Liz Callaway

Moving Forward

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Joe Szekeres

Actress, singer and recording artist Liz Callaway put me at ease so quickly during our conversation today that I even said to her, halfway through, I felt like I was having a cup of tea with her while we chatted about so many things.

And you will see from her answers Liz has been through a great deal over the last seven months.

I had the good fortune to have seen Liz perform in the original Broadway company of ‘Miss Saigon’ many years ago. She also appeared for five years in the Broadway run of ‘Cats’ as Grizabella and sang the iconic ‘Memory’. Liz sang the Academy Award nominated song “Journey to the Past” in the animated feature Anastasia and is also the singing voice of Princess Jasmine in Disney’s Aladdin and the King of Thieves and The Return of Jafar. Other film work includes the singing voice of the title character in The Swan Princess, Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride, Beauty and the Beast, The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars and The Rewrite with Hugh Grant.

I did not know that Liz sang back up vocals to the theme song of television’s ‘The Nanny’ (Fran Drescher). The theme song was written and lead vocals by Liz’s sister, Ann Hampton Callaway.

She is a strong advocate for people to vote, especially for this upcoming US election.

Liz and I conversed through Zoom. Thank you so much, kind lady, for taking the time:

It has been an exceptional and nearly seven long months since we’ve all been in isolation, and now it appears the numbers are edging upward again. How are you feeling about this? Will we ever emerge to some new way of living in your opinion?

During this crazy time, I enjoy hearing what people are doing and how they’re feeling during the pandemic. It’s very comforting to me to read that. It helps. I was on a Zoom with Lucie (Arnaz) recently and I let her know how much I enjoyed reading her profile.

And yet, this is so scary that the numbers are going up. I live about an hour north of New York City and where I live right now, it’s okay. But you can just see the numbers are creeping up everywhere. I have a big anniversary coming up on Monday. My husband (Dan Foster) and I for the last year were saying we were going to go somewhere and do something really special. I blocked off time, and now you can’t go anywhere. There’s a spike happening everywhere.

I don’t know how soon we will emerge to a new way of living. For the longest time, it felt like, “Ok, this is just a pause.” I finally came to grips with “No, this is life. This is the new normal.” And we have to accept it.

Every day I read something new about a show might be opening, or this is going to happen and keeping tabs on what’s happening not just in the States, but in London, England as well for theatre and concerts.
I think it’s going to be quite some time, and I don’t know if it will ever totally be the same. But I think it will start in baby steps. I’m possibly looking ahead to next summer. I hope I’m wrong, and even then, who’s to say as that’s what is so hard about all of this as there is such uncertainty.

We all like to feel in control and we can’t control this. But I don’t know when people and audience members are going to feel comfortable being close together. Financially, it’s incredibly difficult for theatres, for club owners to operate and restaurants at a diminished capacity.

It also makes me feel so bad to think that singing is one of the most dangerous things to do. We have to keep people safe. I was supposed to go into Manhattan yesterday as we were to perform a socially distant Broadway style song in Times Square. Over the weekend I came down with a dry cough and I didn’t want to take any chances. I got a Covid test and it was negative, but I still didn’t want to sing even with a mask and the whole plastic shield. I don’t want to take the chance that I could infect anyone.
I’m sure we will re-emerge, and boy can you imagine what it’s going to be like to be able to go hear music and go to a show? I can’t wait to be able to sing for people. But will we ever be the same? I don’t know. Theatre will come back eventually, but there will be a lot of changes.

How have you been faring? How has your immediate family been doing during these last seven months?

As a performer, I haven’t been on an airplane since March. I’ve travelled into Manhattan for a couple of recordings but I’m still nervous about all of this. There are going to be some amazingly creative things as we come out of all this.

My husband, Dan, was in a serious car accident on his way home in May from picking up Mother’s Day flowers for me. He was in the hospital for a week. He broke 12 ribs and his ankle. It was very, very scary. He came home and is doing really well. That just changed us. It was incredibly stressful but a miracle that he is okay. For the first month or two after the accident I was taking care of him.

