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Darlene Love

When Darlene Love stops the second act of Hairspray with the rafter-raising black civil rights anthem, "I Know Where I've Been," she ain't kidding. But it's not the fat suit that Love wears—supplying some visual girth to the role of Motormouth Maybelle—that provides gravity to the moment. Nor is it actually Love's goose-bump inducing top notes, belted with a raw, intoxicating vibrato. Indeed, it is Love's legacy as a bona fide pop star of the '60s which she carries in her soul that lends the Tony Award-winning musical set in 1962 a tangible sense of African-American context, continuity, and glittering if troubled show biz lore. First topping the charts—ironically, in the year Hairspray takes place—as lead singer of The Blossoms with the number one hit "He's a Rebel," Love quickly went on to record such '60s classics as "Da Doo Ron Ron," "Today I Met the Boy I'm Gonna Marry," and "Christmas Baby, Please Come Home"—a song that TV's Late Show host David Letterman has had Love sing on his annual holiday program a record 20 times. Despite her early success, however, cruel career twists pushed Love into the stall of back-up singers, as is detailed in her 1998 autobiography My Name is Love. And while Hollywood finally found a place for her playing Danny Glover's wife in all four Lethal Weapon movies, until now, Love's brief Broadway outings in Leader of the Pack, Grease and the crucified musical Carrie, have all given her limited time on the Great White Way. Fortunately, thanks to the producers of Hairspray, the little lady who recently released her first gospel album, Unconditional Love, is back on Broadway—singing big, being blonde, and shimmering with an absolutely beautiful balance of glamour, depth and humility at the Neil Simon Theatre.

So how are you enjoying your return to Broadway?
Well, it's been a dream of mine to be here for the past five or six years, even though it's hard with eight shows a week. I was telling people that when I was at Rainbow & Stars, I did 10 shows a week [Laughs]. But being back on Broadway is better.

Casting you as Motormouth Maybelle was really a stroke of genius. How did it come about?
Well, I've known [Hairspray composers] Marc Shaiman and Scott Whittman for over 20 years. And when I first found out about this project years ago, I thought, "Wow, this would be great!" But they said, "Darlene, you're not big enough! You're gonna have to gain weight to play this part!" And I was like, "Oh, I love you, baby, but I can't be putting on 50 pounds."

Needed a big girl, huh?
Yeah, because, it's like the song—"Big, Blonde & Beautiful." And with Tracy, you know, it's all about the big girls in the show—including Motormouth.

So, they found you a fat suit?
Yeah, I'm padded alright!

And how's that feel?
Well, it took some time to get used to, cause of the pressing on my chest. But I can shed it at the end of the show [Laughs].

You're normally quite svelte. Is it a new experience being a big woman?
It is! Because there's lots of things big women can't do! For instance, just a simple thing like crossing your legs. I tell you, I cannot cross my legs in that body suit! You also have to do a whole lot of twisting to, like, pick things up. You have to squat! And you have to be careful walking around, cause you can't just sail by people—you hit 'em with your hips! Or with your behind! I have to be careful with the kids in the show, that I don't bump 'em too hard [Laughs].

How is it stepping back into the '60s each night?
Actually, it's great. Like for the kids in the show? I mean, I have lived through everything that I'm saying in Hairspray. I even bowed in a television show called Shindig in the '60s where they didn't want black people on it. They had to fight to keep me and the group I was in, The Blossoms, on the show! Also I had an interracial relationship with one of The Righteous Brothers [in the '60s], so I had that going on, too. So, I'm trying to teach the kids in the show that you have to fight for the things you want in life. It might seem like a little thing—being on a television show—but it's a big thing later on in life. And somebody has to do it. So that's what I am re-living in Hairspray. Plus it's really great because I get to tell another generation—even the audience—about what happened back then.

Has your perspective changed much since you were fighting those personal and professional prejudices?
I think it has. Believe me when I tell you, I have seen all the changes. And for the better! A lot more doors are open to minorities now. But [the struggle is] still there. It's just covered up. There are a lot more advantages for us today, but there's still that thing for minorities. It's still not as wide open as it should be. In other words, they should say "no color" when somebody walks in to do a part. Because even with parts in movies or television, they don't say, "This is a white part. This is a black part." It should be "This is a part for a man. This is a part for a woman." Whenever the day that can happen, it would be wonderful. But people have a hard time of having black and white relationships thrown at 'em on television. Even though it's there now, they have to be careful about doing it. So, it's still a fight.

How has Hairspray been different from your other Broadway experiences?
Well, this is completely different because...this is a big hit! [Laughs]. I always pray to the Lord, "Let me play on Broadway. But let it be a big hit." [Laughs.] Cause Carrie was a mind-blowing experience. To be in the show one day, and they close it the next. I'd heard of that happening before, but I thought, "Nah, they'd never do that." Yes, they did! [Laughs.]

