Filmed Live Musicals

Brenda Braxton

September 14, 2020 Luisa Lyons Season 1 Episode 5
Filmed Live Musicals
Brenda Braxton
Chapters
Filmed Live Musicals
Brenda Braxton
Sep 14, 2020 Season 1 Episode 5
Luisa Lyons

Host Luisa Lyons chats with Brenda Braxton about the filmed live musicals When Hell Freezes Over I’ll Skate and Smokey Joe’s Cafe, the Tony Awards, working on The Good Fight, who Brenda would cast in a filmed live version of Chicago, and Act 2… Now What?

Brenda Braxton is an award-winning actor, dancer, and singer who has performed around the world, and on multiple Broadway productions including the African American version of Guys and Dolls, But Never Jam Today, Dreamgirls, Cats, Smokey Joe's Cafe, and Chicago. Brenda founded Leading Ladies Just for Teens, the BBRAXTON Exceptional Grooming for Exceptional Men, and Act 2... Now What?. She is also the author of The Little Black Book of Backstage Etiquette. Learn more at www.bbraxtonact2.com

Visit Filmed Live Musicals at www.filmedlivemusicals.com. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter. You can also support the site at Patreon.  

Host Luisa Lyons is an Australian actor, writer, and musician. She holds a Masters in Music Theatre from London's Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and now lives, works, and plays in New York. Learn more at www.luisalyons.com & follow Luisa on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Show Notes Transcript

Host Luisa Lyons chats with Brenda Braxton about the filmed live musicals When Hell Freezes Over I’ll Skate and Smokey Joe’s Cafe, the Tony Awards, working on The Good Fight, who Brenda would cast in a filmed live version of Chicago, and Act 2… Now What?

Brenda Braxton is an award-winning actor, dancer, and singer who has performed around the world, and on multiple Broadway productions including the African American version of Guys and Dolls, But Never Jam Today, Dreamgirls, Cats, Smokey Joe's Cafe, and Chicago. Brenda founded Leading Ladies Just for Teens, the BBRAXTON Exceptional Grooming for Exceptional Men, and Act 2... Now What?. She is also the author of The Little Black Book of Backstage Etiquette. Learn more at www.bbraxtonact2.com

Visit Filmed Live Musicals at www.filmedlivemusicals.com. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter. You can also support the site at Patreon.  

Host Luisa Lyons is an Australian actor, writer, and musician. She holds a Masters in Music Theatre from London's Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and now lives, works, and plays in New York. Learn more at www.luisalyons.com & follow Luisa on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Luisa Lyons :

Welcome to the Filmed Live Musicals podcast, a podcast about stage musicals that have been legally filmed and publicly distributed. The Filmed Live Musicals website contains information on nearly 200 musicals that have been captured live. Check it out at www.filmedlivemusicals.com. With over 40 years in show business, our guest this week is a theatrical triple threat, and then some. Singer, actor, dancer, producer, entrepreneur, director, and author. She has performed around the world, and on multiple Broadway productions, starting in 1976 with the African American version of Guys and Dolls, and moving on to But Never Jam Today, the original production of Dreamgirls, Cats, Smokey Joe’s Cafe (for which she received a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical), and Chicago. She has appeared in film and television in The Wiz, Third Watch, Smash, Nurse Jackie and The Good Fight. She is the founder of several organizations that all seek to empower people to lead their best lives, including Leading Ladies Just for Teens, the BBRAXTON Exceptional Grooming for Exceptional Men in Harlem, and Act 2… Now What?. She is also the author of the Little Black Book of Backstage Etiquette. Welcome to the Filmed Live Musicals podcast, Brenda Braxton. .

Brenda Braxton :

Hey, how are you?

Luisa Lyons :

I'm very well, how are you today?

Brenda Braxton :

I'm good. I'm good.

Luisa Lyons :

Wonderful. So you have an amazing career and I feel almost guilty that we're going to focus on just two shows. But I wanted to start with when Hell Freezes Over, I'll Skate, back in 1979 with the Urban Arts Corps. Can you tell us a little bit about the Urban Arts Corps?

Brenda Braxton :

It's so funny. I started out as a dancer and I joined a couple of dance companies. Through the dance companies, I met other actors, like not dancers, but actors. And they kind of said, there's an Urban Arts Corps. This is this organization downtown called Urban Arts Corps. It's led by Vinnette Carroll, "Your Arms Too Short to Box with God", and Don't Bother Me, I Cope," and they need dancers. So back then you just said yes to everything. So it was down on 20th Street, and it was this little little black box theater. I mean, really small. And we did "But Never Jam Today." And we did a version of "Alice in Wonderland" with Debbie Allen and Alice Ghostley. And so a lot of original things came out of the Urban Arts Corps. And then Vinnette got the idea that she wanted to do a show that was kind of based around all of the African American poets. And we literally sat for hours and hours and hours, just combing through all kinds of poetry and spoken word and original music. Some spirituals you know, well-known spirituals, things like that. And we came up with "When Hell Freezes Over I'll Skate". And it was one of the best experiences I've had because as a dancer, it made me stretch into a whole other field of knowing what the poetry was and, and putting dance to poetry and putting dance to music. And back then either you were a singer, or you were a dancer, or you were an actor. And this gave us a chance to just pretty much put it all together. So it was it was a lot of fun.

Luisa Lyons :

So that opened at the Urban Arts Corps in early 1979. Is that right?