Our son, Nicholas, was home for the first three months of the pandemic. He’s in graduate school and lives in Brooklyn Heights. That was a gift to have time with our son, and he was home when Dan had his car accident. Every day I thank my lucky stars that Dan is okay and that we have this time together because we begin to realize that you just don’t know if or when things could change. That has been really hard, but at the same time I felt so blessed and relieved Dan was okay.

I miss my sister (singer Ann Hampton Callaway) terribly. She moved to Tucson a few years ago. We used to be 5 minutes from each other. We talk almost everyday, but I keep thinking that I have to get out to Arizona. I’ll put on a hazmat suit, fly out to Arizona and see her, but if the numbers keep going up that won’t be happening.

I find Zoom and FaceTime emotionally exhausting even though they are wonderful technological advancements. I sometimes think old fashioned phone calls have been nice during all of this.

As an artist within the performing arts community, what has been the most difficult and challenging for you professionally and personally?

Personally, not being able to see my sister. We had a lot of gigs planned together for the summer. I miss my friends. Many of my closest friends don’t live in New York. Dan’s car accident has also been really challenging this last while.

Professionally, one of the things that is tricky is we’ve all had to become technicians. When this first started, everyone wanted to create things, live streaming, and I’ve done a lot of things for The Actors’ Fund, The Stars in the House. These organizations are amazing and people are opening their hearts and their wallets and contributing to all of these charities that need help. I’ve had so many requests for chatting, podcasts, discussions that I’ve found it overwhelming at times just because the act of setting everything up and the lighting and trying to upload things which at my house takes a bit longer than usual. It’s not a big deal as I’ve learned to be creative about it, but there’s something so sad about it.

I find that I’ve said No to a majority of the things. I mean, I want to help and when I can to do something for charity, but I find the physical act of doing these little things which can be and as they get slicker is a lot. A lot goes into it when you’re recording something as I did this week of two recordings in my closet. The whole technical process behind all of this is challenging. I have my own projects I’ve been working on – before all this started I wanted to learn more about video editing and I’m trying to set up a home studio for recording and I think it would be the safest way to do more and more of this from home.

I’m going to come out of this with more skills, but we all have to remain prolific and creative. It’s hard and I feel bad that I can’t say yes to more things. I feel fragile during this time right now and I need to protect. Sometimes doing too many things isn’t the answer either. I miss the travel to different gigs, going to places and seeing people.

Were you in preparation, rehearsals, or any planning stages of productions before everything was shut down? What has become of those projects? Will they see the light of day anytime soon?

All my gigs were cancelled. I have a few in December, but I don’t know if they’re still going to happen. I have quite a few things next year and I hope they do happen.

I was supposed to do two concerts in San Francisco in March. My March, April and May were packed with concerts and appearances. The morning before I left for San Francisco, I kept thinking to myself, ‘Are you sure this is going to happen?’. I was a little nervous about travelling but so excited to sing for people. It was a show I had done in New York, my tribute to women who have inspired me. It was called ‘A Hymn to Her’. I re-learned the show and was so excited to do it in San Francisco. When I fly, I don’t do internet, but I thought I’ll get internet for about an hour. So, about an hour into the flight to San Francisco, I received a text the concert was cancelled. My husband was with me and all these years I’ve been singing in San Francisco, he was never able to go with me.

We landed and I thought, ‘Well, we can go into the city, it’s a really nice hotel, have a nice dinner and come home the next day.” And then I thought that it wasn’t a good idea, so we immediately flew home and took the red eye home. That was the last time we had flown. Our son had joined us at home about four days later and it was very, very strange. It felt like we were preparing for a storm when this pandemic was declared.

I had some trips planned. I was working on album that’s going to take longer. I recorded a single, I’m going to record a Christmas single or two. I’m in the midst of having Christmas music all over the place.

