by Leigh Munro
Leigh Munro, a native of Lansdowne who once told us her age is “somewhere between 65 and death,” has been living for almost 20 years in Chestnut Hill, where she teaches voice in her private studio. Munro, whose life could probably be the basis for a compelling movie, performed for over 27 years in every major opera house in the U.S and Canada, including 10 years as a leading soprano with the New York City Opera under Beverly Sills’ management. Here are a few of her memories about her career and the legends she worked with:
Hal Prince, the legendary Broadway producer who left us July 31 last year at 91 years of age, won 21 Tony Awards, the most for any individual in multiple categories, and some of us are still coming to terms with his death. I cherish all the letters, notes and telegrams he sent me, sometimes from Majorca, where he vacationed over the years. I bring them out once in a while to remember.
Andrew Lloyd Webber came into my life in 1989 when I was hired to replace Judy Kaye, the original Tony-Award winning “Carlotta” in “Phantom of the Opera.” Hal gave me the option of going on Broadway or creating the role in a new production in Los Angeles with Michael Crawford.
He strongly recommended the latter, as it was going to be a Hollywood-style extravaganza. It turned out to be good advice. Even the proscenium arches were moved in the Ahmanson Theater to provide a wider performing area. All the production values were bumped up, including my luxurious furs that had to be locked up every night after a show. The costumes for this West Coast diva were of the finest, most expensive fabrics.
When we started rehearsals in New York, Andrew would pop in now and then to check on us, but he left most of the hard work to his assistant, David Caddick … Andrew was a bit shy, very proper English gentleman who had a touch of stage fright.
When he was called upon to make a curtain speech, he’d stand in the wings with me, grabbing my hand as he waited to go on. Of course, once on center stage, he performed like a pro. I last saw him at the opening night party in Basel, Switzerland, with his new wife in 1995.
One of my favorite performances was also my last one. In 1992, while still doing “Phantom” in L.A., I was given a seven-week leave to go to New York City Opera for a new production of Marc Blitzstein’s “Regina.”
“Regina” is based on Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes,” and it is a brilliant blend of Victorian parlor music, spirituals, ragtime tunes and operatic arias with a large symphonic score. It borrowed from both opera and Broadway styles, straddling the line between entertainment and serious music.
Directed by the great Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano, Rosalind Elias, we enjoyed a huge success. To be able to inhabit the role of the despicable title character made famous by Bette Davis in the film was a treat. I had done enough coughing and dying already in my previous roles.
I loved it when I’d ask my stage daughter at the end of the performance if she’d “like to spend the night in my room” after her father had died from my hateful neglect and abuse. The audience from the stately opera house would yell, “Don’t do it!” Heady stuff for an actress.
I’ve sung with many wonderful singers over the years, but one who comes to mind first was the great Canadian dramatic baritone, Louis Quilico. We did a television broadcast together of “Rigoletto” for the CBC in 1983 with the Hamilton Opera Company in Ontario, Canada. Known as “Mr. Rigoletto,” he had performed the role more than 500 times, and we shared some special father-daughter moments on stage. A star at the Metropolitan Opera for 25 years, he was an amazing singer and a true professional.
One of the nicest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with was Philly native Imogene Coca, of the famous “Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca” duo. They were huge stars on TV in the 1950s with “Your Show of Shows,” whose writers included Neil Simon, Woody Allen and Mel Brooks. In the 1982 Boston Opera Company’s production of Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld” Sarah brilliantly cast her as “Miss Public Opinion” along with Sid playing himself in a hilarious cameo role.
I was playing Eurydice, the leading lady, and because of the shortage of dressing rooms, Imogene and I ended up sharing one. What followed was one of the most fun-filled times I’ve ever had in the business. She walked in before the dress rehearsal and said, “Would you go on looking like this?” She had been in a terrible auto accident years before which resulted in her losing sight in one eye, necessitating her wearing a lens over it … From then on, I became her quasi-proficient makeup artist, dressing room roomie and colleague on stage …
After every performance, she’d insist that my boyfriend and I go out for drinks with her and her husband, King Donovan. All 5-feet-nothing of her would always drink the rest of us under the table. When we closed, we wanted to keep in touch, exchanging contact info, but life intervened. I still have some of her sweet letters and regret to this day that we never made it happen. She died in 2001 at age 92.
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