Brenda Braxton :

Yeah, I want to say '78, '79 because I was there for a while. Yeah, it must have been and I can't even remember because I did "The Wiz" movie too. And I can't remember if it was before "The Wiz" movie or after "The Wiz" movie, before "Dream Girls." It all meshes together after a while, you know?! (laughter).

Luisa Lyons :

Do you remember when "When Hell Freezes Over I'll Skate" was filmed?

Brenda Braxton :

Oh, God, trick question. So, I don't, I just know it was a big deal because it was I believe it was at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater. And it was a big deal because at the Urban Arts Corps, we just kind of put stuff together. We put costumes together, you know, our own clothing and stuff like this. But this was a big deal because they gave us costumes. We had fittings, and it was done, like a real production. And we had the band on stage. So it was the first time that I had worked on on an off-off Broadway show that actually had that kind of fanfare when we when we closed it down.

Luisa Lyons :

And it was Theater in America, right, that filmed the production?

Brenda Braxton :

Yeah, yeah, yeah, way back.

Luisa Lyons :

And do you recall what the process was in the lead up to filming? Was this the show changed for television, as it was originally at UAC?

Brenda Braxton :

No, not so much, no. Because we didn't really have a set even when we did it down at the Urban Arts Corps, it was it was pretty much the same, the only thing that changed was the production values, with the costumes and with the lighting and all of that. So it was great.

Luisa Lyons :

Were you directed to perform it the same as you had on stage? Was it a different performance for the cameras versus being onstage?

Brenda Braxton :

It didn't really feel different because, you know as an editor, everything is done in the editing room. So we basically were able to perform the show with the different cameras and then they did the editing afterwards. So we didn't really have to worry about too many camera angles and all of that because they had everything there. And then they just put it all together and we were really surprised, happily, pleasantly surprised. Because sometimes, especially back then in the 70s, they were just really starting out doing those kinds of things. So to be able to do a piece like that, and have it really come off as a professional piece of theatre that just happened to be filmed was really good. I was very proud of the work that we did. And I think they recorded it, we might have had three performances, and then from those three performances, they, edited it down to what we came up with.

Luisa Lyons :

And they were all filmed with a live audience in the theater?

Brenda Braxton :

Yes. Which was fun. That was a lot of fun.

Luisa Lyons :

Absolutely, I feel like the capture really is able to capture that exchange of energy between the audience and the performers.

Brenda Braxton :

Exactly! And you kind of marry the two together because a lot of times when you're doing film or television, you don't have an audience, and so you don't get that immediate feedback from the audience. And then when you're in front of a live audience, you don't have to worry about camera angles and what you can't do and can do so putting them together was was really a great experience of having that immediate feedback of the audience laughing when they should and and applauding when they should. It was really, really great experience.

Luisa Lyons :

So "The Wiz" was before?

Brenda Braxton :

I think "The Wiz" movie was before that. I want to say before that. That was a whole other experience. 400 dancers! Unbelievable. Yeah (laughter). That was a really, it was a lot of hard work. And it's so funny because I was reminded the other day that because there were so many dancers, they ended up having to change our contracts because we were doing a lot of work. We were doing a lot of rehearsals and a lot of dancing, a lot of work. And originally we were hired just as as kind of like background dancers, but we ended up putting in so many hours that we were like, "Yeah, no, we got to change this contract." You know, we have to get more money. We've got to get our breaks. We have to get all of that. I think we we ended up changing the whole way they did the ensemble performers.

Luisa Lyons :

Was "When Hell Freezes Over, I'll Skate" Equity?

Brenda Braxton :

Yes, it was Equity. I believe it was Equity, because we were all Equity performers. So I can't imagine that they allowed us to not be compensated. God, it seems like so long ago, we're talking... (laughter). What, if it was '77? Oh Jesus! I feel so old right now!

Luisa Lyons :

I almost don't want to say, but I was born in '84. And I'm 35 (laughter)

Brenda Braxton :

Why'd you do that to me?! (laughter)Wow. Oh my god.

Luisa Lyons :

So yes, I realize I've asked you to recall details from before my life time.

Brenda Braxton :

Yes, yes. Oh, wow.

Luisa Lyons :

It's so extraordinary when you think about now, that Equity tends to be quite reluctant - I know that is shifting - but there is a reluctance to film theater. Was there a reluctance around "When Hell Freezes Over I'll Skate"? Or because it was a smaller show, it wasn't really on the radar?

Brenda Braxton :

Yeah, I think because it was we were. It was kind of groundbreaking. And so nobody really knew what the rules were for for an off off Broadway show like that and filming it. So we were groundbreakers. And I don't think it was that much of a problem. I do remember when when they wanted to record "Jelly's Last Jam". We had more of a problem because well, Gregory was like, "Yeah, no, we're not recording it. We're not going to film it." And actually I remember having a big meeting about it, and they ended up not recording it. Well, they did it for the archives, of course, you know,

Luisa Lyons :

For Lincoln Center.

Brenda Braxton :

For Lincoln Center, right. But they wanted to do it almost like they did "Smokey Joe's Cafe," bring in the audience and things, and Gregory's like "nope. Because you're not going to compensate us enough to have that kind of filming done.

Luisa Lyons :

So it was financial?

Brenda Braxton :

Yeah, it was financial. And it was also again, it was groundbreaking. So they did not have certain things in place as to how they weren't going to do it. You know, so he was like, "Yeah, no, we're not going to do this."

Luisa Lyons :

That's really interesting. So it wasn't from an artistic perspective that filming theater means it's not theater. It was financial?