Honestly, Carrie is one of my favorite Broadway memories.
Well, now we're known as a cult. And people say, "Well, one of these days, maybe it will come back." I think it's very, very funny. But I enjoyed Carrie—especially doing a character I had nothing to do with, you know? I mean, I had to really learn how to be this character.

You played the gym teacher, which your Broadway co-star Betty Buckley [playing the mother in the musical] had in fact portrayed in the Brian DePalma film version. Did she give you any advice?
No, she was too busy doing her own thing [Laughs]. We all had to get into our characters on our own. In Leader of the Pack I was actually playing myself, "Darlene Love." But now in Hairspray, I think maybe that's why I'm really enjoying myself—cause I feel like it's me. I just have to go back into the '60s to pull on everything. But I have to be very careful not to get too emotionally involved because I can't sing and cry at the same time. I've tried! And I think it's great when others can do it! But with me, the words won't come out. I've seen people—the tears coming out, they're singing their heart out—and I think: How do they do it? Cause I feel myself getting choked up sometimes [in Hairspray] when I say "I wanna get through that door." And [Tracy] says, "What door?" And I say, "The front door." Sometimes there's a little quirk in my voice because I think about all the things that I had to do to get where I am. It can become a very emotional part in the play for me.

Have your fans been coming to Hairspray?
Oh my God, they're everywhere now!

Do people bring 45's, like "He's a Rebel," for you to autograph?
Not from the audience, no. But [Laughs] from the guys in the box office, yes!

You've been nominated for entry to the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame. What's that about and when do you get in?
You know, I've been asking that same question. See, you have to be nominated before you get in. But like everything else, it's all politics. What's funny is that I inducted Gene Pitney a couple of years ago, who wrote "He's a Rebel." So maybe I'm next. Cause the song is in. Phil Spector [who produced "Rebel"] is in. What's interesting is that none of Spector's people have even been nominated. I'm the first. This whole nomination thing started with the people on the movie Lethal Weapon. They started a petition for me to be nominated. So now I guess I'll have to start another petition to get in [Laughs].

You've worked with some of the leading pop stars of our time. If I name a few, would you mind giving me a little anecdote—either funny or serious—about working with them? For instance, Cher?
Ahh... an old and good and faithful friend. See, I worked with Sonny [Bono] first. Cause he used to work for Phil Spector. We used to call Sonny "Phil's Gopher." He had to go get everything—get the water, the sodas, get cigarettes. Whatever somebody needed, Sonny had get it. And I remember when he first brought this girl in. And I said, "Who's that?" And Sonny goes, "Oh, that's Cher." "Oh, really?" I said. So I went to speak to her and, turns out, she was 16 years old. With our relationship over all these years, we don't talk to each other all the time like old girlfriends, but if I see her somewhere, you know, we kiss, hug, catch up.

How about Tom Jones?
What a gig! Now there's a story I could've wrote a whole book on! I sang back-up for Tom for two, almost three years. And some of the things that went on on the road, I cannot even tell you. Let's just say: That man is a firm, happy man [Laughs]. Loves the ladies!

Aretha Franklin?
Oh, Lord! If there ever was a voice that God gave to a human being, he gave it to Aretha. And I know Aretha well even to today.

Do you still learn things when you work with her?
You always do. You always learn from great people. I worked with Dionne Warwick as a back-up singer for ten years. So I became friends with that whole stable of people: Luther Vandross, Aretha, Cissy Houston, Whitney Houston, we all became very, very close because of me working with Dionne. And the one thing Dionne used to tell me is, "If you're gonna steal something from somebody? Take the best. And learn from it!" And at Aretha's [recording] sessions I used to just sit up and listen. It would come time for me to sing and I'd just be sitting there with my mouth dropped wide open—just listening to what was coming out of her mouth.

Sexyyyyyy! Sexy, sexy, sexy little teddy bear. He was someone where you'd go, [sing-song-y to herself] "Ooo! I could just touch himmmmm! Better leave that aloooooone!"

And has your Late Show fan, Paul Shaffer, come to see you in Hairspray yet?
He came to the show a couple of weeks ago. And loved it. Loved it! Afterwards he said, "I knew you were made for this part!" And that's what all of my longtime fans have been saying to me about Hairspray. Saying, "I said years ago when I first saw this: Darlene Love should be Motormouth!"

Well, I'm with them.
But you know what? I'm a believer in "everything in its time." Evidently it wasn't time for me to do the show until now. And that's just the way I have to look at everything that happens to me in my life.

See Darlene Love in Hairspray at the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street. Click for tickets and more information.

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