At the beginning of the year, I started working on my You Tube channel. I shoot a lot of videos and shoot music with my car videos. I wasn’t driving a lot during the pandemic but when I started driving Dan to his physical therapy after his car accident, well I’m back in the car. I’ve always sung in my car and thought it would be a hoot to film it since I’ve a new phone with a holder on the dash. The reaction was tremendous, and it was fun. I’ve about 12 songs called ‘Autotunes’. I’m really trying to make my You Tube channel a home for interesting content to shoot songs at home for fun, my car songs. It makes me happy, gives me a forum and creating content. It’s something I can do safely. Little goals like this are helpful.
What have you been doing to keep yourself busy during this time?

I’ve been caring for Dan since his accident and creating a lot of videos. I would love your viewers to check out my You Tube videos. I’ve been doing some question and answers. I haven’t really done teaching as of yet except one day things. I try to take a long walk everyday. I love to cook and have been really cooking a lot. With the days being so similar, it helps to have a new recipe and something new to eat. I’ve also been doing a bit of song writing, playing around and experimenting with writing and then probably drinking too much vodka.

I was really happy when we had baseball for a short period of time. My husband and I are finding the shows we’re watching on tv are foreign: some French. There’s a Swedish one called ‘The Restaurant’. Watching things with subtitles, I feel like I go to another place.

I also did one big live stream concert with Seth Rudetsky. I really want to do more recording, learning to do more recording at home, a Christmas single or two.

On top of the pandemic and our lives being uprooted, we have the upcoming election, and I’m encouraging everyone, and I mean everyone, to get out there and vote. It is unspeakable what is happening in the United States. We don’t have any leadership, and we have a crazy person as our President now running our country and this is all so stressful and horrible as many people enable him.

People know how I feel about things. I don’t usually tell people how to vote but, in this case, (and she sings from the song ‘Once Upon a December’…) “I’m urging you please vote blue on the 3rd of November.” I can’t be quiet on this issue. This is too important. Literally, our country and lives are at stake. What we do and what happens in the US affects everyone.

This is a time when we should all be working together for the pandemic and climate change, everything. I can understand if people voted for Trump the first time. He fooled them, they wanted change. Maybe people didn’t like Hilary, whatever. He was very persuasive. But to re-elect him? Nope. That’s unacceptable. After what he’s done and all the things he said, I don’t understand.

My hope is people will vote. To quote from ‘Singing in the Rain’ – “I can’t stand him”.

My father was a well known, renowned television journalist in Chicago. He worked for PBS and had his own show. Our father never told us who he voted for. We knew who he voted for, but he didn’t tell us. My father had an amazing way about him. I do believe have the right to vote for who they want to, but in this case it’s just unspeakable about what has happened. I feel like I have to speak out.

If through any of my songs or encouragement, if I’ve encouraged at least one person to vote who may have been uncertain whether to do it or not, then I will feel as if I’ve accomplished what I set out to do.

Any words of wisdom or advice you might /could give to fellow performers and colleagues? What message would you deliver to recent theatre school graduates who have now been set free into this unknown and uncertainty given the fact live theaters and studios might be closed for 1 ½ - 2 years?

(Liz sighed before she answered) Oh, gosh, I feel for you guys [new grads]. In many ways, it has to be harder for them than for those of us who have been around. We’re all struggling to make a living. I do collect unemployment when I’ve not been hired to do something.

I guess I would say this is a time to be entrepreneurial. That’s something I discovered in myself six years ago that I had this real entrepreneurial side. I’ve produced two albums, three singles and am really enjoying that side of me. You have to create your own work and find ways of being creative. Also, this is a good time to learn different skills. I do believe we are put on this earth to do many things not just theatre, not just music. We are to have many different careers, chapters, jobs.

Ultimately all of these different chapters will make you a better actor and performer. Know you’re not alone. Even the successful people right now are wondering what are we going to do? Is this ever going to come back?

I don’t have any real wisdom. I just send hugs to you and keep working. Keep acting, singing, dancing. I’m so impressed with dancers in their tiny apartments and they’re still doing their barre exercises. It helps to have goals and try to learn new things. Keep a journal. Sometimes writing your feelings down sometimes gets it out of your body.