Brenda Braxton :

It was more financial, yeah. Even with "Smokey Joe's" when they decided to to film it. We went through a lot as far as what kind of compensation because you're talking a couple have different unions, you're talking Equity, and it's a little bit of SAG, and it was it was in the very, very beginnings of, "okay, you're going to record this and you're going to make money off of this, you're going to make a lot of money off of this. So how do the actors get compensated?" And I still feel that it wasn't done properly. But we also wanted it to be archived in that kind of way, because "Smokey Joe's" was one of the first jukebox shows, and it was done so well, that we really, really wanted it to be remembered in a certain way. So, I think now, negotiations should go differently, because people are making money off of it. I know that in Europe, they've been playing it, they've been playing it like all over the world, and we don't really get anything for it. You know, we got a one time fee and that was it. So that can't be fair. That's not fair. That's not right.

Luisa Lyons :

Yeah, it is a very tricky balance that the financials make it so expensive. To be filming in the first place is very expensive and then the residuals and how that works. And now with streaming, it's completely changed everything.

Brenda Braxton :

Exactly.

Luisa Lyons :

Because you can't control the number of times it's going to be streamed, well you can there there are companies that are limiting the stream -

Brenda Braxton :

Companies are doing that right, but still. And bootlegs, that's just crazy. Just how many bootleg versions of it! But I'm glad I was able to do both of them. "Jelly's Last Jam" and not, "Jelly's" but, "When Hell Freezes Over" and "Smokey Joe's".

Luisa Lyons :

Did you watch it when it aired live on TV? "When Hell Freezes Over I'll Skate," did you watch it when it aired?

Brenda Braxton :

Oh, yeah. Cuz we were like, how they going to do this? How are they going to put it together? Because all we did was perform you know! So then to see, "Oh my God, look at how they did that." It was fun. A lot of fun.

Luisa Lyons :

And was it your first time seeing the show from the outside? When you're performing you're just on stage the whole time.

Brenda Braxton :

Yeah. So it was our first time and to sit and watch it and to know the kind of work that we put into it because it literally was hours and hours of just combing through poems. Langston Hughes and all of those, and to see how we were able to put this original show together, and then to actually perform it and be able to film it. That was great. And work with with Vinnette. Vinnette was an amazing woman. She really was.

Luisa Lyons :

Such a trailblazer.

Brenda Braxton :

Absolutely

Luisa Lyons :

Such an important person in the history of women in theater, and women on Broadway, and particularly women of color.

Brenda Braxton :

Yeah. And you don't really get to you don't hear about her. She was the first African American woman to direct a play, I believe and to be nominated for a Tony. I think she was. So, it would be nice for them to do something in honor of her. Hmm.

Luisa Lyons :

Actually, "When Hell Freezes Over I'll Skate", I was rewatching it recently -- it's available on DVD for people that want to go and look for it -- it's even more prescient today and with Black Lives Matter and everything that's happening in our world right now. It's a show I would love to see revived.

Brenda Braxton :

Absolutely. And I watched it recently as well. And the song that Cleavant wrote, "I Survive." If you listen to those lyrics, it's amazing. I mean, because he gives a whole history lesson in that song. "I've survived. I'm a cotton gin and inventor. I'm the real McCoy, no waterboy" you know. The lyrics are amazing. So it is very apropos for what's going on today of just being recognized for everything that we've contributed, you know.

Luisa Lyons :

I hope, like Broadway HD or one of the bigger networks, Netflix, picks up either that recording from 1979 or invest in a new production.

Brenda Braxton :

Doing a new one. Yeah, that would be fun too. Yeah, well now with COVID God, Lord Jesus, how long?! What are we gonna do about anything nowadays but...?!

Luisa Lyons :

It's actually a perfect show for COVID because you could do it socially distanced because it's revue style. You could have everyone kind of in a separate space, not a big cast.

Brenda Braxton :

You're right! And again with editing, putting it all together would just be pretty easy.

Luisa Lyons :

Absolutely. What was the reaction to "When Hell Freezes Over I'll Skate"?

Brenda Braxton :

They loved it. They loved it. Because it was so theatrical yet a teaching tool, you know. Yet something that we were so proud of. We were really proud of what we had done back then. And our audience, the demographic that ended up being able to come see it and be proud of it. We were happy to have been able to have an audience like that at Lincoln Center. You know, even if it was in one of the smaller theaters, but still being able to do that was It was great.

Luisa Lyons :

So was it re-mounted at Lincoln Center for the filming or what was it a separate run that they just happened to film that run?

Brenda Braxton :

No. We did a separate run down at the Urban Arts Corps. And then they decided they wanted to do it. So it was re-mounted at the Mitzie Newhouse, but with just minor kinds of changes. Because at the Urban Arts Corps we did everything. Almost everything was just bare, bare stage, kind of picture yourself... (laughter). So it filled up a different type of space, but it was still very much a bare stage. And we as the performers made the little different sections and different fields and the changes in lighting, because we didn't have a lot of lighting down to the Urban Arts. So Vinnette was able to do a lot more with the lighting and, and, you know, sectioning places that really made you feel a little more intimate on one part of the stage or, you know, that we couldn't really do at the Urban Arts Corps, but it was still kind of bare. The stage was bare.

Luisa Lyons :

I'm ashamed that I don't know this, but does the Urban Arts Corps, does that theater still exist?

Brenda Braxton :

No, it's On been gone for a while.

Luisa Lyons :

It's a shame that the show couldn't be recorded there because it's such an important part of New York's history too.

Brenda Braxton :

Absolutely.

Luisa Lyons :

And American Theatre history. It's a shame that that space couldn't be captured on film.

