Tammy Grimes: Some Kind of Genius



-Even if she hadn’t announced herself, the voice on the phone, a little whispery, a little dramatic, not as strong as in some other years, was still instantly recognizable. “Hello,” the voice says. “This is Tammy Grimes.”

Of course it was. Tammy Grimes, the legend.

She came to Washington for a concert as part of Barbara Cook’s “In the Spotlight Series” on cabaret singers; a category which seems almost whimsically focused to define Grimes. Cabaret singers are by and large original in such a way that they can be compared to no one else.

As she was in the 1980s when we talked to her in the midst of a concert gig at the now defunct Charley’s, a tony, jazzy, New Yorkish night club on K Street in Georgetown, Grimes is in the Duke Ellington mold: beyond category.

And probably by now, so thickly is she held in the affections of New Yorkers and by people who care more than they should about Broadway lore and stories, she’s also probably beyond criticism. She continues, in her mid-seventies, to fiddle around the edges of her creation, that is, her story and herself.

“Well, I’ll be singing songs by Tom Waits, Jimmy Buffett…” she said almost blithely, as if they might be the standard repertoire for a woman who rose to become a Broadway star for decidedly un-Buffett, un-Waits-like material.

But then again, maybe not. If Grimes repeats anything a lot, it is a simple thing. “I like songs that tell stories,” she says to me on the phone, and again to us in the audience of the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. The story she tells, of course, is her story, and so a concert like this, and others written about New York, are about her. They are familiar stories, and the songs are pertinent to them; about two ex-husbands, two Tonys (“The Unsinkable Molly Brown” and “Private Lives”), about Cole Porter, Noel Coward and Truman Capote, about loss and love, family and children, theater openings, parts made her own and parts she never got.

Hence, “Moon River.” She tells me the story over the phone, and it’s like we’re just talking. There was the time that, ”Truman Capote–we were friends–said that he’d written “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” with me in mind. He saw me as Holly Golightly, and he promised that he would get me the part in the film. And of course, Audrey Hepburn got it.” And on the phone it’s a matter of fact telling, a good story, with no hard feelings or regret in it, because those things happen and Truman is Truman and that sort of thing not said, but implied. On stage, she tells the same story, but here it becomes a no-regrets bridge, a way to launch into her anthem, “I Ain’t Down Yet” from “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” the Meredith Wilson musical about a particularly defiant survivor of the sinking of the Titanic.

For sure, Grimes is a legend, but it’s hard to say exactly what kind of legend. Noel Coward discovered her after her hearing her sing. he had dinner once with the shy Cole Porter, whose “The Oyster Song” she makes a hugely enjoyable enterprise in performance. “We were both shy, I think,” she said. “We spent the whole dinner not saying a word.”

Imagine that. She has plenty to say, of course, and more to sing. She talks about her ex-husband Christopher Plummer, the grand actor, “a beautiful man.” “He still is and now we get along just fine,” she said. “And we had our beautiful daughter, Amanda. Honey, if you’re listening anywhere, please call home.”

The higher registers of her voice are something of a tremulous adventure now, but the lower range is alive with danger, feeling and unpredictable adventure. She sits most of the time now during her concerts, although she will walk to the mike and grab it forcefully. And she sings “The Pirate Song” from Kurt Weill’s “Three Penny Opera” and kills it. The song has all the vengeful menace that it offers up.

Sometimes you suspect people haven’t always known what to do with Tammy Grimes. She’s made a number of mostly forgettable films and done all sorts of unruly television work including her own brief show.

But it’s Broadway and New York that are the stars in her crown, where the cheering still goes on as it does with the Terrace Theater audience, as well as at the Metropolitan Room. Walter Kerr, a legendary drama critic, flat out said, after seeing her as Molly Brown, “She is a genius.” The question is: what kind of genius?

Listening to her sing-tell Waits’ “Martha,” or Buffett’s “He Went to Paris,” or “You Better Love Me While You May,” you pick up on her strength more than the fragility, and the tremendous loss the death of her husband, the composer/arranger Richard Bell must have been. She doesn’t hide it. She merely swings into “You Gotta Ring Them Bells” or something similarly fist-clenched and forward-moving.

For me, and I suspect for New Yorkers who have heard and seen her at the Metropolitan Room, she’s an urban unicorn, a legend for whom, when they appear, the slate is always clean and the stories always rich.

Grimes is the kind of performer who is a reminder that you don’t go to the theater or the cabaret to forget.
You go to remember. And Tammy Grimes, while she may forget a lyric here or there, has a rich store of memories and music.

She came back with everyone standing up clapping for an encore: “I’m going to sing ‘The Rose.’” I heard her sing that song on a wintry night in Charley’s, snow on the ground. Bad news in the news like today. She pushed up the rose and made you remember.

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