We just have to make the best of it.

Do you see anything positive stemming from Covid 19?

I will say that with all the protests, starting with the horrific and outrageous murder of George Floyd and the dialogue we have now, I don’t know if the pandemic had happened if there would have been such outrage and if people would have necessarily spoken up the way they have.

Something positive coming out of this? The whole discussion of race and police brutality. If the pandemic hadn’t happened would people have taken to the streets and the occurring dialogue theatres have had with many groups? Would that have happened? I don’t know, it might have to a lesser degree, but I think we will make changes. It’s going to be hard, but I feel confident that this is our best shot.

Part of what this pandemic has taught me is we only have this day. My husband’s accident has also taught me this as well. I’m savouring the little things and live each day for each day. Every day is a gift.

Throughout all of this I’ve realized how much I love to sing. When I’ve been anxious, singing calms me down particularly if I’m in my car. It feels good. That’s a way of self care.

Do you think Covid 19 will have some lasting impact on the Broadway/North American performing arts scene?

It’s going to take quite a long time for Broadway to bounce back, but I do think it will. We almost need to have a vaccine that we know works. People have to take it. You can’t do Broadway financially with people 6 feet apart. It’s eye opening to look at the condition of the theatres running.

My fear is it’s either all or nothing. It’ll really come back when it’s safe to have 1000 people in a theatre. That is heartbreaking because it’s not just the actors, but everyone from behind the scenes, the musicians, the ushers, the technical crew to the restaurants and businesses surrounding the theatres.
I think regional theatres will have a better chance of bouncing back sooner. Maybe still having to do a combination. I feel for all the theatres and businesses as to how to make it work financially. God bless the people who contribute and help.

Maybe there’s a way to do certain things in a smaller way. Unions and everyone will have to come together to figure out how to make it work financially. Something else that will come out of this is great art. The things that have come out of terrible times in history were some great art, great music, tremendous theatre.

A lot will depend on this election looking at jobs now and in the future. For the future, and not just the arts, people are giving of their talents to people who need it. We need diversion right now. A lot of audience members really appreciate it and some who don’t realize the incredibly important role the arts play during the pandemic.

Some artists have turned to YouTube and online streaming to showcase their work. What are your comments and thoughts about streaming? Is this something that the actor/theatre may have to utilize going forward into the unknown?

That’s been a real challenge in all of this. The concert I did with Seth was the only thing I’ve done where basically there was a price of $25.00 for it.

So much of what we’ve been doing and what I’ve been doing is to raise money for The Actors’ Fund and Broadway Cares. You want to give and yet you still have to make a living. I think that is a challenge and dance we’re all dealing with.

My sister does a wonderful concert series once a month from her home. It’s called ‘The Callaway Hideaway’. She can play the piano herself, so she has an advantage.

But watching too much streaming? There is something emotional about it. Seeing something live is good but it also makes me sad. But streaming is something that we have right now. I miss the applause, the audience there. I put some of my stuffed animals around for an audience, but my cat, Lenny, is not terribly interested in my performances.

Despite all this fraught tension, drama and confusion of the time, what is it about performing that Covid will never destroy for you?

It can’t destroy the feeling of knowing in singing or acting that you’re giving or, as an audience member, receiving the love and the heart of everyone who performs. It’s a two-way street. It makes me appreciate singing even more.

Covid can’t take away how you feel when you sing or when you’re in a play, and we are going to appreciate it even more the next time we gather together again. The audience and the performers are one. That’s the reason why we do what we do.

My mantra: “Nothing to prove, only to share.” In the meantime when I did my live stream concert, I could feel the audience even though I couldn’t see them. We are all going through this, and I’m really lucky that I can sing. Singing makes me happy and makes other people happy to hear me sing. It’s a gift to give our music and a gift to receive other people’s music.

No one can ever take away that gift.

You can learn more about Liz Callaway by visiting her personal web page: www.lizcallaway.com.
Visit Liz’s You Tube Channel and her social media handles Twitter/Instagram: @LizGoesOn.

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