Brenda Braxton :

Yeah, it's gone. I don't know if we did if we were able to film anything in that space because it was literally such a small narrow space. Literally so small.

Luisa Lyons :

A tiny a black box.

Brenda Braxton :

Really a black box and everything is just right there. You know, you turn, oh, that's the dressing room, or you turn to get, oh, that's the audience, -

Luisa Lyons :

Oh, there you are!

Brenda Braxton :

Oop, you're in the bathroom! (laughter)

Luisa Lyons :

Please do not flush during the show!

Brenda Braxton :

Exactly! (laughter)

Luisa Lyons :

When you filmed at Lincoln Center, how many cameras were in the setup?

Brenda Braxton :

I want to say we had at least four cameras because we had two main cameras and then we had cameras that were movable. I'm trying to think if they had those body cameras where you just you could move and just, but I might be getting it mixed up with something else. It was an interesting experience from what I remember.

Luisa Lyons :

Okay, so let's fast forward to "Smokey Joe's Cafe", which opened in 1995 and ran for five years. And then the final performance was filmed. Is that right?

Brenda Braxton :

Yes, the final I believe the final two performances were filmed. And the funny story goes with that. So we were, most of the originals were still there. By the time we were leaving, by the time the show was closing, we were so ready to go. We were so tired and just so ready to go. But the whole time, once we found out we were filming it I was like "Fine, let's get it filmed! Fine let's do it, I'm so sick and tired of this!" And they were like "Oh, you're gonna miss this!" and I was like "No, I'm not. I'm ready to get out of here I'm sick all y'all right?"

Luisa Lyons :

I never want to see a red feather boa ever again!

Brenda Braxton :

Ever again. Ever ever ever. Shimmy dress, no. I don't want to see you shimmying DeLee. No. So the day of the first performance, I start, "Here's a picture of the neighborhood," and I could barely get it out. I was so emotional. They laughed at me so hard. They were like, "Oh, so you wanted out?! You wanted to leave! You're tired of us. Hahahaha!" I was like "Leave me alone. I don't care!" It was so emotional to realize, oh my god. I've spent five years with these people! On the road you know, we were in Chicago, we were in LA and this is the end of it. Oh my god they laughed at me so hard

Luisa Lyons :

I am I'm always the crier on the last night of the show.

Brenda Braxton :

Oh yes.

Luisa Lyons :

You get so emotional, it becomes a part of your your soul.

Brenda Braxton :

'Cos it's family. You know if you spend any more than a year with a cast, it's family. You are. You might have seen babies born you deaths in the family, you know, just all kinds of stuff. And by then, Pattie Darcy Jones, she didn't do the final videos with us, and Michael Park had left already, and so we had had a couple of the so called "white guys" and you know, a couple of Pattie's. But we still had, it was myself Victor Trent Cook, BJ Adrian, Ken Ard, Fred, DeLee. So it was still, the majority of us were still there. And it was like, "Oh my goodness, we're done."

Luisa Lyons :

We're not going to see these people eight times a week anymore.

Brenda Braxton :

Anymore. I still see them. We still get on each other's nerves, you know? Because we are family, but being in that space. And every night just dealing with the you know, prayer circle before the show, stuff like that was just gonna be gone. But the audience! Oh my god, the audience went wild.

Luisa Lyons :

You can see it on the recording. Standing ovations and people calling out from the audience.

Brenda Braxton :

Yeah. It was quite an experience. And, as I said in the beginning, we broke ground on so many levels with "Smokey Joe's Cafe." We had one time where they wanted us to sing the national anthem for one of the ballgames. But it was like really, really close to show time. We sang the national anthem. They had the audience at the theater, and they videoed us singing the national anthem. And then as the audience was sitting there, they watched us get into the limousines and drive back to the theater. And they caught us coming into the theater and the audience went wild. So we started the show a little late because they were watching us sing the anthem and come into the theater and then we started the show. They lost their mind. It was an amazing! I'm getting chills thinking about it.

Luisa Lyons :

My heart is racing thinking about the adrenaline of going from one to another and being show ready and oh my gosh...

Brenda Braxton :

Just the audience because the audience watched the whole thing.

Luisa Lyons :

Because they broadcast it in the theater.

Brenda Braxton :

In the theater. Yep. And they had is coming into the audience. And then going backstage and it was it was amazing.

Luisa Lyons :

My heart is racing. Just the logistics of that. And navigating New York traffic in a limosine?!

Brenda Braxton :

Yes! I believe we had, I want to say we had a police escort because we had to get through traffic in order to get to -- because I remember, I want to say sirens or something but it was amazing. We sang a lot of the ballgames, the anthems for the ballgames.

Luisa Lyons :

Okay, I need to find video of that. Which game was it?

Brenda Braxton :

Oh, god, I don't know! (laughter)

Luisa Lyons :

It was a sports team!

Brenda Braxton :

Who pitched?! I don't know!

Luisa Lyons :

I don't know either. I just want to find the video of you singing the anthem! I'm sure I can find it. That's gonna be a deep dive for me.

Brenda Braxton :

Yes, if you do let me know because it was so much fun!

Luisa Lyons :

Oh, absolutely. I will send it to you.

