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Andréa Burns in Smart Blonde. Photos by Carol Rosegg.
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