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Remembering Madeline Kahn

By Peter Filichia

It’s been a biography-reading month. Immediately after I finished Cy Coleman’s life story — You Fascinate Me So, courtesy of Andy Propst — I started (and finished in no time) William V. Madison’s Madeline Kahn: Being the Music – A Life.

There is some overlap, for Coleman and Kahn worked together – at least for a while – in the 1978 musical On the Twentieth Century. Coleman composed it and Khan starred as unambitious Mildred Plotka whom impresario Oscar Jaffee turned into Hollywood star Lily Garland – only to have her leave him both as a leading lady and a lover.

Madison quotes Propst’s statement that at the first rehearsal Kahn was already taking alternate notes because she found Coleman’s score so demanding. But Madison gets more specific. He reports that Kevin Kline, who played Lily’s new boy-toy Bruce Granit, said of Kahn, “Instead of hitting the high B-flat, she would take the G.” Added John Cullum, who played Oscar, “She was transposing some of her lines in ‘Sextet.’ I didn’t think it was a big deal, but Cy was furious.”

Propst doesn’t say whether or not Kahn quit or was fired; he just quotes the press release that said “she was withdrawing because of damage to her vocal cords.” But Madison isn’t afraid to tell us, in no uncertain terms, that Kahn was canned.

In my Coleman piece two weeks ago I cited Propst’s quoting the now-famous story: director Hal Prince was ecstatic over what Kahn had delivered on opening night, so he went backstage and gushed “You finally gave me the performance I wanted!”

Kahn coolly replied “I hope you don’t think that I can do that every night.”

(Considering how well Kahn sounds on the original cast album, I’d say that she gave that performance in the recording studio, all in the cause of posterity.)

One problem, Madison points out, is that Kahn was signed as star before Prince was contracted to direct. He was stuck with her. Still, he had to have admired her skill, for when he was casting Company in 1969-70, he’d called her in no fewer than eight times. Although he didn’t give her a role, he must have thought she had something.

Hollywood certainly thought so. By the time Kahn began work with Prince, she’d garnered nominations for two Oscars (Paper Moon and Blazing Saddles) and three Golden Globes (the aforementioned two plus What’s Up, Doc?). But she had a different way of working from Prince’s. Said Paul Gemignani, the show’s musical director, “She was like a jazz musician. Improv was her comfort zone.”

Kevin Kline appreciated Kahn’s willingness to improv with him and said that the creators allowed him to retain it. His part got larger, which obviously helped him win the Tony as Best Featured Actor in a Musical. That, of course, jump-started Kline’s illustrious career.

Madison gives some cogent opinions of Kahn’s Twentieth Century work. “Veronique” is not unlike “Let Me Entertain You” in Gypsy, in which demure Louise Hovick morphs into brassy Gypsy Rose Lee. Here, through Oscar’s encouragement, Mildred continually gains confidence during the song and is the shining star Lily Garland by the end. Writes Madison, “She begins to read in a character voice with a Bronx accent and a limited, even amateurish, tonal quality below the middle of Madeline’s range. But as she continues, her accent fades and her voice swells.”

Of “Never” – in which Lily won’t entertain the thought of returning to Oscar even in a professional capacity — Madison writes that it “ranges from lower-middle chest range to the upper register of Madeline’s lyric soprano. At points she’s almost shrill – and she means to be” — because, of course, she becomes increasingly angry at the thought of even having to see Oscar again.

At the end of the show, Oscar pretends to be dying to get Lily to return to him. The song is a nice Nelson ‘n’ Jeanette parody called, simply enough, “Lily / Oscar,” two words that account for most of the lyrics. “Madeline’s soprano is at its most secure in this number,” writes Madison.

So all seems well on the album. Kahn’s understudy Judy Kaye would turn out to be part of Kahn’s undoing. She did so splendidly at understudy rehearsals and run-throughs that Kahn skipped that Cullum warned Kahn, “Madeline, don’t miss any more performances.”

But she did. Madison admits that even when Kahn was there, she wasn’t there. “Madeline’s performances varied,” he writes, “not only night to night, but scene to scene. Her energy level was sometimes frenetic, sometimes low. Some suspected drug abuse” – a charge that Madison doesn’t believe after talking to scores of people on that matter. “She was either protecting her voice or panicking – or both.”