Brenda Braxton :

And then the Tony Awards, too. They had the guys do "On Broadway" for the Tony Awards, and they had them outside coming into the theater. Oh my god, that night was bittersweet though. That night was a little bittersweet because we didn't get to perform. None of us. The three of us were, four of us were nominated. And we didn't get to perform. The only performance you saw was the opening with the guys coming in "On Broadway." W were supposed to perform "Woman" and we were literally backstage getting ready to go on to perform "Woman" and they said, "Oh, we got to cut you." And we were like, "What do you mean you have to cut us?! Three of us who are getting ready to sing are nominated for Tony Awards." And they were like "We don't have enough time. We got to cut you." We were in costume and everything. Oh, it was ugly. It was ugly after the show our producers were...

Luisa Lyons :

Devastating.I imagine they were fuming.

Brenda Braxton :

They were fuming. Yeah. And then once they cut us, then we had to go and sit back into in the audience and wait for them to say "and the nominees for..." and sit there knowing that we didn't even get to perform or do anything. Yeah, it was ugly.

Luisa Lyons :

That's devastating. And, I mean, the show ran for five years, so it didn't exactly suffer. But the the boost that ticket sales got shows get from performing at the Tony Awards. It's free, I mean, not free advertising, but it's inverted commas free advertising.

Brenda Braxton :

Yes, yes!

Luisa Lyons :

And this is why I'm so passionate about filming theater, is that it gives a chance for people who aren't in New York or who can't afford to get to the theater or who for whatever reason are limited and cannot get to the theater.

Brenda Braxton :

Right.

Luisa Lyons :

The Tonys is like the one night of the year when people get to see Broadway.

Brenda Braxton :

Absolutely. The best.

Luisa Lyons :

I'm very curious what will happen this year with the new awards ceremony.

Brenda Braxton :

Well, they're trying to do it because I'm a Tony voter now. So last year was my first year and then this year, I only got to see a couple of shows before we went into lockdown, but they're trying to do some sort of Tony, a broadcast something. So they -

Luisa Lyons :

In the fall?

Brenda Braxton :

Yeah, to stay in touch and literally, just today I got something saying, "Okay, give us your address," and you know, so we'll see what happens. It was so much fun last year. Oh my god. Oh, I got to see every single show. Got to go to the Tony Awards. Oh, it was amazing. It was amazing.

Luisa Lyons :

My very first show in New York was 2008. I grew up in Australia. So coming to New York --

Brenda Braxton :

Th accent! I was going to ask you what is that?

Luisa Lyons :

it's a little bit of everything. I've been here almost 10 years now. So my Australian accent is not very strong. But my very first show in New York City was the 2008 Tony Awards.

Brenda Braxton :

Oh my goodness.

Luisa Lyons :

And I sat in the very back row Radio City Hall and watch Jerry Herman get his lifetime achievement award and Patti LuPone won her Tony.

Brenda Braxton :

Wow, oh wow. Amazing.

Luisa Lyons :

Yeah, it was. It made this world that I had grown up listening to on cast albums and watching videos. I grew up watching "Into the Woods" on VHS. And it was real.

Brenda Braxton :

Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. It's quite, a ceremony and just everything up to it is just, it's amazing. It is theater. It really is. It's Broadway. It is Broadway. And it's so unfortunate that the performers from this season are not going to get to really experience that. They're not going to get to have that whole experience. And just a couple of shows that I saw, like I did get to see "Tina Turner", and I'm like to have done all of that. And now not have a chance to, to reap the benefits in this way, you know?

Luisa Lyons :

Yeah. And the shows that didn't get to open yet, like "Company" or "Six". "Six" was hours from curtain. When they shutdown happened, they were open to an open on March 12. And then the shut down.

Brenda Braxton :

Can you imagine?! Yes. And now someone said to me, "Some of those kids that were going to be in "Mrs. Doubtfire". They're going to be too old and too big to even play some of these roles." If they decide to bring it back, you know, to really try and do it. So what's gonna happen? You know?

Luisa Lyons :

It's incredible times that we're living in. What is Broadway going to look like when we come back? How many people are going to be allowed in a theater? What shows are going to be open?

Brenda Braxton :

And as it is, they're saying they're not going to do anything until next year. So that's a long time. You can't really take class, you can't ,you know, you trying to keep everything lubricated and ready for that next one, but next year! They're talking 2021 So, yeah, it's crazy. Scary.

Luisa Lyons :

It's unprecedented. Broadway has never been shut down for this long, ever.

Brenda Braxton :

Ever, ever, ever, ever. And it's like a ghost town down there too. You know, it's so sad. It's so sad. But I'm a great believer that everything happens for a reason. You know, because I also feel like Broadway was getting out of hand. As far as ticket prices, as far as I mean, everything. It was just getting out of hand. And we also often said Broadway wasn't making stars anymore. They were just plugging names in you know, to see how much money they could make with this name, this star name. They weren't making stars anymore. Broadway used to make stars, you know, but who knows? Maybe they'll go back to that now. We'll see.

Luisa Lyons :

And I really hope that, as we were talking about before, the movements that are happening during shutdown, Black Lives Matter, and Me Too, I hope that this is an opportunity for the producers and the companies to sit back and say the way things were running was not equal, not equitable. It wasn't fair. It was very discriminatory. How can we make, how can we truly make theatre more accessible? And more the egalitarian place that it claims to be?

Brenda Braxton :

Yeah, yeah. So we'll see.

Luisa Lyons :

We'll shall see. So let's switch back to "Smokey Joe's Cafe." When did you find out that it was going to be filmed?

