"Call Me Adam" chats with author and producer William V. Madison about his new book Madeline Kahn: Being The Music, A Life and panel discussion at The Drama Bookshop in NYC (250 West 40th Street, between 7th & 8th Avenue) on June 11 at 6pm!
The panel discussion is composed of Madeline Kahn’s colleagues and friends, including comedian Robert Klein, (Kahn’s most frequent co-star - New Faces of 1968, The Sisters Rosensweig, Mixed Nuts, etc.),Martin Charnin (lyricist, Two by Two), Lee Roy Reams (director, Hello, Dolly!), Scott Ellis (director of Kahn’s final theatrical appearance and of the current Roundabout Theatre revival of On the Twentieth Century), Jonathan Lynn (writer/director, Clue), Walter Willison (Tony-nominated co-star, Two by Two), Joan Copeland (co-star, Two by Two), Maddie Corman (Kahn’s niece on the George C. Scott sitcom, Mr. President) and Lawrence Leritz (guest star, Cosby).
For more on William be sure to visit http://billmadison.blogspot.com and join his Facebook Page Madeline Kahn: Being The Music, A Life!
1. You just released your new book Madeline Kahn: Being The Music, A Life. What made now the right time to release this book? The sassy answer is that the time was right because I'd finished -- after seven years of research and writing. A better answer is that people still miss Madeline. Her death came as a great shock to so many people, and I remember vividly the way New Yorkers particularly responded to the sad news on December 3, 1999. We felt cheated, and we still want some kind of connection with her. Also, the time was right because many of the most important witnesses are still around to share their memories. Just before I began work on Being the Music, Harvey Korman and Dom DeLuise, two of Madeline's favorite co-stars died, so I didn't get to talk with them. Maddie Corman, who's on the panel June 11, is almost the only surviving member of the regular cast of the sitcom Mr. President; she's the last best witness to a full year of Madeline's career. If I hadn't been able to talk with Maddie, and with Mel Brooks and Hal Prince and Lily Tomlin and Carol Burnett and Gene Wilder -- and so on -- my job would have been almost impossible.
2. Why did you want to write a biography on Madeline Kahn? What was it about her career and life that fascinated you so much? The basic outlines of Madeline's life and career are there for the world to see, but there's a great deal that she kept concealed by design. In her acting, I saw something remarkable, even when the character is cartoonish: she locates the seriousness, what she called the "truth" of the character, and makes that the foundation of the comedy. Even to "Lili von Shtupp" in Blazing Saddles, she brings nuance and dimension. That ability had to come from some place, and I wanted to find and understand the source.
Beyond Madeline's own talents, she also worked with some of the most important creative minds of her time: everybody from Leonard Bernstein to the Muppets, from David Rabe to Neil Simon, from Charles Ludlam to Gilda Radner. Exploring her career meant learning more about their careers, too.
Finally, Madeline was extremely intelligent, thoughtful, and cultivated. I never imagined that I'd spend seven years on Being the Music, but I knew she'd be good company for the journey, and I was right.
3. What do you hope people come away with after reading Madeline Kahn: Being The Music, A Life? Certainly I hope they'll come away with a better understanding of a beloved yet misunderstood performer. I hope, too, that they'll appreciate the challenges specific to working actors who -- unlike Madeline's friends Lily Tomlin and Gene Wilder -- aren't also writers. (Or directors, like Wilder and Barbra Streisand.) Actors really don't have much control over their destinies: the real control lies with casting directors, writers, directors, producers, whose choices can define an actor's career. More generally, Madeline's experience as a single working woman, on whom her mother relied for financial support, really resonates for a lot of people today.
4. What was something you discovered about Madeline that you did not know before writing this book? There were many discoveries, but perhaps the biggest was the extent of her operatic training and ambitions. Though she sang professionally only once, in La Bohème in 1970, Madeline was still fielding offers for operatic engagements in the mid-1980s, long after she'd won fame in Hollywood. You can hear even in Young Frankenstein that she's got a real voice ("Not living-room bull****," as her friend Robert Klein says), but I hadn't realized the degree to which she'd studied. Every one of her early breaks as a performer came to her because she could sing.
5. On June 11, you are having a panel discussion at The Drama Bookshop in NYC. What made you want to do a panel discussion as opposed to a regular book reading? Really, the panel discussion reflects the book. In my research, I interviewed about 120 people -- this isn't just a collection of my personal observations and pontifications. The book isn't my voice, it's theirs -- and of course it's Madeline's voice, because I quote extensively from her interviews and from a private notebook she kept for 20 years. Madeline can't join us on June 11, but her friends and colleagues can, and this way the audience will get some sense of the enjoyment I got from talking with them while I prepared Being the Music.
6. How did you decide who you wanted to be part of this panel discussion? Right now we've got Robert Klein, Martin Charnin, Scott Ellis, Lee Roy Reams, Joan Copeland, Maddie Corman, Jonathan Lynn -- and more -- on the panel, with other terrific people in the audience. It's a combination of who's in the New York area, who's available, who has an interesting perspective on Madeline's career, and who's fun to spend time with. I've never organized or moderated a panel like this before, so I wanted to be sure to invite people who'd make my job easy. Three of them -- Betty Aberlin, Walter Willison, and Lawrence Leritz -- have been heroic in helping me throughout my writing, and they've become my dear friends. So, even beyond the great stories they have to share, having them with me will be comforting!
7. What made you want to have this event at the Drama Bookshop? The Drama Book Shop is a terrific space, it's in the theater district, and it's the first place people think of for an event like this one. So many people asked not whether but when I'd do something there, that we felt we had to ask the shop for a date!
8. What's the best advice you took from Madeline's life or career? Persistence. Madeline had an extraordinarily difficult relationship with her mother, her first music teacher, who gave her not only the means but the need to express herself. Madeline was effectively abandoned by not one but two fathers when her father and stepfather in turn divorced her mother; when working relationships didn't go well or petered out, when Mel Brooks stopped working with her, she felt genuine pain. Yet Madeline didn't really want to be a performer in the first place, and she hated being typecast as a bawdy comedian. All of these elements are roiling in the background of her life -- but she didn't let them stop her. Even after her disastrous experience in On the Twentieth Century (the most complex story and the longest chapter in the book), she kept going. She had to work, to make money to support her mother. Now, when we want to forget our own cares, we can turn to Madeline's work -- but obviously, if she hadn't persisted, we wouldn't have these opportunities.
9. What did you learn about yourself from writing this book? That I had that kind of persistence, too! Putting this book together meant challenges, obstacles, disappointments, and a tremendous investment in time, money, and effort. Now I look back and think how easy it would have been to give up and walk away, but at the time I really didn't see any alternative. I had so much of Madeline's story already -- I had to finish.
10. If you could have a conversation with Madeline Kahn today, what would you say to her? I'd say something much like the things said to Madeline by two of the people I spoke with, the choreographer Joseph Patton and the film director Eric Mendelsohn: "I get it. I understand how hard it is to be you." Madeline tried to insulate herself from unpleasantness, but she went through a lot of hardship in her life, beginning when she was a tiny child, and in her career she experienced some terrible disappointments. She was in some ways very fragile -- which is not what we think of when we remember her performances. Often she was afraid that audiences were laughing not at her characters or the funny things she said, but at her. It really wasn't easy to be Madeline Kahn -- but look what treasures she left us!
More on William:
William V. Madison is a former producer at CBS News and a former Associate Editor of Opera News. He was also the lone production assistant on the Broadway musical Rags in 1986. A native Texan, Madison is a graduate of Brown University & the Creative Writing Program at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.