Madison also defends her in trying to make the vocal demands. He cites her meeting with a noted throat doctor and “perhaps the most celebrated voice teacher in New York.” But it was all to no avail; management liked what Judy Kaye was doing and gave her the role two months into the run.

When Dean Jones left Company soon after opening and was replaced by Larry Kert, the Tony committee decided to nominate the replacement. Granted, it was a different committee when the Kahn/Kaye incident occurred, but the precedent could have been cited and Kaye nominated. Instead, the powers-that-be obviously admired Kahn’s performance enough to reward her with the nomination despite her inglorious ending. (Madison, by the way, calls his Twentieth Century chapter “Train Wreck.”)

No question that Kaye was not a lucky surname for Kahn. Madison recounts that after she was signed for the show, Danny Kaye was being bandied about for Oscar. Kahn bluntly said “Sign him, lose me. In a million years, I would never work with Danny.”

That’s because she did in late 1970 and most of 1971 when Kaye starred in Two by Two and Kahn had a small role. Just before Noah and his family are about to set sail on the ark, youngest son Japheth (the excellent Walter Willison) comes home with Goldie, who saved his life from an angry mob. Shem, Noah’s unhappily married middle son, wants her. She resists, but finally gives in – and is so excited that she sings as Kahn would later do when in a similar circumstance in Young Frankenstein. Here the song is “The Golden Ram,” which is, as Madison describes it, “a classic Rodgers waltz” that’s also “a coloratura extravaganza.”

But once Danny Kaye lost interest in the show, he began clowning, ad-libbing and even inappropriately touching Kahn. One night when she was singing “The Golden Ram,” he actually went into the orchestra pit and started mock-conducting. She never forgave him. One wonders if Kahn ever thought of Danny Kaye while singing “Never”’ – when she said of Oscar ‘Go back with him? I’d rather die!’

During Twentieth Century, Madison reports that Kahn “desperately wanted to be taken seriously by” Stephen Sondheim, but that “Sondheim’s next premieres — Sweeney Todd and Merrily We Roll Along — didn’t have roles suited to her.”

I’d say yes and no to Sweeney. Kahn wouldn’t have been eligible in 1979 for Mrs. Lovett because she was a mere 37, too young for a character that desperately man-deprived to settle for Sweeney. Angela Lansbury, who originated the role, was seventeen years older than Kahn; she’d had her first Oscar nomination before Kahn was four. But wouldn’t we all have liked to have seen Kahn do the part some decades later?

Kahn did get to sing Sondheim for the famed 1995 Carnegie Hall concert version of Anyone Can Whistle. The narrator that night was Lansbury, who’d originated the role of Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper that Kahn would now play. Madison reveals that “Lansbury is reported to have said ‘I should have played it, after all.’” But I’ll say what I’ve said before, an opinion with which, I’ll grant you, many have had issues: Kahn is better in the role.

Lansbury is obviously no threat in “There’s Always a Woman,” for the song was dropped in Philadelphia and didn’t make the original cast album. On the 1995 recording, Kahn and Bernadette Peters play adversaries to perfection. Could some of the rancor been real? Madison reports that Peters auditioned for Goldie, too, before Kahn landed the role.

In one way, Kahn had to be happy she did Two By Two. Madison reports that she had a nice affair with Michael Karm, who’d played Ham.

(That was the name of the character, and not a description of the actor.)

It wasn’t Kahn’s last showmance. “Madeline later had an affair with a Twentieth Century cast member,” Madison told me at a lunch. “Everyone knew about Michael Karm, but this relationship she wanted to keep secret. When you look at her appointment books – and I have – there are just blank pages. She didn’t want to implicate either the man or herself.”

Although Madison did discover the name of the adulterer, he wouldn’t reveal it either in the book or at this lunch, for he knew that Kahn wouldn’t want him to. Such a gentleman!

And such a good writer! Madeline Kahn: Being the Music – A Life has, to paraphrase another Twentieth Century song, got it all.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at and and each Monday at His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at