Brenda Braxton :

It all happened pretty fast. I would say like maybe a couple of weeks. And the thing that took the most time was the contracts and the fact of, "okay, you want to record this? We know we have an amazing show. And we know that it could make money as a DVD. So how do we get compensated for this?" And we ended up as a cast having to get our own attorney and negotiate our own terms and things like that. And again, I still say, because it was so early on in the process of filming Broadway shows, I'm not sure we made the best deal. But it still put us in a position of folks know us. You know, we're alive. History makers in a sense, when when people see us, I know when people see me, they know me as Brenda, the boa girl. You know, the boa woman, the woman with a boa! All over the place. I was doing a cruise ship, right before all of this happened too. And the people from all over, when I did my cabaret on the ship, they knew what "Smokey Joe's Cafe" was, you know what I mean? Because of the DVD and the DVD is all over the place, and YouTube and all of that. So, people people knew who I was from that. And I feel like, as you were saying people in different countries or different cities or state,, whatever, would not have gotten to really see that, that kind of performance of "Smokey Joe's Cafe". If it were not filmed, you know. So you have six in one hand, half a dozen in the other. You don't want to feel like you're being exploited but you know that it's a good thing, because people get to see this wonderful body of work, you know, so it went pretty fast. I think the negotiating was the thing that really held it up mostly.

Luisa Lyons :

That must have been a whirlwind the final few weeks of the show. You're getting ready to wrap up, your you're emotionally preparing for that and then negotiating with a lawyer and Equity, and all the different unions.

Brenda Braxton :

Also one of the sad things was we were still doing pretty good work. I mean, pretty good houses. And from what I understand they wanted our theater for the next show coming in, which was supposed to be this big - "Wild Party" was the show, and they just thought "Wild Party" was going to be this amazing thing and they needed a theater. So someone told me that we were still at at least 70%. Our house was still at and that's that's pretty good. So most of us would have stayed on. We were tired but we would have stayed on you know, taken our vacation and come back. But they were like, "Nope, we're closing it down." So we were like, "Wow. Okay." So that was another reason why we were like, "Okay, well, we'll get a chance to archive this and and have it out here at least."

Luisa Lyons :

Had it already been filmed for Lincoln Center?

Brenda Braxton :

I believe so, yes. I think it's because they do that pretty early on so that they can get original people.

Luisa Lyons:

I know I asked this question with "When Hell Freezes Over I'll Skate," but did you have to change any aspects of the performance for the cameras?

Brenda Braxton :

No. No, they just they were just there. Whatever we did, they were right there filming it. So yeah, I mean, we had our rehearsals so we knew where they were going to be. They knew where we were going to be. And I think that's what I'm thinking about the cameraman who had the body camera, because they were all over the place, you know. And so we rehearsed it, I want to say we rehearsed it maybe for a week, just so that everyone knew where everyone was going to be. And then they edited it. And it came out to be really, really cool.

Luisa Lyons :

Oh, it's a gorgeous capture. As an actor who has worked in film and TV, and in theater, the performances read so beautifully on screen. But acting for camera is very different for acting on stage. So why do you think it captures so well, what is different about filming a stage show that means you don't have to act like you're acting for camera?

Brenda Braxton :

Well, it's just that that bigness, being able to, just being able to be fully present. You know what I mean, for camera? Yes, they catch your angles, like when I shoot "The Good Fight," for instance, as a Broadway performer I had to really be conscious of not being like this [makes a big gesture]. Even with the little things that I say, of really having to pull it in. But the beauty of filming for Broadway is that you can just be your full self. You can be your full body self, you can be your full voice self, and it's up to the film crew to capture it the way it needs to be captured. You literally don't have to pull it in and be aware of what you're doing. You can just be. I used to think, "Oh, I love theater because I can be that way." But now, getting ready to do the third season, for me personally, of "The Good Fight", it's a different kind of pleasure that I'm getting from having to adjust my way of acting. And for me, it's late in life to be doing television because I'm already in my 60s trying to make this move to TV. And you know, having been big all my life... (laughter) It'slike, okay! And I watch Audra, and I watch Christine, because they are theater people. You know, they are theater people and I watch how they - . Oh my god, they're amazing. They have just they honed it to a point of -. I hope I can come off that way because it still has that energy of being on Broadway. It still has that kind of energy, but just not a big energy. So I'm having a ball with having to now do this, this whole shift of "Okay, how do I get this across the intensity." I had a great scene, this last season, and I was sitting there going, "Oh my god, I know this is good. I'm doing good work right now." You know?!

Luisa Lyons :

A little pat on the back for me! (laughter)

Brenda Braxton :

Yes! How often can you really make a shift into another genre, another way of working and go, "I feel good about this. I hope it's really coming off good, well. But the energy and the intensity, I hope it's coming off that way." And it was, I was very proud of it. And even Cush, Cush Jumbo came through. She said, "That was really good." And I was like, "Thank you!" (laughter)

Luisa Lyons :

Oh my goodness, that set must be amazing.

Brenda Braxton :

It is!

Luisa Lyons :

All of you are amazing women who have had incredible careers in all different areas. Oh my goodness.

Brenda Braxton :

Yeah, in that one space. It's electrical. It's electric, electric. It really is sitting around the conference table with all of them. I remember my first time. Oh my god. And of course, my very, very first scene in season three was around the table with Delroy Lindo and all of them and it was an arguing scene and I was like, "Oh, I'm so glad there's an arguing scene because if I had to literally do a separate scene, I was just learning how to pull it in. And you know, but it was good.

Luisa Lyons :

That's so thrilling. I love it. (laughter) Just a couple more questions on "Smokey Joe's Cafe".You mentioned that there was a person with a body camera that was on the stage, there was a crane in the theatre -

Brenda Braxton :

Yeah, it was a big crane and there was a stationary camera all the way in the back from what I remember. So they had the stationary, they had the crane and then they had, I think they had, two guys with the body camera so they could get from either side. It was so exciting.

