Debbie Gravitte is very easy to talk to. The singer’s magnetic charm and relaxed manner leaps through the telephone, and you quickly feel as if you are speaking to an old friend, not the celebrated concert performer and Tony Award winner that she is.
The occasion for this conversation is Gravitte’s return to Kleinhans this Saturday, May 2, where she will sing with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s a fun program, built around music from Hollywood spy movies called Bond and Beyond: 50 Years of 007. Who better to channel Shirley Bassey of “Goldfinger” and “Diamonds are Forever” fame than remarkable Debbie Gravitte? This lady is blessed with a thrilling voice and irresistible stage presence that has made her a perennial concert favorite.
There is so much to talk about. Gravitte previously visited the BPO while the late Marvin Hamlisch, famed composer of A Chorus Line, was overseeing the pops series. She and Hamlisch were old pals. In fact, she made her Broadway debut in his show, They’re Playing Our Song.
With a blazing voice that’s half Judy Garland and half Ethel Merman, Gravitte subsequently landed the part of the “Woman” in Zorba and was a replacement Fantine in Les Miz. She also did a couple of splashy Broadway musical revues. But when she was cast as the lead vocalist in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, that amazing voice was matched to her incandescent stage personality and she became a Broadway phenomenon!
Jerome Robbins’ Broadway was a perfect showcase for Gravitte, whose name was “Debbie Shapiro” before her marriage to actor/singer Beau Gravitte. The show allowed her to recreate iconic Broadway moments from shows like On the Town, Gypsy, West Side Story, and Call Me Madam. She was widely fêted for her performance and entered Broadway history, winning a Tony award for her efforts. Her show-stopping rendition of the long-neglected Irving Berlin tune, “Mister Monotony”—cut from the film Easter Parade and Call Me Madam—became a permanent part of her repertoire.
“That show permanently changed my life,” confirms Gravitte. “When you win a Tony Award, you forever have that asterisk next to your name, and it does make a difference. Actually, Jerome Robbins’ Broadway changed the lives of everyone involved, including Jerome Robbins! Yes, he was a genius and a legend, but even people who knew his name were not really aware that he had done the choreography for all of those shows.”
To make her point, Gravitte shares an amusing story. “Jason Alexander played the narrator in the show, but before he accepted the job, we were doing a benefit in London and he told me he wasn’t sure who Jerome Robbins was! I had to tell him! I convinced Jason Alexander to do the show.”
Like Gravitte, Jason Alexander won a Tony Award for Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.
“It was an exciting time,” she continues. “We were all so young, and Jerome Robbins was new to us in many ways. We did not know about his House Un-American Activities Committee experience. We had not seen the original productions of his shows. And so, we were a kind of blank slate that he could use to freshen his vision. We approached numbers from shows like On the Town, Gypsy, [Peter Pan, West Side Story, Billion Dollar Baby, The King and I, and High Button Shoes] as if they were brand new. And then some of the original performers would come in to watch us. Imagine Mary Martin coming in to watch you rehearse. Leonard Bernstein came in to listen to me sing, and afterward he came up to me and planted a big wet kiss on my lips. It was the experience of a lifetime!”
Gravitte’s appearance with the BPO on Saturday makes an exciting next installment in a Pops season that has already boasted such big Broadway names as Ben Vereen, and Megan Hilty. We are promised “a night of glamour and intrigue” when “Debbie Gravitte joins forces with conductor Michael Krajewski,” and “the BPO celebrates the golden anniversary of [a] treasured film franchise and the world’s favorite spy.”
The BPO concert also represents a sentimental journey for Gravitte who confesses that she misses Marvin Hamlisch tremendously and often thinks of him when she’s singing.
“Don’t we all miss him?” she queries, adding that she will certainly think of him when she walks into Kleinhans Music Hall.
She also recalls other happy Western New York memories.
“I spent a fabulous summer at Artpark [in Lewiston],” she says. “I played Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes up there, and it was a great time for me. I would play that role again in a heartbeat, and I don’t mind telling you that when Sutton Foster was cast in the Broadway revival, I felt a little jealous! I have such joyful memories of playing that role and singing those songs. I’m from California, and before that summer, I associated Buffalo with snow and nothing else. Then, when I got up there, it was nothing at all like what I expected. It was this wonderful, warm, and beautiful place, and I am always happy to return.”
Will the BPO audience be treated to such Debbie Gravitte signature tunes as “Mister Monotony,” “I Can Cook Too,” “Sing for Your Supper,” or “I Got Rhythm”?
“Not this time!” says Gravitte. “This show is all on the spy theme, but I can promise you some surprises. I won’t give away the whole show, but I will tell you that I sing the Stephen Sondheim song, ‘Sooner or Later’ from Dick Tracy. Madonna sang it in the movie and it won an Oscar. I love doing it!”
From Merman to Garland to Madonna, Gravitte has no fear whatsoever about performing songs associated with other singers. Once, she played pop legend Eydie Gorme [“Blame it on the Bossa Nova”] in a biopic about Valley of the Dolls novelist Jacqueline Susann.
“The movie was a disappointment,” admits Gravitte, “but one fun part of it was that Eydie’s husband, Steve Lawrence was played by their son, David, and we got to sing the Steve and Eydie song, “This Could Be the Start Of Something Big” together. When he saw me dressed as Eydie, he told me I looked just like his mother, so that was kind of special. I’d love to do a one-woman Eydie Gorme show at some point, a tribute to her. She was such a fabulous performer, and I want people to remember her.” The Gorme hit, “If He Walked into My Life” is part of Gravitte’s own repertoire.
Gravitte’s dynamic voice has sustained an impressive concert career, but she does not hesitate to admit that she wouldn’t refuse another Broadway outing.
“I’m dying to do a show again,” she says, “and you can put that in print and tell everyone you know! Tell Broadway, I’m available!”
In the meantime, Western New York has the opportunity to see that sensationally talented and magnetically charismatic Debbie Gravitte for one night only, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the James Bond franchise at Kleinhans. See tickets.bpo.org for tickets.