Luisa Lyons :

It must have been a crazy rehearsal. You're so used to moving in a certain way after five years of doing the show, and now you're adding extra moving bodies. It's such a well oiled machine backstage normally.

Brenda Braxton :

Yes! But everything was choreographed. You know what I mean? So the cameraman were choreographed - so that they knew "Oh, they're backing up now." So they would back up with us and, you know, it was quite something. It really was.

Luisa Lyons :

You had one or two rehearsals with the cameras?

Brenda Braxton:

I want to say we had a couple, because the show is just so everywhere, you know.

Luisa Lyons :

And moving set pieces.

Brenda Braxton :

The band that came downstage and so I want to say we had maybe four or five rehearsals.

Luisa Lyons :

Oh, wow.

Brenda Braxton :

Yeah. I want to say that because they really wanted to capture it, you know. So it was fun.

Luisa Lyons :

It must have been exhausting, I'm assuming rehearsing during the day, and performing at night?

Brenda Braxton :

It's still exciting, still so exciting, because we didn't know what to expect either. Once you get the audience in there, it was really good. I'm glad we were able to do it. Looking back.

Luisa Lyons :

And you've watched it, you clearly watched "Smokey Joe's Cafe" after it was filmed, when it aired?

Brenda Braxton :

I did! I don't think we got to see it until it was finished. So I don't think we did like a special viewing of it or anything. I can't even remember that but to see ourselves I was like, "Oh my god, this is gonna be forever!" And I'm proud of it. I'm very, very proud of it. Because it was a special show.

Luisa Lyons :

I'm so thankful that it's available to us because I still living in Sydney, Australia when it was on Broadway. It was a long time before I came to New York. I wouldn't have been able to see it it wasn't recorded.

Brenda Braxton :

Wow. Mmm hmm!

Luisa Lyons :

So, coming toward the end, I have a series of quick questions for you. Okay. The rules are if there are rules, don't think about it too much. There's no right or wrong answer and just sort of answer as quickly as you can. Okay. So do you have a favorite musical?

Brenda Braxton :

"Chicago"! Other than "Smokey Joe's". Yes, "Chicago."

Luisa Lyons :

Can I ask why it's your favorite? Well it's my favorite visually because it's just stunning. It's my favorite to do because again, as a dancer, I was able to sing, dance, act, do a little comedy, and be sexy and funny. So that. And the company that I was in, in the beginning that went out right after the movie, was, I felt like it was my company. I was able to do that. And yet I was able to come back to Broadway and that was my company. And we had an amazing time because I was in the show when Barack Obama was was nominated, and all of that was going on. Our theater was just buzzing. It was so funny. They knew how much I loved Barack, and they would tease me, they would bring me pictures of him. My stage managers, David Hyslop, god I love him. He bought me a picture of Barack with his signature saying "Brenda, I love you. Thank you so much!" (laughter) Supposedly from Barack Obama, you know, "Love Barack". But it was such an electrifying time and then I was also there when they started to like plug in different other actors. So I was able to do the show with Rita Wilson, you know Tom Hanks' wife, and Usher and all those people which brought a whole other kind of excitement to it. So it was my favorite on on many levels. It's also one of my personal favorite shows. Oh that score is just so glorious.

Brenda Braxton :

It's amazing! And watching - I have several Roxy's that I love but one of my favorites is Charlotte d'Amboise. Oh my god, we had so much fun. And I've done it with Bebe too. Bebe actually did Roxy while I was doing Velma. I was a nervous wreck because it's Bebe right? But we have since become really good friends. But doing it with Charlotte d'Amboise and watching her do the Roxy number, with the boys and everything, because she would adlib! I mean brilliant adlib. But she had one night that she was just going on and on ad libbing and she went out into the audience and was messing with the audience and everything. But she went to run and jump back on the stage and miscalculate (laughter)...

Luisa Lyons :

Oh no!

Brenda Braxton :

(Laughter) She miscalculated, and just went, bam! Right into the stage and ended up crawling, rolling back onto the stage. And she just laid there for a minute while the music was "Dun, dun, dun-dun dun dun-dun". We were backstage laughing so hard! But she got back up and she finished the number. But I love her so much for that.

Luisa Lyons :

"Chicago" is show that I would love - I have a dream of box sets that I want every show to be filmed with every cast. So I want the box set with you and Bebe, every person that's ever played Roxy and Velma...

Brenda Braxton :

Right!

Luisa Lyons :

I want every version filmed and I want that night.

Brenda Braxton :

Oh yes! (laughter)

Luisa Lyons :

I'm sure Charlotte doesn't want that night on camera...

Brenda Braxton :

Oh yeah. I had fun with Bebe too. I used to eat Tootsie Rolls all the time, little mini Tootise Rolls, and one night I came out and I'm getting ready to do "I can't do it alone" and Bebe is sitting there as Roxy and she had like a Tootsie Roll earring. And I was like "I can't believe you got that on your ear right now!" (laughter) Oh, so much fun!

Luisa Lyons :

I love that! I don't know if could keep a straight face. True professional! Do you have a favorite filmed live musical?

Brenda Braxton :

Oh no, I don't. Cuz I haven't seen "Hamilton" yet, so I'm sure that'll be my favorite.

Luisa Lyons :

This is something I asked all my guests, filmed life theatre, it's not exactly theatre and it's not exactly film. What should we call it?

Brenda Braxton :

Oh, God. I don't know. I think that's a good a good name for it though. Because they already have Broadway Live.

Luisa Lyons :

There's so many different ones, like "captures" or "transmission" or "live in HD" or you know, there's various names for it. But I think there's no sort of set name for it. And people still don't, amazingly, people still don't know what this is.

Brenda Braxton :

Right. Right.

Luisa Lyons :

And there's so much resistance to it because I don't think we've named it yet. But we very briefly touched on bootlegs earlier. What do you think about bootlegs?

Brenda Braxton :

You know, that's interesting because while of course financially, that's hard for us because it's our image and we should be compensated for it. But again, like you were saying, there's so many people that we don't even realize can't afford to buy a DVD or to get a DVD. So I don't know. I hate that it's bootlegged and the people who are on the bootleg are not compensated. But I feel for people who would never, like you said, never have gotten to see anything, or to experience a Broadway show. So I'm kind of on the fence.

Luisa Lyons :

What do you wish had been filmed?

Brenda Braxton :

I do wish that the "Jelly's" had been filmed, "Jelly's Last Jam" had been filmed. Someone had a little snippet of one of the scenes that I had done. They just put it up on Facebook and I was like "Wow, yes, that was really a good show." And I wish it had been filmed too because Gregory is not with us anymore. And watching Gregory and Savion dance together was just amazing. In rehearsals just watching the two of them, you know, old school versus new school, and they were both beasts at what they did. And it's unfortunate that we did not get to capture, like really capture, that. You do have Lincoln Center, and all of that. But still, if they had done it like they did a "Smokey Joe's Cafe", it would have just been so much fun.

Luisa Lyons :

Going forward, what would you like to see filmed in the future?

Brenda Braxton :

Oh, good questions. My God. I don't know. Wow. I think I would like to do "Chicago" and have and have a film of myself doing "Chicago."

Luisa Lyons :

I'll second that!

Brenda Braxton :

Yeah. I would like that to happen. Definitely.

Luisa Lyons :

Who would you cast as your Roxy?

Brenda Braxton :

Oooh, that's a hard one. I love Bianca Marroquín. She was one of my best best good, good, good, girlfriends. And I watched her grow in the role. But as I said, I also I love doing it with Charlotte d'Amboise because there was a kind of natural synergy between the two of us. And I think age wise, comedic ability wise, the naturalness of how she delivers lines. And I love the fact that she does not take herself too seriously. There were times when she would come on stage, our first scene, and I'd be like, "Hey, you! Get out of my chair." And she would just be, her wig would be all askew sometimes. Her lash would be weird. And she would just look up and look up to me and just go "What?!" But just the naturalness of. And I'm "Get out of my chair!" "Oh, I'm sorry." And, it was just so natural. She and I. Really, really natural.

Luisa Lyons :

Okay I second this. We're gonna write to the producers of "Chicago" and beg "Please - "

Brenda Braxton :

Get it done!

Luisa Lyons :

"Bring back Brenda Braxton!" Do you have any upcoming projects that we can look out for?

Brenda Braxton :

Tomorrow I'm doing "Stars in the House" with Seth Rudetsky and we have some of the original people from Smokey Joe's Cafe. So that's at eight o'clock on YouTube "Stars in House." What else? Of course you can see "The Good Fight," all seasons now. That show is amazing. What else, what else? I think that's pretty much it right now. 'Cos COVID has just stopped everything in its tracks. You know, I don't know if you know I had a barber shop, I opened it in 2006. It was called BBraxton's Exceptional Grooming for Exceptional Men. And we were trying to do that again here in Harlem because Marriott is going up. It's a whole project that they're doing with the Apollo Theater, Dance Theatre of Harlem and it was a whole project and in the retail space, I was going to read re-open BBraxtons. But now even that has blown up because rents are, who can afford rents now?! And it's it's just crazy. But we're thinking maybe next year, we still might try and do that. We're still in talks with it. But everything is just up in the air.

Luisa Lyons :

Yeah. In the meantime, listeners can watch Brenda on "Stars in the House." There are several episodes.

Brenda Braxton :

Yeah, I'm hoping the he'll let me do a few more. Especially with the whole theme of Act Two because that's my theme, Act Two. What are people doing now in the second act of this whole thing of their life, their career, whatever. And when I started, Act Two was mainly for women over 50 trying to figure out "Okay, what's next?" I know I have all of this knowledge with some of the stuff that I'm doing. What do I do now? Or performers who are in that second act of "Okay, I can't do a split. I can't do kick high kicks I can't do... Where do I go now? What do I do? Do I now start doing television more?" I'm very happy to have, you know, latched on to "The Good Fight", because we will be filming season five, I'm thinking season five, in the fall. But not everyone has been able to make that transition. So actually, now what was about that, and I'm hoping that Seth will let me you know, continue doing something like that.

Luisa Lyons :

I hope so and the guests that you've bought on and to hear all your stories and behind the scenes, it's wonderful.

Brenda Braxton :

When Ann Reinking said she would come on, I was like, "Are you sure?! Really?!" And I've had Bebe on and Valerie Pettiford and you know, just really good people, good people. So I hope he allows me to continue that.

Luisa Lyons :

And I hope so too. Brenda, thank you so much for your time today. It has been so much fun chatting with you.

Brenda Braxton :

Absolutely. And we have to stay in touch and all of that.

Luisa Lyons :

Oh, yes, please. Okay. Thank you so much.

Brenda Braxton :

Absolutely, all right, bye!

Luisa Lyons :

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